An Interview with Karen Tei Yamashita
For the last two months or so, Karen Tei Yamashita will not get out of my life. And I say that with a goofy-grinned "wahhh" of delighted surprise. While I’ve been an ardent admirer of Yamashita’s books for some 20 years (yup, I have all her titles: Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, Brazil-Maru, Tropic of Orange, Circle K Cycles, and I Hotel just out in May), only in the last two months have our paths continued to criss-cross over and over again, literally and in livetime.
Let me count the ways. During one of my busiest weeks this spring, Yamashita’s latest, I Hotel, arrived on my doorstep from my Library Journal editor with about six days to file a review. At 640 pages, I gasped at what lay ahead of me, but had to smile at the irony that I would be meeting Yamashita that very weekend -- she was headed to Washington, DC, for a literary double-header.
I had to remain impartial to be able to review her book -- I alerted my editor as to the imminent meeting and she was fine -- and the six days dropped to four. For all its density, I Hotel was a stunning read. Comprised of 10 novellas that took 10 years to craft, I Hotel is Yamashita’s magnum opus. Each novella marks the most tumultuous years of Asian Pacific American history, from 1968, when ethnic studies was painfully birthed in San Francisco, to 1977, when San Francisco’s International Hotel -- long a pivotal symbol of APA activism -- fell to demolition crews.
I filed my starred review, and gleefully went to meet Yamashita with a clear (and giddy) conscience. That weekend in March, I got my first-ever Yamashita livetime dose, initially as part of the lucky audience during a symposium featuring eight notable Asian Pacific American writers in celebration of the literary debut of The Asian American Literary Review (AALR). Then on Sunday, I joined the limelight (albeit from a distance) as I moderated a panel of seven of the eight writers (one ran off to continue his book tour) during the inaugural Amnesty International Human Rights Art Festival.
Here’s what was so mind-boggling and phenomenal about that panel: every one of Yamashita’s cohorts were somehow contained in Yamashita’s I Hotel:
§ Poet Srikanth Reddy read “Fundamentals of Esperanto,” a poem from his collection, Facts for Visitors -- Vasily Eroshenko, a proponent of Esperanto, takes a bow in I Hotel.
§ April Kyoko Heck read “The Bells,” a poem from her as-yet unpublished collection, A Shelter of Leaves, about her mother who was in utero -- “in utero, did my mother stir?” -- and miraculously survived the Hiroshima atom bomb. In I Hotel, a young Japanese American artist travels through Hiroshima and returns with devastating illegal footage of bomb survivors.
§ Novelist Peter Bacho’s literary obsessions -- boxing, 1968, anti-war movements -- are all scattered throughout I Hotel.
§ Memoirist/novelist Kyoko Mori chose to share a passage from Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior -- the legendary Hong Kingston appears right next to her archnemesis Frank Chin in a series of hilarious cartoons smack in the middle of I Hotel.
§ Sonya Chung’s photographer protagonist, who captures images of death and destruction in her debut novel Long for This World, is echoed in one of Yamashita’s characters, an artist who recorded the devastation of the Japanese American prison camps in charcoal and watercolor.
§ And Ru Freeman, debut novelist of A Disobedient Girl, the newest Asian American in the group, asked when buying I Hotel, “Will I understand it without knowing all the Asian American history?” to which the answer would be a resounding YES. I Hotel is now her history as well.
Indeed, the breadth of I Hotel is a historical achievement. Mere words, but such truth. No matter who you are, you cannot read this book without recognizing its contents, both small and large.
So since that fateful weekend, I seem to be constantly revisiting Yamashita’s book. I’ve also had lots of excuses to be in regular touch with Yamashita. During our last conversation, she was getting ready to head over the hill on Highway 17 to join the Asian American Curriculum Project’s APA Heritage Month celebration. Yes, the AACP and its founder Florence Hongo, in case you had any doubt, appear in I Hotel. If I had a brick for every time I said to myself, “oh, that’s in Karen’s book,” I’d have built an APA museum on the National Mall by now! But that’s another story…
Okay, so let’s back up and talk about how you started writing.
I always wrote, but perhaps I first felt some confirmation of my possibilities with the acceptance of my first story, “The Bath,” published in the Amerasia Journal, a long time ago while I was doing research in Brazil.
I have to dissect that sentence. Brazil?
I arrived in Brazil in 1975 with a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. I had first thought I would go to Japan, where I had already been and had some language skills. But after writing a research proposal, I realized I didn’t want to return [to Japan], at least not immediately. But I kept thinking how I might still use this language skill. Someone told me there are Japanese populations in other parts of the world. Japanese in Canada? No, I couldn’t go into more snow. But Japanese in South America?
