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Karen Tei Yamashita

The Author


Karen Tei Yamashita is a Japanese American writer from California. She lived for nine years in Brazil, the setting for her first two novels, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest (Coffee House Press, 1990), awarded the American Book Award and The Janet Heidinger Kafka Award, and Brazil-Maru, named by the Village Voice as one of the 25 best books of 1992.  Her third novel, set in Los Angeles, Tropic of Orange (1997), was a finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize.  A fourth book of mix genres in fiction and nonfiction, Circle K Cycles (2001), is based on her research of the Brazilian community in Japan.  Her most recent novel, I Hotel (2010), awarded the California Book Award, the American Book Award, the Asian Pacific American Library Association Award, the Association for Asian American Studies Book Award in Prose, and a finalist for the National Book Award, is set in the San Francisco Bay Area and the historic backdrop of the Asian American movement from 1968 to 1977.  Currently, she is Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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A Talk with Karen Tei Yamashita
by Julia Chiapella

On a recent bright winter day, Karen Tei Yamashita sat down for a chat. Gracious and game, she thoughtfully considered each question posed before answering, her responses occasionally punctuated by the cackle of laughter. Born in Oakland and raised in Los Angeles, Yamashita is a third generation Japanese American. She attended Carleton College where she received degrees in English and Japanese Literature. The recipient of a fellowship to study Japanese immigrants to Brazil, she met and married husband Ronaldo Lopes de Oliveira while there and had two children, Jon and Jane.  I Hotel, a National Book Award Finalist, is her fifth novel and the basis for much of the interview though we did manage to talk about life in Santa Cruz and her plans for the future. In ten novellas and more than 600 pages, I Hotel spans the years 1968 to 1977 and makes use of a variety of narrative styles as well as a fair amount of magic realism, shifting often between point of view and time period. It follows the genesis of the ethnic studies movement in San Francisco and the battle to save that city’s International Hotel, home to Filipino and Chinese elderly men prevented by miscegenation laws from marrying and having families. The I Hotel became a rallying point, a symbol for Bay Area Asian Americans and efforts to achieve recognition for their voices, their experience. We spoke in late January over tea.


JC: What was your reaction when you found out you’d been nominated for a National Book Award for I Hotel?

KTY: It was amazing. I had no expectation. It’s such a big book and there was a moment of panic when I saw it come out. My press [Coffee House Press] is independent and small and I thought, this will be the book that brings them down! I was really worried about it. I accepted any talk, anything, because I was going to have to sell this massive book and try to make it worth it to them. It was a small miracle that it was successful and it gave a great boost to the small press. It saved us all.

Despite your misgivings.

Yes! They were so excited. My publisher actually bought a tux to go to the party!

Quite a recognition of your work and of the press. I Hotel has been referenced as your magnum opus. Considering the breadth and depth of the book, there’s good reason for that. What do you think about its garnering that title?

Although it took me ten years to do the research for the book, it took me ten years because I was also teaching. All my books have that background in research. It took me a long while to figure out what the book would be and when I did, I knew it would be big. There were several ways we could have gone. We could have put it out in several volumes. We discussed that. But Allan [Kornblum] decided as the editor and publisher that it was one book, although I always have this idea that it might be ten small books. But as for my magnum opus? Yeah, I guess. It’s a great deal of research and it’s layered research. When I started the project I had some preconceptions about the period and also about the participation of Asian Americans and I wanted to incorporate that into the story. But then I realized I would have to do all the groundwork for that. I would have to study the Panthers, I would have to study ethnic movements across the board, and that’s what made it a much longer process. But I got an education doing it.

How did you go about accomplishing the research?

I had started the process in Los Angeles. A friend of mine wanted to do a film, a documentary, of some of the old activists in Los Angeles. We started it there. By the time I was able to do the work I had come to Santa Cruz to teach and I thought well, this is an opportunity to do some of that research in the San Francisco area. I began to do that and realized I would have to shift the focus of the book to San Francisco and [UC] Berkeley and San Francisco State because I felt the gravitas of the movement was there. There is a lot of traveling between many places in this story but the center was in San Francisco. I don’t know at what point I came upon the I Hotel, the International Hotel, but I thought, this can be the narrative center. When I knew that, I began to research the history of the hotel, to make sure I knew all the threads that wove in and out and all those trajectories. It was a slow process.

During that time I was also teaching Asian American literature at UC Santa Cruz so I was doing all this reading. I was pointing some of my research toward certain moments. In the International Hotel in the day, there was a writing workshop that still exists. They were publishing but they were doing multiple things. They were doing silk screening and photography and world histories and poetry anthologies. So I began to read some of those folks. In particular there was a poet by the name of Al Robles, a Filipino American poet. I interviewed him and anybody who knew about him. I also brought him to the university to read. Those were some of the initial contacts. Until the end of his life a few years ago he was involved with the Hotel and the Filipino American manongs, or elders, and their history. He put me in touch with other people who were advocating for the return of the hotel and the issues around it. It was interesting because I invited him to a class and he was supposed to be the guest poet but he brought two carloads of people who were also working with the Hotel. They came out with their posters and their photographs…

It could be a scene from the book…

Yes. They set it up in my classroom and began to tell the story to my students. A number of my students became involved with that activism—this was many years ago—and maybe they’re involved with the cultural center that’s at the Hotel now.

You’ve seen the center, of course.
Yes. In fact I wanted the book to be launched there and it was. That was very exciting. All the ghosts, all those folks were kind of there. It was very moving.

You were born in Oakland, grew up in Los Angeles, have lived in Brazil and Japan. What threads connect these different, yet I’m imagining, somehow similar locations to your writing?

I’ve been really blessed with being able to travel and it’s had a great influence on my writing. I don’t think I would have written in quite this way if I had not done it. It created those triangulations. My first book is Brazil Maru, a historical fiction that follows the Japanese immigration to Brazil. It took me years to write. I cut my teeth on it and tried to figure out what it was that would make it a book. I have more research for that book than anything else. It taught me to think about a community of immigrants who were like my community of immigrants but they were a generation younger. So if my grandparents immigrated here at the turn of the century in 1900, when Japan was just coming into the Industrial Revolution, the immigrants who went to Brazil were the next generation and I was able to interview these people. My grandparents had already died so I felt I was in contact with the spirit of that adventure. Of course, Brazil’s so different. I had lived in Japan so I was able to make some sense of historic gestures and thoughts about that as well as social. That’s why I was so fascinated with the idea of this International Hotel. The ideas of immigration and diaspora for many groups of people are worked into that. We think many times that ethnic studies is just about an immigrant group in the United States circled by their circumstances of race and prejudice--that they’re born-again Americans. But actually they bring all their history, their culture, their baggage, everything, to the situation. If we don’t make this movement across the ocean and across borders, we can’t understand what’s going on here. I think that this realization for the folks active early on in the movement, they knew that. Since then we’ve forgotten it as the stories have become Balkanized and separated.

When I was reading I Hotel, several writers came to mind that are addressing similar issues. There are places where your humor and the straddling you do of the line between two cultures or countries—which isn’t necessarily a line—are very evident. T.C. Boyle’s Tortilla Curtain, Junot Diaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, performance artist Guillermo Gomez Peña--you’re dissecting the space between the cliché and the forces that line up to characterize that cliché.

The thing about writing is you do one sentence at a time and then you have to make this narrative work for a reader. Whatever is piled up in the research or the thinking of it gets formalized on the page. How do you control that and how do you make it work? What I did with I Hotel was to think about who might be telling stories, so I created ten narrators. If I could focus on being or controlling the voice of those narrators I could create a story that would speak to the reader. But those narrators are also telling stories about characters that have composite stories. And then they have a point of view. In many cases the point of view is skeptical or doubtful or sometimes satirically humorous.

And yet there’s an earnestness. I wanted the earnestness of those people who participated to be there as well. We’re reading this 30 years later in hindsight. Many of the people who were telling me their stories were also telling the stories with 30 years hindsight. They had a lot of funny things or sad things to say that were reflected in their stories. Those things are also piled into this. How do we honor that but also the integrity of those utopian gestures from people who were trying to change the world and thought they were very close to doing so? Thirty years later they’re saying, “Well, we made some big mistakes.”

