Interview with author Karen Tei Yamashita by Clint

Photo credit: Mary Uyematsu Kao
Author Interview
With: Karen Tei Yamashita
By: Clint Porte - Tufts University
English 2 - Asian American Experience
Professor Grace Talusan

3/10/2011 Eaton Hall 107

No answers have been altered. Grammatical errors have been corrected and so have many sentence fragments. 

On a scale of 1-10 how happy are you?
An 8, because I'm generally a happy person. There are things in life that can change your mood, but usually I'm more on the optimist or positive side of things.

If you were a car, what kind of car would you be?
Maybe I'd be an old clunker *laughs.* Maybe I'd be one of those Mazda Rx-7s. But they don't make them anymore. Now its the Rx-8. I'd have to learn to drive it. I used to write about it, in a small article I called "My Favorite Japanese Things".

What is your favorite color?
Purples, reds, and oranges. Orange is a really cool color. It also depends on the weather *laughs.* Black and purple in the winter, orange in the spring and summer
What is your favorite animal?

Ahh, I don't know much about animals, but as a kid I really liked dolphins. Now, I'd probably say a panther
What is your favorite food?

I like stinky cheeses. I don't know, but I like stinky food in general. I have a strange palette *laughs.*
What was you favorite TV show growing up?

I'm not sure, I didn't really watch too much TV. It's hard to think of something...but, you know, as a kid, I used to this certain spy show, but I can't really remember the name. It was a cold war thing, I don't know why I liked it. There was a also a funny thing that came after it. My mom didn't really let us watch TV, but she did let us see "The Mickey Mouse Club". When she wasn't looking, I watched "Tombstone Territory". The characters are all really vague.
Where are you from?

I was born in Oakland, but grew up in Los Angeles. I don't know Oakland as well, but it's part of the Bay Area, and I love the Bay. It's very different from LA. LA is just this big city. The Bay Area is smaller, more contained, has a really good transit system, more liberal, greater appreciation for politics, more history, and has preserved it's old look. It's beautiful, but it can be cold sometimes. LA is more spread out, and doesn't really rain. You have to drive everywhere. But the communities are multiple and over the years its become very interesting to live in.

Describe your high school
I went to two high schools. One in LA. Neither of them is the way they are when I went there. They're less mixed and tougher academically. Dorsey High School was one (in the city of LA); Gardena High School was the other (in an LA suburb). Gardena was 30-50% Japanese American. It was like going to school in Hawaii maybe. There were small black, Latino, and Jewish populations. Gardena was an old strawberry farming area, and lots of Japanese had farms there. Minority families had to buy land in farming, rural areas. Whites wanted to keep their neighborhoods white. It was a covenant real estate system. So neighborhoods became dense with certain ethnicities. That's why a lot of ghettos formed. The system changed when whites sold city houses to Jews who looked white. Then those Jews sold to Japanese, then blacks, etc., thus causing a so-called "white flight". So lots of cities became ethnically diverse, as whites fled the city to the suburbs of Orange County and similar places.

When and why did you begin writing?
I thought about writing seriously in Brazil, but I didn't know what those thoughts would lead to. I wrote a short story there, and then some plays. Then I started a novel project. All in Brazil in the late 70s and early 80s.

Did you see writing as a career?
Not really. I didn't know what a career in writing would be. I thought I'd return to the U.S. as a Graduate student to learn anthropology and journalism. Being a journalist was something I definitely considered.Anthropological journalism.

What books have influenced you the most?
People have told me a lot of the time that I-Hotel is similar to other stuff I haven't read *Laughs.* But embedded in I-Hotel is a history of Asian American documentation. Everything about the 60's is like documentary film, memories, music, and all of the pop culture you can think about that were present at the time influenced me. And then there were the politics, the war. etc. which also played a role.

What was the basis for I-Hotel?
I originally wrote a satirical piece for a friend, Amy Ling, a professor at Wisconsin Madison. It criticised a book that I had never written. So I thought, probably I should write that book.Then I realized that this book would be about the Asian American movement, and it would be broader than the satire I wrote. When I began to research the Asian American movement, I realized all f the information about it, and it became a huge project. That's why I-Hotel became a huge book.

Why is the book written in novella form?
When I researched the Asian American movement, it became evident to me that there were so many layers of activities and events that were happening at the same time. And also, there were so many Asian Americans, Japanese Americans, Koreans, etc. as well as coalitions from different communities. There were artistic and cultural events and production. Also there were people interested in history, health care, politics. Some people thought their strengths were in politics, others in art, others in changing the city. There were many fronts. All the novellas are to occupy those different perspectives.

