Sunday, April 24, 2011

I Hotel: A Review

Novelist Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel I Hotel, a finalist in the 2010 National Book Award, is an epic in experimentalism, spanning ten years in the social and political activism of the San Francisco Asian community.

Based on real events, the I Hotel, or International Hotel, was a residential hotel in Chinatown for elderly Philipino and Chinese immigrant workers, mostly bachelors, which was demolished in 1979 to make way for redevelopment. In the book’s afterword, Yamashita writes that the these elderly workers were "men who had come to work and make their fortunes prior to World War II and who, because of antimiscegenation laws, exclusion acts prohibiting Asian immigration, and a life of constantly mobile migrant labor, were unable to find spouses, have children, and to settle in the United States.”

Yamashita not only covers the lives of some of these bachelors, but also those of young activists fighting against the closure and destruction of the I Hotel, forming what was then dubbed the Yellow Power movement, inspired by the civil rights, antiwar, socialist/Marxist, and Black Power movements of the late 1960s and 1970s. Yamashita tells these often disparate tales through ten novellas, each covering a year from 1968, following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, to 1979. A cast of characters spans the scope of the political and social events that occurred in the Bay Area during this period.

I enjoyed reading I Hotel for the most part. Some of the novellas and characters are quite compelling and Yamashita is at her best when she is detailing the cultural and generational differences within the various Asian communities in California (Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, etc.). She creates a milieu within the novel that is fully realized, bringing to life the culture and lives of Japantown and Chinatown in all of their complexities. Unfortunately, the novel's strength is also its weakness as it tries too hard to include too much. In his review for the Chicago Times last year, Alan Cheuse wrote that the novel was “a glorious failure of a book,” and I would have to agree. Yamashita makes the mistake that social realist novelists make in that she weighs in on the side of inclusivity, often at the expense of the story. At 605 pages the novel is too long for its type, undermined by repetition and narrative stagnation.

Yamashita spent ten years doing research for the novel and unfortunately it shows. She takes pains to include the voices of everyone during this time period, but not all of the narratives she includes are compelling enough to warrant inclusion. Some characters seem to exist merely to (re)present a type. Considering that the novel delves heavily into Marxist theory, perhaps Yamashita wanted to capture the collective struggles of a people and movement rather than pursue any artistic inclinations (Yamashita does in fact delve into the argument of whether art should exist for its own sake or should exist for the proletariat, an argument she leaves to the reader to resolve). However this only reveals the limitations of ideology over art. The most compelling characters in the story, such as Paul Wallace Lin, Chen Wen-guang, and Edmund Yat Min Lee, who appear in the first novella, are the most memorable precisely because their wants, desires, and backgrounds defy archetypical or ideological dogma.

Cheuse adds in his review that the more experimental sections are the least successful, but I would have to disagree. Her use of graphic novels, dossiers, screenplays, stage plays, and other sources of multimedia were the most compelling aspects of the novel, offering critiques of Socialist/Marxist dogma and revealing how form changes and redefines representation of class, race, and gender. 

In spite of its flaws, I Hotel is an admirable effort that looks at a period in American history through a unique perspective. To be honest, I wasn’t aware of a Yellow Power Movement, in spite of the fact that I was born and raised in the Bay Area during this period. For that alone, I Hotel preserves a history that is otherwise ignored in mainstream literature. The last twenty-six pages alone are a beautiful testimony to the voices of a people struggling to live, survive, love and thrive in this country. And Yamashita's push toward experimentalism also offers hope in further breaking down the boundaries of what the novel can achieve. I Hotel may be a “glorious failure,” but it is a failure worth the experience.

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