Winning both the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Canadian Authors' Association Book of the Year Award, Obasan was the first novel to deal with the Canadian internment of its Japanese citizens during and after World War II. Written by the poet Joy Kogawa the novel appeared in 1981 while the efforts of Japanese Canadians to win redress from the Canadian government for internment were in high gear. The novel has been the focus of much criticism exploring its treatment of landscape, identity, and mother-culture.
The autobiographical work tells the story of a schoolteacher, Naomi, remembering the struggle to grow up as a third generation Japanese Canadian amid the hysteria of World War II. Being so young when internment began, she did not understand what was happening, and nobody tried to explain it to her. She loses her mother as a result, she thinks, of her sexual abuse by a neighbor. Then she loses her father when all Japanese must go to the interior or to work camps. Given the circumstances and historical whims of her story, it is surprising that the novel is not a tragedy. It does not become so because of the silent strength of the title character, Obasan. She holds the keys to the past, to which Naomi must reconcile herself. She is finally successful in an epiphanic ending—a sudden revelation—as she embraces and is embraced by the Canadian landscape.