Friday, January 31, 2014

Book Review: NO-NO BOY by John Okada

Genres: Literature / Fiction / WWII / Asian American

No-No Boy by John Okada is another one of those books that make me want to shake it violently and go, "Where have you been all my life?! Why have you deprived me of this misery?"

"But...But..." stammers No-No Boy. "I've been here all this time. Since 1957. It's gotten quite lonely, really." 

Lonely indeed. This was the only novel ever completed by John Okada, who died at the age of 47 thinking that no one, especially in the Asian American community, cared about his work. His wife burned his other novel in progress after the Japanese American Research Project at UCLA refused to look at his stuff. It was one of the first Japanese American novels to be published, and like the community it represented, it was mostly cast aside and ignored for years until people started picking it up and studying it for its literary value.

The basic story is set in Seattle, during World War II, in which Japanese Americans were herded like cattle into concentration camps. Their US citizenships weren't enough to make them American enough to not be treated as foreign spies, but yet they were still obligated to fight for the US. 

That's right. Oh, you're not good enough of an American to be trusted to live free. But you're good enough to sacrifice your life or limbs for us. 

Basic plot: Ichiro, the main character, goes before the court. But out of a sense of resentment at the United States' bad treatment of his parents and also loyalty to his mother (who had very patriotic beliefs in favor of Japan), he refuses to fight. As a result, he's sent to jail for two years. When he comes back, Seattle and its Japanese American community has fragmented between veterans and no-no boys (the ones who refused to fight for a country that had rejected them first) and parents and their children. 

A big reason for these tensions within the Japanese American community is the differences in national and cultural loyalties. Despite their impoverished conditions, Ichiro's parents still subscribe to their old, original dream of making lots of money in the United States and then returning to Japan to live a comfortable life. Some young Japanese American veterans openly flaunt their war medals in order to assert their American loyalty, and Ichiro resents the fact that they feel that they need to assert their American-ness in order to be accepted. 

This question of identity is explored throughout the entire book, and in terms of plot, it can be pretty haphazard and slow because not much happens on the outside until the latter half of the book. Most of the conflict is internal, where the exploration of identity, trauma, masculinity, and patriotism occurs in depth. We have the basic set-up: a no-no boy leaves prison and comes home. There are countless gems of angry social criticism throughout this book. Sometimes it feels like an autobiography and it's actually not - Okada actually went to war but created this novel to explore what would happen if someone said no. 

There is an odd POV switch in the middle of the book, in which we suddenly (and conveniently) get a glimpse into Ichiro's friend Kenji's life. I appreciated this extra perspective, but it was rather asymmetrical and comes across as lazy to me since there was no prior POV switch beforehand. 

The biggest weakness in this novel is the fact that Ichiro/narrator is prone to going off into redundant rants that don't necessarily add anything new to what he has already said. 

Nonetheless, I was swept away by Ichiro's inner thoughts on what it means to be a Japanese American, and also by his anger at the ethnic division within the minority community, in which different groups turn on each other when they should be embracing each other. It's very clear that Okada has thought about these things a lot, and I truly empathize with Ichiro's turmoil and sense of alienation from everyone around him. His angst reminds me of Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, but with more concrete social problems at hand rather than a general disgust of the pretentiousness in people. 

By the end, I have a much better understanding of the cultural struggles that the Japanese American community had - on a myopic level. I've read about their internment camps in history books, referred to in media and even memoirs of people who were children at the time. But this one carries with it the emotional weight of the identity crisis that the Nisei must have experienced during World War II, and their sense of disconnection between themselves, their parents, and the rest of their peers. 

Overall rating: 

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  1. I've heard of the No-No Boy before as I've come across the title before on Amazon... But I have never read the book. I'm not sure I can read this book because of the subject matter. It really saddens me (and also makes me angry) to read that the US government placed Japanese American citizens into internment camps during WWII just because of their heritage and for no other reason.

    I still don't know a lot about the history of the internment of Japanese Americans.

    As an American who grew up here in the US, I found it interesting that the internment of Japanese Americans was never discussed in my history class during junior high school or high school whatsoever.
    I am a college graduate as well, but wasn't a US History major, so I didn't actually learn about Japanese Americans being interned during WWII until I was in my early to mid-twenties. I actually found out about the subject matter from a boyfriend I was dating at the time (who was Japanese American) had told me that his mom's family was in an internment camp during WWII. I don't remember how the topic came up now, but what a way to learn about a subject matter.

    1. I think No-No Boy might make the list of those really heavy stories, particularly because they remind me of the perpetual perception of foreignness that Asian Americans receive(d). I myself felt really indignant on Ichiro's behalf.

      I'm so stunned that they never covered the internment of Japanese Americans at your high school! Better late than never. My experience was that the experiences of minority Americans were largely ignored in history classes except when it came to key events like the internment, Civil Rights movement, etc. My AP US History textbook (which was older, from the late 80s or early 90s) stuffed all the minority groups into their own respective racial paragraph on one of the last pages.