Monday, August 13, 2007

a chapter of our history we have tried in vain to suppress

by Joy Kogawa

What is this thing about chickens? When they are babies, they are yellow. Yellow like daffodils. Like Goldilocks' yellow hair. Like the yellow Easter chicks I lost somewhere. Yellow like the yellow pawns in the Yellow Peril game.

The Yellow Peril is a Somerville Game, Made in Canada. It was given to Stephen at Christmas. On the red and blue box cover is a picture of soldiers with bayonets and fists raised high looking out over a sea of burning ships and a sky full of planes. A game about war. Over a map of Japan are the words: The game that shows how a few brave defenders can withstand a very great number of enemies.

There are fifty small yellow pawns inside and three big blue checker kings. To be yellow in the Yellow Peril game is to be weak and small. Yellow is to be chicken. I am not yellow. I will not cry.

When the yellow chicks grow up they turn white. Chicken Little is a large Yellow Peril puff. One time Uncle stepped on a baby chick. One time, I remember, a white hen pecked yellow chicks to death, to death in our backyard.

In Joy Kogawa's Obasan, readers read about the experiences of Kogawa and her family in the Japanese Internment in Canada during World War Two. In our history, there are many events which we would rather pretend did not exist, because it damages our image of ourselves. For a country that clings to its image as a cultural mosaic where people are free to practice their own culture while integrating into Canadian life, the hysteria and racism against Canadian citizens of Japanese descent during the Second World War is unforgivable. Little studied in Canadian history (my textbook in first-year Canadian History class gave it a full two paragraphs) and often ignored, the Japanese Internment involved the imprisonment, relocation, exile, and pillaging of an entire group based solely on race. The Japanese who were interned were largely citizens, with the rest being naturalized Canadians. Canada sent people 'back' to Japan who had never set foot on its shores (and who, upon arriving in Japan as Canadian citizens, were promptly treated as enemy aliens). Our government tried to convince them it was for their own good and their own safety -- when government itself had stirred up the racialized hysteria that made such unthinkable acts somehow a rational choice. Obasan was the first novel to talk about the Japanese Internment in Canada, and the first novel to chronicle the experiences of the victims of internment, exile, dispersal, and so on.

What is most striking about Kogawa's project is that sh has created not merely a historical document, but a beautiful work of literature as well. Obasan is not a book to read because you ought to or because it is important; Obasan is a beautiful novel in its own right, and can be studied as a work of literature separate from its social function (if one were into that sort of thing, which your friendly blogger thinks is a really good way to miss the point of literature entirely). For example, one motif Kogawa carries through the novel is the motif of birds. The chickens are important, as in the quotation above, because they represent the protagonist, Naomi, and her discomfort within her own race and her experiences of racism. When chicks mature they become white; Naomi, for a period in her childhood, seems concerned that she too should turn white to be acceptable. While Naomi eventually learns to have pride in herself and her race, her brother Stephen never does. As the recipient of the Yellow Peril board game, he internalizes the discrimination and is more fully colonized than is his sister. Stephen seeks the acceptance of the white world, eventually partnering with a white woman and moving to Toronto. Stephen wants to forget the internment desperately. But Naomi is constantly reminded by the freedom of the birds around her all the freedom she lost in the internment camps. While she to tries to forget, she is ultimately incapable of doing so, and this novel becomes her great act of remembrance and memorialization.

Aunt Emily is the member of the family actively in search of closure for the victims of interment, and it is she who keeps the memory alive even when no one else wishes to hear it. In her youth, Naomi wants to ignore Emily's pleas -- after all, internment is how Naomi lost her father, and the anti-Japanese laws are what separated Naomi from her mother. For Naomi, a mere child during the ordeal, to forget the internment is to forget the pain of being wrenched away from her parents and grandparents. But when she realizes that Emily holds these secrets for the purposes of memorializing Naomi's parents, she learns to listen. Indeed, this is the central purpose of the text for Naomi -- to learn to listen to the older generation and to learn to embrace her own history, even those parts which may seem distasteful. Suddenly, to forget the internment would be to allow her parents to have died in vain, and once Naomi realizes that she can see the value in memory, however painful it might be. In Emily's diary, we read with crushing realism her loss of faith in the Canadian government as she moves from disbelief, to a sense that everything will be okay, to the absolute despair of being separated from her family with no guarantee of who she will ever be able to see again. This is the central message for the reader -- beyond the very important purpose of the text as a remembrance of past horrors, the novel is also a caution against blind faith in anything, but especially in man-made institutions. Obasan reminds us that the institutions we have are as fallible as we are.

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