I wasn’t prepared for Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel. The weight of it, for one thing. It was on hold for me at the library a week before Christmas and when I finally got around to picking it up, I was a little surprised. I wasn’t quite expecting to be the 605 pages long book that it is. And so I Hotel languished on my own shelf at home until January, when I finally felt brave enough to pick it up!
The first chapter went well, which opens with the death of 18-year-old Paul’s father. He discovers more about his father’s background from his father’s friend, SF State professor Chen Wen-guang. But Paul and Chen are just two characters in this multi-voiced tome which is divided into 10 novellas, set in 10 years of the San Francisco Civil Rights story, from 1968 to 1977, with the I Hotel, an actual historical landmark, linking the chapters.
As I delved further into the book, it became more complicated, more elaborate, quite experimental. It isn’t a straightforward narrative. The chapters are written in the form of dossiers, film scripts, transcripts, myths, and even a dance. There were many sections that left me scratching my head, too experimental for me to understand their significance. A little too bizarre. Maybe if I knew more about the historical background of the Asian-American struggle I might comprehend it better.
I Hotel is an intriguing book. The historical background is fascinating and completely new to me. It made me want to learn more, read more about the struggles of Asian-Americans in the Bay Area. The very setting of the Bay Area and San Francisco pleased me to no end. Daly City! Colma! San Bruno! I used to live around that area (I’m now on the East Bay). But the structure of this book, its multi-voiced narrative twisting and turning, with every chapter, every novella, it was a little too much for me. I think I’m just a reader who prefers a simpler narrative, a walk in the park, with a stop here and there to gaze at the flowers and take in the sunshine, rather than a rollercoaster ride with dips and zooms at every corner.