Mistakes that you chronicle in the book. Is I Hotel the only one of your books written entirely in Santa Cruz?

There’s another book published in 2001, Circle K Cycles. It was written here. I took the materials and notes that I had done in Japan and wrote here.

You referred earlier to the ten narrators that make up the ten novellas of I Hotel. Felix is one of those narrators. There’s so much humor and raucous storytelling in Felix but a lot of pathos, too. Did you have an inspiration for him?

For Felix, yes and no. I never really met any of the elders who were at the hotel. I met the young folks who were there at the time and became elders. There’s a film by Curtis Choy called The Fall of the I Hotel and he filmed the men who were at the hotel and their story. So I was able to see them and hear their voices. But Felix was created out of the time I heard about so I had to combine all the stories. He’s larger than any one character or any one of the Filipino manong who lived at the hotel. He’s sort of a migrant all-person.

One of the things I was working with is a book by Carlos Bulason called America Is In the Heart. He wrote in the 30s about Filipino workers. In that book he brings together all these stories of Filipino men working up and down the coast as migrant workers, in the canneries, and their experiences in the unions. The thing about the book is that it was sold as a memoir but if you read the book it’s not really a memoir. Carlos Bulason had TB and so all of that work and all those things he supposedly did couldn’t have happened if he had TB. He brought together all those stories, those things he knew from the men he had worked with and tried to organize as a union worker, and it was sold as a memoir because memoirs sell. I think it was published just before the war. The first ethnic stories published are often the memoirs even though many times they are not memoirs. It’s a marketing and publishing ploy. So I was thinking about all this, how you can make all these stories and experiences come together in one character because Felix is an impossible character, really. He lies. He’s not reliable at all. He said he’s been in all these places, he said he cooked for Imelda Marcos, and all of that of course is part of the joke.

Which is what makes him so wonderful. He can say anything. And yet the end of that chapter is so tragic, the arc of that section so vivid. But tell me about the narrative style for I Hotel. You have text in the form of a script, in reference manual style, graphic novels, straight narrative style. As well as being a pan-cultural book it’s a pan narrative book!

That’s a nice way of looking at it.

At the same time, it’s a challenging book to read. As a writer, how do you walk that line between what’s important to you to write and what’s important for people to read?

There was moment at which I was going to make a much more experimental novel. Experimental in the way that Georges Perec was experimental. If you notice on the inside flaps of I Hotel there are these, what my friend Micah Perks calls, origami boxes or take-out boxes. I wanted to have a three-dimensional quality to it because a hotel has three dimensions. I had done this sort of thing with another book, Tropical Orange. I had a spreadsheet of seven days and seven characters and you could find their chapters by coordinating the days and the characters at any time in the book. It was sort of my cheat sheet for moving through the book. I thought I would create something similar for I Hotel and it would have these dimensions like a building. I thought about rooms. I thought about using an architectural program to do it and then I thought, this is supposed to be a book. People need to be able to read it.

So at some point I organized it along the lines of those ten boxes. There was inside the box and outside the box. It got really complicated. I printed them up on harder paper, colored paper, cut it out. I was having fun. I set them up on a table and said, now I’m going to find out what structure the book is. I turned the boxes and said here’s a book. I realized that no one but me would understand what was going on. The puzzle would be too complicated. I probably could have done a poem but that wouldn’t have been a book. I had to figure out what to do. I had talked to over 130 people. I knew so many stories. And I had the thought that the people who are activists are not necessarily readers. Yet they were also my audience and I had to honor their stories if they had spent all this time talking to me and probably wondered ten years later, where’s the book? I started thinking about telling stories that would reach them, stories they could be involved in and maybe read  (laughter). That they were in but you couldn’t tell.

That there was a degree of anonymity involved.

Yes. But I still wanted to have an aspect of the literary and the experimental in it. I think I figured it out.

