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

UC Santa Cruz emerita professor of literature Karen Tei Yamashita (Photo by Tosh Tanaka)
UC Santa Cruz emerita professor of literature Karen Tei Yamashita (Photo by Tosh Tanaka)
Karen Yamashita ihotel bookcover
Karen Yamashita Brazil bookcover
Karen Yamashita Tropic of Orange book cover

UC Santa Cruz emerita professor of literature Karen Tei Yamashita will be awarded the 2021 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from The National Book Foundation, presenter of the National Book Awards.

Yamashita is now the 34th recipient of the prestigious lifetime achievement award, joining the ranks of such prominent authors as Toni Morrison, Walter Mosley, Isabel Allende, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, E.L. Doctorow, Maxine Hong Kingston, Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, Elmore Leonard, Norman Mailer, and Adrienne Rich. 

“A bold and groundbreaking writer, Yamashita’s deeply creative body of work has made an enduring impact on our literary landscape,” noted David Steinberger, Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation. “Whether it’s an evocative exploration of cities, collaborative performance productions, or connecting the plots of Jane Austen to Japanese American life, her work reaches across time, country, and culture to offer readers a powerfully complex guide to our world.”

The author of 10 books, Yamashita received a 2011 California Book Award in the Fiction category for her novel I Hotel, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. I Hotel also won the American Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association Award, and the Association for Asian American Studies Book Award.

Known for her intensely researched works that reflect her interest in communities whose stories often go untold, Yamashita received the Chancellor’s Award for Diversity in 2009 and was co-holder with feminist studies professor Bettina Aptheker of the UC Presidential Chair for Feminist Critical Race and Ethnic Studies. 

Her books include Through the Arc of the Rain Forest (1990), which received the American Book Award, and Brazil-Maru, named by the Village Voice as one of the 25 best books of 1992. Tropic of Orange (1997), was a finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize, and she followed that with Circle K Cycles (2001), a book based on her research on the Brazilian community in Japan.

Letters to Memory (2017) examines her own family’s experience in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II through letters, stories, photographs, official documents, art, journals, and other personal records found in the family archive. 

And her latest book, Sansei and Sensibility (2020), is a collection of short stories about growing up and living in Japanese America.

All of Yamashita’s books have been published by Coffee House Press, a nonprofit independent press based in Minneapolis. Her archives are housed in McHenry Library at UC Santa Cruz.

“Through adept crafting, passionate research, and timely narratives, Yamashita defines, and re-defines, again and again, what storytelling can do,” said Ruth Dickey, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation. “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.”

In 2017, Yamashita delivered a keynote address at the inaugural Asian American Literature Festival, hosted by the Asian Pacific American Center, the Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress. 

The following year, she received a VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation Tribute), and in 2019, a John Dos Passos Prize for Literature. 

As a recipient of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Yamashita will receive $10,000 plus a solid brass medal at an awards ceremony scheduled for November 17.