Within the maelstrom of 1968, “Asian American” as a pan-ethnic political identity was conceived by UC Berkeley graduate students Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee when they formed the Asian American Political Alliance to respond to urgent questions of race that arose during the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. The turbulence of that year blazes to life within Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel, which excavates the legacy and memories around the since-decimated real-life building in San Francisco, a home for low-income Filipino and Chinese seniors and a hub for Asian American activism and art.
The epic novel’s verve, humor, and kinetic wildness are clear from its opening pages, which depict the Lunar New Year in Chinatown in 1968, the Year of the Monkey. Firecrackers are going off on Grant Avenue, one of the oldest streets in San Francisco, so loud Paul, a kid from Chinatown, can’t hear his father’s cry when he falls or his last words in the din. From the jump, the postmodern musicality of Yamashita’s language evokes highly variable moods, life, raucous, unable to be contained. We get the slanginess of its opening line: “So I’m Walter Cronkite, dig?” But we also get the poetic assonance of “spitting lights glittering.” Later, when the first of the 10 novellas that make up the book closes, we receive an incredibly beautiful direct address: “Whip me up some frothy tea from boiled rainwater and tell me about all the women you have ever loved, all the serenading and sweet-talking, all the tender tunes you played.”
After zooming in on the father and son’s last words to each other, Yamashita’s narration telescopes out. Not only is the boy orphaned, the narrator states, but we all are, since Martin Luther King Jr. will be assassinated in a few months, and then Robert Kennedy shortly thereafter. The death of a father, in other words, is not only literal, but also deeply symbolic: the death of moral authorities who were calling for the end of the Vietnam War. This symbolism is complicated not only by conflicts between ethnic groups over political strategies while coalition-building, but also by age-old personal dramas. After Paul falls in with his father’s friend, a bourgeois intellectual teacher at San Francisco State named Chen, at his father’s funeral, Paul becomes an activist who seeks Chen’s approval and hopes to know his father through him.
In the novel, Yamashita dramatizes the transnational character of fights for liberation, social justice, and equality by both juxtaposing and collaging events: “On the Tet, boys back in Vietnam about to be orphaned too.” I Hotel progresses in a postmodern, assemblagist mode, with characters bound up in one another’s survival even if they don’t cross paths within the book’s pages. Pan-ethnic solidarity was a radical concept for Asian immigrants in 1968, and similar questions of common interests and who has the authority to speak for an extremely heterogeneous group have returned again and again in the real-life decades since.
In a candid 2018 conversation between Yamashita and Viet Thanh Nguyen, the author of The Sympathizer, on the Freight & Salvage stage during the Bay Area Book Festival, an audience member asked what the I Hotel would look like if it were still here today, elaborating, “How has Asian American activism changed? How have you seen it changed, at least?”
Focusing on student activism and academia, Yamashita answered that Asian American studies as an academic department has, in many places, struggled to secure funding, set off, as it is, against also meagerly funded ethnic studies departments, which encompass even more divergent groups. She noted,
“The other thing that had happened, I think, with Asian American studies is that it became balkanized, whereas in the ’60s and the ’70s, there were so few Asians on any campuses that they had to create a group that…was…Asian American in solidarity. Now, what you see on campuses, the Chinese Americans over there, the Taiwanese. I mean, even the Chinese are all split up, mainland Chinese, Hong Kong Chinese. The Japanese Americans are probably very small. There’s a Filipino group, the Korean group. They’re all separate and balkanized. If you want something to happen, you got to come together. You just do.”
Structured as a fairy tale, or perhaps as a parable, the second chapter of I Hotel expressly notes the disparities between funding for education for white students and for students of color and the fight for the creation of ethnic studies departments at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State. In subsequent decades, Nguyen pointed out in the conversation, these financially hobbled departments would nonetheless develop students’ language for their experiences of marginalization, a language of solidarity.
“What kind of language we speak largely determines the kinds of thoughts we have,” claims the president of San Francisco State in the book, restating the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. And sure enough, it’s in Yamashita’s brilliant marshaling of the fresh, rowdy, rejuvenating, hopeful language of the civil rights era, with its insistence on self-determination and liberation and its global reverberations, that bequeaths transformative power to this earthquake of an epic.•
Join us on March 17 at 5 p.m., when Yamashita will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. As you read, please visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss I Hotel with your fellow California Book Club members. We hope you enjoy this novel!
WHY READ THIS
LEXICON OF THE BODY
Read a recap of our February CBC gathering with Natalie Diaz and John Freeman or watch a video of the whole thing. —Alta
LAUNCH OF A PRIZE
USC Dornsife, Kenyon College, and the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Foundation announced a new $20,000 literary prize, for outstanding midcareer writers: the Chowdhury Prize in Literature. Its first winner is short story writer Christos Ikonomou. —Los Angeles Times
AUTHENTICITY IN CRIME NOVELS
Novelist Michael McGarrity, who previously worked for the New Mexico Corrections Department, speaks about the importance of experience when writing police procedurals. —Santa Fe New Mexican
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