I read Joy Kogawa’s well-known, CanLit novel Obasan for the first time while I was in high school in Ontario. As a young Japanese Canadian, I knew I was reading something that was important to the canon, to Canadian history and to me, but as I was still learning how to do close readings, I didn’t fully comprehend how much this book would mean to me.
Obasan is a story about a woman named Naomi who recalls her life while she lived in an internment camp in Canada. The dual timeline is narrated by Naomi as a child and as an adult. Her aunts, Obasan and Aunt Emily, help Naomi piece together her and her family’s history.
The next time I read Obasan, I was a busy undergrad student completing courses in North American history and English Language and Literature. During a history lecture about WWII and the Japanese internment camps, I knew I had to reread Obasan. This time around, reading the novel roused feelings of anger in me. Although I’m thankful for the emotions that it stirred in me, I kept thinking that my reading experiences with Obasan couldn’t end in anger. I wanted to turn my anger into positive action, so I did: I applied to the graduate program “Literatures of the West Coast” at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. I felt certain that UVic would be the place that I could finally write a thesis based on Asian North American literature and, in 2010, I turned my reading experiences of Joy Kogawa’s Obasan into my MA thesis.
I don’t know how many times I’ve read Obasan. I know that it’s not a novel everyone will enjoy. But there is something powerful in Naomi, Obasan and Aunt Emily’s stories that reveal dark secrets about Canada’s supposed “multiculturalism.” For me, Kogawa’s novel highlighted incidents in my life that serve as reminders that - even today - I’m not welcome or accepted in Canada as a (Japanese) Canadian.
Mikiko obtained her MA in English Language and Literature from The University of Victoria in Canada. She has worked as a language and literature instructor at post-secondary institutions in Canada, Japan, Kuwait and Oman. She worked as the Editorial Manager at a publishing firm in Shanghai and currently writes reviews for sabotagereviews.com. You can find her on Instagram @mikifoo82 or on her blog, thetravellingeditor.blogspot.com.
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