NEW YORK – Karen Tei Yamashita, this year's recipient of a National Book Award for literary achievement, is in some ways a departure from previous winners.
The National Book Foundation announced Friday that Yamashita has been awarded its medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, a prize with a $10,000 cash award. Previous winners include Toni Morrison, Robert Caro and Walter Mosley.
Yamashita will be honored during the annual National Book Award ceremony, which the foundation plans to hold as an in-person event in Manhattan on Nov. 17. Last year's awards were handed out virtually because of the pandemic.
The 70-year-old Yamashita is an author and playwright who in such fiction (and meta-fiction) as “I Hotel” and “Tropic of Orange” employs multiple perspectives and narrative styles. She is little known to the general public when compared to Morrison, Caro and other medal winners, but she is deeply admired by those who read her work. The foundation praised her work as “expansive and innovative" and "genre-defying.”
Yamashita and Maxine Hong Kingston are the only Asian Americans to receive the award in its 34-year history. Rare among DCAL winners, Yamashita does not publish through one of the New York houses, but with the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Coffee House Press.
"Lifetime achievement awards have been given to writers who have had great acclaim and success, but they can also celebrate people who have done important work and have not had the same level of recognition," the foundation's executive director, Ruth Dickey, told The Associated Press. “She (Yamashita) writes in such gorgeous and complicated ways about culture and racism and the fragility and strength of community.”
During a recent telephone interview, Yamashita called her books “recuperations of history, and of people who are perhaps invisible or whose stories are not told.” Her characters range from a Japanese community in a Brazilian rainforest to a Japanese-American dentist in Los Angeles and the Asian American activists who resided at the International Hotel in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s.
A professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Yamashita is a native of Oakland who moved with her family to Los Angeles when she was an infant. She grew up in what she would call in a 2020 essay for Guernica a series of bubbles, “a protective community space of Japanese Americans who didn’t have to explain to each other who they were or how they got there. Didn’t have to explain the war, that they’d been imprisoned in camps, exiled non-alien citizens, had returned to the West Coast to try to resume their American lives."
She attended Carleton College in Minnesota, studying English and Japanese contemporary literature and developing an interest in anthology that led to a life-changing fellowship in Brazil. She would remain there for nine years, absorbing the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and other South American writers, meeting her future husband Ronaldo Lopes de Oliveira and gathering material for what became the novel “Brazil-Maru.”
"While researching in Brazil, I became fascinated with two Japanese communal projects founded in the 1920s in the backlands of Sao Paulo," she told the AP. “I felt my language skills in Japanese were insufficient for academic-anthropological work, so I turned the project into research for what I thought was an historical novel. I suppose my writing begins there.”
Yamashita's books blend fiction and nonfiction, the printed word and illustrations, and narrative forms ranging from manifestos to shooting scripts. She can weave decades of history through a single residence, like in “I Hotel,” a finalist for the National Book Award in 2010, or even through an isolated event. In her short story Colono:scopy," a patient undergoing a common medical procedure has visions of Walter Cronkite, Godzilla, the mushroom clouds of World War II and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 19th century.
Yamashita opens up her narratives as widely as she can but is careful about what she reveals. She long resisted writing about her relatives, remembering when her mother personally intervened to keep a magazine from publishing an essay about the family. For “I Hotel,” she interviewed former residents of the International Hotel and allowed some to review her manuscript before it was published.
“I brought them over to the house and we had a barbecue and we fed them. And I said, 'OK, here are the parts in which your stories were used, and I'd like you to take a look and I will delete anything you don't want in there,'" she explained.
“So when we get to dessert, this man gets up and walks around the table, then walks around the table in the other direction, and he goes off to the bathroom. And my friend said, ‘You got him. You got him good.’ And then he came back and said, ‘Mrs. Lee, let me tell you about Mrs. Lee.’ I had made this character up entirely, but he said ‘You need to know a few more stories about Mrs. Lee.’"