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Mitsuye Yamada

"World Literature Isn't Yours to Give!" An Interview

Celebrated poet, author, activist, and feminist, Mitsuye Yamada is a force to be reckoned with. Yamada was born in Kyushu, Japan in 1923 and grew up in Seattle, Washington during World War II. Her father was wrongly accused of espionage and her entire family was forced to relocate to an internment camp in Idaho. Throughout her three collections of poetry, Camp Notes and Other Writings (1976), Desert Run: Poems and Stories (1988), and Full Circle: New and Selected Poems (2019), Yamada draws inspiration from personal experience with racism and discrimination, familial relationships, natural settings, and everything in between. Yamada’s poetry is vulnerable and contemplative, while simultaneously resolute and determined. She has made her voice heard, and her work will continue to shape poetry and dialogue for years to come.


Beginning in early 2020, Mitsuye Yamada, her daughter Hedi Mouchard, IVC Professor Lisa Alvarez, and I corresponded via email and video calls to complete this interview. We are currently living through an unprecedented era of grief, anxiety, and uncertainty. At 96 years old, Yamada has experienced more of life than anyone my age. So, I cherished the opportunity to see the world through her eyes. Gathering together to discuss poetry may not seem like a priority, but it is moments like these that serve as our reminders of hope and connection. Familial ties and close relationships have been strained during the era of social distancing and COVID-19, but Yamada is determined to keep her loved ones as close as she can. After publishing her most recent collection of poetry, she has been spending the majority of her time with her family, though her daughter confided that Yamada has never stopped writing.


As a community college student, studying literature has provided countless opportunities for me to learn from those who came before me, and I have grown to appreciate the value of the stories our elders and ancestors have passed down to us. During our conversation, Yamada found herself recounting the story of her father’s first introduction to America, the country full of “tall buildings and long bridges.” These pieces of the past shape who we are and what we value, and, as my generation sets out to change the world, we will return to these same stories from new perspectives. From their successes we draw the strength to persevere and from their pains we draw the motivation necessary to create the bright future our ancestors hoped for.
I am eternally grateful to Mitsuye Yamada for sharing her time with me to discuss her work and for reminding us all of the power of poetry.

—Daria Berenfeld

 

Daria Berenfeld: Could you tell us a little bit about your newest collection of poetry, Full Circle, and how it differs from your previous collections of poetry?


Mitsuye Yamada: I had been very busy with political activities which seemed very urgent at the time and also with family affairs for many years. But now, I decided perhaps it’s time I published another book.

 

When you write in the voices of a relative or friend, you sometimes use something almost like a dialect, what some might call a somewhat “broken English.” What is your purpose in using these voices to present this experience? How do you imagine this affects the experience readers have when engaging with your poetry?


Mother spoke little English and communicated with us only in Japanese, father was bilingual. My brothers and I communicated entirely in English with him and with each other. So, our upbringing was a colorful mixture of both languages. Also, unlike many Issei women of her generation,  Mother was a very strong force in our family, and expressed strong opinions with conviction. So, our upbringing was a colorful mixture of both languages.

 

Many of your poems have lines in Japanese, almost always with a translation in the next line. Why was it important for you to have your poetry contain both Japanese and English?


My friend Katherine Newman, one of the founders of multiethnic literature, read the draft of my manuscript and remarked that the Japanese without translation would make the reader feel excluded from the conversation. I realized I needed to insert the translations for clarity for all readers.

Is there a particular poem that is your favorite or the most important to you to have published?
 

I think one of my favorite poems is “I Learned to Sew.” It is in the words of my mother-in-law, Nabe Iha, from an actual interview. Her story represents the experiences of many Issei women who survived a life of untold hardship and came out in the end with strength and dignity.

 

You write almost entirely in free verse, did this form come naturally to you? Or did you experiment with poems in other forms first?


My graduate studies department at the University of Chicago was very rigid. Most of the writers we studied were British and male writers with very few exceptions, like slave narratives, Phyllis Wheatley and Countee Cullen.

 

In the beginning, I used to write sonnets—a very rigid, very formulaic form of poetry. Writing in free verse was freeing from that. When I started writing about my own experiences in poetry, it was my sense of freedom in trying to express about my own life in free verse and I was able to do it much more freely and readily in free verse.

You mention your father’s Senryu Club in the collection. Could you describe what makes senryu a unique form of poetry? Have you written any senryu yourself?
 

No, I’ve never written senryu myself. But senryu, unlike haiku, is a very personal kind of writing. Haiku is more abstract; it involves seasons. It’s a very symbolic kind of writing. But senryu is about experiences. My father formed a senryu club. It’s not free-form. It’s like haiku in the syllables, but senryu was very suitable for the immigrant men who write about their daily lives.

