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Janice Mirikitani

Name Janice Mirikitani
Born 1941
Died July 29 2021
Birth Location Stockton, CA
Generational Identifier

Sansei

Award-winning poet, dancer, activist and educator Janice Mirikitani (1942–2021) was internationally known and respected for her life-long commitment to addressing the horrors of war and for advocating against institutional racism and the enslavement of women and the poor. She was the author of four collections of poetry and editor of numerous literary anthologies. From 2000-02, she was appointed to serve as the Poet Laureate of the city of San Francisco.

Born in Stockton, California to Nisei poultry farmers, Mirikitani was incarcerated as an infant with her family in the Rohwer concentration camp in Arkansas during World War II. Following their release from camp, her family moved to Chicago to avoid the racism that was still rampant on the West Coast, but soon after, her parents divorced. When Mirikitani's mother re-married and relocated to rural Petaluma, the five-year-old Mirikitani was forced to endure years of emotional isolation, poverty, and the trauma of sexual abuse by her stepfather, which lasted for nearly a decade. These repressed emotions, both personal and those of the Japanese American community as a result of their wartime suffering, became the basis of her poetry in coming years.

As depicted in her own writing, the 1960s were a tumultuous time for her both personally and politically. She graduated from UCLA in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in modern dance. While at UCLA, she helped found the University's Asian sorority, Theta Kappa Phi. Mirikitani received her teaching degree from UC Berkeley and then pursued a creative writing master’s degree from San Francisco State University. Like many Sansei activists, she struggled with questions of identity and the pervasive stereotypes of Asian American women. She was married in 1966 and gave birth to a daughter in 1967, although this first marriage ended in divorce. In 1970, while pursuing her degree in creative writing at San Francisco State College, she participated in the Third World Liberation Front, joined the artist collective Third World Communications, and became the editor of Aion (1970—71), one of the earliest Asian American literary publications. In the late 1970s, she began working with artists and writers to edit AYUMI, A Japanese American Anthology (1980), a major bilingual anthology featuring four generations of Japanese American writers, poets, and graphic artists. Her first book of prose and poetry, Awake in the River , was published in 1978.

In addition to being a prolific writer, Mirikitani was the founding president of the GLIDE Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to combating systemic inequities and creating pathways for people experiencing poverty. She joined Glide Memorial Church in 1964 and was promoted to program director in 1969. After two decades of activism, she was promoted to president of the GLIDE Foundation. In 1982, she married Reverend Cecil Williams. In partnership with her husband, she developed more than eighty programs for San Francisco's poor and homeless, advocating for LGBTQ and non-binary rights, creating and supporting substance abuse and incest support groups and championing job development programs, In 1999, she founded the Janice Mirikitani Family, Youth and Childcare Center (FYCC) to address the challenges faced by the children of very low-income households, and served as its executive director.

Her dedication to community activism and advocacy received worldwide recognition; she was the recipient of more than forty awards and honors, including the Governor and First Lady's Conference on Women and Families' "Minerva Award," San Francisco State University's "Distinguished Alumnae Award," the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce's "Lifetime Achievement Ebbie Award," the prestigious American Book "Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature," and the University of California at San Francisco Chancellor's "Medal of Honor Award." In 1988, the California State Assembly named Mirikitani "Woman of the Year" in the 17th Assembly District.

She was a distant cousin of artist Tsutomu "Jimmy" Mirikitani (daughter of his cousin, Ted), who was the subject of an award-winning documentary film, The Cats of Mirikitani (2006).

Janice Mirikitani's published books include: Awake in the River (1978); Shedding Silence (1987); We, the Dangerous (1995); and Love Works (2002). In 2014, she released a fifth collection of poems entitled Out of the Dust: New and Selected Poems through the University of Hawai'i Press. Thematically, it examines the layers of tragedy surrounding the bombing of the World Trade Center, the U.S. war in Afghanistan, and the many levels of reactive racial profiling of Muslims and Arab Americans and draws connections between the experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Mirikitani died in San Francisco, California on July 29, 2021 at age 80.

Authored by Patricia Wakida

For More Information

"Glide Church Co-Founder, Poet and San Francisco Activist Janice Mirikitani Dies at Age 80". KPIX-TV. July 29, 2021. Retrieved July 30,2021.

"Breaking Silence: Janice Mirikitani, San Francisco's New Poet Laureate", Poetry Flash, 2000.

Carabi, Angels. "Janice Mirikitani". In Truthtellers of the Times: Interviews with Contemporary Women Poets , edited by Janet Palmer Mullaney. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Cats of Mirikitani . DVD. Directed by Linda Hattendorf. New York: Arts Alliance America, 2008.

Cheung, King-kok, ed. Words Matter: Conversations with Asian American Writers . Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.

Mirikitani, Janice. Awake in the River . San Francisco: Isthmus Press, 1978.

———. Shedding Silence . Berkeley: Celestial Arts, 1987.

———. We, the Dangerous . Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1995.

———. Love Works . San Francisco: City Lights Foundation Books, 2002.

———. Interviewed by Grace Kyungwon Hong.

———. "Rebirth: Janice's Story." In No Hiding Place , edited by Cecil Williams. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.

———. Out of the Dust: New and Selected Poems . University of Hawai'i Press, 2014.

Last updated Aug. 7, 2021, 6:52 p.m..