Cultural Suffering

With my students, I’m reading a touching novel Obasan by Joy Kogawa (1981) Set in British Columbia and Alberta, Canada before, during and after World War II, Obasan portrays the suffering of Japanese “relocated” by the Canadian government. It’s actually far more complex than that because two members of this extended Japanese family returned to Japan in the 1930s. They are the child Naomi’s mother and grandmother. She never sees them again.

Shifting between several perspectives–Naomi’s experience as a child of five through high school, and then leaping ahead to herself as an adult, a teacher in an Alberta school–the novel also infiltrates personal memory with documents which gradually shed light on her Aunt Emily’s search for information about the “lost” relatives and justice for her extended family, separated and tossed about by the Canadian government.

In the United States, we usually find about about the Japanese internment camps during 7th grade history. The title that stays with me from my years working as a writer in the schools is Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Houston, 1979. Told from the perspective of a 7-year-old child, the story of dislocation and internment is harsh but not unrelieved–children adjust. In comparison Obasan is a much more probing account, with adult perceptions of loss, injustice and hardship interspersed with Naomi’s childhood awareness. After the war ended, she and her family–brother and aunt and uncle–were uprooted again. This horror included not only the loss of the lively community the internees had created in a former ghost town, complete with the Japanese communal bath, but a resettlement to what was little more than a hut, amid the beet fields of Alberta. Unheated, cramped, the hut enforced a hatred that was doubled as all the family worked in the beet fields–heavy, hot labor–the only work offered to them. When they finally could afford to move to a small house in town, it’s a relief the reader shares.

Through all this suffering runs the cultural manners of Japanese people themselves–their quiet, restrained acceptance, their sturdy continuation despite extreme loss and hardship. their lack of voiced complaint. I find all this remarkable and unforgettable. But I also spy amid the quietude, the defeat that quells and forces submission, the defeat that was visited upon the Jews in Germany, who went quiet to their own slaughter. I know that sounds like a harsh judgment but reading Obasan reminds me that when whole communities recognize the futility of revolt, many simply cave in. Not the Warsaw ghetto, however, nor countless individual resisters. Reading Elie Wiesel’s Night proclaims just this resistance. It remains perhaps my most treasured document of an individual soul, helped quietly by others, to survive the most determined attempt at extermination.

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