Who owns an important novel after the author is dead? Copyright law ideally protects publishers, writers, and their heirs, but the law has limits —and loopholes.
That issue was recently raised in a copyright dispute between Penguin Classics and the original and current U.S. publishers of No-No Boy, the 1956 novel by John Okada that describes a Japanese American community after the internment of WWII.
The realities of the racism and trauma experienced by Japanese Americans who had been evacuated to concentration camps or imprisoned for refusing the draft were almost forbidden subjects when Okada wrote his novel a decade after the war. After searching in vain for a U.S. publisher, he settled on an English-language publisher in Japan.
No-No Boy got some positive reviews, but surprisingly little attention for such a groundbreaking work. It was the first post-war novel by a Japanese American writer about internment and the government’s double imposition of a loyalty oath and the draft. Okada was ahead of his time. He worked on a second novel over the following years but did not live to see the times finally catch up with him.
In the 1970s, a group of Asian American writers searched used bookstores for their literary heritage and discovered No-No Boy. They championed it and republished it on a shoestring budget as CARP (Combined Asian-American Resources Project). They brought No-No Boy to larger audience and then passed it on to the University of Washington Press.
Forty years later, John Okada’s novel is a classic that has never been out of print and is widely taught in literature and history courses. In this excerpt from John Okada: The Life and Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy, Shawn Wong describes how he and other CARP members quickly recognized the worth of Okada’s novel. Eventually, because of their advocacy, the publishing and academic establishment did too.
No-No Boy is at the very foundation of what I know about Asian American literature. It’s a big part of my reason for becoming a writer and a teacher.
To understand how important it was requires a look at the state of Asian America in the 1960s. There was no Asian American studies. I was the only Asian American writer that I knew in the entire world, but it dawned on me, in 1969 at age 20, that there must be others out there. I started looking, and I found a lot of bad books: Charlie Chan books, Fu Manchu books, tour guides, restaurant guides, cookbooks filled with stereotypes, from non-Chinese writers, or non-Asian writers posing as Asian writers.
My teacher, Kay Boyle, mentioned that one of her creative writing graduate students was Jeffery Chan at San Francisco State. He was also an unpublished writer. I got in touch, and Jeffery said, “Oh, you live in Berkeley, there’s this guy named Frank Chin who lives right down the street from you.” I called Frank and said, “I understand you are a writer and you’ve actually published something. I’d like to meet you.”
And so between the three of us, we started a quest to find other books. We trolled the used bookstores on Telegraph Avenue and found an anthology of Fresno poets; on the cover was a group photo of 20 poets, one of whom looked Asian. It turned out to be Lawson Inada.
And so the four of us, we figured we couldn’t be the only Asian American writers in the world. There must have been someone who came before. We bought all the books we could find—they were only 25 or 50 cents—and No-No Boy was one of them. Being writers, we judge a book by its cover, so we’d look at the cover and go, “Oh, what’s this book about?” Here’s this guy covering his face, in the barbed wire, and the title is “no-no.” And I’m thinking this book is about denying somebody is Asian. But as you start reading it, you realize very quickly it’s a book about Japanese America, and it wasn’t about Japan, and it was such a relief to start reading a book that was expressing a sensibility we were still trying to define as fellow writers. It was one of those books that you don’t believe you’re actually reading it when you’re reading it.
No-No Boy resonated so much with the things I was trying to figure out as a young undergraduate at Berkeley. I was of draft age during the Vietnam War. The book was about making those decisions: Should I go into the army and potentially fight a war I thought was unjust, or should I go to prison?
We wrote to Charles Tuttle, who had published it in Japan. We soon discovered it was published in 1957 in a hardcover edition of 1,500 copies, and 15 years later it was still in print. That meant less than one hundred copies had sold per year. It was $3 in hardcover, so we started buying copies, just to give to people: “Read this book, it’s a really great book.”
We wanted to meet the author. We called Dorothy Okada, John Okada’s widow, and that’s when she told us, “You’re too late. John Okada is dead.” He had died only a few months before—we just missed meeting him—but the four of us wanted to find out more about the person behind the book. The letters Tuttle sent to us revealed that Okada had written a second novel about the Issei [first-generation Japanese Americans].
We went down to Los Angeles to meet Dorothy. We asked, of course, about the novel. She informed us that she had offered the papers to UCLA—all of John Okada’s papers—but UCLA had never heard of him and turned the offer down, so she burned all of his papers. As writers, we were sitting there looking at her, stunned that anybody would burn somebody’s creative work. I don’t think we even knew what to say next.
Republishing the Novel
The four of us thought this book should be republished when it finally went out of print. And we thought, well, the book takes place in Seattle: let’s see if we can get the University of Washington Press to reprint it. We got a letter campaign going in 1975, congressmen and senators, people from the Japanese American community, writing to the University of Washington Press saying this was Japanese America’s only known novel. The Press turned us down, but then made us a curious offer, saying, if you give us $5,000, we’ll publish it for you.
The four of us were not MBA geniuses, but we realized that we could give ourselves $5,000 and publish the book ourselves. We had our own organization called CARP, the Combined Asian-American Resources Project, which we’d just invented. We got the book typeset. We asked our friend Robert Onodera to design the cover, and went to press. We had raised only about half of the money needed to print the book, but we went to press anyway, knowing that when the book came off the press we’d have to pay the balance. It was going to take a couple of thousand dollars, so we contacted the Pacific Citizen newspaper, the national newspaper read by all Japanese Americans at the time, and told them we were publishing this book whose time had come, and we would offer $2 off to anyone who would order it in advance. The Pacific Citizen ran basically a free ad for us, and the orders started pouring in.
The first orders came from only Japanese American people. It was a book that Japanese America had always heard of, but nobody had read it. The community decided that it was time to read it. There were baby boomers like me who were trying to rediscover our personal histories.
The first printing was 3,000 copies, and they were all sold before the book came off the press, so we were able to pay the bill and even go into a second printing thanks to the money we had raised. It was one of the first books to become a staple in the early Asian American studies classes. The Seattle Times’ Mayumi Tsutakawa interviewed me and published a story about how we got turned down by the University of Washington Press.
The next day I get a phone call from the Press saying, “Mr. Wong, we read the article, and we’d like to meet with you.” I walk into the conference room, and there’s the entire staff sitting around the table, about 20 people, and Don Ellegood, the executive director, gets up and says, “ The first thing I’d like to do is apologize on behalf of the Press. This is a book that we should have published. Your story of publishing it and selling it by mail is a stroke of genius, and we want to publish it now.”
I was so mad! I had to personally package and mail out every one of those books myself, not to mention haul up the second printing from the Bay Area. So I go on this little lecture about how there were other books in Asian American literature that needed to be reprinted, and why don’t you reprint some of those? And the interesting thing is, they ask, “What are the titles?” So I start mentioning Yokohama, California by Toshio Mori, Eat a Bowl of Tea by Louis Chu, and so on. And the UW Press started publishing them, faithfully, one after the other. Years later I finally said to them, “OK, you can have No-No Boy. We’re out of the publishing business.”
And the final episode of the story is that the book has sold its 150,000th copy at the University of Washington Press. Its time had definitely come.
This excerpt from “Republishing and Teaching No-No Boy” by Shawn Wong, from John Okada: The Life and Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy, edited by Frank Abe, Greg Robinson, and Floyd Cheung, appears by permission of the publisher, University of Washington Press (2018).
Shawn Wong is author of the novels “Homebase” and “American Knees,” and co-editor of “Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers” and “The Big Aiiieeeee!” He is a professor of English at the University of Washington.