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This ambitious project by artist Tamsyn Challenger was created in response to the brutal murder and rape of more than 400 women over a decade in the US border town of Ciudad Juárez and the region of Chihuahua in Mexico. Some 200 exceptional artists have each painted one of the murdered women, confronting us with and safeguarding in our memory the dead and disappeared. The exhibition raises important questions about the capacity of art to represent tragedy and commemorate the dead, as well as the potential for art to affect an audience and the collective nature of grief. The exhibition is curated by Ellen Mara De Wachter, a curator and writer based in London.


Challenger says:

“This project began in 2005 when I was commissioned to make a feature for BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. I travelled to Mexico and met with some of the families and was struck by their need to hand me postcards that had been generated as another aid to finding their loved ones. These images were black, white and pink and poorly produced but they started the concept in my mind and on the long flight home I had a half formed idea for what has become the project 400 Women. The concept relies heavily on a large-scale collaboration and, for me, each participating artist represents one of the murdered women, in some way invoking her, so that she can challenge humanity. Each image produced will stand as a statement against gender violence.”

Explanations for the murders, which continue to this day, range from serial killers to organ fielding, the use of women as prizes for drug cartels and domestic violence. Most sinister of all is the possibility of so-called sexual violence tourism. The continued disappearance of women in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America evidences a culture’s disregard for the rights of women. Despite media coverage of the issue, the murder of 186 Women in 2009 and the disappearance of many more attest to the fact that little is changing. The killers continue to enjoy impunity in the region, which has had a knock-on effect throughout the country and the region. Amnesty International has reported that in Guatemala more than 2,200 women have been murdered since 2001.The Mexican authorities have seriously mishandled each investigation into these murders and in August 2006 the Mexican federal government dropped its investigations into the murders, concluding that no federal laws had been violated.

The majority of the murdered women were extremely poor. Challenger has obtained over 100 images through Amnesty International’s Mexican team, the group Nuestra Hijas de regreso a casa, and the Casa Amiga Rape Crisis centre in Ciudad Juárez. For some women no image is extant. In these cases, the artist involved will use the woman’s name as they wish within the piece.

Alma Margarita


Paloma Angelica

Artists’ tribute to Mexico’s missing and murdered women

By Cordelia Hebblethwaite

BBC News

Arsene van Nierop’s footsteps clatter across the cold stone floor of Shoreditch Town hall in London.

She stops by a small black and white painting, and looks up, her head tilted slightly to the side.

It is a portrait of her daughter, Hester.

“She was a very small, small woman. She was open and spontaneous. She was kind to everybody; she was also chaotic…She was a really warm and deep-feeling person.”

“I’m really glad to have her here,” Arsene van Nierop tells the BBC.

Hester’s portrait forms part of an exhibition depicting 200 of the hundreds of women who have been murdered or declared missing in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez since the early 1990s.

Hester was brutally killed 12 years ago in Ciudad Juarez. From the Netherlands, she was visiting her sister on the way to taking up an internship in architecture in the US.

Her mother explains the story they have managed to piece together.

“She was beaten unconscious; the man strangled her and raped her, and then he put her under the bed.”

Arsene van Nierop standing by the portrait of her daughter Hester, who was murdered in 1998
Arsene van Nierop next to the portrait of her daughter Hester who was murdered in 1998

Arsene believes the attacker slept on the bed until morning, and then fled.

Hester van Nierop is believed to be the only European victim; most of the murdered young women were poor local factory workers and students.

Many of the killings were truly horrific, involving sexual violence and rape.

The murders began in 1993, and for a while captured the world’s attention; dozens of journalists investigated, and numerous books and songs were written.

But to date, most cases remained unresolved, and it is still a mystery why women are being targeted in this way.

International tribute

Portrait of Liliana Elizabeth Sanchez, by Toby Wiggins
Liliana Elizabeth Sanchez has been missing since 2003. By Toby Wiggins.

Two hundred artists from around the world – including Tracey Emin, Paula Rego, and Humphrey Ocean – are involved in the London exhibition.

Each artist was given some very basic information about a murdered or missing woman, and was invited to create a portrait of them.

British artist Tamsyn Challenger is behind the project. She travelled to Mexico in 2006 and was moved to take action after relative after relative shoved crumpled up postcards of their missing loved-ones into her hands.

And it was a conversation with one of the mothers that really struck a nerve.

“There was a moment where I just wanted to bring her daughter back,” says Ms Challenger.

