Story at a glance

  • Asian American author Karen Tei Yamashita was awarded the 2021 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters on Wednesday.
  • Yamashita was recognized for the eight books she’s written, all published by the Minneapolis publishing house Coffee House Press, including works surrounding the Asian American experience.
  • Yamashita herself is Japanese American, and both of her parents were interned at the Topaz internment camp in Utah during World War II.

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

“A bold and groundbreaking writer, Yamashita’s deeply creative body of work has made an enduring impact on our literary landscape,” David Steinberger, chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation, said in a statement. “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.”

Yamashita was recognized for the eight books she’s written, all published by the Minneapolis publishing house Coffee House Press, including works surrounding the Asian American experience, such as “Sansei and Sensibility" and "I Hotel.”


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“Asian American literature is, at heart, a literature of politics and resistance,” Yamashita said in her acceptance speech. “For our community your recognition tonight is significant, especially this year, post-pandemic, having weathered … the brutality of racial profiling and the provocation of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, anti-Muslim, anti-Asian hatred. In such times, may our writing forge tolerance and care.”

Yamashita herself is Japanese American, and both of her parents were interned at the Topaz internment camp in Utah during World War II. 

There was a 54 percent increase in anti-Asian hate incidents reported between March 2020 and March 2021, and the surge in attacks on Asian Americans has been heavily documented in numerous instances in media, including the six Asian women who were among eight people killed in a series of Atlanta-area spa shootings in March.

Yamashita is a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she concentrates on research surrounding Japanese immigration to Brazil, as well as Asian American literature. Her lifetime achievement award includes a bronze medal and a $10,000 prize.

Previous winners of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters include famous writers such as Joan Didion, Toni Morrison and Stephen King.


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Published on Nov 22, 2021