I Hotel: A Social Reading


In the grand tradition of #OccupyGaddis  (on William Gaddis’s J R) and #AutumnalCity (on Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren), Lee Konstantinou has organized a “social reading” of another Big Novel: I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. On Twitter there’s a running conversation about the book under the hashtag #WeHotel.

The reading started February 1st and today marks the end of the month.  The goal is 10 pages of reading per day which means they’re up to about page 280.

After blitzing through the novel this morning I’m up to 236.  (It was a very cursory reading)

Between teaching, writing, and job-searching I haven’t had much time to double-dutch my way in to this thing until this weekend.  But I wanted to do it, and I think it’s worth making time for.

Initially, the description of the novel caught my attention:

“Dazzling and ambitious, this hip, multivoiced fusion of prose, playwriting, graphic art, and philosophy spins an epic tale of America’s struggle for civil rights as it played out in San Francisco’s Chinatown from 1968-1977. As Yamashita’s motley cast of students, laborers, artists, revolutionaries, and provocateurs make their way through the history of the day, their stories come to define the very heart of the American experience.”

Reading through the first sections of the novel, I slowly began to realize…HOLY CRAP this is an academic novel!  And not only that, it’s very close in spirit to Ishmael Reed’s academic novel Japanese by Spring. Browsing through reviews I knew there would be some academic content, but now I’m thinking it really belongs in the book that I’m working on about academic novels and African-American literature.  At the very least I’ll work it into the chapter on Japanese by Spring.

(By the way, Susan Choi’s The Foreign Student may be the only other academic novel that I know of with Asian-American characters. If anyone knows of others, please share. At some point I’ll have to go back and do a search through my bibliographies)

Writing about Japanese by Spring also prompted me to revisit theories of Afro-Orientalism, which I first learned about through Bill V. Mullen’s Afro-Orientalism.  While reading through I Hotel I retrieved a library copy of the collection Afro Asia edited by Mullen and the late jazz musician and activist Fred Ho (R.I.P.)

I Hotel is hard to describe, and I’ll have to do some re-reading before I write anything coherent about it.

I’m still not at ease with this whole social reading practice of writing about a book before I’ve finished it completely. But maybe this experimental form of criticism is appropriate for an experimental novel like I Hotel.

The book is organized by years from 1968 to 1977.

Early in the novel I was taken with Professor Chen Wen-guang who teaches at San Francisco State in 1968.  (The first Black Studies department was founded at SFSU.)  Professor Chen is a mentor to the young poet Paul Lin, who in the beginning I expected would be the protagonist of the novel, but seems to have dropped out of the story (again, this is an incomplete reading here).

I also liked the section “Language and Reaction” where UC-Berkeley and San Francisco State are compared.  There’s a reference to Clark Kerr’s commentary about the 21st century university as a “knowledge factory.”  There’s Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio’s famous address directed at Kerr and the administration. There’s the Black Power movement going on.  There’s talk about Japanese, Chinese and Filipino immigration, Communism, Asian-American assimiliation, identity, and gender. And then there was this on pg. 20  in that section:

“One day a black instructor at Institution B, who was also a leader of a black organization, gave a speech that Institution B was a nigger-producing factory and called upon students to Pick Up the Gun! to defend themselves against a cracker administration.”

The line reminded me of Gil Scott-Heron’s novel The Nigger Factory, published in 1972, based on his experiences as a student at Lincoln University, and a scathing critique of the historically black college as an assimilationist institution.  There are definite points of contact between MJUMBE, the black student organization in The Nigger Factory, and the black revolutionaries depicted in I Hotel.

I’ve really just started this thing and I need to do some re-reading and much more thinking about the structure and content of the novel before I say more.

At 10 pages a day it should take 61 days in all to finish, which means the reading should go on through April 3.

In the meantime, here are some links to a few things that I thought about from the first part:

-This is a very rough draft of a talk I gave on Japanese by Spring at a conference on Afro-Asian studies at UPenn in 2011, and in it there’s a little background on the culture wars, multiculturalism and multilingualism.  I’ve finished a much longer and more detailed version of this which is under review at an academic journal right now. (Lord knows when I’ll hear about that.)

-My “Storifying the Academy” post gives some background on the form of the academic novel.  Again, as I read through I Hotel I’ll have to think about how this book works within the genre.

-It just so happens that the African American Intellectual History Society blog is in the middle of a series on Afro-Asian politics. I think these two articles by Keisha N. Blaine provide some relevant historical context to the politics in I Hotel.
“The Deep Roots of Afro-Asia.”
“On ‘Transpacific Antiracism’: An Interview with Yuichiro Onishi.”

-And I’ll have to work hard not to slip up and call the book “We Hotel.”



4 thoughts on “I Hotel: A Social Reading

  1. So glad to see this, Lavelle! I read this book last summer after finding it randomly in a used bookstore. I to have to re-read – I went through it pretty quickly, and was very absorbed and it got LOTS of thoughts going, and the book has stayed on the fringes of my thought since I put it down. Looking forward to reading more.

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