Poetry, she once said, was “the language of my definition and my liberation.”
One of the topics 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. Her mother long afterwards refused to talk about the three years they were imprisoned behind barbed wire, without committing a crime, because of their Japanese heritage. She and her parents were born in the United States.
In 1981, Mrs. Mirikitani’s mother decided to speak out about her internment. Her testimony before the Federal Government’s Commission on the Displacement and Internment of Civilians in Wartime “was a vessel of boiling water flowing through the coldest blue vein,” wrote Ms. Mirikitani in her poem “Breaking Silence,” which also contains these lines. :
We had to believe our faces
Our bodies were loud
with yellow screaming flesh
should be silenced
behind barbed wire.
Janice Hatsuko Mirikitani was born on February 5, 1941 in Stockton, California, to Ted and Bell Ann Shigemi (Yonehiro) Mirikitani. Her parents worked on their family business. She was one year old when her family was sent first to a relocation center in Stockton and then to another in McGehee, Ark.
After three years in Arkansas, the family was released in September 1945, and her parents divorced in Chicago. 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 up with poetry at the age of 8,” she said in 2000. “I wrote to save my own life, to control on the page the chaos I felt in my own life.”
She added: “It took me a long time to talk about the child abuse.”
She graduated from UCLA in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree and received teaching degrees from the University of California, Berkeley. She taught physical education for a year at a high school in Contra Costa, California, then studied for a master’s degree in creative writing at San Francisco State College (now university).