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Conversations: John Okada’s “No-No Boy”

Posted by litdaily on December 21, 2010

No-No Boy and the Debates around Asian American Literature

SM: I was intrigued by your central question in the blog-post “Asian American Literature”: What are the terms of inclusion for Asian American literature to be a part of the category of American literature? Since you have identified assimilation as a literary theme critical to this inclusion, and this past semester we both taught John Okada’s novel No-No Boy which explores the question of assimilation, I wanted to discuss how Okada’s novel can help us the define the contours of the relation between Asian American and American literatures. The novel is built around the historical events of Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 that resulted in the evacuation of Japanese Americans on the West Coast and their subsequent confinement in internment camps.

I was pleasantly surprised that most of my students this semester had at least heard about Japanese American internment, whereas in the past any mention of internment was just met with blank stares. So how do we begin discussing inclusion of Asian American literature within American literature when significant events of Asian American history have been erased from the national memory?

SD: This question of assimilation and the inclusion of Asian American literature within the American canon is a tricky one.  Okada’s No-No Boy didn’t register with my students in any significant way – they thought the protagonist was incessantly “whiny” and “selfish” and they couldn’t see his personal struggles as social ones.  The issues of belonging, citizenship, and racialized identity – all tropes of assimilation – seemed outdated to their very experience of being American. Aside from these basic tropes, many felt that Japanese internment was a political anomaly of the past…until I reminded them of post 9/11 detention centers and the Patriot Act.

In terms of national memory, No-No Boy offers the perfect text that forces readers to critically investigate the relationship between nation and the act of remembering.  Okada’s “whiny” protagonist is one that internalizes a fraught complex of emotions that deals with remembering the United States’ imposition of rules for its citizens, non-citizens, and Others.

SM: The students find Ichiro a “whiny” protagonist because their other readings in American literature lead them to expect the central character to surmount obstacles after an epiphany and expect the protagonist’s conflict to be resolved in some way. But Okada’s novel never allows Ichiro much movement or a complete resolution. In her book Immigrant Acts, Lisa Lowe refers to No-No Boy as “antidevelopmental in the sense that its condensed, almost static portrait that takes place within the small period of several weeks…” (50). The novel is “antidevelopmental” because it challenges the dominant story that after progressing through various stages of cultural accommodation and adaptation, racial minorities can finally be assimilated into America. The dominant narrative states that all racial minorities and immigrants can become “American,” if they try hard enough or if they “give up their culture.” No-No Boy, on the other hand, suggests that such assimilation is impossible as it portrays that a similar fate awaits both Japanese American no-no boys and the veterans who fought in the American army. For example, Ichiro’s friend Kenji, who fought in the American army, explains the violence of Japanese American war veterans toward no-no boys, such as Ichiro, as follows:

The way I see it, they pick on you because they’re vulnerable. They think just because they went and packed a rifle they’re different but they aren’t and they know it. They are still Japs….The guys who make it tough on you probably do so out of a misbegotten idea that maybe you’re to blame because the good that they thought they were doing by getting killed and shot up doesn’t amount to a pot of beans (Okada 163).

Kenji’s words assert that fighting in the American army does not do much to change the status of Japanese Americans as racialized outsiders, who are always considered inassimilable and “forever foreigners.” For Lowe, the value of No-No Boy and Asian American literature lies in its power to critique the dominant story of assimilation, which is fed to us by all media and literature till we believe it as a self-evident truth of being American, and to offer an alternative account of American history (26). Does inclusion of Asian American literature in American literature or literary canon diffuse the power of this critique?

Your point of connection between Japanese internment and post-9/11 America is significant. Do you think No-No Boy is relevant in today’s world?

SD: Your analysis of No-No Boy and its critique of the dominant narrative is extremely accurate and pertinent to Asian American literature’s inclusion in the American literary canon. The textual tension that exists between Asian/American and American literature seems to be played out institutionally as well. Just as Lisa Lowe posits the contradiction of Asians as aliens who are linguistically and culturally outsiders that occupy a marginal place within the labor markets of the U.S., the American literary canon will always see Asian American literature ambivalently – as outside and inside American literary production.

For this reason, we should ask ourselves: has the status of Asian American literature changed since the publication and reception of No-No Boy? In my opinion, it has changed but shifted so that the overt racism that makes assimilation impossible for Ichiro has become insidious.  Similarly, the production and inclusion of such texts have also become insidious, from malignant racism to benign classifications that continually set Asian American literature apart. As far as I am concerned, there’s still a monstrous gap between “American” and “Other” (Immigrant, Third World, Postcolonial, Diasporic, Asian, Minority).

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