Yamashita named 2018 Dos Passos Prize winner

Published 11:43 am Thursday, December 20, 2018

Karen Tei Yamashita, a novelist, short story writer, playwright and professor known for her works of Asian American literature and magic realism, is the 2018 winner of the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature—a premier literary award given annually by Longwood University.

Karen Tei Yamashita

Considered one of the foremost writers of her generation, Yamashita is a two-time American Book Award winner and a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. The New York Times praised her “mordant wit,” the Los Angeles Times pronounced her a “big talent,” and Newsday lauded her for wrestling with “profound philosophical and social issues.”

Yamashita, who currently teaches creative writing and Asian American literature at the University of California-Santa Cruz, will be awarded the Dos Passos Prize at a ceremony on Longwood’s campus in Farmville, on April 4. She will also visit classes and read selections from her works.

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Yamashita was chosen as the winner from a shortlist of five finalists, who were nominated by members of the Dos Passos Prize committee. The committee looks for works that explore specifically American themes, experiment with form and encompass a range of human experiences.

“Karen Tei Yamashita’s work is unique in its exploration of characters who live between cultures, nations and groups,” said Dr. David Magill, associate professor of English at Longwood and chair of the Dos Passos Prize committee. “She challenges our preconceptions of identity and citizenship with narratives of community that stretch across physical borders and confound social categories.”

The John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, founded in 1980, is named for the talented but often overlooked 20th-century American writer, who is best-known for his U.S.A. trilogy. The prize recognizes contemporary American authors who have produced a substantial body of published work that displays characteristics of Dos Passos’ writing: an intense and original exploration of specifically American themes, an experimental approach to form and an interest in a wide range of human experience.

“Yamashita experiments with fiction’s styles and possibilities in a way that is especially reminiscent of Dos Passos’ work,” Magill said. “She is a gifted writer and most deserving of the 2018 Dos Passos Prize.”

Yamashita is best known for her novels, which include Through the Arc of the Rain Forest (1990), Tropic of Orange (1997), Circle K Cycles (2001) and I Hotel (2010), her magnum opus that took more than a decade to write and research.

Through the Arc of the Rain Forest was awarded the American Book Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Award. I Hotel was a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction and also earned Yamashita her second American Book Award, the California Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association Award and the Association for Asian American Studies Book Award.

“The sensation of freedom is important to me as a writer. I think that for fiction writers, there is this latitude that is special—you don’t have to follow any narrow line of thought,” Yamashita once said in an interview. “You don’t have to prove something that is already often obvious. The presentation in fiction is very free, and you can play with or examine different ideas that you might not be able to if you have to focus or narrow your investigation.”

Yamashita is the 37th recipient of the Dos Passos Prize, the oldest national literary prize given by a college or university in Virginia, and she was on the shortlist of Dos Passos finalists in 2017. Distinguished past recipients such as Paul Beatty, the 2015 winner, have gone on to garner further acclaim after their Dos Passos Prize selection. Beatty won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2016 for his novel The Sellout.

Other recent Dos Passos Prize winners include Colson Whitehead (2012), winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award; Sherman Alexie (2013), winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature; and Ruth Ozeki (2014), winner of the Yasnaya Polyana Literary Award for Foreign Literature. They join American literature icons such as Annie Proulx (1997), Ernest J. Gaines (1993), Shelby Foote (1988) and Tom Wolfe (1984).

Yamashita is a native of California and has lived in Brazil and Japan. Since 1997 she has taught at the University of California-Santa Cruz, where she received the Chancellor’s Award for Diversity in 2009. Yamashita graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, with degrees in English and Japanese literature.