Entering Asian Pacific Heritage Month, this week L.A. Letters spotlights two new books that reveal little-known history about Asian-Americans in Southern California: "The Yellow Door," Amy Uyematsu's new poetry title, and "Terminal Island," the newest book published by Angel City Press and written by Naomi Hirahara and Geraldine Knatz. Each of these selections offer a plethora of forgotten stories from the early 20th Century and present the material in an artful and enthralling way.
The Yellow Door
"The Yellow Door," published by Red Hen Press, is the fourth book of poetry written by the Montebello-born Japanese-American poet Amy Uyematsu. The 40-plus poems in this collection masterfully connect five generations of Japanese-American history. There are poems about her grandparents before the war and their time in the internment camps, her childhood experiences in the San Gabriel Valley, her years of coming of age as an Asian-American activist, and poems honoring her own children and grandchildren.
Uyematsu's writing career started very serendipitously in her senior year at UCLA in the early 1970s. An essay she wrote in class ended up being published by two publications and even led to her editing a groundbreaking anthology while she was still in her early 20s. She explains to me further:
I was lucky enough to be a student in the first Asian-American Studies class at UCLA (back then it was titled "Orientals in America.") I was a senior, and that spring quarter I finally had a class that I felt completely changed my life and spoke to me as a Japanese-American. For the final term paper, I turned in an essay called 'The Emergence of Yellow Power in America.' It was published by the newly emerging newspaper, Gidra, and soon after reprinted by the '60s counterculture newspaper, the Los Angeles Free Press. That essay caught the interest of the then just developing Asian American Studies Center. I was offered a job and ended up doing research, teaching, and publication-related work.
She became the publications coordinator, and in 1971, she co-edited "Roots: An Asian-American Reader," with Franklin Odo, Eddie Wong, and Buck Wong. "Roots" became a widely-used anthology for Asian-American Studies programs across the country. According to the UCLA Asian-American Studies website, "'Roots' was the standard textbook for Asian American Studies courses throughout the nation for many years, and went through twelve printings, and sold over 50,000 copies." At the time, there were very few books about Asian-Americans and they created the anthology to respond to this need. The book included essays and poems by Asian-Americans. The work, she says, came from "mostly students, but also Sansei poet Lawson Inada and Pilipino activist Al Robles."
Ironically she tells me that she was a Math major and her first poems were originally thoughts she would compose spontaneously in between projects. "I was going through so much emotional and intellectual turmoil," she says, "that poetry seemed to be the best way for me to express some of those feelings." Uyematsu had done journalism at Pasadena High School, but did not feel connected to most of her fellow students because of the school's social climate. In her class of 1200 students, there were very few Japanese-Americans and people of color. "I did not have a good experience at high school. I did okay academically and was active in student politics and journalism, but I found that my friendships didn't seem to extend further than the classroom," she says. "Classmates would not invite me to their social gatherings. My mother, who was aware of my lack of social life, used to drive my younger sister and me to the other side of Pasadena to an all-Japanese Presbyterian Church that our grandparents on both sides attended."
There was one particular experience at Pasadena High she recalls that also shaped her emerging consciousness. "In a senior government class," she remembers, "I was talking about the camp experience that my grandparents and parents suffered through during World War II. Nobody, but the teacher (who was old enough to know), believed me. And I remember my sense of frustration and anger that my white classmates doubted what I said and that our history textbooks didn't mention the camps at all."
Uyematsu wrote sporadically through her 20s, but her main focus in the 1970s was working in Asian-American Studies and getting involved in political action groups. In 1974 she gave birth to a son and in 1979 she began working as a public school teacher. She taught math for 35 years and only recently retired. In the 1980s she really caught the poetry bug and slowly began submitting her work to various literary journals. Her first readings were with the Pacific Asian-American Women Writers' West, a group of writers of fiction, poetry, and theater in the mid-1980s. She received her first speaking honorarium when she read at the Women's Building in 1987. In 1990, Suzanne Lummis asked Uyematsu to read at the opening event for the L.A. Poetry Festival at Cal State L.A. In 1992, her first book, "30 Miles from J-Town," was published by Story Line Press. It won the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize. Her next two books came out in 1997 and 2005 respectively.
In her newest book, Uyematsu skillfully addresses all of the topics mentioned above with grace, honesty, insight, and sarcasm. In her poem "Women's Lib, Asian-American Style," she begins by quoting David Bowie's song "China Girl," and then answers "I admit I'd been raised to nod and smile---/but no way in hell/was I ever going to grovel/as your beaming ornamental,/never again your servile/oh-so-exotic-erotic yellow jewel." In another poem, "What's In A Name," she comments on the use of the term Oriental and how '60s rebels like Yuji Ichioka coined the term Asian-American as a better option. In her poem, "Haiku For the Unsuspecting Fortune Cookie Reader," she debunks Asian stereotypes like the model minority. In each of these pieces there is a perfect mix of humor and bittersweet reflection.
Among the most touching pieces in the collection are the several dedicated to her grandparents. In the poem "Gardening Shears," she shares the plight of her grandfather who had owned a store before the war and when he came back from the camp, could only find work as a gardener. The poem also celebrates the legacy of Japanese-American gardeners and their huge influence in the lush, beautiful gardens across Southern California, and reveals the background story to why so many Japanese-American men were gardeners for much of the 20th Century.
Uyematsu tells me that writing has been in her family for a number of generations. "My paternal grandmother regularly wrote haiku and tanka and submitted them to the Japanese-language newspapers of her time," she says. "My dad wrote for his high school newspaper. My mom wrote a column for the Japanese American newspaper, Kashu Mainichi. I also wrote for my high school newspaper, and my sister and I both write poetry and other articles."
