There is something daunting about a novel that strains your hand when you pick it up. Like picking up “War and Peace” for the first time and struggling through that first chapter. There is this pang in the back of your mind that teases, “You’ll never finish.”
But there is also something exciting about a novel that is so thick that you can’t help but look twice at it. What if? What if I can get to the end? That other part of your mind coaxes, “You can say that you’ve read an epic.”
Based on the size of it, Karen Tei Yamashita’s “I-Hotel” seems daunting, but once you open it up, the excitement doesn’t cease. The excitement begins with the visuals: the cut-out 3-D boxes that begin each chapter; the bold, stylized illustrations that accompany each year in the I-Hotel (1968-1977). And it continues with the collage-like narrative, a story told from many voices and through many different mediums, across countries and over years. It says a lot about a novel when the first person you show the book to asks, “So what is this? Poetry? A play?” Yamashita’s intriguing method of changing forms as the novel progresses keeps you pushing to the next chapter. In one chapter, you may read a third-person narrative; in the next, a specific timeline in Asian American literature might be expressed in a photo essay. At first, trying to work a traditional story onto the dynamic style that Yamashita uses can be a bit tricky. There isn’t an obvious pattern as to how the novel is going to move. But that soon fades into the background as the story and mood of a time and place meld together through the various voices and events that are illustrated in I-Hotel. That time and place is 1968-1977, San Francisco. And the mood is a combination of anger and hope, frustration and expectation. This is the story of one of the seminal moments for Asians in America, the movement toward activism and the demand to be recognized as Americans and as having as much of a foothold in America as any other group. This is the story of the Asian American Movement and the legacy of the I-Hotel, the center of political battles that spurred the Asian American community into action. Yamashita lends a new telling of this history through her novel, and she goes further than the places and dates of the period. She lets us see more than the leaders. We see the period from the eyes of those who were in the picket lines, those who linked arms to try to hold back police from shutting down a campus building, those who joined in from the park benches where they spent the days of their waning years. I only wish that the more recognizable leaders had been named rather than given assumed names. It was like a fun puzzle putting actual Asian American leaders of the time into the characters that clearly seem to be meant as them. On the other hand, that is another aspect of the novel that keeps you flipping the pages, like you’ve uncovered a secret amid the voices and scenes that unfold in Yamashita’s novel.
Yamashita’s I-Hotel is an epic, and once you read it, you won’t think about a novel in quite the same way again.
If you’re in the area, you have the opportunity to hear Yamashita give voice to her characters. She will be reading from I-Hotel on Friday, July 16th, at 7:00 p.m., at the Elliot Bay Book Company. I’ve had the opportunity to hear Yamashita read at other events, and she always reads with emotion and humor. Both I-Hotel and Yamashita are one in a million and are not to be missed..