I think it was James Joyce who said about Ulysses,  “It took me ten years to write it. It should take you ten years to read it.” At some point while reading I Hotel I thought of his quote because to really read it well takes some time.

There are other things I was trying to do, trying to represent in the book. How do you represent other kinds of media? How do you represent a documentary film? How do you show dance on the page? Is that possible? Those were questions I had on how to represent [different styles] so the reader feels they’re also experiencing them in some way.

One of the things that makes I Hotel so extraordinary is its multi-dimensionality: through time, through different voices, narrative style, space. It was like reading a multi-dimensional chess game. And then there were the acronyms for all the different activist groups and their subsets. At one point I said, where’s the gloss?! (laughter) And then as the book draws to its close you talk about the alphabet soup.


Tell me about that.

That’s something the activists actually said: “We’re an alphabet soup.” Everybody knew to refer to themselves or their group. As, you know, AAS or whatever. Those are actual acronyms and I wanted it to be there to talk about it but I didn’t want to actually say that any one of them is the group I’m talking about.

Then you’ve also got Filipino terms, Chinese terms, Japanese terms for food, for sex. The book is an education in itself since I found myself researching some of the acronyms and terms as I was reading. Are you using this or is anyone else using it as part of a curriculum?

I think parts of it are but they’re finding it difficult because it’s hard to teach the whole thing. I notice that people are taking the chapter you mentioned about Felix and using that in class. There were some classes that used the whole book but I doubt that students read it all.

I’ve thought about a way to extend the book using technology. What you’d do is put it up as a small I Hotel on a website and then allow a wiki annotation to the book. I suggested this to my publisher and he just rolled his eyes. I also suggested the universities as the sort of place where we could do this. A colleague told me there are some platforms that would work for that kind of project. I thought of it as a site where people could mark a place at the Hotel and say, “I was there at the corner and this is what I did.” The site could have consequences that were larger than the book. Or someone could say, “This never happened but this actually happened” or “This is wrong in the book.” It would have that annotation.
As an interactive quality.

Yes, as an interactive quality. Because when I go to read at bookshops where there’s a group of older people, I often have people come up to me and say, “ I lived in the hotel.” It’s amazing to me.


Yes! I could have interviewed all of those people.

Because your novels are influenced by the intersection of culture and geography and revolve around where you’ve lived, is there anything brewing about that intersection here in Santa Cruz?

There have been a few essays I’ve written. I’ve been thinking about something called Mystery Spot but I haven’t done it yet. But I will if I can get some time. I don’t have the time. I would write a lot more if I didn’t teach.

Your teaching position at UCSC is your first one, correct?

Pretty much. I had created some workshops when I was in Los Angeles. There’s a program that started in New York and it was a writing program in the YMCAs. I tried to start one at the YMCA when I was in Los Angeles. I thought it was a wonderful program for youth and adults who were attached to the Y. I did a few things with that program but it didn’t go very far.

I was given the opportunity to lecture here in around ’96. I taught an American Asian literature class and I taught a Creative Writing class. It was a wonderful opportunity because I knew I could be a great teacher but I had stayed out of that business because I had a family. I had a full-time job and I was essentially the breadwinner for my family in terms of benefits and that sort of thing. I couldn’t change my work or take any chances unless it came with benefits.

What were you doing at that time?

I was working as a secretary in Los Angeles for a television station and my husband was working as an architect but on an independent job. If I had gotten a job at one of the local universities or colleges it would have been as a lecturer and it wouldn’t have been enough for my family. When I finally had this opportunity to get the UCSC job I took it and it was surprising to me how well it went.

Why surprising?

I didn’t exactly know how I was supposed to organize my time or how I was supposed to work with students. But when I finally did it I realized I had a lot to offer. I’m not the teacher who has come through the MFA programs and who has done workshops with a pedagogy of creative writing. So I just made it up, and I still make it up. Although now I realize what’s done in an MFA program and what’s taught, and what the workshop is.

Has it influenced your teaching?

