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A book becomes a movement

caption: Shawn Wong
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Shawn Wong
Shin Yu Pai

Shawn Wong discovered the first Japanese American novel, "No-No Boy," at a used bookstore for 50 cents, after being told by his English professors that Asian American literature didn’t exist.

He sought out the author, John Okada, and he fought to have the book republished and distributed far and wide, to unearth the legacy of Asian American writers. But all the mainstream publishers rejected it. So Shawn started to print, distribute, and sell the novel himself with friends, often from the trunk of his car.

The Asian American community turned up, ordering books by mail, telling their friends, and sending checks with handwritten letters — a testament to a generation hungry for their own stories.

This episode of Ten Thousand Things won a 2023 Golden Crane Award from the Asian American Podcasters Association.

Related Links:

Shawn Wong

Book notes: A talk with UW English professor, author Shawn Wong about his UW Press book series for Asian American authors

Related reading:

Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers by Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong

Toshio Mori’s Yokohama California was Ahead of its Time via International Examiner

Hisaye Yamamoto

Wakako Yamauchi

Nisei Daughter - Monica Sone

Eat a Bowl of Tea by Louis Chu

Janice Mirikitani

Frontiers of Love by Diana Chang

America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan

Uncle Rico’s Encore: Mostly True Stories of Filipino Seattle by Peter Bacho

Dancer Dawkins and the California Kid by Willyce Kim

Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry edited by Walter Lew

Pinoy Poetics: A Collection of Autobiographical and Critical Essays on Filipino and Filipino American Poetics edited by Nick Carbo

The World I Leave You: Asian American Poets on Faith & Spirit edited by Leah Silvieus and Lee Herrick

Correction, 10:30 a.m., 6/6/2023: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the protagonist in No-No Boy. The character's name is Ichiro Yamada.

"Ten Thousand Things" is produced by KUOW in Seattle. Our host, writer, and creator is Shin Yu Pai. Whitney Henry-Lester produced this episode. Jim Gates is our editor. Tomo Nakayama wrote our theme music. Additional music in this episode by Taika.

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Partial funding of "Ten Thousand Things" was made possible by the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture Hope Corps Grant, a recovery funded program of the National Endowment for the Arts, plus support from The Windrose Fund.

And of course, we don't exist without listeners like you. Support "Ten Thousand Things" by donating to KUOW.


Shawn Wong: When I was 19 undergraduate at Berkeley, I decided I wanted to be a novelist, you know, and, uh, and I also, at that very moment, I realized that I was the only Asian American writer I knew in the world,

Shin Yu Narration: Shawn Wong grew up a military brat. He lived all over the place, and went to 11 schools in 13 years.

And yet, in that whole time, he was never once assigned to read a book by an Asian American author. Not in high school. Not in college.

So when he decided he wanted to be a writer, he went searching for writers that looked like him.

Shawn Wong: I remember going to my American literature professor at Berkeley and saying to him, you know, I'm interested in reading Asian American authors. I had taken a class in African American literature, and so I assumed that there was, uh, equivalent Asian American literature, literary history.

And he told me there wasn't any. Just like that.

And I remember walking away from his office thinking to myself, that can't be right. I don't believe him.

Shin Yu Narration: This is Ten Thousand Things, a podcast about modern-day artifacts of Asian American life. I'm Shin Yu Pai, your host. Today, a book.

Shawn Wong is a writer, teacher, and literary activist and has been a champion of Asian American writers his entire life.

He had a knack for words and storytelling early on. But before he was a novelist, he started out as a poet. Until some of his grad school mentors pulled him aside in the hallway.

Shawn Wong: and they said we encourage you to stay another year. and I remember looking at them going, what? I'm being held back a grade . And then they said, we think you really should be a fiction writer.

Shin Yu : What they based that on?

Shawn Wong: They based it on the quality of my poetry.

Shin Yu Narration: Shawn wrote long narrative poems that unfolded over many pages. With dialogue. One of his pieces was 20 pages long. It begged to be a novel.

Shin Yu : that's so interesting to me. Like you couldn't be like Asian Allen Ginsburg or something that wrote like very long poems.

Shin Yu Narration: While the Beat writers took liberally from Asian culture and religion, Asian American authors were noticeably missing from popular culture.

When a professor at UC Berkeley told Shawn that no Asian American authors existed, he knew that couldn't be true.

Shawn Wong: Chinese Americans, at that time, we'd been here 150 years, you know, we built half of the Transcontinental Railroad. Somebody wrote a poem at some point, somebody wrote a story.

Right? We cannot have been silent.

Shin Yu Narration: Shawn isn't the type to take no for an answer. So he started his hunt for books by Asian American writers.

