As a historian and musician, Julian Saporiti has toured past and present sites of migrant detention. He calls his project No-No Boy.
November 21, 2019
Editor’s note: This is one of several essays on The Margins exploring the legacy of John Okada’s 1957 novel No-No Boy. Read the others here.
“It was strange, constant blue
and the same ghost every night…”
In the winter of 2017, I started writing songs again. Music had once been my job, before I got burnt out and retreated to grad school at Brown University. I hadn’t released an album in nine years. But after Trump was elected, something snapped. I lost interest in academic conferences and peer-reviewed articles or even getting a tenure-track job. I wanted to share my PhD research with a public audience. After spending years studying histories of oppression, incarceration, and refugees, I could see—illuminated by Trump’s garbage fire of rhetoric and policy—the same shit happening again to new people.
So I transformed my research into songs. I wrote music about southeast Asian refugee camps, old Chinatowns, and sites of Japanese American incarceration. With a rotating cast of musicians, scholars, and artists, I have traveled the country, holding concerts at which I sing my songs, tell stories, and project archival images on a wall. The idea is to immerse diverse audiences in the mess of history. Songs can travel, and they can do things academic writing can’t: live with ambiguity, inhabit small moments of emotion, provoke thought through metaphor, imagery, and swift juxtaposition.
I call the project No-No Boy. And after almost every concert, no matter where I am, someone asks me why.
I chose the name, in part, to honor John Okada’s No-No Boy, the incredible 1957 novel that was just reissued by Penguin Classics surrounded by some disappointing controversy over rights and royalties. A lot of people call No-No Boy the “first Asian American novel.” I’m not sure that’s important, or even accurate, since “Asian American” wasn’t a term until the late 60s or early 70s. But the book is immediate and visceral, and it gets at a deep feeling of being torn in two, which immigrant kids and minority kids—really, anyone who feels mixed up in some way—can relate to.
Okada writes about Ichiro, a tortured young man who comes back to Seattle after years of wartime incarceration—first in a camp for Japanese Americans, and then in federal prison. Ichiro was deemed “disloyal” by the US government, because he was one of around 20,000 people to answer “No” to two questions in a poorly-conceived loyalty questionnaire. To paraphrase:
Will you serve in the US military? No.
Will you forswear allegiance to Japan? No.
I’m not Japanese American. My mom grew up in South Vietnam. She left on a student visa after her grandfather, my ông cố, was assassinated.
Yet No-No Boy is one of the only novels in which I have seen myself. Okada’s book is mired in melancholy, a perpetual state of not being able to let go of the old or grab on to the new. Ichiro is painted with guilt, resignation, anger, and confusion, cut in two with no reconciliation in sight. Like history itself, Okada’s novel is messy, and this mess—with all of its contradiction and exhaustion—is honest and bewildering.
I was thinking of Okada recently, down in Texas. I was visiting Central American asylum seekers and the remnants of an old Japanese American incarceration camp. I met people who, like Ichiro in No-No Boy, are trying their best to maintain a tragic balancing act. People who are torn in two.
Among Japanese Americans, the term “No-No Boy” is contentious. Some might prefer to remember the men who said “yes”—the men who joined the military, helping to create a narrative of Japanese American military heroism. Recently, I spoke to the daughter of a jazz musician who was incarcerated at Heart Mountain, in Wyoming. “My father would be rolling over in his grave if his name was associated with No-No Boy,” she told me.
But the stories of the No-No Boys have started to take on new meanings. For millennial activists in the Japanese American community, these are early civil rights stories, early examples of draft resistance. I have no personal connection to this history, save telling the stories of a few people who were in the camps and whom I care about deeply. But, as a historian and an American, I can think of no better entry point for examining this chapter of our collective American history.
I met a No-No Boy. His name is Hideo.
