This is the first, last and only novel you will ever find by John Okada, and that fact made me seethe with sadness. There was another John Okada book, almost finished when he died of heart failure at the far-too-young age of forty-seven, but his wife could find no one to take an interest in it, and when she moved from Seattle she burned that second manuscript along with all of Okada’s other personal effects. Those who encountered No-No Boy decades after its original publication — it was picked up by none other than Charles Tuttle, and promptly sank from sight after one printing — took an interest in its unknown author, tracked down his wife, and were divided between hating her and pitying her. Pity won out, because in the end she was a human being trying to put the death of her husband behind her, and to carry that manuscript around would have been like holding a stone in her throat. Better to just spit it out and move on. Blaming her would be sadism.
When Frank Chin wrote his essay that caps off the University of Washington Press edition of the novel, he described the impact of the book with nothing short of grateful awe. Imagine being part of a culture where your only literary products are either cookbooks or missionary bleatings, and then being handed a novel by an Asian-American — not just a piece of puffery like a retold bit of mythology, not a bit of nitwit escapism that used anything Asian as window-dressing, but a real honest-to-god novel, a work of art that was a painful slice of the truth about the way the “yellows” really did live in this country after WWII. “The book was so good,” Chin said, “it freed me to be trivial.” Meaning it gave him the freedom to feel like a person, not feel like the only grain of pepper in a saltshaker; it gave him the freedom that many blacks or Latinos or Indians or, yes, Asians are finally experiencing for the first time in American history — the freedom to not have to fall back on race as an explanatory device or a demarcation.
It wasn’t even because Okada wrote about being Japanese, specifically; being Japanese was just the lens through which the real light of the story was focused. Okada wrote about all of the same things the best of the post-WWII novelists in this country sank their teeth into: the rage at having given all and then being treated like criminals, the alienation, the displacement, the easy hate, the befuddled confusion that had settled over the people who never really had a chance to begin with. Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn worked like that, and while No-No Boy isn’t as panoramically angry as that book was, it doesn’t need to be.
No-No Boy gives us Ichiro, the son of a pair of shopkeepers in Seattle. Four years ago he refused to be drafted into the Army, and spent the intervening time in both internment camps and prison. Now, back at home with the war over and everything Japanese a target of terrible scorn, he returns to his family and faces an ugliness he couldn’t even speak of before. The whole reason he did this, he realizes, was because of his mother’s goading; when he returns home to her, he doesn’t even get so much as a hug. Worse, his mother is apparently operating under the pathetic delusion that all word of Japan’s defeat is merely misinformation, and that they will be “repatriated” to Japan before long; she’s like one of the lost soldiers in the Pacific who think the war still rages on decades later. Only the island is the whole of the United States, where she (and Ichiro’s father) now feel just as isolated — and Ichiro feels just as isolated from them as he does everything else. In time he meets others who echo his disgust in different ways — such as a veteran, also Japanese, progressively losing part of his leg to gangrene, but living well enough that other people (including his own family) think he got a fair trade.
What is most striking about the book is not the anger, but the sadness that permeates it. Ichiro sees his parents with disgust, but also with pity — the same pity he extends to many of the other families they know. Like them, they emigrated from Japan to make money in America and then go back home, but found that what was meant to be a provisional measure became semi-permanent — “sinking roots into the land from which they had previously sought not nourishment but only gold”, as Okada puts it, in one of the many beautiful bits of language that make the book more than just a cultural oddity.
Today the Japanese-intern experience is history, apologized for and sewn closed after sixty years. But apologies are not truths. They set the tone for the future, but they do not describe the past; they don’t make the reasons for the apologies come to life. What culture that has become derived from that time is entirely retrospective and in many ways sanitized: Alan Parker’s Come See the Paradise, which for me was a product of the same sympathy-for-the-underdog liberal guilt that made Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi so faintly phony. They were stories told from the outside, not the inside, and as well-meaning as they were, they confused the issue. No-No Boy is all from the inside, like the prison cell where Ichiro spent years of his life for standing up for himself and “his people”, only to realize he didn’t even know who he, or his people, really were anymore.