Shin Yu : Tell me about that search for Asian American writers when you started looking for them.

Shawn Wong: So uh, there was a thing at that time called the card catalog.

Shin Yu Narration: He started in the library, where there was no such existing category yet for Asian American literature. Though there was Chinese literature from China.

Eventually, One of Shawn's teachers introduced him to Jeff Chan, another aspiring writer studying literature. Jeff knew Frank Chin, a guy in Berkeley who had published one short story. That accomplishment impressed Shawn. So he called up Frank Chin on the phone.

Shawn Wong: And I said, um, I'm Chinese American. I write, you know, poetry and stories and I hear you published a story. And he goes, yes. And he goes, you're Chinese. I go, yes. He says, I'm a student at Berkeley. And I I hear you went to Berkeley. He goes, yes.

And uh, I said, can I meet you? He goes, meet me at the Med in 15 minutes.

Shin Yu Narration: The Med was a coffee house, the Mediterranean. Shawn showed up and Frank was there in a leather jacket.

Frank was 10 years senior to 19-year-old Shawn.

Shawn Wong: And his first words to me were, would you like a cappuccino? And I didn't know what that was, but you know, it was the sixties, so you just said, yes, I'll take some .

Shin Yu Narration: They started talking and didn't stop for months. Shawn soaked up everything Frank said like a sponge. He was getting a crash course in Asian American history and culture from someone who was deeply enmeshed in the community.

Shawn Wong: It was like taking Asian American Studies 101, you know, and, and remember at this time there was no Asian American studies classes

You know, and so I just listened to him talk.

Shin Yu Narration: Frank and Shawn joined forces with Jeff Chan and poet Lawson Inada, another Asian American writer. They called themselves CAARP-Combined Asian American Resources Project. Someone once called them the Four Horsemen of Asian American literature.

They knew there were Asian American writers out there, they just weren't being recognized.

And Shawn felt a deep sense of responsiblity to surface them.

Shawn Wong: As a young writer, I just felt that, it wasn't enough for me just to write and publish my own works. I felt that I needed to educate an audience to Asian American literature, to our literary history, you know, and it all began by somebody denying that we had one.

And so I set out to prove my professor wrong.

We, we owed it as a person of favor to the older generation that their efforts and their work not be forgotten. That it was time for a younger generation of writers to discover them and to, be a part of that literary history.

Shin Yu Narration: So they scoured used bookstores, snatching up any book that had anything to do with Asian American anything. Luckily, used books were cheap and easy to come by.

Shawn Wong: Ten cents, 25 cents. And we would buy any book that had anything to do with Asian or even mildly Asian American. And so, uh, sitting in my office here, you can see, I have probably a shelf full of some really racist books about Asians and these were all bought in the used bookstore, you know, "Peking Picnic" yeah. "As a Chinaman Saw Us" is one of the titles. Um, "Chinatown Inside Out." Yeah. "Chinatown Inside Out." "Problem of China."

Shin Yu Narration: At the time... publishers were only peddling dominant racist tropes, books with bamboo fonts and cringe-inducing images.

Shawn Wong: You know, there's some written in Pigeon, sort of pigeon English. There's another one called "Daughter of the Samurai." Anyway, there's just ridiculously bad books.

Shin Yu Narration: But their search led to one book that they found in a used bookstore for 50 cents that really stood out. It was "No-No Boy" by a writer named John Okada. The book tells the story of Ichiro Yamada, a Seattle-born man of Japanese descent living during World War II who is imprisoned for refusing to denounce the emperor of Japan and resisting military conscription, thereby signaling his disloyalty to the state.

Shawn Wong: We just thought, oh, this is amazing. You know, this is the book we've been waiting for.

Shin Yu : What was amazing about that book?

Shawn Wong: At the time we thought, well this is Japanese America's first novel.

Even though it was not set in the camps, it was certainly about the camps. And it was about Seattle. And so we thought, this is an amazing work, you know, and so we looked in the phone book , and there's his name.

Shin Yu Narration: They called up John Okada. His wife Dorothy answered the phone.

Shawn Wong: And we sort of went through our spiel again. We're writers, we read this book, we thought it's amazing. You know, we want to talk to John. And she said, you're too late. Hmm. You know, he died heart attack. She goes, you missed him by a month.

Shawn and Frank were devastated. But they made the drive to meet his widow at her home in Los Angeles. They wanted to know more about John Okada. He had written an important and momentous book, and yet no one knew his name.

We were not great interviewers. You know, I'm like 20 years old, you know, we asked questions like, uh, what was your marriage like?

