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Hisaye Yamamoto, short story writer who chronicled post-WWII Japanese American life,dies at 89

By Elaine Woo
Wednesday, February 16, 2011; 7:49 PM

Hisaye Yamamoto, 89, one of the first Asian American writers to earn literary distinction after World War II with highly polished short stories that illuminated a world circumscribed by culture and brutal strokes of history, died Jan. 30 at her home in Los Angeles. She had a stroke last year.

Often compared to short-story masters such as Katherine Mansfield, Flannery O'Connor and Grace Paley, Ms. Yamamoto concentrated her imagination on the issei and nisei, the first- and second-generation Japanese Americans who were targets of the public hysteria unleashed after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Ms. Yamamoto was 20 when the attack sent the United States into war and her family into a Poston, Ariz., internment camp. Her most celebrated stories, including "Seventeen Syllables" and "The Legend of Miss Sasagawara," reflect the preoccupations and tensions of the Japanese immigrants and offspring who survived that era.

Among her most powerful characters are women who struggle to nurture their romantic or creative selves despite the constraints of gender, racism and tradition.

Ms. Yamamoto began writing in the 1930s but did not receive serious critical attention until the 1970s, when Asian American scholars began to study her work.

"She was the opposite of the self-promoting writer," said King-Kok Cheung, an English professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Hisaye Yamamoto was born in Redondo Beach, Calif., on Aug. 23, 1921. The daughter of immigrant strawberry farmers from Japan, she was a voracious reader and published her first story when she was 14.

At Compton College in Los Angeles, where she received an associate of arts degree, she studied French, Spanish, German and Latin. She wrote stories for Japanese American newspapers using the pseudonym Napoleon.

During World War II, she wrote for the Poston camp newspaper. After the war, she returned to Los Angeles and became a reporter and columnist for the Los Angeles Tribune, a predominantly African American weekly.

She wrote a story about the intimidation of a black family named Short by white neighbors. After her story ran, the Shorts were killed in an apparent arson fire. Ms. Yamamoto castigated herself for failing to convey the urgency of their situation.

She left the newspaper and rode trains and buses across the country.

"Something was unsettling my innards," she wrote of her dawning multiethnic consciousness.

Her breakthrough came with the 1948 publication in Partisan Review of "The High-Heeled Shoes, a Memoir," a shocking story about sexual harassment.

She wove intercultural conflicts and bonds into "Seventeen Syllables" (1949), in which a nisei girl's blooming romance with a Mexican American classmate offers an achingly innocent counterpoint to her mother's arranged marriage. "Wilshire Bus" (1950) explores a Japanese American woman's silence during a white man's racist harangue against a Chinese couple on the bus they are riding.

Her 1988 collection, "Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories," was hailed by an Amerasia Journal reviewer as "a literary time capsule - an intimate slice of Japanese American history."

With an adopted son, Ms. Yamamoto moved to New York in the early 1950s to be a volunteer in the Catholic Worker Movement. In 1955, she married Anthony DeSoto and returned to Los Angeles, where they raised four more children.

DeSoto died in 2003. Survivors include five children, two brothers and seven grandchildren.

Ms. Yamamoto often described herself as a housewife, not a writer. Her output diminished during her child-rearing years but picked up after her children were grown.

"I write when something sticks in my craw," she told A. Magazine in 1994. "Writing is a compulsion - or an itch."

- Los Angeles Times

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