Joy Kogawa What Do I Remember Of The Evacuation Analysis Essay

Joy Nozomi Kogawa, CM, OBC (born June 6, 1935) is a Canadian poet and novelist of Japanese descent.


Kogawa was born Joy Nozomi Nakayama on June 6, 1935, in Vancouver, British Columbia, to first-generation Japanese Canadians Lois Yao Nakayama and Gordon Goichi Nakayama. She grew up in a predominantly white, middle-class community.

During World War II, the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and twelve weeks later Kogawa was sent with her family to the internment camp for Japanese Canadians at Slocan during World War II. After the war she resettled with her family in Coaldale, Alberta, where she completed high school. In 1954 she attended the University of Alberta, in 1956 the Anglican Women's Training College and The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. She moved back to Vancouver in 1956 and married David Kogawa there in 1957, with whom she had two children: Gordon and Deirdre. The couple divorced in 1968, and the same year Kogawa attended the University of Saskatchewan. She moved to Toronto in 1979 and has lived there since.

Kogawa's published first as a poet, beginning in 1968 with The Splintered Moon. She began to work as a staff writer for the Office of the Prime Minister in Ottawa in 1973. In 1981 she published her first prose work: Obasan, a semi-autobiographical novel that has become her best-known work.Books in Canada awarded the book its First Novel Award for it in 1981, and in 1982 Kogawa won the Book of the Year Award from the Canadian Authors Association and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Kogawa adapted the book for children as Naomi's Road in 1985.

A sequel, Itsuka (1992), was rewritten and retitled Emily Kato (2005). Obasan has been named as one of the most important books in Canadian history by the Literary Review of Canada and was also listed by The Toronto Star in a "Best of Canada" feature. Obasan was later adapted into a children's book, Naomi's Road (1986), which, in turn, Vancouver Opera adapted into a 45-minute opera that toured elementary schools throughout British Columbia. The opera was also performed before the general public in the greater Vancouver area, Red Deer and Lethbridge, Alberta, Seattle, Washington, and Ottawa, Ontario, at the National War Museum. Revival performances in November 2016 by Toronto’s Tapestry Opera won rave reviews, especially in the Toronto Star, which recognized their setting as one "steeped in significance: St. David’s is the home of the last Japanese-Canadian Anglican parish in the city."

Although the novel Obasan describes Japanese Canadian experiences, it is routinely taught in Asian American literature courses in the United States, due to its successful "integration of political understanding and literary artistry" and "its authentication of a pan-Asian sensibility."[7]

Kogawa currently divides her time between Vancouver and Toronto, Ontario, and was the 2012–13 Writer-in-Residence at the University of Toronto.[8]


In 1986, Kogawa was made a Member of the Order of Canada; in 2006, she was made a Member of the Order of British Columbia.

In 2010, the Japanese government honored Kogawa with the Order of the Rising Sun "for her contribution to the understanding and preservation of Japanese Canadian history."[9]

Kogawa has been awarded several honorary doctorates. The most recent was by the University of Victoria, on June 12, 2017. "[1]."

Campaign to save Kogawa House[edit]

The Save Kogawa House committee initiated a campaign to save Kogawa's childhood home in the Marpole neighbourhood of Vancouver from demolition. They developed national support from writers and writing organizations across Canada demonstrating that the house at 1450 West 64th Avenue was regarded by many as having historical value and literary significance, similar to Berton House, Emily Carr House and the Haig-Brown Institute. The Save Kogawa House committee made a successful presentation to the City of Vancouver councilors to create an unprecedented 120-day delay of the processing of a demolition permit on November 3, 2005, two days after the city had pronounced Obasan Cherry Tree Day[10] and planted a graft of the cherry tree at Vancouver City Hall from the original tree at Kogawa House.

The Land Conservancy of British Columbia became involved in the saving of Kogawa House on December 2, 2005.[11] Working with the Save Kogawa House committee, TLC took over the fund-raising efforts and media attention. TLC became the owner of the house on May 31, 2006.[12] They now are attempting to raise funds to renovate the house to its appearance when Joy lived there in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

The Historic Joy Kogawa House Society has operated a writer-in-residence program in the house since 2008. They have hosted four writers to date: poet and editor Dr. John Asfour of Montreal in 2009, novelist and writing educator Nancy Lee of Richmond in 2010, creative non-fiction author Susan Crean in 2011, short-fiction author Deborah Willis in 2012, and PEN Canada writer-in-exile, novelist, editor, freelance journalist, and faculty member in 2013.



  • The Splintered Moon. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1967.
  • A Choice of Dreams. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1974.
  • Jericho Road. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977.
  • Six Poems. Toronto: League of Canadian Poets, 1980.
  • What Do I Remember of the Evacuation? Scholastic Education Canada, 1985
  • Woman in the Woods. Oakville, ON: Mosaic Press, 1985.
  • A Song of Lilith. Vancouver: Polestar, 2000.
  • A Garden of Anchors: Selected Poems. Oakville, ON: Mosaic, 2003.


  • Obasan. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1981. (winner of the 1982 Books in Canada First Novel Award)
  • Itsuka. Toronto: Penguin, 1992. (rewritten as Emily Kato – 2005)
  • The Rain Ascends. Toronto: Knopf, 1995. (revised edition released in 2003)


  • Gently to Nagasaki . Caitlin Press. 2016

Children's literature[edit]

  • Naomi's Road. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1986; Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2005.
  • Naomi's Tree. Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2009.

