Book Review: I Hotel

I HOTEL by Karen Tei Yamashita | Coffeehouse Press 2010 | $19.95

Karen Tei Yamashita—writer, professor, and globetrotter—possesses an oeuvre that is anything but conventional. From her debut eco-fantasy novel Through the Arc of the Rainforest to her latest novel, the incredibly ambitious I Hotel, Yamashita has time and again demonstrated a preoccupation with offbeat human experiences.

At the center of I Hotel is the history of the titular inn, the International Hotel, a low-income housing complex located in San Francisco that became the source of much controversy and conflict when its residents, mostly elderly Filipino and Chinese bachelors, were threatened with eviction in the 70’s. Working with this historic centerpiece, Yamashita crafts a highly experimental novel comprised of prose, screenplay, quotes, analects, and even comics. And in an effort to give it a more comprehensible structure, the novel is divided into ten “novellas,” each corresponding to a year between 1968-1977. For research, Yamashita interviewed residents from the community, and their stories serve as seeds for the novel. Despite her efforts to shape the novel around fictionalized versions of these culled stories, the “fiction” elements end up coming across as secondary to the overwhelming amount of synopsized history and culture that fills the novel in the form of primary source-like documents. Thus, we have a “novel” in which the most compelling sections are the ones that feel least like a novel.

In each novella, we’re afforded glimpses into the lives of various protagonists. In an interview with Kandice Chuh for Discover Nikkei, Yamashita said she roughly structured the book so that each “novella” followed three central characters, with one typically serving the role of a mentor. Characters include the son of activists, a saxophonist, and a dancer, among others. But despite being modeled on actual people these colorful figures feel hastily formed, like participants in a dress rehearsal. The scenes they exist in feel ethereal and unanchored. There’s no sense of settling into moments and scenes and exploring characters and their connection to their settings. Instead, there is mostly dialogue, and not even very effective dialogue. The dialogue often is too heavy-handed or too inconsequential. Despite efforts to spotlight characters and how they negotiate trying circumstances, what takes precedence is an overriding narrative voice that attempts to bridge them all together.

More often than not, what hamstrings the conventional narrative threads is the intrusion of an overriding polemical voice that waxes and wanes about humanistic subjects such as philosophy, history, politics, film, art, and literature. The personal stories are undermined in part because when the novel does digress into the polemical mode, the most compelling writing actually arises. In several of these sections, the language is mesmerizing. There are passages that are so stylistically crisp and stirring that I initially reread them to deconstruct the source of their power:

“Do you command great armies and oversee great territories, or are you the fodder of stinking bodies sacrificed at the front? Do you rule by the will of God or the Mandate of Heaven, or do you grovel in the dirt for your subsistence and share your food with animals? Do you stand at the pinnacle of power, however precariously protecting, with the great umbrella of your powerful arms and silken sleeves, a hierarchy of hapless fools and ungrateful subjects, or are you a struggling peon of unfortunate birth? …The rise and fall of civilizations held in dusty monuments for thousands of years may suddenly be compressed in no doubt brilliant minds to explain the present moment.”

Yamashita is fluent in the language of so many disciplines and subcultures that no matter the subject being explored—whether it’s French poets, Marxist theory, or Imelda Marcos—the writing feels commanding.

The fluency and command Yamashita demonstrates, however, cannot mask the novel’s lack of narrative cohesion nor can it salvage characters that seem never to set themselves apart from the farrago of activity all around them.

But I suspect this lack of cohesion is due less to oversight and more to the progressive aspirations of the text. The novel (if it can even be called a novel) is so brimming with experimentation and historical substance that it ignores more traditional narrative preoccupations, like continuity, character development, and standard conflict resolution structure. But this doesn’t make it an inferior work; it just makes it different, in my opinion. That’s not to say the novel isn’t without it’s shortcomings, but with a certain mindset the shortcomings can be seen as consequences of a different kind of preoccupation, one geared less to achieving the typical objectives of a novel and more towards rendering a kind of spoken word historical epic that captures the zeitgeist of one of the most transformative periods in American history.

