Tearing Down and Building Up: The Dismantlement and Reconstruction of Identity in John Okada’s No-No Boy
Frank Chin’s gripping afterword to the novel No-No Boy emphasizes the crucial influence of John Okada’s literary pursuits in his own life as an Asian-American writer. In a world where words had formerly danced across the pages of books to the sole tune of white authors, Okada helped create an identity for Chin and other “yellow writers.” Unlike Chin, who defines his own career in terms of another’s, the main character of the novel denounces the part of himself vestigial of his mother and instead seeks an identity that embodies the direct antithesis of all she represents. Prior to the war and his fateful decision to refuse the American draft, Ichiro Yamada proves to be a malleable young man, falling victim to the biting impact of his zealous mother. In his hatred and despair following a two-year prison sentence, Ichiro expels the parts of himself tainted by his mother’s harsh conditioning. With the goal of reconstructing his broken identity, he models his new self against the opaque and pessimistic perspective implanted in him by his mother. Ichiro’s subsequent optimism and self-completion can thus only arise out of the death of his mother. Ichiro’s time spent in prison continues to haunt him after his release, as the relentless harassment from all facets of society only propagates his feelings of guilt and shame. Consequently, Ichiro evaluates himself and questions his motives for refusing the draft in the first place. The root of the problem, he decides, lies in his mother and her stifling presence in his life. Her extreme conservation of Japanese ideals and complete rejection of the Americanization of both herself and her family are impressed upon Ichiro at a very early age. Ultimately, this foreign belief system is accepted and integrated into his own identity. Thus, the anguish inherent in being a “no-no boy” could be attributed to that part of him which was not his own; It was her way of saying that she had made him what he was and that the thing in him which made him say no to the judge and go to prison for two years was the growth of a seed planted by the mother tree … (Okada 11)Despite the discovery of a scapegoat for his deep shame, Ichiro continues to suffer as a result of his refusal to enter the war. Although the part of him responsible for his decision was decidedly not native, it was part of him nonetheless. Consequently, Ichiro grows to hate this part of his identity. He vocalizes this disgust in response to his mother’s denial of her own insanity, as she claims those who think her crazy instead envy her strength: To the hands which had come forever between them [Ichiro] continued to shriek: “Not your strength, crazy woman, crazy mother of mine. Not your strength, but your madness which I have taken. Look at me!” He gripped his wrists and wrenched them away from her face. “I’m as crazy as you are. See in the mirror the madness of the mother which is the madness of the son. See. See! (Okada 43)Ichiro’s hatred for his mother poses a serious problem as it causes a hatred for himself as well. The solution for him is to dispel the values and beliefs of his mother and replace them with new components modeled after all the things she is not and refuses to let her son become. Until Ichiro can rebuild himself, however, he is left with a barren identity. Not only does he blame his mother for the emotional angst and psychological torment he has endured as a direct result of refusing to enter the draft, but he also attributes to her the cavernous holes in his identity: Ma is the rock that’s always hammering, pounding, pounding, in her unobtrusive, determined, fanatical way until there’s nothing to call one’s self … It was she who opened my mouth and made my lips move to sound the words which got me two years in prison and an emptiness that is more empty and frightening than the caverns of hell. (Okada 12) Through rejecting his mother’s values, and thus the source of his own self-hatred, Ichiro proceeds to the next stage of his rebirth — but not without the toils and struggles that accompany his brazenness. For years, the identity designed and imposed by his mother served as Ichiro’s primary source of self concept. Upon eliminating her from his life, Ichiro falls into downward spiral of severe marginalization. He and other second generation Japanese Americans, or Nisei, feel isolated from both the Issei generation of their parents as well as the greater American population. Ichiro cannot fill either role; he is neither Japanese nor American. Previously, Ichiro had defined himself as his mother’s son and a mirror image of her ideals. The moment he breaks free is the moment his identity darkens into infinite nothingness: I am only half of me and the half that remains is American by law … But it is not enough to be American only in the eyes of the law and it is not enough to be only half of an American and know that it is an empty half. I am not your son and I am not Japanese and I am not American. (Okada 16) With the eradication of his mother’s past influences, Ichiro successfully tears down the remnants of his old self and prepares for the arduous process of reconstruction. His lack of identity creates emotional trauma and raises the ontological question of where he belongs. It also provides him a blank canvas on which he will paint his new life. Lost, with no mold to find shape, Ichiro submits to the ever present malevolence he feels toward his mother. His former role as his mother’s son — and the embodiment of her ideals — changes to the role of a separatist who represents the direct opposite of her restricted outlook on life. This change of definition comes to the forefront when Ichiro first meets Emi and attempts to relay his identity to her in non-contemporary terms. “I’ve ruined my life and I want to know what made me do it,” he tells her. “I’m not sick like them. I’m not crazy like Ma is or your father was. But I must have been.” (Okada 91)Gaps in Ichiro’s self-definition stem from the intrinsic ambiguities that lie in descriptions of this kind. Because of the oppressive nature of his mother and his inability to develop into his own person during childhood, Ichiro has a keen sense of who he was and no longer wants to be. Still, he lacks a clear vision of his present self. He cannot seem to articulate his own personality, but rather he is able to affirm those attributes for which he is not. For Ichiro, defining himself in terms of negative assertions is both a limited and ineffective means of reconstructing his lost identity. Knowing that he is “not sick” and “not crazy” tells little of Ichiro’s character, and furthermore creates a rather incomplete sense of self. Ironically, the death of Ichiro’s mother is the one catalytic event that allows him to complete his rebirth. With the suicide of his mother Ichiro no longer has a base from which to ascertain what he is not; he must instead look to the outside world and establish his identity from a much broader vantage point. This new revelatory perspective on life and the results of a violent bar fight at the end of the novel leave Ichiro enlightened instead of disillusioned. No longer envisioning himself as “not [his mother’s] son,” Ichiro seeks solace in an outside world which has proven unkind. Nonetheless, he continues to kindle a “glimmer of hope” (Okada 250): He walked along, thinking, searching, thinking and probing, and, in the darkness of the alley of the community that was a tiny bit of America, he chased that faint and elusive insinuation of promise as it continued to take shape in mind and heart. (Okada 251)The “promise” to which Ichiro alludes is the newfound sense of freedom he experiences as a direct results of his mother’s death. Throughout the majority of his young life, Ichiro had been shackled by the oppression of his mother in one way or another. During his childhood and through his refusal to enlist in the military, Ichiro’s identity revolved around her value system. In the period of time following his incarceration, he repeatedly defines himself as “not [his mother’s] son.” Her death prompts the final stage of Ichiro’s journey of self-discovery as it forces him out of his isolated existence and into American culture. Ultimately, Ichiro’s destruction and subsequent reconstruction of identity reflects the change in his approach to life from pessimism to optimism. The “glimmer of hope” as cited at the end of the novel provides a stark contrast to the desolate viewpoint he had previously held. Although the new definition of Ichiro is still far from complete, he has become more whole by integrating the fundamental American values of optimism and idealism into his life. Through his newfound perspective, Ichiro has finally found a place in mainstream American society in a small yet substantial way.