So began five years of work, tracking down information and photos about the missing and murdered women with the help of local rights groups and Amnesty International.

Each of the artists, “stands in for the woman who is missing, takes on her persona and her face, or her name, and represents them in this exhibition,” explains the curator, Ellen Mara De Wachter.



Mexican artist Andres Basurto was given the task of creating a portrait of Melissa Gonzalez Luna. She was 16 when she disappeared more than three years ago.

All he had to work with was one small photograph – some artists did not even have that.

Mr Basurto decided to focus on the “positive energy” that came across through her eyes and her smile.

But it was not an easy project to work on. “It was very difficult, it was very moving. I wouldn’t consider myself a sentimental artist, but I did sometimes find myself in tears.”

It was hard but ultimately rewarding – indeed he rates his portrait as possibly the most meaningful piece he has done.

“I am proud of other work artistically, but this one has been the most significant,” he says.

Monica Alcazar is another Mexican artist involved in the exhibition. Her piece, a crushed golden pendant, represents Maria Eugenia Mendoza Arias who was the victim of a horrific attack when she was 19 years old.

“She was dumped in the middle of the garbage. Her skull was actually broken. Someone ran over her in a car after raping her really violently.

“I crushed the pendant because of that, trying to evoke this combination of something that is fragile, that has been broken, abused, and then suspended for people to see.”

Out of the spotlight

Portrait of Melissa Gonzalez Luna, by Andres Basurto
Andres Basurto wanted his portrait of Melissa Gonzalez Luna to be positive

Over the past five years, Ciudad Juarez has been in the news for the violence and havoc caused by Mexico’s drugs cartels.

But the murder of these women is largely unrelated and pre-dates the country’s drugs war.

Because almost all the women are “extremely poor” they are “seen as inconsequential,” according to Tamsyn Challenger.

“The problem is that there are so many problems now in Mexico,” says Monica Alcazar.

Andres Basurto agrees that these women have been “taken out of the spotlight,” as a result of the drug-related violence.

The murder figures are contentious: local rights groups estimate that 300 women have been killed this year alone; official figures are significantly lower.

And no one is able to give an accurate estimate for the number of women missing.

Twelve years on from their daughter’s murder, Arsene van Nierop and her husband, Roeland, are still fighting to get the man responsible behind bars.



“In Mexico women are litter, they are just to throw away,” says Arsene.

“You learn to live with sadness all the time, and then after many years you think ‘okay, I am now able to live with sadness, and I can now start my own life again'”.

Tamsyn Challenger hopes the exhibition will tour internationally. And after that? She is not sure, but she wants the works to stay together.

“I see the project as a singular art work with many voices. It works as a mass protest.”

“Lift a great silence off a small detail”: Sesshu Foster’s _World Ball Notebook_

In one of the 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould the pianist is shown sitting at a diner. As he sits quietly, the sounds of conversations around him meld together into a fugue; their content is not meaning but form and tone. The background is noise (not white, but of many colors), but the foreground–where the musician sits alone at his table–is silence. His quiet is required for the moment to work, that instant at which the engine of communication–its noise–turns into music. If 32 Short Films brings abstracted sound into vision, then Sesshu Foster’s World Ball Notebook begins from visual and sonic details and lifts their silences off. While the book is organized around AYSO soccer games, very few of the poems are devoted to soccer; even fewer make direct links between soccer and the world beyond the pitch. “Game 2” makes the connection; after the poet sees a woman dragged by a speeding car, he concludes, “given as much as a full minute, i’d not seen a clear move–out-flanked in that hesitation, as if by a wing forward” (2). But it’s a gesture only; other such connections are left unstated, except by the book’s clever, at times perverse, form, which is that of games, not chapters. The book is composed of 118 “games. While the rules change, the game is one of observation; hence, in “Game 77”:In a spare moment lift a great silence off a small detail. Note in particular how factual aspects of the detail reveal vast political silence. This detail is the tip of the iceberg, indicator of a world of possibility. But for our purposes let us stick to one small detail of your choice. For example, the hairnet worn by the Mexicans, male and female, working in the kitchen today where you got your food. Anything like this. Pick anything. (89) 

Poems like “Game 62” fulfill the rules of this game, unpeeling the layers of Piceance Basin, where foreign company reps mingle with locals whose housing has gone through the roof with oil workers with Mexicans who fill trailer parks and then the story of a real conflagration in which several people died. Other poems complete a catalogue of contemporary America that mostly lacks the enforced cohesion of Walt Whitman’s section 15 of Song of Myself or the spiritual joy and despair of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. This is not to say that there is no affect in World Ball Notebook, for Foster is hardly a neutral observer, but the reader is left to experience that affect (for internal use only, the label might read). It’s not given, but offered up.

