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Fresno Stories

William Saroyan and the search for "The Japanese American Novel"

Normally, when we think about “California” cities, our minds tend to drift to popular destinations such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, or San Diego. Often absent from the list of locations noted as part of the “cultural heartland” of California are the cities and towns that dot the landscape from the Central Valley up to the San Joaquin Delta. This long network of settlements nestled within inland California is often seen as the last outpost before the East, and its endless stretches of farmland, mountains, and desert. Yet, these are truly Californian cities, with their own distinctive traditions and contributions to the history of the state. In particular, it is from these cities that some of the most talented artists, writers, and poets trace their origins.

One such overlooked cultural mecca in California’s Central Valley is Fresno. For most Americans, Fresno is known as a hub of grape production and gateway to Yosemite National Park. Nonetheless the city, along with Highway 99 that cuts through it, is an important landmark at the intersection of California and Japanese American literary culture.

This article is the first in a series that will examine the intersections of Japanese American and U.S. history and literary culture. This article will examine this intersection through the life of William Saroyan, who was one of the first Middle Eastern American writers to achieve national acclaim, as well as arguably the earliest literary figure to put Fresno on the map.

William Saroyan. Courtesy of Wikepedia Commons

The son of Armenian immigrants, Willliam Saroyan was born in Fresno in 1908. Although Saroyan would travel throughout California and across the U.S., his childhood home of Fresno served as the inspiration for several of his best-known works, such as his 1940 collection of short stories My Name is Aram, as well as his screenplay and novel The Human Comedy, which centers on the actions of a young boy in the San Joaquin Valley during World War II. The successful film version, starring Mickey Rooney, garnered Saroyan an Academy Award for Best Story in 1943. Saroyan also achieved fame for the play The Time of Your Life, which won both the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and was later transformed into a film by actor-producer James Cagney.

During his childhood in Fresno’s Armenian enclave, Saroyan encountered members of several other immigrant communities, including Japanese Americans. During his youth, Saroyan worked as a farm hand for several Japanese farmers near Fresno. In the May 12th, 1940 issue of the Kashu Mainichi, several farmers testified to having employed Saroyan when he was a young man, and characterized him as “a rather garrulous but serious young man; a young man who made a number of Japanese friends during the period of seasons of summer work.”

From the beginning of his literary career, long before he broke through into the mainstream of American literature, Saroyan forged important connections with Nisei writers. In 1933, while Saroyan was based in San Francisco and writing his first successful story, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, he lived for a time with Nisei writer Eddie Shimano.

Shimano, a budding poet and journalist, later became the editor of New World Sun, a writer for the Federal Writers’ Project, and during World War II would serve as editor for the camp newspapers at Santa Anita Assembly Center and Jerome Concentration Camp. After Shimano left San Francisco to travel around the United States, Saroyan roomed with another Nisei writer, Bob Iki, the editor of the small newspaper Sangyo Nippo.

Even after reaching stardom, Saroyan maintained contact with Japanese America through James Omura’s literary magazine Current Life. Although more famous as an outspoken critic of Executive Order 9066 and of the Japanese American Citizens League, Omura first gained attention through his work as a newspaperman. Omura’s magazine Current Life, which was founded in San Francisco in fall 1940 and ran until early 1942, featured contributions from talented writers such as Kenny Murase and Hisaye Yamamoto (the latter writing under the pen name “Napoleon”), and poets Toyo Suyemoto and Ayako Noguchi.

In two issues, Current Life featured Kenny Murase’s assessment of William Saroyan’s influence on American literature. Murase pointed to Saroyan’s humble beginnings in Fresno as an important factor in his success. In another issue from March 1941, a Sacramento writer named George Morimitsu sketched out an imagined “dialogue portraiture” of Saroyan and his early literary ventures in Fresno and San Francisco.

In April 1941, Saroyan wrote to James Omura to extend his congratulations for his magazine Current Life, and to praise the publication of Murase’s article. Omura then printed the letter in the May 1941 issue of Current Life under the headline “Saroyan Salutes Current Life.” Saroyan’s letter proclaimed the importance of the Japanese American story and its promising contributions to American literature:

“The life of the Japanese in California is rich and full of American fables that need to be told to other Americans. The others cannot tell these fables because at their source these fables belong to those who lived them; they must be written by those who lived them in order to become a part of the whole American life.”

James Omura with Carol Fumiko Okuma and William Saroyan. Courtesy of Densho Digital Repository

Saroyan, in his call for writers to chronicle the Japanese American experience, saw a potential champion in Toshio Mori. After reading Mori’s first story, “The Brother,” in the small magazine The Coast, Saroyan reached out to the fledgling writer. The two soon began a regular correspondence, and Saroyan started to champion Mori’s work to magazines and publishers. Mori published three short stories in Current Life magazine, and soon won a contract with Caxton Press to publish his first volume of stories under the title Yokohama, U.S.A. Saroyan produced a foreword for the book to help its mainstream appeal.

Courtesy of James Omura papers 1912-1995.

Although Current Life announced the forthcoming publication for Yokohama, U.S.A., Mori’s fortunes turned following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Caxton pulled out of the deal with Mori and shelved the project for the duration. Soon Mori was incarcerated at Topaz concentration camp, where he spent the war years.

In a recent article on Mori’s career, Alessandro Meregaglia notes that Saroyan remained in touch with Mori throughout his time in camp, and encouraged his friend to keep writing and to not lose hope. Four years after the end of the war, Caxton finally agreed to procced with publication of Yokohama, U.S.A. in 1949. Saroyan’s original introduction was included, along with a note describing the circumstances of the delay in bringing out the book.

Saroyan’s influence was felt outside the circle of Toshio Mori and Current Life. The Japanese American press regularly reported on Saroyan’s accomplishments, and several famous columnists took note of his achievements. The Nisei writer Mary Oyama Mittwer referred to Saroyan as an inspiration in her “Daily Letter” column of the Rafu Shimpo.

In the October 30, 1941 issue of the Rafu, Oyama cited journalist Louis Adamic’s call that the Nisei, like other ethnic/racial groups, should use literature and the arts as a means of cultivating influence within U.S. society and should thereby produce at least, “one William Saroyan, one Marian Anderson, some outstanding artist, musician, writer” in order to prove their stature. In another column around the same time, Oyama noted a friendly encounter between Saroyan and Nisei writer Charles Kikuchi at the premiere of one of Saroyan’s plays in San Francisco.

William Saroyan 1970s. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

A key aspect of Saroyan’s work that garnered praise from Japanese Americans was his focus on themes of race and identity. Others, such as Nisei journalist Larry Tajiri, praised Saroyan for not only telling beautiful stories, but also for taking pride in his Armenian heritage in his stories.

In one of his plays, The People With Light Coming Out of Them, Saroyan examines the interactions between an Armenian artist and his neighbors: an Italian family, a Japanese family, and an African American doctor. The play was eventually produced for a radio show by the Free Company of Players, a literary group led by writer James Boyd that included Saroyan, George M. Cohan, Ernest Hemingway, Archibald Macleish, and Orson Welles. Welles agreed to direct the radio production of The People With Light Coming Out of Them, and hired actor Paul Muni to voice the lead role. Because of its discussion of racism, the American Legion protested the play’s broadcast, stating the play incited animosity towards America.

Saroyan’s legacy among Japanese American writers has not gone unnoticed. In author Stan Yogi’s Highway 99, a literary anthology of Central Valley writers, Saroyan’s works ae featured alongside the likes of Sansei poet Lawson Inada, playwright Philip Kan Gotanda, and writer David Mas Masumoto.


© 2022 Jonathan van Harmelen

California Current Life Fresno James Omura Toshio Mori William Saroyan writers

About this series

This series examines the history of Nikkei in Fresno and their impact on the history of the city and California's Central Valley. In particular, this series will examine how Japanese Americans shaped the culture of theCentral Valley and the individuals who lived in it, whether through the arts, sports, or politics