California Book Club: Karen Tei Yamashita Transcript

Read a lightly-edited transcript of author Karen Tei Yamashita's conversation with California Book Club host John Freeman.

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David L. Ulin: Good evening, everybody. Welcome to the California Book Club. I'm David L. Ulin, I'm the books editor for Alta Journal. And I'm here to introduce tonight's program. Before we get started, I want to tell you a little bit about Alta and the California Book Club, in case you don't know. Alta Journal is a print quarterly with an active web presence covering California and the west books culture art, and the social landscape of the region. The California Book Club is one of our initiatives, it's a monthly book club focusing on the literature of California and particularly the New California cannon.

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You can sign up for that at, and please watch tomorrow's thank you email for a link to this great deal. We'll also drop it in the chat right now, so that will be in the chat for you. We have a ton of great coverage on the Alta site around tonight's author and book Karen Tei Yamashita, and her novel, I Hotel. So please visit to read essays and excerpts, and to participate in the broad conversation around this book. Without further ado, I'm going to turn this over to my colleague, John Freeman, who's the host of the California Book Club, who will be running the discussion tonight, really looking forward to hearing tonight's discussion, John.

John Freeman: Thank you, David. Really nice to see everyone piling in. Welcome, welcome from Berkeley, Cupertino, Pasadena and other places all around California and the world. When we set up this club, the idea was to try to focus every month on a different book that those of us from California, who live in California, going to California bookstores know very well is... are masterpieces. And one of the books that came up right away was the book we're going to talk about tonight, Karen Tei Yamashita's, I Hotel. And Karen has a lot of things to her credit as a writer, things that no one else has done. As far as I know, no one else has ever written a novel in the format of a Brazilian soap opera as she did with her first book, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest.

No one else has also ever written a novel narrated by an extraterrestrial ball, which hovers six inches above the head of her main character as Karen did in her second book. No one else has ever tried to basically combine the formats of travel log and short story as she did in the Circle K cycles, which is just an extraordinary mixture of hybrid thinking. And mostly though the thing that I think really sets Karen Tei Yamashita apart from almost any other California writer in history is she's written a great novel about LA, and she's written a great novel about San Francisco. Her LA novel, as many of you might know, Tropic of Orange is an uncategorizable polyphonic masterpiece, which is full of the sounds and music, and the deep history of Los Angeles told in the perspective of seven characters. That book, I believe came out in the early... sorry, late 1990s, 1997.

And I think I understand why there was a gap because when she went to write her San Francisco novel it was a little bit bigger, and it was probably an unknown number of characters, 10 novella set from 1968, right around the beginning of protests in Berkeley to 1977, when the International Hotel on Carney Street, which was a low income temporary housing solution for many of the population in that neighborhood were Filipino and other Asian Americans, were forcibly evicted and then the hotel stood empty for years before it was torn down. Karen's used this hotel as a load star for a book about the passage of time in history, and the development of Asian American identity through interlocking protests and global movements. And she does this so elegantly across these 10 long pieces, which take up so many different formats. Some are done as dossiers.

Some are done as Q&As. Some are done as fables, fairy tales. Some are done as just straight up narration. It's a dazzling performance, and it holds together because she very neatly links each section to the next and carries these characters forward in a way that's almost beyond conception because the amount of brain space it would take to marshal this many points of detail into one story is just truly awesome. And the book is about a period of revolution, a hope for revolutionary change. And I want to bring her on now with just ultimate gratitude for the book and happiness that she could be with us here tonight. Karen Tei Yamashita, please join us.

Karen Tei Yamashita: Hello.

Freeman: Hello.

So I always want to know what is exactly behind you?

Yamashita: We blurred it out because we didn't fix it up, but it's our studio. It's a huge room. And much of it is occupied by my husband's art and his artwork. And his... Yeah. And I have this little corner, which you can't see and I'm glad you can't see it, it's really a big mess. But my Mac is on it and that's what I'm talking to.

Freeman: Do you think visually the scale of this book and how it unfolds, and how every chapter proceeds with a guide to where it's going to go, it just has a such large scale sense of space. Do you think in architectural terms and visual art terms when you're mapping out something at this scale?

Yamashita: Yeah. I tried to get it to be an architectural project. And when I thought of it as the hotel, I thought it was the architecture of the hotel or that the additional velop would be a room. And so I tried to do something with that. I actually talked to my husband's architector 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?" And so I went away and I decided to just make blocks, and that's what I did. I made these boxes.

Freeman: And you put the stories in the boxes when you delivered it?

Yamashita: Well, when I set it up, I thought maybe that would help me to create the stories. So there were... If you see the boxes there in the book, right? They look like this, right on the side. And I fooled around with those boxes and I had inside 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, "Oh, there it is. That's the book." But obviously that wasn't book, I was just structuring for it.

Freeman: When you started the book, as I mentioned, it begins in 1968 with a character's father who dies. And he goes to his father's funeral and the funeral is interrupted because he runs into a friend of his father's, who's a writer who lived abroad and is a fan of French literature among other literature and Chinese literature. And the book begins with a interrupted beginning, and then you're off and running. And a lot of people talk directly to us as readers, or they're talking to characters they're bodying and start giving speeches, telling stories. I wonder whose voices came first and the loudest, because it seems like one of the pride of the book is a preservation or resurrection of voices.

Yamashita: Right. When I... That first novella took me the longest to write, took me about a year to write it. And each of the chapters I thought would represent a voice in the storytelling. And I had to find what those voices might be. So, I made decisions about what that would be, but I had to take the story of the novella and then divide it along those lines. And, yeah. So let's see, if I look at it now, I thought that actually that first novella was really the point of view. And so I was giving you the perspectives of 10 different perspectives of what would be the vision for the different voices. And when I knew which each of the voices were, then I could finish the book.

Freeman: You were trained as a playwright right, a long time ago?

Yamashita: I wouldn't say I was trained. I tried. But I think that helped because I had to hear actors read my words and interpret them. I often thought that the way in which they interpreted what I wrote for them to say was more interesting than what I had written. Then I would write toward their voices and the characters that they were developing from those voices. So I began to understand what they give and take might be. I think other playwrights have a more strict idea about what their character should be saying and I never did.

Freeman: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Do you think history travels in our voices in the way we talk and what we say to one another? The challenge of this book and its triumph is the fact that you amazingly have characters transmitting really important parts of history through the voice, through storytelling. Typically, if you were to take any writing class or any screenplay writing class, it was like no exposition in dialogue, and yet all of your characters are telling their histories. I wonder how you feel like you were able to accomplish that and what ways that you had to bend the typical laws of the novel in order to allow your characters to speak their histories.

Yamashita: Hmm. When I created the narrative voices, I needed to create voices that I could handle, but also had enough of a humor or some kind of satire in the voice so that it could talk back to itself. Because so many of the people with whom I had conversations wanted to also think about what had happened and they had dark visions or satiric or ironic visions of what had happened. So I needed voices that would compliment that kind of storytelling. I would say that they're all constructions. When I finally figured out what they were, I had to have rules for them and stay within those rules. So that also happened. They're not real. They're made for a purpose. They were made for a purpose, I guess, I would say, and yet they had to reflect the time period and the voices of the '60s and '70s.

I have to spend a lot of time with writing in that period, reading a lot of work, and then also just talking to folks.

Freeman: Were you living in the bay area in the late '60s, early '70s?

Yamashita: No. No. You know I'm from LA. I was born in Oakland and so my parents, both sides of their family are from the bay area. So every summer, I was there with my cousins. But in those years, I was actually in Minnesota. I went to school at Carleton. So I was thrust in the middle of the snowy place for much of the year before those four years. One of the years also, I was in Japan. I was here and not here. I would come back in the summers and work in the summers in LA. I thought actually that this story was going to be set in Los Angeles, but in 1997, I got a job at UC Santa Cruz.

I realized that I wanted to re-visit where I was born, Oakland, my family here. And I took on this project here in the bay area because I wanted to revisit San Francisco. Then it turned out that I really discovered that the story belonged in the bay area and it was a much tighter story and the story could be focused. At some point, I figured that the hotel was the center of this story.

Freeman: There's so many different places. We'll come back to the hotel and your method of research because in a little bit, we'll bring on Professor Diane Fujino, who's an Asian American Studies professor at UC Santa Barbara, who's going to ask you about your research. But I'm curious because there are these other load stars. There's Berkeley and San Francisco State who played big parts in this novel as institutions. There's Angel Island. There's Alcatraz. There's these in-between places where people are kept and have to stay. A lot of these places are in the book. They're places which are occupied and where people can't get out to some degree. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that because it lends a very sprawling novel, a feeling of not claustrophobia, but imprisonment, of people wanting to liberate and get free. I wonder if you deliberately were thinking of spaces people couldn't get out of.

Yamashita: Well, certainly, the base story is really about redevelopment and the taking over the city and how the city was occupied actually by different forces, but that the people who wanted to stay and the people who were forced to leave. So I really had to think about urban development and why that had happened. For example, with Japantown, Japantown was part of the Fillmore and that district was really gutted. It was labeled as... What was the label in those days?

Freeman: They are called urban blight.

Yamashita: Yeah, urban blight. So then, these people were bought out and these areas were completely ravaged and people lost their homes, especially if they were renters, not the people who owned. They never lost anything, but the people who didn't, lost their place and they had to leave the city or they had to find other places. We know that this is a continuing story about San Francisco and it's the reason for high prices and hard to find housing and the huge homeless population we have in the city. So yeah, it starts there. Then on the other side of it, there are Chinatown and Nihonmachi or Japantown, and these were places where we were forced to live and couldn't leave, and then places that were cleared out and then we were forced to leave again.

Then there was, of course, a story for my parents where they were incarcerated during the war and they had to leave. That was true of my mother's family, left Japantown and they were sent to Topaz and they lived there during the war until they returned in after the war. So all these stories of this movement. It definitely radicalized the Asian population, that history.

Freeman: The history which precedes the history that you're writing about is talking to the present in this book constantly. There's a powerful passage that I think maybe you could read from, in which the characters discover poems written on the wall of where they had to stay while waiting for legal access into the city once they were immigrating into San Francisco.

Yamashita: All right. Yeah, okay. This is from chapter five, "We."

When we arrived, there was no Golden Gate, no Statue of Liberty. Even so, some shouted, "America! America!" and we floated into the bay like the fog at twilight. If we got there earlier than the great earthquake and fire, our first impressions of our golden city were on the Barbary Coast, loose men and women of the vintage gay '90s, carousing in dance halls and bars, around and about in horse-drawn buggies, speculating on a future and fortunes made from California gold. If we arrived after the fire, some of us might have noticed the island of Alcatraz, but we were forced to dock at another prison island, the one called Angel. In those early years, the bay's geography was traversed by fairies fanning out from the city's great transportation hub, the Ferry Building.

We, ourselves, fanned out across the peninsulas, congregating in cities, segregated by covenants, in farmlands confined by land laws and leasing contracts, on coastal waters in small fishing boats. We worked as houseboys, cooks, pickers and stoop laborers, gardeners, fishermen, and canners. We opened shops, groceries, dry goods, tailoring, restaurants, flower shops, drug stores with soda fountains. We ran boarding houses and hotels, churches, temples, newspapers, health clinics, language schools, YMCAs and YWCAs and kenjinkai. We gave our adopted towns names like Little Yokohama and Nihonmachi. By the third decade of the century, our children witnessed the great engineering feats and the openings of the stately Golden Gate and bay bridges. Cable cars and automobiles replaced horses and ferry boats. We sent our children to school and college only to see them return home jobless. Those were the days when you'd meet a fellow with an engineering degree selling fruit on the corner. Everything changed with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. We were forced to leave our little towns and farming and fishing communities and were herded on mass to desert camps surrounded by barbed wire and gun towers.

We look like the enemy, but that's not the same as being the enemy. At wars and those of us who survived came back to our golden city and our little towns, took up our old jobs or started new ones. When we rebuilt our old communities and started new families, our youngsters turned into the third generation, what we call the Sansei, and that's about the time when this story begins. Who's to say what love is or how it starts inside each person? Who's to say what triggers the feeling, the knowing that passes from one to the other? We saw the young man walk through the tatted remains of the old Ferry Building. Maybe it was the old building with its ghost lovers. We can't say. We could see his footfalls avoid the scraps of trash ground into the grimy crevices. Maybe it was the decay of an old place. He was wearing gold alligator cowboy boots. We could see them shuffling out from his ragged bells, scuffed and shredding at the toe. We could tell that those boots were his favorite, snug in the right places, his walk confident.

