I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. Coffee House Press. 605pp. $19.95.
“This is not art for art’s sake. It’s got a message, if you want message.”
Weighing in at slightly over 600 pages, author Karen Tei Yamashita’s National Book Award-nominated I Hotel is an encyclopedic compilation of facts, personages, and allusions both common and obscure that could very well represent a turning point in Asian-American literature. A novel that took its author 10 years to write, I Hotel actually consists of ten “hotels”: loosely-associated novellas that detail the variegated strands of activism within San Francisco’s Asian-American community, circa 1968-1977. Yet such a description only hints at the obvious, surface-level aspects of the novel, while just underneath much more is going on. With I Hotel, Yamashita works to establish the notion of a shared Asian-American history, just as much as she highlights how this history is as essential to American identity as sex, drugs, and rock’n'roll—save for the fact that in San Francisco, especially during this period in time, it’s more like sex, drugs, and Chairman Mao.
Still, perhaps a superficial description may be the best place to start. The International Hotel, or I-Hotel as it was more commonly known, was an SRO Hotel on the corner of Kearny and Jackson streets in the Manilatown-Chinatown section of San Francisco that housed retired migrant workers who had worked the length of the Pacific coast. In 1968, the year of Yamashita’s first novella, the hotel was labeled blighted, and its tenants, mostly old and aging Chinese and Filipino men, were served with eviction notices as a means of claiming the property for urban development. However, concurrent with the protests of both San Francisco State and UC Berkeley, students and social activists rallied to protest what was clearly a case of the city’s marginalizing a long-established community of color solely for reasons of gentrification. The I-Hotel quickly became the locus of Asian-American political activity for nearly a decade. Yamashita takes great care to make this point explicit, such as when she has a collective “we” succinctly state: “By now we understood the joke about the Red Block on Kearny and swimming around in radical alphabet soup—KDP, IWK, WMS, KSW, IHTA, CPA, CCA, EBS. On the face of it, we were all radical activist revolutionaries, and we were all united to defeat a capitalist-imperialist system of greed.”
Bear in mind that the key phrase to be found in the above quote is subtly embedded in the beginning of the second sentence: “On the face of it.” This is a topic I will return to later on, but for the moment it’s necessary to point out that the revolutionary flashpoint hoped for by so many acronymed movements ultimately failed to spark. Despite years of protest, on August 3, 1977, in front of several thousand disparate and multiethnic activist groups—as well as ordinary Asian-Americans of all political persuasions—the city of San Francisco forcibly evicted the hotel’s last tenants. Thus, while Yamashita’s novel covers each year of the I-Hotel’s most turbulent time, from 1968 (the year of student riots), to 1977 (the year of eviction), if the entire novel can be said to have a temperament it is the late 1960s rebellion.
Though the I-Hotel is the book’s main setting, I Hotel‘s true subject is the story of the ebb and flow and occasional stagnation of the Asian-American (aka, “Yellow Power”) movement. In the bargain Yamashita covers the years that saw the establishment and codification of Asian-American literature as a whole. For example, take this early scene from 1968′s “Eye Hotel,” when Chen Wen-guang, poet, scholar, translator, and mentor to Paul Lin, realizes the gulf between himself and his pupil and knows that he has no choice but to reject Paul, just as Paul will reject him:
He knew that it was a breaking away and a breaking out, that someone had to stand up to American racism and to claim American English. He knew the political meaning of literary acts. He knew that if Paul and his generation of writers wanted a history, they would have to dig it up and invent it for themselves.
It’s the chronicling of “breaking away and breaking out,” these fits and starts of self-invention, that allows Yamashita’s expansive narrative to cover multiple themes, events, and topics from numerous points of view. Part of the joy of reading I Hotel lies in the fact that there are no central characters here. As Yamashita’s characters flit in and out of very loosely related tales, she is able to capture the comédie humaine that was the Asian-American movement at the time. Taken together, the entirety of the novel is greater than the sum of each novella’s parts, and in this respect, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to mention Yamashita’s novel in the same breath as one would the works of Balzac, or perhaps even Hermann Broch.
Like both authors, Yamashita captures a zeitgeist as it was felt and lived, without writing in an overly moralizing or intrusive editorial tone. She faithfully documents the (sometimes true) testimonies of those (sometimes imaginary) characters who quietly helped to influence events as much as they were equally influenced by them, and it is this, the literary recombination of the factual and the fictional, the historical and the mundane, that evokes another zeitgeisteller, John Dos Passos.
Another part of the impact and power of I Hotel is that it recuperates what could easily be deemed “minor” history—the references and referents important to only a small or select cadre of people—and (re)presents these real instances in the larger context of rebellious, tumultuous America, giving this novel an historical, as well as an encyclopedic, edge.
But despite its careful use of history to great literary effect (such as rightfully stressing the significance of Tule Lake to both Japanese internment during World War II and the Modoc War of 1872-73), all is not dolphins and unicorns, sweetness and light. Yamashita sometimes becomes too enamored with “revolutionary lingo”; an egregious example occurs in 1970′s “‘I’ Hotel,” where the narrative voice of her main character comes across as stilted and forced, too centered on sounding authentically “with it” and “hep” to actually be hip, no matter what time period.