It has because I have colleagues who’ve gone through that and I’ve learned from them. I’ll go to their classes and see what they do. I remember at one point one of my students said, “When are we going to workshop?” and I said, “Do you really think you need to do that?” (Laughter) And then I thought, wait a sec, maybe that would work out. Let’s try that!

How do you see the literary community in Santa Cruz augmenting the UCSC community and vice versa?

Over the years I really wanted to close that gap or at least make it more fluid. And one of the things Micah Perks and I have done has been to open up the Living Writers Reading Series. We often bring local writers to the series and we wish it was a more public space and that more people from the community would come. It’s hard to get up to the university and the parking is not good. We wish there were a venue somewhere in town that was closer that we could send students to. Just to get the series together, the amount of time spent getting funding for it, and then actually bringing the authors, putting them up in hotels. It’s hard. Every year I say to a student intern, “Would you think about creating press releases that we can send to town? I think this is important for the community.” And sometimes it gets done and most of the time it does not. There’s only so much you can do to follow up on all of this. The publicity within the university tries to go out and make these things available but not always.

There’s a big literary community here in Santa Cruz. How have you been involved with that community?

I do a lot of readings in the area and I’m happy to do them. I’ve done them in the local libraries. Soquel Library’s a cute library. The folks there are wonderful. I’ve done it for elders in homes. Of course Bookshop Santa Cruz and Capitola Book Café. We send our students to work there. We have at least two students working at Bookshop Santa Cruz. We send our students to readings there and try to do collaborations. And then in the Bay Area I know many people in the universities. My connections are more with Asian American writers.

What’s next for you?

I’ll take a leave of absence to write next year. There are maybe three projects I’m working on. The main project is an archive of correspondence that belonged to my family on my father’s side where there were seven siblings. They’ve all since passed so the cousins have gotten together with all these letters and materials that have been saved. We’ve put the letters together including the letters written by the cousins to each other over a period of time.

The period that’s most interesting to me is the period from 1938-1948--the inception of the war, during the war, and after the war when the family was dispersed to internment camps. We were reading these letters and because we could put the chronologies together and have them one after the other, you see the seven siblings trying to figure out what’s going to happen to the family and how they’ve been separated. The majority of them go first to Topaz in Utah, a concentration camp there. After that they try to get jobs, either in the Midwest or on the east coast, so you see the letters going back and forth. That’s the center of the next project although I don’t know what I’m going to do with it. The family thought I was going to write our history but I don’t want to do that. I believe they can do that. But we want to pull that archive together as a workable archive on a website. There’s other material, articles and personal material, that are all part of that period. We went to the National Archives and pulled out a lot of material we didn’t know existed: questionnaires and their answers, letters of support for their leaving the camp that talk about their loyalty to the United States, photographs. It’s all very interesting but I’m not sure what form it will take. A friend said, “Oh it must be letters and epistolary,” and that’s part of it but I’m just not sure.

What fascinated all of us when we were reading the letters is how articulate they are in writing to each other but also in the act of writing letters, which we have lost. We don’t do that anymore. And what the letters tell you about details of that period and what they tell you as well about the siblings and the hierarchy of their family and who makes decisions.

You seem very comfortable with not knowing the endpoint of a novel, that it begins as a mystery. I read somewhere that I Hotel was initially going to be about the famous set of Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, so it really changed course significantly.

It certainly did. They’re in there. They’re in there all the time. They’re a hyphenated couple.

Julia Chiapella PHoto

The Interviewer

Julia Chiapella has been a purveyor of wine, a seamstress, a typesetter, a columnist, an actor, a graphic designer, an art director, a freelance writer, and a teacher. She lives in Santa Cruz with her husband and daughter and is a founding member of Santa Cruz Writes and phren-Z.


Winter 2012 Issue

Wallace Baine
Don Rothman
Karen Ackland

Carolyn Burke
Farnaz Fatemi
Gary Young

Clifford Henderson
Micah Perks
Paul Skenazy

Julia Chiapella

Love Letters Project
Wallace Baine
Lauren Crux
Stephanie Golino
Neal Hellman
Cheyenne Street Houck
Erin Johnson
Wincy Lui
Elizabeth McKenzie
Alyssa Young

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