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Second Asian American wins National Book Award

UC Santa Cruz emerita professor of literature Karen Tei Yamashita is this year’s recipient of the National Book Award in the U.S. for literary achievement, her university reports. Yamashita joins Maxine Hong Kingston as one of two Asian Americans to receive the award in its 34-year history.

Yamashita’s I Hotel was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. The novel is a multi-voiced mix of genres that recounts the tale of America’s struggle for civil rights as it played out in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Born in Oakland in 1951, Yamashita grew up in Los Angeles. She described her hometown in an interview with The Star as “a protective community space of Japanese Americans who didn’t have to explain to each other who they were or how they got there. Didn’t have to explain the war, that they’d been imprisoned in camps, exiled non-alien citizens had returned to the West Coast to try to resume their American lives.”

In addition to these experiences, Yamashita cites a life-changing fellowship in Brazil that shaped her writing journey, according to Rafu. She focused on themes of immigration and community and incorporated her creativity into anthropological research interests. Yamashita eventually developed her identity as an artist who blended fiction and nonfiction, printed work and illustrations, and even shooting scripts.

In her interview with The Star, Yamashita called her books “recuperations of history, and of people who are perhaps invisible or whose stories are not told.” In addition to I Hotel, she has also authored eight other books, including Tropic of Orange, Letters to Memory, and Through the Arc of the Rain Forest.

Compared to previous winners like Toni Morrison and Ursula K. Le Guin, Yamashita is little known to the public. Despite this, she has gained ardent admirers through her evocative and touching pieces. The National Book Foundation praised Yamashita’s work as “expansive and innovative” and “genre-defying.”

“Through adept crafting, passionate research, and timely narratives, Yamashita defines, and re-defines, again and again, what storytelling can do,” Ruth Dickey, executive director of the National Book Foundation, told UC Santa Cruz News. “In her books, she compels and challenges readers to engage with ideas, identities, and complicated worlds that mirror the complexity of life. We are honored to celebrate her extraordinary literary accomplishments and center her contributions to American culture.”

Yamashita will be honored during the annual National Book Award ceremony at an in-person event in Manhattan on November 17. As a recipient, she will also receive a $10,000 cash award and a solid brass medal.

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