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Obasan is a novel by the Japanese-Canadian author Joy Kogawa. First published by Lester and Orpen Dennys in 1981, it chronicles Canada's internment and persecution of its citizens of Japanese descent during World War II from the perspective of a young child. This book is often required reading for university English courses on Canadian Literature as well as in Ethnic Studies and Asian American Literature courses in the United States. In 2005, it was the One Book, One Vancouver selection.

Kogawa uses strong imagery of silence, stones and streams throughout the novel. Themes depicted in the novel include memory and forgetting, prejudice and tolerance, identity, and justice versus injustice. Kogawa contemplates many of these themes in her poetry as well.

Plot

Set in 1972, Obasan centres on the memories and experiences of Naomi Nakane, a 36 year old schoolteacher living in the rural Canadian town of Cecil, Alberta, when the novel begins. The death of Naomi's uncle, with whom she had lived as a child, leads Naomi to visit and care for her widowed aunt Aya, whom she refers to as Obasan (Obasan being the Japanese word for "Aunt" in this context). Her brief stay with Obasan in turn becomes an occasion for Naomi to revisit and reconstruct in memory her painful experiences as a child during and after World War II, with the aid of a box of correspondence and journals sent to her by her Aunt Emily, detailing the years of the measures taken by the Canadian government against the Japanese citizens of Canada and their aftereffects. Naomi's main thing she is searching for is what happened to her mother which in the end you find out she was killed by the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.

Naomi's narration thus interweaves two stories, one of the past and another of the present, mixing experience and recollection, history and memory throughout. Naomi's struggle to come to terms with both past and present confusion and suffering form the core of the novel's plot.

References


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