“Tense” as in Anger or “Tense” as in Grammar?: Questions of Tense in Relation to Identity in John Okada’s No-No Boy

 

Road Sign with “Past” and “Present” Grammar Tenses

Huh, I thought this novel was written in third person narration? Wait, why are we now switching back and forth between past and present tense? When reading John Okada’s No-No Boy (1957), close readers have to do several double takes to notice the subtle changes Okada slips into his work. Revolving around Ichiro Yamada, a Japanese-American who is adjusting back to life in Seattle after two years in prison, No-No Boy occurs after the Japanese bombings of Pearl Harbor. Ichiro responds “no” twice to a US survey asking him to swear allegiance to the United States, making him a “no-no boy.” An extensive paragraph, spanning all of page 16 and half of the next, begins with a shift from third person narration to first person point of view without a stylistic or punctuational distinction noting this change in perspective. However, it is the constant shift from past to present tense that develops Ichiro’s stream of consciousness, a narrative style emerging in response to a conversation Ichiro has with his mother regarding identity and their connection to Japan, a concept Ichiro is constantly contemplating after his double “no” declaration.

Japanese and American Flags

After establishing a change in point of view, Okada transitions into a change in tense to distinguish Ichiro’s conflicting identity. When describing his life and heritage before World War II, Ichiro uses the past tense. He positively proclaims, “we were Japanese with Japanese feelings and Japanese pride and Japanese thoughts because it was all right then to be Japanese” (Okada 16).  In the past, Ichiro felt a sense of “pride” in relation to his heritage. He says his people were allowed to “think all the things that Japanese do even if we lived in America” (Okada 16). During this time, Ichiro accepted his heritage because it was nothing to be ashamed of. Even though his family lived in a country different from their ancestry, it was not an attribute that needed to be hidden as Japan was not seen as an immediate threat during this time.

Further along in the paragraph, Okada continues to use the past tense; but, Ichiro’s thoughts become sullen as he acknowledges a shift that occurs as the narrative moves closer to the events of Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, Ichiro states, “I was only half Japanese” in reference to his upbringing in America (Okada 16). A divide between cultures and identities arises in this moment. On one hand, Ichiro was raised “among Americans in American streets and houses” and it is only a matter of time before he embraced this side of himself (Okada 16). However, his connection to his mother and her love for Japan becomes a setback Ichiro must confront. Before, Ichiro never had to acknowledge these conflicting aspects of his identity considering being Japanese was all he ever knew.

Yet, it is the transition into the present tense that solidifies Ichiro’s lack of a place in society. He asserts, “I am not your son and I am not Japanese and I am not American” (Okada 16). The reader first hears Ichiro’s first person narration following a conversation with his mother. In spite of his inability to establish an identity, once again Ichiro turns his rage towards his mother. He declares, “I blame you and I blame myself and I blame the world” (Okada 17). While he cannot pinpoint one culture to identity with, Ichiro has no problem identifying his feeling of hatred towards a variety of sources. Having these feelings in the present tense shows the ongoing presence of anger even when the war is over. This is a feeling still inherent in many Japanese Americans today, which Okada identifies through Ichiro.

Identity Crisis, featuring a concerned, questioning tomato.

No matter how far away one moves from the events of Pearl Harbor, it does not make confronting the realities of the treatment of Japanese any easier. Whether one confronts this issue from the past or present tense, Ichiro grapples with both, perhaps anger is the only definitive answer when faced with the absurd challenge of having to choose an identity. Ichiro is forced to make a choice. In his decision to say “no,” Ichiro severs a part of his past identity and sacrifices a potential future.  In the present, Ichiro has to live with the consequences of his decision. B2. 

Works Cited

Okada, John. No-No Boy. University of Washington Press, 2014.

Blog Post #2: No-No Brakes

You don’t need a period to end a sentence.

Well, alright, technically you do. But in the reality of the literary world, there are many other devices that can be used to simulate the use of a period without actually using one. For example, D. H. Lawrence’s work “The Elephant Is Slow To Mate” uses numerous line and stanza breaks to force the reader’s eye to slow, similar to the titular elephant’s mating speed.

A Japanese bullet train zooms over a bridge.

 

John Okada’s No-No Boy, on the other hand, reads like a Japanese bullet train.

<— Click on it.

