Book Review

Obasan by Joy Kogawa

very "literary fiction" literary fiction about WW2 non-Nazi racism

This is another relatively recent contemporary Canadian classic that I bought in a secondhand bookstore because a) it sounded interested and b) it has the Penguin Modern Classics “seal of approval”.

Obasan is a 1981 novel by Joy Kogawa, a Canadian citizen of Japanese heritage, and it is a novelisation based on the author’s personal childhood experience of the atrocious domestic behaviour the Canadian government practised towards Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.

As I’m sure we’re all aware, in the USA during the same period, Japanese citizens and American citizens with Japanese citizens for parents or grandparents or great grandparents were rounded up and taken to camps in order to “protect” the state from “espionage”. What happened in Canada – which seemed equally as shook by Pearl Harbor as the US – was similar, though worse (if this novel is truthful when it compares the two).

Japanese Canadians who lived close to the West coast were forced to relocate into Canada’s bleak interior, and had their properties and assets seized by the state.

Some of these people were sent to forced labour camps, while others were forced to become cheap agricultural labourers who got to live wherever they wanted, provided it was within a certain town’s jurisdiction. Lots of older and physically weaker people died as a result of the uncomfortable circumstances they found themselves in.

Once the war was over, though, the government did not apologise for their actions; they instead doubled down. Japanese Canadians were offered the choice to go to Japan (phrased as a “return”, that classic racist “go home”, screamed at families who’d been Canadian for generations) or to be relocated to a place within Canada of the government’s choosing. For those who opted for the second choice, they were assured that they would not end up where they had lived before and they would not get back any of the houses or businesses or other assets that had been requisitioned a few years before.

Japanese Canadians were encouraged to choose that first option, and ready themselves for a move to Japan. They were seen as uncooperative if they objected to this, but then – as bureaucracy is slow and the supply of manual labour is less after a war than before – the government changed their mind about where they needed people, so recategorised anyone who had flirted with the idea of emigration as “disloyal” and had them instead moved to the parts of the country most desperate for farm, factory or mine workers.

Understandably, those who had been teachers, doctors, engineers, musicians etc before the war, struggled to adjust to hard labour, and not all were able to [physically and/or psychologically] “hang on” until wartime racism calmed enough for them return to the careers they’d trained for.

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The narrator of Obasan is a woman, Naomi, who was a child when this happened to her and her extended family.

The novel moves between memories she recalls from her childhood (not necessarily chronologically) and then into and outwards from a box of letters, diaries and government communications which Naomi’s activist aunt has collected in the decades since the war.

Through these letters and later discussion with the woman referred to throughout as Obasan (Naomi’s 80 year old, recently widowed, [great?] aunt and primary childhood caregiver), Naomi discovers the truth about her mother’s life and death (she was visiting family in Japan when war was announced and never came home) and comes to terms with the grief she never truly explored for all the many friends and relatives she lost to death or distance during the war.

It’s beautiful and moving and it’s bleak and so so so sad.

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Naomi’s adulthood is unassuming and she seems unexcited by life. Her older brother – who went through all she did during the war with her – responds to the trauma in a different way: he avoids his family, he divorces himself from Japanese culture and during the brief scenes where he, as an adult, interacts with Obasan, Kogawa evokes a disapproval and a distrust in his demeanour that is quietly devastating.

It’s a powerful novel.

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Sometimes, especially in texts given the Penguin Classics (inc. Modern) designation, one reads a book and feels that it’s something children are probably given to read in high school. Though I didn’t know Obasan was a high school text when I picked the book off a dusty shelf in Montreal last November, I was unsurprised to find out it was.

Obasan is literary fiction in that very literary fiction mode: there is a stretching towards lyricism and poetry within description and there is a polyphony of voices textually justified through the inclusion of diaries, documents and letters read by the novel’s reader as the novel’s protagonist reads them.

The reason why this kind of novel is what we read in schools is because it’s a type of novel that can be great.

It is a type of writing that possesses an implied universality. The voice here – and in countless other novels – is the type of voice we are taught in school to see as the unvarnished universal, but it is very distinctly a university-educated, middle class, socially liberal, metropolitan voice.

Popular powerful novels from the last few decades that explore race and gender and sexuality very often still use forms closely aligning with these class and education-based criteria.

One’s body and identity can be warmly subsumed within the popular literary canon if the way in which one explores it resonates with the normative mode of literary expression, i.e. an implication of shared attitude and education.

The liberal-capitalist myth is that education affords opportunity, and when childhood (or later life) trauma resulting from discrimination is explored novelistically using the same structures and textual forms as a novel by a white male university lecturer describing an A grade mid-life crisis, then the proponents of this myth are able to point at said novel as justification. Which is bullshit.

Anyway, I need to walk my dog.

Obasan is a good novel. But it’s very much literary fiction. And that’s a style of writing I rarely find exciting any more…


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