On Writing History: Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel

Despite the fact that ideas of “writing history” or even ideas of “history” itself are culturally specific practices and to some degree always questions about how human beings might depict the past, we (here in the present day U.S./West) still generally hold onto the notion that the most accurate representations of the past come to us through documentation of fact. Once, this meant primarily written non-fiction accounts of the past, based on archival research. Now, of course, this also includes film and TV documentaries, in which archival research is translated through talking heads and transformed into a variety of visuals: the reenactment, the evocative shot of landscapes, pans across still photographs of the relevant history, and, in the last few decades, also computer-generated-imagery of places, people, and events.

Historical fiction, in oral, then written, and now also filmic form, serve as evocative counterparts to the supposed reality of documentary, non-fiction histories. While they are often viewed as less faithful to the archive and thus less accurate, the drama, arced story lines, and image-centric nature of these works (no matter the form) are what shape understandings of the past for the the vast majority of us. These observations are by no means new, but they are worth repeating in order to stress the strange incompatibility of these two points: 1) “documentary”, “non-fiction” representations of histories are viewed as the more or most accurate take on the past, but 2) “dramatic”, “imaginative” or “imagined” “fictional” representations of the past are far more influential in popular conception of the past and past events.

Certainly writers, artists, and historians of all kinds have attempted to work with this complexity of “history”, mixing approaches and genres to varying degrees of effect and success. Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel (2010) is certainly a fictional novel and certainly a history; it does the work of documentation based on archival record and also the work of imaginative dramatization. But to my mind I Hotel achieves more than simply a well-research historical novel, and I suspect that it is a particularly compelling work because it takes up a movement. In attempting to portray the Asian American movement from 1968 to 1977, crucial years in the ethnic nationalist movements in the U.S. that grew out of the civil rights movement, Yamashita bites off far more than most can chew. Continue reading On Writing History: Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel