Event Recap: Voicing a Polyphonic Movement

Author Karen Tei Yamashita, special guest Diane C. Fujino, and host John Freeman spoke about both the stylistic innovations and the story of I Hotel, the CBC selection for March.

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Host John Freeman started off our March gathering of the California Book Club with an introduction to novelist Karen Tei Yamashita, whose masterpiece I Hotel was the month’s selection, by commenting on her extraordinary formal and substantive innovations as a novelist.

Commenting that the novel, set in the decade of 1968–1977, “has such a large-scale sense of space,” Freeman asked Yamashita whether she thinks visually or in architectural terms. She responded, “I tried to get it to be an architectural project. When I thought of it as the hotel…I thought that each novella would be a room, and so I tried to do something with that. I actually talked to my husband, who is an architect, and he was doing one of those architectural applications to draw. And I said, ‘Could you just teach me that? Because I think that will help me to write this book.’ And he said, ‘Are you kidding?’ I went away, and I decided to just make blocks.”

She discussed the blocks, or box diagrams, that head up each of the book’s 10 novellas. “I fooled around with those boxes,” she said. “I had the inside of the box and the outside of the box, and I decided how they would be, and I cut up construction paper and made them, and I set them up on a coffee table and I thought, ‘There it is, that’s the book.’”

Noting that one of the thrilling aspects of the book is watching the characters of various ethnic backgrounds, all with an “essentially liberationist, political agenda,” intersect and sometimes be adjacent to one another without realizing their common goals, Freeman then welcomed special guest Diane C. Fujino, a scholar of Asian American activism whose area of specialty is the intersection of Asian American and African American radical political life.

Fujino talked about how she and Yamashita had conducted research at the same time and how their paths had crossed. She asked why the deep research mattered to Yamashita as a novelist. Yamashita explained, “At the time that we were doing this research, people were afraid to talk to us. I sensed that. They were really doubtful that I would do the work and that I would tell the story as they saw it. And I understood what was going on there, so I felt, really, that I owed it to the people I spoke with and whose stories I researched that I really did know the background as deeply as I could possibly know it.”

Freeman asked about Yamashita’s conversations, including those with Black Panthers and Yellow Power activists, and how those worlds connected. Yamashita explained, “All of these things were happening at the same time: the Panthers in Oakland, the Indian movement on Alcatraz, and it was porous.… All of these groups were meeting each other and supporting each other, fighting, and having their disputes, and then reorganizing in these political collectives. I was very aware that this could not be a story that was just about Asians. It couldn’t be isolated in any way.” She wanted to explode, too, the idea that the different Asian American communities were balkanized, which they were not, though they later became so. She remarked that it was not only a pan-ethnic movement, but also a global one, and that, for her, the International Hotel had that resonance as well—it was an international place.

Toward the end of the gathering, Freeman took questions from the audience, including one about what the younger generation of Asian Americans could take from this book in this moment. Yamashita said, “But now when I look at it, I don’t know how I feel about it. I feel that we have a long history of hatred, and that is still there.… Looking back at this, I thought, ‘Oh, this could be celebratory in some ways about a group of people who sacrificed their youth for change.’ But every generation has had to do this, and we keep making the same mistakes. And not that this is telling you how not to make them, but we do keep making them, don’t we?… I can see that we need another generation who’s more savvy.”

Fujino acknowledged the difficulties of this moment—the day before the event was the one-year anniversary of the spa shootings in Atlanta. Referencing earlier comments by Freeman on the spirit that’s felt throughout the book, she added, “Yeah, this was the I Hotel. There was a lot of joy and community, but it was difficult. The spaces were small, and then the community got demolished.” She asked Yamashita to speak to her reasons for ending the novel with the eviction and not a more upbeat scene.

Yamashita explained, “I knew that it was going to end with the eviction, but then I set that last novella as a ‘we voice.’ There are various collective voices that speak through that last book. I think that maybe that’s the most positive thing that can be said: that people came together and there is a collective voice and people tried to do something together. So, yes, it’s a sad ending, isn’t it? But when you think about the Asian American movement and those years—the things that were created.… There were healthcare units that were created. There were political groups. People were politicized in ways. Ethnic studies started. It was not easy. And it was a difficult birthing all the way. And it’s still been difficult, right? The institutions that we think of as just being there: Film institutions. Health institutions. They’re there because that was a period of time when folks came together to create them. So it’s not that nothing happened, I mean—that we failed. Things are there. And they’re important to us. They’re the structures on which we—we depend on them.”•

We hope you enjoyed I Hotel. Join us on April 21 at 5 p.m., when Michael Connelly will appear in conversation with Freeman and a special guest to discuss The Dark Hours. Be sure to visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book with your fellow California Book Club members.

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