A flair for the dramatic: Frank Abe talks about the first Day of Remembrance, the fight for No-No Boy, and more
Filmmaker, actor, writer, and editor Frank Abe has been a very busy man since retiring from his post as communications advisor in King County government in January. He’s been promoting a biography of John Okada, author of No-No Boy, that he co-edited, working on a graphic novel with the Wing Luke Museum, and planning an anthology of Japanese American literature to be published by Penguin in 2021. We caught up with Abe to hear about these projects and have him weigh in on the controversy surrounding Penguin’s decision to publish a new version of No-No Boy despite it being in print through the University of Washington Press. Excerpts from our conversation follow.
Interview by Bruce Rutledge
I understand you studied theater in university.
I graduated from UC Santa Cruz in theater directing. My mother saw an article in the Hokubei Mainichi about this Asian American theater workshop founded by Frank Chin at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, which was this place I revered as a teen. They had 10 scholarships for Asian American students. I got one of the scholarships with Frank, and the first evening we met, he passed out copies of this anthology called Asian American Authors and we talked about Asian American identity. It was a real eye-opener. A light bulb went on. The simple distinction that Asian American writing and sensibility was not just Asian and not just American. It was not the ‘best of the East and the best of the West.’ It was not I am American because I like spaghetti; I am Chinese because I like chow mein.
I worked with Frank and the workshop for a couple years. One day, Garrett Hongo called me and said, I have this play, The Nisei Bar & Grill. He read it to me over the phone, and it was so evocative and poetic. I was sold. He asked if I could come to Seattle and try out. So I did.
What were your initial impressions of Seattle?
Seattle was and still is a refreshing change from California. In San Francisco, the Japanese American community was urban; I was suburban. They had their cliques that I was not part of. I didn’t always feel welcomed in San Francisco. Seattle was just so welcoming and so refreshingly pan-Asian. I was struck that the governor’s office had an office of Asian American Affairs, that Ruby Chow was on the King County Council, that Wing Luke was on the City Council. Ruth Woo was in the governor’s office. In Seattle, Asian Americans seemed to have a place. They participate in the civic and cultural life of the city. It really upended my notion of what a city was. In San Francisco, “city” meant old, white patriarchy. A lot of money. The Ghirardellis. The Aliottos. The Mark Hopkins Hotel. It’s all up there, and we’re down here.
The theater group in Seattle used to be called TEA, Theatrical Ensemble of Asians. Garrett brilliantly changed it to the Asian Exclusion Act. I responded to it because it really set a tone for what we were trying to do. This was in 1976.
It seems like the mid-1970s was a coming-of-age moment for Asian Americans in a sense.
Not just in a sense. We were graduating from college. I was born in ’51. We were the generation after camp. You had San Francisco State in 1969 start Asian American Studies, the discovery of No-No Boy in ’72, CARP (the Combined Asian American Resources Project), publication of Aiiieeeee!! (an anthology of Asian American writing), which is being republished this fall by UW Press, by the way.
I was working as an ordinary seaman on Lake Union for NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), and I was minding my own business. Frank (Chin) and I weren’t talking. As is his wont, we had a falling out. Then he shows up at my home in Seward Park in August of ’78. He had just written an article for the Seattle Weekly about reparations. He got engaged with the Seattle chapter of the JACL (Japanese American Citizens League) to help devise a strategy for popularizing redress. S.I. Hayakawa had famously been interviewed after the JACL convention of 1978 and said that he was opposed to reparations, that the idea made his flesh crawl. He was ashamed that Japanese Americans would stoop to asking for money for their pain and suffering. The Wall Street Journal backed him up and called it “guilt mongering.” So Frank comes to my door and says, “Abe, Japanese Americans are making a move. I think it’s bold. But they need help. If Japanese Americans lose their history, you can kiss Japanese American art goodbye.” Damn him, he hooked me with that one line!
