Monday, August 9, 2010
Book #20: True Gumption
Obasan isn't an easy novel for me to read. Usually upon reading an historical novel, I feel a kind of fascination - the luxury of reflecting upon events from afar. But in reading Obasan, no such distance is possible. The events are all too intimate and painful.
Yesterday evening I saw my grandmother at my mother's birthday dinner. My grandmother is a half-deaf, gnomish woman with a habit of blurting things out at the most inopportune moments. Right as we're about to serve dessert, she doesn't hesitate to butt into the conversation: "At the prison camp, there was this guard named Aidan who called us all lazy...."
What prison camp, Granny? When I was a child, I had no idea what she was talking about. As I got older, I realized that her life, typical of Japanese-Canadians of that generation, had been full of hardship and dispossession, the very story told by Joy Kogawa in Obasan. Published in 1981, her novel broke new ground by telling a story long repressed in Canadian history - the story of the Japanese-Canadian Internment. Like the narrator, my grandmother would often reminisce about the big white house on Gravely Street in Vancouver where she grew up and had tea parties in the garden by the rabbit hutch out back. Later, she ran her father's two restaurants on Hastings and Powell Street. But following the outbreak of World War Two, the government took it all away and put the Japanese-Canadians in internment camps. "They assumed we were traitors," my grandmother says, her eyes flashing, as if she still can't get over her astonishment.
Never could she forget the shock of arriving at the camp, located in the desolate interior of British Columbia, in a ghost town named Sandon. All the internees were crammed into log cabins, two families expected to inhabit each shack, and all the women had to cook at a communal kitchen. My grandmother makes a hula hoop with her arms to show me the size of the vat in which she made stew for all the people who came to depend on her cooking - extended family, friends of her in-laws, hangers-on. Constant labour, fatigue, the endless grey sky and the extremities of hot and cold - these memories and sensations come alive in her voice. And even though it hurts, I can't help but want to know more.
Photo from: here
- Leslie Shimotakahara
- Toronto, ON, Canada
- Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.