Visual Interpretations of Okada and Steinbeck, by Raeanne Watkins

Corrigan’s Editorial Note: In U.S. Literature in Spring 2015, Raeanne Watkins created the following images in response to John Okada’s No-No Boy and John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. Okada describes experiences of Japanese Americans after the WWII internment, while Steinbeck offers a parable, set in Mexico, about poverty and wealth. I find Ms. Watkins’ images striking on their own and, more significantly, as artistic interpretations of these novels. Indeed, it is the process of interpretation that they represent that is most significant. Her accompanying descriptions explain some of the ways her images capture both insight and feeling about the texts. With these fine contributions to the tradition of responding to words with images, Ms. Watkins has answered creativity with creativity.

John Okada’s No-No Boy

No No Boy 1

The piece I drew was inspired by Seattle, the setting of John Okada’s No-No Boy. I wanted to work with ink because I have not worked with it before and wanted to explore this medium. I was also inspired by the cover art of the book with the black and white graphic. I started out with the silhouette of Seattle because this is where the story is set, and I decided the skyline would be an excellent artistic piece to put into it. The thick black line with the Japanese Cherry Blossoms on it is supposed to guide the viewer from one piece of the story to another–the cherry blossoms representing Ichiro. The bars in the lower right side of the piece represent his time in jail and the blossoms following it represent his time back with his family. I placed the flags in it to represent the conflict between the two countries and the conflict Ichiro experiences about his heritage. Throughout the story, it is evident he is tortured by these two sides, trying to understand his Japanese-American heritage and finding common ground between them.

No No Boy 2

I decided to draw with ink again to match the first piece. Once again, I was inspired by the black and white on the book’s cover, and I inserted some elements to emphasize what was going on in the middle chapters of the novel. Elements are explored in this piece, such as the strife in the family, the inner turmoil of Ichiro and his heritage, and the inner connectivity between Japan and America. This piece focuses on the strife in the family, with the black and white shapes representing Ichiro and his mother, respectively. About the cherry blossoms, I did keep them within the series to represent peace. In this piece, they are on the borders because of the conflict between Ichiro and his mother. They also represent Ichiro’s heritage because although he is genetically Japanese, he is also culturally American. The bottles represent prosperity within each culture. America is the full bottle because of its prosperity, economically speaking. The Japan is the empty bottle because it represents the lack of prosperity and opportunity it faced during this time of war.

No No Boy 3

What really inspired this piece was my interpretation of the conflict in the story. When I had first started reading it, it appeared that the influence of Ichiro’s mother is what had been holding him back. Or who had been causing the conflict. As I continued to read, I saw that yes, his mother did contribute to his turmoil, but he still let it influence him after her death. This illuminates a concept not too many people talk about, and it is as follows: as much as we are affected (positively or negatively) by our parents, we have it in our power to choose whether or not to continue to let it influence us. For Ichiro, he had the power to not let it affect him after his mother’s death–it being the idea that he would not be able to find a job because of his actions. I saw that he still could not find a job after her death and I realized that this struggle will continue until he realizes that what he did will be forgotten. In fact, as I was reading, it appeared that people were already beginning to forget. I stuck with the theme of the Japanese flowers and the Seattle skyline, and with the flowers, I made one different than the rest. This one represents Ichiro who is still connected to Seattle through his dad, and he stands out because of his time spent in prison.

John Steinbeck’s The Pearl

The Pearl Drawing 1

The inspiration for this piece was the people mentioned in John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. As I read, I saw how the characters reacted to Kino in times of need and prosperity, and I wanted to capture that in a painting with the colors serving as representation of the characters. The red represents the people (culture) who are up against Kino and his family, while the blue represents the doctor. The black represents Kino, not death, as the one who separates others from the pearl. It is his job to protect it, and the cracks represent the strain he feels and the effort he exerts to protect it. Although black usually represents death or mourning, I decided to use it because it is not a color. Black is a part of the value scale (a scale made up of white, black, and all the greys in between), and I thought it would emphasize best the differences between Kino and the others. Also, black usually takes over colors when mixed together. Artists typically try to use as little black as possible when working with color because it has the tendency to overpower it. In the story, Kino exhibits a strength not found in the other characters, and he reminded me of black. The circle in the center represents the pearl, as it is the focus of everyone’s thoughts in the story, and it is the title of the book. It sits there suspended because in this part of the story, no one really has a hold of it until the end of the 2nd chapter when Kino finds it.

This piece was inspired by the connectivity of the people that Steinbeck talked about in the beginning of the second chapter; he wrote about the people being able to know news faster than it can travel. This inspired me to paint the green scenery because when I think of connectivity, I think of green. It is a very friendly color, a very natural color, and the different hues I used represented the different townspeople. The darker the color, the richer the people. The black, as before, represents Kino who is still up against anyone who tries to take the pearl from him. What he encircles is the pearl, but it is covered in a blue cloth, which represents how the pearl had been placed in hiding once everyone knew he was looking to sell it. Kino has had to keep it covered and hidden from robbers. The cloth is blue because it represents the calm control that Kino exhibited even though he was livid on the inside.

The Pearl 3

This final piece is similar to the one before it due to the use of green hues representing the forces against Kino. I also continued to use black as a representation of Kino and his efforts to protect the pearl and his family. In chapter 6, he is trying to protect his wife and baby from the men who were sent out to hunt them. The cracks, once again, represent his efforts and struggles. His wife is a lighter shade of green due to her innocence and goodness while the three men below are darker: the dark color represents their evil hearts. This scene stuck out to me because I saw the emotional turmoil Kino went through when he saw the hunters pitching camp beneath him and his wife’s hideout, and how he reacted was probably the most climatic moment in the book. What also stuck out to me was the difficulty in finding out who actually shot the baby because I read that one of the hunters fired a shot in the direction of the cave and Kino also shot in the same direction. This can be interpreted to represent the fate that was spoken about earlier in the book. Steinbeck writes that “the gods do not love success unless it comes by accident,” and the events played out during the second to last scene connect to this belief about the gods. Steinbeck appears to show this throughout the rest of the story, showing man is unable to avoid anything the gods dislike.


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