Why You Should Read This: ‘I Hotel’

Karen Tei Yamashita’s Great American Novel is the California Book Club’s March selection.

i hotel, karen tei yamashita
Coffee House Press

If I believed in the Great American Novel, I might put forth Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel as a candidate. In this masterpiece of fragmentation—a vast and sprawling edifice of a book, a mash-up of history and fiction in the form of 10 linked narratives—Yamashita evokes the Asian American civil rights movement that burgeoned in the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1960s and 1970s and revolved around the International Hotel, on San Francisco’s Kearny Street. That’s a fascinating cultural-reclamation project, but Yamashita is no sociologist. Rather, she is interested in exploring, through a grab bag of stories, citations, parodies, and appropriations, a kind of diaspora of 20th-century Asian American life.

To achieve this, Yamashita eschews the notion of a traditional narrative arc—and even, at times, of narrative itself. The book comes to us as a series of architectural interventions, which seems only fitting, given the hotel, long since demolished, at its heart. Each of I Hotel’s 10 narratives (or novellas, as the author refers to them) begins with the image of a flattened box; these are the literal building blocks of the work. As Yamashita explained in 2010, “The whole book started out with the boxes [that graphically represent and mark the beginning of each novella]. I started to think about the hotel as architecture with rooms…. As I began to configure the work, I also knew, because of the endless material researched, that I needed a structure to limit myself. Thus the division of the novel into ten novellas.”

This article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

What Yamashita is addressing is the conditionality and the limitations of naturalistic fiction. She seeks to portray not any one character or circumstance but a chorus, or perhaps a cacophony. I Hotel unfolds over 10 years, one for each novella, from 1968 to 1977, and it engages myth as much as history. It incorporates a variety of signifiers: the 1968 anti-racist protests at San Francisco State, the occupation of Alcatraz, the Black Panthers, the World War II internment camps. If the book has an antecedent, it may be John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, with its impressionistic “newsreel” passages and dozens of characters who do not always, or often, intersect. Unlike Dos Passos, though, Yamashita has little interest in documentation. Rather, she approaches fiction as fable, framing the world as a jumping-off point for a series of conflations, like the random overlapping interactions one might have at a hotel.

It’s exhilarating, dizzying, the novel as immersive experience. But even more, it allows Yamashita to stake a claim. “Honey,” she writes in the novella Aiiieeeee! Hotel—the title refers to the groundbreaking anthology of Asian American literature edited by Frank Chin and others, and the voice is inspired by (and also satirizes) Maxine Hong Kingston—“there are inlaws and there are outlaws. I will always be an outlaw.” There may be no assessment more accurate of what a great novel, and a great novelist, can do.•

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David L Ulin is Alta Journal’s books editor.
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