In this time of bubbling racism and bigotry that percolates from the murky depths of hatred and narrow-mindedness, blinding Americans to the constitutional rights of citizenship and freedom of religion, it is a good thing to read of past mistreatment of minorities in this country (and in other countries as well). The forced internment of loyal Japanese Americans from western states is a terrible blight on American history, and it is fairly familiar to most schoolchildren, largely because of books such as Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar.
But the mistreatment of citizens of Japanese descent also occurred in Canada---in some ways parallel to that experienced in the United States, in other ways more severe and long-lasting. Along the western coastline, their property was confiscated (if not outright looted) and the victims were forced into holding facilities or to locations in the interior. Some could argue that it was necessary for wartime protection, but what happened thereafter was an even greater crime, as they were forbidden to return to their homes and farms following the war, and were made to disperse throughout the country or return to Japan. This story is forcefully and beautifully recounted in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan (more a memoir than a piece of fiction), which has become her best-known work.
Kogawa’s primary skill is poetry, and it shows in her prose. She lovingly, yet firmly, portrays the plight and resilience of a family as it deals with separation and loss, both of individuals and community (not once, but twice). An example of her prose is, “The dust, light-winged as soot, is swarming thickly across the flashlight beam. . . everything, I suppose, turns to dust eventually. A man’s memories end up in some attic or in a Salvation Army bin. His name becomes a fleeting statistic and his face is lost in fading photographs, the clothing quaint, the anecdotes gone. . . Potent and pervasive as a prairie dust storm, memories and dreams seep and mingle through cracks, settling on furniture and into upholstery. . .” Kogawa frequently shifts from the narrative into sidebars of near poetry.
The story is told through the eyes of Naomi, a kindergarten-aged child, as she struggles to understand the loss of her parents (father was a doctor) and grandparents [as well as her encounter with a pedophiliac neighbor before the war], as her aunt (and later uncle) and neighbors are relocated to Slocum. The mystery of her mother’s fate, trapped in Japan when she goes just before the outbreak of hostilties to care for her sick parent and never returns, is slowly revealed. Her father manages to return, for a short while, but then likewise disappears from their lives. She is forced to live in a small home nestled near a mountainside, but at least they still have a community. After the war this community is destroyed and dispersed, and (as if they are being punished for their heritage) they are forced to labor on a beet farm (“perhaps some genealogist [sic?] of the future will come across this patch of bones and wonder why so many fishermen died on the prairies.”). Luckily, she has the loving care of her Obasan (aunt) and uncle (a master boatbuilder and carpenter), as well as her music-loving brother (determined to ignore his Japanese roots as much as possible). Although the story is sad, heartrending, there is also much beauty and love in it. I will likely try the sequel, Itsuka.