Photo from 2007 NEA National Heritage Fellow announcement, photograph by Michael G. Stewart
Japanese American, Literature, Activism, Ethnography
Violet Kazue de Cristoforo
Violet Kazue de Cristoforo was a 2007 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow, recognized as a writer, translator, and editor of poetry, specifically the Japanese forms of haiku and tanka. She used poetry to cope with the traumas she endured as a consequence of her World War II incarceration and deportation by the U.S. government. She also documented the pre-war haiku clubs located in California’s Central Valley, preserving a record of a once flourishing Japanese American cultural practice.
Born Kazue Yamane in Hawai`i in 1917, de Cristoforo was educated in Japan and the US, completing high school in Fresno, California. She and her first husband, Shigeru Matsuda, ran a Japanese-language book shop in Fresno and were active in the Kaiko School of Haiku, which specialized in a modernist, free-form style. Poetry clubs were ubiquitous in Japanese immigrant communities, offering competition, camaraderie, and a creative outlet for people who were agricultural workers, gardeners, teachers, housewives who used the succinct genre to reflect on their lives and environment. Most of this poetry was destroyed due to the stigmatization of Japanese culture after the US entered World War II.
During the war, Matsuda, her husband, and three children were incarcerated at camps in Arkansas and Northeastern California, before being deported to Japan. Both of her parents were killed in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In 1956, she returned to California after marrying her second husband, Wilfred H. de Cristoforo, a US army officer stationed in Japan.
In 1984, de Cristoforo self-published Poetic Reflections of the Tule Lake Internment Camp, 1944, a collection of haiku she had penned during the war. Over nearly fifty years, she also painstakingly collected and translated extant camp haiku written by the Delta Ginsha and Valley Gisha Haiku Kai club members and published them in May Sky (1997). May Sky compiles 300 haiku and tanka written by members of these two California clubs, showing the continuity of this cultural practice from its pre-war context to its reorganization in the camps behind barbed wire, where it became “a poetry of resistance to the inhumanity of war.”
De Cristoforo also participated in witness testimonies for Japanese American redress and reparations in the 1980s, brought Japanese American WWII history to public attention through advocacy, cultural preservation, and poetry and criticized the anthropologists who had done fieldwork among incarcerated Japanese Americans. Her criticism, while not without controversy, is a reminder of the enormous responsibility entailed in ethnology and ethnography and a testament to the impact of such work on the people who are studied and their agency to talk back and represent themselves.
Among her publications relevant to folklore studies are:
Poetic Reflections of the Tule Lake Internment Camp (1944/1987)
May Sky: There Is Always Tomorrow; An Anthology of Japanese American Concentration Camp Kaiko Haiku (1997)