Hisaye Yamamoto was a Japanese-American writer. As far as I’ve been able to find, she published only one book, the 1988 short story collection Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories. It was revised twice—in 1998 and 2001, with the addition of one and four stories, respectively.
Although there aren’t a lot of her stories for us to read, the ones we have are excellent. If you’re new to Yamamoto’s stories you might want to start with her best-known pieces—the title story, “Wilshire Bus”, “Yoneko’s Earthquake”, “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara” and “The Eskimo Connection”—but they’re all worth reading.
Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories (Book of Short Stories)
Here are the stories in the 1998 edition.
Sadako’s father is visiting from San Francisco. They talk at the breakfast table. Her husband has gone to work and the baby is napping. Sadako tries to encourage communication but her father and husband are reluctant. (Summary and Analysis)
“The High-Heeled Shoes, A Memoir”
A woman who’s home alone gets a phone call at mid-morning. It’s a man named Tony who greets her warmly. She doesn’t know of any Tony, so she tells him he has the wrong number. He insists the number is correct. Thinking he’s a salesman, she asks what he wants. It’s not what she was expecting, and she hangs up on him. It makes her think of other incidents where she and other women she knows had unwelcome encounters with men.
Rosie’s mother, Tome Hayashi, has been writing haikus and submitting them to a daily newspaper that publishes some once a week. Until the dinner dishes were done, Tome did the housework and helped with the tomato harvest, along with the hired Mexican family, the Carrascos. Afterward, she would write at the table, sometimes until midnight. When there’s company, Tome talks poetry with the interested party and her husband talks to the other. Rosie has become friends with the Carrasco boy, Jesus, who goes to the same school as her. Both mother and daughter have significant experiences.
“The Legend of Miss Sasagawara”
The narrator and her friend Elsie, both close to twenty, are living in a Japanese relocation camp along with many others. Everyone is curious about Miss Sasagawara, a new inmate of Block 33. She’s thirty-nine years old, has never been married and used to be a ballet dancer. She’s temperamental and aloof. On her first day, she threw a bucket of water at Mr. Sasaki, who offered to clean out the barracks with a hose. With the exception of one interaction with Mrs. Murakami, she doesn’t respond to conversation and doesn’t greet anyone. Miss Sasagawara’s father, a Buddhist minister, is devoted to his prayer periods and never seems to talk directly to people.
Esther Kuroiwa is riding the Wilshire bus to a hospital for soldiers to visit her husband because his old back injury is acting up. She’s allowed to go twice a week. She enjoys the long ride; she usually has an amiable seat companion, and she like looking out the window. An extroverted man gets on the bus and makes a loud, light-hearted remark to the driver. He sits behind Esther. At the next stop, an elderly Chinese couple get on, and the man has difficulty asking the driver a question. The extroverted man talks loudly, causing the Chinese woman to look at him. The man is offended and goes on a rant.
“The Brown House”
It’s an exceptional year in California for strawberries, causing the market price to drop. The Hattori’s start arguing for the first time in their marriage, and Mr. Hattori explores other ways of making money. He hears about a house in a nearby town where people can make their fortune. He visits the house one day while his wife and five children wait in the car. It’s two in the afternoon, and he only plans to briefly check it out. Mrs. Hattori sees all sorts of people entering the house but not many leaving. When Mr. Hattori returns, it’s dark out.
Marpo, a twenty-seven year old Filipino man, works as a hired man for the Hosoumes. He’s an excellent worker and multi-talented besides. He tells the Hosoume girl, Yoneko, about Christianity, which she was already interested in, as her cousins from the city go to a Baptist church for Japanese people. One early spring evening while Mr. Hosoume is out on an errand, there’s a tremendous roar and the house starts shaking. The family and Marpo huddle together outside. Mr. Hosoume returns later in the evening, escorted by two strangers, as he was in a car accident.
Yuri Tsumagari has just married Marco, an Italian seaman. They met at a Christian community on Staten Island that takes in anyone. Yuri went there to help, and Marco came to recover from his drinking. Yuri hasn’t told Madame Marie, from the community, about the marriage yet. Tomorrow she’s going back home to see her parents, who don’t know either.
“Las Vegas Charley”
Charley, as he’s known, is one of the few Japanese people living in the city of Las Vegas, drawn by the hope of striking it rich. He’s a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant, working ten hours a night and making a good wage. At the end of each month, he’s penniless. Despite this, his life isn’t dreary—he’s popular with his workmates and is excited by the possibility of hitting it big. He’s sixty-two now; we learn his history, including his time as a boy in Japan, his eventual marriage and sons, his time farming, his time in the internment camp during the war and more.
“Life Among the Oil Fields, A Memoir”
The narrator remembers her time in second grade when her family lived in Redondo Beach on a farm among the oil fields where they grew strawberries. She relates how they lived day to day, as well as a significant incident involving her brother.
“The Eskimo Connection”
Emiko receives a letter from Alden, a twenty-three year old prisoner-patient in a federal penitentiary. He had read an old poem of hers in an Asian American magazine. He encloses an essay he wrote for the prison periodical and asks her to critique it. He feels strongly about the treatment of his people and Christianity. She’s not sure about writing back. She’s old enough to be his mother, they’re from different cultures, and of course, he’s incarcerated. She decides to make a tactful reply.
“My Father Can Beat Muhammad Ali”
Henry Kusumoto has two cans of beer with dinner instead of the usual one because it was a tough day at work in the supermarket. The two boys, Dirk and Curt, talk about how good various boxers are. The agree that no one is close to Muhammad Ali; he’s the greatest. Henry disagrees, going so far as to claim he could have beaten Ali himself.
Coming out of the supermarket one Saturday afternoon, the narrator, an older Japanese lady, starts for the bench she sits on while waiting for her husband, Ed, to pick her up. She finds the way blocked by a woman with a cart that’s overflowing with household items. The narrator smokes and the woman starts talking to her. She’s homeless; she says her Japanese neighbors burned her house down. She has plans to build a tiny house.
“A Day in Little Tokyo”
Mrs. Kushida suggests that her husband and children get away for the day to the beach. Chisato, fourteen, and her younger brother Shuzo love the idea. Chisato thinks of the sights, sounds and feelings of the beach, while Shuzo thinks of the food he can get there. Mr. Kushida isn’t as keen on the idea. He wants to go see the sumo wrestlers from Japan who are here for a tournament.
“Reading and Writing”
Kazuko, the daughter of Japanese immigrants, talks about her friendship with Hallie, an American. Kazuko eventually realized that Hallie couldn’t read or write. They met over the phone because their husbands were both interested in electronics. Kazuko relates some of Hallie’s history, including her marriages, daughter, and illness.
The revised and expanded edition contains 4 more stories that I haven’t been able to read yet:
- “Death Rides the Rails to Poston”
- “A Fire in Fontana”
- “Florentine Gardens”