Last summer, when I was in Honolulu to play a gig, I visited Pearl City with a few friends. At a modest corner bungalow, up the hill from Pearl Harbor, Hideo was waiting: a short, smiling Japanese American man, wearing spectacles and pushing 100. His family wanted to see “No-No boy meet the real No-No Boy.” Hideo immediately handed me a beer, a good omen. As my friend Max later proclaimed, “Dude, Hideo-san is a fucking legend.”
We feasted on a huge spread of Zippy’s fried chicken, spam musubi, and too many delicious sides. We learned about Okinawan and Hawaiian history from Shari, a local historian, and Hideo talked about the war years. Then we played some music. I performed a couple of my songs for the small audience. My colleague Erin added harmonies, as she graciously did for most of 2018.
Then, as Erin and I sang about two teenagers waltzing in the root cellar at Heart Mountain, Hideo started dancing around the dining room with his family and friends. Everyone was moving in this cool Okinawan way called Kachāshī, which involves lots of swaying and wrists. Hideo got out his sanshin, an Okinawan version of the banjo-like shamisen, and shredded. I felt honored just to be there.
Hideo is kibei—born in Hawai‘i, but educated back in Okinawa, Japan. He returned to the United States as a young man, just as the war broke out. Japanese Americans made up too much of Hawai‘i’s population to be locked up en masse, but young Hideo was considered dangerous because of his time in Japan. He was incarcerated at Sand Island with a bunch of Buddhist priests, Japanese language teachers, and community elders.
“They said, if you go to the mainland, you’ll be free,” Hideo told me. “They lied.” He was sent to Topaz, a camp in the Utah desert.
When the loyalty questionnaire came around, Hideo answered No and No. “In Japan, we were taught that the emperor was God. How are you supposed to go against God?” They sent him off to Tule Lake, the segregation camp for “disloyal” Japanese.
Hideo was not outwardly angsty or moody like Okada’s Ichiro. He wasn’t a draft resister. Like most people in the camps, he was a person caught in the middle of a war, faced with tough decisions he had to make fast. Decisions that had no right answer.
Does Hideo have some feelings of resentment towards the government and how they treated him? Sure. But as we looked through old photos from his camp years, he laughed and told us about old friends. He talked about working in the mess hall. He spoke about daily life.
Adorning the small, square pages of a handmade autograph book, Hideo’s cohort from Tule Lake scribbled messages you would find in any high school yearbook. “Good Luck, Buddy!” “See you around.” And most strikingly: “Hideo, never lose that smile.” Some version of this sentiment was scribbled on almost every page.
Hideo was a cook. He was an artist. He learned how to play mandolin and paint while incarcerated in four different camps. This was not Okada’s tortured main character. This No-No Boy never stopped smiling. Today, when I think of the term No-No Boy, I think of Ichiro torn in two, but also of Hideo’s complicated joy, perseverance, and musicality.
Hideo rode out the end of the war at Crystal City Internment Camp, in Texas, just half an hour from the Mexico border. I wanted to see the place with my own eyes. So, during spring break, I flew to Houston and rented a car with two historians from Brown.
Our journey began in a nearly empty Chinese banquet hall, somewhere near Houston’s Little Saigon. We had lunch with a friend’s Vietnamese parents, Son and Thanh. “Eat more! You, eat. Yes! Eat!” Son told us. The squid, the chả giò, the rice, the pork, the chicken was shoveled onto our plates with a smile. In another life, Son was a sailor in the South Vietnamese Navy, protecting the doomed and temporary nation where my mother grew up. Son spent 10 years in a “re-education” camp after the communists took over. He mentions that only in passing, and then dishes out more food.
It’s strange to look at people who have actually lived the history you’ve read so much about. Talking with Thanh, I can’t help but picture her as a young woman, carrying a 6-month-old baby onto a desperately crowded boat, headed for anywhere but here, anywhere but home. They ended up in Pulau Bidong, a refugee camp on a Malaysian island that was once the most crowded space in the world.