And I remember Dorothy saying, uh, John and I liked to take separate vacations. And I go, that's telling. I go, why? You know, ? And then I don't remember her answer, but, you know, it just seemed, you know, we were like, asking about their love life, you know, and how, as well as, you know, how he worked.

Shin Yu Narration: Shawn had learned from Okada's publisher, Charles E. Tuttle, that the author had been working on a second book. So they asked Dorothy about it.

Shawn Wong: She said, yeah, she offered the papers, his papers to UCLA, and, uh, they had never heard of him. She said, so I burned them. Mm. And I remember Frank and I were sitting there, we were just stunned, you know, looking at her in disbelief, you burned them?

She goes, you know, in a fit of despair, she just burned them. And, uh, and so it's gone.

There was nothing else that they could read that had been written by John Okada. But they learned that John grew up in Seattle and that "No-No Boy" had been published in 1957 in an edition of 1,500 copies. That edition was still available 15 years later, when Shawn and Frank showed up.

And even then, it was so ridiculously inexpensive. I ordered enough for the entire class, you know, handed them out as gifts. You gotta read this book. Here's a copy.

Shin Yu Narration: Finally, "No-No Boy" sold out. Shawn and his friends at CAARP didn't want to see Okada's book fade farther into obscurity. So they got the copyright from the first printing and shopped it around to publishers. Everyone turned them down. They decided to approach the University of Washington Press, since Okada was from Seattle. The novel is also set in Seattle.

Shawn Wong: We figured, well, this is ideal.

Shin Yu Narration: UW Press also said no.

Shawn Wong: I wrote back to them cuz I, I'm just a kid, I'm not gonna take no for an answer, you know? I said, they're making a big mistake, you know, this is not right. You need to reconsider, and they wrote back and they said, um, if you give us $5,000, we'll publish it.

I said, well that's a bunch of bullshit.

Shin Yu Narration: Shawn and his friends decided to publish it themselves.

Shawn Wong: Which is what we did. And we didn't have $5,000.

Shin Yu Narration: They only had $1,500. But They got a friend of theirs to design the book. And they found a printer that would print 3,000 copies for $3,000. And best of all, they only wanted 50% of the payment up front.

Shawn Wong: So we had $1,500 but we didn't have the other $1,500.

Shin Yu Narration: So they started to hustle. they were going to have to sell a lot of books fast in order to pay the printer the second installment. They contacted a columnist at The Pacific Citizen newspaper, a paper for Japanese Americans.

Shawn Wong: I said, you know, we don't have any money to buy an ad.

But if you could mention this book in your column, and here's my address and we'll take $2 off. Right? And here's my address.

Shin Yu Narration: Pretty quickly, things started happening.

Shawn Wong: Japanese America started sending in checks.

And you would see these order forms, um, make their way down the block, right? From one household to the other.

People sent checks. But they also sent letters. These letters were written by a generation of Japanese Americans that were hungry for their own stories — letters Wong has kept and looks back at even today.

This letter. Where is it? Here it is.

Shin Yu : Uh, could not put it down.

Shawn Wong: I've sent a copy to my father, Akibe, who experienced his own kinds of difficulties in evacuation. In closing the $4 I still owe for the books. Thank you for sending them even though my payment wasn't sufficient. So sweet.

And the most amazing thing happened.

We had a printing of 3,000. We sold all 3,000 before it came off the press.

Shin Yu : That's amazing.

Shin Yu Narration: Shawn and friends packaged, addressed, and mailed all 3,000 copies themselves. They filled out invoices, processed receipts, stuffed envelopes, licked stamps, and waited in long post office lines over and over again, during Christmas season, too.

But their work paid off. They were able to pay the printer.

Shawn Wong: And we sold every single copy by mail of the first printing almost entirely to Japanese Americans. We didn't even sell a single book to a bookstore.

Shin Yu Narration: They were able to immediately order a second printing.

Shawn graduated from grad school in San Francisco and drove up to Seattle. Here, he continued to sell "No-No Boy," selling the books out of the trunk of his yellow Mustang. And he branched into bookstores.

Shawn Wong: I thought, oh, there's this Japanese grocery store. Uwajimaya. wouldn't it be great if they sold "No-No Boy" by the checkout stand, you know, you know, these, uh, commercial novels by the, you know, with the Safeway checkout stand. So I went in there and I had 10 copies of "No-No Boy" and Tomio Moriguchi, the owner, I found him. I didn't know him. I said, so I've published this novel "No-No Boy," and I was wondering if you would sell it in your store. And Tomio looked at me and he goes, how many you got there? I go, I have 10. He goes, I'm gonna buy all 10 of those for me.

I want my own copy and I'm gonna give the other nine away.

