Joy Kogawa’s Obasan has forced critics to include Asian Canadians in their study of ethnic literature; it is such a fine work no critic can ignore it. Kogawa has defined political and cultural connections between the Japanese immigrants of Canada and America. Both groups were held in internment camps during World War II. Their property was seized, and their families were often separated. In Canada and the United States the men of the families fought for their new countries while their wives, children, and siblings remained interred. Arguably one of the finest literary renderings of this experience, Obasan investigates what happened as a result of these practices.
Naomi Nakane, the protagonist of Obasan, appears emotionally paralyzed at the beginning of the novel. Unable to move beyond her own past in the camps and unable to reconcile the loss of her parents, Naomi has retreated into silence and isolation. Canada has essentially told Japanese Canadians that they are untrustworthy, second-class citizens at best, so Naomi retreats from her ethnic identity as well. Her Aunt Emily, however, is articulate, learned, professional, and politically active. Aunt Emily encourages Naomi to learn about the terrible things done to Japanese Canadians and to act on her anger. Naomi gains the impetus for change.
Shortly before the family’s relocation to the internment camps (when Naomi is a child), Mrs. Nakane leaves to visit family in Japan. She never returns and the family carefully guards the secret of her fate. It is only as a thirty-six-year-old adult that Naomi is given the letters that reveal her mother’s story of disfigurement and subsequent death as a result of the atomic bombing. The mother, herself, has imposed silence on the other family members. Naomi tries to engage her mother’s presence, to heal the rift between them, although her mother is not physically there. In writing the novel Kogawa has constructed an elaborate attempt to embrace the absent voice, to contain the mother in some manner useful to Naomi’s own construction of identity.
Poetic passages describe this imagined reunion. Dream sequences also punctuate the narrative, providing the touching lyricism that moves the novel beyond most of the literature written around the internment camp experience. Bound with the sociopolitical analysis provided by Aunt Emily and Naomi’s personal history, the novel sets high standards for literature on ethnic identity.