What Journeys Trace Lineage: Toasts to the Life Lines of Hisaye Yamamoto

By Purvi Shah, author of Terrain Tracks

It is a dangerous predicament for a poet to offer lasting words of celebration for the master storyteller. One is tempted to pen a haiku for the writer of stories as savory as “Seventeen Syllables.” But such would not suffice.

And yet poets, marked as a fool-hardy lot, are prone to err across many lines, prompting me to offer the following sequence of short toasts for a writer beyond generation, a writer who in her work casts and re-casts lines to lineage: Hisaye Yamamoto.

When you encounter the spare, tight stories of Hisaye Yamamoto, you behold a mirror which begs to be broken for within are shards sharp, provocative, and beautifully compelling in precision and astute, painful rendering. Before you lies the topography of the self, our society, the relations amongst intimates and us all, the collision of the individual with history.

Already lost in this heady brew? Let me map a Yamamoto constellation for you.

In “Wilshire Bus,” the protagonist Esther Kuroiwa, on her way to visit her wounded war veteran husband, witnesses a drunk red-faced man harassing a Chinese American couple as he invokes a classic invective, “Why don’t you go back to China, where you can be coolies working in your bare feet out in the rice fields?” (36). In a deft sleight of hand, Yamamoto describes Esther’s thoughts: “She found herself wondering whether the man meant her in his exclusion order or whether she was identifiably Japanese” (36). A history-less person may find this line poignant but perhaps otherwise unnotable.

What is genius about this line is Yamamoto’s ability, in one fell stroke, to invoke the seminal 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (the first federal prohibition to U.S. migration based on national origin and the cornerstone of subsequent waves of American legal discrimination) – in a context of deep interiority. The personal has rarely been so political nor the political so up close and personal. Come then, meet history, for in Yamamoto’s works, you cannot avoid it. As much as Esther or you may like.

And so we see how the master storyteller performs with a poet’s lens and a journalist’s frame – extending line into lineage, invoking in a seemingly personal moment of the present the arc of history.

Some writers would be satisfied here, with this fine imbrication of the personal and political, make do with a perfunctory in-the-know chuckle with oneself.

And yet, the sky is not so flat. Neither is Yamamoto’s delineation. Not only is there the fundamental irony of Esther going to visit her husband, a veteran of a war which beheld Japanese American internment, but she also witnesses a bus co-passenger wearing a button, “I am Korean.” Laid out for us in this moment are the complexities of inter-Asian American racial relations, the shifting dynamics of who constitutes the enemy, the mobile targets of American racism. Try doing that yourself in a few lines – and still managing to move a plot and even your audience.

Already missed the bus? No matter. Dig into the other rich splendors of the human constellations Yamamoto maps.

Take “Seventeen Syllables” for example. You may cheer the nascent bloom of crush between Rosie and Jesus, the mother’s adoration for haiku. But, alas, Ume Hanazono, the pen name of Rosie’s mother Tome Hayashi, “who came to life after the dinner dishes were done” had a “life span, even for a poet’s, [that] was very brief – perhaps three months at most” (9). These lines chill – and not only because I am a poet. A life span of 3 months. Three lines to a haiku. This is not incidental. We will return to this correlation of line to time: mark it.

As Rosie experiences first flutters and the mother plumes haikus, we believe all is lush with the world. Yet the father will neither scrub Rosie’s back during her bath nor permit his wife’s haiku habit: he smashes the first-prize award the mother wins for her lyric. In evocative phrases, Yamamoto sets scene: “Smashing the picture, glass and all (she heard the explosion faintly), he reached over for the kerosene that was used to encourage the bath fire and poured it over the wreckage. I am dreaming, Rosie said to herself, I am dreaming, but her father, having made sure that his act of cremation was irrevocable, was even then returning to the fields” (18). In the background of burning, we now learn of how the mother came to marry the father, of her first illicit love, the stillborn son “who would be seventeen now” – not unincidentally the number of syllables in a haiku – the decision to marry rather than die.

Certainly this and Yamamoto’s other tales bear the stuff of soap operas or telenovelas – affairs, dead children, sexual flush, gambling, abuse, the spectrum of human frailty. And yet what would be maudlin in the hands of lesser gods or media moghuls becomes the magic of a truth speech – a life tree – in Yamamoto’s hands. We see the human skeleton for what it is – bone and bone, and within bone, marrow and residue of generations of blood.

This is all to say, as Esther and Tome attest, that you can neither leave your heart nor your history behind in Yamamoto’s world. Certainly, as we ponder love, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in our current post-9/11 world, these conjunctions of history in our lives again chill and bear fruit. This is to say the lineage Yamamoto traces exceeds her and even exceeds us, becoming work not only suited for her generation and the next but those to come – and those to come. After all, we now know history is our lesson.

With this spirit, I offer a few humble lines:

What journeys trace lineage?
Ask storyteller.
History bent as prism.

Now you may toast the haiku or burn it but regardless, join me in thanking Hisaye Yamamoto for her profound, pertinent, and impertinent works, works which extend for us all – today and tomorrow – our own life lines.

This is to say, perhaps as the narrator in “The High-Heeled Shoes,” does, “It is possible she wonders at my enthusiastic appreciation, which is all right, but all out of proportion” (7).

And this is to say, Yamamoto’s works ask us questions: What ratio the real? What scale the human? What present our history? It is up to us, the lucky readers of a fiction more real than reality, to dig deeper into star and bone in order to reach an assured but scarce quality of wonder.