How “JOHN OKADA” was born

The Unsung Great coverThe moment I saw the portrait of a young John Okada gazing at me from the cover of Greg Robinson’s new book, The Unsung Great: Stories of Extraordinary Japanese Americans, I ordered a copy. It’s a photo used in the eponymous book we wrote and edited called John Okada.

Then when I opened Greg’s book I was floored to discover not one but two chapters devoted to the author of No-No Boy:  Greg’s essay on the reviews of the novel upon its first publication in 1957 (previously published by Discover Nikkei), and a new section on the origins of our own 2018 collaboration, together with Floyd Cheung, in a piece called “How John Okada Was Born.”

Greg’s chapter on the early reviews of the novel was a last-minute cut from our book, and looking back the omission seems inexplicable. We were asked to tighten the manuscript, but I for one should have found a way to make room for this fine essay. I’m glad it’s found a home between the covers of this new volume. (Incidentally, in our anthology we credit the source of Okada’s high school graduation photo to John’s childhood friend Roy Kumasaka, who shared it with me before his death. For its use in Greg’s book, the credit names Joanne Mock, Roy’s daughter, who has kept her father’s collection.)

In his new chapter Greg details the origins of our anthology, and it reminds me how his discovery of the full texts of Okada’s short stories and magazine satires helped me break through a wall I’d hit on a proposed documentary film on Okada. I didn’t know it at the time, but I found myself unable to tell Okada’s story without fully understanding the sources and inspirations for his one great novel. It was like driving in the dark without headlights, peering uncertainly through the windshield. It took the work of writing the biography to make all the connections, and those early writings that Greg found helped fill in the gaps in Okada’s path to No-No Boy.

It’s a little embarrassing to see one’s spontaneous email outbursts from late at night appear in print, but I let Greg quote them anyway. He writes of his search at the University of Washington Libraries through microfilms of Seattle’s postwar Nisei vernacular, the Northwest Times:

“On looking through the first issues, dated January 1947, I discovered a one-act play and several short stories written by John Okada (described in a headnote as being a UW student). Once back in Vancouver, I wrote to Frank Abe, attaching a sample, and asked whether he was aware of these writings. His response was enthusiastic: ‘This is amazing … Okada scholars are going to go nuts. Steve Sumida and Shawn Wong will go nuts when they hear this.'”

Greg later wrote me after his visit to the University of British Columbia to research “a little-known Nisei newspaper from Toronto, the Continental Times“:

“In its pages from 1957 I had found a long review of the original edition of No-No Boy. Again Frank was rapid and enthusiastic in his reply. He explained that the text of this review was so positive that the publisher had excerpted it for use as part of the book’s publicity package, but he said the source of the review had remained obscure: “OH MY GOD. I thought I would never ever see this, being such (to me) an obscure paper. Thank you!”

These research discoveries are just a few of the dozens that Greg recounts in The Unsung Great. It’s well worth picking up a copy from the UW Press and reading. You can hear him describe a few more of the figures from Nikkei history that he brings back to life in this Densho video from January 21:

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