Born in 1921 in Redondo Beach, California, to issei (Japanese immigrant) parents, Hisaye Yamamoto gives eloquent voice to the nisei (second-generation Japanese American) experience in her short fiction. Her most frequently anthologized story, “Seventeen Syllables” (1949), explores the complex relationship between an issei mother and her nisei daughter, subtly mapping the gaps in understanding created by linguistic, cultural, and generational differences. The frequently anthologized story is also a tragic and unsentimental portrait of the sacrifices, particularly of autonomy and creativity, demanded of women in marriage.
During World War II, Yamamoto and her family were incarcerated in an internment camp in Poston, Arizona, where her short story “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara” (1950) is set. There, she was a reporter and columnist for the camp newspaper, The Poston Chronicle. Following the end of the war, Yamamoto was one of the first Japanese American writers to gain national recognition despite continued anti-Japanese sentiment. Her story “Yoneko's Earthquake” (1951) was included in the Best American Short Stories: 1952. In the early 1950s, she received a John Hay Whitney Foundation Opportunity Award and worked as a volunteer on a Catholic Worker rehabilitation farm on Staten Island, New York.
After marrying Anthony DeSoto, Yamamoto returned to Los Angeles, where she devoted time to raising five children. Like other women who have divided time between writing and family responsibilities, Yamamoto did not publish a book until Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories (1988), a collection of previously published stories written over the preceding four decades. A recipient of the Before Columbus Foundation's 1986 American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement, Yamamoto resides in Southern California.