Category Archives: John Okada

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:

Interview with the French translator of “No-No Boy”

cover of French translationMerci beaucoup  to the readers and independent bookstores in France now discovering the work of John Okada through a new translation of No-No Boy.

Published on October 29 by Valérie Millet of Les Éditions du Sonneur, the new translation is by Paris-based writer Anne-Sylvie Homassel. She reports that bookstores across France reopened last Saturday from the pandemic and they’re eagerly welcoming the new edition, as can be seen in this Facebook post from La Geosphere of Montpelier on the south coast of France.

This is the third international edition of No-No Boy, joining the German and Japanese translations.  As with those versions, I had a delightful correspondence  with the translator to help untangle a few of Okada’s more idiomatic phrases and Nisei colloquialisms. Thanks to Le Sonneur for the nice acknowledgement and reference back to this website.

Homassel is a Paris-based writer and translator. She co-directs The Green Face (Le Visage vert), a literary magazine and small press devoted to supernatural fiction, and has translated close to 100 volumes, including those of Max Beerbohm,  Henry Darger, Willa Cather, John Buchan, Zane Gray, Herman Melville and L. Frank Baum. Under the name Anne-Sylvie Salzman,  she’s written the novels and collections Sleep (Sommeil); On the Edge of a Slow Black River (Au bord d’un lent fleuve noir); Lamont; Feral (Vivre sauvage dans les villes);  and Zelenka (Dernières nouvelles d’Œsthrénie).

We were fascinated to know more, so here is an edited trans-Atlantic interview conducted via e-mail:

Resisters.com: What was the origin for the French edition? Were you commissioned by the publisher or did you bring the idea to them? 

Anne-Sylvie Homassel
Anne-Sylvie Homassel

Anne-Sylvie Homassel: I frequently travel to Japan, where I have many friends, and In September 2018, I read an article about No-No Boy in The Japan Times.  I soon ordered the book—and when I finished reading it I knew I would want to translate and offer it to French-speaking readers. I mentioned it to publisher Valérie Millet, who runs an independent press called Les Éditions du Sonneur, and she was as thrilled as I was by the novel. Le Sonneur has been publishing for more than 15 years books of all description—works of fiction, travel literature, essays—with a focus on literary quality. So Le Sonneur acquired the rights to No-No Boy—and two years and a pandemic later, here we are.
Continue reading Interview with the French translator of “No-No Boy”

Sharing “NO-NO BOY” with teachers in six cities

The story of No-No Boy and John Okada is being shared this summer with middle and secondary teachers of history and the humanities in six cities across the nation, as part of a series of place-based online workshops sponsored by the National Japanese American Historical Society of San Francisco and the National Park Service. Continue reading Sharing “NO-NO BOY” with teachers in six cities

John Okada’s MIS service shared in new PBS film

The story of John Okada’s wartime work in the U.S. Military Intelligence Service is now airing nationwide in a new film on PBS.

Frank Abe in office
photo: Steve Ozone

The filmmakers of The Registry, Bill Kubota and Steve Ozone, flew out from Detroit seven years ago to speak with me about the author of No-No Boy. In particular we focused on the two years Okada spent training at the MIS Language School at Camp Savage, Minnesota, and then flying in the belly of a B-24 out of Guam to intercept and translate Japanese air-to-ground radio transmissions. If my words seem to falter it was because this interview was conducted in 2013, well before I had begun the final round of research and writing on the featured biography in our recent volume, John Okada.
Continue reading John Okada’s MIS service shared in new PBS film

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.” Continue reading In the pandemic of 2020, echoes of 1942

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”

“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

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”