When asked to be a guest speaker for a high school assembly last year, Karen Tei Yamashita, author of “I Hotel” and the recently published “Sansei and Sensibility,” decided to bring joy back into the students’ lives.
On April 13, Scripps Presents invited renowned author Karen Tei Yamashita, a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Contribution to talk about her works in Balch Auditorium. Yamashita is a finalist for the National Book Award as well as a recipient for the U.S. Artists’ Ford Foundation Fellowship. She is currently a professor emerita of literature and creative writing at UC Santa Cruz. Yamashita was in conversation with Jean Chen Ho, Scripps’ 2023 Mary Routt Endowed Chair.
“Karen’s impressive bonding of work includes novels, short stories and essays … She works in what literary critics call historic fiction, magic realism and social-political satire,” Ho said. “Through it all, Karen writes with a sly-sardonic sense of humor and a vast intellectual curiosity about the absurd world we live in. Reading her work teaches us to see carefully [and] compassionately into the concerns of the human heart and the radical hope that keeps it beating day after day.”
Her newest book “Sansei and Sensibility” is a collection of short stories and essays filled with humor, emotion and revelation about a cross-country roadtrip Yamashita took with her niece from Providence, Rhode Island to Los Angeles, California. Throughout the trip, the two women stop by several Japanese incarceration camps to learn more about their family history and heritage during World War II.
“Every museum and its collection is different and yet the same — same as in the urge to preserve, to store stories and to teach. They curate stories, a vision and aversions of events and truth,” Yamashita explained during her reading of the chapter, “KonMarimasu,” which directly translates to “I’m in trouble” in Japanese.
“Each of those remote sites of Japanese incarceration — their monuments, interpretive centers, museums and people all describe the racism, hatred and fear that unjustly imprisoned citizens and the honest hard working immigrant families. These sites and their caretakers stand as evidence, accountability, resistance and hope” Yamashita said.
“Through it all, Karen writes with a sly-sardonic sense of humor and a vast intellectual curiosity about the absurd world we live in. Reading her work teaches us to see carefully, compassionately into the concerns of the human heart and the radical hope that keeps it beating day after day.”
Known as the curator and keeper of her family’s history, Yamashita began collecting photos and letters that her family sent to one another when they were split apart in different incarceration camps across the country. She sees joy in collecting these documents in remembrance of certain family members.
“It gives us documents of stories of them during the war,” Yamashita said. “I had all these letters from my dad and his siblings as well as various family documents and photos, and I thought maybe this is for my dad.”
“I think hearing her read this piece was also masterfully crafted. We started with a joking critique of Marie Kondo and ended with a very deep and historical … family history, and just hearing a piece being read out loud is always very special,” Attendee Anna Jones SC ’23 said.
Jones, alongside her friends, Amelie Lee SC ’23 and Krystal Yang PO ’23 are students in Jean Chen Ho’s creative writing class. They attended the talk not only to support Yamashita and her writing, but also to learn more about the Japanese-American experience.
“We read one of Karen’s short stories in class last Tuesday, and Jean encouraged us to come to this event,” Yang said. “As somebody who is graduating, I feel very grateful to have opportunities like this where writers and authors come to speak.”
“I liked the ‘joy’ bit at the beginning where she talks about writing as joy. I think I’m writing my thesis right now, and I’m not feeling too much joy,” Lee said. “I think it was encouraging and made me reflect on what I do like to write, which is why I’ve done this. So it was … a refreshing perspective.”
With several aspiring writers in the crowd, Yamashita concluded her talk by sharing some writing tips.
“I just love to write. It’s the creative space I live in. But I’m very aware of everything I write,” Yamashita said. “There is an awareness within itself. But that’s the way I’m alive, so I’ll say that. If I get stuck, you know I just cook, clean the house [or] take a nap.”
“Joy” comes in all sorts of different forms. As for Yamashita, she finds joy in relearning the archives of her family’s history and sharing her story with the world.
“You know you can hold each item and feel for the spark of joy, kick your foot back and point your finger up in the ‘joy’ position,” Yamashita said. “You reflect on the lives of every other curator and keeper of history along your incarceration road trip. You think that keeping this stuff and saving it might also be another way of transforming your life.”