Are certain events in the book based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
Historical events should be true to what happened. Buildings, a particular corner etc. The characters are all fictional. But the stories are true stories that people told me. I had to find and create characters to fit each story. People will try to define these characters for me but they aren't necessarily right. There are also historical famous figures who are fictionalized. Richard Nixon for example, has parts of his life that have been fictionalized. Liberties are taken with some things, but not everything.
As a side note: Chiquita Banana was a story that incorporated a lot of different character types together to make a comic that reflected the role of Asian American women at the time.

Did you learn anything from writing your I-Hotel and what was it?
I learned so much. I think that's why I wrote it, because I really wanted to know more about a period of time that I lived through and was a part of. But I wanted to know more from other people. I-Hotel is now this encyclopedia of what I discovered.

Is there a message in I-Hotel that you want readers to grasp?
I don't really know, but I think the book presents concerns that still are contemporary and important to readers. I didn't necessarily write the book to give a message. Just to reflect the times. It's only after a book is read that readers prescribe a meaning to the book. That's what's exciting about traveling. Its cool what resonates over time, to see if what people believe in changes. That's whats interesting about history. Using it to educate us about the present.

Can you name one entity or more that you feel supported you outside of family members? Bibliographers and librarians. Archivers in general were really helpful. Then all of the people who told me their stories. I was appreciative of Asian American library work that had been compiled over years that I was able to visit. San Francisco State and the UC's had libraries to. I spent many hours with people who showed me their films, photographs, told me about their radio broadcast history, journalists, teachers, old activists who still worked in the communities and now run the community centers/healthcare institutions.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in I-Hotel?
No, it's finished. We'll keep correcting mistakes and editing things to parts that aren't perfect like spelling errors, but I'd like it to be the way it is.

If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
For my early work, I'd say that I was influenced by Latin American writers, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In later years, I really appreciated the work of Italo Calvino, and Italian author. I liked their stylistic writing. Garcia was magical realist (Magical realism), while Calvino was experimental with his story telling and narrative structures.

What book are you reading now?
I'm reading a book by Chang-rea Lee, called "The Surrendered". I'm only a third way through it. On the other hand, I just finished a John Berger book, and have been reading the short stories of someone whose full name currently escapes me. I know his first name is Sean...maybe we could Google him *laughs.* I've read some Tobias Wolfe recently too.

Can you share a little of your current work with us?
I'm currently working on a project that deals with the Japanese American internment situation.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Every project is a question. Answering or moving through these questions are the challenge. They're different every time. Like how can I make my character complex, not flat. But with a novel, sometimes the questions are "why do people do that" or "why do people follow their ideals, even if they're going to get hurt?" You have to figure out character motivations and tensions and what's going on around these people. It's a whole world you have to create. It's a whole life that's big. The question moves into a space that you have to occupy. When you've figured it out, it's immensely satisfying, but I'm not sure from the onset if it's going to work. What's made me happy is when readers say to me, "I remember that,"  even though I made it up *laughs.* Or "you took me back"; "It felt like that". It's just different each time.

Do you have any advice for other writers?
I teach creative writing so I'm always giving advice *laughs.* It depends on what you're writing. But I really give suggestions or ask question. I don't really give advice. Writers ultimately have to make their own decisions about what they're writing. I look at my students' work as if I'm another reader. We set class up to be a workshop kind of format. The kind of suggestions I give are things that can help them frame their writing better. In the end, writing is this sort of conversation with readers. And when you write alone, it's a conversation with yourself. You can put something out there that's funny, others might not think its funny. But when you do get that reaction you wanted, its fulfilling. Readers will surprise you all the time. But I think sometimes traveling to see places is a good idea. Writers are generally observers, and leaving a comfortable place lets you change your perspective. Dealing with it and writing about it, and writing from the point of view of other people makes you more sympathetic, nuanced, and complicated in your writing. Readers who read a traveled writer's work get an experience that they couldn't access. And maybe readers will get stories that they wouldn't otherwise hear. I imagine that if people know more about eachother, then they are more tolerant.

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
*Laughs* I don't know about specific. I think readers read what they want. You can't control it. I think in some ways that a book reflects the present way of accessing history that your generation is using. Don't you see your life like that? One moment, you're watching a Youtube clip. The next, a documentary, or reading a magazine? I think you're generation has a much easier time navigating through the material. Small things like that.