 

But it does so with a purpose. Rather than speeding along to compensate for having nothing interesting to say, Okada establishes this frenzied pace to both help the reader insert themselves into the mind of main character Ichiro Yamada and to characterize him as a neurotic person who exhausts himself for every moment he spends inside his own head.

One of the best examples of this pacing technique in motion (no pun intended) is a section of the novel’s third chapter, where Yamada thinks over his experiences with the American educational system:

“To be a student in America studying engineering was a beautiful life. Where was the slide rule, he asked himself, where was the shaft of exacting and thrilling discovery when I had needed it most? If only I had pictured it and felt it in my hands, I might well have made the right decision, for the seeing and feeling of it would have pushed out the bitterness with the greenness of the grass on campus and the hardness of the chairs in the airy classrooms with the blackboards stretched wall-to-wall behind the professor, and the books and the sandwiches and the bus rides coming and going.”

(Okada 49)

Whew. Take a deep breath. Now, I’ve got a few questions for you.

  1. Did you notice the perspective shift?

That’s the most immediate goal of this rapid-acceleration flow of consciousness style:  This quickly-paced design refuses to allow the reader enough time to understand they’re being shoved into Yamada’s mind. The shift occurs during the above quote’s second sentence, where Okada writes, “…he asked himself, where was the shaft of exacting and thrilling discovery when I had needed it most” (Okada 49, My Bolding).  But there’s no time to halt and question perspectives, because, by the next sentence, the reader is blitzing through Yamada’s mental stream at the same rate as the character himself.

2. Did you like that long sentence? Do you want to read more of them?

These ‘dips into Yamada’s mind’ happen at multiple points during the novel, and serve to aid in his characterization. Hyper-extended lines like these can be exhausting, so Okada spaces them out to make the read more enjoyable. But there’s a catch: Yamada doesn’t get these breaks from his own mind. He’s in there 24/7, and every time we’re forced to join him, we get a brief reminder of how exhausting his thought process is. By imagining the numerous instances of these worry-rants and regret-rants Yamada pushes upon himself, the character’s harsh reactions to certain actions by other characters become more understandable.

By forcing the reader into Yamada’s mind, Okada places them in a position to understand the emotional exhaustion that often results in aggressive reactions towards those around him. Since Yamada’s struggle is very much internal, this process is nearly invisible to other characters, who see Yamada only as a high-strung individual. This further contributes to a reader’s ability to associate themselves with the character and to understand the disconnect between the reality of his emotions and how they are perceived by the outside world.

Works Cited

Lawrence, D. H. “The Elephant Is Slow to Mate.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 4 Sept. 2018, www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/elephant-slow-mate.

Okada, John. No-No Boy. University of Washington Press, 2014.

Blog Prompt #2: John Okada’s No-No Boy

Blog Post #2 Due: Wed 9/19, 8:30am // Comment #2 Due: Wed 9/19, 11:59pm

Cover of John Okada's novel, No-No BoyIntroduce and describe one specific aspect of the novel’s point of view / narrative style (from chapters 1-3) that you find especially effective or powerful. Provide a quote that illustrates this aspect of the text and offer a detailed close reading that illuminates why it is effective / powerful.

Doing Their Part

Aerial View of the Twin Towers

I was four years old when the twin towers fell. I remember sitting on the couch in my TV room watching my father cry while he watched the newscasters cry. He lost a good friend in the attack. He’d get depressed in the weeks that followed, which made me sad, which made him want to cheer me up, which cheered him up. I didn’t know it, but I was doing my part.

Suheir Hammad doesn’t tell the reader how old she was or where she was in First Writing Since, a poem recounting her thoughts and emotions during the days following the 9/11 attacks. But Hammad does discreetly talk about her ‘part’, which comes to her in the first stanza of the fifth section. This stanza uses the repetition of the phrase “one more person” on its first and third lines to convey a tone of anger and frustration from Hammad, and suggests her role is to contain that anger.

Although it is not written in the text, the “one more person” lines easily complete themselves in the mind of the reader with, ‘and i swear i’ll…’, or a similar declaration. This aura of anger is aided by line 5.2, which replaces “person” with “motherfucker” when the individual in question expresses doubt of Hammad’s family’s integrity.

