Critical Overview

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When No-No Boy was published by mainstream publisher Charles E. Tuttle in 1957, it was largely ignored by both the literary establishment and the Japanese American community. The latter had yet to come to grips with the Japanese American experience of internment during World War II and the controversial issues of racial and national identity that are at the core of the novel. At the time of Okada’s death, fourteen years later, some of the fifteen hundred copies printed remained unsold. However, in the 1970s, the novel was rediscovered by a group of Asian American writers, including Jeffrey Paul Chan, Frank Chin, David Ishii, and Lawson Fusao Inada. They realized that No-No Boy was an important milestone in Asian American literature, as well as a powerful novel in its own right. Thanks to the work of the Combined Asian American Research Project, No-No Boy was reprinted in 1976 and quickly acquired wide readership and critical acclaim. Inada, writing in 1976, calls No-No Boy “a great and lasting work of art. It is a living force among us. And it is just one of the many beautiful and courageous stories of the continuing story of what we know as Asian-America.” Over the following thirty years, the novel continued to attract the attention of scholars. In “To Belong or Not to Belong: The Liminality of John Okada’s No-No Boy,” William Yeh comments on the “enduring relevance of Okada’s work, an honest and uncompromising, occasionally didactic and melodramatic, examination of the aftereffects of the World War II draft resistance by Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans).” Yeh analyzes both the novel itself and the reception it received in terms of “liminality, or ‘betweenness,’” in the sense of standing not fully in either American or Japanese culture. The relationship between Ichiro and his mother has attracted interest from psychoanalytic critics. Bryn Gribben, in “The Mother That Won’t Reflect Back: Situating Psychoanalysis and the Japanese Mother in No-No Boy,” points out that many of the elements in No-No Boy can be explained in terms of psychoanalysis:

the controlling mother, her refusal to look into a mirror with her son and face their separateness, and her death by water all signify, in traditional Western psychoanalysis, a psychosexually rooted crisis in masculine identity formation, based on separation and differentiation from the mother.

Okada’s work is well received at long last though regrettably years after his death.

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