At the time, very little was written about Japanese in South America. What I first found were books by a Hiroshi Saitō written in Portuguese -- and a few articles by American scholars from Cornell or maybe somewhere in Texas. I got in touch with these scholars and that’s how I got started. I knew had to go to São Paulo where Japanese immigration had begun. Takashi Maeyama was an anthropologist who began the study of Japanese in Brazil, so I contacted him. I rewrote the proposal for the Watson fellowship to study the Brazilian Japanese community and compare them to the Japanese American community.
When I got to São Paulo, I met Maeyama -- Saitō had already died, I think. I never met Saitō. Maeyama was based at the Center for the Japanese Brazilians Studies in a section of the city called Liberdade, which was something like Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. They had the cultural center, were starting a museum, offered Japanese language classes, had Japanese restaurants there. So that’s how I got hooked into the Japanese community.
One of the things I did when I first got there, was just sit around because it was so hot. For the first month, off and on, I wrote this story, “The Bath.”
And how do you define that "long time ago"?
I think it was 1975 when I mailed out the story from Brazil on a whim. Amerasia Journal was just starting out at the time, and the head editor at the time threw my story into a slush pile that was going to be part of their first short story contest. Somehow, the story won.
Was “The Bath” your first-ever submission? No walls plastered with rejections like most writers?
Yes, I guess so, my first. I had submissions in college journals, but this was really the first thing I sent out.
Talk about lucky first shot…
I was lucky, I think, because I didn’t even know the story had been submitted for a contest, and the award actually came with money, enough money for some traveling! And it was definitely an early confirmation of my work. But I had no idea until I came back to the U.S. just how lucky -- people told me who else had submitted to that contest, like Wakako Yamauchi and Hisaye Yamamoto, so I was quite embarrassed to have won after that. Maybe the Journal just wanted something different.
Where do you find your inspiration?
The initial ideas for two of my books, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest and Tropic of Orange, have come from stories invented by my Brazilian husband, Ronaldo Lopes de Oliveira. The other projects that have required research, sometimes long years of research, have been inspired by the lives and stories of the many people with whom I’ve had long conversations.
So how come the hubby doesn’t get cover billing?
Well, the stories are dedicated to him…
Ah, well, he’ll have to settle for that honor. And how do his stories become your books?
My first book, Arc of the Rain Forest, began as a project we were doing together and, eventually, I took it over. He would make up a story, I would ask him what he thought happened next and we’d go back and forth like that. But all his characters were Brazilian, so I began to change some of them. I asked him first if I might change one to being Japanese because that was the whole point of my being in Brazil originally, to research the Japanese Brazilians. All of Ronaldo’s versions are oral stories, told over dinner usually. I wanted to collect these stories, but I also wanted to change them enough to make them mine.
And is hubby a writer, too?
No, he was an architect, but retired now. He’s still telling stories. He’s moved on to reinventing the bicycle. He’s also always been an artist -- he paints, he sculpts. We can’t seem to get him to market any of his pieces, but they are all over our house. He’s probably very marketable, but he refuses to be commercial. He’s an idealist. He’s in Brazil now, where he takes care of his mother, or maybe she takes care of him! But he goes back and forth throughout the year.
Let’s look at your oeuvre, so to speak. Your first two novels were set in Brazil, where you arrived for that Watson Fellowship and stayed for a decade, married and started a family, before you all returned to settle in the U.S. together. Your first book debuted in 1990, well after your return from Brazil. So what made you base your first two books there?
Growing up, I vaguely knew about the evangelical Christian churches that were involved with the Japanese Brazilian community because people from my father’s church in LA would meet ships coming from Japan at the San Pedro docks [home of the Port of Los Angeles], and deliver donated clothes to Japanese people headed to Peru or Brazil. These Japanese were part of the post-World War II migration of Japanese to South America. My father had friends who were hooked into these Japanese communities, who had a history of migration from the early 1900s.
Japanese immigration to Brazil began in earnest in 1908 in response to the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement that stopped the immigration of Japanese laborers into the U.S. In preparation, Japanese contract companies looked for different places to establish emigrant communities. Brazil became a big destination. At the same time, Brazil was in the midst of a coffee boom. The country couldn’t get enough workers to harvest the beans so they immediately glommed onto the idea of bringing over Japanese workers. In the beginning, laborers could make quite a bit of money, but that didn’t last long. Up and downs in the economy, a long drought, made for hard years. Lots of Japanese arrived convinced they could make a fortune in Brazil.
