Ghosts of San Francisco

In I Hotel, the California Book Club pick for March, Karen Tei Yamashita calls up local and global history but works like a poet.

i hotel protest, third world liberation front
UC Berkeley

One of the biggest obstacles to writing about revolutionary change is the form of the novel itself. Conventional ones thrive on the tidy certainties of a few points of view. Meanwhile, truly transformative uprisings depend on the strength of the many: on overlapping and even conflicting interests being allowed space to coexist within, say, a larger goal or commitment. Making this conception of political action work in life is difficult enough; in fiction, getting this many people in the room often winds up feeling busy and unwieldy.

Neither of these words comes to mind while inhabiting—and there’s no other word for how one lives inside it—Karen Tei Yamashita’s 2010 masterpiece, I Hotel. What is this strange, huge, remarkable book? Well, to put it baldly, it’s 10 linked novellas, each set in a year from the period of 1968 to 1977, spanning the birth of the Asian American movement in the Bay Area, from the era-defining Third World Liberation Front strikes in the fall of 1968, when students went to war with the administration to create Asian American studies departments, to the violent eviction of tenants from the International Hotel at 848 Kearny in August 1977, after which the building sat empty for years. If a better novel about San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s exists, it’s doing a great job of hiding.

That Yamashita gets all of this history into the book is an astonishment; that she manages to thread it through events of global import—Kissinger’s trip to China, assassinations of King and Kennedy, the mass migration of Filipino people to the Bay Area, Castro’s trip to Moscow—is breathtaking. All of it set to a funkadelic soundtrack of James Brown and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

How does she do it? From the beginning, design is Yamashita’s strength. Each novella features two events, one global, one local; three major characters; and a theme, marked at the section’s beginning. The unity of design in another writer’s hands might be imprisoning, but Yamashita works like a poet, allowing juxtaposition and repetition to do their mysterious but potent work unfettered. Gently, elegantly, each section calls back to the ones before it, drawing characters forward into new settings.

Yamashita also respects the integrity and boundless mystery of each life she holds. While I Hotel is a book thronged with lives, many of them circumscribed by restrictions, no one is meant to stand in for any one aspect of themselves or their time. There are aging Chinese immigrants who’ve come to America thanks to “paper families,” from whom they’ve had to buy fictional relations, because of the Chinese Exclusion Act; there are Indigenous men who’ve come from the same area that once held the Japanese internment camps. There are Yellow Power activists who’ve learned how to resist arrest from Black Panthers, and yet none of the characters’ actions are predictable.

The book opens with the sudden death of a Chinese American writer’s father. Already motherless, too, Paul spends his father’s funeral with a family friend, Chen, who is part confidante, part translator, part connection to the China of his family’s past. Through Chen, Paul winds up searching out literary ancestors to his own voice. Chen, who himself is orphaned, in a way, takes a shine to the young man but knows what lies ahead of him.

“He knew that if Paul and his generation of writers wanted a history, they would have to dig it up and invent it for themselves,” Yamashita writes from Chen’s point of view.

One of the primary stories of I Hotel is that of a large, disparate group of people, many of them not white, having similar simultaneous revelations all across the Bay: revelations about self-determination and civil protection and the necessity of representation in these quests. It was out of this energy in the late 1960s that the Indians of All Tribes movement and the United Farm Workers and Asian American student activists all wound up sharing an area and changing their time.

I Hotel doesn’t romanticize an entwinement of fates: it does something far more difficult and interesting. The book records it and also refuses to fall prey to the one-man theory of social change, which is how even recently made artifacts of culture deploy stories about social change and upheaval. I Hotel takes you into all the kitchen table meetings, the coffee shops where people killed time, a lot of it. It burrows into student committee conferences. One scene will resonate with anyone who has been to a protest these past couple years—which in the summer of 2020 alone accounted for more than 25 million people. The entire set piece is a series of protocols of what to do when arrested.

If this sounds at all boring, it isn’t. Yamashita is a restless, bold stylist, and so as we fall through the years, meeting new characters, hearing echoes of previous ones in new lights, she constantly varies her narrative technique. Some scenes unfold in a screenplay format, with directions to a camera; another chapter is simply a dossier of its main character. One chapter is structured as two fables with notes on how to read them or questions to ask oneself, as if this part of the book were a test document. There’s also a comic strip, monologues, and straight-up War and Peace–style enchantment. Other sections would function easily as a recipe book, as a protest song, as a kind of collective first-person anthem.

“We grew up here, and we lived here,” goes one such section, narrated from the collective voice of people about to be evicted from the I Hotel in 1977, “in Chinatown under colorful pagoda roofs and serenaded by flower drum songs down Grant Avenue; in Filipinotown in heroic Bataan bars and courted with sampaguita flowers along Kearny Street; in Japantown between jazz spots and cherry blossom festivals around Post and Buchanan. We lived in the centers of our city’s Oriental tourist attractions, our li’l towns described as ‘exotic Kodak moments’ in Sunset and other travel magazines. We were always smiling for our customers, saying that if they visited our towns, it would be the next best thing to traveling to the real countries, even if some of us had never even been there.”

This book is an extraordinary map of these places. It channels the voices of people who grew up in them and called them home with a supremely gifted ear, one that, if we look back at Yamashita’s first novel, surely has enabled writers like Julie Otsuka to exist. It also describes long-gone pharmacies, poetry houses, bars, and side-by-side arrangements—Black businesses and nisei-run ones side-by-side in, say, San Francisco—that are no longer so, just as Nina Revoyr has done in her Los Angeles novels. Whoever feels as though history drowned the novel hasn’t come across this one.

Ribald and hilarious, furious and tender, I Hotel does not pick up the past with silken gloves. It shoves it back at us, raw, unredeemed, unjust, still unfolding. The goals of the people it conjures here are still, in many instances, unmet. It reminds us, spectacularly, with warning, that they, too, were spurred on by ghosts. I Hotel does not promise them atonement, but it does something just as powerful: it gives them a glorious structure to call home.•

Join us on March 17 at 5 p.m., when Yamashita will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and special guest Diane C. Fujino. 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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