New & Notable: No-No Boy

No-No Boy
By John Okada
Seattle: University of Washington Press, c1981, c1976
PS3565.K33N6 1981

From Professor Lorraine Bannai:
After they had been removed from their West Coast homes and left all they had built and after they found themselves incarcerated in desolate camps, the over 110,000 Japanese Americans interned during World War II were subject to a further indignity.  Early in 1943, they were handed questionnaires.  One of the questions asked if they were willing to serve in the U.S. armed forces; another asked them to swear their loyalty to the United States.  The questions caused confusion and, in some, resentment.

Ichiro Yamada answered both questions “No” and became one of the “No-No Boys,” sentenced to a prison term and made an outcast in his own community.  John Okada’s landmark book explores the complex and mixed reactions that Japanese Americans had to the internment.  Most felt that they could prove their loyalty through their cooperation and by fighting for their country.  Some said they would fight if freed.  Some could not swear allegiance to a country that had interned them.  Ichiro paid dearly for the answers he gave and struggled with the belief that he had done the wrong thing.

I think that this book, which follows Ichiro’s post-war life in Seattle, is important because of its more nuanced view of the Japanese American community’s conflicted responses to wartime incarceration.  But, more importantly, the book’s importance derives from the fact that John Okada wrote this book in 1957 – a Japanese American writing about Japanese Americans long before there was a body of work that one could call Asian American literature.  Mr. Okada passed away at 47, never knowing that he paved the way for others to speak of the dark chapter that was the internment. (more…)


New & Notable: Song of Solomon

Song of Solomon
By Toni Morrison
New York: Vintage International, c2004
PS3563.O8749.S6 2004

From Professor Robert Chang:

Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon begins with a suicide.  It’s a tough way for a book to begin, but then Toni Morrison does not shy away from tough subjects.  The opening suicide invokes the myth of flying Africans.  In one traditional version, an African witch doctor uses his power to aid field slaves, weak from work and the heat, to raise their arms and fly back to Africa.  Escape here is communal.

A modern update of this myth, Song of Solomon opens up space for a rich discussion of gender dynamics in African American communities.  In Morrison’s version, repeated in various ways throughout her book, African American men fly away, leaving their families and communities behind.  Escape in Song of Solomon is individual rather than communal.

I find additional lessons in Song of Solomon.  Flying away serves as a metaphor for upward mobility.  For individuals, as we progress ever upward, what happens to our (former) families and communities?  Will we fly away by ourselves or will we work to bring along our communities.  With regard to groups, as Asian Americans progress, will we remember our broader racial communities?  For those of us who are better able to “pass” as American through our accents and education, will we remember our brothers and sisters?  Will we remember the recent immigrants and those waiting on the other side of the border?

Song of Solomon is one of my favorite books. (more…)