Language in “Obasan” and the Construction of History

I like that Joy Kogawa doesn’t Italicize the Japanese words in “Obasan.” I’ve always felt that when writers Italicized non-English words (non-English in this case because that’s my only experience with texts) in texts that were predominantly in English, they were creating a rift between the languages, and continuing the idea of linguistically separate spheres. But in “Obasan,” that is not the case. Japanese and English words follow seamlessly together. Both languages contribute to the content and idea of the text; to me, Kogawa’s choice suggests that no “language” is marked foreign through Italicizing, no terms are deemed foreign or distinct in the text. Her choice “corrects” the paradoxical identity of Japanese-Americans (Americans as in the Americas) during WWII. In “Obasan,” they were treated as enemies yet Canadians, and this treatment bleeds on in the treatment of Asian-Americans in both Canada and the United States, where they are considered “forever foreigners.” By choosing not to Italicize, both Japanese and English meld to create a distinctly Canadian work.

Also, I’m a little baffled by Aunt Emily. She tells Naomi and others to always remember the past, yet apparently, to her, Canada is in a vacuum, completely cut off from Japan. Part of the history of the Japanese-Canadians is that their ancestors came from Japan some time ago. Yet Aunt Emily doesn’t seem to acknowledge this. The part of the text where this stood out to me was when Uncle says, “That’s not very Japanese” and Aunt Emily says, “Why should ___be? We’re/They’re Canadian.” If she doesn’t even acknowledge that part of history, the history of immigration, of cultural diversity, then how can she tell others to remember and acknowledge the past?

Comments are closed.