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Haiku Poet Documented Life in Japanese Camps

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Haiku Poet Documented Life in Japanese Camps


Haiku Poet Documented Life in Japanese Camps

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Ninety-year-old Violet Kazue de Cristoforo died last week. She's famous for writing and collecting haiku poems that captured life in Japanese internment camps during World War II. Her anthology of internment camp poets titled "May Sky" was published in 1999.

Sasha Khokha of member station KQED has this remembrance.

SASHA KHOKHA: Violet de Cristoforo was born Kazue Yamane in Hawaii in 1917. She moved to California as a teenager, and in the 1940s, she ran a bookshop in Fresno's Japantown.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, she and her family were sent to a racetrack turned into a makeshift assembly center for Japanese-Americans. She tried to make a home in a tarpaper shack in Fresno's stifling summer heat and gave birth to her daughter, Kimi de Cristoforo.

Ms. KIMI de CRISTOFORO (Violet de Cristoforo's daughter): I heard about me being born in a horse stable because, at the time, there was a fair or something, and my mom goes, why don't we go to a horse stable and see what, you know, what kind of a place you were born. She didn't have a bassinet or anything so I was put in a orange crate.

KHOKHA: The family was later transferred to an interment camp at Tule Lake, near the Oregon border. De Cristoforo continued to write haiku there, loving the simplicity of the form. Poetry that could condense a range of emotions - pain, betrayal, hope - into just a few lines.

Mr. LAWSON INADA (Poet Laureate, Oregon): (Reading) The early moon has set, people unable to sleep, whispering in the barracks.

KHOKHA: Lawson Inada is the poet laureate of Oregon.

Mr. INADA: And you see so in very brief poems, you get a sense of the real life. The haiku just cuts right through the core of the matter, through the heart of the matter, so to speak.

KHOKHA: Inada grew up in Fresno where his family ran a fish market next to de Cristoforo's bookstore in Japantown. For a time, the families were in the same interment camp. Inada says de Cristoforo's poetry survives as a record of their emotions during those long years.

Mr. INADA: (Reading) The spider web has turned black. I have been confined here three years.

And you see, so something like that makes you reflect, not only on nature and on the passage of time, and what are we doing here.

KHOKHA: Life in the camps was especially bitter for de Cristoforo after her then-husband was singled out as being an agitator, then sent to another camp and finally back to Japan. She was left to take care of three children and her elderly in-laws. She used poetry to channel her grief. Her daughter Kimi reads.

Ms. K. DE CRISTOFORO: (Reading) Myriad insects in the evening. My children are growing.

This is about us growing up in the camp.

KHOKHA: After the war, de Cristoforo began publishing her haiku poetry, and compiling and translating poems from other interment camp writers. This past summer, the National Endowment for the Arts called to say de Cristoforo had won a prestigious award for her lifetime achievements. The NEA recorded a phone conversation with her then.

(Soundbite of archived phone conversation from NEA)

Ms. VIOLET de CRISTOFORO (Haiku Poet): It gave me a lot of encouragement. Even today, I look at myself and I said, Violet, good for you. In spite of all the sufferings, in spite of all the adversity, you always had a nice haiku, and I hope that you think that I have done a very good job.

KHOKHA: At the award ceremony in Washington, D.C., last month, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta read one of her poems.

Mr. NORMAN MINETA (Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation): (Reading) My heart perceives nothing, day to day, summer at its peak in high land.

(Soundbite of applause)

KHOKHA: Violet Kazue de Cristoforo died less than two weeks after returning from the award ceremony. Her daughter says her mother may have tried to stay alive long enough to see her interment poetry finally honored.

For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha in Fresno.

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