Monday, December 6, 2010

"Swords and axes. Whips and daggers. Give me liberty or give me death!"

I Hotel
By Karen Tei Yamashita
604 pages
Coffee House Press
May 2010

But use your imagination to what end? What's the point of this circus of Siamese twins fathered by a hapless outlaw? Come to America, and your children all come out hyphenated. Half this-half that. Nothing whole. Everything half-assed. And it's more complicated than that. One half trying to be the other half and vice versa. As they say, duking out the dialectics. Working through schizophrenia and assimilation. Poor man. These kids drive him nuts. He's taught them everything they know, but still they have no respect. They think they're supposed to be free in Asian America.

Karen Tei Yamashita, an instructor at the University of California-Santa Cruz, was born in California and has lived in Brazil and Japan. Her fifth novel, I Hotel, is an ambitious endeavor that brings to life the multifaceted creativity and activism of San Francisco's Asian-American communities during one of the most tumultuous decades in living American memory.

I Hotel is actually a compendium of ten novellas for each year between 1968 and 1977, all loosely connected to one another by the presence of the International Hotel. As Yamashita explains in her Afterward, the "I-Hotel," by the time of its demolition '77, was the crumbling home of elderly Chinese and Filipino men who had arrived in America decades earlier bursting with ambition, only to be thwarted by antimiscengenation laws, restrictive acts against Asian immigration, and the prevailing racism of the day. Perhaps due to its symbolic significance, the I-Hotel became the epicenter of the Yellow Power movement that took inspiration from the Black Panthers, global Marxism, and the period's explosion of civil rights movements. Yellow Power was diverse and decentralized, embracing political revolution, social justice, economic empowerment, and radical scholarship. Most activists did not know what their compatriots were doing, Yamashita found, and I Hotel is a suitably sprawling canvas nevertheless united by its characters' shared passion for change and the ever-present International Hotel.

I-Hotel is in many ways comparable to John Dos Passos's The 42nd Parallel, as a multi-media chronicle of various individual Americans as they negotiate their era's trends and dynamics. The stories of assorted Chinese-, Japanese-, and Filipino-Americans – from their respective positions as students, professors, artists, filmmakers, poets, musicians, laborers, and community organizers – are revealed through lists, comics, plays, free verse, interviews, photos, audiovisual transcripts, flights of magic realism, mythology, and fragments of real-life quotes and documents interspersed throughout several of the narratives. The result is a panoramic, ground-level tour-de-force that gradually coalesces into something greater than the sum of its parts.
When it's all said and done, you might have a compilation of events, and you might have a story with meaning. Someone says, don't worry about the details, just get the story. Someone else says, get the details and the hard facts, and then you can build a case for a story. Someone says a good story might help you remember, but someone else says that everyone remembers differently. 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.
The characters are different yet representative. The first novella focuses on a refined Chinese scholar, his youthful protégés, and their friend the Filipino cook, as well as the contradictions of Maoist China and its relationship to the Asian-American Left. The third, "'I' Hotel," centers on a conversation between a Black Panther and a member of the Red Guard Party in a Moscow hotel room. In "Int'l Hotel," three Japanese-American youths accompany a Modoc Indian to Alcatraz Island during the 1969 occupation, while a Chinese-American dancer dreams of uniting Peking Opera with avant-garde jazz to tell a story of life, identity, and history in "Aiiieeeee! Hotel."

For all their utopian hopes, however, the disparity between belief and reality seems to all but promise eventual disillusionment. Nevertheless, the legacy of Yellow Power is a broad one, says Yamashita, and includes Asian-American studies, law cooperatives, historians, educators, works of art and music, underground cooperatives, and drug rehabilitation programs. Furthermore, since many forms of oppression overlap (called "intersectionality" by sociologists), numerous activists also fought on other battlegrounds, such as feminism and disability rights.

Despite its size, I Hotel surges ahead quickly, its versatile storytelling preventing it from ever dragging or getting old. Part novel, part history text, Karen Tei Yamashita's brilliant, well-written, and well-researched achievement is the go-to book for anyone interested in Asian-American history, radical politics in America, the turbulent sixties, and grassroots activism. General readers, meanwhile, will have their eyes opened, a fact to which this reviewer can personally attest.

Review Copy


Amy said...

I have this book, but have been sort of intimidated by it. Maybe 2011 will be my year of "stop being intimidated." Are you listening, War and Peace??

Anonymous said...

I would definitely be in the 'eyes opened' group. This sounds really interesting, especially the storytelling format. The way you describe it reminds me of Life a User's Manual.

Emily said...

The comparison to Dos Passos is an interesting one! I'm very intrigued by this book but keep reading reviews of it that see it as never quite coming together into a unified whole. Maybe the idea of just being at peace with a lack of "every loose end tied up neatly" is key to enjoying it? In any case, I love the excerpts I've read enough to give this one a go. I tend to love fragmentary narratives anyway, so I'm not too worried. So glad to hear that it impressed you, since it's one I really WANT to love!

E. L. Fay said...

Amy: Don't be scared - like I said, it goes by very quickly! You'll absorb a lot too. I think you would love this one.

Sarah: It's actually way more varied than Life: A User's Manuel, which was pretty much restricted to a small group of people living in a single building. I Hotel is humongous and embraces an enormous set of characters, events, ideas, and modes of expression.

Emily: I think Yamashita was deliberately trying to evoke the decentralized nature of the Yellow Power movement, and that's why the book may not seem very unified to some readers. If it was all neatly tied together, that would feel kind of artificial - like it's not being true to the spirit of the time and place, if that makes any sense.

Teresa said...

I was among those readers who alternated between loving this and being vaguely dissatisfied. Some of the novellas were amazing, but others... meh. I think my main problems were a lack of background knowledge and impatience with the experimental nature of some of the novellas. However, the novellas I liked were so strong that I'm glad I read the book. It definitely opened my eyes to a piece of history I didn't know much about.

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