Academic journal article MELUS

Interning America's Colonial History: The Anthologies and Poetry of Lawson Fusao Inada

Academic journal article MELUS

Interning America's Colonial History: The Anthologies and Poetry of Lawson Fusao Inada

Article excerpt

Within the field of Asian American literary studies there are few artists and public intellectuals as influential yet understudied as the Japanese American poet Lawson Fusao Inada. He coedited with Jeffery Paul Chan, Frank Chin, and Shawn Hsu Wong the seminal Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian-American Writers (1974) and has published several books of remarkable poetry, including Before the War (1971), Legends from Camp (1993), and Drawing the Line (1997). In the specific study of Japanese American culture, his influence is even more pronounced. While impacting the shape of Japanese American literary studies via his work as an editor and anthologist for Aiiieeeee! and the subsequent collection The Big Aiiieeeee! (1991), Inada has also taken a prominent role in a number of different projects, from documentaries to public memorials, addressing the history of internment and relocation during World War II. Such productions include work as narrator in the documentaries Conscience and Constitution (2000) and From a Silk Cocoon (2005), as a primary consultant for the Japanese American Historical Plaza in Portland, Oregon, and as editor for the anthology Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience (2000).

Particularly compelling about this body of work is the way many of Inada's projects gravitate around not just the internment, but the specific resistance of Japanese American "no-no boys" during the war: those men incarcerated, mostly at the Tule Lake Camp, for their responses to the infamous Loyalty Questionnaire distributed in the camps. Specifically, the term "no-no" marks the refusal to respond affirmatively to the questionnaire's twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth questions regarding a willingness "to serve in the armed forces of the United States" and to "swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America" (Only 315). (1) Such an answer "branded people as 'disloyal' in the eyes both of the US government and to many in the Japanese American community" (324). Inada's cultural production is indeed characterized by an effort to "write relocation," a phrase Gayle K. Soto uses to describe his work as it "attempt[s] to reveal, critique, or subvert the racist ideology and devastating consequences of the wartime removal of Japanese Americans to 'relocation centers'" (139). Yet I would complement this characterization with the addendum that Inada is primarily concerned with writing, or anthologizing, "no-no" resistance: the stories of the men and their families, incarcerated for responses to the Loyalty Questionnaire. (2)

Inada's effort to foreground this resistance is remarkable because it counters the dominant model through which the internment has been absorbed into national memory. As historian Tak Fujitani notes, since World War II, and increasingly with the emergence of the Japanese American redress movement in the 1980s, internment history has been closely aligned with the martial exploits of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a group of Nisei soldiers highly decorated for their wartime valor. By the 1990s, "mainstream narratives of the war, whether voiced by leaders in government or carded in the popular media [from Life magazine to CBS], fairly routinely at least mention Japanese American internment and military service." The problem with such official and pervasive memorials, Fujitani argues, is that they "occlude enduring, yet also changing structures of racism in the postwar years" (240).

It is against this historical obfuscation and its attendant praise for the 442nd that I position Inada's work. In sharp contrast to the celebratory, teleological narrative that registers the internment, as Fujitani points out, as a "minor aberration on the path to the promised land" (245), much of Inada's work focuses on the shadowed historical figures such as the "no-no boys" and their families. These internees, noted for their ethical stand against the violation of their civil liberties, and hence for their struggle against the federal government rather than for it (as in the case of the 442nd), have been overlooked, overwritten, and ostracized by dominant representations of the camps and, importantly, even by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). …

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