All posts by Frank Abe

Producer/director of CONSCIENCE AND THE CONSTITUTION, now available as a Two-Disc Collector's Edition DVD with two hours of new bonus features on the largest organized resistance to the WW2 incarceration of Japanese Americans.

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]du).

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. They also wrote the guide for Renee Tajima-Peña’s upcoming five-part PBS series on Asian Americans. See this one-minute preview of the series which opens with Satsuki Ina speaking at the protest in 2019 which stopped the government from opening  a camp at Fort Sill, Oklahoma for the incarceration of 1,400 children.

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.

A Day of Remembrance = A Day of Action

The first Day of Remembrance in 1978 was political. We staged it as a car caravan from Seattle to a family potluck and program at the Puyallup Fairgrounds, but it was only to create a safe space for the Nisei to begin to express their long-suppressed rage at expulsion and incarceration, and channel it into a long-overdue petition for redress of grievances and a call for our elected leaders to right a wrong. Continue reading A Day of Remembrance = A Day of Action

Shawn Wong’s 49-year journey with “NO-NO BOY”

Shawn Wong with photo of himself at typewriterAdd performance art to the resume of novelist and professor Shawn Wong.  audience at Kane Hall, University of Washington

Before an audience of 500 for the Friends of the Libraries annual lecture at the University of Washington on January 30, he acted out what he called the “mostly true” story of how he brought John Okada’s No-No Boy from 1,500 copies in print to selling more than 160,000. Continue reading Shawn Wong’s 49-year journey with “NO-NO BOY”

In Memoriam: Hiroshi Kashiwagi — poet, playwright, no-no, and renunciant

Hiroshi with Frank AbeHiroshi Kashiwagi once confided that when he was young he felt his real calling was as an actor. He had the soul of a poet, modest and soft-spoken, until he got on stage. Then he could command a voice that was measured and determined, almost Shakespearean in tone. He held a strong sense of right and wrong, and pushed himself to write and to study public speaking in order to be heard. Continue reading In Memoriam: Hiroshi Kashiwagi — poet, playwright, no-no, and renunciant

“NO-NO BOY” and “JOHN OKADA” in NY Times and American Book Awards

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.T: The New York Times Style Magazine

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.

American Book Award recipients onstage

Here are my prepared remarks for the acceptance: Continue reading “NO-NO BOY” and “JOHN OKADA” in NY Times and American Book Awards

Gag order lifted on lawsuit to stop the fence at Tule Lake

Little news emerged in the past year from the effort to stop the fence at Tule Lake — a three-mile long airport fence that would block access to the “hallowed ground” of America’s worst concentration camp.

Now we have some insight into why: according to a series of tweets from the Tule Lake Committee, the federal judge overseeing the case has lifted a gag order on the case, and the committee is raising funds for what could be the last leg of this long legal journey. We’ve kicked in, you can too. Here’s the thread unroll from @SaveTuleLake:
Continue reading Gag order lifted on lawsuit to stop the fence at Tule Lake

UW Press blogs on American Book Award for “JOHN OKADA”

Thanks to M’Bilia Meekers at the University of Washington Press for sharing this blog post, “John Okada: The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy” wins the 2019 American Book Award!” 
Continue reading UW Press blogs on American Book Award for “JOHN OKADA”

“JOHN OKADA” among winners of 2019 American Book Awards

We’ve just learned that JOHN OKADA is one of the winners of the 2019 American Book Awards. This honor is especially meaningful as it comes from the Before Columbus Foundation which, as its name suggests, recognizes “literary achievement from the entire spectrum of America’s diverse literary community” and is “a writers’ award given by other writers.”

Our thanks to Ishmael Reed, Justin Desmangles, and Shawn Wong for their lifetime of work to sustain the Foundation. Continue reading “JOHN OKADA” among winners of 2019 American Book Awards

Interview with Thomas Girst on new German translation of “No-No Boy”

German coverCongratulations to author and cultural manager Thomas Girst for providing the literary and historical commentary appended to the new German translation of John Okada’s No-No Boy. 

Girst is the author of the 2015 academic study, Art, Literature, and the Japanese American Internment: On John Okada’s “No-No Boy,” and he reveres Okada’s work as much as anyone. Girst’s fine epilogue provides the context of the WW2 incarceration experience for the German reader, and a close reading of Okada’s text. Continue reading Interview with Thomas Girst on new German translation of “No-No Boy”

Campaign launched to support UW Press edition of “No-No Boy”

Buyer beware: The edition of No-No Boy published by the University of Washington Press is the only edition authorized by the family of John Okada. The largest publisher in the US is now opportunistically exploiting a loophole in the copyright to bring out its own unauthorized knock-off. Continue reading Campaign launched to support UW Press edition of “No-No Boy”