WRITERS TELL ALL
Karen Tei Yamashita Reinvents the "Great American Novel," and Here She Gives Us Some Helpful Insight
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Karen. It is such an exciting experience to talk to someone like you. You have, for a very long time, been one of my favorite writers. I remember reading I Hotel when I was first in undergrad. It was such a large, sprawling book. One of the first questions I want to ask you is this: when did you get the first spark of an idea for this novel? How do you get the first sparks of ideas for most of your writing?
Karen Tei Yamashita: Matthew, thanks for your questions and enthusiasm for my work. I’m very honored.
This book had a long gestation, beginning in Los Angeles, where I thought I would write something about the Asian American movement. A friend, photographer and filmmaker, Mary Kao, wanted to film a documentary about the movement, and she introduced me to activists in L.A. with whom I met and interviewed. The seed of it was sparked, however, by Amy Ling, who got me to write a short satirical piece, “Siamese Twins and Mongoloids.” When I moved to Santa Cruz, I continued to meet and listen to stories by folks in the San Francisco Bay Area, and eventually the structure for the book coalesced around the International Hotel.
MT: How do you develop words—especially novels this long, intense, and elaborate—from there? What audience are you looking to target when writing these books?
KTY: For this novel, I spent years gathering material, researching, reading, gathering stories. When I knew the center of the history, I could structure the work, then write the pieces into that structure. In this case, I decided on ten years from 1968 to the demolishing of the hotel, 1977, and then arranged the histories and subjects and characters into those years as “novellas.” I think the process is transparent; I don’t keep secrets about my writing. In what my friend calls the origami boxes is the shorthand for topics of each year/novella. As for the audience, in this case, I decided that despite the experimental desire of the work, I wanted those people who had participated in the storytelling to be able to read and understand what I interpreted had happened. In this sense, I wrote the book for those who shared their stories. But really, even though these events and people were my contemporaries, I wrote also for myself, to find out what happened.
MT: What were the most influential books when you were growing years? What novels or stories helped shape you during your formative years? Who are the most important writers you look to for inspiration now, and who are the most important and overrated or underrated Asian-American writers you know of today?
KTY: When I left for Brazil to study what I thought would be the history and anthropology of Japanese Brazilian immigration, I took along two books: Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I have since enjoyed the work of the Italians, Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco. There are others, but more lately perhaps, Orhan Pamuk and Pankaj Mishra. As for Asian American writers, I follow the work of my friends, Sesshu Foster, Chang-rae Lee, Garrett Hongo, R. Zamora Linmark, and Jessica Hagedorn.
MT: When you began writing a book like I Hotel, did you know how it would end? How much did you know of the novel from the beginning? What is your writing process generally like, and how long did it take you to write and perfect a novel this immense?
KTY: I don’t know how other writers work; they are probably more organic, intuitive, and character-driven, but I’ve learned to create structures and narrative voices as perhaps constraints and focus for the larger project. I am known to build spreadsheets to navigate my chapters. As I said, the organizing structure was chronological from 1968 to 1977; so yes, I knew the end would be the demise of the hotel in 1977. While the research for I Hotel took probably ten years, the writing itself was by comparison speedy, maybe two years. It took another three years to be published.
MT: I have to be honest—a novel like I Hotel, as well as really any huge novel of the sort, whether it’s Gravity’s Rainbowor even something much simpler like The Executioner’s Song—can be so hard to keep up with, whether it’s following storylines or keeping track of characters or knowing who is narrating and when—how did you keep up with everything while writing?
KTY: Well, I keep a spreadsheet. The first novella in I Hotel,“The Eye Hotel,” created the ten narrative voices that were then parsed into each additional novella. That first novella took the longest to write and to define, but after I could establish the distinctions of each voice/novella, it was easier.
MT: As an Asian woman in America—at least marginalized in two very significant ways—how hard was it breaking into the literary community in America? Did you ever have to make significant compromises in order to get where you wanted or needed to be in an effort to create the art you really wanted?
KTY: It took several years to figure out where to send my work and to get any publisher interested. Meanwhile, the local Japanese American newspaper in Los Angeles, Rafu Shimpo,published my short fiction, and UCLA’s Amerasia Journal published one of my first short stories. It was significant that these venues supported the early work of Asian American writers like me. Finally, two independent publishing houses in Minneapolis, Greywolf and Coffee House, asked to read my first novel, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest. It was publisher Allan Kornblum at Coffee House Press who took a chance, and I’ve been with Coffee House for every book since. I just got lucky I think. At one point, I thought I was going to lose my day job, and I asked Allan if I could send out the next book, Tropic of Orange,to a mainstream press, to try to get a bigger advance. I sent that manuscript to several agents and publishing houses, some of whom made suggestions that I honestly tried to comply with, like recreate the plot into a love story or remove some characters. I just couldn’t make the story into something it was not, and the manuscript finally returned to Coffee House, who understood the book. In this way, I’ve been blessed.
MT: There’s always this quote I love asking my favorite writers about. It’s a quote commonly attributed to Toni Morrison—who is a genius in herself—but I’m guessing it dates far back before she stated it so plainly. To put it simply, it boils down to this: Write the book you want to read but can’t find. Do you feel you’ve written this book, and if so which book do you feel fits this bill, and what about this book makes it so significant to you?
KTY: The book you want to read but can’t find. Yes, a good reason to write. I’d add that, for me, I find that I’m perplexed about a question that I can’t answer in any other way other than to research and write. That has been the project of one book after the other, trying to answer questions that can only be answered by writing into and through the questions. Each of my book projects has been very different in genre, form, and narrative, so perhaps the questions have been each every different. I am not sure if my questions have been answered, but during the process, I always get to learn what I didn’t know.
