Historical Nuts and Bolts: An Interview with Karen Tei Yamashita

Event: Feb 25, 2011


By Nathan C. Martin

Fifty years later, we’re still trying to piece together the phenomenon of the 60s—what elements were involved in that volatile time? And what can we learn from its triumphs and failures? The further we move from that point in history, the better our understanding of the context in which it occurred becomes, and although volumes exist dissecting its various parts, there are still essential nuts and bolts that threaten to be lost if they’re not sifted through and recorded.

Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel I Hotel attempts such sifting and recording with complete seriousness and deft artistry. The 600-page tome encompasses ten separate novellas—each representing a year between 1968 and 1977—that parse the era by following loosely conjoined fictional narratives that retell stories of Asian American activism in the San Francisco Bay area. The stories of activists and intellectuals are anchored by a physical structure, the International Hotel, which housed Asian American workers and activists during the period until its demolition by the City of San Francisco in 1977, at the book’s end. The stories follow a cast of dozens of characters, weaving in and out of each other and the hotel to form a sort of narrative rope that binds the novel together.

The historical scope of I Hotel is huge—if not for its breath than for the depth to which it plunges to dissect and retell the stories of this time. It touches upon a plethora of actual events—the student strike at San Francisco State University that resulted in the creation of ethnic studies, the Indochinese Women’s Conference, the Hemispheric Conference to End the Vietnam War, martial law in the Philippines under Marcos, the overthrow of Chilean President Salvadore Allende, the American Indian occupation of Alcatraz, the United Farm Workers strikes in California, and the struggle of Sanrizuka farm workers against displacement for the construction of the Narita International Airport in Japan, to name a few. Clearly, Yamashita explores Asian American activism outside the context of strictly Asian American concerns—they were concerns of the whole third world, and represented the issues facing the entire population of people being threatened by imperialism, global capitalism, and the rise of U.S. hegemony.

Karen Tei Yamashita is the author of five books, most recently I Hotel, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. She is an associate professor of literature at UC Santa Cruz, and will be in New Orleans this weekend as part of the Association for Asian American Studies Conference at Tulane. She will also give a reading at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 21, at Octavia Books along with R. Zamora Linmark. More information on the Octavia reading here.

I spoke with Yamashita via Skype from the Antenna gallery during the height of termite week.

Room 220: You obviously undertook an enormous amount of research to write this book. I’ve read in other interviews that you conducted countless interviews and spent hours looking through archives. But along with getting the history right, there’s also a lot of political theory referenced throughout the book. I was wondering if you also spent time revisiting Marx and Mao and Malcolm X and Ho Chi Mihn, and other people whose ideas show up in the story.

Karen Tei Yamashita: I did, I revisited all that material of the period, and I was surprised to see how boring and dry it all is. It was not easy to read. But I wanted to think about those folks who were doing study groups during this period and who were very intent on using Marx as the theorizing background for their actions, and to theorize something into practice and see what actually worked. And I didn’t understand it for the longest time. I was going back and asking activists of the period what they were thinking and why they did one thing and not another. It took a long while to figure out what their thinking might have been, and I wanted to recreate it in that way. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I tried really hard.

Rm220: The Black Panther Party and other radical African-American groups play heavily into the entire narrative, to such a degree that it seems it would be almost impossible to write a history of Asian American activism without discussing them. Do you think that’s an accurate sentiment?

KTY: I think so, and I think that’s often forgotten, that the black Civil Rights movement was absolutely behind most of the movements of color of the period. When Stokely Carmichael announces Black Power, it changes the whole tenor of student activism on the Left, in terms of folks of color. So it changes it for the Native Americans, for Asian Americans, and for Chicano Mexican Americans.

Rm220: Do you think the converse is also true? Could you write a history of black activism in San Francisco in the 60s and 70s without talking about Asian American activism?

KTY: They have!

Rm220: A well-done history?

KTY: I don’t know. Asian Americans are a group that’s always sort of sandwiched somewhere, we’re the glue. Everybody has a role to play in movements, and I think that the Asian Americans had a role to play. And there’s always been a sort of hierarchy ofwhose struggle is more significant or important. And of course African Americans were always front and forward.

Rm220: Each of the different narratives in the book occurs at a very personal level, where the reader is privy to their anxieties and memories, etc., but at the same time they’re all couched in this grand historical narrative about activism, and it’s kind of easy to forget that all these personal narratives that make up the historical narrative are being told by a single person—you, the author. What were some of the more personal parts of the book for you to write?

KTY: I’m Japanese-American, so my attachment to Japantown is a long one. My grandparents came at the turn of the 20th century and my grandfather started a grocery store on Post Street. And on the Berkeley-Oakland side of the bridge, my parents both went to Cal Berkeley, they were students there, and my father and his family immigrated to the Oakland area around 1900 and started a tailor shop. So there are deep roots for me into the San Francisco Bay Area. My cousins all went to Berkeley and were involved in the movement there. And then there’s also a story in the book that includes a woman named Alma—and I actually use her name; her name is Alma—who was a friend of my father’s. She died at about 103, and she worked with the Quakers, worked at an internment camp, but she was also a great friend of my father’s and helped the Japanese community when the Japanese returned to Oakland after the war. When the Japanese were sent to the camps, they left all their stuff in this church. And when everyone returned my father reopened the church as a hostel for many of them so they could stay there and resettle in the Oakland-Bay Area. And Alma was someone who gave up her car and things like that—she was very helpful in that period.

Rm220: You’ve published all your books with Coffee House Press, and I was wondering if you might want to discuss your particular reasons for staying with this publisher.

KTY: I haven’t really explored trying to be published somewhere else. All my books have done a kind of work with literature and narrative that I suppose didn’t appeal to editors or publishers—until later. My books have been so different, and Coffee House has published them. I published my first two books with Coffee House, and they were both very different. And then I had another book called Tropic of Orange, and at that time I thought I was going to lose my job at a television station, so I called Alan [Kornblum, Coffee House editor] and said, “I think this book has possibilities for the mainstream and I could get a big advance for it and maybe it could go to a larger house, and I really need that money if I lose this job.” And he said, “Well, go for it. It’s fine, because you deserve it.” And so I took that book out, I tried to get an agent, there was no agent who would take the book. I tried to get an editor. I found a few. One editor said, “Well, I like the book, but don’t you have something else that’s less controversial? We’ll publish that first and then I’ll slip this book in next.” I didn’t have another book in the drawer. So the book went back to Coffee House and it was published by them, and that book is their best seller. And then when you finally look at this book, I cannot think of any other publisher who would have published I Hotel—it was too large, too experimental, it had graphics. I don’t think anyone would have. I can’t see a mainstream publisher just taking me up in the same fashion as Coffee House. They would have to deal with something very different every time.

Rm220: Karen, that’s all the questions that I have for you and I’ve actually just started to be swarmed by flying termites—it’s that time of year in New Orleans. I think I maybe should retreat to a different location. But I really appreciate you talking to me and I look forward to your reading.

KTY: Oh my! Well, thank you. Thanks for asking those questions.

Rm220: I’ll be in touch!

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