Rafu Wire Services
Karen Tei Yamashita was awarded the 2021 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation on Nov. 17.
“A bold and groundbreaking writer, Yamashita’s deeply creative body of work has made an enduring impact on our literary landscape,” the foundation’s chair, David Steinberger, said in a statement.
The other honorary award, the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, went to author-librarian-NPR commentator Nancy Pearl.
Yamashita and Pearl were among the honorees who spoke of a precarious present, worrying about the wave of efforts to censor books at schools and libraries and about violent attacks against racial minorities.
In her acceptance speech, Yamashita said the award was especially significant to her community, given how the past year has been plagued by anti-Asian violence and hatred.
“Asian American literature is, at heart, a literature of politics and resistance,” Yamashita said.
Yamashita has written eight books, all published by the Minneapolis-based Coffee House Press. Her works include a book of short stories about being Japanese American, “Sansei and Sensibility” (2020), “Through the Arc of the Rain Forest” (1990), a novel about a Japanese ex-pat living in Brazil amid an environmental crisis, and “Brazil-Maru” (1992), which focused on the Japanese Brazilian community. Yamashita lived in Brazil for many years.
Her other books include “Tropic of Orange” (1997). “Circle K Cycles” (2001), “Anime Wong: Fictions of Performance” (2014), edited with an afterword by Stephen Hong Sohn, and “Letters to Memory” (2017).
“I’m here because Coffee House has envisioned the long distance of a writer’s journey, [they] know that books take time to be read and to be shared,” Yamashita said, adding that the publisher always kept her books in print, which gave her readership time to grow.
Yamashita’s “I Hotel” (2010), a novel set in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1960s and ’70s, was a finalist for the National Book Award. It won the 2011 California Book Award and was a finalist for the Asian American Literary Award for fiction in 2011. Inspired by the movement to stop the eviction of Asian seniors from the International Hotel, the book featured students, laborers, artists, revolutionaries, and provocateurs caught in a riptide of politics and passion, clashing ideologies, and personal turmoil. A 10th-anniversary edition was recently published.
“Karen Tei Yamashita is such a legend,” author Jean Chen Ho (“Fiona and Jane”) tweeted. “When I read ‘I Hotel’ in undergrad I remember just having my entire brain reorganized about what a novel is and can do.”
Yamashita serves as a professor emeritus at UC Santa Cruz, where she researched Japanese immigration to Brazil and Asian American literature.
She attended Carleton College in Minnesota and also studied at Waseda University in Tokyo. She was born in Oakland and raised in Los Angeles. Both of her parents were incarcerated at Topaz in Utah during World War II.
In addition to a bronze medal, the lifetime achievement award comes with $10,000.
Yamashita is the 34th recipient of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which was created in 1988 to recognize a lifetime of literary achievement. Previous recipients include Walter Mosley, Edmund White, Isabel Allende, Annie Proulx, Robert A. Caro, John Ashbery, Judy Blume, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, E.L. Doctorow, Maxine Hong Kingston, Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, Elmore Leonard, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, and Adrienne Rich.
Nominations for the medal are made by former National Book Award winners, finalists, judges, and other writers and literary professionals from around the country. The final selection is made by the National Book Foundation’s Board of Directors.
Jason Mott’s “Hell of a Book,” a surreal meta-narrative about an author’s promotional tour and his haunted past and present, won the National Book Award for fiction — a plot twist Mott did not imagine for himself.
“Hell of a Book” is a satirical take on a Black writer’s adventures on the road for a promotional tour — Mott himself had his share of experiences while talking up such previous works as his debut novel “The Returned” — and a stark and disorienting tale of racial violence and identity, drawing on recent headlines and the author’s childhood.
“I would like to dedicate this award to all the other mad kids, to all the outsiders, the weirdos, the bullied, the ones so strange they had no choice but to be misunderstood by the world and those around them,” Mott, 43, said in his acceptance speech.
He also cited “the ones who, in spite of this, refuse to outgrow their imagination, refuse to abandon their dreams, refused to deny, diminish their identity, or their truths, or their loves — unlike so many others.”
Tiya Miles’ “All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake” was the winner for nonfiction.
Malinda Lo’s “Last Night at the Telegraph Club” — a story of same-sex, cross-cultural love set in the 1950s — won for young people’s literature.
The poetry prize was awarded to Martín Espada’s “Floaters,” and best translation went to Elisa Shua Dusapin’s “Winter in Sokcho,” translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins.
Winners in the competitive categories each receive $10,000.