Born in Tokyo as , Yamada's father's job required her family to move all over Japan. This transient lifestyle forced her to confront issues of separation and bullying, issues that many of her protagonists also deal with.
According to her interview with the Japanese magazine Bungei, during middle school she was moved by African-American soul music and began to read any novels she could find written by black people, or featuring black people. She held a job in the Roppongi district of Tokyo, an area rich with foreigners.
After graduating high school in 1977, she entered Meiji University's Literature department, but dropped out before graduating. After a short stint writing manga, she began writing novels in 1980. Though her works garnered some attention, even receiving praise from Japanese literary critic , she only achieved widespread recognition in 1985, when Bedtime Eyes won the Bungei Prize. In writing Bedtime Eyes, Yamada drew upon her experiences with black people and black culture and combined them with the Japanese literary tradition.
In 1996, "Trash" was published in English translation by Kodansha International (translator: Sonya L. Johnson). In May 2006, three of Yamada's novellas (Bedtime Eyes 「ベッドタイム･アイズ」, The Piano Player's Fingers 「指の戯れ」 and Jesse 「ジェシーの背骨」) were published in English translation (translators: Yumi Gunji and Marc Jardine) as a single volume by St Martin's Press under the collective title "Bedtime Eyes.
In Yamada's second collection of works, Jesse's Spine, Yamada depicts the experiences of a woman who is learning to adjust to life with her lover's child from another relationship. The writing style of this work has been compared to William Saroyan's novel, Papa You're Crazy. Through her depiction of the child's perspective on the world, her book was a critical success, earning her a nomination for the prize for new authors. In her short novels, Classroom for the Abandoned Dead, Afterschool Music, and I Can't Study, Yamada tackles the topics of childhood life, bullying, and school life. In an interview with Bungei Shunjū upon winning the prize, named Yamada's Afterschool Music as one of their major influences, explaining that her works were one of the greatest depictions of modern Japan.
Bibliography of Major Works