by Frances Itani

Since being published in 1981, Joy Kogawa’s Obasan has remained the definitive novel about the post-Pearl Harbor internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Even in the U.S.—where treatment of internees was, ironically, less harsh than it was here—there is no real literary equivalent, although the success of David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars (which was also made into a film), did cast a bright, if indirect light on this dark chapter of our mutual histories when it came out in 1995.

Itani_Requiem_EDReviewFrances Itani, who enjoyed runaway international success with her first novel Deafening, ventures into Kogawa’s territory through her first-person protagonist Bin Okuma, a successful artist in his early 60s living in Ottawa, and a child during the internment; a bold choice, given that Itani is quite obviously neither male nor Japanese (she is, however, married to a Japanese-Canadian). 

As in Obasan, an unexpected death prompts reflection on a largely unexamined life. Grieving the recent loss of his history-professor wife, Lena, and suffering from painter’s block, Bin impulsively decides to embark on a road trip out west. He plans to stop at his sister’s home in Edmonton, but despite the latter’s entreaties, he is undecided about whether he will visit the man he calls “First Father”—a name, being the novel’s central mystery, that cannot be explained here. 

Facing what happened to his family has always been an issue for Bin. Much to the frustration of Lena, he refuses to look at the folder of documents she has compiled relating to the internment, choosing instead to throw himself into his work. But Bin’s identity as an artist is inextricable from his past, his calling established the day he changed his name back from the Anglicized “Ben” bestowed on him by various not-so-well-meaning authorities. 

Despite his efforts to block out the past, a few indelible tableaus have burned themselves into Bin’s consciousness. One is the “unthinkable” image of his mother’s once-gleaming floors, never darkened by so much as the sole of a single shoe, covered in soot and puddles during his father’s panicked disassembling of the stove they would take as a hedge against the camp’s cold mountain climate. The other is the sight of local hakujin (whites) looting the homes of Bin’s now-dispossessed community within minutes of their boat pulling away from the coast—one they would be banished from for years to come.

Now, almost ten years after the government’s 1988 redress, Bin finds the old racism still lingers. As his dog barks inside his car at a roadside stop near the Manitoba border, a couple of menacing-looking locals inform him, “We don’t do things like that here, Chinaman.” 

Itani strives hard to achieve poignancy in Requiem, and she sometimes does, especially in the character of Okuma-san, an elderly musician at the camp who nurtures Bin’s talent and splits his fingers while silently playing Beethoven on his homemade wooden keyboard. Regrettably, however, the novel often gets bogged down in earnestness and the peaks are rarely sustained. Itani seems to assume that her readers know little of the history she writes about, or that they won’t be resourceful or interested enough to haul themselves over to their own plastic keyboards to fill in whatever blanks she might leave. As a result, the passages at the camp are treated as a series of teachable moments, and with Itani eager to cram in as many facts, figures and dates as possible, the writing often lapses into textbook-speak. 

The chaperoning carries over into other areas. As words, most people probably consider “sushi” and “teriyaki” to be about as Japanese as “mayonnaise” is French these days, yet Itani italicizes them as if she were introducing her readers to unheard-of foreign delicacies. A similar disconnect occurs in the dialogue. “There was a softness to the distant hills on the other side of the river. That was the view we saw from shore. The visual suggestion was one of a series of far-off valleys, each folded to the next, the muted wrappings of red and gold” is a lovely bit of narrative description, but it works less well as what it actually is: Bin talking to his wife about the holiday they once took in the Gatineaus.

Itani’s goals are laudable: the facts around the internment are shameful and must never be forgotten. Good goals, unfortunately, don’t always make for good fiction; Joy Kogawa has left us a literary legacy to be built on, not reinvented.

—Emily Donaldson, a freelance editor and reviewer