Karen Tei Yamashita receives 2021 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters



Karen Tei Yamashita, Emeritus Professor of Literature at UC Santa Cruz, received the 2021 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation (NBF), presenter of the National Book Awards. She is the 34th recipient of this Lifetime Achievement Award, which has been presented in the past to Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Ursula K. LeGuin and Walter Moseley.

Appearing in front of the camera wearing the large brass medal awarded to the winners each year, Yamashita said she was “stunned to be here” and thanked NBF Managing Director Ruth Dickey and Chairman of the Board David Steinberger for this “gracious and deep honor”. She also honored her longtime editor Coffee House Press and her “colleagues, students and staff at UC Santa Cruz who have provided me with a home to research and write.”

“Thank you to all of you who gave me this incredible trip,” she said during the November 17th online ceremony. “I have been truly blessed. ”

Yamashita used her acceptance speech, in part, to emphasize the importance of this medal awarded to an Asian American writer “especially this year after the pandemic, after overcoming the absurdity, corruption and lies. from Twitter; the brutality of racial profiling; and the provocation of anti-immigrants, anti-refugees, anti-Muslims, [and] anti-Asian hatred.

“At such times,” she continued, “may our writing forge tolerance and care.”

Through much of his acceptance speech, Yamashita reflected on and thanked those who helped support his journey as a writer. She pointed out two beloved aunts who recognized her talent with words and led her to meet Yoshiko Uchida, a family friend and Japanese-American who had written several books about her experiences growing up amidst hate. anti-Asian World War II. This opened Yamashita to the work of many other Asian-American writers of Uchida’s generation, including John Okada, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, and Wakako Yamauchi.

Yamashita saved his strongest statements for the end of his speech, using the Japanese folk tale by Urashima Taro as a metaphor for the experience of being a writer and being alive.

In this story, Taro saves a turtle from a group of children and is rewarded by being transported by the creature to an underwater realm. While living in luxury in this palace, he misses the house and decides to return. Before he leaves, the princess of this kingdom gives him a jewelry box, ordering Taro never to open it for fear of being forced to suffer the consequences. When he returns, he realizes that 100 years have passed. Unable to contain his curiosity, he opens the gift box and immediately transforms into the old man he should be.

Yamashita unveiled the layers of meaning in this story during his acceptance speech. The turtle, she said, could be the vehicle of our lifetime journey, or “with its shell as a home has a different lesson. How we have to travel in our bodies, even if they are marked by ethnicity, sex, color. The immigrants, the refugees, the exiles, by the fortune of the life, left on the backs of immortal turtles towards distant places… to discover that the return is impossible.

Moreover, the jewelry box, in Yamashita’s mind, becomes a powerful symbol of the creative process, challenging her fellow writers to open it and reap the consequences.

“We are discovering,” she says, “that writing down what we think, turning ideas around, can reconstruct ways of thinking. Ideas are dangerous and transformative. Writing them is a creative job for which we are responsible, accountable. Writing requires our constant attention and integrity.

This National Book Foundation award is just the latest honor for Yamashita. Author of 10 books, she has received numerous accolades during her career. His 2011 novel I Hotel was a finalist for the National Book Award, and in 2009 she received the John Dos Passos Literature Award.


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