 

There was butcher paper on the wall and the calligrapher would take this brush and he would write their poetry on the wall on the butcher paper. I remember smelling the aroma of the black ink. It was a beautiful process.  I enjoyed it very much. Each of the poets would write in Japanese along the wall. After all the poems had been written on the butcher paper, they would start voting and the calligrapher would change brushes to a red ink and if someone said they liked a poem, he would put a red dot over the poem. And then if a second person also said he liked that poem, he’d put a circle around it. And after while there would be all these poems along the wall and they looked like red targets. And there’s a funny story about this; my father was arrested on December 7th at the senryu club he had at this restaurant. And one of his friends at the club told me that when the FBI agents came to the restaurant they looked at the poems on the wall and my father said “Those are poems,” and the agent asked “What’re those targets doing up there?” and my father had to explain what the poems were. They tore the butcher paper off the wall and rolled them up and took them with them. The agents led my father out of the room. That was the day he was arrested.

In both Camp Notes and Desert Run, you included a couple of short stories between your poems. Does your creative process change between writing prose and poetry?


My second publisher, Barbara Smith for Desert Run, said that hardly anybody picks up a book of poetry off the shelf. So she asked if I could include some prose works. They were unfinished and rough, but I found some in my files and included them.

 

At the moment, the required literature readings for students in community college are extremely Eurocentric. British and American literature is covered in four separate courses, while the literature of the rest of the world is discussed in only one course, often titled ethnic or multicultural literature. How does this affect students’ understanding of the world?


That’s a very good question. I remember when I was teaching in the early 1970s, even before I published Camp Notes, I was teaching English literature, but that was essentially just British. I told my department chair I would like to include translations of writings from Japanese writers and so forth, so I got to teach World Literature. And I once got into an argument with my department chair.  He couldn’t understand why I was always complaining about the lack of women of color in the curriculum. He said, “I gave you World Lit” and I said, “World literature isn’t yours to give!”

What do you think is the benefit of offering a variety of readings from authors and poets from across the world to students?
 

We have a tendency to read only the type of writings that appeal to us—writings that reaffirm our own world view. It is essential for one’s moral and intellectual growth.

Something that I have drawn from your work is your ability to encourage appreciation and empathy. An exposure to poetry by someone like you who has had an entirely different life experience than the majority of us in Orange County has the ability to broaden our perspectives. Is empathy a quality you hope your audience may learn from you?


Yes, of course.  Reading about the struggles, for both spiritual and intellectual growth, of people of other cultures is very important for everyone. I grew up in a middle-class white neighborhood, and when I read works by people like James Baldwin and Malcolm X, I no longer took my own relative freedom for granted.

 

When you read from the perspective of others, you become acutely aware of their internal experiences in a way that you don’t get just from meeting these folks. By reading books, you become aware of a person’s internal life and the way they express themselves. You almost never become are of that by just meeting people-- people just don’t express themselves in that way. But in reading good literature, you become acutely aware of the internal lives of other people.

 

In an article called “The Development of Feminist Consciousness among Asian American Women,” Esther Ngan-Ling Chow discusses barriers that keep Asian American women from affiliating themselves with the feminist movement, both internal and external. One of the barriers she identifies is that “affiliation… is perceived as a threat to solidarity within their own community.” Though she wrote in the 1980’s, is this still a relevant issue within today’s feminist movement?


This is an important question. When I became involved in the women’s movement, I was almost always the only Asian among a sea of white women until I met Nellie Wong and Merle Woo and other politically active Asian American women who part of a large Asian American community.

 

Of course, in these communities we band together, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and this gives strength and solidarity. Solidarity among us, Asian American women, doesn’t mean we become separate from the women’s movement. We should be part of the larger movement. Solidarity isn’t a negative thing. We have our own needs and agenda; we have our own battles.

 

Recently, there has been a much deeper discussion within the feminist movement about intersectionality. However, many women of color still feel excluded. How can we ensure that the voices of women of color are uplifted to build a movement that creates change for everyone and benefits communities of color directly?
 

The solution is that women of color need to be part of the leadership in the women’s movement along with the white women.


When I joined the movement in the early days, white women often asked women of color to “Join us.” That was the perception, at the time. But I asked, “Why don’t you [white women] join women of color?” Different groups have different issues. The struggles of Asian American women are different from those of, say, Black women. I haven’t lived their life. The discrimination is different. But for feminism to be about all women, we need to understand and uplift each other in solidarity.

About the Authors

Mitsuye Yamada was one of the first and most vocal of Asian American women to write about the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans. ​Diane J. Fujino’s 2020 biography, Nisei Radicals: The Feminist Poetics and Transformative Ministry of Mitsuye Yamada and Michael Yasutake chronicles her life. She lives in Irvine with her family. 

Daria Berenfeld is currently attending UC Berkeley to study Literature and Education. She attended Irvine Valley College to complete her GED and graduate with an A.A. in English. While in her final two years at IVC, Daria was a part of the editing team for The Ear.
 

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with Daria Berenfeld