In honor of Women’s History Month, we want to
highlight the work of two pioneering Japanese American women.
Mitsuye Yamada is a poet, essayist, activist,
and former professor of English. In 1942, when Mitsuye was 17, she and her
family were sent to America’s concentration camps, where they were forced to
stay for the duration of World War II. After the war, she received a BA from
New York University, then an MA from the University of Chicago, and an honorary
doctorate from Simmons College.
traci kato-kiriyma, curator for Discover
Nikkei’s monthly poetry column, recently wrote about Mitsuye, who, at age 95,
has a new book, Full Circle, New and Selected Poems, being published in June 2019.
Here’s an excerpt of Mitsuye’s thoughts on her new book:
“Many of these poems seem to focus on my
relationships with my family. My parents had always taught my brothers and me
to move forward in life, no matter what obstacles are placed before us, I
continue to hear their admonitions and put them into writing. Each of us are
keepers of our unique family histories. Writing them down in whatever form you
choose is a way of keeping your family lore alive.
Also you might say I’m quite opinionated, and
can’t help responding to whatever that is going on around me and tend to
express these thoughts in poetry. At my present advanced age, I decided it is
about time I published another book.”
You can read the full article and a few of Mitsuye’s poems here: http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2019/2/21/nikkei-uncovered-27/
Wakako Yamauchi, who died in 2018 at the age
of 93, was a Nisei playwright. Her most celebrated work, And the Soul Shall Dance, is a staple of the Japanese American
theatrical repertoire. Ross Levine recently authored a multi-part exploration
about her life. Here’s a brief excerpt from Part 1:
“Yamauchi, who was a personal friend of mine,
achieved her greatest renown as a playwright, but when relating an incident or
articulating her thoughts, she always seemed to be speaking in prose, searching
for the mot juste as she gestured
broadly with upturned palms.
Yamauchi’s parents, Yasaku and Hama, were
Issei—that is, immigrants from a truly imperial land, Japan. They had left
their homeland lured by the promise of prosperity and the chance to escape the
stifling traditions that defined all aspects of life in the Shizuoka Prefecture
southeast of Tokyo. What awaited them in California was the Alien Land Law,
first enacted in 1913 and aimed expressly at the Japanese. It prohibited ’aliens
ineligible for citizenship‘ from owning agricultural land or leasing it
long-term, thus relegating the Nakamuras to the peripatetic life of itinerant
She was a thin, energetic woman with an oval
face, a wide smile and eyes that effortlessly toggled between a mischievous
delight and an expression of deep empathy. She was born Wakako Nakamura in the
small town of Westmoreland (now Westmorland), socked between Brawley and the
Salton Sea in California’s Imperial Valley. There was little ’imperial‘ about
life there, and the ’valley‘ was part of the vast Sonoran Desert, flat and
barren, its soil encrusted with white alkali, amenable to agriculture only
through relentless irrigation.
You can read all of Part 1, and the rest of the series as well, at: http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2019/1/11/wakako-yamauchi-1/