No-No Boy Redux: Asian American Literary Classics and the Public Domain
Thanks to the CARP collective, John Okada’s 1956 No-No Boy was rescued from obscurity in 1976, and since 1979, has been published through the University of Washington Press with royalties going to the Okada family. In May 2019, Penguin Books marketed a new edition of the novel, tagging it as a classic of Asian American literature, but claiming that its copyright places the work in the public domain so that all proceeds go to Penguin. The Asian American community rallied against the new edition, and it has since been removed from various outlets.
No-No Boy has long been read as a narrative that troubles liberal assimilationism. In the 1950s and 60s, the novel fell into obscurity because it foregrounds painful, unresolvable contradictions as lived by the Japanese American community in the aftermath of internment. The US State Department advertised more “assimilationist” Asian American literary texts in an effort to reduce xenophobia for Cold War integrationism (Ling 1995). Some scholars (e.g., Arakawa 2005, Kim 2005) have suggested that No-No Boy ultimately coheres with assimilationism since unresolvable contradictions are now an embraced norm (consider Obama’s rhetoric of the US as having an “imperfect” forward trajectory). How might Penguin’s attempted release of a “public domain” edition of No-No Boy in the era of Trump, and more broadly the post-Cold War, be framed? For example, the positioning of the text as authorless from an economic standpoint seems part of a broader milieu of US claims of theft of intellectual property by racialized others (namely, China) in a carefully-crafted Western IP and law regime for securitized US capital. How do the publishing histories and narratives of No-No Boy and other Asian American literary classics intersect with positive and negative formulations of “public domain(s),” shedding light on both the ongoing community and critical value of, but also the liberal pitfalls of consuming “classic” texts at this current conjuncture?
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