Except where noted, bibliographic information courtesy Brock University.[13][13]


  1. ^Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong, Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance p.16
  2. ^"The Jack McClelland Writer-in-Residence". Department of English, University of Toronto. Retrieved 13 November 2012. 
  3. ^Tracy Sherlock, "Joy Kogawa to receive Order of the Rising Sun," Vancouver Sun, Nov. 6, 2010, Web, Apr. 5, 2011.
  4. ^Obasan Cherry Tree DayArchived 2006-11-01 at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^TLC The Land Conservancy :: NewsArchived 2006-09-27 at the Wayback Machine.
  6. ^TLC The Land Conservancy :: NewsArchived 2006-09-27 at the Wayback Machine.
  7. ^ ab"Joy Kogawa," Canadian Women Poets,, Web, Apr. 13, 2001.

Works cited[edit]

  • Hoeness-Krupsaw, Susanna (2009). "Kogawa, Joy (Nozomi) (1935– )". In Oh, Seiwoong. Encyclopedia of Asian-American Literature. Infobase Publishing. p. 155. ISBN 978-1-4381-2088-1. 
  • Knutson, Susan (2002). "Kogawa, Joy". In New, William H. Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada. University of Toronto Press. pp. 587–589. ISBN 978-0-8020-0761-2. 
  • Tapping, Craig (2001). "Joy Kogawa (1935– )". In Huang, Guiyou. Asian American Autobiographers: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 179–186. ISBN 978-0-313-31408-7. 
  • Wong, Cynthia F. (2000). "Joy Kogawa (1935– )". In Nelson, Emmanuel Sampath. Asian American Novelists: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 161–167. ISBN 978-0-313-30911-3. 

External links[edit]

Exile from Exile: Ironic Paradoxes in Joy Kogawa's Obasan

Eleonora Rao

Borders — whether internal or external, social or economic, geopolitical or psychological — have assumed a most significant role in developing Canada's sense of nation. Borders, starting with those in common with the United States, in addition to the artificial internal regional borders, frame Canadian identity. Identity, however, is a notion both revealed and invented. The Canadian identity is composite and multifaceted to the point of not being easily understood even by those who would try to create or define it.

A pan-Canadian identity has very often been countered by the panoply of attachments existing in the country: allegiances to regions, to ethnic groups, to religion, to outside interests. Although it is certainly not a gathering of warring tribes, Canadians have always erected boundaries that have formed the contours of the Canadian identity. The effects of these borders are still today the subject of debate and confusion (see Irvine 2003).

In Canada these boundaries symbolize structural centripetal and centrifugal forces that both unify the country and tug it in dissimilar directions. As a result, these contradictory energies have created a country that is in itself a paradox, obsessed with the definition of a "Canadian identity," which has become an elusive notion.

The metaphor of the border, however, has become synonymous with Canada's geopolitical predicament. Borders partake in the construction of the imaginary of the nation. The border is in fact also the symbol of the exclusionary practice inherent in the discourse of the nation. Border and borderlands, nonetheless, are not static, inert entities but organic ones; they change over time and space and become different and often unfamiliar kinds of places.

In the present discussion of the novel Obasan by the Japanese Canadian author Joy Kogawa, I look at the relationship between the developing of identity and the metamorphosis of space and place over time, with a particular emphasis on the representation of the border. I shall look at ways in which identity and place, mutually dependent notions, are formed by borders and borderlands. I shall also draw attention to the liminal sites of merging of interiorities and exteriorities, to the moments in which outside and inside face each other, when everything is suspended in a state of redefinition. In such a process, representations of subjectivity, territoriality and belonging are discordant to the official imaginary of the nation.

As Erin Manning argues, in a multicultural society, such as Canada, race as a construct has to be considered an integral part of the discourse of the nation. Race makes the "exclusionary discourse of the nation possible, solidifying and edifying the borders of the nation-state through the delineation between who is 'at home' and who comes from elsewhere. This elsewhere is defined and coveted by the white supremacy either covertly in the name of such pluralist liberal discourse as multiculturalism or overtly in the blatantly racist discourse that form the vocabulary of nationalism" (Manning 2003: 72). Borders are also sites of separation that strictly regulate the relations between self and other, citizen and non-citizen, thus stipulating "the manner in which otherness is created and reproduced" (Manning 2003:73).

The figure of the stranger offers a perfect example of the mechanism at work in the "nationalizing process of white supremacy": "The stranger as other to the concept of bounded space and national subjectivity stands at the border between inclusion and exclusion. This border ... is continuously guarded, reinforced, destroyed, claimed and reclaimed" (Manning 2003: 73). The stranger, the foreigner, and the exile: such are the figures one finds in Canadian representations of otherness.

The word exile derives from the Latin exsilium state of banishment (f. ex- out + sal- (Skr. sar- to go), root of salire to leap , whence also exsul, OED). The exilic leap characterizes most narratives of exile; although it may take different forms, the jump—the crossing of the boundary between the known and the unknown—characterizes all such narrations.