I was the stage manager and an actor for Garrett at the Asian Exclusion Act. And with Kathy Wong, I basically stage-managed the Day of Remembrance, which was a piece of street theater, recreating the eviction, assembling in the parking lot, passing out family tags, bringing your suitcase. In your suitcase was your potluck lunch. Then we boarded the buses and journeyed to the Puyallup Fairgrounds where 7,000 were incarcerated. We organized a coalition of all these groups in Seattle that we were told had not always been able to talk to each other and work together: JACL, Nisei Vets, the Buddhist church, the Christian church – we met on Saturday mornings as a coalition based around one idea. We could all agree on this idea: Taking a stand for redress.
What was the reaction of the community?
We had no idea how many people would show up. It was only in the last week when people started calling David Ishii’s bookstore because his phone number was on the poster. We held it the Saturday after Thanksgiving, which turned out to be perfect because it was a slow news day. All the TV stations, all the newspapers were looking for something to cover on November 25th. We got to Sick’s Stadium, and there were cars lined up waiting to register. We were like, What?! It struck a nerve. People were ready for this to happen. This was the catalyst for unleashing surpressed rage at what had been taken from them both in terms of liberty and property.
In the cars driving down, we’re told that something remarkable happened. Fathers and mothers were driving their college-age, high-school-age kids, and they finally opened up to their kids about the memory of making that same journey decades before. One historian called it “the event that burst open the tomb of Japanese American history.” The parents had never talked to their kids about the camps, and here was this opportunity for them to share it in a context where their children could finally understand it.
The trouble with talking about Japanese American camp stories before this was there was no framework or context for talking about camp. No, it wasn’t a summer camp. There were the Pearl Harbor widows who would say don’t forget the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. There was confusion between the Japanese and Japanese Americans, which persisted until 1978. This was the first of many opportunities in the last 40 years to shift the paradigm and create a context for understanding the situation. The people who refused the draft in camp — they couldn’t tell their kids why they spent two years in a camp, then two years in prison until our film (Conscience and the Constitution, 2000) came out. It explained that while these were criminal acts, they were acts of civil disobedience. Once we said, “civil disobedience,” then the children of the 60s like me would say, Oh, civil disobedience. I get it. Oh, Dad, that’s what you did. I see now.
Speaking of camp resistance, tell us about the graphic novel you are working on.
Hopefully, with this new book (We Hereby Refuse, Wing Luke & Chin Music Press, 2020), we can tell the story of the No-Nos and renunciates at Tule Lake, who are still stigmatized to this day as disloyal. Even now in 2019, the JACL is meeting in Salt Lake City this August at its convention to kick around a resolution for the JACL to apologize for its treatment of the Tule Lake No-Nos and renunciates. Even now! Our book is still needed to provide that vehicle for understanding that the No-Nos and renunciates were not necessarily pro-Japan. They were acting under duress in protest in the only way they felt they could.
It took a while for us to meet and whittle down the story to just three characters. Our local story is Jim Akutsu of Seattle, maybe because he was on my mind with the John Okada biography because Akutsu was the model for Ichiro, the protagonist in No-No Boy. Jim was also a very fiery personality. He was a fighter, literally. He would do kendo, judo, football, baseball. He was a competitor and he didn’t take guff from anybody. Hiroshi Kashiwagi is both a No-No Boy and a renunciant, and he gets us into the whole Tule Lake experience as an observer. He’s a poet and an actor. And Mitsuye Endo was one of the four Supreme Court challenges whose story has never been told from her experience, only in the legal briefs. She had no champions like the guys did.
The other thing about a graphic novel is the challenge of showing how the government issued policies that Akutsu, Kashiwagi, and Endo had to push back against. None of this should have happened. We follow through and show all the things imposed on them, put on them, and the story is how they overcome these barriers.
Early on, the decision was made not to tell each story in separate chapters because when you do that, you have to repeat the same arc for each character. We try to tell it as one story of resistance that is shared by all the people in the camps. It is ambitious, but at the same time, it will be an easy read and a page turner.
And how about your connection with the novel No-No Boy and John Okada?
