Echoes of ‘I Hotel’

The concerns and difficulties of Asian American activists between 1968 and 1977 in Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel, the March selection of the California Book Club, continue to resonate in the present day.

protesters battle police at the old international hotel in 1977
San Francisco Chronicle

On March 31, 2020, I was dismissed from my position as a graduate teaching assistant at UC Santa Cruz for engaging in a strike. Eighty-two of us were. In the weeks before our collective firing, hundreds of us blocked traffic at the base of campus, arms interlinked, facing a line of cops dressed in riot gear. A helicopter employing military-grade surveillance technology spun above us. I remember the cold glint of police cruisers as I held the sweaty palm of a stranger.

That April, we left school quietly, in numbers, in the isolation of the pandemic shutdown. We had been striking for a cost-of-living adjustment to lift us out of our rent burden. My colleagues told stories of choosing between dog food and baby formula, commuting for three hours a day to cheaper outskirts of the city, a glacier of student debt accumulating over these long years. To be disposed of for arguing against the conditions of our disposability was not exactly surprising, but in that moment of recognition, it felt cruel, even heartbreaking.

It was necessary to present a unified front. Revolutionary rhetoric does not allow space for uncertainty. The structure of Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel allows for such contradictions to coexist. They unfold in its depictions of the fractured left, the Maoists gossiping about the Leninists behind closed doors. The book consists of 10 novellas, each of them focusing on a shifting, changing group of San Francisco’s Asian American intellectuals during the period from 1968 to 1977, linked by the landmark International Hotel. “I found my research was scattered, scattered across political affinities, ethnicities, artistic pursuits—difficult to coalesce into any one storyline or historic chronology,” Yamashita writes in the afterword to the first edition. “Multiple novellas allowed me to tell parallel stories, to experiment with various resonant narrative voices, and to honor the complex architecture of a time, a movement, a hotel, and its people.” I Hotel is based on interviews with over 150 artists and political organizers, and each chapter is narrated in the first-person plural, an “I” that dilates and expands until it becomes a “we.” Yamashita’s prose resounds with polyvocalism.

In order to speak through this polyvocal “I,” we had to consolidate our desires while honoring our differences, believing, like the characters in I Hotel, that “arguments were necessary to our collective struggle.” Some of us wanted reinstatement as our baseline demand. More of us wanted the abolition of the University of California police force. We devolved to fighting over Signal, accusing one another of being spies and sympathizers. I felt our internal contradictions widen, our inability to pinpoint what exactly we wanted, other than to assuage a lack we experienced as systemic and eternal.

On August 4, 1977, the police fought their way through a crowd of 3,000 protesters, invaded the International Hotel, and evicted every one of the remaining 55 tenants. The hotel was demolished two years later by the Four Seas Investment Corporation. The lot where it stood remained empty for decades while it awaited the construction of a parking garage. But I Hotel isn’t a chronicle of revolutionary failure, or not only one. Failure implies finitude. Rather, the novel presents an extensive continuum of generations cultivating a radical praxis. Yamashita writes, “When we saw the elderly tenants thrown out in the streets, maybe we saw ourselves, our own stories of struggle and sacrifice connected to their stories, and we knew that whatever our kids had been trying to do, we could agree on this one thing—the honor due to those who’ve gone before.”

In July 2020, I felt our utopian longings coalesce into a singularity. We took to the streets in that summer of insurrection, sparked by the murder of George Floyd. We met in public parks, read Luxemburg and Lukács, fell in and out of love with one another, bought burner phones, set up mutual aid networks, decided on the exigency of our survival. I thought of the tenants in I Hotel as they discussed communal childcare, the legacy of George and Jonathan Jackson, countersurveillance strategies, apocalyptic revelations, Marxist dialectics, and Kikkoman shoyu. Yamashita writes history as it occurs eternally in the present tense, holding a camera “up to the event with our hearts pounding in our fingers.”

Scholar Shawn Wong wrote that he “read the last twelve pages again and again as if an ancestor had written them.” This ancestral voice conjured by Yamashita reminds me of the origins of the term Asian American as it was first coined by Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka—a pan-ethnic coalition rooted in a past history of oppression and a present struggle for liberation. In the aftermath of revolutionary failure, I felt a deep sadness. Although “we were young and inexperienced,” I still felt “our fighting was very real, our ideas held just under the tender surface of our new skin and flared in our nostrils.” I Hotel came into my life with the power of an oracle. It contextualized and historicized our struggle. When I hold this book in my hands, I feel the reverberations of others unseen who came before me. Their glimpses percolate through the text like eels who swim in synchronous wakes without looking one another in the eye.•

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. Let us know what interests you as you read the book!

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