'I Hotel' by Karen Tei Yamashita Reviewed by Marcela Valdes The Washington Post. November 11, 2010.
The building at the center of Karen Tei Yamashita's colossal new work of fiction, "I Hotel," is a creaky hotel that once stood on the edge of Chinatown in San Francisco. Built after the great quake that nearly destroyed the city in 1906, it had rusting plumbing, dangerous wiring and rats the size of cats in the basement. But for the aging workers and young radicals who found shelter within its deteriorating walls, the International Hotel was both "a fortress and a beacon."
For Yamashita it is also the girder in a tremendous feat of creative engineering, because "I Hotel" is no ordinary work of fiction. As original as it is political, as hilarious as it is heartbreaking, "I Hotel" is the result of a decade of research and writing that included more than 150 personal interviews. It's also a finalist for this year's National Book Award in fiction, which will be announced on Nov. 17. Whether or not "I Hotel" wins the prize, it will be dog-eared and underlined and assigned to college reading lists for generations.
Oddly enough, the novel began with a request from Wisconsin. Provoked by a questionnaire for Asian American writers that she received from a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Yamashita decided to write a book about the Asian American movement in California during the 1960s and '70s, of which she herself had been a part. Diving into archives and tracking down first-person participants, Yamashita put as much fact-collecting into her "Yellow Power" research as any historian.
When it came to dramatizing her facts, however, Yamashita may well have channeled I.M. Pei. "I Hotel's" table of contents includes a series of drawings that lay out its narrative architecture: 10 linked novellas, each exploring a different narrative technique (pastiche, social realism, cinema verite, etc.) and each focusing on three different main characters. (Yes, Hollywood, that makes for 30 star roles!)
One novella presents the story of a Japanese American criminology professor through a series of FBI-like surveillance reports. Another juxtaposes the marriage of two Third World Liberation Front activists against Ferdinand Marcos's declaration of martial law in the Philippines. My favorite novella features a roast pig contest directed by a Filipino migrant-worker-turned-chef with a taste for tall tales.
All the novellas, in turn, are cantilevered off a larger story about how the International Hotel inspired and protected its inhabitants. The radical intellectuals of the Asian Community Center, the veterans of the International Hotel Tenants Association, the artists of the Kearny Street Workshop and the Maoists of the Chinese Progressive Association: All of them found work space, think space, love space in the crumbling hotel. And all of them fought fiercely against the developers who wanted it demolished.
The term "Asian American" blurs together wildly different linguistic and religious cultures. As one narrator says, "Maybe we all look alike, and maybe the laws lump us all together so we got to stick together, even though we're really different and can't understand each other and our folks back in the old countries hated each other's guts."
"I Hotel" resists this lumping. Its wild narrative architecture springs from a need to delineate separate Chinese, Japanese and Filipino histories, as well as separate aesthetic, political and intellectual positions. It's as if Yamashita wanted to capture the diversity of an entire cultural ecosystem, displaying each distinct species -- idealistic gay Chinese poet, wisecracking Filipino Marxist, Japanese Black Panther strategist -- in all its particular glory, and its particular pain.
"I Hotel" may be a political book, but it's no ideological tract. Yamashita obviously admires the fervor and idealism of the activists in her novel, whether they're demanding more Third World professors at U.C. Berkeley or making charcoal drawings in a Japanese internment camp. But her activists are often as problematic as they are inspiring.
Chen, a dashing professor of Chinese literature, for example, teaches his proteges about Mao's cultural revolution but neglects to mention that "everything that Chen loved about art and literature had to be destroyed or changed" to fit the revolutionary ideal. Other radicals commit greater and lesser crimes: stealing cars, abusing women, stockpiling guns, sabotaging colleagues they consider too capitalist. Even the most generous characters, like Ria Ishii, who organizes a garment workers' collective in 1973, are forced to confront the limitations of their Marxist aspirations. "I know what you think," one of the old garment workers tells Ria, "but I am not the revolution."
"Yes, you are," Ria replies. The older woman shakes her head. And three decades later we know she's right.
Such scenes of intellectual and physical humbling come faster as "I Hotel" marches through the 1970s. Collectives fall apart. Important battles are lost. Protest chants ("The people united will never be defeated!") begin to sound more and more like wishful thinking. The disappointments might have been overwhelming if it weren't for the zing of Yamashita's prose, which is full of waggish jokes and saucy mash-ups. The sliest of them may be a series of line drawings spoofing the long-standing rivalry between the playwright Frank Chin and the novelist Maxine Hong Kingston.
In the end, the way "I Hotel" accounts for the Asian American movement is both sweet and sour. And for all the losses Yamashita records, there are, we know, great achievements as well. High among them is this beautiful book.