closeup of president's remarks

In the pandemic of 2020, echoes of 1942

Greetings from the social distance of Seattle, ground zero for COVID-19 in the U.S. Thanks to those who have checked in to see how we’re doing. We’re all fine, and I certainly hope you and those you know are well — like you, continually checking the phone for the latest domino to fall, unable for these first ten days or so to focus on much of anything besides the massive disruption that has upended our world.

closeup of president's remarks
photo: Jabin Botsford, Washington Post

And in this moment, as we wait for the peak of infections to crest, we are starting to see echoes of 1942 in the great pandemic of 2020. We have a nation under attack from a threat which originated in Asia, and which hit America on the Pacific Coast. Anyone with an Asian face becomes a target for racial retaliation. The occupant of the White House belatedly declares himself to be a “wartime president,” and tries to deflect responsibility for his early disease-denial by inflaming the xenophobia of his base and deliberately  branding COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.”

National emergencies like this in the past have provided cover for those in power to enact the policies they always wanted. Two-and-a-half months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the machinery of federal bureaucracy cranked through an Executive Order for mass exclusion of a race that West Coast exclusionists like Miller Freeman of Bellevue and the Native Sons of the Golden West in California had long wanted removed. We’re only ten days into this crisis and already this Administration is reportedly seeking the authority to suspend the Constitutional right of due process to enable the indefinite detention of people arrested during this emergency.

By the same token, in the rush to prevent economic collapse some longstanding inequities may be suddenly addressed, such as the cancellation of some student loan debt. This moment may be remembered as the turning point when our society was permanently reordered. Whichever way this goes, we will remember whom to thank or hold accountable.

For Japanese American arts and activism, it’s been a head-spinning ten days. In a short span, the Tule Lake Pilgrimage in July had to be canceled — one-fourth of those registered were over 70 years old. The National Pilgrimage to Close the Camps was postponed from June. Then the cancellation of the Association for Asian American Studies conference in April meant no more panel for our graphic novel.

Personally, after several days of self-loathing for being incapable of doing nothing productive but going for walks and making lists of movies to watch, I hit upon the idea of listing the titles of the two dozen books I still must read in order to edit a forthcoming anthology of camp literature, and setting the goal of reading one per day for the next four weeks. Anticipating the needs of others who must hunker down in isolation, T: The New York Times Style Magazine has offered “T’s Guide to Staying at Home, and Making the Best of It,” and thanks to them for including No-No Boy among their recommendations for getting lost in a good story.

T: The New York Times Style MagazineAn overlooked touchstone of Japanese-American literature, John Okada’s “No-No Boy” (1957) “isn’t often acknowledged for articulating what had never been said before,” writes T’s features director, Thessaly La Force. Written under the long shadow of Japanese-American incarceration during World War II, the novel “is a kind of generational reckoning with American bigotry” — one that has unexpected resonance now, amid family separation and incarceration along the United States’s southern border.

And our thanks to the staff at Seattle Met magazine for including Okada in “A Big Seattle Reading List,” an “alphabetized list of books—recent releases, stone-cold classics—from Washingtonians past and present.”

No-No Boy by John Okada

Seattle Met reading listIn John Okada’s 1957 novel, a young Japanese American in Seattle resists the World War II draft (responding “no” twice in a government questionnaire). He goes to a camp for two years, and prison for another two. When he returns to Seattle, he’s met with the scorn of his family and feels “like an intruder in a world to which he had no claim.” Okada, a Seattleite himself, parses the complexities of identity in Seattle’s Japanese American community, during one of this country’s darkest moments.

UW Press logoTo make it easier to catch up to No-No Boy — and our own book on the life and unknown work of John Okada — the University of Washington Press is offering 40% off all its titles and free shipping through May 15. That’s a great deal, the same discount given to its authors, so grab it while you can by using promo code WASH20 on the UWP website or contact Hopkins Fulfillment Services (800-53705487 or [email protected]).

draft cover for graphic novelWell before this outbreak, the publication date for our graphic novel on camp resistance, WE HEREBY REFUSE, was pushed back from this April to February 2021. That will provide the time for our artists to continue drawing, from the script which was finished in December, and for development of an Educators’ Guide for secondary school students. Thanks to a small grant from the George and Sakaye Aratani “Community Advancement Research Endowment,” or Aratani C.A.R.E., Awards at UCLA, we have enlisted the expertise of Freda Lin and Cathlin Goulding of the Yuri Education Project to help develop  the Yuri logoclassroom guide. The two are exceptionally well-qualified, having already put in the work on Hiroshi Kashiwagi and friends in their guide for Konrad Aderer’s Resistance at Tule Lake, which you can download here.

We will get through this. The National Pilgrimage to Close the Camps was postponed, not canceled. There’s a chance the Tule Lake Pilgrimage, like the Tokyo Olympics, could be moved to 2021. The AAAS conference was already set to come to Seattle in April 2021, which in fact is better timing for our panel given the new publication date for the graphic novel.

With hope, 2020 will be remembered only as a pause. We weren’t able to meet in person, but after regaining our bearings, the work will go on.

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