John Okada’s No-No Boy is the story of Ichiro Yamada, a young Japanese-American man who comes of age during World War II. He and his family are forced into a Japanese internment camp for two years, after which Ichiro is ironically drafted to serve in the U.S. Army. When he refuses to serve, he is arrested and imprisoned, ultimately losing his freedom for another two years.
The story begins just after Yamada has been released from prison. The war has ended and the Japanese-Americans are coming to terms with what this means for them. Some, like Ichiro’s friends, served as “proud Americans” and now look to return home as military heroes, taking their place in a grateful society. Others, like Ichiro’s mother, refuse to believe that Japan lost. They consider any anti-Japanese sentiment, even the most clearly documented, factual evidence, as nothing more than American propaganda. And others, like Ichiro, who refused to serve, struggle to find a place at all. They are neither American nor Japanese, anymore, and they are vilified by almost everyone.
No-No Boy was a surprise for me, in two ways. First, it is not the story I expected. I went into this believing that it would be a direct and damning critique of what the United States government did to the Japanese-Americans during World War II. But, it’s not that. Ichiro’s character, and those who surround him, elucidate just how complex and convoluted the reactions to this time were, even for those whose lives and livelihoods had been robbed. It was uncomfortable to read any perspective that was at all gracious to this time period, but even more so discomfiting to read it from the perspective of a young Japanese man.
The second surprise was in the prose itself. Reading Okada had me thinking of a bizarre marriage between F. Scott Fitzgerald and J.D. Salinger. I imagined the two had a young Japanese-American child, and that child became a writer named John Okada. His style is acerbic and beautiful, pointed and meandering. He reveals, in his prose, the same complications and confusions reflected in the time and people surrounding his main character. Even the somewhat cliche ending, which felt, in the moment, like a tragic disappointment to me as a reader, developed in my mind over the ensuing twenty-four hours into something obvious and unavoidable, and painfully sad.
To put it plainly, Okada is a subtle genius, and his work is both challenging and unique. I believe Asian-American writing is on the verge of being more thoughtfully recognized and fully embraced, something that is long overdue. Okada should be a staple in this deserved renaissance.
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You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. Octavia E. Butler
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