Freeman: Oh, I love that passage, especially because you move so neatly from a first person plural above the body of the figure and looking at his clothes as he walk, and then eventually, inhabiting him. In the beginning, the character we were speaking about who goes to the... His father dies, Paul Wallace Lin, and he develops this mentor slash fatherly relationship with an older Chinese American man. Parts of the book feel like it's an Asian American Savage Detectives. It's like people sitting at cafes talking about poets and people are translating and love, and there's a lot of scrounging in bookstores pulling forward, writers from the past who have been neglected. I wonder if you could talk about how this book is a tribute to Asian American writing before you, as well as its yoking forward what those writers did.

Yamashita: Yeah, definitely, you're right. You're right about that. I spent a great deal of time talking to the writers who were involved in this period and thinking about asking them questions about how it all started, because we really didn't have something we could call an Asian American literature in those years. We had it, but no one had named it. So there was this movement among young writers to find the writers before to say, "Look, we have this history. We have these writers who have come before." So there was Toshio Mori and Wakako Yamauchi and Hisaye Yamamoto. These writers and their short stories were published willy-nilly in newspapers and local journals and that sort of thing, and so all of this writing was rediscovered and taken together. There were groups of people who started to create anthologies. So these are my characters who are trying to find a place in a literary history and story and to find their own stories in themselves in American history.

Yeah, that was very important. I wanted to make sure that that story was there. But it wasn't just that. There was an artistic Renaissance going on at this time, right? There were people making comic books and silk screens and they were doing art and filmmaking. Everyone was making things. They were doing things on stage. They discovered how to make films and documentaries. I realized that it was more than just a literary movement. It was a general artistic explosion of all these things that people wanted to do and be in, participate in. So that became part of the book. I wanted it there. Then of course, there is the political underground and the collectives, the rethinking of communist thinking, and then how that moved into making people work in unions and get into factories and to work in Chinatown with the garment industry, with electronics, all of those things. People found their spaces and what they felt they had to do, because this was a moment, this was a moment in time that people felt that they could change the way we lived.

Freeman: Well, one of the thrilling aspects of reading the book is just watching Black characters, Latinx characters, indigenous characters, Cambodian American, Laotian American, Chinese, Japanese American, people who are all have an essentially liberationist political agenda intersecting and overlapping, and sometimes being adjacent without realizing that they have similar goals. I want to bring on at this point, Diane Fujino, the professor of Asian American studies at UC Santa Barbara, because her area of specialty is in fact, this very moment of sort of the intersection of Asian American and African American political radical life in the 1940s up to the 1960s and beyond. And Diane, I wonder if you could ask some questions of Karen.

Diane Fujino: Thank you so much, John and Karen, really wonderful to see you. And I think I am going to start with these words that Jessica Hagedorn, right, the great Filipino writer said about your book I Hotel. She said big bold beast of a book, genre defying, trippy, brilliant. And I'd have to agree with all of that. I want to say I entered this conversation with you, right, as a scholar of Asian American activism. And I'm also completely intrigued with that period of the Asian American movement of the '60s and '70s. And I'm thinking about what it means to write fiction versus nonfiction, right? The kind of work that you do versus the kind of work I do when we use somewhat similar methods, right? Interviews, archival research, and your research was massive like 10 years. And I remember we sat and talked at that time and we-

Yamashita: We were crossing paths all the time.

Fujino: Except I never interviewed 150 people or you wouldn't even call them interviews, you would call them conversations.

Yamashita: They were conversations.

Fujino: So you had a little different approach than say somebody who ... like me, but I'm really struck with how important it was for you to do all of that research, and how important it was for you to use names and organizations that actually existed, right? Some of these Asian American political organizations, public figures, events that actually happened. And at the same time of course you're using fictional names, right. And one of the ones I love right is Paka Bayashi, right, this blending, which you're not saying, but it's very clear to those who know, right, two professors, right, Paul Takagi and James Hirabayashi who were really important to the Asian American movement at Berkeley and San Francisco State. And I'm wondering if you can talk about why you chose this approach that was both fictional as you do so beautifully, but that historical resonance and all of this deep research mattered to you?

