August 20, 2012: “Obasan” by Joy Kogawa

August 20, 2012

Every Summer my superb local library (Hudson Public Library) puts out a cart they call the “Summer Reading List” which are suggestions to young adult readers about what the librarians think would be good reading material. I call it “The Treasure Chest” because, over the years, I have found such good reading material that I otherwise might never have found. A couple of weeks ago I found there “Obasan” by Joy Kogawa, which is the shiny gem in this years chest.

The gem that is “Obasan” is the semi-autobiographic novel about the internment of Joy and her family in a series of relocation camps in the interior of Canada during WWII. I have written about this topic before, and quite possibly will do again, because I still can’t quite believe that a nation would intern its own citizens, even under the threat of war. Unfortunately, we are still seeing such discrimination in our own country, even up to the last administration. For those that are unaware of our own sad history, at the beginning of WWII, Americans of the United States and Canada of Japanese decent, were relocated into camps in the interiors of both countries. Many of these people, particularly the children, as the case was of Ms. Kogawa had never even been to Japan, and almost all were nationalized citizens of their adopted countries. Families were separated, some members being shipped back to Japan. Many of the internees had their homes and possessions stolen from them by the government, even to the hand-made fishing boats, that were the heart of their family’s economy. Some died in the camps. All were discriminated against and betrayed by the very country they had travelled so far to immigrate to.

“Obasan” is a very real portrayal of a dispossessed people by a woman who lived the events. “Obasan” is very much a woman’s book. Men certainly are present, but largely take a back seat to the feelings and actions of the women. Obasan means “aunt” and one of the main characters is the somewhat complacent, quiet aunt of Naomi, the narrator of the story. Opposite Obasan is another aunt, Emily, who is a whirlwind of vocal protestations and militant-like written proclamations against the Canadian government addressing the abuses done to her, her family, and her fellow internees. As such, Naomi is caught in the middle between silent obsequiousness and militant activism, a position that itself, speaks volumes of what most American-Japanese must have felt going through this. Caught between their Eastern culture and Western discriminations. Caught between respect to a country, at the same time with that country failing them in the most miserable way possible. Caught between the duty to obey orders and honor for oneself and family.

The Kogawa Family (with a camp minister) in Slocan Relocation Camp; 1940’s

Like Naomi, reading “Obasan” I felt caught between as well. “Obasan” is extremely well written with clutches of prose so beautiful, they can only come from a poet, and yet that beautiful language only reinforces the perpetual sadness that saturates every page. I loved the words but hated how they made me feel. After one chapter, I felt compelled to find another book to “cut” Obasan” with, to get some relief. I chose its polar opposite: “Why We Suck” by Denis Leary, being not only the perfect foil in humor to the sorrow of “Obasan” but also reinforced that yes, any country that can commit crimes against its own citizens does in deed “suck!”

Another issue I had with the book is that much of the Japanese language and terms often go untranslated or undefined. I happen to know what a koto is because I’ve had the benefit of seeing and hearing one played. I’ve (obviously, if you follow this blog) been exposed to good deal of Japanese foodstuffs and know the Japanese words for them, but again that has been my privilege of experience. I sincerely doubt that your average young adult in America would have the same experience. With that in mind, I think that “Obasan” would be a wonderful (and even necessary) book for young adults. I do also regonize that “Obasan” could be a potential drag to students, so I offer the following recommendations to teachers:

  • “Obasan” should be taught by teacher that had a good knowledge of Japanese culture, language and history in America.
  • It should  be broken up with another, lighter, piece of literature.
  • Don’t expect a lot of the males to be captivated by the book as it has little, by way of strong characters they could relate, to hold their attention.

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