Shaped by in­tern­ment

The West Australian - - OBITUARIES -

WAKAKO YAMAUCHI Play­wright Born: West­mor­land, Cal­i­for­nia, 1924 Died: Gar­dena, Cal­i­for­nia, aged 93

Wakako Yamauchi was liv­ing be­hind barbed wire, por­ing over books in a tar and pa­per-cov­ered bar­rack that dou­bled as a li­brary, when she dis­cov­ered the depth of her love of lit­er­a­ture.

She was at the time a 17-yearold Ni­sei, or first-gen­er­a­tion Ja­panese Amer­i­can, con­fined with her fam­ily to the Pos­ton in­tern­ment camp in Ari­zona. They were among the 120,000 Ja­panese and Ja­panese Amer­i­cans im­pris­oned by the US gov­ern­ment in such cen­tres dur­ing World War II as part of a pol­icy that a 1983 con­gres­sional com­mis­sion con­demned as a “grave in­jus­tice”, spurred by “racial prej­u­dice, war hys­te­ria and fail­ure of po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship”.

As a writer, Yamauchi would call upon her ex­pe­ri­ences of in­tern­ment, poverty, racism and re­silience in works that made her one of the most noted Asian-Amer­i­can play­wrights of her gen­er­a­tion. She died on Au­gust 16 at her home in Gar­dena, Cal­i­for­nia.

Yamauchi be­gan writ­ing in her 20s but en­dured se­rial re­jec­tion be­fore her writ­ings reached main­stream au­di­ences. Her most cel­e­brated work, And the Soul Shall Dance, sprang from her youth as the daugh­ter of itin­er­ant im­mi­grant farm­ers in Cal­i­for­nia, ex­tract­ing from the land the most mea­gre of liv­ings dur­ing the De­pres­sion.

The work, some­times de­scribed as a Ja­panese Grapes of Wrath, cen­tered on two fam­i­lies — one that is man­ag­ing to adapt to life in the new coun­try and an­other that feels pulled back to the old one.

It was pub­lished as a short story and an­thol­o­gised in Ai­i­ieeeee! An An­thol­ogy of Asian-Amer­i­can Writ­ers (1974). She then re­crafted her story as a play. The the­atri­cal ver­sion had its pre­miere in Los An­ge­les by the East West Play­ers in 1977, then aired the next year as a PBS film and was staged in 1979 at New York’s La MaMa theatre, a hub of avant-garde works.

“The land is hard, the com­mu­nity is hos­tile, the De­pres­sion is upon them,” reviewer John Corry wrote in the New York Times. “All this, how­ever, is in­ci­den­tal; the play is about the life and death of dreams.”

“The strength of the play,” Corry con­tin­ued, was that Yamauchi wrote “from nei­ther self-pity nor ide­ol­ogy. The in­tern­ment of 1942 awaits her char­ac­ters, but that tragedy ex­ists in our minds, and not in any­thing said on stage. This deep­ens our feel­ings, with­out ever ro­man­ti­cis­ing them”.

Yamauchi at­tracted no­tice par­tic­u­larly for her nu­anced de­pic­tion of Ja­panese women. Theatre critic Stephen Holden, com­pared one of the play’s pro­tag­o­nists, Emiko, to a “Ja­panese-Amer­i­can an­swer to one of Ten­nessee Wil­liams’s haunted wraiths”.

Yamauchi re­turned to the lives of De­pres­sion-era Ja­panese farm­ers in her play The Mu­sic Lessons, about a wi­d­owed farmer whose hired labourer, once an aspir­ing vi­o­lin­ist, pro­vides mu­sic lessons to the woman’s daugh­ter.

Her the­atri­cal work The Me­mento cen­tred on for­mer girl­hood friends, and their sim­mer­ing rivalry over a man, and fea­tured flash­backs to the life of a geisha. Yamauchi’s play 12-1-A took its ti­tle from her fam­ily’s ad­dress at the in­tern­ment camp.

Yamauchi also pub­lished two col­lec­tions of writ­ings, Songs My Mother Taught Me: Sto­ries, Plays, and Mem­oir (1994) and Rose­bud and Other Sto­ries (2011).

Re­view­ing the first vol­ume in The New York Times, writer David Galef ob­served that the book’s theme is “re­lo­ca­tion: not just the hard lives of im­mi­grant Ja­panese in De­pres­sion-era Amer­ica, but the sub­se­quent in­tern­ment of thou­sands of Ja­panese-Amer­i­cans dur­ing World War II. On a deeper level, these sto­ries, plays and bits of mem­oir all in­volve a dis­lo­ca­tion of the heart”.

Wakako Naka­mura was born in West­mor­land, Cal­i­for­nia, in 1924. Her birth cer­tifi­cate gave her birth date as Oc­to­ber 25, her grand­daugh­ter said, but her fam­ily be­lieved that she was born two days ear­lier. Be­sides their ten­ant farm­ing, her par­ents ran a board­ing house in Ocean­side, Cal­i­for­nia, which they were forced to aban­don when their in­ter­ment be­gan.

“You couldn’t run away from it be­cause you’d die in the desert,” she once told an in­ter­viewer of the camp, “if you es­caped the bul­lets from the sen­tries.”

She said she loved words for “the sounds they made and the places they took” her. At the in­tern­ment camp li­brary, she dis­cov­ered the works of the early 20th-cen­tury Amer­i­can nov­el­ist Thomas Wolfe, who “taught me not to be afraid of what I feel”, she later re­called, ac­cord­ing to a pro­file in the pub­li­ca­tion the Thomas Wolfe Re­view. “Not the pain, not the sor­row, nor yearning or need. Nor the joy.”

Yamauchi, who had worked on a news­pa­per pub­lished at Pos­ton, first pur­sued a ca­reer as an artist be­fore turn­ing to writ­ing. Her ear­li­est works ap­peared in the Rafu Shimpo, a Ja­panese-English news­pa­per in Los An­ge­les.

Her mar­riage to Ch­ester Yamauchi ended in di­vorce, and their daugh­ter, Joy Yamauchi, died in 2014. Be­sides her grand­daugh­ter, sur­vivors in­clude a sis­ter and a grand­son.

“There are only a few sto­ries that I’ve ever wanted to tell,” Yamauchi told MELUS, a pub­li­ca­tion of the So­ci­ety for the Study of the Multi-Eth­nic Lit­er­a­ture, two decades ago. “I wanted to record our lives so they wouldn’t be lost. I didn’t re­alise what a re­spon­si­bil­ity that was. I only wanted to put down a few foot­prints of our so­journ here, at this time, in this place.”

Pic­ture: Alyc­tra Mat­sushita

Wakako Yamauchi in 1944.

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