Reality Versus Fiction in ‘I Hotel’

In this newsletter, City Lights Bookstore principal buyer Paul Yamazaki shares his experiences of real-life incidents that were fictionalized in Karen Tei Yamashita’s masterpiece.

paul yamazaki, i hotel
Paul Yamazaki

A poet misses his reading at City Lights in the ninth novella of Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel, the March California Book Club selection. In an interview with critic Jane Ciabattari, Yamashita explained that she had based this on a real-life event in which the Filipino American poet Al Robles missed his reading to fish for sturgeon and his friends read in his stead. The novelized version describes his absence thus: “Paul, the editor, is pacing around nervously, wondering if someone’s finally killed you off for your innocence.” I wondered, as I reread this scene, whether the “Paul” in the anecdote was City Lights bookseller Paul Yamazaki, who is a fan of the novel.

I decided to ask him. He remarked by phone, “I have felt for many years I Hotel is one of the Great American Novels of the 21st century. That’s how we treat that book at City Lights—with an immense amount of respect—and we’re never out of stock of it.”

Our conversation about I Hotel, Robles, and left activism is below. It’s been edited for both length and clarity.

When I saw that incident where Paul is pacing nervously, I thought, Is that you?
So, well, it actually wasn’t. What Karen did was, she recorded and talked to many people over a long period of time. As a researcher, she has a very important oral archive of that period. What she did as a novelist was thread those stories. And so that character is named Paul, but that was not actually me. I was at that event. But that was Russell Leong.

She did that with almost all her stories; she wove our various stories over that period of time in Asian American activism in the Bay Area and created a fictional tapestry. There is no narrative thread of any of the main characters that actually matches the historical record of “That person did this, this, and that.”

Each of you knew her independently.
She did a tremendous amount of research to see who she should talk to and what questions to ask. Good research draws stories out that participants may have forgotten or been unclear on. It was one thing to witness and be interviewed by her. To see the novel come out many years later was so interesting as somebody who participated in that.

Can you tell me a little bit about Al Robles?
Al had one of the most creative and gently forceful personalities. You knew when Al walked into a room, any room, that he was there. He was also incredibly self-effacing.

His day job was that he worked with older Filipino Americans who had been migrant workers and in the latter decades of their lives were living in the I Hotel. And he oversaw a lot of the food programs and entertainment programs and oral-history stuff. He was able to make sure that they had good meals, that they were engaged on a lot of different levels. He introduced younger Asian American writers and community activists to the individuals. I Hotel was a community. He was one of the people most responsible for that and, particularly, bridging the generations.

When Yamashita was explaining the background to Ciabattari, she mentioned that Robles had forgotten about his reading.
Nobody knows for a fact whether he forgot or was avoiding it, but the fact was, he did not show up for when the reading was scheduled, and his publisher and editor, Russell Leong, was greatly anxious about the whole thing. Russell organized, on the spot, a reading of Al’s poetry by all these other poets.

Al eventually showed up after everybody had left, except for Russell and a couple other younger people. Enough time had gone by that people who had left the reading, disappointed because Al never showed up, had gone out to dinner in Chinatown but then, on the way back, looked in—and there was Al reading. As a participant, I felt so blessed to kind of have all these other poets reading Al’s work and then, eventually, magically appearing, Al reading on his own behalf.

Yamashita suggested that we ask you whether you were there on the night that the I Hotel fell in 1977.
I was there as an observer, but not as a participant. I was not in the line of the activists who were preventing the police from entering the building for a long period of time. I was still on probation from—I was sentenced to six months after being convicted on trial for my participation at the San Francisco State strike the year previous.

As an observer, how would you characterize the mood or the feeling?
We knew it was inevitable, that the tenants of I Hotel would eventually be evicted. But what the tenants and the younger activists showed was this immense dignity and courage.

What do you think is something that activists can take away from that night?
What we’ve seen over the years is generations of younger activists directly inspired by what happened that night. We’ve seen it demonstrated time and time again, particularly in this last year, last two years, since the death of George Floyd. Last month, it was a decade since Trayvon Martin’s assassination. Killing. Lynching. And we see these tremendous levels of activism and sustained work that run parallel to the activists, tenants, and participants of the I Hotel. There was a sustained struggle that brought focus onto a particular part of American history and particular issues that are still being debated today about housing and development of cities and who gets privileged and who does not.

Do you think that there’s an end point? Or is it ultimately about the struggle?
History and struggle are an ongoing process. Karen was clearly aware when she wrote the concluding pages that this is ongoing. I think it was her own way of pointing to the fact that when we look at, you know, the 40-hour workweek or enfranchisement of African Americans or enfranchisement of women, those were decades-long struggles that go on to this day. We always have to struggle to preserve those things. As we now know, things that we thought we had already won, things like Roe v. Wade, for example, are endangered, and we have to fight.

The I Hotel is a great example of a beacon of what is possible and what it takes to make that possible, which is that perseverance, that tenacity. And hope.

We lose in the short term; that’s part of being a left activist in capitalism—that we lose a lot—and the struggle sometimes takes far longer than we think it should, but from my point of view, we don’t have a choice. If we are going to continue on, you have to be tenacious and hopeful.•

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 the important themes and innovative storytelling of I Hotel with your fellow California Book Club members. Register here for the event.

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