Obasan by Joy Kogawa

Joy Kogawa
(Penguin Books, Markham (Ont.): 1983)

First published by Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd., 1981

READ: October-November 2007

I first read this in my second-year university course in Canadian literature and, looking for something to read on my bookshelves at my parents' house, decided it was time for a re-read.

I had forgotten how compelling a story it is. Obasan tells the story of the displacement of the Japanese Canadians in WWII through the eyes of a child. Naomi has never been to Japan, and doesn't really understand what is happening when her own family gets broken up because of the war. She has never thought of herself as different, and continues to live in some sort of denial of that fact, until many years later, after the death of her uncle who helped raise her, when she starts to become more aware of the true extent of the injustice and prejudice that had been levelled against Japanese Canadians for so many years.

To be sure, I have a better appreciation now for the Japanese culture, and also WWII events, that I did not have when I first read this. It's a really poignant story, and, given the heady nature of its subject matter, does a surprisingly good job of not being too heavy-handed, with one or two exceptions. Kogawa really captures the sense of a child, bewildered by the changes around her but, in the way of children, easily adaptable to whatever circumstances are thrown her way. The writing is very accessible, and the story, while sometimes glossed over in history books, is one that every Canadian ought to know.

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