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Janice Mirikitani was a gift to San Francisco. She was a poet and a dancer, an educator and an activist. Mirikitani had been a radiant fixture in the city for nearly six decades when she died of cancer on July 29. She was 80 years old.
As a third-generation Japanese American, Mirikitani’s worldview was informed by an uglier stripe of history. During World War II, she spent several years of her childhood in a Japanese American internment camp in Arkansas. She would later confront this experience in “Shedding Silence,” a collection of poetry and prose that inspired legendary poet Maya Angelou to state, “Janice Mirikitani speaks all of our truths.” Mirikitani’s follow-up collection, “We, the Dangerous,” returns to this subject matter, in addition to the implications of the Gulf War that darkened the time of its publication.
“Shedding Silence” was preceded by “Awake in the River,” Mirikitani’s first collection of poetry, published in 1978. Both collections examine the realities of being an Asian woman in America, contending with sexual violence, intergenerational trauma and racism. In addition to sharing her own work, Mirikitani extended the invitation to other female writers of color through a San Francisco-based writer’s collaborative called Third World Communications. There, she edited Aion, the first Asian American literary magazine, as well as two groundbreaking anthologies.
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“Janice was a key figure in the development of a Third-World Multicultural Literature, especially with her being part of the editorial staff that put together the first anthology by women of color, ‘Third World Women,’ and as part of the editorial staff of ‘Time to Greez! Incantations From the Third World,’” says Alejandro Murguía, San Francisco’s sixth poet laureate and founder of the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts.
Although Mirikitani’s poetry often circles her social position as an Asian American woman, it would be a mistake to reduce her poetry to mere meditation on identity politics.
“To say Janice Mirikitani had a woman’s voice, an Asian woman’s voice, is true, but diminishes her impact,” says Devorah Major, writer, professor and San Francisco’s third poet laureate. “She wrote for all through the vessel she was born into and her courage in subject matter, her willingness to look at the hard things and pull back curtains, open closet doors and shine lights in dark corners gave us all the impetus to speak to the issues that needed our voices.”
Mirikitani herself was named San Francisco’s second poet laureate in 2000. She later went on to publish two more collections of poetry, “Love Works” and “Out of the Dust: New and Selected Poems,” the latter written in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In addition to her legacy as a poet, Mirikitani is known as the “First Lady of the Tenderloin,” given her decades-long involvement with Glide Memorial Church. In 1969, Mirikitani was named program director of the historic Methodist church, helmed by the Rev. Cecil Williams, whom she later married in 1982. That same year, Mirikitani was named president of the organization, overseeing the much-needed distribution of social services in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.
“Dr. Janice Mirikatani was truly an inspiration and a force for social change and justice,” says poet and educator Maw Shein Win. “Her community activism and literary projects over the years served so many in San Francisco, especially in the Tenderloin. Mirikatani’s strong spirit and presence will not be forgotten.”
Win’s sentiment was shared by local poets, artists and activists alike in the wake of her passing. “Janice Mirikitani was a catalyzing spirit, a brilliant being, whose political commitment made her not just the architect of decades of social help to oppressed people, but also crucial to the origin stories of revolutionary artists and organizations during the Bay Area’s most radical times,” says current San Francisco poet laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin.
“She demonstrated, by her everyday behavior, what activism in art looks like,” echoes Kim Shuck, an artist and San Francisco’s seventh poet laureate. “She was grace, celebration, ferocity and commitment, and I will miss her forever.”