I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita
Comprising 10 novellas that took 10 years to craft, this is Yamashita’s (Circle K Cycles) magnum opus. Year by year, the novellas mark a decade’s worth of tumultuous Asian Pacific American (APA) history, from 1968, when ethnic studies was painfully birthed in San Francisco, to 1977, when San Francisco’s I-Hotel—long a pivotal symbol of APA activism—fell to demolition crews.
At first reading, this work is a sprawling narrative filled with multiple perspectives about California’s Asian Americans. But dig just slightly deeper, and it proves to be a magnificent, gripping exercise in distinguishing the fake from the real: S.I. Hayakawa was indeed San Francisco State University’s acting president in 1968, while Mo Akagi is a composite for activists Richard Aoki and Mo Nishida. Yamashita even directly (shockingly, hysterically!) addresses the legendary “fake vs. real” debate still agitating Asian American literary circles, with side-by-side cartoon drawings of opposing APA icons Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin.
Verdict: Even without any background in APA history, readers will find Yamashita’s tome intriguing. Complementary texts that might intensify an already superb literary experience include Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Chin (together with Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong) Aiiieeeee! and The Big Aiiieeeee!, Estella Habal’s San Francisco’s International Hotel, and David Henry Hwang’s play script Yellow Face.