Used in this way, the phrase “one more person” typically implies that the speaker is daring the offenders to continue and wanting an excuse to release their anger. However, this stanza’s structure suggests the opposite. The repetition of “one more person” doesn’t actually begin until line 5.3; lines 5.1 and 5.2 use the phrases “one more person” and “one more motherfucker” respectively, which conveys an escalation of aggression. The de-escalation back to “one more person”, a phrase said twice in 5.3, suggests that Hammad fights to keep her anger at bay rather than searching for an excuse to release it.

This contradicts her statement in line 5.4, where she denies that she represents a people. Despite this statement, her actions and work to restrain her anger suggest she understands that, at this moment, she does represent a people. She performs great emotional labor to withstand these accusations, understanding that a harsh reaction on her part would reflect badly on her and anyone who looks anything like her.

A woman holds the Palestinian flag above her head.

She was taking the heat so her brothers didn’t have to. She was doing her part.

Works Cited

Hammad, Suheir. “First Writing Since.” In Motion Magazine , 7 Nov. 2001, www.inmotionmagazine.com/ac/shammad.html.

B1

No Words and No Poetry in a Poem Made of Words

I do not remember 9/11. I was two years old when it happened, and I have no memory of the event itself. For me, 9/11 was not an outstanding moment in time, but an event that indirectly shaped my life through the culture of my country.

Hammad reading First Writing Since

In her poem “First Writing Since,” Suheir Hammad creates a series of contradictions between an expectation and reality, drawing from the real world political and social ironies after the 9/11 attacks. Opening the poem by immediately introducing irony to the text, she arises a contrast between the stated narrative and the situation actuality. Hammad’s poem begins “1. there have been no words. / i have not written one word / no poetry in the ashes south of canal street. / no prose in the refrigerated trucks driving debris and dna. / not one word” (Hammad 1). Hammad’s first statement denies the existence of words, but by the sheer nature of the medium, her poem consists entirely of words. In addition to the denial of a presence of words, Hammad also denies the presence of poetry and prose. By indicating the absence of these forms of writing, she surfaces a contrast between the lack of meaningful writing and the presence of her work, a piece of reflection. This dissonance that comes from denying an easily observable fact creates an irony, and therefore establishes a disconnect between presented statements and the truth of the matter.

The effect of acknowledging a contrast between words and reality surfaces throughout the poem. Hammad references a vilification of the Middle East from the public and political authorities, citing the assumptions people make about her due to her race and family. To disrupt those assumptions, however, she constantly questions their validity and consequences, referencing the victims of bombing strikes and the presence of prejudice in America (Hammad 2-3). Hammad’s suggestion of the disconnect between a stated narrative and the realities behind it.

Near the end of the poem, Hammad writes “there is no poetry in this. there are causes and effects. there are / symbols and ideologies. mad conspiracy here, and information we will / never know” (Hammad 4). Again denying the poetry in the subject she has quite literally written a poem about, Hammad brings up a reminder of the implicit contrast between words and the truth behind them, noting the symbols, ideologies, conspiracy, and information that shape these contradictions.

9/11 Memorial Wall. "No day shall erase you from the memory of time -Virgil"

Hammad, Suheir. “First Writing Since.” Motion Magazine, 2001.

Suffering is Uncomfortable. Word.

 

While suffering is a universal human experience, it is somehow difficult to verbally sympathize with others, especially strangers. Expressing sorrow is often uncomfortable and embarrassing. “First Writing Since” by Suheir Hammad utilizes the poetic device of colloquialism to articulate the human tendency to minimize and belittle pain when dealing with these experiences.

In stanza sixteen, Hammad uses colloquialisms and casual language that juxtapose the tone of the rest of the poem, adding a comedic effect. The narrator details an interaction with a “big white woman” who is compassionate and accepting toward her, an Arab American navigating a post-9/11 world. It initially feels like a moment of genuine connection that the narrator is searching for. The woman is able to offer the narrator physical comfort; she gives an embrace “the kind only people with the warmth of flesh can offer,” (Hammad 2). Immediately after, however, when the narrator laments that she is an Arab in America with brothers in the navy, the exchange quickly turns darkly humorous. All the white woman can manage to say is “wow, you got double trouble.” Using the casual slang term “double trouble” is extremely minimizing, but also creates a feeling of awkwardness between them. The narrator’s unexpected reply of the colloquialism “word” feels distinctive from  her voice in the rest of the poem.

