May Sky: Violet de Cristoforo (1917-2007)

VIOLET KAZUE DE CRISTOFORO She and her family were detained at camps in California and Arkansas. Her experiences there inspired her to write poems, for which she recently was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts.

I am sad to report that dear Violet de Cristoforo has died, at the wonderful ripe age of 90. Her death comes merely two weeks after she had returned from Washington D.C., where she was nationally recognized for her influence and artistic contributions to haiku, in particular the work she has written, translated and anthologized from the Japanese American internment camps of World War II. Prominent obituaries have appeared in the SF Chronicle, the Hokubei Mainichi, and the LA TImes (which I have copied and reposted in its entirety below). I was also surprised to receive an email last week from Valley Public Radio in Fresno asking for people to interview who knew Violet when she was a Fresnan.

As it turns out, on a very recent trip home to Fresno (where I was attending another funeral, a service for my uncle, John M. Wakida) Violet's name was mentioned several times by my extended family members and others. Clearly, Violet was to be remembered. My aunt Julie Nakagawa said that Violet used to visit Fresno monthly to see friends, and recalls her as "strong- she had lived a hard life." But her poetry will be with us.

My thanks to Bessie Chin, J.K. Yamamoto, and Stan Yogi for all writing to tell me about Violet's passing.

Violet de Cristoforo, 90; California haiku poet survived WWII internment camps

By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Violet Kazue de Cristoforo, a California poet and scholar who wrote, collected and translated haiku that compressed into a few lines the heartaches and realities of the detention camps where thousands of Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II, died Wednesday at her home in Salinas. She was 90.

De Cristoforo died two weeks after returning from Washington, D.C., where she was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts with a National Heritage Fellowship award for achievement in traditional and folk arts. She died of complications from a stroke, said her daughter, Kimi de Cristoforo of Santa Rosa.

A native of Hawaii who grew up in Fresno, De Cristoforo was one of about 110,000 Japanese Americans who were sent to 10 camps in seven states after the bombing of Pearl Harbor cast suspicion on people of Japanese heritage.

De Cristoforo, who ran a Japanese-language bookstore in Fresno with her husband, had two young children and was expecting a third. She still was weak from an operation to remove a tumor when an executive order was imposed on Feb.19, 1942, authorizing the military to remove any citizen from a broad swath of the West Coast who might be a threat to national security.

By April of 1942, she and her family were living in 110-degree heat in a tar-paper shack at the Fresno Assembly Center, formerly a horse track.

She gave birth to her third child over an orange crate and two weeks later was on a dilapidated train with a sick baby to another camp in Jerome, Ark.

At Jerome, her husband, Shigeru Matsuda, and his parents decided that because they were forced to leave behind everything of value in Fresno they would return to Japan, where they still held some property. When it came time to fill out a loyalty questionnaire, De Cristoforo followed her husband's advice. "My husband had told me, 'Don't answer this. . . . Don't trust the government. Don't trust anybody. Just say you're seeking repatriation with my family.' And that is the only thing that I wrote. I did not answer yes or no to the questionnaire," she said in "And Justice For All," a 1999 oral history of Japanese-American internees by John Tateishi.

From Jerome they were sent to the Tule Lake Relocation Center, a high-security camp built on old lava beds in Northern California, near the Oregon border, where Japanese internees who had refused to sign the loyalty oath were imprisoned.

Her husband and her brother were arrested after they joined a committee to investigate food shortages at the camp. Her brother was thrown into the stockade, and her husband was sent to a camp in Santa Fe, N.M. De Cristoforo remained at Tule Lake for the duration of the war with her three young children, a sick mother-in-law and a father-in-law who went mad with grief after his wife's death from cancer.

De Cristoforo, who had belonged to a haiku club in Fresno, wrote poems on whatever scraps of paper she could find.

"Throughout, haiku helped hold me together," she told the Salinas Californian in 1993. "It was an escape, and it let me express my feelings."

Sometimes what she expressed was simply that life went on:

Myriad insects

in the evening

my children are growing

Other times her thoughts drifted miles away to her husband, whose letters were rendered almost indecipherable by the censors' scissors:

Misty moon

as it was

on my wedding night

She also was inspired by Castle Rock Mountain, a landmark east of the camp where the Modoc Indians had made their last stand. But any thoughts of rebellion she may have had were contained, repressed, transformed:

Foolishly -- simply existing

summer days

Castle Rock is there

De Cristoforo left Tule Lake with her children in 1946. Her husband had been repatriated to Japan first, and when she arrived in March of that year she learned that he had remarried.

Seeking reunion with her mother, she took a train to Hiroshima but found only the devastation from the atomic bomb dropped eight months earlier. When she finally found her mother, after walking two days through the mountains, the older woman "looked like a monster" with severe burns and barely any hair.

De Cristoforo returned to the U.S. in 1956 after marrying Wilfred H. de Cristoforo, an Army officer who had been stationed in Japan after the war. They moved to Monterey, where he attended the Army Language School, and she went to work for the McGraw-Hill educational publishing company.

Wilfred died in 1998. De Cristoforo's survivors include two daughters, a son and two grandchildren.

Wilfred "is the one who really encouraged my mother to publish her work," daughter Kimi said in an interview Monday. Her books include "Poetic Reflections of the Tule Lake Internment Camp, 1944" (1987) and "May Sky: There Is Always Tomorrow" (1997), an anthology of free-form haiku, called kaiko, written in the camps.

According to her daughter, De Cristoforo spoke little of her wartime experiences except in her poems. She was to read one of them at the ceremony in Washington, when she was one of 12 artists honored as a National Heritage Fellow. "She was so excited about it," her daughter said. "This trip to Washington, D.C., was the culmination for her."

Already in poor health, De Cristoforo was unable to recite the poem she had chosen.

It was read instead by Norman Mineta, the former congressman and George W. Bush administration official who as a boy was incarcerated at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming.

My heart perceives nothing

day to day

summer at its peak in highland

A notation suggests that the poem was written when prisoners in the Tule Lake stockade were on a hunger strike. Her brother, who had been falsely accused of taking part in a food riot, was locked up for 10 months.

Another cruel injustice came afterward, when De Cristoforo struggled to make a living for herself and her children in Japan. She found a place to live outside of Hiroshima and worked as an interpreter, but the economy was in ruins and Japanese Americans often were not warmly received.

When De Cristoforo's oldest child, Ken, was 12, she begged friends in the U.S. to find him a home. Two years later, she sent her second child, Reiko, too. Bounced from one place to another, the children felt abandoned, and De Cristoforo, as a noncitizen, was powerless to help them. De Cristoforo spoke frankly in her oral history of their rejection of her but also tried to accentuate the positive: how she kept track of their lives, how well they turned out without her.

"I've learned to realize there are so many things in life beyond your control," she told the Salinas Californian some years ago. "Rather than being bitter or angry over it, I began to think it was a mission in my life. . . . God gave me the gift to go and come back."