Laying it on the line 2 – Obasan

(This post is part of an occasional series in which I highlight some of my favourite lines from an assortment of sources and try to offer a little bit of context.)

This body of grief is not fit for human habitation. Let there be flesh. The song of mourning is not a lifelong song.

Father, Mother, my relatives, my ancestors, we have come to the forest tonight, to the place where the colours all meet – red and yellow and blue. We have turned and returned to your arms as you turn to earth and form the forest floor. Tonight we picked berries with the help of your sighted hands. Tonight we read the forest braille. See how our stained fingers have read the seasons, and how our serving hands serve you still.

My loved ones, rest in your world of stone. Around you flows the underground stream. How bright in the darkness the brooding light. How gentle the colours of rain.

Obasan by Joy Kogawa
Obasan by Joy Kogawa

Obasan, by Joy Kogawa, was first published in 1981. It was among the first fictionalised accounts of the internment of Japanese-Canadian citizens during World War 2. Kogawa’s novel brought the events of that period of Canadian history to a new audience, as, even within the Japanese-Canadian community, the facts of internment were not well-known or commonly discussed. The Canadian government’s decision to inter its citizens of Japanese descent and to remove their rights of ownership of their land and belongings was made immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but the Japanese Canadians on the west coast of British Columbia had already been fingerprinted, photographed and issued with compulsory registration cards. Immediately after the bombing, the Canadian government invoked the War Measures Act and within months the BC Security Commission had sent nearly 22,000 Canadian citizens to internment camps in the interior of the province and in neighbouring Alberta. In order that these forced migrants would be able to pay for their stay in these hastily-constructed camps, the Custodian of Enemy Property sold their land and belongings held in trust by him, often at a fraction of their real value.

Obasan, in addition to being the recipient of numerous literary awards, was a national bestseller. The novel became closely tied up in wider issues of recognition and redress. When the official announcement of Japanese-Canadian redress was made in the House of Commons in September 1988, parts of the text were read aloud.

The novel tells the story of a Japanese-Canadian schoolteacher, Naomi Nakane, who, in the days after receiving news that her uncle has died, returns to her childhood home to be with his wife, her Obasan or aunt. Following the evacuation of Japanese Canadians from the Vancouver of her early years, Naomi and her brother Stephen spent their childhood in a number of internment locations with Obasan and Uncle. The children lost their father during the war and, prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Naomi’s mother and maternal grandmother had travelled to Japan to visit family members. Years pass without news of them and Naomi grows to adulthood unaware of her mother’s fate. As what remains of the fractured family prepares to say goodby to Uncle Isamu, Naomi remembers the years of silence regarding her mother’s disappearance and, finally, comes to know what happened to the woman she longed for since childhood.

The book is often read as a narrative of loss. Naomi loses her national identity, her cultural inheritance, her home, her family. The adult Naomi is a lost soul, living alone and unable to make connections within her community. The novel is almost unbearably sad and, as someone who has read it many times, I defy anyone to read to the end and not get a little choked up. The tangible grief is intensified by the knowledge that, while fictionalised, the events of the novel might as easily have been recorded as fact.

Obasan is in many ways an autobiographical text. The facts of Kogawa’s childhood are similar to the events of the novel in that she too experienced the internment and later dispersal of the Japanese-Canadian community. While Obasan was her first novel, Kogawa had already established herself as a poet, a fact that is clearly evident throughout the text of Obasan. The language of the novel is immensely beautiful and incredibly moving. Certain parts of it must be read aloud to give them their full worth. The cadence of the sentences and the carefully controlled imagery reflect, not only the Japanese restraint of the elderly Obasan, but also hint at the nationally-sanctioned reins against which the Canadian elements of Naomi’s identity struggle.

I found it difficult to choose a few lines from Obasan. I first read the book in my late teens and have grown to love it more with each reread. The passage I picked for ‘Laying it on the line’ comes from the closing pages of the novel and gives a sense of the hope for a future in which the trauma of Japanese-Canadian internment can be known, acknowledged and, one day – Itsuka – healed.

Kogawa retold the story of Obasan‘s protagonist, Naomi, in a version for children, first published in 1986 as Naomi’s Road and later reworked in picture book form as Naomi’s Tree. Obasan has a sequel, Itsuka, which has also appeared under the title Emily Kato.

Naomi's Road by Joy Kogawa, with illustrations by Matt Gould
Naomi’s Road by Joy Kogawa, with illustrations by Matt Gould.

This body of grief is not fit for human habitation. Let there be flesh. The song of mourning is not a lifelong song.

Father, Mother, my relatives, my ancestors, we have come to the forest tonight, to the place where the colours all meet – red and yellow and blue. We have turned and returned to your arms as you turn to earth and form the forest floor. Tonight we picked berries with the help of your sighted hands. Tonight we read the forest braille. See how our stained fingers have read the seasons, and how our serving hands serve you still.

My loved ones, rest in your world of stone. Around you flows the underground stream. How bright in the darkness the brooding light. How gentle the colours of rain.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s