Hisaye Yamamoto’s “The Eskimo Connection” is told through the eyes of Emiko Toyama, a poet who self-deprecatingly refers to herself simply as “an aging Nisei widow” with very little to offer a young prison pen pal. She never directly calls herself a poet in the story, although art and writing have certainly played an important part in her life, at least in the past: she is a published poet; in the internment camp she “hung out sometimes with people who wrote and painted”; she has discussed poetry with fellow writers; and she sends literature magazines to Alden in prison. Her response to Alden’ s requests to critique his writing has the tone of a woman experienced in thinking deeply about writing.
The ironic tone that accompanies Emiko’s description of herself mimics, in fact, the words Yamamoto used to describe herself in the Amerasia Journal (as quoted in Cheung’s Introduction to Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories), saying that she must “in all honesty list [her] occupation as housewife.” Cheung adds that Yamamoto’s own words are often like her stories, “told by unreliable narrators and laden with irony,” and cannot be taken literally.
It is through this sense of irony that Emiko’s full character is revealed. She pretends to be one thing—”just” a mother—but her actions reveal the complexity of her identity. In the same way that she dismisses her artistic side, Emiko dismisses her maternal side. But through careful examination of Emiko’s actions, and less attention to whom she says she is, Emiko is revealed as a sort of mother, a matriarch to those outside her family as well as to her own family. Gale K. Fujita Sato, in The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States, notes that most Japanese-American writing since the 1920s includes the theme of “a definition of home, through actual and symbolic mothering,” and “The Eskimo Connection” is no exception.
Emiko’s mothering in the story takes on a variety of forms. Immediately she is seen as the mother and grandmother to her own family, “her brood,” as she later refers to them. Yamamoto gives Emiko children, but only the number of children still at home is disclosed—three—while the total number of her children is unspecified. Emiko also has grandchildren small enough to need babysitting, which she claims to spend much of her time doing instead of writing poetry. She is alone, handling this “brood” without her husband, who is now dead.
Emiko’s family appears to be a handful. In various places in the story she portrays the management of her family as a huge job, one that sounds as if it almost drowns her.”It was always something— dentist, doctor, marijuana, living together without marriage, distressing report cards, flu.” Somehow, even on the small amount of money her husband has left her, she copes with the disastrous and the routine. Later in the story she blames a late response to one of Alden’s letters on “wallowing in the mire of modern life.” And when she is in Seattle for a wedding and calls her family, she reports that “she got the impression that the kids didn’t care if she ever got back,” again diminishing her role. But years later, she discovers that in her absence her daughters fought bitterly, one dragging the other around the house by her hair. Obviously, Emiko provides the stability this family needs in the face of modern pressures.
But Emiko does not serve as a mother only to her immediate family. The story’s main plot revolves around how she mothers the young Eskimo prisoner Alden in a long-distance fashion. He is far away from his native land, in a midwestern federal penitentiary, without a real home. Emiko’s treatment of Alden, through her letters, gives him a home, a place he can come to, to brag, to share, to express fear and anger. True, she never actually meets him, but her mothering instinct clicks on almost instantly after she receives Alden’s first letter, noting that he is “young enough to be one of her children.” At first she shies away from answering the letter, finding all sorts of reasons why continuing the correspondence would be a bad idea. But suddenly, “against her own better judgment,” she sends him a letter with a gentle critique of the essay he has asked her to look over. With every letter, Emiko learns something new about him, and he responds to her attentions with the exuberance of a proud child showing off his accomplishments from school.
Alden thrives under Emiko’s nurturing, at least as reported by Emiko in the story. When he first writes her, he is described as a “prisoner-patient,” receiving “massive doses of Thorazine” for depression. After a time, Emiko is happy to report that he “seemed to be an exuberant spirit,” even under the oppressive conditions in prison. She is able to congratulate him on receiving payment for a published poem, and by the end of the story he has received a grant to attend community college. In his final letter to her, he rejoices with the news that he will be transferred to a jail in Alaska, near his family. After Emiko does not hear from him for a long while, she feels what any mother would feel after doing all that she could for her child: she assumes that he is very busy and happy doing the things he enjoys.
Emiko tells the story of her relationship with Alden in an almost off-handed way; as she detracts from her experience as a poet, she also diminishes her role in Alden’s life. For example, she never directly talks about mailing him photographs of her family, but lets the information about this tender gesture slip when she mentions that Alden thanks her for the pictures in a letter. Although he requests the pictures, Emiko’s sending them opens her up as never before. It is after this that Alden asks if she is available to meet him en route during his transfer from the Midwest penitentiary to one near Seattle. But Emiko declines his first offer to meet, possibly because she knows that the reality of Alden might ruin the image she has of him. Her second attempt to see him fails, thanks to some official mix-ups, but her response is to make fun of the regulations, giving the impression that she is not terribly upset and maybe even a bit relieved.
Emiko’s family lacks men, with her husband dead and, apparently, with only daughters as children. Alden serves as the perfect son for Emiko. He shares her interest in literature and, from her retelling of his letter, works hard and stays out of trouble while he is in prison. True, it is ironic that”the good son” should be in prison, but Emiko studiously avoids thinking too much about why Alden might be serving time. When she does consider this fact, she decides to envision him as a forger, because a favorite neighbor was a forger, and then she launches into a small soliloquy outlining her discomfort with the idea of imprisonment. Her ambivalence comes, in part, from her own experiences at a World War II internment camp for Japanese Americans, but there is a naive quality to her eventual admission that “there must be some system to temporarily segregate those who persisted in preying on others.” It is almost as though she wishes to protect Alden, as she would a son, from the harshness of real punishment.
Emiko also mothers another minor but critical character in the story, her neighbor who, years ago, was imprisoned for forgery, and of whom Alden reminds her. The way she ministered to her neighbor was very tender and maternal. Twice he asked her to remove splinters from his hand, and both times “he had begun whimpering and cringing” when she approached with the sterilized needle. At first, she thought he was joking but then saw that his tears were real.”He was one of the innocents of the world,” remembers Emiko,”living about a foot off the ground.” Part of Emiko’s persona for Alden is derived from this sensitive neighbor who, like Alden, was both an artist and a felon.
Yamamoto has created a character who,”against her own better judgment,” makes a connection with someone very different from herself, thanks to the power of her maternal instincts. Her strength and power come from her role as a mother in her family, and this is extended beyond the bounds of her own home and into the lives of others. Emiko tries to downplay her matriarchal position and importance, just as she attempts to reduce her role as a poet, but the lesson of her experience with Alden shows that this is impossible; she can say all she wants about merely being ”an aging Nisei widow” but the proof is in her actions.
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Hisaye Yamamoto – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on “The Eskimo Connection,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.