Saturday, March 30, 2013

Mitsuye Yamada (1923 - )

The Club

He beat me with the hem of a kimono
worn by a Japanese woman
this prized
wooden statue
carved to perfection
in Japan or maybe Hong Kong.

She was usually on display
in our living room atop his bookshelf
among his other overseas treasures
I was never to touch.
She posed there most of the day
her head tilted
her chin resting lightly
on the white pointed fingertips
of her right hand
her black hair
piled high on her head
her long slim neck bared
to her shoulders.
And invisible hand
under the full sleeve
clasped her kimono
close to her body
its hem flared
gracefully around her feet.

That hem
made fluted red marks
on these freckled arms
my shoulders
my back.

That head
inside his fist
made camel
on his knuckles
I prayed for her
that her pencil thin neck
would not snap
or his rage would be unendurable.
She held fast for me
didn’t even chip or crack.

One day, we were talking
as we often did the morning after.
Well, my sloe-eyed beauty, I said
have you served him enough?
I dared to pick her up with one hand
I held her gently by the flowing robe
around her slender legs.
She felt lighter than I had imagined.
I stroked her cold thighs
with the tips of my fingers
and felt a slight tremor.

I carried her into the kitchen and wrapped her
in two sheets of paper towels
We’re leaving
I whispered
you and I

I placed her
between my clothes in my packed suitcase.
That is how we left him

Biography taken from the University of Minnesota – Voices from the Gaps

Mitsuye Yamada is a poet, educator, and founder of Multicultural Women Writers of Orange County. She was born on July 5, 1923 in Fukuoka, Japan. Her father, Jack Yasutake, was the founder and president of the Senryu (Japanese poet) Society in Seattle and an interpreter for the U.S. Immigration Service. He was arrested due to potential spying on the U.S. right after the Pearl Harbor attack. At the time, Japanese society did not offer the opportunity to women to decide how to live their lives; they were unable to obtain higher education or choose a husband on their own. Yamada's own ordeal during World War II and observations of her mother's way of life bring anti-racist and feminist attitudes to her works.

Yamada spent most of her childhood and youth in Seattle, Washington, until she and her family were incarcerated at the relocation camp in Idaho in 1942. She was allowed to leave the camp with her brother because they renounced loyalty to the Emperor of Japan; she went to the University of Cincinnati in 1944. Her remaining family members joined them later. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree from New York University in 1947 and a Master of Arts degree from the University of Chicago in 1953. Yamada taught ethnic and children's literature and creative writing at several universities and colleges and is currently a professor of English at Cypress College in Seattle, Washington. In 1950, she married Yoshikazu Yamada, a research chemist, and later settled in Irvine, California. The couple has two children, Jeni and Kai.

Yamada's first publication was Camp Notes and Other Poems. The book is a chronological documentary, beginning with "Evacuation" from Seattle, moving in the camp through "Desert Storm," and concluding with poems recounting the move to Cincinnati. "Cincinnati" illustrates the visible racial violence and "The Question of Loyalty" shows the invisible humiliation of the Japanese during World War II. She wrote the book to promote public awareness about how the Japanese were discriminated against during the war and to open discussion of the issue.

The poems were written during and soon after World War II; however, the publishing of Camp Notes was postponed because Japanese-American writing was excluded from publication during the time when Americans were steeped in their wartime victory. Another reason for the postponement, as described by Susan Schweik, Adrienne Munich and Susan Squier, is that the content of the poems reveals the "domestic, protective silence both docile and subversively secretive" of Japanese American woman. The author broke one of the Japanese traditions which demands silence from the female when she tells of the realities of internment - what suppresses and shapes the Japanese to force them to abandon their Japanese identity.

In 1981, Yamada joined Nellie Wong in a biographical documentary on public television, Mitsuye and Nellie: Two Asian-American Woman Poets. The film tells of actual events that happened to the speakers, their parents, grandparents and relatives. They especially emphasized their parents' hardships. Yamada told of her mother's immigration story: her first arranged marriage and her remarriage in order to get financial support for her children's education ("I Learn to Sew"). She also read "The Question of Loyalty" and "The Night Before Good-Bye," describing her mother's internment life and heart-breaking separation from her children because she was not allowed to leave the camp due to her refusal to renounce loyalty to the Emperor in Japan. Yamada's mother had a harder life than the author did during the war because she would not abandon her Japanese identity. Thus, Yamada says in the film, she has to live to fulfill what her mother wanted to have: a higher education, and equality and human rights as an American citizen and woman.

Her latest volume, Desert Run: Poems and Stories, returns to the unforgettable experience at the internment camp. Also, Yamada is searching for her cultural heritage in her poems by visiting and communicating with her relatives in Japan. In finding her heritage, she also discovered that her identity involves a cultural straddle between Japan and the US, which she describes in "Guilty on Both Counts. " Some poems, especially "The Club," indicate that Yamada expanded her point of view to include feminist as well as racist issues because they recount sexual and domestic violence against women. Some of her poems are revisions of earlier versions in Camp Notes. The book contains the history and transition of the Japanese American in the U.S. , including Yamada's perspective on gender discrimination.

In an interview with Helen Jaskoski, Yamada said that her poetic method had been objective and distanced from the pain that she wanted to write about until she met Carolyn Kizer, whose poetry closely reveals her feelings about personal events. We can see this influence in her books, Camp Notes and Desert Run, which have a personal and emotional style focusing on race and gender issues. Camp Notes focuses more on expanding public awareness of the reality of discrimination against the Japanese in the US during World War II. Desert Run tells more about effects on the identity of Japanese American experiences during that war and introduces feminist issues that Yamada will likely focus on in future works.

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