Back in 1957, John Okada couldn’t get any American publishers to consider printing “No-No Boy.”
The novel, set in a post-World War II Seattle where rain clings to water-resistant garments “like dew on a leaf,” puts its readers inside the mind of a young Japanese-American man who has returned home after a two-year prison sentence for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. (The title comes from the character’s answers to two questions on a mandatory government questionnaire, asking him to swear “unqualified allegiance” to the U.S.) It was, perhaps, a book America wasn’t yet ready for, and Okada — a Seattle native and University of Washington graduate who served in the U.S. Army during the war, even as his family was forced to relocate to an internment camp — collected numerous rejection letters before ultimately signing with a Japan-based publisher in 1957. By the time a group of Asian American writers and scholars were able to publish the first American edition in the 1970s, it was too late for Okada to celebrate; he had died of a heart attack at 1971 at age 47, believing his book was forgotten.
Now “No-No Boy” is widely recognized as a classic of Asian American literature; taught in countless classes, it’s a crucial, artful record of a chapter in history many would like to forget. And lately, it’s been at the center of a controversy involving two publishers, one local and one national, with some prominent Asian Americans saying the publication of a new edition of the book overlooks the work of those who brought the novel to light and kept publishing it for years, as well as the wishes of the Okada family.
The University of Washington Press has been the sole publisher of “No-No Boy” since 1979, selling more than 157,000 copies over four decades — a large number for a small academic press — and paying royalties to the Okada family. But its staff was surprised to learn, earlier this year, that New York-based Penguin Random House — a giant among publishers — was putting out its own edition of the novel. The new book, from the press’ Penguin Classics division, was published May 21.
“We were never contacted by Penguin about the new edition” prior to its publication, Okada’s daughter Dorothea Okada said in an email. “We never authorized or approved it.”
Shawn Wong, a writer and University of Washington professor who filed for the book’s first American copyright, said he was surprised when he first saw an announcement of the new edition. “I remember thinking, that doesn’t seem at all possible that that could happen.” Wong, on behalf of Okada’s widow, Dorothy, had filed for the copyright in 1976, prior to its publication by the Combined Asian-American Resources Project (CARP), of which Wong was a member. The rights were transferred to the UW Press in 1979, which published Okada’s text along with an introduction by poet and musician Lawson Fusao Inada and an afterward by playwright and novelist Frank Chin.
Wong believes his copyright is still valid, saying that some copyright experts agree that it’s a gray area of the law. Describing the publisher’s failure to contact UW Press or the Okada family prior to publication as “commerce over decency,” he noted that Penguin’s publication would essentially cut Okada’s estate out of the loop.
Penguin Random House says that the book is in public domain in the U.S., which means that it is not subject to copyright law, and that Wong’s 1976 copyright application applied only to Inada’s introduction, which does not appear in Penguin’s edition.
And indeed, UW Press, which discovered the Penguin publication when an editor happened to see an online advertisement, also determined that the novel was not under copyright, after consulting with the state attorney general’s office and a New York-based copyright lawyer. “The work in fact had always been in the public domain in the United States,” said UW Press director Nicole F. Mitchell. Both Wong and the UW Press had believed that the 1976 copyright applied to the entire book. (A UW Press manager also noted that “the research situation is still evolving and we are expecting further information from our copyright lawyer later this week.”)
Though Mitchell said this week that UW Press will not be challenging Penguin’s publication, Wong has launched a social media campaign in protest, gaining support from nationally known writers including Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen (“The Sympathizer”), bestselling novelist Jamie Ford (“Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet”) and Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”); the blog Angry Asian Man; and the local nonprofit Densho, which works to preserve and share history of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans.
“My position is that Penguin should withdraw the distribution and recall all copies,” said Wong, who notes that the Penguin edition does not contain the original material by Inada and Chin. “The publishing history of ‘No-No Boy’ is as important as the book itself,” he said, remembering how he would sell copies of the original CARP edition out of the trunk of his old Mustang in the 1970s. “To publish the book without acknowledging that publishing history is publishing a very incomplete story.”
For Frank Abe, a local writer and producer who co-edited the book “John Okada: The Life and Rediscovered Work of the Author of ‘No-No Boy’” (published by UW Press), it’s a moral issue. “Whether or not they have a legal right, I don’t believe they have a moral right,” he said of Penguin Random House’s actions. It is, he said, not fair to “the UW Press and the small presses who do the work in covering these lost works, who put in the effort to recover these lost works. For a major publisher to suddenly, finally step in and bring it to ‘the masses’ as it were, it just doesn’t feel right.”
Meanwhile, several local bookstores, including University Book Store, Elliott Bay Book Co., Third Place Books and Phinney Books, have said that they will not be selling the Penguin edition, just the UW Press volume. (The UW Press, which retains copyright of “No-No Boy” outside of the U.S., as well as any potential film rights, said it will continue to publish its American edition, and will continue paying royalties — which range from 5 to 10% of the cover price — to the Okada estate.)
In a June 6 letter to Wong, Penguin Classics vice president and publisher Elda Rotor acknowledged that the publication of the new edition of “No-No Boy” has caused “great disappointment and hurt.” Saying that the company acted “in good faith,” she stated that the records of the U.S. Copyright Office showed the book to be in the public domain, and that “we were not legally required to work with a copyright holder.”
“We were excited to draw new readers through our Penguin Classics outreach, who may not yet have had the opportunity to learn about these works, and those who may not yet be familiar with influential Asian American literary works,” she wrote.
The company’s intention with the “No-No Boy” publication “was to increase awareness of John Okada’s remarkable literary legacy,” Penguin Random House executive publicity director Lindsay Prevette said in a statement this week. “We have reached out directly and respectfully to the Okada estate and the University of Washington Press and will resolve the matter to everyone’s satisfaction.”
Dorothea Okada confirmed in an email that the publisher had contacted the family on Monday, but said that, “We are not ready to talk with them.”
She wrote that the extended Okada family “has always been pleased that the book is still in print and is being used in high school and college studies.” Her father “didn’t talk much to us about ‘No-No Boy,’ but we do know that the publication meant a lot to him and my mother.”
She thinks the current situation will add to her father’s legacy, giving focus to “the Asian American community with their many gifted writers and artists.” And she added a cautionary note: “Hopefully it will also serve as a lesson in knowing how to protect your legal rights.”
This story has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly said Frank Abe’s anthology on the life and work of Okada was upcoming. In fact, the book — “John Okada: The Life and Rediscovered Work of the Author of ‘No-No Boy’” — was published last year by UW Press.