The majority of the people who came to Brazil during this period came as contract workers, but there were also always pockets of people who came for more idealistic reasons. In Japan, a socialist community movement was happening, and as people began traveling the world, they could look at Japanese civilization in a modern light. Some of these communities came to the U.S. to start new lives, but soon California became an impossible place to buy land. So they headed to Brazil where Japanese Christian groups could buy huge tracts of land -- which were actually untouched forests -- to create Japanese colonies. They sold the land to both new arrivals and those laborers coming out of their work contracts. Forests became farms as people shared equipment, created cooperatives, even setting up a Japanese system to educate their kids. In Brazil, at least seven of these communities were founded by different entities, some Christian, some governmental -- and that’s where I started to look for my first novels.
Then you went "home" to LA in Tropic of Orange, your third book, which is where you were born and raised. How did your Brazilian adventures lead you back to LA?
Actually, I was born in Oakland, but moved to LA at age one and raised there.
When we arrived from Brazil to LA, it was 1984 -- that funny year. Everything was supposed to go Orwellian, but we had Reagan instead. The LA Olympics were beginning… so everyone from LA sort of left. We thought it would be a madhouse, but everyone just left that summer.
We arrived with the idea that we would try out LA, the U.S., the kids would go to school, and I’d be the one to find a job. My husband would get to do his art. We’d switch for awhile. But it didn’t turn out that way… we needed two incomes to live in LA. So we muddled our way through.
LA was a different place from the LA I had grown up in. It wasn’t a black/white city with a pocket of Japanese Americans anymore. It was very much now a Latin American city -- I think they were the majority by then. It was mixed, cosmopolitan, with a new Korean influx. All of these communities were in flux. It was a fascinating place; I found it very interesting to be there.
But I had to work. My sister had a job in the legal department of KCET/PBS, so she got me a job there, too. I worked for 13 years as a secretary in the engineering department. This was not the writing/production end -- what I did involved satellite dishes, cameras, sound, working with technicians. I could answer the phone and tell you how to get the antenna to work so you could get UHF reception. No one even knows this anymore now that we have cable!
I was a writer for the engineers -- they would tell me what to say, and I could make it sound good. While I learned their spreadsheets and budgets, I wrote. All that is in the book [Tropic of Orange] in funny ways -- the satellite dishes, how TV stations can expand coverage, how PBS thought it was very important to get coverage in outlying areas so people in the Mojave Desert could get reception, how satellite trucks can film something at a specific site and send live material back to the station for general transmission. All that got internalized throughout the book.
Then how did you end up on your Japanese adventures, which eventually became Circle K Cycles?
I was about to get a teaching job at UC Santa Cruz -- I had just quit KCET -- when I was given a Japan Foundation Fellowship with quite a bit of money. A friend of mine in Japan urged me to come and live in Japan for awhile. He knew that I wouldn’t do it without my family. With the Japan Foundation grant, together with some inheritance money from an aunt, we realized the whole family could go for six months. We set the kids up in long-distance education programs so they could finish their school year from Japan, and we took off. My friend found us a little house in Seto, near Nagoya, and we had enough money to live and travel around. That’s when I did all the work for Circle K Cycles.
You’ve been successful with both fiction -- from the magic realism of your earlier titles to the more experimental Circle K Cycles, to your latest historical I Hotel (which has a few screenplays thrown into the mix) -- and you’ve done some theater/performance pieces, as well. Any preference?
No preference. Just decisions made about what form may best represent the stories.
And how do you decide that?
For example, Circle K Cycles -- I thought when we got to Japan, I might eventually write a work of historical fiction after doing research, travelling, and collecting material. But I couldn’t find anything that constituted a novel for me. Japan was in the midst of a violent period while we were there, both domestically, and in other international communities where Japanese were living, too.
The Japanese Embassy in Lima, Peru, was being held hostage by a radical guerilla group. When we got to Japan, that situation was still going on. Meanwhile in Kobe, Japan, a series of children were brutally beheaded; their heads were left in front of the school. Within the Japanese Brazilian community, people were having mental breakdowns -- a situation serious enough that the Brazilian consulate was conducting an investigative study. Crimes of passion were happening. A Japanese couple was murdered, and the crime scene totally cleaned up, although not well enough that the crime went undetected. A worker living in factory housing went crazy, and threw the bodies of his family into the huge factory oven.
This is what was going on, all in the news, all so shocking. I had to figure out how to somehow process that. I couldn’t find a single narrative thread that constituted a novel … but I knew I had lots of stories to be told.
So finally your I Hotel … how did such a magnificent tome come about? How did you possibly start such a project?
