Academic journal article MELUS

A MELUS Interview: Wakako Yamauchi

Academic journal article MELUS

A MELUS Interview: Wakako Yamauchi

Article excerpt

Wakako Yamauchi's parents emigrated from Japan to the Imperial Valley of southeastern California, where they became tenant farmers. Because the state's alien land laws restricted leases to the Japanese, the Nakamura family was required to pack up, move on, and begin a new homestead every few years. This forced itinerancy and the sense of dislocation it produced, were to become major themes in Wakako's fiction.

Born into a home where only Japanese was spoken, Wakako and her older brother and sister acquired fluency in English after starting school. Wakako grew to love to books. She remembers fondly how reading filled the long hours on the isolated desert farms where she grew up. When her father's lettuce crop failed after the 1940 earthquake, she and her family moved to Oceanside, California, where they borrowed money to start a boarding house.

However, just as they came free of debt, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the Nakamuras were interned at Poston, Arizona. There Wakako became friends with the writer Hisaye Yamamoto and worked as an artist on the Poston Chronicle. Her father died in camp, unable to make another beginning after learning of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima.

Following the War, she attended art school in Los Angeles. She has painted since. She didn't begin writing until her thirties, after she'd raised a family of her own. Her earliest publications came in the Japanese-American periodical, Los Angeles Rafu Shimpo, which has continued to feature her in its annual Holiday Supplement. Several pieces that first appeared there have been reprinted elsewhere. "And the Soul Shall Dance, "for instance, has been republished eleven times since its first appearance in 1966.

In the mid-1970s, the author transformed that story into a play, which has not only seen publication half a dozen times itself, but production in almost every Asian American theater around the country, and national broadcast on PBS and A&E. Among other places, her prose has been anthologized in Women of the Century: Thirty Modern Short Stories, New Worlds of Literature, Staging Diversity: Plays and Practice in American Theater, Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers, and Charlie Chan is Dead: An Anthology of Asian American Fiction. She is the recipient of playwriting grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mark Taper Forum.

The literary contexts into which she fits are many, and two deserve special mention. First, though Yamamoto has written longer, Yamauchi has ascended to a similar matriarchal role in the mainstream success of today's younger Asian American writers. Site struggled for the words; she helped create the audience; she found the way to publication. Second, she has always been the clearest, most insistent voice among the Japanese-Americans who experienced the internment, reminding us not only of the injustice of that ordeal, but of its larger significance--that once the constitutional rights of one group of people have been nullified, there is nothing to prevent the same from happening to others.

What follows is derived from a series of 1994 letters and phone calls between Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Wakako's home in Gardena, California, plus a late September meeting in Chicago, where site had come to promote her new book, Songs My Mother Taught Me--prose from a writing career of nearly four decades. The reading took place at the bookstore, Women and Children First. As she read "And the Soul Shall Dance"--her speaking timbre low, the page delivered almost as one might read aloud to oneself--the mood of the audience turned sympathetic. At the end of the story comes a song, which she sang rather than spoke, and this quite charmed us all.

Interviewer: We'd like to begin with beginnings. Can you tell us something of your early sources of inspiration?

Yamauchi: I suppose it began with The Book of Knowledge. My father could not resist a traveling salesman, and he bought the twenty volumes even before most of us could read. …

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