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Friday, April 20, 2012

The No-No Boy and Anxiety of Representation


I found The No-No Boy on   K.P. Kollenborn's Blog in her entry listing other books dealing with Japanese American internment after I had read her novel Eyes Behind Belligerence.  Since Eyes Behind Belligerence and No-No Boy had protagonists dealing with being Japanese American during and after World War II, it seemed natural to compare them.  Both Kollenborn’s Jim Yoshimura and Okada’s Ichiro Yamada are what was known as “No-No Boys”.  This means that after they had been interned, they refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States, and they refused to serve in the American military during WWII.  Yet these characters could not be less alike in their response to their experiences.  Jim never doubted that he had made the correct decision.  Ichiro was completely angst-ridden, and continually referred to his “mistake”. 

A reader might ask who is more typical of “No-No Boys”, but I don’t believe that characters in a novel can or should be considered representative of an entire group.  If an author is successful in creating characters that resemble actual human beings, then they are unique individuals that represent no one but themselves.  If some readers respond to a character as being true to their own experiences, there may still be other readers who don’t identify with the character. 

For a writer, the idea that a novel speaks for a particular community can inhibit expression.  I will call this anxiety of representation.  If the author is not a member of the group that is the subject of the work, he or she may wonder if it’s possible to reflect what the writer has never experienced.   K.P. Kollenbern is not Japanese American.  John Okada was not a “No-No Boy”.  I am certain that there are many who believe that only someone who has actually been in the protagonist’s shoes can authentically re-create what that character endured. Yet it’s important to point out that anxiety of representation is a much more painful issue for members of the group.  If both the authors of these novels had been Japanese American “No-No Boys”, their work could still be branded as having been false to the experience of “No-No Boys” in some respect.   They would then be ostracized from their own community.  This can happen any time an author writes about any group.  If anxiety of representation overcomes a writer, they might never complete or publish their work.  There may be no fiction dealing with members of a particular community at all.  When Frank Chin says in his Afterword to No-No Boy that he didn’t want the responsibility of being the first Asian-American author, his concern is anxiety of representation.  No-No Boy was the first Asian American novel, but it was also John Okada’s only published work.  It seems to me that anxiety of representation could have been a major factor in John Okada’s failure to complete his second novel during his lifetime. I would like to see this issue vanish from literary discourse.  Instead of focusing on the single truest representation of a group, we should consider enriching literature by celebrating a diversity of perspectives.

This is why I think that a better question for a reader to ask is why Jim Yoshimura and Ichiro Yamada had such disparate responses.  This question can be answered by examining these characters’ backgrounds as they are portrayed in their respective novels.

In Eyes Behind Belligerence Jim Yoshimura’s father was a respected leader in his community.  This could explain his son’s moral certainty and his willingness to challenge the American status quo.  It’s also true that Jim isn’t portrayed as introspective.  He doesn’t second guess his decisions.  I personally tend to prefer characters who display some degree of inner conflict--especially when they have made decisions that could have unpredictable ramifications.  I usually dislike characters that are too certain. 

On the other hand, it is possible for angst to become so overwhelming that the character is unable to make choices.   He suffers from a paralysis of will.  Ichiro Yamada in No-No Boy exhibits this sort of crippling anxiety.  As an extremely introspective character, Ichiro is very aware that his dysfunctional family is the root of his inability to trust his own capacity to decide anything.  He therefore believes that being a “No-No Boy” was a mistake.  It makes him feel un-American.  It doesn’t occur to him that it could be an American’s patriotic duty to stand in opposition to the oppression of internment.  He accepts the judgment of bigots as valid.  Although I had tremendous compassion for Ichiro, I would have liked to have seen a clearer indication of personal growth toward a sustainable future for him. 

Jim and Ichiro are on opposite sides of a spectrum of behavior.  I don’t think that either should be regarded as typical.  They can be considered portraits of individuals in a time of a crisis ably portrayed by their authors. 


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