While reading I Hotel, I couldn’t help but call to mind Junot Diaz’s critically acclaimed novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Specifically, I thought of a statement Diaz made in an interview, in which he said he initally planned for Oscar Wao to be a multimedia extravaganza filled with comics, web site tie-ins, and other postmodern pyrotechnics. In the end, though, Diaz reigned in his ambitions in favor of a more formally conventional family saga that was distinguished by its unconventional voice. In I Hotel, Karen Tei Yamashita seemingly aims to realize the mega-project Diaz abandoned by creating a novel that combines various formats and syncretizes diverse voices in order to capture the complexities of a community caught up in the turbulent currents of history’s unfolding.

Whether she has created something compelling and worthwhile depends on your expectations going into the book; if you’re expecting clearly rendered stories that will resonate and stick with you, then I Hotel may not be for you, but if you’re looking for a head rush from reading about a host of interesting subjects in a variety of unconventional formats, then you’re probably in the right place.

What’s Going On: What We Talk About When We Talk About China

While browsing Amazon recently, I stumbled upon Martin Jacques’ book When China Rules the World, which appears to be the latest in a long line of books devoted to explaining why China will, within a few years, control every man, woman, and child on the planet. When I did a quick search for the book in my local library’s online catalog (I never buy books if I can help it), I found that it had twenty-seven holds. Of course, I could just settle for another of its kind, since they are legion:

But for whatever reason, I have my heart set on the Jacques. When I mentioned the twenty-seven holds to a friend of mine, we got into a discussion about to what extent all of this China anxiety is actually warranted. My friend dismissed most of the hype, saying instead that he has his money on another burgeoning Asian powerhouse—India. While there are also books devoted to enumerating the reasons India will ascend to the position of global badass supreme, in my experience India simply isn’t invoked as often as China when someone wants to trumpet the economic decline of America and the concomitant ascendency of an exotic foreign power.

It’s all about China, for some reason. Why?

Perhaps it was the Olympics. Since that opening ceremony of jaw-dropping proportions, China has been front and center when it comes to speculations about the future of the global economy. The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing showcased China’s sheer manpower and cultural richness, with hundreds of Chinese citizens participating in elaborate choreographed dances and demonstrations.

But is the hype about China warranted? Is China really positioned to become the next global superpower, poised to surpass the United States in just a few years? Well, the question looks to be more debatable than most have suggested. From what I’ve read, I’ve found that James Fallows at The Atlantic has a pretty balanced understanding of China’s position. Recently, he cited three “sensible” articles on China:

According to the Pettis piece, a recent op-ed by Paul Krugman of the New York Times, and a recent editorial by the New York Times, China has been artificially deflating the value of their currency, the renminbi. Doing so keeps China strong economically (or, at least, maintains the appearance of strength) because it stimulates exports. Weaker renminbi means cheaper manufactured goods, which means more exports, which means more income from exports for Chinese companies.

Whereas the Qiu and Pettis articles focus on very specific socioeconomic threads, the Mufson/Pomfret piece provides a broader analysis of the general attitudes towards the PRC. Here are just a few of the more interesting snippets from the Mufson/Pomfret:

“But the notion that China poses an imminent threat to all aspects of American life reveals more about us than it does about China and its capabilities. The enthusiasm with which our politicians and pundits manufacture Chinese straw men points more to unease at home than to success inside the Great Wall.” (Quote from Elizabeth Economy, the director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations)

“This is not to say that China isn’t doing many things right or that we couldn’t learn a thing or two from our Chinese friends. But in large part, politicians, activists and commentators push the new Red Scare to advance particular agendas in Washington. If you want to promote clean energy and get the government to invest in this sector, what better way to frame the issue than as a contest against the Chinese and call it the “new Sputnik”? Want to resuscitate the F-22 fighter jet? No better country than China to invoke as the menace of the future.”

