UW Libraries Blog

February 6, 2020

The ‘story behind the story’ of No-No Boy: Shawn Wong Impresses at this Year’s Friends of the Libraries Lecture

Sandy Hawley, Communications Director

Stunning. Provocative. Unselfish. What a treat for the record-breaking attendance at the Friends of Libraries Annual Lecture last week.

Author Shawn Wong at his IBM typewriter in his San Francisco apartment at 780 Chestnut Street #3 in 1974. The images counterclockwise over his head are: a poster from the First Asian American Writers’ Conference at the Oakland Museum, a snapshot of Shawn as a child wearing a sailor’s outfit, an oil painting by his mother of his grandfather, and a black and white photo of friend, Nancy Wong from 1969. PHOTO BY NANCY WONG

UW’s Professor Shawn Wong showed an audience of almost 500 that words matter in every generation. As keynote for the 2020 Friends of UW Libraries Annual Lecture, Shawn shared how “The publishing history of No-No Boy by John Okada is part of Asian American literary history, and that story is almost as important as the novel itself.”

Wong took the audience on a highly entertaining look back at the journey of No-No Boy – from Wong’s days as an English major at UC Berkeley, eager to discover and share Asian American literature– to the battle royale de copyright against publishing behemoth, Penguin Books, nearly 50 years later.

Through Shawn’s eyes, the audience got to go behind the New York Times headlines to truly understand how powerful and important this book is to the history of Asian American literature.

As Nicole Mitchell, Director of the UW Press noted, “Asian American literary history dawned with UW Professor Shawn Wong.”

photo of s wong on stage

Wong shares a photo of hundreds of letters requesting a copy of No No Boy. PHOTO: Bruce Hemingway, University of WashingtonBruce Hemingway, University of Washington

Throughout the lecture, Wong expertly wove together his experiences in a way that authentically and humbly underscored his life’s work to preserve the integrity of No-No Boy. From his painstaking quest to find Okada, to dealing with rejection from every publisher he met, to eventually going it alone and distributing books out of the trunk of his 1966 Mustang. Perhaps one of the most compelling moments was seeing hundreds of hand-written letters to Wong, effectively a word-of-mouth mail order system to distribute the book in the mid 1970s. These letters were written by a generation hungry for their own stories — letters Wong keeps in his office to this day.

While the legal argument over No-No Boy’s copyright dominated the media narrative, Wong’s lecture gave us unique insight into his hard-fought battle that eventually resulted in victory—including his first foray into social media as an advocacy tool, and the invaluable support of one of the nation’s leading copyright experts. But the lecture didn’t leave the audience pondering at the incomprehension of Penguin’s selfish and tone-deaf defense; rather, it reminded us of the importance of continuing to work with, not against, those who have the platform to reach a broad audience, and to continue to invest in authors and publishers who give voice to the stories of underrepresented populations — publishers like UW Press.

On behalf of UW Libraries, Friends of the Libraries and UW Press, we are honored and grateful to Professor Wong for sharing ‘the story behind the story’ of “No-No Boy by John Okada: The Story of How a Novel Goes from 1,500 Copies Sold to 158,000 Copies.”

  • No-No Boy, and other UW faculty-authored books are available for purchase through UW Press here.
  • Videotape of the presentation will soon be available online. If you would like to receive a link to the video, please provide your name and email address to Deb Hemingway, djmrch25@uw.edu.

The UW Friends of Libraries helps stimulate private support and encourages an appreciation of current and evolving library resources and services.  Learn More 

Related Reading:

Blog Post by Frank Abe: Shawn Wong’s 49 year journey to No-No Boy

The Legacy of No-No Boy” by Vince Schleitwiler in the University of Washington alumni magazine.