For most of 2012, I carried Karen Tei Yamashita‘s I Hotel everywhere I went. It went in my suitcase as I traveled through France, it came along with me as I took care of a family member in Minnesota, and it traveled in my backpack as I moved back to San Francisco.
I have been thinking a lot about this book. And revolution. Revolution is in the air everywhere I look.
My favorite thing about the writing is the film noir tint. Revolutionaries are sexy, smart, and bold (they shoot guns in the underground tunnels of Chinatown), while activists stabilize political talk, suspicions, intrigues, and policing speeches on revolution with ceaseless dancing to James Brown.
Which is not to say that I-Hotel doesn’t feel reliable. The I-Hotel is entertaining, yes, but it’s also an educational romp in the revolutionary lines of the Asian American Movement in the Bay area in the 1960s and 70s. Told in ten novellas (one for every year starting in 1968), each novella revolves around the old I-Hotel in San Francisco, a low-cost residential hotel for the elderly, which also served as the headquarters for the Asian American Movement.
While in form, I-Hotel refuses to be pinned down — it’s Moby Dick meets The Golden Notebook meets On the Road, mostly told in straight prose except for when it unravels into oral history, poetry, graphic novel strips, dossiers, censored transcripts, outlines –perhaps the one defining characteristic of the book is also its living center: the story of the Issei, Nisei, and Sensei. These are stories that cross political lines, travail through immigration, internment, and revolution, and find their place in the hilly landscape — Turtle Island, the murals of Coit Tower, the Universities of the Bay, Alcatraz.
Yamashita presents a political community that is filled with divisions, personal intrigues, and varying commitments to the revolution, putting forth a constellation of radical acronyms: JACL, JTC, RG, CANE, CPA, ACC. The tensions are high, and on one instance the Chinatown Red Guard is called a Chinese minstrel show that mimics the Black Panthers. Yikes.
But let me tell you about the first novella, which puts everything into context. It is the year of the monkey. Amidst news of a triumphant surprise attack by the Vietnamese National Liberation Front against the US army, the Chinese New Year rings out in San Francisco’s Chinatown, but the thrust of the story is not the national phenomenon, but a father’s death. While partiers dance in the streets celebrating the New Year, one son leans down over his dying father, suddenly struck by a heart attack. Yamashita’s genius is in transliterating this very personal instance of grief back into the emotional response to the national phenomenon. Yamashita elucidates the defining event of an entire generation:
At her best, Yamashita’s telling is cool and electric, filled with static. A brilliant hand at experimenting, Yamashita narrates fights with martial arts diagrams (“Hand moves:” reads part of one, “mantis claw/gou/lau/tsai/qua.”), but at times in spite of all the language fireworks the writing falls flat. The third and fourth novellas are a pastiche of Oh, honey‘s and Don’t you know‘s which sound forced, distanced, and plastered-on:
The fifth novella is perhaps the most brilliant. In it, the noir tint of the telling peels off, and revolutionaries are older, having awaited a revolution that never came. It is the novella in which Yamashita most beautifully entwines politics and character without sacrificing one for the other. Told in outline form, Inter-national Hotel, unfurls as the notes of a study group reading red literature in the basement of the I-Hotel. Two characters are placed in opposition to each other from the beginning. Ben, from a working-class background, and Ollie, from a wealthy family, struggle to disrobe the other as a fake:
As the novella rolls along, the numerical outline points allotted to the study group gradually diminish, until they take a backseat to the thundering attraction between Olivia and Ben. Brilliantly, near the end of the novella, as the revolutionary fire that took on the world in the 60s and 70s begins to wane, Ben and Olivia are left perpetually trying to rekindle what seems to be a dying fire. All numerical points are taken up by the dialogue of old revolutionaries, distraught with heartbreak and political disillusion:
The passage following the one quoted above, which closes the novella, is one of the most beautiful in the book.
There is a plethora of lovable characters in I-Hotel (a monk who lives in a cupboard, a chef with a taste for tall tales), and they all help to forward the movement to a single, real event: the eviction of the elderly who lived in the I-Hotel. I-Hotel reads as a kind of oral history (polished at times and over-long at others) about a place that brought together a whole community, a place that once boiled with passion, a place that was finally destroyed by the city, then rebuilt by the city. It is a worthwhile book to read right now, not just to discover what the Bay Area is all about, but also to plumb the depths of what revolution is all about.
A Novel by Karen Tei Yamashita
Coffee House Press
- More reviews: Washington Post | Chicago Tribune | Bookslut | San Francisco Chronicle | The Rumpus
- Interviews w/Yamashita: Amerasia Journal | Fiction Writers Review | Phren-Z | Hyphen | Eclectica | The Asian American Literary Review
- The Reader’s Guide to I-Hotel
Ingrid Rojas Contrera is a Colombian writer, living in San Francisco with her books. You can find her fiction and non-fiction in American Odysseys: Writings by New Americans; Wise Latinas; F Magazine; and Make: a Chicago Literary Magazine, among others. An early draft of her debut novel,Niebla, was shortlisted for the Amazon/Penguin Breakthrough Novel Award. Currently, she is working on a non-fiction book about her grandfather, a medicine man who could move clouds, and a sister project:The Real Magical-realism Archive, a collection of oral histories about everyday occurrences with supernatural twists. She is the recipient of awards and residencies from the San Francisco Arts Commission, NALAC, Djerassi Residents Artists Program, Sandra Cisneros’ Macondo Foundation, and the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference.