Obasan by Joy Kogawa

I’m taking a class on Canadian literature and citizenship this semester, which is very much my jam, and this is one of three novels we had to read. Obasan is one of those texts I’ve danced around for a long time but never really gotten to, so I was glad to see it on the syllabus and finally sit down and read it.

It’s a beautifully written, heartbreaking account of the Japanese-Candian experience during World War II, which, let me tell you, was fucking awful.

The government stoked xenophobic fears in Vancouver and across the country in order to condone the internment of thousands and thousands of Canadian citizens. Others were deported “back” to Japan, despite being born in Canada and living in Canada their whole lives. Their property and belongings were confiscated and liquidated, producing very little profit of which the original owners saw almost none. Almost everyone of Japanese descent was rounded up like animals – including pregnant women, children, the elderly, the ill, the disabled – and confined, literally, in barns. Families were separated between work camps and resettlement areas, and resettled again as soon as they began to get comfortable. Their labour was farmed out to small communities, where they worked long hours for very little money or no money at all – and again, everyone was expected to provide this labour, including the elderly, the very young, the ill, and the disabled.

It’s a terrible, revolting time in Canadian history – and until Obasan was published in 1981, largely a time that was swept under the rug. It’s heavy, and it’s beautifully written, and it’s important. I was lucky enough to borrow this copy from my extremely smart, extremely critical, and extremely compassionate friend Carmen, who provided extremely smart, extremely critical, and extremely compassionate marginalia. Everyone should have a Carmen, and everyone should read Obasan, and we should never let anything like this happen again.

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