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Obasan, by Joy Kogawa.

January 23, 2015

Obasan, by Joy Kogawa.  Anchor (1994), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 300 pages.

4 stars

A poignant, poetic novel about Japanese Canadians and their losses and silences during World War II.

Naomi is a single woman in her thirties, teaching in a small town in Alberta, Canada. When her uncle dies, she goes to her elderly aunt, Obasan, the woman who raised her during World War II. Obasan is calm and silent, waiting to die herself. “I feel that each breathe she takes is weighted with her mortality. She is the old woman of many Japanese legends alone, and waiting in her ancient time for the honor that is an old person’s due.”

In the presence of Obasan, Naomi is drawn into her own memories and the unanswered questions that have long haunted her. Before the war her family had had a comfortable life in Vancouver. Her father was a professional musician and her uncle a successful boat builder. She has a few strong memories of her mother from those years. She has a photograph of herself as a toddler with her mother.

I am clinging to my mother’s leg, a flesh shaft that grows from the ground, a tree trunk of which I am an offshoot—a branch attached by right of flesh and blood. Where she is rooted I am rooted.

In the fall of 1941 when Naomi was five, her mother left to visit ailing relatives in Japan. With the outbreak of war, she never returned or contacted her family. Soon afterward Japanese in Canada came under attack. Japanese families were taken in custody, divided and their property seized, as in the United States. The story differs, however, in some interesting ways. Not better or worse, just different. Naomi and her brother were sent to Slocan, an abandoned ghost town where they lived in primitive conditions at the edge of a forest. By the time the war ended, they had settled into the land and village. Again the government forced them to move to Alberta where they labored in the sugar beet fields.

Naomi remembers what it was like as a five-year-old to lose her mother, her home, and everything she had known. Her memories are supplemented by the diary and other materials which had been kept by another aunt, Emily, still determined to force the government to make up for the damage they had done to the Japanese. Her adult memories of the exodus from Vancouver, clarify Naomi’s childhood ones. Naomi resents Aunt Emily’s attempt to retrieve the past.

All of Aunt Emily’s words, all her papers, the telegrams and petitions, are like scratching in the barnyard, the evidence of much activity, scaly claws hard at work. But what good they do, I do not know—those little black typewritten words—rain words cloud droppings. They do not touch us where we are planted here in Alberta, our roots clawing the sudden prairie air. The words are not made flesh.

Even when Naomi learns some of the secrets that the others had kept from her, she questions what has happened. She affirms her Canadian citizenship, despite her nation’s denial of her.

We come from the country that plucks its people out like weeds and flings them into the roadside. . . . We come from Canada, this land that is like every land, filled with the wise, the fearful, the compassionate, and the corrupt.

But for Naomi, Obasan stands apart, not caught out in the chaos.  While Naomi chaffs against the silence that her culture has taught, she maintains her love and respect for her aunt.

She does not dance to the multicultural piper’s tune or respond to the racist’s slur. She remains a silent territory, defined by her serving hands.

Joy Kogawa is herself a Canadian of Japanese ancestry. Born in 1935, she lived in house in Vancouver which is Naomi’s first home in Obasan. When she was Naomi’s age, her family was sent to Slocan. Although this novel is not autobiographical, Kogawa has drawn on her own experience and those around her in writing. She has worked to insure that the experience of Japanese Canadians be included in that nation’s history. In addition, Kogawa is a poet who has published several volumes of her poems. Her novel reflects her poetic sensitivities in her descriptions of landscapes and peoples and in overall mood of her novel.

Although Obasan is about the painful realities of the removal of Japanese Canadians, Kogawa is able to make the chaotic losses and the steady endurance of her characters resonate for her readers.  Love and beauty are present along with the pain. She also makes real the cultural emphasis on silence and the hidden pains that they feel. In this way, she seems able to make the silence in each of us become palatable and spoken.

I strongly recommend this book to readers interested in the experience of Japanese in North America during World War II. The book stands apart from others on this topic because of the depth and richness of its language and its depiction of Japanese culture.  In doing, so it offers an alternative image of a woman aging.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2015 11:10 am

    This sounds really interesting. It’s good to see significant historical events told from alternative angles rather than the prevalent narrative.

  2. January 27, 2015 8:53 am

    Nice review, and a eye opener. Happy New Year Marilyn.

    • January 27, 2015 10:16 pm

      Thanks. I think you would like this book. It shows the importance of family for Japanese culture.

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