Thursday, March 31, 2011

Natanya Reviews Obasan, by Joy Kogawa

Title/Author: Obasan, by Joy Kogawa
Publisher/Year: Random House, 1981
How I got it: Amazon
Why I read it: For my Comparative American Literatures course

Maybe it’s because I’m an American, or maybe it’s because the times I’ve been up there have been for vacation, but I have a very romanticized view of Canada. Growing up in Seattle, I spent a decent amount of time three hours away in Vancouver, BC. In fact, I’ve decided (upon discovering the sizeable book publishing industry there) that I want to ultimately live in Vancouver, which, conveniently, is rated by Businessweek as the #3 “most livable” city in the world. What I never really knew, though, was the history of Vancouver (or BC in general). I still don’t know much about it, but Joy Kogawa’s Obasan opened me up to a history I barely even knew existed—that of the Japanese Canadians during WWII. I initially assumed, like most people I’ve spoken to, that the US’s treatment of Japanese at this time was far worse than the Canadian treatment. I was wrong. While the Japanese Americans were protected by our Bill of Rights, the Japanese Canadians had no such constitutional protections. Unlike in the US, the Japanese Canadians’ land was seized and sold by the government, they were forced to pay for their own food and housing once interned, families were broken up, and, perhaps the worst part, they weren’t allowed to return to the coast of British Columbia until 1949, a full 4 years after the end of WWII.

Kogawa’s Obasan tells the story of the Japanese Canadians through the eyes of Naomi, who was a young child at the time, and her aunt. Kogawa uses various narratives, including Naomi as an adult struggling with her tragic past, Naomi’s memories from her childhood, her aunt’s diary entries from the 40s, and various government letters. I’m not much of a historical fiction person, but I found this novel so interesting, probably because it’s so real—Joy Kogawa is a Nisei, or a second generation Japanese Canadian, and Obasan is based on her own experiences. I loved the varying perspectives, and had little trouble distinguishing between them—Kogawa pieced the different narratives together beautifully to create a poetic and haunting novel.

This is by no means a fast novel, but I found it continuously engaging and beautiful. It is worth taking your time to read. I unfortunately had to read it in 2 days for class, but I really wish I had been able to spend longer on this deep, moving, and heartbreaking piece of literature. While it is not a book I would ever have even thought of reading if it weren’t for my class, I am so glad I got the chance to read it and learn from it.

4.5 stars

[P.S. You may know of my obsession with Margaret Atwood. Well, this week I GOT TO MEET HER! She did a reading at my university, and then I attended a Q&A the following morning (and got her signature!). She's amazing. Keep an eye out for a post about that in the next few weeks! :) ]


  1. I love the whole WWII period so this book sounds right down my alley. I too thought the US was alone in their treatment of citizens of Japanese descent. Who knew?

  2. How interesting- I also was completely unaware of the circumstances of Japanese Canadians during WWII (but then, I am often surprised by how little we Americans know about Canada at all). Thank you for an interesting review of what sounds like a very eye-opening book.

  3. I read this for a Canadian lit course a few years back and found it quite informative about Canadian WWII history (and I'm Canadian--how embarrassing to not know about these experiences!) And I'm jealous of your Margaret Atwood encounter. Please share details soon :)

  4. I'm SO jealous you got to meet Margaret Atwood. I fell in love with her when I was little when I saw she had my last name. I am glad to hear she's awesome in person as well!


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