No-No Boy: A Novel by John Okada (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014; originally published in 1957. 282 pp)

John Okada was born in Seattle in 1923. He served in the U.S. Army in World War II, attended the University of Washington and Columbia University, and died of a heart attack at the age of 47. No-No Boy is his only published novel.

Who Wore It Best?

There’s an age-old debate between those that did it first and those that mastered it. Often, the innovator lacks the technical skills of the master, but the master hasn’t done something original, he or she just has done it better.

So, when handing out a superlative, how should the judge dictate between that which is original and that which is technically accomplished? I often think about these concepts when debate arises around the greatest guitar player.

For some, the greatest guitar player is the innovator. Nobody made sounds like Jimi Hendrix before he entered the scene. Likewise, nobody had the speed of Van Halen before his guitar tap-fest graced the wax ridges of vinyl.

But those that entered the scene later improved the craft. Stevie Ray Vaughn plays Hendrix tunes better than Hendrix did. John Petrucci shreds faster than Van Halen ever could. So, who’s the best?

Originality and the Value of Craft

As I consider John Okada’s single submission to the literary world, No-No Boy, I find myself caught between the importance of originality and the value of craft.

Many consider No-No Boy the first Japanese American novel, and its concepts tackle the difficult issues of internment during World War II and its aftermath, specifically its influence on the psyche of the Japanese American experience.

In this way, No-No Boy is an important work. But it’s not the greatest example of writing as a craft.

The Life of Ichiro

No-No Boy follows Ichiro, a Seattle Native and titular “No-No Boy,” one of the Japanese Americans who answered “no” to both serving in the United States military and swearing allegiance to the United States.

The story begins as Ichiro returns from his internment, seeing the place he calls home in a new light. The War has changed everyone—white people view Japanese Americans as secondary, that their Americanness is in doubt in some way.

“I wish with all my heart that I were Japanese or that I were American. I am neither and I blame you and I blame myself and I blame the world which is made up of many countries which fight with each other and kill and hate and destroy but not enough, so that they must kill and hate and destroy again and again and again” (17).

But even more, Japanese Americans are split. And Ichiro’s family illustrate this divide perfectly. Ichiro’s father continues to sell groceries at his locally owned story, doing his best to forget what has happened. He believes keeping his head down and doing hard work will make up for the biases of others.

At the other end, Ichiro’s mother lives in denial. She believes Japan has won the war and that the United States hides this fact out of pride and fear of riots. In her mind, a boat from Japan will arrive any day and take her family back to their ancestral lands. Ichiro feels as if his mother’s “otherness” is the cause of the rift in his soul.

“It was her way of saying that she had made him what he was and that the thing in him which made him say no to the judge and go to prison for two years was the growth of a seed planted by the mother tree and that she was the mother who had put this thing in her son and that everything that had been done and said was exactly as it should have been and that that was what made him her son because no other would have made her feel the pride that was in her breast” (12).

And finally, Ichiro’s brother feels shame for his parents, and more specifically, the decision his brother made. As such, he enlists in the military to counteract the actions of his family.

Malaise

Within the context, Ichiro feels unrooted. As he wanders through the neighborhoods of his youth, he encounters old friends with a variety of stories from the last few years. Some chose Ichiro’s path, but many more decided to serve instead, with death or dismemberment as a result.

In particular, one friend, Kenji, lives on borrowed time from a war injury, but encourages Ichiro to live his best life anyway.

But, Ichiro’s past makes forward momentum and impossible task. He receives a few job offers but doesn’t feel deserving to accept such offers. He encounters the advances of a young woman, who he particularly fancies. But, he doesn’t believe he should be with her.

In this way, Okada unearths the specificity of the Japanese American experience, where being Japanese no longer applies, but being American doesn’t really count either. Many people chose “no” and the reasons vary. Some didn’t want to fight against family. Some didn’t believe in war at all. Others just didn’t like the way they were treated and wanted to be defiant.

“It’s because we’re American and because we’re Japanese and sometimes the two don’t mix. It’s all right to be German and American or Italian and American or Russian and American but, as things turned out, it wasn’t all right to be Japanese and American. You had to be one or the other” (84).

No matter the reason, Okada outlines the purgatory many people felt and shines a light on some of America’s worst impulses. And these reasons make No-No Boy important reading.

Unfortunately, I wouldn’t classify Okada’s prose as groundbreaking or all that riveting. At times, he switches characters without much structural reason and he doesn’t paint the most evocative pictures. But, that’s ok. Jimi Hendrix doesn’t need to be Stevie Ray Vaughn to be important. And any of Okada’s technical writing skills don’t detract from the importance of his only novel.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5

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