Janice Mirikitani, poet and crusader for people in need, dies at 80

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Janice Mirikitani, poet and crusader for people in need, dies at 80
Janice Mirikitani was a former poet laureate of San Francisco.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Janice Mirikitani, a vibrant former poet laureate of San Francisco who spent time as a child in an internment camp for people of Japanese ancestry during World War II, then worked most of her life aiding people in need, died July 29 in a hospital in San Francisco. She was 80.

The cause was cancer, said Karen Hanrahan, the president of Glide, the nonprofit organization that Mirikitani and her husband, the Rev. Cecil Williams, ran and helped build.

Mirikitani spent nearly 60 years with Glide and was its founding president, leading its evolution from a church to a citadel of social services and justice that aids the indigent and hungry, abused women, and people with substance abuse, legal, family and medical problems.

“Jan Mirikitani was one of our city’s true lights,” Mayor London Breed of San Francisco said in a statement. “She was a visionary, a revolutionary artist and the very embodiment of San Francisco’s compassionate spirit.”

Mirikitani also helped mold the organization’s values — particularly those of radical inclusivity and unconditional love — in its welcoming of anyone who walks through its doors, in the city’s gritty high-crime Tenderloin neighborhood.

One Sunday, she recalled, four people wearing swastikas on their headbands entered Glide’s church, which is still part of its operation, for its weekly service.

“They came to, I think, three services, and then the fourth time they came, they had removed their headbands and started volunteering for the meals program,” Mirikitani said in 2019, when she received an award from the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

She encouraged clients at Glide to express themselves creatively through art, telling stories and writing poetry.

Poetry, she once said, was “the language of my definition and my liberation.”

Among the subjects her poems explored was her family’s forced relocation from their chicken farm in Petaluma, California, to an internment camp in Arkansas during World War II. For long afterward her mother refused to speak about the three years they were imprisoned behind barbed wire, without having committed a crime, because of their Japanese heritage. She and her parents were born in the United States.

In 1981, Mirikitani’s mother decided to speak out about her internment. Her testimony to the federal government’s Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians “was a vat of boiling water surging through the coldest blue vein,” Mirikitani wrote in her poem “Breaking Silence,” which also includes these lines:

We were made to believe our faces

betrayed us.

Our bodies were loud

with yellow screaming flesh

needing to be silenced

behind barbed wire.

Janice Hatsuko Mirikitani was born on Feb. 5, 1941, in Stockton, California, to Ted and Bell Ann Shigemi (Yonehiro) Mirikitani. Her parents worked on their family-owned farm. She was a year old when her family was sent first to a relocation center in Stockton and then to another in McGehee, Arkansas.

After three years in Arkansas, the family was released in September 1945, and in Chicago, her parents got divorced. She and her mother then returned to the family farm in Petaluma.

Between the ages of 5 and 16, she later recalled, she was sexually abused by her stepfather. The abuse stopped, she said, only after she and her mother moved to a suburb of Los Angeles. The experience later informed her work at Glide.

“I came to poetry at 8,” she said in 2000. “I wrote to save my own life, to control on the page the chaos that I felt in my own life.”

She added, “It was a long time before I could talk about the childhood abuse.”

She graduated from UCLA in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree and received teaching credentials at the University of California, Berkeley. She taught physical education at a high school in Contra Costa, California, for a year, then studied for a master’s degree in creative writing at San Francisco State College (now University).

In 1965, Mirikitani took a temporary job at Glide as a typist, assigned to transcribe people’s stories of being beaten by police in the Tenderloin. Glide had begun a program that investigated allegations of police intimidation and brutality against people of color and gay people.

“Part of my surprise when I put on the headphones was that I often recognized myself in the stories that went through my typewriter,” she said in the book “Beyond the Possible: 50 Years of Creating Radical Change in a Community Called Glide” (2013), which she wrote with her husband. “I was a powerless Asian American woman who lived on the edge.”

She stayed at Glide and became its program director and then its president in the early 1983, a position she held for 24 years.

“She was strong-willed, fearless, complex and troubled,” Hanrahan of Glide said by phone. “Everything she did was about fighting for people who were marginalized.”

All the while, Mirikitani was writing poetry that Maya Angelou and others have cited as an influence. Her collections include “Awake in the River” (1978), “Shedding Silence” (1987) and “Love Works” (2003).

Reviewing “Shedding Silence” in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, poet Charles Guenther wrote, “Seldom is such intensity of sorrow, pity, rage, envy, love, and regret expressed in such controlled terms, without distracting expletives. Mirikitani sings strong, element truths.”

In 2000, Mirikitani succeeded Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died this year, as the poet laureate of San Francisco.

“Poetry has been the language of my definition and my liberation,” she said in 2000 at the San Francisco Public Library as she began her two-year term as poet laureate. “Poetry is timeless, reaching through generations, across continents, to my great ancestors, buried in the ashes of Hiroshima, and my grandmother in the Amache internment camp.”

In addition to her husband, she is survived by a daughter, Tianne Tsukiko Feliciano; a stepdaughter, Kimberly Williams; a stepson, Albert Williams Jr.; a grandson; three step-grandchildren; and a brother, Layne Yonehiro.

In her poem “Yes, We Are Not Invisible,” Mirikitani wrote about the dehumanizing impact of stereotypes.

“No, I’m not from Tokyo, Singapore or Saigon.

No, your dogs are safe with me.

No, I don’t invade the park for squirrel meat.

No, my peripheral vision is fine.

No, I’m very bad at math.

No, I do not answer to Geisha Girl, China Doll, Suzie Wong,

mamasan, or gook, or Jap or chink.

No, to us life is not cheap.”

Stereotypes, she said, persisted in her life, no matter how successful she was.

“People presume I’m great at math, or that because my husband is African American he must be my chauffeur, or I must be a caterer or florist,” she told The Record, the faculty and staff newsletter of Washington University in St. Louis, in 2017. “I’m a poet laureate, and people ask me where I learned to speak English so well, assuming that because I’m Asian I must be an immigrant.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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