If we take what Mufson’s saying to be true, then clearly there’s a lot of manipulative hype floating around about China. And if we consider Krugman, Pettis, and Mufson/Pomfret’s perspectives together, we see a China who may be inviting some of this false hype.

What does this fear mongering and misrepresentation mean for Asian American literature? Well, it brings up questions of perception, expectation and obligation. Most Asian American writers can probably attest to the fact that, very often, Western audiences find it difficult to process works by Asian Americans independently from their country of origin. With China and its recent events, there is the growing danger that Western audiences will misstep when processing works by Chinese Americans because Westerners’ perceptions of Chinese Americans will largely be extensions of their perhaps misguided perceptions of China the country.

The Chinese American experience in America is ripe with material, of course, and it’s not necessary to flock to and circle around China’s economic issue, even though it is so front-and-center in the media. But then the question becomes: how do you maintain a conversation separate from a subject that’s become so prominent? Are you dooming yourself to irrelevance by ignoring the elephant in the room? Perhaps not. Perhaps by deliberately sidestepping the issue, you’re doing what needs to be done: avoiding the obvious topic in favor of advancing a deeper kind of conversation about the Asian American experience–one that pushes beyond the headline makers.

I would suggest that when we—Americans—talk about China, we’re not just talking about a rising economic superpower, we’re also talking about a whole slew of cultural and ideological assumptions and juxtapositions that may be founded upon false or distorted premises. And the fallout may now be influencing experiences outside of China. In the end, it’s not just a conversation about the renimbi or the future economic landscape but also a conversation about perceptions of otherness, both cultural and ideological, getting appropriated to advance the agendas of a group.

Still, the conversation is an ongoing one, and it’s open for debate.


I Love Yous Are For White People
I Love Yous Are for White People: A Memoir by Lac Su | Harper Collins 2009 | $14.99

Let me begin with this disclaimer: I don’t usually read Asian immigrant memoirs. At least, not until very recently. This particular book came to my attention while I was randomly perusing some Asian American culture blogs, where it had received some attention, in part I’m assuming, because of its provocative title. The reason I wanted to put out this disclaimer up front is because, unlike a lot of other reviews for this book available on the web, this one is not written with an academic background in ethnic studies or extensive experience with the canon of the Asian American memoir. So, what can my review offer? Well, as the child of Asian immigrants who had never read Asian immigrant memoirs until very recently, I found the experience of reading this particular memoir and studying the blogosphere’s response to it to be interesting because of the questions it raised for me as an ethnic person in contemporary America who occasionally writes things for public consumption (Exhibit A: this blog post). So, in addition to sharing my thoughts on the book, I’m going to share some thoughts on the responses it has elicited, which I have found to be equally interesting.

First off, a quick rundown of the book and its author.  I Love Yous Are for White People is by Lac Su, a young Vietnamese immigrant who, as a child, escaped South Vietnam with his family in 1979 and immigrated to America. The memoir begins with a harrowing boat dock escape then explores Su’s experience of growing up in Los Angeles in a series of chapters that read like individual essays. As noted by many reviewers, the book touches upon themes of filial piety, identity negotiation, and the pains of cultural transition. Also noted by many reviewers: what carries the memoir is Su’s voice. Even though a lot of the anecdotes feel either far-fetched (at one point, he blows balloons out of discarded condoms found in the hallway of his family’s apartment building) or too familiar (there’s a scene in a restaurant where his father doesn’t understand how food stamps work), I remained engaged because Su narrated these moments with self-deprecation and earnestness. It is hard not to like a guy who constantly notes how his father calls him “Big Head”—evidently the translation of a Vietnamese “term of endearment.”

