Gnoe Graasland's Reviews > Obasan

Obasan by Joy Kogawa
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Jan 13, 11

really liked it
bookshelves: jlit
Read in October, 2008

** spoiler alert ** *** BEWARE OF SPOILERS!!! ***

"We have to deal with all this while we remember it. If we don't we'll pass our anger down in our genes. It's the children who'll suffer." p.36

I didn't really know what to expect when I started reading Obasan ('Aunt'), by Joy Kogawa. In Holland World War II is the main war of the 20th century and the Canadians, Americans and British were 'the good guys' that liberated us. My father was imprisoned in a Japanese camp in Indonesia as a child, so the Japs were the bad guys (next to the Nazi's of course). And that's an understatement.

I am embarrassed to say that I never thought about what happened to German and Japanese people in the allied countries during the war. And I am certainly not the only one. I guess we are too busy over here thinking about what happened to 'us'. I was born 25 years after the end of the second World War but still I grew up with stories about The War.

And now I have to correct myself. Because Obasan is not just about Japanese people in WWII, but about Canadians. Issei, nisei and sansei (first, second and third generations) were all considered enemies of the state, even though they were Canadian citizens. Born and raised there. Their loyalty to the country made them co-operate to cruel regulations. They were sent to camps, disowned and often their Canadian nationality was taken from them. Like I said: this happened to Canadian-born people. And it did not happen to German-born Germans!

Of course it was not only their loyalty to Canada but also their cultural background that made the Canadian-Japanese do what their country asked of them:

It is always so. We must always honour the wishes of others before our own. p.128

Maybe the worst shock I got is that everything became even worse after the war ended. Japanese Canadians were not allowed to return home (their property was seized anyway), but sent to even more remote areas of the country if they were unwilling to go to Japan. Canada wanted to get rid of them. Pure racism - in Canada, of all places. If I can believe Obasan, the USA was less rough on its citizens. At least their properties hadn't been liquidated.

You can probably tell I am impressed by what I read. And I certainly won't forget it. Although there is a part that I found a bit slow, Obasan is well written and interesting. The mystery about Uncle and Mother made me want to go on reading, even when the story was a bit tough. Every Canadian kid should read this book in high school!

What is done, Aunt Emily, is done, is it not? And no doubt it will all happen again, over and over with different faces and names, variations on the same theme. [..] Is there evidence for optimism? p.199

I chose some quotations for this journal entry that suited what I wrote about the book. It means that I had to leave out the kind of quote that reminds me of favourite and emotional passages. Well, you can't have it all...
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