I also think of my mother. Our family were longtime collaborators with the French, and had good connections and some money. My mother’s grandfather held a position in the South Vietnamese Assembly. During the Tet Offensive, he was killed when someone threw a grenade into the family home. My mom was there. She left for Pennsylvania shortly after his murder. Sometimes I wonder whether she felt guilty for getting out before the rest of the family.
From Houston, we drove to San Antonio, and then to Crystal City. This camp was often called the “Family Internment Camp.” It held mostly Japanese folks exported to the US by Latin American governments, as well as some Germans and Italians. These internees, many of whom were children with US citizenship, were sometimes used as POW trade bait by the United States.
As is the case at most of these sites, there is little left today. Three schools and some sports fields have been built on the grounds. There are some concrete foundations. A plaque, put up by the Texas Historical Society, white washes what happened here—pretty typical. My friend Diego wondered how locals feel about this history. “Probably the same way we did,” I told him. We both went to middle school in Nashville, next to an old plantation where enslaved people once worked. “Disinterested.”
Near the plaque, we met up with Matt from Justice for Our Neighbors, an organization that provides asylum seekers with legal aid and space in houses of worship. Matt also wanted to make a pilgrimage to Crystal City. After 10 minutes of walking around, a security guard rolled up. I thought we were in trouble, but he just wanted to show us other parts of the camp. We followed his white city pickup truck for about half a mile and came to the old swimming pool basin. There’s a tree growing in the middle of it, but the huge concrete structure is intact.
Leading up to the trip, I had sifted through archival footage of the camp and found rare color films, showing people swimming and diving into this very pool. As we walked around, these movies kept flashing in my head. I thought about Hideo and what a relief a few hours in the water must have been. I also recalled a story that Nancy Ukai, a wonderful scholar and archivist, told me about two Japanese Peruvian girls who drowned in this pool.
Behind the basin, there is a huge metal tank which has been graffitied to memorialize the camp. Diego and I climbed on top of it. I lowered my head into the opening of the big empty container and sang a song I had written for our trip.
“I’mm goinnnnnnnnn’ dooooooooooowwwwwwnnnnnnnnn……….
to Cryyystallll Ciiiiiiittttyyyyy………”
The reverb was gigantic, swirling and echoing. In the distance, Matt talked with the security guard. Diego took pictures. Our other companion, Juan, filmed the desolate fields stretching behind us.
We climbed down and I strummed an acoustic guitar, singing whatever words came to mind. As I sang, Kodachrome blue water rushed in around me. Prisoners from the archival footage swam all above me. I closed my eyes tightly. The vision stopped. It was time to go.
In the 1980s, the US government finally apologized for incarcerating Japanese Americans during the war. And yet, within driving distance of Crystal City, there are many structures which detain and incarcerate new groups of immigrants, largely built on the same racial and cultural prejudices, economic fears, and media paranoia.
From Crystal City, we drove south to visit a refugee shelter called the Holding Institute in Laredo. Juan, Diego and I spent the day with the pastor who runs the shelter, Mike, easily one of the most inspiring and selfless people I’ve ever met. He toured us around the small compound, which caters to women and children who have been recently released from detention.
At the Holding Institute, waiting is what we saw. Heavy liminality. These folks were stuck in a place that didn’t want them, but they couldn’t go back to a home where they faced poverty or death. There was a palpable exhaustion. The kids seemed alright, watching Puss in Boots in Spanish or playing outside, but the adults were tired. Juan and Diego talked to a young woman named Anahi who had been kidnapped and robbed in Nuevo Laredo before making it across.
In the courtyard, I met a woman named Melissa. Born in Tennessee, she was blonde and sunburnt. Her husband had been deported back to Guatemala. She was stuck here because some folks back home told her she wouldn’t need a passport to take a bus to central America. She did, and so did her baby son Caleb. They’d slept in a park the night before.