My history with it is being part of the Asian American Theater Workshop and CARP circle. I received four cassettes of two interviews of Dorothea Okada that Frank Chin did with Lawson Inada and Shawn Wong that Lawson (Inada) and Shawn (Wong) did. I transcribed them, so I had Dorothea Okada’s voice in my head. After 44 years, I can still hear her voice. Her personality comes through.
It was Frank, Shawn, Jeff Chan and Lawson who published the book. Shawn did the heavy lifting. He still complains about shipping the books! Selling them out of the back of his car. Licking envelopes on Christmas vacation. That scarred him! (laughs)
Is it true your face was used for the cover illustration?
Yes. If you wanted a picture of a hungry and sullen Japanese American in his 20s at that time, that was me. (laughs)
I also adapted some of Ichiro’s monologues, not entirely successfully, as theater pieces. The results were mixed.
Frank Chin’s afterword inspired me. Always in the back of my mind, I wanted to answer the question: Who was John Okada? I thought of making a documentary about him. I interviewed his son and his daughter, and I put together a trailer. I realized the story wasn’t there. It was never released. It didn’t answer the question. This was 2007-2008. I realized that I needed to write a book to answer the question. John Okada never talked to his kids about the camp or his book. And because he moved to Detroit and Southern California after the war, he lost daily contact with his siblings. They exchanged Christmas cards and visited, but they didn’t know him or his thinking.
You are working with Penguin on this anthology of Japanese American literature when the controversy about No-No Boy being published by Penguin without the knowledge of the Okada estate blows up. And you join the protest against Penguin.
That was sure awkward. Thankfully my editors recognized we did what we had to do.
Penguin contacted me to get Dorothy Okada’s (John’s daughter) phone number. She declined to give it, preferring to have all communications come through UW Press.
I too was surprised when Shawn went public. I knew this issue was brewing. But it catapulted right to the top, to the New York Times!
What can we expect from the Penguin anthology?
Floyd (Cheung, co-editor with Frank and Greg Robinson on John Okada: The Life and Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy) got recruited by Penguin to do this anthology with a concept of the literature of Japanese American incarceration. Floyd called me up and asked if in the last 10 years there has been enough new material to justify an anthology of camp literature that goes beyond Lawson and Patricia Wakida’s Only What We Could Carry, which is a wonderful anthology. I said yes. Their focus was on Nisei literature. They didn’t focus on the Issei or the Sansei. In the last 10 years, there has been a real growth in translation of the Issei literature in the camp magazines, in particular at Tule Lake from a magazine called Tessaku, which stands for Iron Gate. That gives voice to the Issei generation, which has had a buried past because we don’t speak Japanese. And why don’t we speak Japanese? Because the War Relocation Authority, in collaboration with the JACL, forbid the speaking of Japanese in camp, the teaching of Japanese, no public meetings in Japanese, only in English, the burning of Japanese material after Pearl Harbor. It’s taken 75 years to finally recover this voice that was taken from us.
Then we’re trying to evaluate what are the works after the war by the sansei, yonsei, and gosei generations that capture the experience which their parents and grandparents went through or that accurately capture the effect of camp one or two or three generations removed. Twenty years ago, we didn’t have the phrase “intergenerational trauma.” Now you hear it a lot.
We are thinking of how to organize the anthology, and one idea is to line up these pieces of literature according to how they address each of the inciting actions taken against them. The value of an anthology like this is to show how Japanese Americans responded through their art to a succession of specific acts by their own government.
You are involved in some interesting projects.
I retired in January, but I’ve never been busier!
Frank Abe was born in Cleveland, Ohio, spent his teen years in California, and graduated with a degree in theater directing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is writer/director of the film on the largest organized resistance to incarceration, Conscience and the Constitution (PBS), co-editor of John Okada: The Life and Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy (University of Washington Press), and co-author with Tamiko Nimura of an upcoming graphic novel on camp resistance entitled We Hereby Refuse (Wing Luke Museum & Chin Music Press). He is also working on an anthology of Japanese American incarceration literature to be published by Penguin in 2021.