The use of colloquialisms to create an unsettling effect on the tone of the poem reveals the struggle to casually communicate about trauma, suffering, and loss in everyday situations effectively with strangers. While the women seems to be sympathetic, and is able to offer the narrator physical comfort, she cannot comfortably verbally express her compassion. This also reflects their different identities, and how the narrator is grappling with being both Arab and American. This white woman is presumably not dealing with these struggles, making her only able to relate on a surface level. The narrator is forced to adhere to a different manner of speaking to relate to this woman by saying “word,” and to soften her outburst of emotion. 

The way these colloquialisms create a feeling of struggling to articulate is ironic in an eloquent poem about 9/11. However, this exchange reflects how these unhinged emotions are expressed outside of art. While Hammad says that there is “no poetry in this. there are causes and effects,” this exchange reminds readers how difficult it is to express these negative thoughts outside of this medium, (Hammad 4). B1.

Works Cited

Hammad, Suheir. “First Time Since.” In Motion Magazine. 7 November 2001.

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You: The Use of Anaphora in Suheir Hammad’s “First Writing Since”

“Thank You” in several languages.

       When was the last time you said thank you for something you usually take for granted? As a response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Suheir Hammad gives “plenty of thank yous” in her poem, “First Writing Since” (33). Using anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a sentence, Hammad appeals to her reader’s emotions by stating that even in the hardest of times, it is important to be thankful for occurrences that may otherwise be overlooked.

       Through the repetition of “thank you” in the eighth stanza, Hammad encourages her reader to appreciate occurrences in life that may seem mundane or infuriating in the moment, but may actually end up saving one’s life. The use of anaphora emphasizes that there are a number of moments to be thankful for, even in a time as grim as September 11th. For example, Hammad states, “thank you for my lazy procrastinating late ass” (34). Typically traits such as “procrastinating” and being “lazy” and “late” are associated with negative connotations. However, had Hammad’s faults not been factors, she would have been on her “daily train ride into the world trade center” (31-32). Additionally, Hammad appeals to the reader’s emotions by saying, “thank you… rude nyer who stole my cab” (36-37). It is easy to think of an instance in which you have been late and it feels as if the world simply does not want you to make it on time. In any other instance, this is an irritating feeling. Yet, by starting her sentence with “thank you,” Hammad asks her reader to take a step back and recognize the implications of what would have happened had she successfully gotten a “cab going downtown” (37). She concludes this stanza with, “thank you for my legs, my eyes, my life” (38). This final, rather general, statement especially makes her reader recognize aspects taken for granted. Most days, many do not think about their legs, or the impact they have on daily occurrences. This use of anaphora is significant because September 11th made New Yorkers, Arabs, and everyone in-between realize the consequences and impact one day can make on the rest of their lives.

Rapunzel, the princess from Disney’s film Tangled, taking a deep breath.

       Admitting you are wrong and acknowledging the necessity of negative attributes as a key concept to success, and in this case survival, is a hard idea to come to terms with. Using anaphora, not only does Hammad acknowledge her faults, she actually says “thank you” and admits their importance. Recognizing situations that may seem undesirable and putting them in the context of appreciation allows Hammad’s reader to recognize that often small situations can have the biggest impact. It is important to take a deep breath when times get hard, as oftentimes there is a lot worse that could have happened. B1.

 

Works Cited

“Anaphora.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.meriam-webster.com/dictionary/anaphora.

Hammad, Suheir. “First Writing Since.” In Motion Magazine, 7 Nov. 2001.

 

Blog Prompt #1: Suheir Hammad’s “First Writing Since”

Blog Post #1 Due: Wed 9/12, 8:30am // Comment #1 Due: Wed 9/12, 11:59pm

Suheir Hammad

Suheir Hammad

Provide a detailed close reading of one specific literary device from Suheir Hammad’s poem, “First Writing Since,” that you find especially compelling. Given that this is a long poem, select a specific and focused literary device from a particular stanza. Use the steps detailed below to develop a fluid and cohesive argument about the significance of this literary device within the selected section of the text.

Introduce (name/describe) the literary device you plan to analyze and frame a cohesive quote illustrating the selected literary device. Remember to provide enough context to situate your reader within the relevant section of the text.

Describe what specific effects this device produces – remember, you will need to re-quote / reference specific portions of the text in this portion of your close reading.

Explain how the device produce these effects – again, re-quote / reference the text as needed to illustrate your claims.

Explain why these effects are significant to your understanding of the poem.