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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Carlton alumnus Karen Tei Yamashita receives the Distinguished Contribution to American Literature Medal

Congratulations to Karen Tei Yamashita on the 2021 Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Literature from the National Book Foundation. Kudos also to Minneapolis-based Coffee House Press for publishing all eight of her books.

Karen Tei Yamashita (photo courtesy)

Foundation Chairman David Steinberger said in a statement prepared by statesmen for the November 17 awards ceremony, “The deeply creative work of the brave and innovative writer (Japanese American) Yamashita has had an indelible impact on our literary landscape.”

In her welcoming speech, the Carlton College alumnus said the award was especially meaningful to her community given how anti-Asian violence and hatred has been raging over the past year.

Yamashita’s career began with her 1990 novel In the Rainforest Arc, about a Japanese émigré living in Brazil amid an ecological crisis as all the dirt in the world seeped onto the floor of a destroyed rainforest, creating a hard, shiny and smooth plastic field that opens up new horizons of operation.

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

Carlton Alumnus Karen Tei Yamashita Receives The Distinguished Contribution To American Literature MedalIn an interview with Pioneer Press when Tropical Rainforest Arc was published, California native Yamashita said she studied English and Japanese literature in Minnesota because of America’s attitude toward Japanese Americans during World War II. She explained that Japanese Americans who are in internment camps (where both of her parents were imprisoned) can be resettled if they find work in the Midwest or East.

Her mother, who was a bachelor at the time, took a job at the YWCA Minneapolis. The paternal aunt worked with the Quaker John Nason, who took students out of the camps and transferred them to colleges and universities. He became President of Carlton.

In 2010, Yamashita’s novel I Hotel, set in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the 1960s and 1970s, won the American Book Diversity Award and was a National Book Award finalist.

Yamashita was in college when protesters in San Francisco fought the eviction of older men from the International Hotel.

This dilapidated old hotel-residence on the outskirts of San Francisco’s Chinatown has been at the center of a burgeoning Asian-American political and social movement, which the author brings to life in I Hotel, which consists of 10 novellas, each describing a year from 1968 to 1977. G.

Characters include Chinese and Japanese workers, Filipinos, American Indians in Alcatraz, veterans, young college activists with deep political understanding, a chef leading a pig cooking competition, artists and revolutionaries. She tells their stories through scripts, conversations, jokes, ghost memories, study guides, drawings, poems, government documents, myths, and political philosophy.

Yamashita praised Coffee House Press for foreseeing the “long journey of a writer; (they) know it takes time to read and distribute books, ”adding that the publisher kept his books in print, giving her readers time to grow. She believes the late Allan Kornblum, the founder of the coffee shop, championed Tropical Forest Arc after nearly every other publisher rejected it.

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