You’d never expect John Okada and the entire literature of Japanese American incarceration to be featured in the Style magazine of the New York Times … but thanks to the passionate interest of Thessaly La Force, features director for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, her deeply felt essay is now online. It will appear in print in the Sunday Times edition on November 17th.
Many thanks to Thessaly for reaching out to Shawn Wong and myself to learn more about this history, and the life and work of John Okada in particular. The literature of Japanese American incarceration is a field that JOHN OKADA co-editor Floyd Cheung and I are researching for a new anthology scheduled for 2021.
Floyd was not present, but Greg Robinson and I were, when our volume on John Okada was honored Friday with an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.
Here are my prepared remarks for the acceptance:
I need to take a moment to acknowledge the passage of a previous winner of the American Book Award.
Hiroshi Kashiwagi was a real “no-no boy.” He refused the government’s loyalty questionnaire while in an American concentration camp. He fought to rescind his renunciation of American citizenship signed under the duress of incarceration. Hiroshi passed away earlier this week, at his home in Berkeley. He planned to be here today. He and his voice will be missed.
John Okada wrote of another resister like Hiroshi in the celebrated novel, No-No Boy – a book ignored when first published in 1957 and recovered here in the Bay Area in 1974. That act resonates so strongly with this recognition today.
It was the 1970s when Frank Chin, Jeff Chan, Lawson Inada and Shawn Wong formed CARP, the Combined Asian American Resources Project. They found a copy of No-No Boy in a used bookshop and included a chapter in their groundbreaking anthology of Asian American writing, with the provocative title of Aiiieeeee!
Aiiieeeee! was my own awakening, for it presented the simple idea that Asian America meant not just Asian and not just American – not just the best of the east and the best of the west – but a third thing, with its own voice and sensibility. Forty-five years ago that was a radical new idea.
Aiiieeeee! would not have been possible without its publication in 1974 by Howard University Press, the first black university press in the country, and backing from its chief executive, the late Charles Harris. The following year another chapter of No-No Boy was included in the third issue of Yardbird Reader, thanks to its publisher, Ishmael Reed. And with the public reaction to these excerpts, CARP republished the novel in its entirety.
No-No Boy became a foundational work in the emerging field of Asian American Studies. It joined a broader movement to diversify our notion of American literature that included establishment of the Before Columbus Foundation itself.
Forty-five years ago was also when I first arrived in San Francisco as a wide-eyed, know-nothing kid from the South Bay, to join Frank Chin’s Asian American Theater Workshop at the American Conservatory Theater – and I need to thank Ishmael for being so kind and tolerant of me at the time. It was a time of continual discovery and great possibilities, and at the center of it, for me, was this great novel that gave voice to a Japanese American vernacular none of us had seen or heard before.
The afterword to the CARP edition was an essay by Frank with the few scraps of information he could gather about the novelist, called “In Search of John Okada.” It ignited in me a desire to learn all I could about this author and his urge to write The Great Nisei Novel about a Japanese American draft resister. That search led to our book, which includes a much-needed biography of Okada and recovery of his unknown works. I want to thank the University of Washington Press for supporting our vision, editors Larin McLaughlin and Mike Baccam, and production manager Margaret Sullivan.
And to close the loop: UW Press has just reissued Aiiieeeee! in a 45th anniversary edition.
As our co-editor Floyd Cheung would say if he were here: If the Before Columbus Foundation were around when No-No Boy was first published, we imagine Okada himself would have won an American Book Award.
So it’s with great humility that we accept this honor as a kind of posthumous prize for John Okada. Thank you all very much.
The event was recorded in its entirety by C-SPAN2 for “Book TV,” and was cablecast on Saturday night, November 9, at 8:00 pm Pacific Time. Here is a link to see the acceptance speeches from Frank Abe and Greg Robinson, and a link to see the entire two-and-a half hour program, including Genny Lim’s reading from the novel in her introduction of us.