Yamashita: Yeah, absolutely. It mattered and well, all right, there are a number of things going on here. First of all, I was having conversations with many people who were involved in the movement at the time. And I think you know this, that at the time that we were doing this research, people were afraid to talk to us. And 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 they didn't ... 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. At the same time there were so many gaps, and as a historian scholar you cannot imagine what those things were, but I could.

And I think that maybe that's where we part ways, where I fill in the gaps, or I make fun of things, or I give voices to that don't exist. Where I, in many of the cases, you were talking about Hirabayash and Takagi, and that I merged their stories and then made them one character. There's the character that does not exist, is a fictional character, but their stories live together. And I couldn't ... in telling this, I had to make characters for one thing. So there was something practical that I had to do about it, but I also felt that their stories had to be there. So how would I do that? I think that fiction can do the work of thinking in ways that are not available to the academic scholar and historian, because I can suggest possibilities for what might have gone through people's heads or what might have happened. I'm not sure. So, and I think that's useful. I think that having that ability is also useful. It's a kind of the theorizing behind the scenes. It's the underpinning of what might have happened. And so I know it's fiction and I know what I did was that, but it's not as if it's not true. Yeah. I think it's a hard thing to talk about.

Fujino: You know, I think some of what you do that's so important in this book right, well, there's so much, but one of the things is you tell the stories of things that have happened in Japanese, Chinese, Filipino America, stories that often are aren't told, right. I say that until really COVID in Atlanta, right, Asian America remained so invisible. And you told all kinds of stories of people's hopes and dreams and the deaths, right, that some of those deaths stay with me, and yet they were really happening, right, overdoses and things like this. So I think that's such important work. And I want to ... you wrote this as a Japanese American, right. I'm reading this as a Japanese American, and yet it is definitely a Pan-Asian story.

It's story of the Asian American movement. And I was wondering if you faced any kinds of tensions as you were writing this, like worries that you were overrepresenting Japanese America, worries that you might be misrepresenting Chinese or Filipino America, this kind of thing? And I loved it because ... I loved it and I found myself really attending to the Japanese American things that really resonate for me.

Yamashita: Yes, of course. I think when I was younger as a writer and ... of course, when I was younger as a writer, I didn't write about Asian America. I didn't. I wrote about Japanese in Brazil and, yeah, maybe at that moment, I felt that I became acquainted with so many stories and people, and I have to thank them for allowing me into their lives and their homes and telling me those stories. So I felt that I had to honor them. At the same time, yeah, I was worried about getting it right. And so there are sections that ... for example, the funeral in the first section, the Chinese funeral. I spent a long time talking to Judy Yung and having her read it and tell me and say, "Okay, what's happening here and what's going to happen?"

And so she really took me through that space and said, "Okay, this is what's going to happen. They're going to go into the house and they have to shoo out the ghost and they'll come back and they're going to all these places that this man knew and lived. But they have to shoo his ghost out and they have to make sure that he's properly gifted with the end of his life." So those were things that I wanted to tend to, and there were other pieces of it in which I asked the people with whom I had interviewed ... not interviewed, but had conversations with. I asked them to read the sections where I thought that I might have screwed up.

And I asked them to take a look, please tell me what doesn't feel right. And what was interesting is they actually added things. So I had to go back and write more, so that ... yeah. I asked them to participate in my writing. And I think that was important to me. And it was important that we shared that, but who knows, maybe they're mad at me anyway. I haven't heard. Asian Americans are very polite.

Fujino: I think that from what I've heard people are just so delighted and thrilled with this and think it's such an important work that you've put out. So thank you. And I think my time is up so I need to invite John back on.

Freeman: We'll bring Diane back in a little bit. Karen, it's been interesting hearing you talk about the fact that this novel is so based on interviews and conversations, and in another format when Diane and I were speaking, she mentioned that you didn't take notes in your interviews or record them. You had a conversation. And I wonder, your earlier book, Brazil-Maru, which is based on Japanese immigrants coming to Brazil to set up a utopia, which you interviewed lots of people in Sao Paolo and other parts of Brazil to write that book. And I wonder if you learned anything in those interviews that you took to the interviews you were doing for I Hotel.

