I Hotel

By Karen Tei Yamashita

Coffee House Press
June 2010
618 pages


Reviewed by Lacey N. Dunham


History textbooks have a tendency to simplify social movements of the past, favoring the single-line version of American history: Franklin Roosevelt alone resolved the Great Depression or Martin Luther King, Jr. drew all black Americans together to fight for civil rights. Of course, history doesn't unfold as neatly as we are led to believe.  Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel, an expansive novel that runs through a decade of the most tumultuous years in recent American history, explores the dynamics and contradictions of the 1960s and  '70s. Composed of ten related novellas, I Hotel offers an ambitious understanding of history as knotted yarns given to multiple interpretations. As one character says: "…there's no such thing as the same story; it's a different story every time."

Ostensibly, I Hotel is about the collective efforts of activists and residents of San Francisco to save the International Hotel, a city landmark and home to elderly Japanese and Filipino men. However, to say I Hotel is only about the efforts to preserve an historic hotel is a lot like saying Moby Dick is just a story about a whale.

Using the Yellow Power movement as the moral center of the novel, Yamashita explores an oft-treaded era in American history by weaving her characters' experiences in with actual events. Inspired and influenced by the Black Power movement of the same era, the Yellow Power movement saw Asian Americans mobilizing around a myriad of political causes, everything from the Vietnam War to anti-Capitalist, anti-Imperialist economic concerns to reparations for the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II.

I Hotel opens on the Chinese New Year in 1968 as Paul Lin's father dies of a heart attack amid the celebrations. Immediately, Yamashita establishes the novel's use of the personal and the political. As his father's only child (his mother passed away when he was young), Paul arranges for the funeral and his father's burial. Per Chinese custom, he wears a black waistband with his black suit and, since this is 1968, a black armband.

Gradually, Paul's story is subsumed within the larger historical moment as Paul and his friends are swept into the student protests at San Francisco State University and his mentor, a Chinese immigrant and devout Maoist with a passion for the music and literature destroyed by the Cultural Revolution, is fired from the university for his leftist leanings. Paul's own awakening to the complications of politics and power occurs after he reads James Baldwin's novel Giovanni's Room and recalls Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther's Minister of Information, calling Baldwin a "homosexual traitor." When a comrade within the movement also insults Baldwin, Paul, who is gay, chooses not to challenge the homophobia, instead rationalizing that "[c]lub membership depends on keeping its pretenses." Multiplicities of identity are categorized hierarchically and Paul painfully learns which identities have the most value.

From here, Yamashita spins narratives around centrifugal events in an impressive style. One has to wonder how she approached such a daunting writing task. Even if the battle to save the historic International Hotel ultimately unifies the various narratives, the multitudinous paths in the search toward social justice and the social reforms of the '60s and '70s give the story its inner bones.

Although each novella is carved into the events of a specific year between 1968 and 1978, I Hotel also references the Japanese-American internment and the arrival of immigrants to San Francisco's Angel Island at the turn of the 19th century. The betrayal of Asian Americans and Asian immigrants by the American government is a constant thread pulled taut as characters' relationships to the infelicitous past are brought into relief against the present. Not all characters share a universal mindset about the effects and devastation government policies have on families and communities, and this is what Yamashita does so well: these characters are sharply defined individuals whose personal stories and idealistic goals frequently conflict.

Part of what makes I Hotel so fascinating and realistic, though occasionally maddening, is the vast number of characters who populate the book. Some are precisely drawn and shaped—the Filipina lesbian mother of two and burgeoning feminist Abra Balcena, for example– while others are a collective "we" or an archetype used to illustrate larger themes. Yamashita handily maps each of the ten novellas' main characters, setting, and narrative style on the inside cover of the book, and subsequent cross-pollination of certain characters between novellas enriches the story rather than confusing it. The appeal of I Hotel is that the reader never quite leaves a character behind.

Yamashita, too, makes excellent use of various narrative styles, from straight fiction to mythology to academic-style texts to comic strips. The second novella is structured as a documentary transcript and FBI dossier on a Japanese professor's attempts to develop an ethnic studies curriculum at the University of California, Berkeley. Yamashita labels it "cinema verité," a tongue-in-cheek reference to the government surveillance that defines its pages. The fifth novella is built around aphorisms from Mao Tse-tung, Malcolm X, Lenin and (with surprising hilarity) Imelda Marcos. The eighth novella, delivered in the style of social realism, unites themes of disability rights, Communism, 1950s internment camps, and betrayal by one's cause. For a reader unenthusiastic about exploring different narrative styles within a single work—or a reader who would rather read fiction than think about it—the shift between fiction and fact, between voices and characters, will not endear her to the larger themes at work within I Hotel.

Yamashita bravely navigates the comingled worlds of Asian—Japanese, Chinese, Filipino—and American culture. Near the end of the novel, a character mourns a lover who committed suicide many years earlier but who haunts him continually. Framing his story within the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, he says:

The dead cannot come back. They stay dead forever, and that's the truth, so even though she's calling to you and you follow her voice to the dead world, you got to look back and see the truth. Light a fire, and look back.

A failure to look back means never letting go of the painful and troubled past. Yamashita sifts through the ugly and the beautiful and sets a blazing fire to show us the innumerable truths of the complicated past, a layered composition of memories haunted by stories yearning to be told. Caucasian characters appear only as nameless goblins—the city mayor, the sheriff—and betray the activists by giving orders to destroy the hotel and arrest anyone who stands in peaceful opposition. Yamashita doesn't re-write the past by giving voice to "the forgotten and abandoned people whose voices were muffled in the underbelly of working poverty, stuffed into the various ethnic ghettos"—she widens the circle by including those who were present all along.