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