In recent weeks, Penguin Classics’ decision to publish an edition of John Okada’s 1957 novel No-No Boy has been sharply criticized. In our view, that criticism is warranted. It appears that Penguin Classics proceeded without consultation of the Okada estate or commitments to the distribution of royalties to it. Moreover, Penguin Classics’ action occludes acknowledgment of the publication history of the novel, which is a vital part of understanding No-No Boy’s importance to U.S. cultural studies. While Penguin Classics’ explains its action in terms of a “good faith” commitment to ensuring the novel remains a part of American literary history, we take note of precisely the dangers – including the redistribution of royalties – attending to a press’s ability to determine what counts as a “classic.” Accordingly, we express our continuing support of the University of Washington Press edition of the novel and ask our members to do the same.
As many of our members will already know, while No-No Boy was first published in 1957, its rediscovery in the 1970s by Asian American writers Shawn Wong, Jeffrey Paul Chan, Frank Chin, and Lawson Fusao Inada precipitated its current prominence. Since 1979, the University of Washington Press has published the novel, and for decades, royalties from its sales have gone to the Okada estate. The publication history of the novel is in this way bound up with the course of American literary history, the current expansiveness of which directly results from the committed labor of people like Wong, Chan, Chin, and Inada. We know such recovery work has been and continues to be vital to the apprehension of the thoroughgoing heterogeneity as well as the deep histories of racism tethered to warfare characterizing U.S. nation formation. Penguin Classics’ actions reminds us of the importance of the publication industry to national identity, and likewise, the importance of our continuing critical engagement with it.
We encourage our members to use the occasion of this renewed attention – however contestatory – to No-No Boy to (re)engage the novel. The themes prominent in it, including the inextricable links between the securing of U.S. sovereignty and racism under the banner of national security, and the conditions and characteristics giving rise to militaristic masculinity and that justify militarism, resonate strongly certainly in the current context, but also in our apprehension of the history of the U.S. nation as a whole. We are reminded of the histories of removal, confinement, and dispossession of indigenous peoples; we are reminded of the differential citizenship assigned to Black people; we are reminded of the camps proliferating on the U.S. nation’s southwestern border; we are reminded of the separation of family members from each other; we are, in short, reminded of the violence that has always and continues to proceed in the name of national security. In short, we remind all of us of the novel’s importance to our collective efforts as scholars, teachers, and students, to deepen understanding of U.S. culture and politics.
University and other non-profit presses have long been vital to those efforts. It is, finally, also in acknowledgment of that ongoing relationship that we urge our members to continue to attend carefully to the politics and material consequences of text selection.
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