Carleton grad Karen Tei Yamashita wins Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

·3 min read

Nov. 27—Congratulations to Karen Tei Yamashita for winning the 2021 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, conferred by the National Book Foundation. Kudos also to Minneapolis-based Coffee House Press for publishing all eight of her books.

Foundation chair David Steinberger said in a prepared statemen for the Nov. 17 awards ceremony: " A bold and groundbreaking writer, (Japanese-American) Yamashita's deeply creative body of work has made an enduring impact on our literary landscape."

In her acceptance speech, the Carleton College graduate said the award was especially significant to her community, given how the past year has been plagued by anti-Asian violence and hatred.

Yamashita's career began with her 1990 novel "Through the Arc of the Rain Forest," about a Japanese ex-pat living in Brazil amid an environmental crisis because all the crud in the world has leaked onto the floor of the decimated rain forest, creating a hard, shiny and smooth field of plastic that promises whole new vistas of exploitation.

Brazil has influenced Yamashita's life because she lived there for 10 years, researching the history and anthropology of the country's big population of Japanese immigrants. She is married to Brazilian architect and artist Ronaldo Oliveira and their son and daughter were born there.

In a Pioneer Press interview when "Through the Arc of the Rain Forest" was published, California native Yamashita said she studied English and Japanese literature in Minnesota because of America's treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. She explained that Japanese-Americans in internment camps (where both her parents were imprisoned), could be relocated if they found jobs in the Midwest or East.

Her mother, who was single at the time, got a job at the Minneapolis YWCA. An aunt on her father's side worked with a Quaker, John Nason, who got students out of camps and relocated them to colleges and universities. He became Carleton president.

In 2010, Yamashita's "I Hotel," a novel set in San Francisco's Chinatown in the 1960s and '70s, 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 the eviction of elderly men from the International Hotel.

That crumbling old residence hotel at the edge of San Francisco's Chinatown was at the center of the burgeoning Asian-American political and social movement the author brings to life in "I Hotel," made up of 10 novellas, each depicting a year from 1968 to 1977.

Her cast of characters includes Chinese and Japanese laborers, Filipinos, American Indians occupying Alcatraz, veterans, young college activists steeped in political theory, a chef who presides over a pig-cooking contest, artists and revolutionaries. She tells their stories through screenplays, conversations, jokes, ghosts' memories, study guides, drawings, poetry, government documents, myths and political philosophy.

Yamashita has praised Coffee House Press for envisioning "the long distance of a writer's journey; (they) know that books take time to be read and to be shared," adding that the publisher kept her books in print, which gave her readership time to grow. She credits the late Allan Kornblum, Coffee House founder, with championing "Through the Arc of the Rain Forest," after it had been rejected by almost every other publisher.

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