The emphasis on a line of demarcation, which is spatial as well as temporal, on a border, on its location and status, necessarily generates questions regarding an outside and an inside, a here and a there — often also a here, a there and an elsewhere — and the relation and / or differentiation between them. Critical thinking, informed most notably by Derrida's essays,[1] has destabilized notions of ending and beginning, of boundaries and divisions, and has drawn our attention to the necessity of questioning any number of borders: not only between outside and inside, but also between self and other, public and private, subject and object.[2]

Using Derrida's work as a starting point, other contemporary thinkers have expanded and discussed the ethical implications of borders and borderlines in their relations to certain specific cultural and social settings. Some of this work has been very influential, especially within the field of minority or ethnic cultures, and within feminist studies. I am thinking, for example, of the theories of Trinh T. Minh-ha and Gloria Anzaldua among others (Minh-ha 1991; Anzaldua 1987). "Working" or "writing" "on the edges," as Minh-ha and others have underscored (Clifford 1987), carries with it the notion of the existence of "safe" and of "unsafe" territories and of borderlands; the implication is that borderland residents are bound to be considered transgressors and aliens. Although the Latin origins of the verb transgress indicates "to step across" (transgredi to step across, f. trans across + gradi to step), its meaning carries legal and moral connotations — as likewise in "trespass" — "to go beyond the limit prescribed by a law" (OED).

Being "on the edges" entails a liminal condition, a border crossing "betwixt and between" countries, cultures, and often also languages. Liminality, and its implications, is frequently used in theoretical discussions on the facets of representations of life in exile. The well known liminal model proposed by the anthropologist Victor Turner in his study of tribal ritual is particularly relevant for the study of exilic conditions. (Liminality: from the Latin, limen, threshold ). As a basis for his theories, Turner refers to Arnold Van Gennep's fundamental work Rites de passage; here Van Gennep in describing the rites that accompany any change of place, status or social position discerns three phases: separation (from the community, the social milieu of origin); margin or limen (the period of time when the characteristics of the ritual subject become ambiguous and he/she lives in a condition of deprivation from the attributes of both his/her previous or future life); re-aggregation to the initial community with a different status.

In his study of tribal ritual processes, in particular the ones that imply a passage from one social status to another, Turner underscores how this is usually "accompanied by a parallel passage in space, a geographical movement from one place to another" (Turner 1982: 25). Such movement implies the "literal crossing of a threshold which separates two distinct areas, one associated with the subject's pre-ritual or preliminary status, and the other with his post-ritual or postliminal status" (25). Liminality indicates a processual state or border area which mediates between cultures, races or nations, an area which is characterized by a "blurring and merging of distinctions" (26).

In such a cultural limbo, Turner argues, the ritual subject undergoes a period, or finds itself in a place, where there is freedom from prescribed laws or domineering social structures (Turner 1974). Liminality then entails "the possibility ... of standing aside not only from one's own social position but from all social positions and of formulating a potentially unlimited series of alternative social arrangements" (1974:13-14). For the present discussion it is important to underscore how this movement into liminality, which we could call border crossing, "becomes a site in which the border subject often discovers...cultural creativity and cultural authority" (Henderson 1995: 5) that enables the subject to elaborate "new models, symbols, and paradigms" (Turner 1982: 28).

As we shall see in the novel Obasan by Japanese Canadian author Joy Kogawa, there are various kinds of passages and borders crossed, both physical and mental. Borders in Obasan can be extremely hostile, as, for the most part, they indicate actual enforced confinement or prisons of the mind; but the novel at one point enacts also a blurring of boundaries, which carries with it possible positive and liberating possibilities. The blurring of boundaries here initiates an interior movement, which finds full expression in Obasan's sequel Itsuka (1992).

The metaphor of the border finds indeed a privileged place and space in Canada. Whether internal or external, social or economical, geopolitical and psychological, borders have always had a primary importance in shaping Canadian identity or lack of it. Indeed, as Margaret Atwood reminds us, the lack of a distinctive Canadian identity was very much on the agenda and fashionable in the 1970's, much to her discontent; for Atwood such debates are "nonsense," since "everything has an identity... it is only that it can be forgotten" (Atwood 1982: 385).

Already in 1977 Marshall McLuhan published an essay entitled "Canada: The Borderline Case;" here as elsewhere in David Staines's collection Canada is theorized as "border country" (Staines 1977). A few years earlier Northrop Frye's seminal study on the Canadian imagination, The Bush Garden (Frye 1971), added geography and history in his approach to the study of Canadian identity. Frye links geography with the imaginary; in his formulation the paradox of Canadian identity is solved by accepting that in a country so large and diverse as Canada, identity is not a "Canadian" question but a "regional" question. So, in Frye's argument the question becomes one of "Nationalism" vs "Regionalism," as he emphasises the existence and the importance of a multiplicity of communities and the way these affect the imagination, and sees Canada as a "community of communities" (Frye 1982: 59). The foregrounding of "Regionalism" creates what Frye has coined the "garrison mentality."

The identity question the subject asks himself— "Who am I?"—is transformed in Canadian letters and substituted with a rather more perplexing one, "Where is here?" In other words, the paradox of Canadian identity is linked with the country's geographical dimensions and strongly connected with territorial experiences. Along similar lines goes the argument proposed by Margaret Atwood's Survival; although Atwood sees the theme of survival as central to the struggle for a Canadian identity (in the country's literary production up to 1972), such a theme is nevertheless closely associated with an extremely hostile nature and landscape: "menace," she argues, comes "not from an enemy set over against you but from everything surrounding you" (1972: 30). The hostile environment thus became a national symbol.