“Game 77” begins with the poet assigning himself a writing exercise, or game: “In a spare moment lift the great silence off a small detail.” The assignment begins with an admission; the poet, unlike the workers he observes, has “a spare moment.” His “lifting,” unlike theirs, is invisible, sometimes spiritual, always politically aware. The “world of possibility” is his, not theirs, and depends on “anything.” As poet he is wealthy, but he is keen to find markers of economic inequality. Foster is an empathic writer, but his is what might be termed a material empathy. He plays a game of observation and notation, but what he observes is not a game so much as conflict of another kind, involving work, marriage, politics, race, and urban life. The stadium may be (mostly) Los Angeles, but the participants are not players. They are mainly those late capitalism does not permit to play, leaves on the sidelines.

Foster is a gifted eavesdropper, one who knows that to find the poem the poet needs merely to sit still and (like Gould attending the music of public conversations) wait for it to happen. He shapes these events into prose poems or uses Bernadette Mayer type games as forms, hence the grocery list in “Game 74”; the list of “my [x’s]” that is “Game 5”; the frequent fill-in-the-blank sections; the numbered observations; the postcards or emails; the “checklists” he has friends write for him; the coincidences; the stories about his “kid,” the unmarked elegies.

There is much to write about the position of the observer in these poems. The poet is sometimes judgmental, on occasion about his own actions. For reasons of my own, I’m sure, I was fascinated by “Game 68,” about soccer games in Iowa City. The locals are judged instantly; they’re white people who adopt Korean children as a “fad”; they are unfriendly to the observing poet/soccer dad; they make him feel like an outsider. But at the moment he feels their unkindness most powerfully–one of those picnics where parents talk story–he turns his powers of observation on himself: “I laughed out loud, realizing I’d been standing on the sidelines cheering and watching the games so single-mindedly I had never noticed the locals” (77). A reader of Foster’s book can be grateful both for his single-mindedness and for the way he turns the tables (or fields) on himself. His is not governing subjectivity, but a governing objectivity. Thankfully, the govern-or (not governator, who comes in for opprobrium along the way) also has a sense of humor.

Foster’s book led me, via google, to his blog. His post of June 6, 2010 offers the most powerful response to the environmental disaster/crime in the Gulf that I’ve yet seen. He juxtaposes photographs of oil-drenched pelicans by Charlie Riedel with his own short prose pieces. The terrible directness of the photographs, at which one can hardly bear to look, are met obliquely by Foster’s meditations on his day, which begins in a cafe. He is Glenn Gould absorbing sound, image: “As he glanced up from his coffee at the cafe, his cousin talking about the economy, he caught a glimpse of a TV news anchor with a certain image related to this news item emblazoned on a widescreen.” If he “catches a glimpse” of the “this news item,” we cannot but be caught within the images of pelicans dying in cauls of oil. The photos trap us, even if we can “surf” away from them (our metaphors bite us back).

What is most powerful in the collaging of text and photograph is the deliberate distance created between them. Foster does not write about the photographs, nor even much about the birds. He writes about his day, about students at the school where he teaches, the “ordinary” violence (I use that word ironically) of budget cuts, of fights in the halls.

A teacher complained about a student. Another complained about the administrator who many seemed to dislike for an abrasive voice and pronounced indifference. A couple of students complained about various lacks of the latest issue of the school newspaper. Somebody complained that the latest round of budget cuts caused the district to cancel all recycling programs, yet the district produced massive amounts of paper waste. A bus driver cracked acerbically about another driver who had taken his usual spot. That was as far as he was going with the grievance at this time.

On the one hand, these complaints are petty, set as they are between photographs of animals killed by human neglect and greed. On the other hand, the juxtapositions of image and “complaint” bring these worlds together in ways they have not been joined in the media. The media tells us about shrimpers on the coast, about “ways of life” that are threatened, about animals swimming furiously away, away from the spill, dying of exhaustion. But, for the most part, these are not “our” way of life. “Our way” is more likely to be what Foster overhears among his colleagues and students. “Our way of life” is not working, is also violent, if on other levels from the life and death struggle in the Gulf. Our situations are not uninvolved with each other:

We have a situation here. Someone runs off. Empty hallways, later on, empty hallways. I stepped between the guys who were fighting, somebody pulled one of them off the other. I pushed another one up against the wall. His face was blanched, his stare hollowed out with adrenaline, he was breathing hard. I don’t know what was happening behind me. I turned and they were gone. He had his hand to his face, blood streaming from his nose. Blood drips on the floor.

