“If I could follow the stream down and down to the hidden voice, would I come at last to the freeing word? I ask the night sky, but the silence is steadfast. There is no reply.” – Joy Kogawa, Obasan
Obasan by Joy Kogawa, written in 1981, is a stunning work of fiction depicting the life of Japanese-Canadians during World War II, including their internment and persecution. Set in Cecil, Alberta, Kogawa beautifully tells her story from the perspective of a child. She uses deep, powerful metaphors of water, streams and stones to portray the emotions experienced (or not able to be experienced) during this time of persecution and prejudice. Masterfully written, Obasan (the word for “aunt” in Japanese), weaves the present and the past with dreams and memories into beautiful prose that will remind you of the undeniable pleasure of reading well-written literature!
Kogawa’s main character, Naomi, attempts to understand the sadness and secrets within her family and culture. The death of her uncle leads Naomi to visit and care for her widowed aunt Aya, whom she refers to as “obasan.” During her brief stay with Aya, she tries to reconstruct her painful experiences as a child during and after World War II. Eventually, Naomi learns that her mother, who had been in Japan before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, was severely injured by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Her perspective on the war then changes as she recalls these difficult memories. The story essentially interweaves the past and present with the themes of time, memories, prejudice and injustice. The last chapter weaves the entire book together when Naomi discovers the secret her family has been keeping.
I recommend this fictional piece to anyone who is interested in Japanese culture or World War II (including the ramifications of the dropping of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki) and the persecution and ill treatment of Japanese-Canadians during the war. Furthermore, if you love metaphor in literature, this book is first rate!
A bit about the author, Joy Kogawa:
Joy Kogawa is a writer and poet and has worked to educate Canadians about the history of Japanese Canadians. Joy has studied at the University of Alberta and the University of Saskatchewan. Her most recent poetic publication (2003) is A Garden of Anchors. Her long poem, A Song of Lilith, published in 2000, retells the story of Lilith, the mythical first partner to Adam. Kogawa has also published other books: Itsuka, The Rain Ascends and Naomi’s Road.
In 1986, Kogawa was made a member of the Order of Canada; in 2006, she was made a member of the Order of British Columbia; and, in 2010, the Japanese government honored Kogawa with the Order of the Rising Sun. Joy Kogawa is also known for her contribution to the understanding and preservation of Japanese Canadian history. Obasan is usually required reading in college literature or ethnic studies classes in Canada and the United States.
To learn more about Joy Kogawa or to order a copy of Obasan, visit: joykogawa.ca.
© 2017, Vilma Reynoso, vilmareynoso.com. Musings and Inspiration for Abundant Living for all Beings from One Creative Being