Seventeen Syllables Summary

Hisaye Yamamoto

Seventeen Syllables

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Seventeen Syllables Summary

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Seventeen Syllables is a short story by Japanese-American author Hisaye Yamamoto, first written in 1949 and later collected in an anthology of her most famous works, Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, which was released in 1988. The story follows the parallel tales of a young Nisei (born in the US or Canada) girl and her Issei (Japanese immigrant) mother, as their relationship experiences bumps along the road. The girl doesn’t understand her mother’s interest in haiku, while the mother has doubts about her daughter’s young romance with a Mexican boy. Over the course of the story, the two slowly begin to understand each other better. Seventeen Syllables explores themes including the generation gap between Issei and Nisei, race relations, gender roles in Japanese cultures, and resentment caused by class. It is considered Yamamoto’s most enduring work, and is reprinted far more frequently than any of her other short stories. Considered a classic of Japanese-American literature, it is frequently taught and examined in Asian-American studies courses.

As Seventeen Syllables begins, Nisei daughter Rosie learns that her mother has taken to writing poems when she finishes her first one and reads it to her daughter. It’s about cats, and Rosie politely pretends to understand it, partially because she wants her mother to think she’s been doing well at Japanese school on Saturday. Her mother explains haiku to her, but can tell that Rosie is uninterested. She goes back to composing, and Rosie thinks how much easier English is than Japanese. She understands haiku, having read one in English, but the language barrier between her and her Japanese-speaking mother is hard to overcome. Her mother gets a job writing haiku for a daily Japanese newspaper, and this causes major changes in the family routine. The family—Rosie, her mother Tome, and her father—live with another woman, Ume Hanazono, and they own a farm. They’ve hired a Mexican family, the Carrascos, to help with the harvest. With Tome spending most of her time writing haiku, Rosie’s father is more often left to his own devices.

The family visits the nearby Hayano family, which has four daughters and a sick mother. The household is mainly run by the father, and Rosie gets along well with the four girls. She enjoys the visit, but her father seems increasingly tense and leaves to go home early. Watching her mother and father, Rosie observes that her father clearly resents her mother’s success, feeling that she’s infringing on his place in the family. Rosie, meanwhile, is distracted by her friendship with Jesus Carrasco, the son of the farmhand family. He’s two years older than her, and they go to the same school. He asks her to meet him one day, and they enjoy ice cream, racing, and talking about their families. He tells her he has a secret to tell her, and surprises her by kissing her for the first time. Although she knows this isn’t something she’s supposed to be doing, she can’t help herself and feels herself falling for him. She returns home, takes a bath, and finds that her father is getting ruder to both her and to her mother.

The next day, Rosie goes to Japanese school and her father brings her lunch. Things seem to be getting better between her mother and father. That night, her mother gets a visit from the haiku editor of the magazine she writes for, and learns that she’s won first prize in a recent haiku contest. She’s in shock, and she and the manager talk haiku theory all night. Rosie’s father immediately turns sour again, resenting his wife’s attention being divided. He tries to get her attention about the tomatoes, and when she asks for more time, he storms into the house and destroys the gift of a framed picture his wife received from the editor. He storms back out to the field, and Rosie goes to check on her mother. Her mother is crying, and asks if Rosie knows why she married her father. She tells her how she fell in love with a rich boy in the village, and became pregnant. She gave birth prematurely to a stillborn child, and was disgraced in the eye of her family. She wrote to her sister Taka, begging her to take her in, and Taka paired her hastily with a young man she knew. Rosie is shocked to learn that she had a brother who she never got to know. Her mother asks Rosie to promise her she will never marry, and Rosie agrees, but knows her feelings for Jesus may make it impossible to keep that promise.

Most of Yamamoto’s work deals with the Japanese immigrant experience in America, the role of women in Japanese society, and the intergenerational tensions that exist between Nisei and Issei. Having spent three years at the Poston internment camp during World War II, many of her works deal with that difficult era in Japanese-American history. In 2010, she received the Asian-American Writers Workshop’s Lifetime Achievement Award, only a year before her death.