CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 29 . . . . April 3, 2015
Joy Kogawa's historical novel, Obasan, first published in 1981, is a classic and required reading in university courses in several disciplines. A member of the Order of Canada, Kogawa has educated people about the injustice done to the 21,000 Canadians of Japanese origin during the Second World War. In 1944, the Canadian government ordered Japanese Canadians on the British Columbia coast to leave their homes and businesses and move to camps in the B.C. interior. The official reason for their removal was that they posed a security threat during wartime. In December 1941, Japan bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, and the United States then entered the war on the side of the Allies. The United States also interned its citizens of Japanese origin in camps, but, as one of the characters in Obasan points out, the Japanese Americans' property "wasn't liquidated" while that of the Japanese Canadians' was.
Though based on personal experience, Kogawa's novel is not directly autobiographical. During World War II, she and her family were interned and their Vancouver home confiscated. From ages seven to ten, she lived in a log cabin in Slocan, BC, and, after the war, in a shack in Coaldale, AB. The character "Obasan", the aunt, is based on Joy's mother.
The "present of the novel" is 1972, but there are shifts in time, including flashbacks within flashbacks. The central character/first person narrator is Naomi Nakane, a 36-year-old schoolteacher in Alberta, who returns to Granton, another small Alberta town, on learning of her uncle's death. Uncle and Aunt (Obasan) were parent-figures to Naomi and her older brother, Stephen. Elderly Obasan is deaf and prone to stony silence. She keeps repeating: "Someone dies every day." Waiting for Stephen and Aunt Emily Kato (her mother's sister) to come for the funeral, Naomi reluctantly examines some of the contents of a package Aunt Emily sent her a few months earlier.
An advocate for Japanese Canadians since World War II, Emily has included copies of wartime regulations, correspondence opposing them, family letters and her wartime diary. These papers stir Naomi's memories which are presented impressionistically from a child's perspective.
Happy family life in an upscale Vancouver neighbourhood is marred first by an elderly Caucasian molester who goes unreported because Naomi lacks the vocabulary to tell on him. When Naomi's mother visits Japan with Grandmother Kato, a trip they have made several times over the years, Naomi cannot express her feelings of loss. Obasan moves in to take care of Naomi and Stephen and becomes the bedrock of Naomi's life.
Through childhood flashbacks and Aunt Emily's wartime diary, readers see an escalation of measures against Japanese Canadians. Stephen is bullied at school; Father volunteers for a work camp and disappears; Japanese Canadians are herded into an unsanitary livestock building at Hastings Park prior to their removal to the BC interior. Soon Obasan and the children are on a train heading for Slocan.
Friends, the beautiful natural world and the community of Japanese Canadian internees at Slocan provide some happiness for Naomi. When the war ends, though, there is no return to Vancouver. Father, who has tuberculosis, writes less and less often, and eventually dies. No one talks about Mother. Obasan, Uncle, Stephen and Naomi move to a sugar beet farm in Alberta where they endure an uninsulated shack, extremes of temperature, hard labour, inadequate facilities for cleanliness, and lack of friends. The visits of Nakayama-sensei, a Japanese-Canadian Anglican minister (sensei= "teacher") who bicycles among scattered settlements, are a comfort. Another solace is the coulee where Uncle and Naomi like to sit.
Stephen's talent in music gives him a way out of Granton, but Naomi has no obvious unique abilities. Ironically, the people of Granton, who never befriend the Nakane family, take pride in their home-boy Stephen when he becomes an internationally acclaimed musician.
The novel returns to 1972, as Aunt Emily, Stephen, and Nakayama-sensei arrive at Obasan's house. In the coffee table clutter, the minister picks up a letter from Aunt Emily's package for Naomi, reads it, and says that the "children" should be told its contents. Grandma Kato, writing from Japan in 1949, gives a graphic description of the death and suffering in Nagasaki as a result of the atomic bomb. Details are not spared. The children's mother was badly disfigured, forever afterwards wore a cloth mask, and soon died. Emily, who has kept this tragedy to herself, has visited her sister's grave.
As the minister prays, Naomi is "listening to the silent earth and the silent sky", and prays, "Mother, I am listening. Assist me to hear you." That night, Naomi goes to the coulee where she and Uncle used to sit. The moon is a "pure white stone" with its reflection "dancing" in the river. She notices the fragrance of flowers.
The novel ends with an excerpt from the Memorandum sent by the Co-operative Committee of Japanese Canadians to the House and Senate of Canada, April 1946, opposing orders-in-council for the deportation of Canadians of Japanese racial origin.
The significance of stones and silence in Obasan has been discussed by scholars, and indeed the novel is a sophisticated literary work - for adults. Puffin prides itself on "publishing the most innovative and imaginative children's literature for generations", and recommends Obasan for ages 12+. But Obasan is not children's literature. Students in the senior years of high school and at university may be able to appreciate its style and plot, but not pre-teens or early teens, for reasons outlined below.
Teresa Toten, winner of the 2013 Governor General's Award for children's literature, who wrote the Puffin introduction to Obasan, thinks otherwise. She urges readers, presumably "tweens" and teens, to "be patient" while reading the novel. "Exhale into Kogawa's imagery and fill in the spaces in between her sentences," she advises. "Settle into her silences and you will be rewarded with a heart-wrenching story of a sweet and perilous childhood."
Experienced readers can handle the time shifts, thickets of imagery, slow pace and poetic style of Obasan, but younger readers may well lose patience, particularly those who are more interested in electronic media than in books. Not all of the novel is presented from a child's perspective, and teen readers may find it hard to relate to a 36-year-old narrator.
Obasan is more than "heart-wrenching", it is horrifically graphic in some places, and depressing throughout. Including gruesome deaths as a result of an atomic bomb blast is a narrative choice appropriate to a serious adult novel but seems too extreme for young readers. As well, while young people's novels do not necessarily need happy endings, they should close with hope. In Obasan, the final image is of a 36-year-old woman, still under the cloud of childhood experiences, reeling from the ultimate tragic revelation. The faint scent of wild flowers seems hardly sufficient hope for a sensitive young reader.
Many books for young people, and for adults, too, have a troubled central character who revisits the roots of his or her pain (often with a kindly guide) and emerges healed and speaking in his/her own unique voice. In Obasan, Naomi doesn't seem to be having this sort of experience. The suggestion seems to be that some tragedies are too deep to be fixed, and that one should maintain a respectful, self-preserving silence, as Obasan does. This message, while worth pondering, contradicts current popular thinking that the expression of emotion is healing.
Adult novels with children as characters are often re-categorized as juvenile literature, and, in some instances, this reclassification is a disservice to the author as well as to young readers. Mary Henley Rubio, biographer of Lucy Maud Montgomery (L.M. Montgomery, The Gift of Wings) reported that Montgomery grumbled about her books being marketed for children. "I am being classified as a 'writer for young people' and that only," she complained in her journal. Her 1926 novel, The Blue Castle, an adult romance, shocked people who had expected a children's book.
The author information, guide to the characters, discussion points and glossary at the end of the Puffin edition of Obasan are useful. Included is the fact that in 1988, the Canadian government officially apologized to Canadians of Japanese origin. Among the questions posed is the following: "Can you conceive of any circumstances that would warrant a government restricting certain citizens' rights during a time of war? If so, what would they be? If not, why not?" In 2015, all Canadians should be asking themselves this question.
Highly Recommended with Reservations.
Ruth Latta's published books include two young adult novels. She assisted Ottawa, ON, author Vera Gara with her autobiography, Least-Expected Heroes of the Holocaust.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any
other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.