2010 National Book Award Finalist,
Karen Tei Yamashita
Coffee House Press
Interview by Bret Anthony Johnston
Bret Anthony Johnston: Congratulations on I Hotel being named a Finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. This is your fifth book. How did the writing of this novel compare to the work you’d done previously?
Karen Tei Yamashita: Thank you. I’m very honored.
I think the work of the previous books made the I Hotel possible; that is to say that I learned while writing how to research, to create form, structure, and narrative voice, and to follow a writing practice intuitive to my own process. The research for Brazil-Maru, based on the history of Japanese immigration to Brazil, was similarly extensive, and I employed practices of interviewing learned from those years. In writing Tropic of Orange, I continued to experiment with voice and narrative perspectives. While researching Circle K Cycles in Japan, I became more confident about moving within a community as recorder and participant while building a contemporary archive. The archival research for I Hotel, however, was far more extensive than in the previous projects. I spent endless hours reviewing old underground newspapers, flyers, graphic art, literature, audio speeches, documentary radio and video, books, and music of the time.
BAJ: In the fiction category this year, each of the novels seems heavily researched. What role does research play in your writing process?
KTY: I began researching because of an interest in anthropology. My mentor, professor at Carleton College, Paul Riesman, would probably laugh about this now, considering my turn to fiction to avoid having to footnote my sources, but I still adhere to trying to keep the integrity of historic time and place and cultures. I think that intense and thorough research keeps fiction honest. And because of my relationship built over time with real people who live and lived real lives, I feel responsibility to their stories and memories. Of course one can go on researching forever; without the project of the written book itself, it can be an endless labyrinth. Despite the isolation of the writing life, the published book forces me to emerge to face my readers. I can’t do that unless I’ve done my homework.
BAJ: Do you remember your original idea for I Hotel? How closely does the finished book correspond to what you first had in mind?
KTY: The original idea was satiric and connected to the Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, a circus act brought to America in the 1930s. Chang and Eng Bunker eventually settled in North Carolina as Southern gentlemen who supported the Confederacy. There are, within the I Hotel, many moments referential to Chang and Eng as doppelgangers, hyphenated identities, and perhaps the narrative conceit behind the first person plural of the last novella, but, as my research progressed, well, the twins could not sustain the length and breadth of this project.
BAJ: I Hotel is dedicated to Asako and her grandchildren. Do you have a reader in mind as you write?
KTY: My mother, Asako Yamashita, is 93 years old. I suppose she won’t mind her age broadcast at this late date as she, though hard of hearing, has been an avid reader, her mind still very much engaged in current events, the state of the economy, and politics. She reads the New York Times every morning, and she’s the reader who cut out the notice about the National Book Awards. I think it became a reality for her when she read it there. My mother and father and their generation of Nisei Americans lived through the war having to be removed from the San Francisco bay area and sites all along the Pacific Coast to concentration camps. It’s probably not Asako as a particular reader that I have in mind but perhaps that legacy of struggle that extends to a continuing movement for civil and human rights that may be a guiding spirit.
BAJ: The novel is set in the late 1960s in San Francisco. What role does setting play in your writing?
KTY: The International Hotel or I-Hotel was/is a real place. It was a hotel built around the turn of the century, 1900, on Kearny and Jackson streets between Chinatown and North Beach in San Francisco. In the pre-war era, Kearny Street was known as Filipino- or Manilatown, lined by restaurants, bars, and storefronts that serviced the Filipino community and was mostly populated by Filipino migrant laborers. By the 1960s, the I-Hotel was rundown but cheap housing for a bachelor community of elderly Filipino and Chinese, men who had lived out their lives as agricultural field labor, cannery workers, merchant mariners, longshoremen, union activists, busboys, and cooks. As tenants, these men made their last stand to prevent the destruction of the hotel to be replaced, under the guise of redevelopment, by a parking lot. From 1968 to 1977, community and student activists and eventually thousands of supporters in the San Francisco and East Bay areas congregated at the I-Hotel to prevent the eviction and destruction of the hotel.
BAJ: How much of the story do you know before you start? Is your imagination liberated by parameters—such as writing toward a specific ending or knowing you’re exploring a particular theme—or is it fueled by a lack of stricture and the act of discovery? These aren’t mutually exclusive positions, but I wonder if you find yourself on one side more often than the other.
KTY: Writing a novel is a long project of learning and discovery. I think writers write to learn something they don’t know, and that’s the pleasure of reading to participate in the excitement and awe, though oftentimes discouragement and pain, of that discovery. While the trick of it is the immersion into another or parallel world, perhaps the process is more transparent. Having accumulated research, I try to have a large palette from which to draw the story, but while I structure out projects to give myself necessary limitations, I find I can’t really predict what one sentence might nudge the next to say.
BAJ: What was the biggest surprise you encountered while writing I Hotel?
KTY: I can’t say this was the “biggest surprise,” but my learning flushed out realizations about the connected history of the political left and the civil rights movement over the longer 20th century, the mature mentorship of what seemed on the surface in the 1960s to be a youth movement. Also, the Asian American or yellow power movement has perhaps been characterized as a circumscribed movement for ethnic identity, but it became evident to me that international and global connections and histories had tremendous influence and play. The birth of the Asian American movement was always transnational.
BAJ: What was the biggest challenge?
KTY: I began this project in earnest in 1997 when I began my job at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Frankly, I had to learn how to teach, and I made a decision that, when in teaching mode, I would dedicate that time to my students and colleagues and our program. Still, the university has afforded me summers and certainly the only research funding made available to me for this project. I learned to lose my anxiety about this project, to fold in teaching and researching and writing. My publisher, Allan Kornblum, would check in with me from time to time, but we both had to be patient.
BAJ: Another similarity among the fiction Finalists this year is the use of an alternating narrative point of view. You grant readers access to different characters’ consciousnesses throughout the novel. While this isn’t a necessarily new narrative technique, I wonder if its current prevalence isn’t indicative of something in our culture. Maybe it’s a feeling of disjointedness or fracturedness, or maybe a longing for a broader community. What led to your decision to employ different points of view?
KTY: This narrative technique has been, for me, an ongoing question from the first novel on. I suppose it began in Through the Arc of the Rain Forest in experimenting with a narrator who is a ball, and it continues in all of my work. It’s become an obsession, but maybe this last book has flushed it out of me. As a creative writing teacher, for many years I used Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler as a teaching tool, to encourage students to find and experiment with narrative voice. I think once a writer discovers the construction, limitations, and pleasures of a voice, the writing often takes care of itself. As for the I Hotel, embedded in the assumptions of the ten novellas and their narrative voices is also a literary project that has to do with Asian American literature.
BAJ: One of the extraordinarily inventive and exciting aspects of I Hotel is its structure. You weave a wide variety of narrative styles into the novel—from illustrations to sections of the text written in dramatic, poetic, and scientific formats. What was it about the story or characters that mandated such innovation?
KTY: I wanted to impart a sense of the variety of media and artistic production spawned in this period, not to simply describe it but to attempt to recreate it, within the limitations of the book as text. In particular, the novella, “Aiiieeeee! Hotel,” was also my narrative experiment in pastiche.
BAJ: What is the role of the writer in the world today?
KTY: I have great admiration for writers who can support the role of spokespersons and politicians, who can, on their feet, speak eloquently. I am shy and feel inarticulate in public, and probably like other writers, write later than sooner because I can’t speak up at the right moment and time. It takes so much effort to live currently, to absorb public and popular discourse like responding to emails as they ding into my computer. I often want to flee. Perhaps research and writing is an excuse, but it is one of the things I have learned to do better than others. I hope it makes a difference.
BAJ: This is the 61st year of the National Book Awards. How do you feel about I Hotel being honored in the tradition of the previous Finalists and Winners? Are there previous NBA honorees that you’ve found yourself rereading over the years?
KTY: I feel very honored. I am most elated because the I Hotel, and in fact all of my books, have been published by Coffee House Press, a small independent press in Minnesota with an extraordinary list and a very special and dedicated staff. This award honors the press’s history of integrity and support of new and emerging authors, taking risks while cultivating new writing. This award also honors the history embedded in the book—the stories of the activists, artists, and educators, who at the grassroots level dedicated their lives to the labor of and struggle for civil rights and social justice. One of the writers whose work was also born out the book’s historical period is Jessica Hagedorn, a finalist for this award many years ago and one of my writing heroes.
Johnston is the author of the internationally
acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of
Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative
Writer. He is director of creative writing at Harvard.
For more information, visit: www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.