Throughout the book, there are a number of poems that discuss various elements of her parents and grandparents' lives. "The main way my grandparents and parents influenced my work was in the lives and struggles they had as Japanese Americans, inspiring many poems about both the Issei and Nisei generations," she notes. "Only one of my grandparents spoke English, and I was never taught Japanese. So I think writing about my Issei grandparents in poems has helped me connect with them."
For those that do not know, Issei are the first generation of Japanese-Americans who were born in Japan. The Nisei are the second generation, American born and children of the Issei. The Sansei are third generation, many born during or after the Second World War. Uyematsu's email includes the term "L.A Sansei." Throughout the book she meditates on these terms within the context of her poems.
All in all, Uyematsu mixes thoughtful poetry, family memories and political consciousness in well-crafted verse. Writer Sesshu Foster calls her "One of L.A.'s best poets, one of our most necessary voices." When I asked her how it feels to be an Asian-American pioneer in poetry, she deferred the praise and told me, "In the growing body of Asian-American lit, I regard writers like Lawson Inada, Janice Mirikitani, Marilyn Chin, and Garrett Hongo as pioneers who really paved the way for other Asian American poets."
She told me that when she was at a 30-year anniversary event for the UCLA Asian-American Studies program, she was shocked when a young man approached her and called her a pioneer. "It was a little jarring, since I was in my early '50s and associated the word 'pioneer' with people much older than me -- but he could only have been 20 or so, and to him I guess I would be seen as a pioneer of UCLA's Asian American Studies Center."
Terminal Island: Lost Communities of Los Angeles Harbor
This nearly 300 page book gives a very in-depth portrait of the Japanese-American community on Terminal Island in San Pedro in the Los Angeles Harbor. Coauthored by Naomi Hirahara and Geraldine Knatz, the work goes back to the late 19th Century and extensively covers the history of Terminal Island, with special focus on the Japanese fishing village there, how it came to rise, and the eventual demise during the Second World War. At the Island's peak about 3,500 Japanese-Americans mostly fishermen called it home. The text includes a number of micro-narratives about the people who populated Terminal Island, like Roy Hideo Yamamoto, and the dentist, Dr. Tooroku Fujii. Their descriptions of businesses like Hashimoto Hardware offer an inside view of the close knit community of early 20th Century Terminal Island.
The authors give a geographic, historical and social portrait of Terminal Island, leaving no stone unturned. Nestled between San Pedro and Long Beach, Terminal Island has played a major role in Southern California history. In addition to the Japanese-American history of Terminal Island, there are vignettes about Charles Fletcher Lummis visiting the island, the role of the Huntington family in the port, the transcontinental railroad in San Pedro, an early resort on Terminal Island, and the background story of Rattlesnake and Deadman's Island, adjacent portions of Terminal Island. The pathos of the text is complemented by powerful vintage photos and several maps that bring the narrative into even greater light. Many may know the Cliff notes of this history from the memoir "Farewell to Manzanar" by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, but this volume goes into much greater detail about the families that worked in the canneries and fishing communities on Terminal Island.
There are a number of heartfelt passages in "Terminal Island." One in particular is "Raising the Nisei Children: A Bifurcated Life," which reveals what it was like for the children growing up on Terminal Island in the 1920s and how they were bi-cultural. The authors describe the public school and how Japanese tradition and culture were still celebrated by the students, along with learning English. Though 95 percent of Terminal Island was Japanese, there were also Russian and Latino residents there whose children attended school on the island. Some of the tales of unity between the students are reminiscent of the stories told about the early 20th Century in Boyle Heights. These stories are further recounted in the segment, "Interethnic Relationships in Work, Labor, Business and Play."
The final chapter of the book, "Drydocked, Removal and Diaspora," is particularly tragic as it explains the destruction of the community when the Second World War began. The internment of Japanese Americans that began after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 changed the landscape of Terminal Island forever. The residents were only given 48 hours to evacuate. Cannery work continued on Terminal Island during World War II with Filipinos and Latinos replacing the displaced Japanese workers. Most of the original buildings were torn down and wartime industry took over. Terminal Island became an interrogation center, and the landscape was razed and erased in much the same way that Bunker Hill and Chavez Ravine were a decade later.
In the closing pages of the book, the authors reveal that many of the stories of Japanese-Americans on Terminal Island were not told in greater detail until the 1970s when a group of former residents formed a new group, "Terminal Islanders." As the years went on, the Terminal Islanders continued to meet and tell their stories. In 2002, they financed the Terminal Island Memorial Monument which features bronze statues of two Issei fishermen inscribed with calligraphy. Many of the Terminal Islanders are now in their 90s and they continue to meet annually.
Hirahara and Knatz's book offers a very comprehensive portrait of Japanese-American life on Terminal Island. The book itself is immaculately designed by the renowned Amy Inouye. The fusion of images, maps and text culminate into a narrative that is greater than the sum of its parts. Similar to other Angel City Press books like "Songs in the Key of Los Angeles" and "Tracks to the Future," the volume works as both a coffee-table book and valuable historic text. Historian William Deverell writes in the Foreword, "Authors Knatz and Hirahara pull back time in the pages of 'Terminal Island,' and they show us in their excavation an island and harbor profoundly different from what exists today. Place names are no longer what they were, and they have changed more than once."
"Lost Communities of Los Angeles Harbor," is the subtitle of the book and dozens of their stories are told in this work. The book's dedication page reads: "To the people of lost communities. You are not forgotten." Hirahara and Knatz have done a brilliant job excavating the forgotten communities of Terminal Island.
Amy Uyematsu's book of poetry, "The Yellow Door," and "Terminal Island," are both treasure troves of Japanese-American history. Salute to these authors for creating these significant cultural touchstones in the landscape of L.A. Letters.