For the purposes of our discussion it may be useful to remind readers of the existence of two different metaphors of the border. The latter, so persistent in Canada, becomes in the United States the dominant metaphor of the frontier. The frontier indicates a movement between outward and back: "the frontier is the outer edge of the wave — the meeting point of savagery and civilization" (in Agnus 1997: 128). The outward rush without limit is seen as "a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness and confidence, and scorn of older society" (128). In the United States the outward rush has meant a taming of the wilderness, which resulted also in a hatred of culture, a despising of intellectual articulations, because they represent a drawing back into inherited European forms. Such shaping of identity is necessarily precarious, since, as Ian Agnus argues, it "requires something else that it can rush into and subdue, if only in imagination" (128). As a result "the frontier ends in the necessity of an enemy." Such a reliance on the negation of the Other for self-identity is not restricted to the United States. Frye's "garrison mentality" could be seen as its Canadian equivalent: "But while the former annihilates the other in order to reassure the self, the latter circumscribes the self — invents a border — to protect itself from the other" (Agnus 1997: 129).

The acceptance of "unity in diversity" as a specific Canadian trait — as Frye maintains — comes not without risks. Such an argument has been challenged by many theorists. The alignment with the group, the locality or the region can be in fact problematic. As Widdis remarks, "Separation doesn't have to imply segregation but exclusion or inclusion is often the result" (Widdis 1997: 53). Recent contributions, within the fields of geography, sociology, psychology, and literary criticism, have further explored the notion or metaphor of the border in Canada. In Robert Lecker's important collection of essays, Russell Brown defines Canada as a country "encoded by borders" (1991: 13). In Canada, however, the question is extremely complicated by ethnicity, which has in fact created "boundaries of inclusiveness and exclusiveness" (Widdis 1997: 54). Yet it is important "'to distinguish the sense of boundary from what is enclosed by the boundary' ... to separate the ethnic identity (who am I?) from the traits associated with ethnicity (what am I?)" (Widdis 1997: 54).

Joy Kogawa's novel (1981) Obasan tells a Japanese Canadian story situated in response to a specific history and landscape, thus inviting an investigation of the historical and mythic trajectory of the land. It is also a novel that denounces and protests the treatment accorded to Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, when they were moved to camps and had their lands confiscated.[3] In Obasan the landscape functions as a symbol that signifies the problems of national and personal identity when the Japanese Canadians were forced into internal exile during World War II. Naomi Nakane, the young female protagonist and narrator, struggles, as an adult looking back on this experience, to arrive at an understanding of an horrific paradox — how she and her people could have been exiled upon her native land. In doing so Kogawa's novel looks into a very particular form of what has been called the "exile syndrome" in Canadian letters (Dahlie 1986). The specific dilemma addressed in the text is linked to the broader problem faced by immigrant and native peoples who shared a dual or multiple national or ethnic identities.

Kogawa's emphasis on the landscape in the text can be seen as a strategic response of resistance to the dominant history of Canada. By having Naomi investigate and imagine her identity through the landscape imaginary, Kogawa issues both a poetic and political challenge to a vast history of colonization that reached its most terrible expression for the Japanese Canadians in the exile they were forced to endure during the Second World War, as a result of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941. As W.H. New has pointed out:

The narrator's desire for knowledge leads her through several cultural barriers (both Canadian and Japanese) into the heart of a mystery: what explains the Canadian government's treatment of Japanese Canadians during the war? The barriers are often attitudinal: when she has grown past the silences of bitterness and the ironies of rejection, Kogawa's character is ready to try to understand the implications of Nagasaki. Here ... the historical event is both translated into personal experience and translated by it, turning silence into speech. (New1989: 242)[4]

The protagonist subject's construction is in fact linked to her deconstruction of official history. Obasan can be located within the late twentieth century tradition of revising received versions of Canadian history (Howells 1989; Goellnicht 1991; Turner 1992). Kogawa's emphasis on the fact that the knowledge of those events should be considered the first step to historical revision is particularly relevant within the theoretical debate on ethnicity (Howells 1989). A number of theorists on multiculturalism have underscored its importance (Mohanty 1990; McLaren 1993; Worth 1993). As Chandra Talpade Mohanty puts it, "knowledge, the very act of knowing is related to the power of self-definition." To claim alternative histories — Mohanty suggests — means to expose and recover "subjugated knowledges," which in turn means "taking the question of experience seriously" (Mohanty 1990: 184, 165). In Obasan Kogawa takes Naomi's experience and testimony very seriously and creates an historical novel that gives priority to subjectivity.

As an adult woman the protagonist rereads newspaper clippings her aunt collected during the war. Naomi counters the official 'facts' with her memories of living and working in the Alberta fields in a way that strongly emphasises her experience of and on the land. A newspaper clipping she finds in her aunt's folders is entitled "Facts about Evacuees in Alberta" and shows a smiling Japanese Canadian family with a caption reading: "Grinning and Happy" (193). The protagonist challenges the official version of that horrendous episode by telling (her)story. She manages to recover her story only by going through a slow and painful process of remembering: "Facts about evacuation on Alberta? The fact is I never got used to it and I cannot, I cannot bear the memory" (194). History literally becomes a nightmare, "from which there is no waking, only deeper and deeper sleep" (194). By subverting the official history provided by the Canadian Government, however, Naomi does wake from sleep: "'Grinning and happy' and all smiles standing around a pile of beets? That is one telling. It's not how it was" (197).

Kogawa's semi-autobiographical novel, Obasan, constructs a thematic of the land that historicizes the Japanese Canadian expulsion and exile during World War II. Kogawa's textual focus on the Canadian landscape shows how the Japanese Canadian history of forced exile from the British Columbian coast to the detention camp at Slocan, a ghost town in British Columbia and eventually to the Alberta prairies significantly affects the identity of the young female protagonist, Naomi. Naomi's identity forms as she locates and relocates herself and her family in the shifting representations of the landscape across which she moves. Through these successive displacements the very idea of a homeland is radically destabilized, and with it notions of national identity and belonging become problematic.

