UC Santa Cruz Professor nominated for 2010 National Book Award
Thanks to Scott McKenzie’s soulful crooning and dreamlike lyrics, generations of people throughout the world have imagined San Francisco to be an idyllic escape from reality where carefree hippies frolic about with flowers in their hair. Natives to the city, particularly minority groups, know it differently.
In her latest novel, “I Hotel,” UC Santa Cruz professor Karen Tei Yamashita gives voice to those groups by examining the 1960s and ’70s in Northern California through the eyes of a Chinese-American poet, a Filipino-American farm worker organizer and a Japanese-Russian-American disability activist, among others.
One of five finalists nominated for a 2010 National Book Award in the Fiction category, the novel catapults the reader into a series of 10 novellas beginning with the line: “So I’m Walter Cronkite, dig? And it’s February 27,1968, and I’m saying, the U.S. is mired in a stalemate in Vietnam, and you are there.”
Therein lies the beauty of “I Hotel”—a book that will give you a senior year’s worth of history lessons, sans the boring textbook and droning teacher. Like a close friend, Yamashita guides the reader through the time period using occasional slang and hilarity as if the UC Berkeley riots and Alcatraz takeover were happening next door, with characters that could easily be your classmates.
At the heart of the book lies The International Hotel at Kearny and Jackson streets in San Francisco, where the Asian American civil rights movement ignited. When the tenants were threatened with eviction, activists fought to stop the redevelopment for a near decade, until the standoff came to a dramatic conclusion with protestors forming a human barricade around the building. Though the battle was lost, the community strengthened by putting aside their differences and uniting.
“The I Hotel was not only a real hotel and the centerpiece for my narrative storytelling, but it was also a metaphor for things going on at the same time,” says Yamashita. “A lot of activism today was built from this period when the Kent State massacre and the Vietnam War were going on—there was a great deal of optimism and disappointment.”
While Yamashita wasn’t living in San Francisco during those years—the Los Angeles native was attending Carleton College in Minnesota at the time—to say her historical account is well researched would be the understatement of the year.
“The book took me about 10 years to write and seven of those years were spent in the archives at San Francisco State University, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara and UC Santa Cruz,” says Yamashita. “I spent a lot of hours looking through microfiche.”
In the same way that her family has always been a part of the recuperation of Asian-American internment history, Yamashita spent the last decade piecing together the memories of more than 150 people who were active during the period and in many cases continue to be. While she admits that there are countless books written about the ’60s and ’70s, particularly in San Francisco, few shed light on the Asian-American experience.
“Most of the people I interviewed were at the grassroots level, working under the radar, and made sacrifices as active idealists in community efforts that their children might not even know about,” she says. “They began talking honestly to me about things they had done as if they were talking to their children. They were willing to speak about the pain and the ridiculousness; there was a lot of joy and trauma.”
One downside to the multi-narrative, multi-perspective story weave is that some of the characters naturally get lost in the flurry. Considering that Yamashita jumps between the Black Panthers, Yellow Power, the Native American movement, the United Farm Workers, nuclear war protests and rights for the disabled, it’s not hard to see why.
But in order to fully capture the chaos of the time, Yamashita felt that the 600-page story would be incomplete without coverage of the various paralleled histories, movements and war.
“I wanted to bring the period to life when many people lost their faith in political change,” says Yamashita, who is distraught by the fact that it has taken 30 to 40 years for some aspects of society to change and others to not change at all. “As I began to research, I came to realize that I had a responsibility to tell this story—the younger generation wants to hear a history and have some kind of mentorship.”
Prior to “I Hotel,” Yamashita received the American Book Award for her satiric morality play about the destruction of the Amazon, “Through the Arc of the Rain Forest,” earned a spot on the Village Voice’s list of the 25 best books of 1992 with “Brazil-Maru”—a story about a Japanese settlement in Brazil—was a finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize with “Tropic of Orange,” and wrote “Circle K Cycles,” a book about the Brazilian community in Japan.
Continuing the tradition of her earlier books, Yamashita laces satire throughout “I Hotel,” incorporates illustrations by Leland Wong and Sina Grace and experiments with several different writing forms, including poems, myth, a dance script, recipes and quotations. Half the fun is trying to figure out which character represents which historical figure.
Yamashita will join the four other nominees in the fiction category— Peter Carey (“Parrot and Olivier in America”); Jaimy Gordon (“Lord of Misrule”); Nicole Krauss (“Great House”); and Lionel Shriver (“So Much for That”)—at the 61st National Book Awards Benefit Dinner and Ceremony in New York City, Nov. 17.