Joy Kogawa's Obasan is a novel of memory, exploring the Canadian government's deplorable treatment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, which included the suspension of all rights, forced internment and labour, and the fracturing of families. Worst of all, though, in the eyes of narrator Naomi Nakane as she recalls the events of her childhood, was the repeated exile. In a powerful blend of historical fact and rich symbolism, Naomi finds herself pushed aside from Canadian society and forced to live in ghost towns and abandoned mining camps, places already forsaken by Canadians of European descent who were patriotically and dutifully at war with Germany and Japan. As an adult looking back, she finds her ties to these places seemingly unbreakable.
Obasan opens in 1972 with Naomi, a second-generation schoolteacher, still dealing with the emotional and psychological aftermath of her childhood experience. She recalls the historical events so coldly chronicled in official documents. Letters and journals kept by her aunt, Emily Kato, help colour these recollections, as does her reunion with surviving family members upon her uncle's death. Her uncle's widow, Obasan, the once strong and graceful woman who raised Naomi, is now blind and crippled by age and time. The contrast between her current condition and the memory of her enduring strength becomes the painful but intimately compelling centre of the novel. Obasan is autobiographical; Naomi's experiences mirror Kogawa's own. This fact contributes to the power of Kogawa's prose, but her remarkably poetic writing and eye for image and symbolism are what elevate this deeply moving novel to the status of Canadian classic. --Jonathan Dewar [via]