Similarly this text investigates and problematizes the question of ethnicity in multicultural Canada. The images of the Native Canadians and of the Japanese Canadians merge through the image of her uncle:

Uncle could be Chief Sitting Bull squatting here. He has the same prairie baked skin, the deep brown furrows like dry river beds creasing his cheeks. All he needs is a feather headdress, and he would be perfect for a picture postcard - 'Indian Chief from Canadian Prairie' - souvenir of Alberta, made in Japan. (2)

Such a combination of native and immigrant identities challenges the idea of a monolithic national and ethnic identity and opens up other possibilities of hybridisations. Indeed such has been the case, first and foremost in multicultural Canada and progressively in Europe. As Salman Rushdie put it a few years back, when describing the contemporary literary scenario in Britain, there has been an affirmation of a new literary tradition that draws from life in minority groups, born not from roots but rather from cross-connections; a tradition that has gained a primary importance in this era of displaced persons. The question, however, is not so straightforward, as a long history of discrimination and prejudice in Canada as elsewhere, has shown (Rushdie 1991).

Obasan locates the Japanese Canadian identity upon a landscape in which the Japanese Canadians are both native and other. In doing so the novel reconstructs an alternative history of Canada and of Japanese Canadians and probes into the paradox of belonging and non-belonging, of displacement and home. This paradox appears for the first time in a riddle that Naomi's brother articulates: "It is a riddle, Stephen tells me. We are both the enemy and not the enemy" (70). It is then reiterated throughout, becoming a central theme in the text, and foregrounds the paradoxical experience of the Japanese Canadians who endured exile in their own native land during the war. For this ethnic community, however, the question of (non)belonging remains problematic to this day. As Naomi articulates in Itsuka, Obasan's sequel: "Something inside me cringes whenever I hear the phrase 'your people'. It tells me I belong to a 'people' that don't belong" (Itsuka 1992: 114).

Frequently Obasan uses irony to highlight the contradictions, the failures, the inadequacies and the paradoxes of Canadian cultural policy, first bilingualism and later multiculturalism (1971). The novel in fact problematizes the discourses of "official multiculturalism" which sanctioned Canada as a 'cultural mosaic,' and underscores how in actual fact such policy glossed over the centrality of race in multicultural Canada. Multiculturalism simply ignored ethnicity and it was used to strengthen the dominance of Canada's two major cultures. As some see it, it also served to hide Canada's "history of intolerance," while for others it represented a "sign of the collective historical guilt (or hypocrisy) resulting from Canada's earlier immigration policies" (Hutcheon and Richmond 1990: 3, 15). Some good examples are provided by those moments in Canadian history when racism was an official policy, such as, for example, the genocide of First Nation peoples, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Japanese Canadian confinement. Later these moments have been re-interpreted in a gesture of optimistic praise of the nation's pluralist future. Heather Zwicker, in her analysis of Obasan and Itsuka in the light of the forces of national production that informed the writing and reception of Kogawa's novels, argues: "now [after 1948] Canada can embrace the people it dispossessed, in a gesture of unproblematic inclusiveness designed to undo the past and thereby smooth the nation's trajectory into the future" (in Amoko 2000:13). Composed in 1981 Obasan in fact attempts to "interrupt the progressivist discourses of official multiculturalism. Kogawa presents not so much an unproblematic reminder of a 'forgotten' historical moment central to the construction of Canadian nationality, but rather, an interruption of the continuist narrative of national progress propounded by Multiculturalism Canada" (Amoko 2000: 13).

Irony provides a perfect discursive mode to address the duplicity and the paradoxes of the Japanese Canadians' double belonging (and of ethnic groups in general) (Hutcheon 1991; Giordani 1998). The doubleness that is proper to the trope of irony allows Kogawa to further address the questionable designation of "visible minority" attributed to ethnic groups, to this day still pushed aside by dominant charter groups (see Makherjee 1992). Because of Obasan's constant addressing of the paradox of double belonging and its unresolved quest for a cultural identity, Kogawa's novel has been located within the multicultural narrative tradition. However, as Coral Howells has pointed out, it would be more appropriate to define the predicament of the immigrant in Canada as "transcultural" rather than multicultural since this condition implies a constant sliding between native culture and adopted culture (Howells 1992). Such movement implies a right of entry, as it were, to both worlds, and is therefore seen by the author as somewhat advantageous and at times a "great privilege" (Kogawa in Hutcheon and Richmond 1990: 99).

By disrupting the possibility of a homogeneous national identity and the idea of home, Obasan creates a destabilized space from which Naomi begins to reconstruct her history and identity.[5] The representations of the landscapes across which Naomi and her family are forced to move serves to show how unstable national identities are, and how such identities are shaped by the intersections of historical circumstances and the physical landscape, and how, as Angelika Bammer has remarked, they "are always constructed and lived out on the historical terrain between necessity and choice, the place where oppression and resistance are simultaneously created" (Bammer 1994).