A more significant flaw is that, while Yamashita’s focus on the nascent Asian-American movement is to be commended, she is a bit too faithful in reproducing the ethnic and geographic provincialism that was so rampant at the time. So much attention is lavished on the Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino communities of 1970s San Francisco that one would think they existed in a vacuum, cut off from all contact with every other Southeast and East Asian population equally as involved (and invested) in West Coast politics. And yes, while it may be true that these smaller Asian communities like the Koreans, Indians, and the Vietnamese did not experience substantial population growth until after 1965, a book that tries quite hard to unearth overlooked histories and stress their connections to the larger American mythos ignores them to its own detriment. But perhaps this is not so much a critique of I Hotel as of the Asian-American ethnic category: it’s predicated on a highly reductive idea of “sameness.” Yamashita hints as much when she writes in 1973′s “Int’l Hotel”: “Everyone’s got a version of the same story, or maybe there’s no such thing as the same story; it’s a different story every time.”
Got that? Everyone (either) has a version of the same story unless (or) the same story is actually a different story every time. It’s a logical fallacy that in many respects is one of the ur-conundrums of identity politics: Does one focus on what determines difference, or what makes us the same? I Hotel doesn’t provide an answer, and that is a good thing—it is by shying away from over-simplified meanings that the book illustrates the challenges of adhering to a strict political ideology, while also showing the futility of professing to have an ideology. The dirty little secret of I Hotel is that its political characters often find themselves living in contradiction to their political commitments; in other words, those who possess strong ideological convictions are those who frequently experience ideological crises. Note the following scene, in which Yamashita uses an argument between two only-just-slightly different activists to make a statement about how political ideals are often corrupted, and always corruptible:
Olivia faced Ria off with militancy. Ria faced Olivia off with experience. . . . The ultimate stakes for revolutionary change were high indeed, but the forks in the road were often so minor that only the most sophisticated thinkers understood the nuances. Ria and Olivia might argue that their decisions were based on the resolution of theoretical struggle, but how many others came to conclusions based on friendship, loyalty, and feeling? Ria and Olivia could jab at each other and come away whole, but how many would be casualties in these fights, where they had joined a group and therefore a struggle to match their passions with their beliefs like first love? To be scorned or threatened or put on trial by those you love for something you believe so passionately is a long hurt and quiet dying.
Earlier on in this review I pointed out that the most important phrase in Yamashita’s description of “radical activist revolutionaries” was “on the face of it.” I said so because what becomes painfully obvious in the above scene, and elsewhere, is that this novel is an attempt to showcase all of the complexities and complications that arise when other (intellectual, emotional, etc.) forces intermingle with one’s political views. Or to put things another way, because not even the strongest political commitment is enough to staunch individual, emotional wounds, Yamashita shows how political ideology and personal bias can become so intertwined that it’s hard to tell the difference between the two. Where Yamashita’s work differs from others which contain a similar message is that the characters in I Hotel tend to underscore the exceptionally poignant fact that the political message one sees in any action or event may be only what one wishes to see, a predetermined thing akin to an ideological Rorschach test. And even then, one may be wrong. Basically, Yamashita plays the dual role of pragmatist and idealist in her novel, for what her revolutionaries illustrate is that it’s not possible to live accordingly to pure ideology, no matter how much one wishes the opposite were true. In this manner, she rises above the level of the didacticism so prevalent in many novels today, which often attempt to evoke shared feelings of oppression as a surrogate for cogent political philosophies and narrative explanations of good and evil, right and wrong.
But let’s not end this review on such a sad note. I Hotel will almost certainly serve as a model that future Asian-American authors will follow, especially since what differentiates this book from countless others is the attention Yamashita gives to narrative form, and the risks she takes with it. This is a very careful, cleverly constructed novel—to say that Yamashita defies conventional storytelling is an understatement. Beneath each novella’s standard narrative is a complex scheme: each hotel is centered around a minimum of four things: a specific historical event; a northern California locale and its international equivalent; at least three distinct characters; and a radically different thematic, aesthetic, stylistic, and literary approach. What’s more, Yamashita playfully combines literary techniques to great effect. The passionate diatribes of young activists share space with transcriptions of real protest speech; historical figures appear among fictional characters; the generous quantity of allusions ensure that the novel remains engaging, ready to stand up to substantial re-reads and numerous interpretations of its overall “message.” To return full circle then, it’s safe to say that no, I Hotel is not art for art’s sake. It’s a dazzling experiment, an erudite compilation of American history, and a literary tour de force.
Rone Shavers is coeditor of Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System. His fiction has appeared in ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, keepgoing.org, Milk magazine, and Warpland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas. His nonfiction has appeared in BOMB magazine, the Los Angeles Reader, and Mosaic literary magazine, among others.
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