While there were a lot of interesting and amusing moments in the memoir, of particular interest to me was the prevalence of violence throughout. I got the impression that for Su and his family, violence was encoded in their family’s story from the get-go. From the boat-dock escape amidst machine gun fire at the beginning, to the brushes with street violence sprinkled throughout, Su’s family just couldn’t get a break. For me, the most riveting scene in the book was a scene of random violence in which street thugs attack Su’s father while he tries to bike to work; the ostensible leader of the gang pins Su’s father on the ground and attempts to shove a screwdriver into his throat (Su’s father avoids serious harm by turning his head to the side in the nick of time). In addition to depictions of random violence like this, there are countless scenes of domestic violence in which Su’s volatile and overbearing father punches, whips, slaps, or uppercuts everything and everyone in sight, including his wife and children. Then, in the latter half of the memoir, Su recounts incidents of gang violence in which he engages in hand-to-hand combat with other local street toughs.  Cumulatively, it comes across as one big olio of dominance rituals and tribalism.

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What’s Going On: A Humanist’s War

Is counterinsurgency a humanist’s war? A few weeks ago, I was watching Obama’s War, Frontline’s most recent documentary on the American war effort in Afghanistan; one of the program’s most salient points was one that most interested observers are probably already well aware of, which is that the war in Afghanistan is not a conventional war with conventional strategies. And by conventional war, I mean a war where you enter with a lot of troops, take out key enemy positions, and then declare victory. Instead, the war effort is rooted in a counterinsurgency strategy in which victory is determined by the extent to which Americans can corral native support for the established government. So, how is the counterinsurgency effort going? Well, a lot of Frontline’s footage showed soldiers shooting at empty fields. Instead of being a straight get-the-bad-guy-in-your-scope-operation, a lot of the key work takes place during moments of relative calm as soldiers hold informal sit-downs with villagers in strategic areas. And herein lies another point made by the documentary: in wars of counterinsurgency, there are a lot of counter-intuitive realities. For example, more force does not necessarily translate into better results. If anything, more force makes natives apprehensive and provides insurgents with political ammunition to garner more support. Furthermore, very often the appropriate response to an attack is no response at all because when American soldiers strike back they often strike back with excessive force, which once again, as a symbolic act, has the potential to play into the hands of insurgents. While watching Obama’s War, I couldn’t help but see counterinsurgency, with respect to conventional warfare, as more of a humanist’s war in that, with counterinsurgency, soldiers are tasked with employing a campaign of goodwill in which they garner support among natives through reciprocal communication, temperance, and cultural understanding. An instrumental figure in this humanist’s counterinsurgency war is the military interpreter who is tasked with bridging the communication divide between American soldiers and Afghan natives. Very often, Obama’s War implied that the effectiveness of interpreters is the limiting factor to America’s counterinsurgency effort.

What is it like to be a military interpreter? I wondered. Well, I did a quick Google search and came across the book, The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, and came across a section on interpreters that illuminated for me what it must be like for these individuals. For example, interpreters are expected “not to interject their personality, ideas, or questions” and always “[mirror] the speaker’s tone and personality.” And American military operatives are instructed to “position [the] interpreter by their side (or a step back). This keeps the subject or target audience from shifting their attention or fixating on the interpreter rather than on the leader.” Of course, this is all reasonable and for the sake of effectiveness, but at the same time, it seems lamentable that a figure with field experience among natives and among American troops would assume such a secondary position. Which brings up questions about why native interpreters choose to work with Americans in the first place. I suspect economics are involved, but perhaps there’s more. Undoubtedly, most interpreters must, at some point, deal with questions of loyalty, identity, and legitimacy. While the The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual instructs American military personnel to take care of their interpreters, there’s also a warning to be cautious around interpreters, in case their loyalties lie elsewhere. Moreover, in terms of identity, interpreters are tasked with an interesting set of objectives, in that they are expected to understand the nuances of not one, but two languages, and be cognizant of culturally specific mannerisms. And this is all in addition to being able to adopt many of the qualities and characteristics of the speakers they are interpreting. With these kinds of responsibilities, interpreters operate in a provocative nexus point between native Afghans and American forces.

Continue reading “What’s Going On: A Humanist’s War”