A significant preoccupation in Obasan consists in how Naomi is to make sense out of her experience of forced dislocation and strangeness. Eventually she achieves it through a series of shifting and painful realizations in which the role of memory is paramount (Howells 1989). In a sort of Woolf-like technique, memories rule the narrative and are triggered and connected with the present and with sensory perceptions: "When I least expect it, a memory comes skittering out of the dark, spinning and netting the air, ready to snap me up and ensnare me in old and complex puzzles" (26). Naomi and her grandmother Obasan — the two non-verbal characters — are "trapped by ... memories of the dead" (26). For Obasan, as for Naomi, "the present disappears in her mind. The past hungers for her. Feasts on her" (26). The narrative enacts a process of re-membering, of the colliding together of fragments of memory, of connecting the present and the past in order to deal with a child's memories of loss as she is severed from her parents and her beautiful home in Vancouver. The surfacing of the concealed horrors of war and confinement, apparently lost because no longer tolerable, makes anamnesis central to the narrative. Prior to this Naomi had implemented the desire to "'disremember' the past by actively forgetting it" (Middleton and Woods 2000: 54).[6]

The exile into the Canadian Interior uses the same figurative system that opens the narrative. At its outset (in the first chapter) the novel in fact establishes the very special sensory relation Naomi entertains with the land:

My fingers tunnel through a tangle of roots till the grass stands up from my knuckles, making it seem that my fingers are the roots. I am part of this small forest. Like the grass, I search the earth and the sky with a thin but persistent thirst. (3)

The "expulsion into the waiting wilderness" (111) is represented through metaphors of the land, of water and rock. Naomi's exile develops and reflects the conditions of her identity using the language and imagery of the landscape. Naomi's severance from her hometown opens Chapter Fifteen:

I am sometimes not certain whether it is a clustered attic in which I sit, a waiting room, a tunnel, a train. There is no beginning and no end to the forest, or the dust storm, no edge from which to know where the clearing begins. Here in this familiar density, beneath this cloak, within the carapace, is the longing within the darkness... We are leaving the B.C. coast — rain, cloud, mist — an air overladen with weeping. Behind us lies a salty sea within which swim our drawing specks of memory — our small waterlogged eulogies. (111)

Her identity takes on what becomes in the novel a familiar boundaryless shape. Naomi lingers in this rootless state unable to find an edge from which to create meaning, while meaning continues to evade and escape her. Some sort of meaning, however, becomes at least graspable when the text provides a public issue, a date: "May 22, 1942" to counter Naomi's personal account of her lost and fluid state (110). Such inscription transforms Naomi's personal situation into a political and historical statement.

In Obasan the protagonist's personal identity is contingent upon the broader question of identity raised by the Japanese Canadian community's exile. The expulsion into the Canadian wilderness represents the near erasure of an entire ethnic group. The narrator represents the community's expulsion in terms of her personal experience of what she perceives as a journey into the darkness: "We are going down the middle of the earth with pick-axe eyes, tunnelling by train into the Interior, carried along by the momentum of the expulsion into the waiting wilderness" (111). The forest's engulfment of the entire community is portrayed as a descent into the earth and suggests the erasure against which Naomi and her family struggle.

The narrator's family's exile to Slocan, a former ghost town in the Canadian interior, implies the recurring theme of erasure not only through the idea of inhabiting a ghost town, but also through the literal deletion of the ghost town that Naomi discovers when she returns there twenty years later. "Where on the map or on the road was there any sign? Not a mark was left. All our huts had been removed long before and the forest had returned to take over the clearings" (117). This is a significant turning point in the text as this absence informs the protagonist's re-construction of history and identity and probes her journey into memory even further. The intermingling between memory and forgetting, past and present, dream and waking becomes even more poignant at this point in the narrative. The actual return to Slocan initiates the protagonist's recollection and reconstruction of her experience there as a child. This process starts with the attempt to locate the house in Slocan where her family lived. There is an uncannily earthlike quality in her perception of the place. The location becomes a groundless place, where inside and outside vacillate. It looks as if the house had sprung up from the forest ground, with no demarcation between inside and outside. Naomi's description of it as well as her failure to discern the building at first suggests a continuity between forest and house.

"See that, Naomi?" Stephen says, pointing. I can see nothing and everything, a forest of shadows and green shapes... and there, almost hidden from sight off the path, is a small grey hut with a broken porch camouflaged by shrubbery and trees. The colour of the house is that of sand and earth. It seems more like a giant toadstool than a building... From the road the house is invisible. (121)

And again while inside it the protagonist reflects: "Although it is not dark or cool, it feels underground" (121). When she leaves the hut, and goes out through the rusty screen door, it feels as if she is breathing again: "Ah! The green air once more" (122). The house now looks submerged, sunken into the earth. There are no boundaries separating earth and home.

Biddy Martin and Chandra Mohanty in their influential article, "Feminist Politics: What's Home Got to Do with It?", examine how subjects are constituted by their relationships with "home" and explore "the configuration of home, identity, and community... as a concept and desire" (1986: 191). They maintain, albeit this is not a novelty, that identity is fashioned by the individual's experience of home. The radical innovation in their argument lies in their challenging received notions of "home" and the aura of safety and security and familiarity that surrounds the word. In their formulation the idea of home is "constructed on the tension between two specific modalities: being home and not being home" (196):

Being home refers to the place where one lives within familiar, safe, protected boundaries, 'not being at home' is a matter of realizing that home was an illusion of coherence and safety based on the exclusion of specific histories of oppression and resistance, the repression of difference even within oneself. Because there locations acquire meaning and functions as sites of personal and historical struggles, they work against the notion of an unproblematic geographic location of home. (197)

In Obasan the blurring of the boundaries between the house in Slocan and the land indicates the absence of familiar, protected and safe borders. In addition the idea of home is extended to include the landscape. So both house and land become the "site of personal and historical struggle." The merging of home and identity into the landscape, an image that recurs throughout the text, included the paradox of being a Canadian exiled upon one's own land. A similar paradox is present also in the reconstruction of Naomi's life as a child, which is in fact informed with a sense of both being at home and not being at home.