Yamashita: Yeah, absolutely. One thing when I started, I had a recorder and I was recording people and I thought, "Oh," and get this, I was speaking to them in Japanese and Portuguese, and sometimes I would miss something in the Japanese or the Portuguese and I'd think, "Oh, it's on tape. I can always go back and I'll figure it out." And I would go back to the tape and I could never transcribe that thing. So I realized that what I had had to do was to stop the interview and say, "Please explain to me what you're saying. I need a translation."

And then I began my work in Brazil interviewing Japanese women and they were ... So that it was very important to me that I got these women's stories. Then I would go to their houses and then they would serve me tea and that sort of thing. And then at some point, when they served me the tea, some man would appear and he would have tea with us and the cake or whatever it was. And I didn't know what to do. I thought, "Oh, I got to turn off the tape recorder. The guy's here. This is going to mess it up." But what it turned out up to be true for me was that I needed to hear what he had to say, because say this was a couple, the woman did the woman's work, but he managed the money. He bought the land. He bought the materials. He knew when they moved.

He knew all the kinds of things that I needed to know about the sort of the social integration of these families, and yes, she knew about the home and her family and that sort of thing. But I realized I couldn't get the full picture. The other thing that happened with the I Hotel in particular, is that people did not want to talk to me if I recorded them. And very often people who ... People had done things that they didn't want others to know, but they were happy to tell the stories of them, but they didn't want it to be recorded.

One man told me, he said, "You know, you're not recording this, so I'm going to tell you." And I realized that I just had to memorize what they said. So I had to learn to listen very, very carefully. And I would run away from these interviews and just dump everything into these files and write and write and write and try to remember everything that that person had said and then kind of reorganize it into stories.

Freeman: I wonder if you've ever read Svetlana Alexievich that Belarusian Nobel Prize winner, she wrote a book. She's basically writing a kind of linked series of oral history like novels. She calls them cathedrals of history and she goes into people's homes and collects their stories. And she had a recent book that was translated called The Womanly Face of War. And it was primarily a book about women who had fought in World War II for the Russian army. And she described going into their houses and listening to them and staying with them. And eventually a man would appear and almost verbatim her story about how she had to collect these stories was very similar to yours. And I wonder, did you talk to Black Panthers in the course of doing some research for this? Or were you talking more to people who were involved with Yellow Power? And do you want to explain how those two worlds connected for any the listeners who aren't familiar with that?

Yamashita: All right. So Diane will remember this because I would meet her and she would be interviewing Richard Aoki, who was a Panther. And then I would go hang out with him for lunch and just listen to him telling me stories. And so his voice is pretty clearly there. I think people recognize it and they all, everyone thinks that that's him, but it's not. So, yeah, so those stories came through him and others, both women and men who had relationships with the Panthers and all of these things were happening at the same time, the Panthers in Oakland, the Indian movement on the Alcatraz. And it was porous in many ways. And all of these groups were meeting each other and supporting each other, fighting and having their own ... their disputes, and then reorganizing in these political collectives.

And so I was very aware that this could not be a story that was just about Asians, and it couldn't be isolated in any way. And of course the Asian population is a very diverse group. They're Filipinos, they're Koreans, they're Japanese, they're Chinese, and I wanted to also sort of explode that idea that they were all separate and that they were balkanized, which later they became, but not in the beginning. This was really a pan-ethnic movement. And it was also I think global or international. So then for me the International Hotel had that resonance as well. It was an international place from the very beginning.

Freeman: There's a spiritual element to this book because I Hotel is the title. There's so many different resonances to the word I. There's I, myself, there's I, all these individual experiences through a time of history. There's the eye watching it, there's people being surveilled. And then there's the body as this hotel for a spirit that passes through it. And there's a spiritual element to this book that isn't in my experience of reading about it that much talked about. And I wonder if you could talk about that here, because a lot of characters live and die in front of us in this book and we watch them, we watch the transmogrification of several souls across this book. And I wonder why that was important to you, to bring that into this time period in the way that you do.

Yamashita: I think probably for me, they're the ghosts there. Because by the time I was talking to people, especially about the I Hotel and the Manongs who lived there, they had all died. And my father was dead, my mother was very old. And by the time the book was actually published, Al Robles had died, Del Soros had died. Many of the people that I had interviewed, also Richard had died. They were gone. And so I think there is something of an urgency to get their stories and to write about them. Maybe that's what is being sensed there.

