ABSTRACT

In her short-story collection Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories (1988), Japanese-American writer Hisaye Yamamoto (1921–2011) depicts the spiritual predicament of the Nisei, the children of Japanese immigrants, after World War II when they were incarcerated in camps. Because they were born in America, the Nisei are not Japanese like their parents, nor are they familiar with Japanese culture and tradition; however, they are not American either. Japanese Americans were not considered “proper” Americans because Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Yamamoto depicts the Nisei’s vulnerability through various motifs, the most overt of which is the imagery of perception. As the Nisei straddle the line between Japan and America and therefore lack a sense of cultural belonging, their seeing is free of national ideologies yet also unrooted. This analysis connects the Nisei’s vulnerability to Limbo in Dante’s Inferno, whose inhabitants are not condemned to eternal torture but remain trapped in indeterminacy without hope of salvation. The souls in Limbo signify the hazy status of the Nisei, who exist in the purgatory of identity.

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