As a Japanese Canadian Naomi cannot ignore or repress the "differences" within herself as she is constantly viewed by the dominant racist government as 'other'. When the novel opens (Chapter Two) it's 1972: Naomi is a thirty-six year old school teacher, single, who has been living in Cecil, Alberta for the previous seven years. During this time she constantly has had to negotiate her status as a single woman, as a supposed 'foreigner,' and as a linguistically displaced subject.

As an adult, Naomi, as Obasan before her, chooses silence as a survival strategy to her pain and loss, a silence which soon becomes nearly pathological until she decides to 'break loose:'

I want to break loose from the heavy identity, the evidence of rejection, the unexpressed passion, the misunderstood politeness. I am tired of living between deaths and funerals, weighted with decorum, unable to shout, or sing or dance, unable to scream or swear, unable to laugh, unable to breathe out loud. (183)

Her brother Stephen, on the other hand, has adopted a completely different strategy and lives as a perpetual stranger; he has become the stranger par excellence, and has made of non-belonging, homelessness and nomadism a life-style (Kristeva 1991): "Stephen, unable to bear the density of her inner retreat and the rebuke he felt in her silences, fled to the ends of the earth. From London, he went to New York, to Montreal... Departure for him is as necessary as breath" (15).

Since home is not only the metaphorical four walls but the land as well, thus increasing the possibility of radical displacement, Naomi must constantly resist submersion and reassert her rightful position on her native Canadian soil. Thus the Canadian landscape becomes both the concrete and metaphorical notion of home with which the protagonist struggles.

Naomi's experience with the land is complex as well. The mountain scenery around Slocan is opposed to her later experience of the prairies in Granton, Alberta, the place where her family spent, as Naomi words it, "our exile from our place of exile" (187). Beauty and life surround her in Slocan. Despite her confinement Naomi has moments of joy and wonder and is kept alive by her surroundings. But when the family is forced further inland the imagery becomes different and reflects the death and the destruction of the Japanese Canadian community.

In the years 1945-1949, the ghastly years of their relocation in Alberta, Naomi perceives the landscape as particularly unwelcoming and loathsome: "We have come to the moon. We have come to the edge of the world, to a place of angry air. Was it just a breath ago that we felt the green watery fingers of the mountain air? Here, the air is a fist" (191). Living on and working this desolate land makes her feel helpless and hopeless as if in a prison: "All the oil in my joints has drained out and I have been invaded by dust and grit from the fields and mud is in my bone marrow. I can't move anymore... there is no escape" (194). Naomi feels imprisoned in this landscape, oppressed not only by the harsh conditions, by the extreme heat and cold, but also by the Government Orders of 1948 that forbid the Japanese Canadians to return to their homes for fear of retaliation.[7] The land is seen now as extremely tyrannical; it becomes an extension of the displaced violence of the racist government orders. The land is now the enemy, just as the government is the enemy. Descriptions of the "hardship" (194) of her life in the farm as well as representations of an extremely hostile nature abound at this point in the narrative.

Naomi's reconstruction of her life in Alberta significantly depicts her position on and as part of the landscape. The trope of submersion in the earth returns again and again. For relief from the heat she spends time either in a "root cellar" (200), a "damp tomb" (201), situated significantly underground, or in a swamp in which the "water is always muddy, so brown that we cannot see the submerged parts of our bodies at all" (200). In both cases relief from life on this land implies death, and the images here are of a submerged, agonizing self. In addition, dreadful news arrives from Japan: the death of her grandfather, her father's poor health and still "no word from Mother" (200).

The image of a tree, which has appeared throughout the text with various meanings attached to it, reappears in the swamp, this time explicitly representing death: "The only tree here is dead" (204). Further Naomi is "sitting motionless as the dead tree" (205). Later on in the text (in actual fact years later) the imagery shifts again and the tree now signifies her dead mother: "A Canadian maple tree grows there where your name stands. The tree utters its scarlet voice in the air. Prayers bleeding. Its rustling leaves are fingers scratching an empty sky" (241). The image of Canada's national tree planted in Japan, signifying the mother, is again a powerful yet problematic claim of identity. The tree stands in the place of the dead mother who died, in part, because Canada denied her right to return, which recalls the paradox of Stephen's riddle: "We are both the enemy and not the enemy" (70). The manifold significations of the tree suggest the crossing of identity one encounters when coming to terms with paradoxes such as being exiled upon one's own native land and in embracing the absent mother.

Università degli Studi di Salerno


Amoko, Apollo. "Resilient ImagiNations: No-No Boy, Obasan and The Limits of Minority Discourse." Mosaic 33, 3 (Sept. 2000).

Angus, Ian. A Border Within: National Identity, Cultural Plurality, and Wilderness. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997.

Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontiera: The New Mestizia. San Francisco: Spinster/Aunt Lute, 1987.

Atwood, Margaret. Second Words. Toronto: Anansi, 1982.

Atwood, Margaret. Suvival. Toronto: Anansi, 1972.

Bammer, Angelika (ed.). Displacements: Cultural Identity in Question. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Cheug, King-Kok. Articulate Silences: Hysaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Clifford, Michael. "Crossing (out) the Boundary: Foucault and Derrida on Transgressing Transgression." Philosophy Today 31, 3/4 (Fall 1987).

Dahlie, Hallvard. Varieties of Exile: The Canadian Experience. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1986.