Freeman: Grace from the audience asks, "I wonder if it's also a play on the word I, which is 'love' in Chinese and Japanese."

Yamashita: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. But the I Hotel, that I is, yeah, it's full of sex. I had a lot of fun doing that.

Freeman: There are some pretty extraordinary sex scenes in the book, and you threatened to possibly read one for the second reading. Do you feel like doing that? Or do you want to take more questions? Or do you want to read something more PG?

Well, as you look, there's some other comments in the questions in the question queue. One comes back to what Diane brought up, which is in this time of a pandemic of violence against Asian American women in particular, is there something that you want generations of younger Asian Americans to feel in this book, to take comfort from or to see or to feel part of?

Yamashita: I think at the time that I was writing it, I think there was another generation of Asian Americans who were trying to look at this past and to see what it meant and to reopen that history and legacy. But now when I look at it, I don't know how I feel about it. I feel that ... Yeah, I feel that we have a long history of hatred and that is still there. That's why it's so hard. Looking back at this, I thought, oh, this could be celebratory in some ways, about a group of people who sacrifice 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?

And the challenges are, they're more and more difficult. I can see that we need an another generation who's much more savvy. I don't know what we need.

Freeman: I wonder if Diane, if you could come back in, since we're talking in this space. I suspect that you had another question or two that you could bring in at this point. While I look furiously for sex scenes in this book, like it's a Harold Robbins book.

Fujino: Well, I will come in right at this point. Yesterday was the one year anniversary of Atlanta, so what you're talking about, Karen, the difficulties of this moment, when John asked about the spirit, that's kind of felt throughout the book. And I was thinking, well, 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. And you end with the demolition, or not the dem, the eviction.

Yamashita: The eviction at hotel.

Fujino: Right. And so it's clearly not a happy ending. And it's not a hopeful ending. And I was wondering if you could speak to that, if this was a ... To what extent this is just where you decided to end it, because it was such an important moment. And some people think of the Asian American movement the ending of one important phase, because not only were there residents who got evicted, but also all those Asian American movement orgs that were in the storefronts. Or if this was more literary, like you did not want to create a happy ending. You want people to wrestle with that. I'm wondering if you could speak to this and the way that you ended the book.

Yamashita: Well, I knew it was going to end with the eviction. But then I set that last novella as a we voice. And so there are various collective voices that speak through that last book. And I think that maybe that's the most positive thing that can be said, is that people came together and there is a collective voice. And people tried to do something together, I would say. 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. There were, I mean, 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. Many things happened. 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. It's not that nothing happened, that we failed. Things are there, and they're important to us. And they're the structures on which, we depend on them, yeah.

Fujino: John, I just want to say this really quickly. Harvey Dong, Richard Aoki talked about how he thought he knew it's when you're fighting anti-gentrification struggles, you can't win, the property right struggles. And he thought it was a total failure. And then Harvey Dong said, "No, there's a whole infrastructure. There's relationships. There's ways we build out." And so he became convinced otherwise.

Yamashita: I think you're right.

Fujino: But anyways, I'm turning to John.

Freeman: There's some more questions so we can con continue to talk about demolition. Cynthia Ye has a question, "Our close-knit communities of color always seem to get demolished and the people evicted. Why is that, do you suppose? The same thing happened in Boston."

Yamashita: Why does it happen? I don't know how to answer that. I think it's particular to each event, is it not? Although, what happens, I think, is that people fight among each other. And they have disagreements about which direction an organization or an event should take, and it's difficult. It's difficult to come to some kinds of agreements. Yeah.

Freeman: One of the things, there's so many things I love about this book, but I also teach writing and a lot of my students, I think, were despairing because they were going to a lot of protests and then figuring, struggling to figure out how to write about that in their work. How do you write about liberation as a movement within a story. And you figure out a way how to describe the creative aspects, the kind of thrill of that time and it's anguishes. And of course, one part of that, and now I'm going to return it back to the drop thread, is sex, sex in the I hotel, which is ... I found the passage that I think you might be thinking of, because it is also the only passage in which people have interest, have a kind of, they get down and gets boogie-ing on top of Marx and very other Marxist thinkers.

And it's page, it's when Stony and Aiko get together at 558. And Stony knocks on Aiko's door and she's wearing a Mao jacket and cap, holding a shotgun. And I think all right, here we go. I'm working, by the way, Karen, from this version that [crosstalk].

