Review: Asian American Literary Review

Asian American Literary Review
Spring/Summer 2019, Vol. 10, Issue 1

Asian American Literary Review coverJohn Okada: The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy. eds. Frank Abe, Greg Robinson, and Floyd Cheung. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018, 366 pp.

reviewed by John Streamas, Washington State University

A “completist” is the kind of Boomer consumer who, if a Dylan fan, owns every one of the seemingly dozens of available versions of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” Able to afford the expense, completists enjoy an overabundance and want all. Of course some artists don’t live long, or don’t create much, or don’t save all their work, and so any newly uncovered scrap, even a grocery list, is treasured by fans and scholars. Sylvia Plath died young and produced relatively little. Scavenging her scraps hardly qualifies as “completist.”

Among writers who died young and produced little is John Okada. Aside from a few biographical tidbits, almost all that was generally known about him was his lone published novel No-No Boy and its publication history. Even this was because, seemingly suddenly, the Aiiieeeee! editors discovered him for the world. But this was posthumous. And since editors Frank Chin et al. revealed that the unfinished manuscript of a second book had been destroyed, it seemed as if No-No Boy would become the “complete” John Okada.

No-No Boy was the second novel I read about the camps—the first was Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, but that was set in Canada—and because it had the urgency of a news bulletin, I wanted to see more. But I also knew that Okada was already long gone. Other novels I read might have been beautiful, sad, angry, visionary—Obasan is all these—but they lacked Okada’s urgency. The only other Japanese American novel of the camps that shares that urgency is Perry Miyake’s 21st-Century Manzanar, which was published in 2002 and set in an apocalyptic post-9/11 future in which Manzanar is both a Frankenstein lab and a site of cross-racial conflict.

To say that No-No Boy is about the camps is not to say that it is located there. (For that matter, Miyake’s novel is of course set in the twenty-first century.) It is a postwar novel, and clearly Okada knew as well as Studs Terkel did that the world war was not a “good war,” nor were its combatants Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation.” In ethnic studies we teach that black people today still live the legacy of slavery, and Okada knew that Japanese Americans would live the legacy of incarceration long after the war ended. And this is partly why, if any other Okada writings existed, they would surely interest readers of his novel. For in the quarter-century after the war, many Japanese Americans said little about their imprisonment, and even if Nisei “silence” has been exaggerated by critics, still, as co-editor Greg Robinson notes in his contribution to the volume here discussed, the fact that during this time the most popular fictions of the experience were written by “outsiders” such as Florence Crannell Means, Karen Kehoe, and James Edmiston is more than a little curious and sadly ironic.

So now we have John Okada: The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy, edited by Robinson, Frank Abe, and Floyd Cheung. This must surely be the most “complete” Okada possible, as it includes a poem, a play, five short stories, and two satirical essays, mostly written before No-No Boy. The editors are being modest in calling these works “rediscovered,” for their scouring of the archives is no less a mission of discovery than was the scouring, nearly a half century ago, by Chin et al. in promoting the novel. And though none of these works is likely to supplant the novel in the Nisei “canon,” still they are more than curiosities and ephemera. Not only do they offer glimpses into a sensibility and art that, refined, would produce No-No Boy, but they also show a diversity of interests and styles that might explain the diffuseness of postwar Nisei literary culture that Robinson notices. The poem, for example, is an exercise in intense self-consciousness in a speaker who knows he looks like the enemy. One of the stories is a spooky gothic that might, as the editors say, have been inspired by Charles Brocken Brown.

The story that most interests me is a short piece called “What Can I Do?” Floyd Cheung notes that it has elements of psychological realism and a noir style—it was published, after all, in 1947, when many Hollywood films bore the style—and that it is the only fiction included here with a Japanese American protagonist. Furthermore, this character, Jiro, prefigures main characters in No-No Boy. In a recent issue of Massachusetts Review dedicated to Asian American writing, Cheung introduces this story with an observation that Okada creates an absurdist setting in which Jiro, disabled and homeless and penniless in the present, has no past, no context. Jiro says only that he worked in his father’s restaurant. What brought him to the dusty railyard and the greasy café is so unknowable as to be irrelevant to the moment. I see in the story as well elements of a proletarian literature that flourished in the 1930s and lingered into the war years. Unlike black artists such as Langston Hughes, who formed a significant part of the “cultural front,” only a few Asian Americans wrote on the fringes of the leftist literary scene. According to Michael Denning, most of those were, like Carlos Bulosan, deeply involved in farmworkers’ and union organizers’ activism. There is no indication that Okada would have participated in such activism even if he had had the chance—the two 1960s satirical articles included in the volume poke gentle fun at wasteful industrial practices but could hardly be considered radical—and yet his stern but sympathetic construction of Jiro and the rough exchanges with the café owner and the marbles-playing kids could have come from a Popular Front story.

Frank Abe’s valuable hundred-page biography that opens the book offers clues into the merging of Okada’s politics and literary vision. Abe says that after the war Nisei men fell into two groups: “those who complied with the government, and those who resisted the injustice.” Bitter and fearful, the groups shunned each other. But Okada, a veteran himself, spoke with resisters, listened sympathetically to their stories, and kept notes. No-No Boy could not exist without a compassionate understanding by which Okada projected himself into resistance. And it is this understanding, this capacity to project into others, that informed his ambition for his second novel. Abe quotes from a 1956 letter in which Okada announces that the new book will “describe the experiences of the immigrant Japanese,” a story that had not been told—“and only in fiction can the hopes and fears and joys and sorrows of people be adequately recorded.” The life of Okada might otherwise have been a familiar story of a midcentury corporate copywriter. Abe provides that story, but also skillfully renders Okada’s difference, his quiet brilliance.

The volume ends with six essays on Okada’s work, mostly on the novel, and a 1972 poem by Lawson Fusao Inada. The essays examine form and historical context, and will be valuable to students of Asian American literature. Stephen H. Sumida raises basic historical and thematic questions of No-No Boy, and suggests that Okada himself raises these questions. Martha Nakagawa reviews the history of resistance that Okada drew upon; Jeffrey T. Yamashita relates the history of critical reception of No-No Boy; and Shawn Wong discusses his involvement in the discovery of Okada’s work. A very brief afterword by Abe reminds readers that the urgencies of the present moment, the age of Trump, are not much different from the urgencies Okada felt.

Abe’s closing note is more than a predictable, obligatory reminder of Okada’s continuing relevance. When I began my own study of Japanese American literature in the 1980s, many incarcerees were still alive and a first generation of scholars of the camps were still working. Now new generations have arrived, with few direct links to the wartime experience. Okada’s relevance matters.

The history and literature of Japanese American resistance to wartime incarceration

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