Author Interview: Karen Tei Yamashita
For the last two months or so, Karen Tei Yamashita will not get out of my life. And I say that with a goofy-grinned “wahhh” of delighted surprise. While I’ve been an ardent admirer of Yamashita’s books for some 20 years (yup, I have all her titles: Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, Brazil-Maru, Tropic of Orange, Circle K Cycles, and I Hotel just out in May), only in the last two months have our paths continued to criss-cross over and over again, literally and in livetime.
Let me count the ways. During one of my busiest weeks this spring, Yamashita’s latest, I Hotel, arrived on my doorstep from my Library Journal editor with about six days to file a review. At 640 pages, I gasped at what lay ahead of me, but had to smile at the irony that I would be meeting Yamashita that very weekend – she was headed to Washington, DC, for a literary double-header.
I had to remain impartial to be able to review her book – I alerted my editor as to the imminent meeting and she was fine – and the six days dropped to four. For all its density, I Hotel was a stunning read. Comprised of 10 novellas that took 10 years to craft, I Hotel is Yamashita’s magnum opus. Each novella marks the most tumultuous years of Asian Pacific American history, from 1968, when ethnic studies was painfully birthed in San Francisco, to 1977, when San Francisco’s International Hotel – long a pivotal symbol of APA activism – fell to demolition crews.
I filed my starred review, and gleefully went to meet Yamashita with a clear (and giddy) conscience. That weekend in March, I got my first-ever Yamashita livetime dose, initially as part of the lucky audience during a symposium featuring eight notable Asian Pacific American writers in celebration of the literary debut of The Asian American Literary Review (AALR). Then on Sunday, I joined the limelight (albeit from a distance) as I moderated a panel of seven of the eight writers (one ran off to continue his book tour) during the inaugural Amnesty International Human Rights Art Festival.
Here’s what was so mind-boggling and phenomenal about that panel: every one of Yamashita’s cohorts were somehow contained in Yamashita’s I Hotel:
- Poet Srikanth Reddy read “Fundamentals of Esperanto,” a poem from his collection, Facts for Visitors – Vasily Eroshenko, a proponent of Esperanto, takes a bow in I Hotel.
- April Kyoko Heck read “The Bells,” a poem from her as-yet unpublished collection, A Shelter of Leaves, about her mother who was in utero – “in utero, did my mother stir?” – and miraculously survived the Hiroshima atom bomb. In I Hotel, a young Japanese American artist travels through Hiroshima and returns with devastating illegal footage of bomb survivors.
- Novelist Peter Bacho’s literary obsessions – boxing, 1968, anti-war movements – are all scattered throughout I Hotel.
- Memoirist/novelist Kyoko Mori chose to share a passage from Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior – the legendary Hong Kingston appears right next to her archnemesis Frank Chin in a series of hilarious cartoons smack in the middle of I Hotel.
- Sonya Chung’s photographer protagonist, who captures images of death and destruction in her debut novel Long for This World, is echoed in one of Yamashita’s characters, an artist who recorded the devastation of the Japanese American prison camps in charcoal and watercolor.
- And Ru Freeman, debut novelist of A Disobedient Girl, the newest Asian American in the group, asked when buying I Hotel, “Will I understand it without knowing all the Asian American history?” to which the answer would be a resounding YES. I Hotel is now her history as well.
Indeed, the breadth of I Hotel is a historical achievement. Mere words, but such truth. No matter who you are, you cannot read this book without recognizing its contents, both small and large.
So since that fateful weekend, I seem to be constantly revisiting Yamashita’s book. I’ve also had lots of excuses to be in regular touch with Yamashita. During our last conversation, she was getting ready to head over the hill on Highway 17 to join the Asian American Curriculum Project’s APA Heritage Month celebration. Yes, the AACP and its founder Florence Hongo, in case you had any doubt, appear in I Hotel.
If I had a brick for every time I said to myself, “oh, that’s in Karen’s book,” I’d have built an APA museum on the National Mall by now! But that’s another story… [... click here for more]
Photo credit: “Karen Tei Yamashita on the roof of the re-enacted International Hotel in San Francisco,” by Mary Uyematsu Kao