While not “like” the pelican, the boy with the hollowed out stare is also endangered. As are the schools, decorum on the roads, possibilities for communication . . . what Foster shows us is that each situation is ours, that how we deal with it matters. His microscope blows each detail up (I think of another film here, about an unsolved crime, a photographer, an obsession) until we are forced to make the metonymic leap between details, situations, our lives and those of the pelicans drowning in the Gulf. “Would you volunteer to help in the Gulf?” my computer screen demands of me.

for Craig’s peripatetic activities, see his blog:

Names: Kentridge, William

Born: 1955, Johannesburg, Gauteng (then Transvaal), South Africa

In Summary: South African artist, film-maker, and performer.

“I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending – an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay.”


William Kentridge was born in 1955 in Johannesburg. Son of two anti-apartheid lawyers, he learned at an early age to question structural impositions. In 1976, he attained a degree in Politics and African Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand after which he studied art at the Johannesburg Art Foundation until 1978. There, he met Dumile Feni and was greatly influenced by his drawings. He also worked as a set designer for film productions and taught design printing until he moved to Paris in 1981 to study drama at the École Jacques LeCoq.

Figure 1: Still from
“Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest
City After Paris” (1989)

During the 80’s, Kentridge was art director for television series and feature films. He then began making hand-drawn animated films. Although not directly referring to the segregationist era, he acquired international recognition as a South African artist whose work tracks a personal route across the aftermath of Apartheid and Colonialism. His films are set in the over-exploited, scorched industrial and mining landscape around Johannesburg, which represent the legacy of a time of abuse and injustice.

In a talk with art critic Okwui Enzewor, Kentridge expressed, ‘Drawing is not unlike the structure and evolution of the South African landscape.’ Since 1989 he has made 9 films that accompany the end of the apartheid system, the first elections and the work of Truth and Reconciliation Commission in trying to show the complex tensions in a postcolonial memory. Amongst them are “Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris”, “Ubu tells the Truth”, and “Steroscope”.

Figure 2: Puppet Drawing
(2000) Collage, construction
paper, tape, chalk, pins on
Atlas Page.

In addition to film and drawing, an important part of his career has been devoted to theatre. From 1975-91 he was member of the Junction Avenue Theatre Company, in Johannesburg and Soweto. In 1992, he began collaborating, as set designer, actor, and director of the Handspring Puppet Company. The Company creates multi-media pieces using puppets, live actors and animation. It performs plays like Woyzeck, Faust and King Ubu to reflect on colonialism, and human struggle between the past, modernity and ethics.

Figure 3: Drawing for

Since his participation in Dokumenta X in Kassel in 1997, solo shows of Kentridge’s work have been shown in many museums and galleries around the world. These include the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels (1998), the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1999), and throughout Europe, South Africa, Australia, Canada, and the United States. In November 2004, the Metropolitan Museum in New York presented a solo show of Kentridge’s work from their collection.

In 1999, he was awarded the Carnegie Medal at the Carnegie International. He received an Honorary Doctorate in Fine Art from the Maryland Institute of Contemporary Art in Baltimore in May 2002, and in October 2003 he received the Goslar Kaisserring in recognition of his contribution to contemporary art.


audio file:



For the last two months or so, Karen Tei Yamashita will not get out of my life. And I say that with a goofy-grinned “wahhh” of delighted surprise. While I’ve been an ardent admirer of Yamashita’s books for some 20 years (yup, I have all her titles: Through the Arc of the Rain ForestBrazil-MaruTropic of OrangeCircle K Cycles, and I Hotel just out in May), only in the last two months have our paths continued to criss-cross over and over again, literally and in livetime.

Let me count the ways. During one of my busiest weeks this spring, Yamashita’s latest, I Hotel, arrived on my doorstep from my Library Journal editor with about six days to file a review. At 640 pages, I gasped at what lay ahead of me, but had to smile at the irony that I would be meeting Yamashita that very weekend — she was headed to Washington, DC, for a literary double-header.

I had to remain impartial to be able to review her book — I alerted my editor as to the imminent meeting and she was fine — and the six days dropped to four. For all its density,I Hotel was a stunning read. Comprised of 10 novellas that took 10 years to craft, I Hotelis Yamashita’s magnum opus. Each novella marks the most tumultuous years of Asian Pacific American history, from 1968, when ethnic studies was painfully birthed in San Francisco, to 1977, when San Francisco’s International Hotel — long a pivotal symbol of APA activism — fell to demolition crews.

I filed my starred review, and gleefully went to meet Yamashita with a clear (and giddy) conscience. That weekend in March, I got my first-ever Yamashita livetime dose, initially as part of the lucky audience during a symposium featuring eight notable Asian Pacific American writers in celebration of the literary debut of The Asian American Literary Review (AALR). Then on Sunday, I joined the limelight (albeit from a distance) as I moderated a panel of seven of the eight writers (one ran off to continue his book tour) during the inaugural Amnesty International Human Rights Art Festival.

Here’s what was so mind-boggling and phenomenal about that panel: every one of Yamashita’s cohorts were somehow contained in Yamashita’s I Hotel:

§       Poet Srikanth Reddy read “Fundamentals of Esperanto,” a poem from his collection,Facts for Visitors — Vasily Eroshenko, a proponent of Esperanto, takes a bow in I Hotel.

§       April Kyoko Heck read “The Bells,” a poem from her as-yet unpublished collection, A Shelter of Leaves, about her mother who was in utero — “in utero, did my mother stir?” — and miraculously survived the Hiroshima atom bomb. In I Hotel, a young Japanese American artist travels through Hiroshima and returns with devastating illegal footage of bomb survivors.

§       Novelist Peter Bacho’s literary obsessions — boxing, 1968, anti-war movements — are all scattered throughout I Hotel.

§       Memoirist/novelist Kyoko Mori chose to share a passage from Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior — the legendary Hong Kingston appears right next to her archnemesis Frank Chin in a series of hilarious cartoons smack in the middle of I Hotel.

§       Sonya Chung’s photographer protagonist, who captures images of death and destruction in her debut novel Long for This World, is echoed in one of Yamashita’s characters, an artist who recorded the devastation of the Japanese American prison camps in charcoal and watercolor.

§       And Ru Freeman, debut novelist of A Disobedient Girl, the newest Asian American in the group, asked when buying I Hotel, “Will I understand it without knowing all the Asian American history?” to which the answer would be a resounding YES. I Hotel is now her history as well.

Indeed, the breadth of I Hotel is a historical achievement. Mere words, but such truth. No matter who you are, you cannot read this book without recognizing its contents, both small and large.

So since that fateful weekend, I seem to be constantly revisiting Yamashita’s book. I’ve also had lots of excuses to be in regular touch with Yamashita. During our last conversation, she was getting ready to head over the hill on Highway 17 to join the Asian American Curriculum Project’s APA Heritage Month celebration. Yes, the AACP and its founder Florence Hongo, in case you had any doubt, appear in I Hotel. If I had a brick for every time I said to myself, “oh, that’s in Karen’s book,” I’d have built an APA museum on the National Mall by now! But that’s another story…

Okay, so let’s back up and talk about how you started writing.

I always wrote, but perhaps I first felt some confirmation of my possibilities with the acceptance of my first story, “The Bath,” published in the Amerasia Journal, a long time ago while I was doing research in Brazil.

I have to dissect that sentence. Brazil?

I arrived in Brazil in 1975 with a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. I had first thought I would go to Japan, where I had already been and had some language skills. But after writing a research proposal, I realized I didn’t want to return [to Japan], at least not immediately. But I kept thinking how I might still use this language skill. Someone told me there are Japanese populations in other parts of the world. Japanese in Canada? No, I couldn’t go into more snow. But Japanese in South America?

At the time, very little was written about Japanese in South America. What I first found were books by a Hiroshi Saitō written in Portuguese — and a few articles by American scholars from Cornell or maybe somewhere in Texas. I got in touch with these scholars and that’s how I got started. I knew had to go to São Paulo where Japanese immigration had begun. Takashi Maeyama was an anthropologist who began the study of Japanese in Brazil, so I contacted him. I rewrote the proposal for the Watson fellowship to study the Brazilian Japanese community and compare them to the Japanese American community.

When I got to São Paulo, I met Maeyama — Saitō had already died, I think. I never met Saitō. Maeyama was based at the Center for the Japanese Brazilians Studies in a section of the city called Liberdade, which was something like Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. They had the cultural center, were starting a museum, offered Japanese language classes, had Japanese restaurants there. So that’s how I got hooked into the Japanese community.

One of the things I did when I first got there, was just sit around because it was so hot. For the first month, off and on, I wrote this story, “The Bath.”

And how do you define that “long time ago”?

I think it was 1975 when I mailed out the story from Brazil on a whim. Amerasia Journal was just starting out at the time, and the head editor at the time threw my story into a slush pile that was going to be part of their first short story contest. Somehow, the story won.

Was “The Bath” your first-ever submission? No walls plastered with rejections like most writers?

Yes, I guess so, my first. I had submissions in college journals, but this was really the first thing I sent out.

Talk about lucky first shot…

I was lucky, I think, because I didn’t even know the story had been submitted for a contest, and the award actually came with money, enough money for some traveling! And it was definitely an early confirmation of my work. But I had no idea until I came back to the U.S. just how lucky — people told me who else had submitted to that contest, like Wakako Yamauchi and Hisaye Yamamoto, so I was quite embarrassed to have won after that. Maybe the Journal just wanted something different.

Where do you find your inspiration?

The initial ideas for two of my books, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest and Tropic of Orange, have come from stories invented by my Brazilian husband, Ronaldo Lopes de Oliveira. The other projects that have required research, sometimes long years of research, have been inspired by the lives and stories of the many people with whom I’ve had long conversations.

So how come the hubby doesn’t get cover billing?

Well, the stories are dedicated to him…

Ah, well, he’ll have to settle for that honor. And how do his stories become your books?

My first book, Arc of the Rain Forest, began as a project we were doing together and, eventually, I took it over. He would make up a story, I would ask him what he thought happened next and we’d go back and forth like that. But all his characters were Brazilian, so I began to change some of them. I asked him first if I might change one to being Japanese because that was the whole point of my being in Brazil originally, to research the Japanese Brazilians. All of Ronaldo’s versions are oral stories, told over dinner usually. I wanted to collect these stories, but I also wanted to change them enough to make them mine.

And is hubby a writer, too?

No, he was an architect, but retired now. He’s still telling stories. He’s moved on to reinventing the bicycle. He’s also always been an artist — he paints, he sculpts. We can’t seem to get him to market any of his pieces, but they are all over our house. He’s probably very marketable, but he refuses to be commercial. He’s an idealist. He’s in Brazil now, where he takes care of his mother, or maybe she takes care of him! But he goes back and forth throughout the year.

Let’s look at your oeuvre, so to speak. Your first two novels were set in Brazil, where you arrived for that Watson Fellowship and stayed for a decade, married and started a family, before you all returned to settle in the U.S. together. Your first book debuted in 1990, well after your return from Brazil. So what made you base your first two books there?

Growing up, I vaguely knew about the evangelical Christian churches that were involved with the Japanese Brazilian community because people from my father’s church in LA would meet ships coming from Japan at the San Pedro docks [home of the Port of Los Angeles], and deliver donated clothes to Japanese people headed to Peru or Brazil. These Japanese were part of the post-World War II migration of Japanese to South America. My father had friends who were hooked into these Japanese communities, who had a history of migration from the early 1900s.

Japanese immigration to Brazil began in earnest in 1908 in response to the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement that stopped the immigration of Japanese laborers into the U.S. In preparation, Japanese contract companies looked for different places to establish emigrant communities. Brazil became a big destination. At the same time, Brazil was in the midst of a coffee boom. The country couldn’t get enough workers to harvest the beans so they immediately glommed onto the idea of bringing over Japanese workers. In the beginning, laborers could make quite a bit of money, but that didn’t last long. Up and downs in the economy, a long drought, made for hard years. Lots of Japanese arrived convinced they could make a fortune in Brazil.

The majority of the people who came to Brazil during this period came as contract workers, but there were also always pockets of people who came for more idealistic reasons. In Japan, a socialist community movement was happening, and as people began traveling the world, they could look at Japanese civilization in a modern light. Some of these communities came to the U.S. to start new lives, but soon California became an impossible place to buy land. So they headed to Brazil where Japanese Christian groups could buy huge tracts of land — which were actually untouched forests — to create Japanese colonies. They sold the land to both new arrivals and those laborers coming out of their work contracts. Forests became farms as people shared equipment, created cooperatives, even setting up a Japanese system to educate their kids. In Brazil, at least seven of these communities were founded by different entities, some Christian, some governmental — and that’s where I started to look for my first novels.

Then you went home to LA in Tropic of Orange, your third book, which is where you were born and raised.How did your Brazilian adventures lead you back to LA?

Actually, I was born in Oakland, but moved to LA at age one and raised there.

When we arrived from Brazil to LA, it was 1984 — that funny year. Everything was supposed to go Orwellian, but we had Reagan instead. The LA Olympics were beginning… so everyone from LA sort of left. We thought it would be a madhouse, but everyone just left that summer.

We arrived with the idea that we would try out LA, the U.S., the kids would go to school, and I’d be the one to find a job. My husband would get to do his art. We’d switch for awhile. But it didn’t turn out that way… we needed two incomes to live in LA. So we muddled our way through.

LA was a different place from the LA I had grown up in. It wasn’t a black/white city with a pocket of Japanese Americans anymore. It was very much now a Latin American city — I think they were the majority by then. It was mixed, cosmopolitan, with a new Korean influx. All of these communities were in flux. It was a fascinating place; I found it very interesting to be there.

But I had to work. My sister had a job in the legal department of KCET/PBS, so she got me a job there, too. I worked for 13 years as a secretary in the engineering department. This was not the writing/production end — what I did involved satellite dishes, cameras, sound, working with technicians. I could answer the phone and tell you how to get the antenna to work so you could get UHF reception. No one even knows this anymore now that we have cable!

I was a writer for the engineers — they would tell me what to say, and I could make it sound good. While I learned their spreadsheets and budgets, I wrote. All that is in the book [Tropic of Orange] in funny ways — the satellite dishes, how TV stations can expand coverage, how PBS thought it was very important to get coverage in outlying areas so people in the Mojave Desert could get reception, how satellite trucks can film something at a specific site and send live material back to the station for general transmission. All that got internalized throughout the book.

Then how did you end up on your Japanese adventures, which eventually became Circle K Cycles?

I was about to get a teaching job at UC Santa Cruz — I had just quit KCET — when I was given a Japan Foundation Fellowship with quite a bit of money. A friend of mine in Japan urged me to come and live in Japan for awhile. He knew that I wouldn’t do it without my family. With the Japan Foundation grant, together with some inheritance money from an aunt, we realized the whole family could go for six months. We set the kids up in long-distance education programs so they could finish their school year from Japan, and we took off. My friend found us a little house in Seto, near Nagoya, and we had enough money to live and travel around. That’s when I did all the work for Circle K Cycles.

You’ve been successful with both fiction — from the magic realism of your earlier titles to the more experimental Circle K Cycles, to your latest historical I Hotel (which has a few screenplays thrown into the mix) — and you’ve done some theater/performance pieces, as well. Any preference?

No preference. Just decisions made about what form may best represent the stories.

And how do you decide that?

For example, Circle K Cycles — I thought when we got to Japan, I might eventually write a work of historical fiction after doing research, travelling, and collecting material. But I couldn’t find anything that constituted a novel for me. Japan was in the midst of a violent period while we were there, both domestically, and in other international communities where Japanese were living, too.

The Japanese Embassy in Lima, Peru, was being held hostage by a radical guerilla group. When we got to Japan, that situation was still going on. Meanwhile in Kobe, Japan, a series of children were brutally beheaded; their heads were left in front of the school. Within the Japanese Brazilian community, people were having mental breakdowns — a situation serious enough that the Brazilian consulate was conducting an investigative study. Crimes of passion were happening. A Japanese couple was murdered, and the crime scene totally cleaned up, although not well enough that the crime went undetected. A worker living in factory housing went crazy, and threw the bodies of his family into the huge factory oven.

This is what was going on, all in the news, all so shocking. I had to figure out how to somehow process that. I couldn’t find a single narrative thread that constituted a novel … but I knew I had lots of stories to be told.

So finally your I Hotel … how did such a magnificent tome come about? How did you possibly start such a project?

It started from a satirical article that I wrote for Amy Ling, then Professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I thought the project might be about the Asian American movement in Los Angeles, but I got interested in the San Francisco Bay Area and extended my research north. This was logical because of the Third World strikes at San Francisco State College and UC Berkeley, events that started the movement for ethnic studies. When my research came up with the International Hotel, I knew where the center of the larger story must be.

How did you decide the balance between the historical and the fictional?

The balance is maybe that the events had to be historical but the people must be fictional.

