In the United States, many eloquent first-person narratives by Japanese Americans, some more fictionalized than others, document the horrors of internment that Japanese citizens endured during World War II, but in Canada, Joy Kogawa’s novel is by far the most significant account. Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter (1953) is perhaps the closest to Obasan in tone and purpose. Among other compelling accounts are Toshio Mori’s Yokohama, California (1949), Mine Okubo’s Citizen 13660 (1946), and Yoshiko Uchida’s Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese-American Family (1982).
Obasan is a complex and artfully crafted work. It is, in part, autobiography. Kogawa was six years old, one year older than the fictional Naomi Nakane, when Kogawa’s family was evacuated from Vancouver to the ghost town of Slocan, in eastern British Columbia. Authentic newspaper clippings, government documents, and real letters of protest written by a Japanese Canadian activist elaborate and enhance Kogawa’s story. Within the framing narrative and the flashback of personal memory, Kogawa infuses rich, deeply layered poetic language, which functions as a keening for the two particular deaths that frame the book, those of her uncle and her mother.
The actual time frame of the story is just a few days, from the phone call that alerts her to her uncle’s death to the family gathering in Granton for the funeral. Special emphasis is placed on family unity throughout the novel, described in images of all members being knit together into one blanket. Thus, the migratory saga of both a single family and also an ethnic community evolves.
The first eleven chapters are more or less an exposition of Naomi’s family history. The...
(The entire section is 728 words.)