He says, you bring me 25 of them tomorrow. and we knew, No-No Boy's time had come.

Shin Yu Narration: "No-No Boy" was also getting press attention. The Seattle Times wrote a story about it and its journey to being published.

Shawn Wong: And I get a call the next day from, Don Ellegood, the director of UW Press. And he says to me, we read that article about "No-No Boy" in the newspaper. And he says, we'd like to meet with you. And I go, oh, oh hell, , what have I done now? You know, 27 years old, you know, trying to be a writer and pissed off the UW Press.

So I go in there and I sit at the conference table and the entire staff is sitting there at the huge conference table.

Don Ellegood stands up and he walks over to me. I'm sitting at the head of the table and he says, on behalf of the University of Washington Press, I'd like to apologize for not publishing "No-No Boy." And he goes, we would like to publish it now. And I looked at him and I went off the deep end.

You know, I said, what? You got to be kidding me. I said, do you realize how much work it is to publish a book? I said, and it came off the press at Christmas time, and I labeled and mailed every one of those 3,000 copies at Christmastime at the post office. Do you know what that's like , standing in line with 3,000 copies of a book that you have packaged and stapled and wrapped and put stamps on? I said, no, you can't publish it.

Shin Yu Narration: Shawn told UW Press that there were other Asian American writers out there like.... Toshio Mori, Monica Sone, Carlos Bulosan, and Diana Chang

They should publish them.

And... UW Press listened. A few years later, in 1979, Shawn transfered the rights to UW Press for the symbolic sum of $1.

Ever since, UW Press has published "No-No Boy." And to date, they've sold 180,000 copies, seven times the number of books that most novelists sell of their first work.

Shawn has taught at UW since 1984. He's taught classes on Asian American literature and Asian American studies, which has also enabled him to continue being a champion for Okada's book

Shawn Wong: I think what's interesting is that "No-No Boy" has gone through several lives really.

People are still discovering that book. Recently, um, uh, the University of Washington Alumni Association made it their, uh, pick for their book club. And so people are still discovering the book and embracing it.

Shawn now has his own book series at the UW Press. He's still publishing books that are out of print, 50 years after he began.

Shawn Wong: And the next book that we're bringing out is, uh, also been out of print for at least 20 years, which is, uh, Willyce Kim's "Dancer Dawkins and the California Kid," Korean American writer who's often credited with being the very first, lesbian Korean American author, uh, poet published.

She's very much a literary activist in the seventies herself.

I actually cold called her too because I couldn't get her email address, but I found her phone number about a year and a half ago and cold called her and said, I'm so and so.

Um, you're the author of "Dancer Dawkins and the California Kid." I, I was wondering if we could reissue it. and she called me back and she goes, who are you?

I said, I'm Shawn Wong. She goes, I know who you are, but why or did you wanna do this? I said, because your book is, is a historic part of Asian American literature and it needs to be back in print. It's part of our literary legacy. And, uh, she just couldn't believe it. She goes, this is amazing.

Nobody even talks about my book. I said, but it's time.

Shin Yu: I love how full circle, your own story has been, like starting out in, in your twenties trying to find and publish these authors and then here you are, calling this author, kind of like you were when you were a kid and just finding the numbers in the phone book and kind of the wide-eyed.

Shawn Wong: I really think it's my, um, it's my calling.

And all this time I was trying to prove my American literature professor wrong. You know, we did write something, and, and I was gonna find them, and I was going to, to major in Asian American literature, except it required me actually going and seeing them.

And, and that's how we sort of discovered Asian American literature.

Shin Yu Narration: Asian American literature today is blossoming, if not thriving. Not a month goes by without a new novel, poetry collection, or memoir by a rising Asian American writer arriving into the world.

And Asian American literature and Asian American studies now have their own place in academia, thanks to visionaries like Shawn Wong.

There's a little more to the story. In 2019, Penguin Random house claimed that the rights to "No-No Boy" had entered into the public domain. They printed a new unauthorized version, without informing the Okada family. Shawn mounted a public shaming campaign on social media. It resulted in the publisher withdrawing all copies of "No-No Boy" from distribution in the United States. The press agreed to pay royalties to the Okada family for all copies delivered to bookstores in the United States prior to withdrawal and for all copies sold abroad.

Shawn's legacy is as an activist as much as an author and publisher.

Shawn Wong: I'm not really a literary scholar. I'm more of a literary activist. I'm completely self-taught. All that I understand about Asian America literature is not learned in college. I taught it to myself

The fact that I'm, I became a professor as really an accident, you know. I was asked to teach something. I taught myself. And, and, uh, I've been now doing it for 50 years.

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