THERE'S SOMETHING LONELY about Japanese-Canadian fiction, something that reminds you of the colour of the ocean, or the rocks of the B.C. coastline, the broken dirt of a prairie field, the concrete of Torontoâe(TM)s downtown core.
It's a strange kind of hollowness, a sense of disconnectedness we can ascribe to Japanese-Canadians as a community of people who were, as the result of Canadian government policies enacted during WWII, driven from their homes, interned in camps and, ultimately, scattered across the country. You get the sense, in the people depicted in this fiction, of being neither here nor there, being neither truly Japanese nor truly Canadian, but somewhere in-between.
As Emily Kato, the title character in Joy Kogawa's latest book puts it, âeoeWe're Japanese hyphen Canadians. We're somewhere in the hyphen.âe
Emily Kato is a revisit of Itsuka, Kogawa's second novel, which followed her acclaimed Obasan. Obasan was published in 1981, as Japanese-Canadians fought to win redress from the Canadian government for those WWII internment policies.
The story of one woman's experience during the internment, Obasan, named for the aunt of the title character, Naomi Nakane, is a monumental work not only as a great novel in its own right, but as one of the first and few documents in Canada to address the subject of the internment of the Japanese, a turbulent and untold section of Canadian history, from the perspective of Japanese-Canadians.
In Emily Kato, which is mainly set in the 1980s, Kogawa revisits the story of Naomi and her extended, displaced family.
Emily Kato's storyline moves back and forth between Naomi's memories of her old life in Alberta with Obasan, and her attempts to build a new life in Toronto with her aunt Emily Kato, a key organizer in the fight for redress. If Obasan is about memory, dusty family albums and childhood mementos, Emily Kato is a frustrated rallying cry for change and possibility.
Overwhelmingly, Emily Kato is a story about Naomi's, and generations of Japanese-Canadians', labour to overcome the effects of loss: the loss of nationality, of home and of family. Naomi struggles through a myriad of losses, from the disappearance her mother and father during the war, to the later disappearance of her brother, who abandons her to follow his path as a musician, and finally the death of her aunt and uncle. At the same time Naomi's life seems to be enveloped by a kind of âeoenot having,âe a lack of desire that hums throughout the first half of the novel and follows Naomi from Alberta to her aunt's home in Toronto.
What is the solution to this loss? Kogawa seems to ask. Is it politics and the kind of justice you can get from government? And is this the solution Kogawa poses in naming her second novel for the woman in the book who fights with the greatest ferocity for justice?
It is interesting to note that the original title, Itsuka, translates to âeoesome day,âe which seems to imply the kind of wistfulness, possibly a kind of Obasan-ness that Emily Kato, the most strident of Kogawa's characters, would despise. Perhaps, in naming this reworking after Emily Kato, Kogawa is hinting at the importance of bringing together these two halves. The half represented by Obasan, who is the Japanese âeoepast,âe and that of Emily, the Japanese âeoepresent.âe
Although Naomi may sit uneasily somewhere in the middle of these familial opposites, caught between faded memories and an uncertain future, her ability to keep the memories of the past alive while, in the end, finding the inspirations and strength to create new memories and connections, may be the solution for a community suffering from shallow roots in rocky soil.âe"Mariko Tamaki
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