The National Book Award finalist explores the roots of Asian American activism and paints a vivid portrait of revolutionary San Francisco.
The National Book Awards will be announced on Wednesday, November 17. The list of fiction finalists this year snubs a number of notable titles—including Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom—and includes two novels from small, independent publishers. One of these is Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel, from Coffee House Press, a challenging entry that didn’t get any great attention when it was released last spring. But the NBA nod is well deserved: I Hotel is at least as ambitious as any other novel published in 2010. Yamashita spent a decade researching this book, which is a sprawling archive of historical detail bound together by an idiosyncratic and expansive imagination
For all its density, I Hotel focuses on a brief historical moment, San Francisco’s Yellow Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Before there were “Asian Americans” in the Bay Area, there were the descendants of Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese immigrants who shared little, culturally or politically, other than the burden of racist stereotypes: Charlie Chan, coolies and field hands, jade dragons and perfumed tigers, warrior hordes that charge into battle screaming “AIIIEEEEE!!” Yamashita’s characters are the artists, students, and revolutionaries who struggle against these stereotypes, sometimes individually and sometimes collaboratively, during one transformative decade.
A lot of collective action takes place in the International Hotel itself, a home for Chinese and Filipino bachelors. The ground floor serves as community center, performance space, and hideout for many of Yamashita’s protagonists, and the hotel shows up as the single recurrent landmark in this novel’s numerous narrative threads. At first just a homely backdrop, the I-Hotel takes on special significance when developers threaten demolition. The plot to save the hotel calls everyone home. One migrant farmworker abandons a strike with César Chávez to return to San Francisco. “This my grass roots,” he says of the fields. “I-Hotel my brick roots.”
Though an important community symbol, the crumbling I-Hotel isn’t sturdy enough architecture to comfortably house Yamashita’s scattered, multi-perspective pastiche of a novel all by itself. I Hotel is made up of ten separate novellas that don’t so much interlock as lean against one another. Few characters survive from one novella to the next—many are killed off, others drift away. Each novella employs a vast array of textual modes and formats, including poems, comics, myths, plays, recipes, CIA dossiers, movie transcripts, Confucian Analects, Marxist dialectics, and countless epigraphs plucked from the speeches of Malcolm X and Imelda Marcos, the writings of Eldridge Cleaver and Mao Tse-Tung, and the lyrics of Diana Ross.
The wealth of allusion sometimes makes this unabashedly postmodernist novel seem more curated than plotted, as though Yamashita wanted patrons to come to their own conclusions as they wander from room to room. She interrupts the story with political and literary theory or other historical curios. Each novella begins with the main characters, relevant historical moments, and even central themes neatly listed in the diagrammed squares of an unfolded origami box: The first novella begins in 1968, centers around Third World Liberation Front strikes, and deals with issues of “narrative voices.” The second novella begins in 1969, is concerned with “mind/surveillance/cinema verité,” etc. At times I Hotel reads like a love letter to avant-garde fiction of the 1970s, composed in a university library under the influence of huge doses of Adderall.
Thankfully, Yamashita’s wit, style, and skill as a storyteller animate all this PoMo bric-a-brac. What could have been merely a dizzying academic exercise becomes instead a vivid portrait of revolutionary San Francisco. Yamashita is a master of the vignette, and her many set-pieces taken together articulate the way a common cause can flourish even on the flimsiest scraps of shared experience.
In one chapter, a Chinese professor and a Filipino cook strike up conversation at a noodle house late at night. Both are foodies, and they decide to write a cookbook together based on an archetypal East Asian myth of two lovers who meet every summer and winter solstice. In the myth, the lovers spend the full day of each solstice in each other’s arms and then complete their tryst by serving each other a multi-course feast fit for gods. The cook philosophizes:
This is the great myth of the Asian peoples. How can the West compare? All they got is the poison apple… Think about it. Innocence to knowledge. Good to evil. And then they get to have sex. What kind of screwed up thinking is that?
The professor agrees, but for the sake of including fall and spring seasonal dishes in their cookbook, he wonders if maybe they can have the couple meet four times a year in their version of the myth. “O.K.” replies the cook. “We can change the story. Why not?”
The same call to revise the story recurs throughout I Hotel. Some facts of this provisional Asian American identity are as material as a steaming bowl of noodles: San Francisco, Angel Island, immigration laws, a dilapidated hotel on the border of Chinatown. But the stories that rise out of these facts are up to the teller, and are always acts of imagination.
Reimagining history is Yamashita’s aim, as she manages to brilliantly envision and celebrate her subject. Her scrupulous research can occasionally overwhelm, but ultimately I Hotel succeeds as a living, breathing memorial of a historical novel, as if to make good on an early scene in which an aging woman scolds her writer nephew: “Don’t let us down, especially after we’re dead.”