Obasan by Joy Kogawa

My second book for the Canadian Book Challenge is Joy Kogawa’s Obasan. This novel deals with a subject I know very little about–the internment of Japanese Canadians by the Canadian government during WWII. I’ve read David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars which deals with the same theme but in America; I had no idea this practice was part of Canada’s history as well.

I believe this book is one of the pillars of CanLit, and deservedly so–Obasan is a very disturbing and powerful read, asking some searching questions about a part of Canadian history I suppose many would be only too happy to forget. Naomi, a third-generation  Japanese Canadian girl, is separated from her parents after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and consequently lives with her uncle and aunt (Obasan). At age 5, Naomi moves from her comfortable home in Vancouver to work camps for Japanese Canadians, first to the ghost town of Slocan in BC, and then to a sugar-beet farm in Granton, Alberta. The story opens in 1972, when Naomi has seemingly put behind her past and is comfortably assimilated in her Canadian environment. 

But another aunt, Emily, is seeking justice for the treatment meted out to Japanese Canadians, and her struggle forces Naomi to confront her memories. While Naomi doesn’t really find  ‘closure’ (and thank goodness for that, for it would devalue the sense of authenticity the text carries) she is granted a deeper understanding of how the events of the past have affected her.  

This novel has received several negative reviews on Amazon (mostly from high school students forced to read it for a class assignment) and I can see why an impatient reader might find the book somewhat tedious. Kogawa’s style, especially in the initial third of the book, features a lush abundance of imagery that often seems to flow at the expense of the narrative. I also found some of the writing in this section rather clunky and repetitive, and some of the metaphors, like one about her tightly-knit family subjected to a warm-water wash, seemed rather contrived. But I was loath to quit, and by the middle of the book, found myself moved to the marrow by Naomi’s account of her life in the camps. Kogawa’s dreamy, opaque prose is revealed to be the perfect medium to communicate events so large and cruel they are almost unfathomable to the human brain. I am so thankful I read this book in my thirties rather than in my teenage years, when I would no doubt have declared it a slow book and abandoned it without a thought for what I might have missed.  

Update: In 1986, Kogawa adapted her novel into a children’s  book, Naomi’s Road. Read an interview with Kogawa about this book at papertigers.org

5 thoughts on “Obasan by Joy Kogawa

  1. I read, and enjoyed this, as an adult as well. It’s unfortunate that so many great books are ruined in highschool. My theory is it usually has nothing to do with the maturity, or lack thereof, of the students, but it has to do with teachers being forced to teach certain books year after year. Maybe they get sick of them and their lack of enthusiasm wears off. I think if allowed teachers to pick which books they’re going to cover, they’d be more inspired. But, excuse my cynicism, that’ll never happen.

  2. Great Review! This one is on my TBR. My husband and I visited the Slocon Vally, BC last summer and toured a old interment camp / museum. It was very cramped and there was no privacy, even in the latrine.

  3. My dad gave me this book for Christmas, as he is Japanese and my grandparents experienced some of those events here in Southern Alberta. I started it but have put it down a couple times, and your review has encouraged me to pick it up again and keep going! I am always interested to learn a little more about my heritage as it seems like that generation and culture tends to be quite close-mouthed and private about what they went through.

  4. John: I think you are so right–bored teachers are the scourge of literature. But I must confess that having a book set as a text immediately set my back up against the blameless author–it was this thing about being ‘forced’ to read without room for negotiation. I still can’t read Thomas Hardy…

    Teddy: Thanks for visiting! I saw Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam some years ago, and it brought the book alive for me in a really chilling way– I guess your experience must’ve been similar. I hope you find Obasan as rewarding as I did.

    Kimiko: That’s really interesting, because one of Kogawa’s themes in the book is about keeping history quiet/private versus publicizing it and demanding justice. Obasan stands for silence while Aunt Emily is for speaking out. (I’ll stop now before I give the story away.)I’m really eager to read your review of this book!
    Btw, I was trying to leave a comment on your blog but couldn’t–I think non-google users aren’t enabled. Anyway, I’ve reserved Brown Girl in the Ring at the library now!

  5. It’s good to see someone review an older publication. I sometimes tire of people wanting to read only the latest releases. I was privileged to hear Ms Kogawa’s reading from the book at the launch of its release in 1983. I loved the story. Although I knew some of the history and heard accounts from friends, it was the first book of personal experience of the times that I read. An interesting fact is that reparation to Japanese Canadians for property taken and loss of rights had never been given by the Canadian Government when this book came out. Reparation did not come until 1988 so this story had quite an impact as a reminder to Canadians of an unjust history. Thank you for reviewing this book.

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