Derrida, Jacques. "Living On: Border Lines." In Harold Bloom et al. Deconstruction and Criticism. New York: Seabury Press, 1979.

Derrida, Jacques. Truth in Painting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Frye, Northrop. Divisions on a Ground. Toronto: Anansi, 1982.

Frye, Northrop. The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. Toronto: Anansi, 1971.

Fujita, Gayle K. "'To Attend the Sound of Stone': The Sensibility of Silence in Obasan.". MELUS 12. 3 (1985).

George, Rosemary Marangoly. The Politics of Home: Postcolonial Relocations and Twentieth Century Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996; University of California Press, 1999.

Giordani, Maria Rosa. Il romanzo postmoderno canadese: polifonie e dissonanze. Bologna: CLUEB, 1998.

Goellnicht, Donald C. "Minority History as Metafiction: Joy Kogawa's Obasan." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 8 (Fall 1989).

Grice, Helena. "Reading the Nonverbal: The Indices of Space, Time, Tactility and Taciturnity in Joy Kogawa's Obasan." MELUS 24. 3 (1999).

Henderson, Mae (ed.). Borders, Boundaries and Frames: Cultural Criticism and Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Howells, Coral. "Parables of Time: Canadian Women Transcultural Fiction." New Literature Review 23 (Summer 1992).

Howells, Coral. Private and Fictional Worlds: Canadian Women Novelist of the 1970s and 1980s. London: Methuen, 1987.

Hutcheon, Linda and Marion Richmond (eds.). Other Solitudes: Canadian Multicultural Fictions. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Hutcheon, Linda. Splitting Images: Contemporary Canadian Writing. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Irvine, Lorna. "Metaphors and Maps: Imagining Canada into the Twenty-first Century." In The Canadian Distinctiveness into the XXIst Century. Edited by Chad Gaffield and Karen L. Gould. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2003.

Kogawa, Joy. Itsuka. Toronto: Viking, 1992.

Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

Kristeva, Julia. Strangers to Ourselves. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Lecker, Robert (ed.). Borderlands: Essays in Canadian-American Relations. Toronto: ECW Press, 1991.

Makherjee, Arun P. "Ironies of Colour in the Great White North: The Discursive Strategies of Some Hyphenated Canadians". In Double Talking: Essays on Verbal and Visual Ironies in Contemporary Canadian Art and Literature, edited by Linda Hutcheon. Toronto: ECW Press, 1992.

Manning, Erin. Ephemeral Territories: Representing Nation, Home, and Identity in Canada. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Martin, Biddy and Chandra Mohanty. "Feminist Politics: What's Home Got to Do with It?" In Feminist Studies/ Critical Studies, edited by Teresa De Lauretis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

McLaren, Peter. "Multiculturalism and the Postmodern Critique: Towards a Pedagogy of Resistance and Transformation." Cultural Studies 7, 1 (1993).

Middleton, Peter and Tim Woods. Literatures of Memory: History, Time and Space in Postwar Writing. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Minh-ha, Trin T. Framer Framed. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. "Feminist Encounters: Locating the Politics of Experience." In Destabilizing Theory: Contemporary Feminist Debate, Michelle Barrett and Anne Phillips (eds). Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. "On Race and Violence: Challenges for Liberal Education in the 1990's." Cultural Critique (1989-90).

New, W. H.. A History of Canadian Literature. London:

Macmillan, 1989.

Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism

1981-1991. New York: Viking, 1991.

Said, Edward. Reflections on Exile and Other Essays,. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Staines, David (ed.). The Canadian Imagination: Dimensions of a Literary Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Turner, Margaret E. "Power, Language and Gender: Writing 'History' in Beloved and Obasan. Mosaic 25 (Fall 1992).

Turner, Victor. "Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in the Rites of Passage." In The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press, 1969.

Turner, Victor. Drama, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Actions in Human Society. Ithaca:New York, Cornell University Press, 1974.

Turner, Victor. From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: PAJ Publications, 1982.

Van Gennep, Arnold. Les rites de passage. Paris, 1909.

Widdis, Randy William. "Borders, Borderlands and Canadian Identity." Time, Space and Place. International Journal of Canadian Studies 15 (Spring 1997).

Worth, Fabienne. "Postmodern Pedagogy in the Multicultural Classroom: For Inappropriate Teachers and Imperfect Spectators." Cultural Critique (1993).

Zwicker, Heather. "Multiculturalism: Pied Piper of Canadian Nationalism (and Joy Kogawa's Ambivalent Antiphony)." Unpublished manuscript.

1. See in particular "Living On: Border Lines" and The Truth in Painting.

2. Within literary studies, Roland Barthes has been the forerunning theorizer of liminality, of the Neutre, of the époché conceived alos as a critical category.

3. This gloomy episode in Canadian history later informed numerous works, among which: Muriel Kitagawa's 1940s essay against all sorts of racism, This is My Own (1985); Takeo Ujo Nakano's memoir Within the Barbed Wire Fence (1980); Shizuye Takashima's book for children, A Child in Prison Camp (1971); Ken Adachi's 1976 history The Enemy that Never Was; Joy Kogawa's novel and a poem "What I Remember of the Evacuation."

4. There is a considerable amount of scholarship on the role of silence and of non-verbal communications in Obasan (wee Grice 1999; Cheung 1993; Fujita 1985).

5. For a reading of Obasan in the light of Homi Bhabha and Benedict Anderson's well known theories on the concept of nation see Amoko (2000).

6. The authors here discuss Toni Morrison's Beloved and her strategies of anamnesis.

7. The orders were finally lifted in 1949.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *