This past fall, Professor Nancy Cho and Anne Hackman (‘19) were awarded the winter break Student Research Partnership from The Humanities Center. Over the course of her break, Anne was tasked with digging through archives in the Library of Congress and through Japanese American oral histories collected by the nonprofit Densho. With the help of Anne’s research, Nancy hopes to put together a book mapping the literary life of Hisaye Yamamoto.
To start, can you tell us a bit about your interest in Hisaye Yamamoto and the goal of this project?
Anne: Hisaye Yamamoto was interned in her early 20s in a camp called Poston which was in Arizona. While there, she worked on the staff of the Poston Chronicle.
Nancy: You should look up the stats for how many people were incarcerated in Poston. It will blow your mind. It had three different sections. I think it was close to the size of Northfield, almost like a city in the desert, this internment barbed wire camp.
According to Wikipedia, at its most populated, Poston incarcerated about 17,000 Japanese Americans, mostly from Southern California.
Anne: So what I was doing was searching through a database for all of these issues of the Poston Chronicle for pieces that Yamamoto had written or that mentioned her. When I found one of those issues, I would just read through the whole thing to get a snapshot of what they were writing about.
Nancy: And the database you used was?
Anne: The Library of Congress.
Nancy: Right. The Library of Congress has digitized almost all the issues that were produced in the camp newspapers of all eleven camps.
Anne: So, in 1945, she was hired by the Los Angeles Tribune, a newspaper primarily aimed to the black community in Los Angeles. It was kind of a big deal that they had a Japanese American writer on staff. So I began to look to those archives.
Nancy: One of the reasons I think this African American newspapers in LA was so aware of community relations—they specifically advertised for a Japanese American journalist to write for them—is because at the time when the Japanese American community was almost entirely forced out of Los Angeles, the black community moved into those neighborhoods. So after the war, you can imagine the concern, the anxieties about the interracial relations.
What exactly was Yamamoto’s role in The Poston Chronicle while she was interned?
Anne: She started off as just a reporter while working as a night receptionist at the hospital. Then she left the camp in 1944 for a couple months to work in Massachusetts as a domestic servant.
Nancy: During internment, there were certain conditions under which certain groups could leave the camp. One of them was if you were a Nisei male and you enlisted in the armed service. And then not right away, but eventually the government decided to support an alternative work program. The third way to leave camp was to go to colleges like Carleton. There was a student relocation program too.
Anne: So Yamamoto was cleared to work in Massachusetts, but her stay was short. Her brother was a soldier, and was killed in action in Italy. After his death, Yamamoto and all her siblings came back to the camp. That’s when she became Editor in Chief of the newspaper for about eight months.
Nancy: Didn’t you find an article that she wrote about returning to camp and the guards not letting her in?
Anne: Yeah, that was one of her columns in the LA Tribune.
Nancy: So after the war, she’s reporting on what happened in the camp.
Anne: But even then, while writing for the LA Tribune, it was so interesting. She was writing about returning to camp, but she had to frame it like she was talking about the hot weather. She didn’t ever mention in the column why she was coming back to camp, that her brother had been killed. When she was in the camp, her writing was censored, but even after the war she couldn’t say these things outright.
Why do you think that is? Do you think she had internalized censorship or was she still in danger, even after the war, of external censorship?
Anne: I think a lot of it was the reaction of the general public to internment and the incarceration of Japanese Americans. Almost immediately after the war, most people believed it was a terrible mistake, but decided: let’s just forget it happened. Let’s not talk about it. So for a long time afterwards, the Japanese American community was afraid to stick its neck out. They were afraid to stand out. I mean obviously this was a huge collective trauma that some people felt like they couldn’t talk about. Some people felt they could never talk about it.
Nancy: And this was 1945, so it was still really raw.
It’s interesting to me that Yamamoto’s position at the LA Tribune did allow her to kind of talk about these experiences. Do you know how much of her experience at Poston, as the editor, informed her work post-Poston?
Anne: Well, the column had the same name, Small Talk. She had more space in LA Tribune, so she was able to take on heavier and more politicized topics. What I find interesting is that it’s not like it was never talked about in the paper, that she had been incarcerated. In her introduction in the LA Tribune, it said something like “now we’ve hired this woman, Miss Yamamoto, to work on the paper. She’s coming to us from Poston camp in Arizona.” So they were willing to state facts, that this internment was happening, just not in a very emotional way.
You mentioned before that she was sought after, that they were advertising for a Japanese American columnist for their newspaper, did you find any community response to her becoming involved with the newspaper?
Anne: Yeah! Actually when they published their letters to the editor section, the responses were overwhelmingly positive. People commended them for hiring a Japanese American journalist, for ‘putting their money where their mouth is’ with regard to race relations in the US.
Nancy: The other thing to note is that the LA tribune’s editor at the time was also a woman, one of the very important early black woman journalists, Almena Lomax. So you wonder too, if having her in charge of the paper might also have impacted the choice to go with a woman from the Japanese American community as opposed to a man. There were men who applied for this position, but they weren’t chosen. She was. And she wrote for Japanese American newspapers too, before the war, as a teenager. She was really very precocious. From a young age, she really had a lot to say and was quite involved in the community news world.
Wow she’s done some really amazing work. How did your interest in her start, Nancy?
Nancy: Since the 1980s, she’s been a writer considered very important to the evolution of Asian American literature. In the ’80s and ’90s, she wasn’t widely known outside those circles, but now she is. So there was a movement in the ’80s to kind of recover her work. She had published a lot of short stories in that mid 20th century period. The very late 1940s to the 1960s was the high mark of her literary output. But then people weren’t actively thinking about reading her work after that. It wasn’t until the Asian American studies movement really started gaining strength that some of her stories got put into anthologies, and people started having her on their radars again. When I first started studying Asian American literature in grad school, I became familiar with her work. That was when a feminist press called Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press put out the collection Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories. That was the moment that her work was suddenly back in circulation. They had taken a lot of the stories she had written and published in small literary magazines and collected them in this anthology. I became really interested in her when I found out that some of her stories were published here at Carleton, through Furioso and then The Carleton Miscellany. But it wasn’t until I started researching more about her biography that I realized her writing started before those publications in the literary magazines. I thought that was the beginning of her career. That’s when I realized she had been writing in the camp, and that so many of those papers had been digitized. Hence: yay!
So when you were awarded this grant, what was your motivation? Anne says you’re writing a book, what is the question you aim to answer or the gap you’re working to fill?
Nancy: I thought I was writing a single article about the stories she’d written for Furioso and The Miscellany, and then the project just expanded exponentially. I realized I had so much material, it seemed I could fill a whole book. I don’t know if it’s going to work, but at this point I have five chapters mapped out of her career from the 1940s onward. It turns out that her writing circulated quite widely in that Cold War period. I want to trace where it went, create a literary geography of Yamamoto, of her work in the camp newspaper, post-war in the LA Tribune, and the major city urban-journalism world, then her pieces that got published in these very highbrow literary magazines. There were these different cultural spheres that her writing moved between. I just think that’s a really eye-opening way of realizing that the internment was not something that completely shut down and silenced literary voices. Somehow, her writing was not silenced.
Have you found anyone from the camp who talked about the paper outside the camp?
Nancy: That would be really interesting. I haven’t come across anything, but I bet it there’s out there. I bet it’s in the form of oral histories, through people who have been interviewed about their camp experiences. That’s probably how you’d find it.
Anne: Yeah, there’s this awesome website called Densho. It’s a kind of repository for all these things. You can go on there and find articles about all the different camps. There are even some short clips of oral histories, people talking about camp life.
Nancy: They’re a really good example of a public history enterprise. Where the history isn’t coming from professional historians and the halls of academia, so much as it’s coming from the community members themselves, who are using whatever tools at their disposal to gather all this important historical material.
How do you view your work in relation to this kind of public history enterprise? What are you hoping to do with your book, or what audiences are you hoping to reach?
Nancy: Oh man, I haven’t worked out this answer yet. So far, for me, the project has been fairly traditional in its methods, trying to just fill in a gap in literary history. In order to do the research, I have certainly benefited from community resources like the Densho Organization. For instance, with the Poston research that Anne did, I’m wondering whether it wouldn’t make sense to contact the people at Densho and ask if some of this research would be helpful to them, to kind of close the circle and give back the other way. Maybe they would find it useful toward something else they’re trying to build. In terms of audiences, I want people in schools who teach Yamamoto to understand better the richness of where her work came from, and all the ways it did circulate widely. I still want that traditional academic audience. I think that’s a really important intervention.
We discussed much more in this nearly 45 minute interview than we were able to fit into this blog post. With that being said, we hope this selective transcription piques your interest into the work that Nancy and Anne have begun. We are very excited to see the ways in which this project continues to develop and proud of the progress they’ve already made.