MT: You were nominated for the National Book Award for the phenomenal, epic, ground-breaking novel I Hotelin 2010. Can you explain how it was different for marginalized writers to produce art and succeed then and how difficult it is now—especially considered in 2010, we not only had a president who loved to read, but couldread?
KTY: Well, I never expected ever to be nominated for such an award, a kind of miracle really. I’ve never compromised about what I want to write -- the subject matter, the politics. In part, because Coffee House has supported my writing and also because I have good job teaching creative writing and literature at UCSC, I have some freedom to experiment and to speak. But also, I don’t have time to write what is not important to me; writing time is precious. Still, writing requires taking risks, a wild dive into space and imaginative possibility. If you’re a person of color, a child of immigrants, a refugee, a survivor, a LGBT person, an exile trying to stay alive and sane and making a home for a family, taking risks might not be an option. Along the way, special folks from my family to my writing family have made a creative road possible. The marginalized writers you speak of come together in formal and informal ways to speak and to keep a dream alive. For example, your work interviewing and creating literary community is part our extended system of support.
MT: How did you go about organizing a book like I Hotelwith such an elaborate and sprawling structure almost ten years ago? How did you get in the heads and voices of so many different narrators and characters and not only make them consistent and so different at the same time?
KTY: As I said, I created a spreadsheet and a structure of ten years and ten novellas for the book. As for the voices, I spent a good decade listening to the stories of dozens of folks who were involved in this period. I began to bring those stories together and created characters based on those gathered stories. There are also literary narratives attached to Asian American literature that I utilized to create the voices for each novella.
MT: What is really great advice you would give to aspiring writers today? What’s the hardest lesson you’ve ever had to learn? Have there ever had someone, or several someones, tell you a piece of advice over and over again and you resist it until finally giving in and realizing how important the advice was? What was this advice, and what do you think the state of literature is for marginalized people working the United States currently? What should they do to succeed?
KTY: I don’t have much in the way of advice. Sometimes I think it’s useful to leave your home and see it from the outside, from another language or culture or climate, but some writers need to be at home to write. Over time, I learned to write. I never took a writing class, so when I was asked to teach creative writing, I had to learn that too. Writing and teaching and reading taught me how to write. It took a long time. A long time ago, when I first proposed writing to myself as a possible career, a friend of mine said something like, writing requires maturity; I was young, in my twenties, and I felt insulted, as if he were impugning my maturity. Well, he was right. It takes a long time to become a writer.
MT: I Hotel is sometimes such a cryptic novel. What do you hope people take away from it and what do you think, it you were to refer this to the POTUS, you would want him to take away from it, especially given all the issues he seems to be creating with borders and not allowing people into the United States?
KTY: I think creative work has a way of entering a reader/viewer’s conscience on many levels, superficially and deeply. If interested, both the writer and the reader return again and see and learn something different. That engagement between the writer and the reader cannot be determined or exacted; it is a space of freedom and risk. But it also requires some thinking. I imagine that Trump doesn’t read or only reads what massages his ego; at least that is what his specious comments and twits seem to reveal. I’ve seen a few episodes of Sasha Baron Cohen’s Who is America? and it’s difficult to believe what is not innocence, what is ingenuous violence or blind conceit. It’s hilarious and horrifying. It defines, for me, the provocation of the comedic and the absurd terror of our political and social times, and it seems perversely appropriate, though infinitely sad, to have to introduce the most grotesque absurdity to intervene on such a cultural and national mindset.
MT: Did you initially intend for the novel to be so massive and such a tour de force? I remember Joyce Carol Oates commented about her equally lengthy Blondethat originally it wasn’t supposed to be nearly as long as it is today. Did you go into the writing thinking “this is going to be a massive book”?
KTY: Given the subject, the book was probably going to be big. My publisher Allan Kornblum joked that they had to get a cargo lift to get the manuscript onto their table. I thought it was the length required to make that book, and by the time I had constructed every sentence, it was as short and edited as it could possibly be.
MT: Who was your favorite character or characters to write, and who were your least? Did you ever find large parts of yourself bleeding over into the pages? Is this a good or bad thing to let this happen as a professional writer—a novelist?
KTY: I don’t think I have a favorite or least favorite character. Some stories probably belong to my memories, but the characters are not me. Maybe they could be alter egos that I think about occupying while I write. Whatever happens, I guess it’s my fault.
MT: Karen, are there any great new books we can expect from you in the future? Whether our readers have read I Hotel and loved it just as much as me (and for everyone else, I do recommend all of you reading this book!) or one of your shorter works of fiction, what can we expect from you in the years to come?
KTY: After I Hotel, there are two other books, Anime Wong: Fictions of Performance,and Letters to Memory. Anime Wong is a collection of plays, musicals, theatrical performances, both previously performed or never performed. Letters to Memory is a nonfiction epistolary work based on my family archive of letters, photographs, and documents, telling the story of the Japanese American incarceration and making connections to movements for civil rights. I wrote this book to honor the memories of my parents and their families, all of whom were incarcerated during the World War II. I thought that we would find some reconciliation for those unjust events after so many years, but as it turns out, new groups of refugees and immigrants have been racialized, criminalized, and excluded because of religious and state affiliations and the same false justifications of national security. These ongoing events and state policies demonstrate that history returns, that we seem to learn nothing from the pain and mistakes of the past.
MT: Karen, I want to thank you for the time you’ve spent entertaining me with the answers to all of these questions. Reading your work has always been a great pleasure to me, your novels somewhere between the epics of Thomas Pynchon and George Eliot in my mind. I highly suggest again that all of our readers pick up one of Karen’s books, and Karen thank you again. Feel free to leave us with any thoughts, remarks, questions, or concerns. We loved having you.
KTY: Thank you.