The Asian American short story
The Asian American short story has not achieved the level of notoriety that the Asian American novel has garnered so far. Yet since World War II, there has emerged a group of devoted Asian American short-fiction writers. In this paper I will consider one of the most distinguished contemporary Asian American women writers, Wakako Yamauchi, whose life experience has found reflection in the literary works which explore the fate and destiny of individuals in relation to issues of race, gender, and identity politics.
This Asian American writer attempts to create a voice that articulates Asian American experience. That is why the study of her life story bears a great meaning for gaining understanding of her works. Nisei (second generation Japanese American) writer Wakako Yamauchi was born Wakako Nakamura in Westmoreland, California, in 1924 to Yasaku Nakamura and Hamako Machida, both issei (first generation immigrants) farmers. Living in the Imperial Valley of California, the Nakamura family moved often in search of work, due mostly to the Alien Land Law, which prohibited Japanese from owning land.
In 1942, when Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, the Nakamuras were forced to relocate to internment camps; Yamauchi was seventeen and in her last year of high school when she was evacuated to Poston, Arizona. While at Poston, she rekindled her friendship with another great, future nisei writer, Hisaye Yamamoto DeSoto. The two worked at the Poston Chronicle, the camp’s newspaper, where Yamauchi worked as a cartoonist and Yamamoto as a writer. Toward the end of World War II, Yamauchi, released from camp, worked in Chicago, but returned to camp in the final weeks of the war because of her father’s death.
Once the camps closed, Yamauchi and her mother moved to San Diego where the artist took painting classes. In 1948, she married Chester Yamauchi, and in 1955, they had a daughter, Joy. Opportunely in 1959, Yamauchi was asked by Henry Mori, editor of Rafu Shimpo, to draw pictures for the holiday supplement. Yamauchi agreed if Mori would publish her stories. He assented, and Yamauchi wrote stories almost consistently for the paper from 1960 to 1974. But Rafu Shimpo was a local Japanese paper with an English section and the first national publication was the story Aiiieeee!.
Yamauchi commented this publication in her interview with such words: “it’s meant everything. For the first time, people outside of the Los Angeles Nisei community read my story. After I entered an Amerasia Journal short story competition, they published me too, and Asian American academics began to use my stories in their classes. That’s how it started” (Osborn, Watanabe, 1998) Encouraged by Yamamoto to send one of her stories to Frank Chin for Aiiieeee! , Yamauchi sent And the Soul Shall Dance, which was quickly accepted and brought her writing to the attention of a director who asked her to adapt it for the stage.
Divorced in 1975 and devoting more time to writing, Yamauchi accepted and embarked upon a career as both playwright and short story writer, which she continues to this day. Many of her plays, some that began as short stories, have been produced by many important companies including the East West Players, Asian American Repertory Theatre, and Yale Repertory Theatre. And the Soul Shall Dance was produced by Hollywood Television Theatre for PBS, 1978-1979, and A&E, 1987.
Yamauchi’s only collection, Songs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays, and Memoir, edited by Garrett Hongo and published by the Feminist Press in 1994, received the National Book Award for Literature by the Association of Asian American Studies in 1995 and was included in The Hungry Mind Review’s list of the 100 Best Twentieth-Century American Books in 1999. Yamauchi has gained other awards and prizes, including a Rockefeller Foundation Grant for Playwrights; Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Literary Award, 1995-1998; the 1996 John H.
McGinnis Award in Fiction from Southwest Review; and Phenomenal Women 2000 from California State University at Northridge Women’s Studies Center Yamauchi’s short stories, eschewing sentimentality in exactingly sparse prose, detail the lives of two generations of Japanese Americans before and after internment. Relocation coupled with dislocation, mother-daughter relationships, and thwarted love and repressed sexuality comprise the themes found in her work.
Her best-known story, And the Soul Shall Dance, (1966), breaks the silence of an issei woman’s troubled life through the first person narration of a nisei girl, Masako. Masako, interested but frightened by her neighbor, Mrs. Oka, an alcoholic who flaunts her husband’s abuse, relates the problems of a woman who has been forced to live in the United States, married to a man she cannot love. The story also centers on Masako’s understanding of the sex-gender system as she wonders about the situations of both her own mother’s happiness and the eventual whereabouts of Mrs.
Oka’s step-daughter, Kiyoko-san. The story ends tragically as Mrs. Oka dies and her family moves away; Masako guesses that “Mr. Oka found some sort of work, perhaps as a janitor or a dishwasher, and Kiyoko-san grew up and found someone to marry” (24). Songs My Mother Taught Me (1976) is similar to And the Soul Shall Dance in that Sachiko, a nisei, tells the story of her mother’s thwarted love for a kibei, Yamada-san, and for all that he represents: the cultural life of the homeland, Japan.
