Ethnic Lit: A Hot Topic & License to Bore

It’s hot. It’s important. It focuses too much on exotic food. It’s a bore. It’s a mean of exploitation.

All of these phrases are used to describe one thing in Nam Le’s “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice”: ethnic literature. In this short story, protagonist Nam struggles with reconnecting with his abusive father and with writing & submitting a story in three days. Because Nam and his father are refugees of the Vietnam War, Nam is torn over whether or not he should write a story about his personal experiences and background. While Nam understands the importance of telling a personal story, he does not want to confront his family’s past or fall into the expected category of “ethnic writers.” As Nam mulls over these problems, thoughts of contrasting perspectives and various pieces of advice from literary agents, colleagues, and friends fill his head, highlighting the juxtaposition of ethnic literature’s roles in the story.

Though Nam’s thoughts are fictional, his issues with ethnic literature, identity, and categorization are grounded in reality. Vietnamese American authors, like Nam, have struggled with separating their writings from the Vietnam War. As noted by Daniel Y. Kim and Viet Thanh Nguyen in “The Literature of the Korean and Vietnam Wars,” Vietnamese Americans “express deep ambivalence about writing a literature that is marked so indelibly by war, colonialism, racism, and the experiences of being exiles, refugees, and immigrants…Vietnamese Americans tend to be visible so long as they speak of [the war] and invisible when they speak of other matters” (Kim & Nguyen 66 – 67). Thus, Vietnamese American writers find it difficult to assert their own independence in the writing world since most people expect (and perhaps wish) for their pieces to be about their Vietnamese backgrounds and experiences with the war and refugee crisis that followed.

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The categorization of Vietnamese American authors as a race of people whose works are only worthy if they write about the war creates an identity that Nam greatly dislikes. This racial categorization is represented in the story when two literary agents talk to Nam: “‘You have to ask yourself, what makes me stand out?’ She tagteamed to her colleague, who answered slowly as through intoning a mantra, ‘Your background and life experience‘” (Le 9). The fact that the words “background” and “life experience” are italicized demonstrates how much these terms stand out to Nam and how the two literary agents like to emphasize them. Additionally, the choice to use the word “mantra” implies how often the literary agents have pitched this idea to potential ethnic writers, highlighting the racial categorization present in Le’s story.

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But not all of the people in Nam’s life implore him to focus on his racial identity when writing. A drunk friend rants about how “it’s a license to bore” (Le 9) because people of a certain culture, ethnicity, nationality, etc. are constantly writing about their own background, creating predictable stories filled with characters who are “always flat, generic” (Le 9). Although the very same friend later encourages Nam to “totally exploit the Vietnamese thing” (Le 10), his argument on categorization and predictability bring attention to the juxtaposition of ethnic literature. The comparing and contrasting of the perspectives, pros, and cons of ethnic literature help paint a larger picture: we are able to see how ethnic literature is important because it helps shed light on the experiences of minority communities but at the same time, puts ethnic people in a box of assumptions, such as Vietnamese Americans being expected to write about the Vietnam War. Thus, the juxtaposition of ethnic literature highlights the assumptions that Vietnamese American writers must combat and makes us readers take into consideration how a person’s culture, race, or nationality does not automatically guarantee the production of a story based on these factors.

B4

Works Cited

Kim, Daniel Y. and Viet Thanh Nguyen. “The Literature of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.” The Cambridge Companion to Asian American Literature, edited by Crystal Parikh and Daniel Y. Kim, Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 66 – 67.

Le, Nam. “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice.” The Boat, Knopf, 2008, pp. 3 – 28.

All Those Before the Judge: Shifting Perspectives in “No-No Boy”

Often times when we are stressed, we picture a scenario in our head in which the conflict is taking place. Perhaps we are afraid of confessing a secret to a friend and therefore need to play out all possible responses and how to address them. Or maybe we are dreading a class presentation and thus need to practice things to say and observe how they sound. An example of this subconscious response to a problem is presented in John Okada’s No-No Boy in the form of an interesting narrative style.

Ichiro Yamada, the protagonist of the novel, is plagued with feelings of anger, confusion, guilt, and hopelessness after returning to Seattle from prison. He is unsure of what to do with his life or who he truly is because as a “no-no boy”, he is constantly rejected by friends, family, and strangers alike. Tormented by these emotions, Ichiro’s thoughts burst forward onto the pages of the novel, usually in streams of consciousness or through the eyes of different characters.

1957 cover of “No-No Boy”

In one instant of the story, Ichiro’s inner turmoil over whether or not he made the right decision to say “no” twice on the loyalty questionnaire becomes a flashback to when he had to face the judge with his reasoning. Ichiro’s perspective, however, is not the only one present in the flashback. We get to see other no-no boys give their reasons for not joining the U.S. army:

“You can’t make me go into the army because I’m not an American or you wouldn’t have plucked me and mine from a life that was good and real and meaningful and fenced me in the desert…” (Okada 30)

“If you think we’re the same kind of rotten Japanese that dropped the bombs on Pearl Harbour, and it’s plain that you do or I wouldn’t be here having to explain to you why it is that I won’t go and protect sons-of-bitches like you…” (Okada 30)

“I can’t go because my brother is in the Japanese army…” (Okada 31)

We thus see Ichiro dealing with his problems by reflecting on the past through the eyes of multiple no-no boys. Interestingly, there are no quotation marks, italics, or other forms of dialogue that are usually present in flashbacks, making this scene seem like it was all just a collection of Ichiro’s own thoughts. In fact, Okada later writes, “And then Ichiro thought to himself: My reason was all the reasons put together” (Okada 32), indicating that Okada’s unique narrative style is supposed to demonstrate how the various emotions and thoughts circling through Ichiro’s head represent the crisis that he is going through. By playing this scenario in his head, Ichiro struggles to understand who he is and to justify and cope with his reasoning.

B2

Works Cited

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

“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.