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  • A Revolutionary Romance: Particularity and Universality in Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel
  • Nathan Ragain (bio)

Early in the fifth novella of 4Karen Tei Yamashita’s historical novel I Hotel (2010), three characters involved in the San Francisco struggle over the I-Hotel have an exchange about racial identification. Two of the characters—Ben and Olivia—are young Asian American revolutionaries, part of San Francisco State College and the University of California, Berkeley’s Third World Strikes, who are fumbling toward both romance and revolution. Their mentor, Karl Kang, sets the stage for their courtship in the context of a Marxist reading group. At one point during the couple’s study-group courtship, the dialogue (the lines of which Yamashita numbers)1 turns to the relationship between ethnicity and broader struggle:

  • 7.3 Ben asked, When did we become Asian American?

  • 7.4 Olivia answered, What sort of question is that?

  • 7.5 Karl interrupted. Wait, it’s not a stupid question. Nineteen sixty-six. There’s a magazine article about the Japanese American model minority, a kind of American. Before that, Japanese are racially identified as Japanese—otherwise how could they all be interned during the war? After sixty-six, we all get racially identified as hyphenated Americans.

  • 7.6 Olivia posed, But Asian American is a political designation.

  • 7.7 Karl answered, It’s political, racial, and national. Look, you are organizing around this designation, and that’s useful, but you are going to have to scrutinize it through a Marxist analysis that includes class. Hey, trust me. This is going to make or break you.

  • 7.8 Ben asked, You mean we have to move away from race and organize based on class?

  • 7.9 Karl shook his head. Don’t think it’s that easy. (321)

This entire exchange concerns the ways competing markers of individual identity—race, class position, and national origin—cross one another in highly ambiguous ways but, in this very ambiguity, create potential new bases for political mobilization. Given their work with the Third World Strike, the couple’s politics might best be described as panethnic, and they represent the sort of interethnic couple prominent in Yamashita’s novels.2 Thus, the dialogue concerning the ambiguous status of Asian American seems also a double-voiced conversation about Ben and Olivia’s own romance. Both are “Asian American,” but Ben is a working-class Filipino American, whereas Olivia comes from a relatively wealthy Chinese American family, and the novella marks their relationship as interethnic, noting: “In another time and place, such a union would have been impossible, for such mixing of class and tribal identities should have [End Page 137] been taboo. But these were times of war” (297). Their deliberation on what it means to be a “hyphenated American” in “times of war” captures in miniature the novel’s broader concerns: the way historical struggle shapes and transforms identity; 3 the way the unity implied in a term like the movement is both created and frustrated by lines of class, ethnicity, and ideology; and the way one’s personal life (here, the romance) relates to one’s political life (here, times of war).

Ben’s initial question—“When did we become Asian American?”—highlights what Yen Le Espiritu refers to as “the emergent quality” of panethnicity (7). As both Espiritu and Karl note, the historicity of the panethnic marker, dated precisely to 1966, raises important questions about the reality (and contingency) of ethnicity and thus the potential for ethnic political mobilizations. Karl’s reference is to William Pettersen’s New York Times Magazine article, “Success Story, Japanese-American Style,” which coined the term model minority. For Karl, the implied irony is that the article establishes new lines that simultaneously divide and connect racial groups. On the one hand, it contains cross-racial struggle by drawing lines between “model” and “problem” minorities, thus short-circuiting cross-racial alliances.4 On the other hand, the rise of its new designation—Asian American—becomes a site around which various ethnic groups can organize, despite “taboo class and tribal identities.” Although the novel is certainly devoted to narrating this Asian American movement, it is not completely...


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pp. 137-154
Launched on MUSE
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