Yamashita: All right, here it is.

Stony knocks on Aiko's door. She's wearing a mild jacket and cap and holding a shotgun extended across the back of her neck. Behind her, the speaker system swells with orchestral strings, traditional cithars, triumphant horns, rolling symbols and the marching drums of the red detachment of women. Stony could swear the whole room is glowing and pulsing red, that the entirety cherubic Yellow Nation is welcoming him home. His chest pounds with the pride of 800 million people. "You're late," she says, "Never too late for the revolution." She smiles and turns.

Of course she's barefoot, and he follows her jaunty step, watches her pull the shotgun to her shoulder, focus on an unseen target, practice her stance. She cocks the 12 gauge and gently pushes it under the bed. She tugs his jacket, packed with her letters, stuffed into every pocket, the most precious held next to his heart. She pulls them out and reads one or two, hands grazing his pounding chest, glancing at his lips that read back the parts he's memorized. His eyes fill with tears and longing. Once a revolutionary, his lips form the words. Her fingers find his lips circle and touch his teeth, now a comrade. She pushes her hands into the warmth of his jacket padding thickly with all its paper, stamps, pen confessions. Everything has been said.

He pulls away her cap, her lustrous hair falling, pops open one by one, the frog ties of her mouth jacket. Beneath he's surprised to discover she's clothed in a second layer, a thin silk red pajama. Her revolutionary cast of accompanying dancers fly by with red ribbons. And she smiles. This begins in stages, touching through scarlet layers, reaching within, feeling, exchanging soft, then wetter kisses. Time to put the Shunga and its big promises on the bed, 12 pages of 12 months turning fragment pine over pristine snow to fluttering, fading cherry blossoms, to erect Murasaki irises, to plump yellow chrysanthemums and crimson maples. Detachments red thunder fills the room in powerful splendor, a symphony in four movements. Bodies roll and twist and turn impossible. Contortions grow dizzy with the visions of postered faces plastered to every wall, Mao to Marx, to Ho, to Lamumba, to Lenin, to Fidel, to Malcolm, to Che, zapping around and around all the revolutionary men hard with anticipation.

I'll stop there.

Freeman: That's fabulous. It's a great place to end yet another definition of I. Oh, I feel like I could talk to you for quite a bit more, and I'm sure everyone here could participate. But you've been very generous to give us this much time and to come on and talk about this book and your work. And I suspect you'll be on again, talking about LA if we keep going, because Tropic of Orange is another one of many of our favorite books. But thank you for this and for this book and for coming on and please, if you're in the audience, this is a marvel and something that speaks into our time and back into it. It's a revolutionary act of love and that's very hard to pull off. Thank you for that.

Yamashita: Thank you, John. And thanks for writing your review. I just read it.

Freeman: Well, it's one of the nice things about this club, is the chance to get together and think and have other pieces and interviews and bring on people like Diane, thank you, Diane, for coming, and to give a part of our life and our evening to looking at something beautiful, which is, doesn't happen very often when you start the evening with the news these days. I think at this point, David Ulin is going to come on and talk more about what's coming up and where you can go to find more about California Book Club and Alta.

Ulin: Thanks John. Thanks Karen. Thanks Diane. That was a wonderful conversation. This book is a masterpiece, I just want to reiterate that. If you haven't read it and you're in the audience, read it please. It's mind blowing and spectacular, just like the conversation we just heard. I want to again, thank Karen, Diane and John. I want to remind you all that this interview has been recorded and will be posted at in case you want to revisit it. I want to also remind everyone that next month's book we will be hosting Michael Connelly for his novel, The Dark Hours. That is on April 21st. And also really just to put a buzz in all of your ears for the whole spring program, after Michael's book in April, Maggie Nelson's, The Argonauts will be the May book and Steph Cha's, Your House Will Pay is the June book.

That is just about, it's a rate lineup, so please come to all of those events. The sale on the Alta membership for California Book Club members, you can find out more about that at And please participate in a two minute survey that will pop up as soon as we end this event. In the meantime, stay safe everybody. See you next month. Take care, have a good night. And thank you all for being here.•

I Hotel by Karen Tei Tamashita

Coffee House Press

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