It started from a satirical article that I wrote for Amy Ling, then Professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I thought the project might be about the Asian American movement in Los Angeles, but I got interested in the San Francisco Bay Area and extended my research north. This was logical because of the Third World strikes at San Francisco State College and UC Berkeley, events that started the movement for ethnic studies. When my research came up with the International Hotel, I knew where the center of the larger story must be.
How did you decide the balance between the historical and the fictional?
The balance is maybe that the events had to be historical but the people must be fictional.
Oh, but I beg to differ -- so many of those folks have real-life counterparts, whether actual like the UCSF acting president S.I. Hayakawa, or composites like Mo Akagi who very much resemble real-life activists Richard Aoki and Mo Nishida. And, of course, the APA matriarch/patriarch dynamic duo of Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin... the list definitely goes on. So where and how did you draw that line between fact and fiction?
Some of those people are too famous, so you can’t really do anything but have them just be. Some of them have extremely public lives. Of course, I have to be careful, too. But it’s not like Don DeLillo hasn’t done that with other historical characters. I would say, yes, it might be this or that person, a "version" of him or her… you could say that all the book’s characters are composites.
So has Maxine Hong Kingston said anything?
I saw her just before the book came out and told her about it. Although I didn’t tell her how the cartoons of her and Frank Chin are situated. A friend said that Maxine has a good sense of humor. I hope that’s true. I just said to Maxine, "please don’t get mad at me."
I had a long conversation with [Coffee House Press publisher] Allan Korblum about this, and while we worried about the questions, I thought that to not put them [Hong Kingston and Chin] in would be a like erasure because they are both such an important part of the literary scene. I also think their presence says something about the trajectory of Asian American literature. [Novelist] Shawn Wong (Homebase, American Knees) just comes out and says that those two writers have built their careers out of their [fake-vs.-real] argument. And I agree the argument is important to that period: women came forward as writers; questions of masculinity surfaced; the idea of marketability was addressed and who really reads books.
I’m too old -- even if they got older -- to worry too much. These are two people for whose work I have great admiration. If they don’t like me now, that’s okay.
Why choose that ongoing fake-vs.-real debate as a theme for I Hotel?
Oh, do you think it’s a theme? I think it’s a preoccupation of the fiction writer.
I do play a lot with metaphors throughout book. I play with the question of fiction. Here’s a work in which I study activists who lived during that period, but I myself didn’t "live San Francisco" like these characters. But then I was told stories… who can say what is fact, what is fiction? Some told me versions that were exaggerations, but they were great stories. Some left large gaps, so I had to imagine what happened.
I don’t know… it’s a big fake book, but fiction can be more truthful in many ways.
How did writing I Hotel change your own life?
I got 10 years older while doing it. For me, a book project is a kind of schooling, something akin to lifelong and continuing education. I learned and expanded my understanding of a period of time, of a place and people. The book is a kind of record of what I learned.
Do you think your APA readers will read I Hotel differently from non-APA readers? Did you have an APA audience in mind when you wrote it?
Yes, that reading difference seems already evident, especially among those APA folks who lived this era; they own it a way I had not entirely expected. I feel my own responsibility to their stories but, at the same time, my relinquishing of those stories. A gift received and returned.
You’ve had an incredibly mobile past, from your LA upbringing to your South American and Japanese adventures, not to mention your family’s immigrant past, and now your hapa family life in Santa Cruz… how do you meld all your various "selves," both geographically and artistically?
I’ve been really blessed by my opportunities to live in Brazil and Japan, to acquire language and cultural experience that have broadened my perspectives. I think at the beginning of my travels as a student in Japan, I was quite traumatized by my sense of dislocation and strangeness. Triangulating this experience with a very different sense of reception in Brazil gave me a feeling of strength and self-confidence. I guess over time I learned to travel and finally to feel comfortable in my traveling body.
Where’s home for you?
I like living in Santa Cruz in California. Home is where there’s a hot shower.
Do you think you might take off again and try finding "home" somewhere else?
I don’t know… I might take a year someplace else, but this will be my base for awhile. If I’m invited somewhere for period of time to teach or write, I would be fine with that. My mother lives with me here now. If she would come with me, that would be fine. Never in all the years of my life have I lived in a beautiful place as I do here. I’ve always lived in huge urban centers. Santa Cruz is sweet for me. I know all the complaints about being here, but writers live with themselves, so it doesn’t really matter where we are…
And what do you do when you’re stuck?
I take a nap, clean house, or cook. My daughter once said that the best times are when her mother is writing because the house is clean and the food is great.
And the inevitable… what can we expect from you next?
My next project involves an archive of wartime correspondence among the seven siblings of my father’s family as they were dispersed to internment camps and then to locations and cities outside of the West Coast.
Terry Hong writes a Smithsonian book blog at bookdragon.si.edu.