Melissa said she was hopeful that her last paycheck would get delivered to Laredo, so she could afford the passports and two bus tickets. It was going to be a month before their paperwork could be processed. Hopefully, her severely cracked cell phone would hold up. Hopefully, her rudimentary Spanish would do on the journey south. Mike was worried for her safety, and the baby’s, but it was her choice. I’ve never seen someone so tired.
Mike took us down to the border, just a short drive away. “It’s not a national emergency. It’s a crisis of humanity,” he said, looking at a bridge over the Rio Grande. “They’ve stopped letting people even set foot on American soil. They stop them right there.” He pointed to a recently-installed checkpoint, halfway across the bridge. “Over the water, so they can’t seek asylum.”
He looked out at a father and son fishing in the river. “This isn’t political,” he said. “It’s simple. It’s feeding people who need food. It’s providing shelter for people who need shelter…I see this as an opportunity for America’s spiritual awakening.”
That afternoon, I played a concert at the shelter. If you ever want to feel stupid and privileged, try playing a set of songs nuancing historical moments of suffering to a bunch of refugees. I had not thought this through. As Juan translated “boat people” into Spanish, I winced. I couldn’t think of any happy songs to play. My mind could only focus on the children, and their eyes. As I sang, I saw their faces in old photographs of incarceration and refugee camps. I saw Hideo in the doorway. I saw my family by the altar.
After the concert, I felt embarrassed and useless. Luckily, in part because of the language barrier, people just focused on the music, which made me feel better. “Dile que tiene una voz muy bonita,” Anahi told Juan, which lifted my spirits. She said that it was nice to just have some music, to have a distraction. We talked about visiting her in New Jersey one day.
That night, I ordered the “jumborita” at a Mexican seafood joint. “That sucked,” I told the guys. “When I was singing, it was like double exposure. I kept seeing these faces from the camps. These archives and photographs and movies and stories, all at once. I was seeing projections on the walls, on their faces, all these ghosts just smashing together. My family. Everything at the same time.”
Last year, touring behind No-No Boy, I fell into a deep depression for the first time, and I began to feel haunted. All the stories and songs, town after town, the same ghosts every night. My brain stopped being able to make sense of the work. On tour, this became my constant state. My mind went places I had never known. Relationships crumbled. I reread Okada’s novel. Ichiro’s inability to relate to people around him felt relatable.
Night after night, I scratched at these histories with all their contradictions, horror, and psychotic repetition. Each concert felt like a blood-letting. Audiences would share their own powerful stories of trauma and loss. It was a lot to take in and too much to keep carrying. By Christmas, I felt completely isolated and ill. For several weeks, I did not want to wake up.
These feelings came back to me after the concert in Laredo. I said to Diego, “How is this still happening? They’re the same everywhere, you know? These kids. They’ve always been the same. Man, I cracked. Singing up there, I fucking cracked.”
The next morning, Juan got out of bed early and walked down to the lobby of the Red Roof Inn. He watched several men, sopping wet, dash past him and disappear. They had just crossed the Rio Grande. Shortly after, the Latino hotel manager asked him, “Did you see any wetbacks come through here?”
Before leaving town, we went to Walmart and bought all of the children’s underwear, which is what the Holding Institute needed most. Juan bought a soccer ball to give to the kids, out of a mixture of kindness and indignation that a bunch of central American children were playing basketball. We dropped everything off and said goodbye. They were preparing breakfast for the 68 people who had spent the night there. At one of the picnic tables outside, a family was bundled in the yellow blankets every new arrival receives. We said adios to a few of the kids, got some hugs and high fives, and drove away.
We made one last stop, in Dilley, Texas. Dilley is home to the country’s largest migrant detention center, which is disingenuously called the South Texas Family Residential Center. As we stood next to the barbed wire fence, Diego turned to me and said, “Man, if you told me it was the 1940s, I’d say we were looking at a Japanese internment camp.”
At night, the detention center is visible from miles away. Stadium lights give it an almost supernatural glow. They are always on.