Originally published in 1957, John Okada‘s No-No Boy tells the story of Ichiro Yamada, a fictional version of the real-life “no-no boys.” Yamada answered “no” twice in a compulsory government questionnaire as to whether he would serve in the armed forces and swear loyalty to the United States. Unwilling to pledge himself to the country that interned him and his family, Ichiro earns two years in prison and the hostility of his family and community when he returns home to Seattle.
As Ruth Ozeki writes in her foreword to the new edition of this classic book, Ichiro’s “obsessive, tormented” voice subverts Japanese postwar “model-minority” stereotypes, showing a fractured community and one man’s “threnody of guilt, rage, and blame as he tries to negotiate his reentry into a shattered world.” Here, we feature an excerpt from Ozeki’s powerful new foreword, which she wrote as a personal letter to John Okada.
Dear John Okada,
I’m writing to you across time, as one writer to another, to congratulate you on the reissue of your groundbreaking novel, No-No Boy. The University of Washington Press has done me the honor of asking me to write a new foreword to your book, and to tell you the truth, I’m nervous. I wish I could consult with you, or visit you and ask you for your blessing, but I can’t.
You probably don’t even know that your novel was groundbreaking. When it was published, back in 1957, you probably thought it was a colossal failure. It’s hard enough to write a novel, and harder still to get one published, but then to have it so completely ignored—this must have been crushing. Your original publisher, Charles E. Tuttle, was based in Tokyo, which I’m sure didn’t help your chances for success in North America. The few critics here who bothered to review it pretty much panned it.They bitched about your “bad English” and said it wasn’t literature. Even Japanese Americans shunned it. It seems they were embarrassed by it, which sounds crazy now, but in retrospect I suppose I understand why. In No-No Boy you wrote unflinchingly about the scarring experience of being a Japanese American on the West Coast during World War II, but that war had only ended twelve years earlier, and twelve years is no time at all. When your book came out, Japanese Americans were busy keeping their heads down, assimilating, and working on becoming the model minority of 1950s America. It’s understandable. They had been rounded up and sent to prison camps in the desert. They had lost their homes and businesses and communities. They had suffered, and they wanted to move on. No-No Boy was radical, but it was ahead of its time. It was angry and raw. It touched nerves and opened wounds. It reminded them of a past they wanted to forget, and so they rejected it. Your book disappeared almost overnight. Continue reading