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Hisaye Yamamoto, pioneering Japanese American writer, dead at 89

February 13, 2011 | 10:12 am

Hisaye Hisaye Yamamoto, a master of the short story whose most moving work delves into the psyches of Japanese Americans who lived through the World War II years, died in Los Angeles on Jan. 30 at age 89.  

In this excerpt from one of her most admired stories, "Seventeen Syllables," Rosie, the teenage daughter of a Japanese immigrant farmer and his poetry-writing wife, has just witnessed her father's violent reaction to her mother's first-place prize in a haiku contest -- he smashes the prize with an ax, douses it with kerosene and burns it:

 Rosie ran past him and toward the house. What had become of her mother? She burst into the parlor and found her mother at the back window watching the dying fire. They watched together until there remained only a feeble smoke under the blazing sun. Her mother was very calm.

"Do you know why I married your father?" she said without turning.

"No," said Rosie. It was the most frightening question she had ever been called upon to answer. Don't tell me now, she wanted to say, tell me tomorrow, tell me next week, don't tell me today. But she knew she would be told now, that the telling would combine with the other violence of the hot afternoon to level her life, her world to the very ground.

It was like a story out of the magazines illustrated in sepia, which she had consumed so greedily for a period until the information had somehow reached her that those wretchedly unhappy autobiographies, offered to her as the testimonials of living men and women, were largely inventions: Her mother, at nineteen, had come to America and married her father as an alternative to suicide.

Read more about Yamamoto's life: "Hisaye Yamamoto dies at 89; writer of Japanese American stories."

-- Elaine Woo 

Photo: Hisaye Yamamoto in 2007. Credit: Mario G. Reyes / Rafu Shimpo