This is the first, last and only novel you will ever find by John Okada, and that fact makes me seethe with sadness. There was another John Okada book, almost finished when he died of heart failure in 1971 at the far-too-young age of forty-seven, but his wife could find no one to take an interest in it, and when she moved from Seattle she burned that second manuscript along with all of Okada’s other personal effects. Those who encountered No-No Boy decades after its original publication—it was picked up by none other than Charles Tuttle, and promptly sank from sight after one printing—took an interest in its unknown author, and when they found that one book was all that was to be found, better than one book than nothing. This holds as true even more so today as it did then, as does everything about No-No Boy itself.
A kid without a country
No-No Boy gives us Ichiro, the son of a pair of shopkeepers in World War II-era Seattle. Four years ago he refused to be drafted into the Army — he refused to answer "yes" to two key loyalty questions in a questionnaire provided to him by the War Department. He, along with many other "no-no boys" like him, spent the war in both internment camps and prison. Now, back at home with the war over and everything Japanese a target of terrible scorn, he returns to his family and faces an ugliness he couldn’t even speak of before. The whole reason he did this, he realizes, was because of his mother’s goading; when he returns home to her, he doesn’t even get so much as a hug.
Ichiro's mother is apparently operating under the pathetic delusion that all word of Japan’s defeat is merely misinformation, and that they will be “repatriated” to Japan before long. She’s like one of the lost soldiers in the Pacific who think the war still rages on decades later. Only the island is the whole of the United States, where she (and Ichiro’s father) now feel just as isolated—and Ichiro feels just as isolated from them as he does everything else. In time he meets others who echo his disgust in different ways—such as a veteran, also Japanese, progressively losing part of his leg to gangrene, but living well enough that other people (including his own family) think he got a fair trade.
What is most striking about the book is not the anger, but the sadness that permeates it. Ichiro sees his parents with disgust, but also with pity—the same pity he extends to many of the other families they know. Like them, they emigrated from Japan to make money in America and then go back home, but found that what was meant to be a provisional measure became semi-permanent—“sinking roots into the land from which they had previously sought not nourishment but only gold”, as Okada puts it, in one of the many beautiful bits of language that make the book a real literary experience and not just a time capsule.
The freedom to be trivial, among other things
When Frank Chin wrote his concluding essay for the original University of Washington Press edition of the novel, he described the impact of the book with nothing short of grateful awe. Imagine being part of a culture where your only literary products are either cookbooks or missionary bleatings, and then being handed a novel by an Asian-American—not a retold bit of mythology, not a bit of nitwit escapism that used anything Asian as window-dressing, but a real honest-to-god novel, a work of art that was a painful slice of the truth about the way the “yellows” really did live in this country after WWII. “The book was so good,” Chin said, “it freed me to be trivial.” Meaning it gave him the freedom to feel like a person, not feel like the only grain of pepper in a saltshaker; it gave him the freedom that many blacks or Latinos or Indians or, yes, Asians yearn for—the freedom to not have to fall back on race as an explanatory device or a demarcation.
It wasn’t even because Okada wrote about being Japanese, specifically; being Japanese was just the lens through which the real light of the story was focused. Okada wrote about all of the same things the best of the post-WWII novelists in this country sank their teeth into: the rage at having given all and then being treated like criminals, the alienation, the displacement, the easy hate, the befuddled confusion that had settled over the people who never really had a chance to begin with. Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn worked like that, and while No-No Boy isn’t as panoramically angry as that book was, it doesn’t need to be.
The most recent reissue of No-No Boy adds a new foreword by author Ruth Ozeki, a heartfelt letter to the dead. She and the book are about the same age, she writes, and she only read it once she was well into adulthood. It unnerved her deeply: here for the first time she saw Japanese-Americans who resolutely did not conform to the good, proper stereotype that had been concocted for them to fulfill. She also notes, much as I did when I first started rewriting this essay, of the great danger of history dropping out of the immediacy of memory. If even someone like her could not be casually aware of how the nisei were treated, the rest of us are in even worse shape.
When I first wrote about the book, I noted (in 2006) that "the Japanese-intern experience is history, apologized for and sewn closed after sixty years. But apologies are not truths. They set the tone for the future, but they do not describe the past; they don’t make the reasons for the apologies come to life." Now here I am in 2019, and the experience in question is absolutely not "sewn closed"; it has been ripped wide open, with immigrant children in cages and Jews and Japanese-Americans among the most prominent raising their voices against it. It heartens me and shames me at the same time: yes, it is good are some of us who remember and refuse to forget, but what about the rest of us who leave it to the afflicted to do our speaking out for us?
What this book has to offer our moment in time is threefold. The first is the experience of a story, well-told, about something that matters. I am not a fan of the theory that reading fiction builds empathy, if only because it seems to confuse cause and effect; I think those who already have a germ of empathy are more inclined to seek out experiences that strengthen it, reading fiction being one such thing. But every now and then I come across a book that could serve as evidence for fiction as an empathy-strengthening mechanism regardless of its reader's motives, and this is one of them.
The second thing the book has to offer is an outgrowth of the first: the strengthening of empathy not only through shared experience but expanded knowledge. There was a time when these things happened, and that too many of us, even many who are Japanese-Americans, still lumber through our time without ever knowing it. Most people are not in the habit of confronting all that is troubling about their country, let alone going through the trouble to find it out when it was never offered to them to begin with. A work of fiction is as good a way to awaken awareness as any.
Third, again an extension of the first two, is how its perspective on all this is from the inside. Until I read No-No Boy, too much of the popular culture I'd encountered that treated the Japanese-American experience in WWII at all was sanitized, made palatable from without: Alan Parker’s Come See the Paradise, or David Guterson's Snow Falling On Cedars. No-No Boy is all from within, like the prison cell where Ichiro spent years of his life for standing up for himself and “his people”, only to realize he didn’t even know who he, or his people, really were anymore.