Obasan by Joy Kogawa is a historical fiction novel that focuses on the displacement and removal of Japanese Canadians during World War 2 and the years following. Obasan takes place within two time frames: the early 70’s after the death of the main character’s uncle, and when the main character is a child in the 40’s.
The first of these time frames has the main character, Naomi, traveling from her teaching position back to her aunt’s home. It is presumed that she will be helping her aunt, also known as Obasan, with the arrangements. This timeline acts as a way for Naomi to process and understand the relocation of her childhood. In these moments of waiting for the other family members, it is where Naomi reads through her other aunt’s journal. However, Naomi’s attitude towards the relocation is one of disdain and desires that it be kept in the past. Her feelings are contrasted with her other aunt, Aunt Emily, who strives for justice in rectifying the wrong doings of the Canadian government. Aunt Emily acts as the natural moral compass in Obasan, but again doesn’t align with Naomi’s motives.
The second timeframe follows a young Naomi as her family soon becomes displaced. Young Naomi observes her family breaking apart when her mother leaves Canada to go back to Japan after the government begins to strip the Japanese Canadian’s away from their possessions and homes. Naomi with the rest of her family is then shipped farther inland where a sense of childlike innocence persists. Then at the end of the war, she is again shipped to a farm where her family is forced to harvest sugar beets.
Throughout the novel, there is a light metaphor that acts to thread the experiences of young Naomi together. It is the idea that Japanese Canadians are chickens that are under the exact control of the Canadian government. Scenes such as Naomi watching a chicken being killed by another chicken and seeing a schoolboy try to kill a chicken by snapping its neck highlights this metaphor.
And while the story deeply explores what it means to be a Japanese Canadian, I felt some of the techniques fell short of what it was trying to achieve. In one instance, Naomi reads Aunt Emily’s journal entries without processing or guiding the internal dialogue along for 40 pages. Aunt Emily herself comes off as a not enjoyable character simply because her one focus is getting justice which is conveyed through some information dumping.
Overall however, Kogawa’s style of writing can at times be entrancing with distinct descriptions and poetic sentences. This moment in history must be told and retold so that it is not forgotten from the public consciousness and Kogawa has a unique enough voice to do so. At times Obasan can seem clunky, but in the end manages to land the leaps it attempts to make.
Final Rating: 3.5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.