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.
Five-year-old Naomi Nakane’s secure life in her Vancouver home is shattered by a series of events far beyond her control. First, a neighbor lures her into an episode of abuse, leaving her with a guilty heart. Then her mother leaves for Japan to help nurse an ailing grandmother. Her Aunt Emily comes to visit, and Naomi overhears frantic, whispered conversations, which she does not understand. The culmination comes when Naomi, her older brother Stephen, and their Aunt Aya (Obasan of the title) are sent to live in Slocan, a near-deserted mining town in the mountains of interior British Columbia. Naomi’s father does not go with them; he is sent to a work camp.
Their assigned home is a sagging, two-room log cabin on the edge of the woods. It is crowded and primitive, even more crowded when an aged aunt and Obasan’s husband, Isamu, arrive, but Obasan’s and Uncle’s efforts soon make it livable. The family group settles in to live there for an unknown duration.
Most of the adults in Slocan have suffered the forced loss of their property, homes, and occupations, but even so a community emerges. Naomi and Stephen do not have a school, except for Sunday School, until May, 1943. Stephen, however, has his music, and Obasan keeps Naomi busy making scrapbooks of the royal family. Naomi has a close brush with death when she jumps off a log raft into a murky lake. Rescued by Rough Lock Bill, a local resident, she ends up in the hospital but learns that not all white Canadians are like her scary Vancouver neighbor.
When the war is...
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