Yamadasan and Hatsue, Sachiko’s mother, have an affair, and she becomes pregnant; because Hatsue’s husband forces Yamada-san to leave, Hatsue is both lovelorn and depressed, so much so that she accidentally allows the new baby to drown. The story concludes in ambivalent affirmation as the family unites emotionally after the tragedy. Other pieces exemplify similar themes: The Handkerchief (1961) presents the predicament an issei woman’s children find themselves in when she leaves them to lead her own life, and That Was All (1980) is the story of a young woman’s unrequited love for an itinerant issei.
Two stories, A Veteran of Foreign Wars (1981) and So What; Who Cares? (1994) come from the perspective of an older nisei woman as she retells her stories of misspent sexuality and memories of the past. Because Yamauchi is best known for her dramatic works, her short fiction has not received the attention it deserves. Some work, however, exists. McDonald and Newman write that in her stories, Yamauchi “push[es] beyond traditional Japanese beliefs in the sanctity of the family…[and] embrace[s] the freedom of the American woman of the last part of the twentieth century” (41).
Stan Yogi, concerned with mother-daughter relationships, believes that “these narratives thus not only quietly subvert the rigid constructs of the Issei family…[but] they also subtly suggest, through the reactions of Nisei daughters to their mothers, the transformation of the very standards the mothers violate” (132). In his introduction to Songs, Garrett Hongo writes that Yamauchi “develops a somewhat sparse prose, nonetheless musical, graced with an affection for rendering physical details with precision” (7).
Valerie Matsumoto believes that “Yamauchi’s stories of love, desperation, fear, and determination show us unforgettable faces and the myriad colors of emotion” (9), and M. Dick Osumi reads “And the Soul Shall Dance” through a Jungian and Mythological lens and writes that “Yamauchi’s story deals with the inner struggle of the ego to ‘realize’ and ‘integrate’ with its shadow archetype thus making a necessary step to psychic wholeness or selfhood” (93). Yamauchi’s stinging portrayals of Asian American acculturation and her ability to inspire the readers induced many writers, like Garrett Hongo, to treat her as a “cultural treasure.
” (10) In Yamauchi’s characters’ struggles to make sense of their ethnic life and identities, the role of the family often figures prominently, both as a metaphorical and literal anchor of the individual’s body and soul, and as a site of contest about the racialization of relationships. From the understanding gained from this preliminary look at Wakako Yamauchi’s life story and writings it is obvious that the Asian American writer, by writing what has been experienced, attempts to expose the falsity of stereotypes in order to dismantle them.
In significant ways the Asian American writers like Wakako Yamauchi write to expose the ridiculousness of racial stereotyping. Stereotypical views of the Asian American, whether as the model minority or as the unassimilable alien, are racially biased and politically motivated and are in urgent need of correction.
List Berg, Christine G. “Wakako Yamauchi. ” In Voices from the Gap: Women Writers of Color. http://voices. cla. umn. edu/vg/Bios/entries/yamauchi_wakako. html Accessed December 06, 2006. Hongo, Garrett. “Introduction,” to Songs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays, and Memoir, by Wakako Yamauchi.
New York: The Feminist Press, 1994, 9-10 “HMR’s 100 Best Twentieth-Century American Books. ” Hungry Mind Review: An Independent Book Review (December, 25 2005). http://www. interleaves. org/~rteeter/grthungry. html Accessed December 06, 2006 Matsumoto, Valerie. “Migrant Worker” The Women’s Review of Books 12. 3 (1994):8-9. McDonald, Dorothy Risuko, and Katharine Newman. “Relocation and Dislocation: The Writings of Hisaye Yamamoto and Wakako Yamauchi. ” in Asian American Women Writers. Harold Bloom, ed. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999, 29-46. Osborn, William P.
Watanabe, Sylvia A. “A MELUS Interview: Wakako Yamauchi. ” MELUS. 23. 2, 1998 Osumi, M. Dick. “Jungian and Mythological Patterns in Wakako Yamauchi’s ‘And The Soul Shall Dance. ’” Amerasia Journal 27. 1 (2001):87-98. Yogi, Stan. “Rebels and Heroines: Subversive Narratives in the Stories of Wakako Yamauchi and Hisaye Yamamoto. ” In Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling, eds. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992, 131-150. Yamauchi, Wakako. Songs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays, and Memoir. New York: The Feminist Press, 1994Sample Essay of Essayontime.com