Shelf Unbound: You take a chapter in Asian American history and break it down into its human elements and stories. Which came first
for you in writing the novel—the larger historical structure or the individual concerns and dramas of the participants?
Karen Tei Yamashita: The process of researching and writing were probably more organic and back-and-forth between the historical and individual, so after so many years of pursuing this project it’s hard to say. At first I talked to and gathered stories from anyone who would talk to me. Over time, patterns and a time period emerged, and then I knew or decided what the larger historical context might be. At the same time, I also began to know and think about particular questions, so I could focus and hone my research. Maybe your question is not about what came first time-wise, but what became more important, and in that sense, the stories of individuals rose to the surface. Without those individual stories, there would be no book.
Shelf: From the novel’s start, I was thinking of your writing style as bebop. Fast, breakaway, improv, thematic. Later you have your characters discussing jazz. I assume you’re a jazz fan. Is bebop a fair
assessment, or would you classify your writing otherwise?
Yamashita: I like jazz, but my friends know I really know nothing about it. I had to study and listen enough to write these sections, and I had a lot of help from some very savvy aficionados and musicians. Music and its creative movement and changes are really important to these years, and whether I knew my stuff or not, I knew that the work had to be suffused with the rhythms and cadence of the music. How to employ narrative/text to realize sound—that was my work to solve as a writer. Soul and rock and folk are also there, I hope, but I like your idea of fast, breakaway, improv.
Shelf: You worked on this novel for 10 years. Did your perspective on the events you write about change significantly over that time?
Yamashita: Yes, certainly. It was a big project with big questions, so whatever I assumed in the beginning changed or got rearranged. For example, I thought originally about the movement as a youth thing, among very young inexperienced college students, but there was a mentorship by previous generations and a deep history recovered through that legacy. And if the movement was considered a local or national phenomenon confined to American borders, it became evident to me in researching that embedded in the premises and promise of this radical movement for civil rights were international and transnational connections to third world struggles and to immigrant homelands. What I discovered is somehow organized into the structure of the work. It was a long learning process, and I feel I am still learning. Now that the book is a published thing, it has its own life. That is to say, slowly, from readers, I am hearing other stories, the stories in between, the gaps, the goofs, the missing parts, the deeper story below the surface.
Shelf: How did it feel to finally close the door on the book?
Yamashita: Well, as I said, the door isn’t really closed, at least for the life of the book itself. But yes, it’s a relief to have kept a promise to finish a book. I bothered a lot of folks to make this tome. Maybe it’s my upbringing, but it’s been important to me to keep my promises, to be responsible.
Shelf: Your research included interviewing more than 150 people who were part of or witness to the story you tell. Tell us about one in particular.
Yamashita:Al Robles. Al was a Filipino American beat poet who grew up in Japantown and the old Fillmore, known as the Harlem of the West for its jazz houses. He helped to found the Kearny Street Workshop for artists and writers at the I-Hotel, and he was a dedicated activist for the manong
and elderly community in the hotel and surrounding neighborhood of Manilatown. Throughout his life and in the 30 years that the hotel was a cavernous open and demolished pit of rubble on Kearny and Jackson Streets, he wrote about and advocated for a community of elders, their stories and wellbeing. His life was an event and expression of his social and artistic beliefs, and his effect as a poet and friend to so many was to contain and give compassion effortlessly, with humor, music, and a kind of rambunctious but purposeful innocence.
Shelf: Independent publisher Coffee House Press has published all of your books. What does that relationship mean to you?
Yamashita:I have been blessed. I knew nothing about publishing 20 years ago, and I got trained and mentored by Coffee House. I came to know the importance of independent publishing as a space for new creative work and risk-taking and integrity, but also as a resource that keeps its books in print. This has meant a great deal to me as a writer because my books have taken a long time to stew among and garner over time a readership, and because CHP has kept their books in print, it means that several generations of readers and students in colleges and universities have been able to follow my work. I have known many incarnations of young staffs at CHP, and every one of them has been wonderful and supportive, hardworking, idealistic, and enthusiastic. What more can a writer ask for? The mainstay at CHP has been publisher/founder Allan Kornblum, and he’s been a mentor and supporter as no other.
Shelf: What are you working on now?
Yamashita:I’m working with my extended Yamashita family on a cache of letters written during the war, when our parents were sent to internment camps and the family was dispersed across the country and finally the world. There were seven Yamashita siblings born in Oakland, California; they are all gone now, but their correspondence reveals in articulate detail their multiple and intense relationships, their desire and deep sense of responsibility to keep the family together, and their understanding of their civil rights denied and prospects for the future.