Oh, but I beg to differ — so many of those folks have real-life counterparts, whether actual like the UCSF acting president S.I. Hayakawa, or composites like Mo Akagi who very much resemble real-life activists Richard Aoki and Mo Nishida. And, of course, the APA matriarch/patriarch dynamic duo of Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin… the list definitely goes on. So where and how did you draw that line between factand fiction?

Some of those people are too famous, so you can’t really do anything but have them just be. Some of them have extremely public lives. Of course, I have to be careful, too. But it’s not like Don DeLillo hasn’t done that with other historical characters. I would say, yes, it might be this or that person, a “version” of him or her… you could say that all the book’s characters are composites.

So has Maxine Hong Kingston said anything?

I saw her just before the book came out and told her about it. Although I didn’t tell her how the cartoons of her and Frank Chin are situated. A friend said that Maxine has a good sense of humor. I hope that’s true. I just said to Maxine, “please don’t get mad at me.”

I had a long conversation with [Coffee House Press publisher] Allan Korblum about this, and while we worried about the questions, I thought that to not put them [Hong Kingston and Chin] in would be a like erasure because they are both such an important part of the literary scene. I also think their presence says something about the trajectory of Asian American literature. [Novelist] Shawn Wong (HomebaseAmerican Knees) just comes out and says that those two writers have built their careers out of their [fake-vs.-real] argument. And I agree the argument is important to that period: women came forward as writers; questions of masculinity surfaced; the idea of marketability was addressed and who really reads books.

I’m too old — even if they got older — to worry too much. These are two people for whose work I have great admiration. If they don’t like me now, that’s okay.

Why choose that ongoing fake-vs.real debate as a theme for I Hotel?

Oh, do you think it’s a theme? I think it’s a preoccupation of the fiction writer.

I do play a lot with metaphors throughout book. I play with the question of fiction. Here’s a work in which I study activists who lived during that period, but I myself didn’t “live San Francisco” like these characters. But then I was told stories… who can say what is fact, what is fiction? Some told me versions that were exaggerations, but they were great stories. Some left large gaps, so I had to imagine what happened.

I don’t know… it’s a big fake book, but fiction can be more truthful in many ways.

How did writing I Hotel change your own life?

I got 10 years older while doing it. For me, a book project is a kind of schooling, something akin to lifelong and continuing education. I learned and expanded my understanding of a period of time, of a place and people. The book is a kind of record of what I learned.

Do you think your APA readers will read I Hotel differently from non-APA readers? Did you have an APA audience in mind when you wrote it?

Yes, that reading difference seems already evident, especially among those APA folks who lived this era; they own it a way I had not entirely expected. I feel my own responsibility to their stories but, at the same time, my relinquishing of those stories. A gift received and returned.

You’ve had an incredibly mobile past, from your LA upbringing to your South American and Japanese adventures, not to mention your family’s immigrant past, and now your hapa family life in Santa Cruz… how do you meld all your various “selves,” both geographically and artistically?

I’ve been really blessed by my opportunities to live in Brazil and Japan, to acquire language and cultural experience that have broadened my perspectives. I think at the beginning of my travels as a student in Japan, I was quite traumatized by my sense of dislocation and strangeness. Triangulating this experience with a very different sense of reception in Brazil gave me a feeling of strength and self-confidence. I guess over time I learned to travel and finally to feel comfortable in my traveling body.

Where’s home for you?

I like living in Santa Cruz in California. Home is where there’s a hot shower.

Do you think you might take off again and try finding “home” somewhere else?

I don’t know… I might take a year someplace else, but this will be my base for awhile. If I’m invited somewhere for period of time to teach or write, I would be fine with that. My mother lives with me here now. If she would come with me, that would be fine. Never in all the years of my life have I lived in a beautiful place as I do here. I’ve always lived in huge urban centers. Santa Cruz is sweet for me. I know all the complaints about being here, but writers live with themselves, so it doesn’t really matter where we are…

And what do you do when you’re stuck?

I take a nap, clean house, or cook. My daughter once said that the best times are when her mother is writing because the house is clean and the food is great.

And the inevitable… what can we expect from you next?

My next project involves an archive of wartime correspondence among the seven siblings of my father’s family as they were dispersed to internment camps and then to locations and cities outside of the West Coast.

Terry Hong writes a Smithsonian book blog at

July 2010

140 interviews and ten years later: I-HOTEL!

California Report Mp3 Book Review: ‘I-Hotel’ by Karen Tei Yamashita

November 2010