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Author Karen Tei Yamashita wins lifetime literary achievement award

The author of "I Hotel" and "Sansei and Sensibility" is the 34th recipient of the National Book Foundation's award since it was created in 1988.
Karen Tei Yamashita
Karen Tei Yamashita appears on the stream of the 72nd National Book Awards Ceremony.National Book Foundation

Karen Tei Yamashita was awarded the 2021 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation on Wednesday.

Yamashita is the 34th recipient of the award since it was created in 1988. Past recipients include Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston and Stephen King.

"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.

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 publishing house Coffee House Press. Her works include a book of short stories about being Japanese American, "Sansei and Sensibility," and "Through the Arc of the Rain Forest," a novel about a Japanese ex-pat living in Brazil amid an environmental crisis.

"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.

In 2010, Yamashita's "I Hotel," a novel set in San Francisco's Chinatown in the 1960s and '70s, was a finalist for the National Book Award. The title won the 2011 California Book Award and was a finalist for the Asian American Literary Award for fiction in 2011.

"Karen Tei Yamashita is such a legend," author Jean Chen Ho tweeted in response to Yamashita's acceptance speech on Wednesday. "When I read 'I Hotel' in undergrad I remember just having my entire brain reorganized about what a novel is and can do."

Yamashita currently serves as a professor emeritus at the University of California, 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, according to the National Book Foundation. Both of her parents were incarcerated at Topaz internment camp during World War II.

In addition to a bronze medal, the lifetime achievement award comes with $10,000.