In I Hotel, which Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “the great Asian American novel, with Asian in parentheses,” Karen Tei Yamashita crafts an idiosyncratic and evocative experimental collage, its form emerging from what she describes as “an artistic renaissance among a new generation who explored the freedom to be creative” in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. She captures earth-shaking political shifts, like the Vietnam War and political assassinations, with as much detail as she does intimate fleeting moments, like the night poet Al Robles missed his City Lights book launch and friends read for him. “Al told me that he took an old manong to fish in the Delta, that they caught sturgeon, and he just forgot,” Yamashita explains to me.
The California Book Club selection for March is elegiac yet vividly alive in the moment. “And in time we may remember, collecting every little memory, all the bits and pieces, into a larger memory,” Yamashita writes, “rebuilding a great layered and labyrinthine, now imagined, international hotel of many rooms, the urban experiment of a homeless community built to house the needs of temporary lives. And for what? To resist death and dementia. To haunt a disappearing landscape. To forever embed this geography with our visions and voices.”
Yamashita joins the California Book Club on Thursday, March 17 at 5 p.m. Pacific time.
Our email conversation, which has been edited for clarity, focused on her inspiration, research, and intention.
I Hotel covers 10 politically tumultuous years in San Francisco, from 1968 through 1977. How did you decide to structure the narrative as 10 “hotels,” or novellas, with the International Hotel at the center?
It’s difficult to remember, but at some point, I could see that the I Hotel could be the connecting center to events and people. The life of activism within the hotel itself was a microcosm of the larger political foment of the times—war, race, housing, all located centrally in the Bay Area between Cal Berkeley and SF State and at the crossroads of Chinatown, Manilatown, and North Beach.
I knew the story would end in August 1977 with the eviction of the tenants from the hotel, and 1968 was a significant year, beginning with the Tet offensive by the Vietcong, moving on to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the end of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, and on to the riotous Democratic Convention. When I plotted out the 10 years, it just seemed to work.
There are as many storytellers in your novel as there would be in a thorough oral history, plus choruses of generational voices. How broad was your range of research, and how did you narrow it down?
The range of research was certainly broad, but in the beginning, I had no idea how broad it would become. I had a very limited idea about the Asian American movement, as if it were a collective of young college students like myself who became politicized. But it was much more, a complicated fabric of diverse immigrant histories, political affinities, and global connections. The “international” of the International Hotel took on, for me, a new meaning. I could not describe what happened on the streets of San Francisco without also understanding events in China, Southeast Asia, Japan, South and Central America, Africa, Europe. The entire world was in movement.
If you peruse the hotel boxes, you might understand the constraints I created to narrow the focus. Each hotel, or novella, is set in a particular year, in a particular local space (Chinatown, Manilatown, Japantown), with geographic reach to an originating country, told in a constructed narrative genre through the lives of three characters.
Did you consciously regard I Hotel as a project of collective memory for Asian Americans? If so, how do you think that project figures into contemporary concerns of Asian Americans, particularly in a transformed Bay Area?
The last novella is a series of “we” narratives; in each chapter, the “we” shifts. The final section is the collective of 5,000 protesters surrounding the hotel, several human rows deep, arms locked, facing off the police, horses, and batons. However, in one of the previous chapters, the collective “we” are recent immigrants and refugees, undocumented, who work in the back kitchens of Chinatown; these were the people who ran from political strife, war, genocide, who found refuge in the crevices, and who will swell in numbers and become the majority, the new Asian Americans for whom the term was meaningless. They were the folks that the movement at the time did not anticipate. And yet, the organizations and institutions—legal assistance, healthcare, libraries, educational and academic associations, film collectives—that were created in those years have remained to support these newcomers.
Collective memories shift. New writers—Vietnamese, Hmong, Cambodian, South Asian, Tibetan—have emerged to tell those stories. Asian Americans are not a monolithic group; they are splintered and various, of many diverse origins, religious and political positions, economic stratums. Collective memories overlap and shift; we are not all the same. And yet, for all of us, some things don’t change: no matter how long you might live in America and dedicate your work to making it home, you may be seen as a perpetual foreigner.
Asians have been targets of hate, mindless racism. This is current news but also old news. This period in the 1960s and 1970s, when Asian Americans became Asian Americans, was a vibrant and tumultuous beginning. What it means for the present, I’m not sure, except to say we’ve been there and done that, made those mistakes, achieved this much, had these hopes and dreams.•
On March 17 at 5 p.m., Yamashita will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman. Meanwhile, take a moment to visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss I Hotel with your fellow California Book Club members.