One of the particular pleasures of shepherding my book The Unsung Great: Stories of Extraordinary Japanese Americans through the publication process has been the chance to work with University of Washington Press, especially with editors Larin McLaughlin and Mike Baccam. A big reason I decided to publish with UW press is the positive experience I had with them on my previous book project, the coedited collection John Okada: The Life and Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy (2018). Indeed, it felt like second nature to continue working with UW Press because of the close connections between John Okada and The Unsung Great. Not only do both books center on the histories of remarkable but little-known Japanese Americans but The Unsung Great contains a pair of chapters that are spun off from the earlier project (which itself takes off from John Okada’s groundbreaking novel No-No Boy, also published by UW Press).
One of the Okada chapters of The Unsung Great is an account of the long evolution through which the book John Okada came into existence, and the mechanics of my collaboration with my coeditors Frank Abe and Floyd Cheung. I want to share an interesting aspect of our collaboration that I did not touch on in my account, as it later had a funny sequel. It revolved around the respective value of theory versus experience.
Let me explain. Several years ago when I first joined forces on the Okada project with Frank and Floyd , we all agreed that Frank should serve as our project leader because of his long years of doing research on the life and times of John Okada. Conversely, I volunteered to be our chief representative in discussions with the press over our book contract, and to lead whatever negotiations we would need. The reason for this was that I was the only one among the three of us who had previously published books, and thus had a more concrete idea of what to expect. When the time came to settle on the contract provisions, everything went smoothly, and we were all satisfied with the result.
Fast forward to early 2019, not long after the publication of the book. Frank and I went on a book tour of Southern California (sadly, Floyd was not able to join us), and we presented on John Okada at various book events. On multiple occasions, audience members asked a longstanding question about No-No Boy: namely, what had led Okada to give that title to his novel, which dealt with a Japanese American draft resister? They noted correctly that the “no-no boys” were in fact the camp inmates who had been ordered to fill out loyalty questionnaires by the US government, had refused for various reasons to give the answers the government wanted, and had been forcibly separated from other inmates and locked up in a high security “segregation center” at the Tule Lake camp. Okada’s book, in contrast, dealt with a Japanese American who—after presumably giving the “right” answers on the loyalty questionnaire—had resisted joining the US Army in protest over the continued confinement of his family in the camp. The audience members regretted the confusion caused by the misleading title and asked us to explain the paradox.
When these questions came up, Frank, as the resident Okada expert, felt obliged to discuss the different theories that scholars had come up with over the years to explain the title. Once Frank had finished, I weighed in—not as an expert on Okada but as a veteran book author. I remarked that in my experience publishers did not always accept an author’s suggested title, and instead they often proposed their own. I recalled that in the case of my first book, By Order of the President, I went through an extended back-and-forth with the publisher, with each of us proposing several alternatives, before I finally came up with the title phrase that satisfied them—and was, in fact, the best choice, I believe. I noted that in the surviving correspondence we had unearthed between Okada and his publisher, the author did not indicate any proposed title for the manuscript that he offered them for publication. This absence, in addition to Okada’s inexperience with publishing, led me to deduce that it was his publisher who had chosen the title, opting for a catchy phrase over strict accuracy.
The audience seemed to react with amusement at the discovery that such an aged and apparently thorny intellectual question actually had a simple explanation. I was reminded of a story I read in Samuel Rosenberg’s book Naked Is the Best Disguise, about T. S. Eliot’s 1935 play, Murder in the Cathedral. In one scene, Eliot’s characters pronounce a litany that seems identical to one in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tale “The Musgrave Ritual.” Apparently different literary critics debated at length over the relationship between the two: whether they were connected and whether Eliot had adapted Doyle’s words or whether they came from a common source. Finally, Nathan Bengis, an American Sherlockian, announced that he had thought to write Eliot himself about the matter, and Eliot had responded that his borrowing from “The Musgrave Ritual” was deliberate and wholly conscious. So, there are times when complex theories are trumped by simple realities.
And I have a final confession to make: The title The Unsung Great, which pleases me greatly, was chosen by the publisher.
Greg Robinson is professor of history at l’Université du Québec à Montréal and author of several books, including After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics and By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans.