Congratulations to Karen Tei Yamashita for winning the 2021 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, awarded by the National Book Foundation. Also kudos to Minneapolis-based Coffee House Press for publishing their eight books.
Foundation President David Steinberger said in a statement prepared for the November 17 awards ceremony: “A daring and groundbreaking writer, the deeply creative work of Yamashita (Japanese-American) has had a lasting impact on our literary landscape. “
In her acceptance speech, the Carleton College graduate said the award was particularly important to her community, given that the past year has been plagued by anti-Asian violence and hatred.
Yamashita’s career began with her 1990 novel “Across the Arc of the Rainforest”, about a Japanese expatriate living in Brazil in the midst of an environmental crisis because all the filth in the world has spilled over to it. rainforest soil decimated, creating a field of hard, shiny and smooth plastic that promises new prospects for exploitation.
Brazil influenced Yamashita’s life because she lived there for 10 years, researching the history and anthropology of the country’s large immigrant population of Japan. She is married to Brazilian architect and artist Ronaldo Oliveira and their son and daughter were born there.
In an interview with Pioneer Press during the publication of “Across the Rainbow of the Rainforest,” Yamashita, originally from California, said she studied English and Japanese literature in Minnesota due to the treatment of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II. She explained that Japanese-Americans in internment camps (where both of her parents were imprisoned) could be relocated if they found work in the Midwest or East.
Her mother, who was single at the time, found a job at the Minneapolis YWCA. A paternal aunt worked with a Quaker, John Nason, who took students out of camps and transferred them to colleges and universities. He became president of Carleton.
In 2010, Yamashita’s “I Hotel,” a novel set in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1960s and 1970s, won the American Book Award for diversity and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Yamashita was in college when protesters in San Francisco fought for the eviction of elderly men from the International Hotel.
This ruined former hotel-residence on the edge of San Francisco’s Chinatown was at the center of the burgeoning Asian-American political and social movement that the author brings to life in “I Hotel,” consisting of 10 short stories, each depicting a year from 1968 to 1977.
Its character cast includes Chinese and Japanese laborers, Filipinos, American Indians occupying Alcatraz, veterans, young university activists steeped in political theory, a chef who chairs a pork cooking competition, artists and revolutionaries. . She tells their stories through storylines, conversations, jokes, ghost memories, study guides, drawings, poetry, government documents, myths and political philosophy.
Yamashita praised Coffee House Press for considering “the long distance of a writer’s journey; (they) know books take a long time to read and share, ”adding that the publisher has kept their books in print, which has given their readership time to develop. She credits the late Allan Kornblum, founder of Coffee House, with defending “Across the Rainforest Arch”, after it was dismissed by nearly every other editor.