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an ode to joy, marginalia from obasan

This is the eighth piece for interrobang, ?!, our arts+culture+????? column. A film review was first, odes to joy: sanna wani second, odes to joy: alfabet/alphabet by s. de meijer third, followed fourth by a thank you note to a transit bus driver., and aunt jay pitter. Spending a little time now with marginalia of books, then The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Context: The following post is part of a collection called odes of joy. Specifically around what marginalia of our libraries are built around/upon. This piece is clippings from Obasan by Joy Kogawa.

Consider Listening to:

Kenji by Fort Minor.

A lil context:

Firstly, I love Lillian Nakamura-Maguire. And from that point we depart: Obasan by Joy Kogawa was part of my mandatory high school reading in grade 9 or 10. It is an essential book around dignity, rights, language, intergenerational trauma, silence, sound, and well ... memories of past, present, and future. Thinking about this book at this point in time, I am reminded as to why and how I love alfabet/alphabet by sadiqa de meijer so much. Continuing the same dance, inquiries.

These are the parts that I revisit regularly:

Some of the Native children I've had in my classes over the years could almost pass for Japanese, and vice versa. There's something in the animal-like shyness I recognize in the dark eyes. A quickness to look away. I remember, when I was a child in Slocan, seeing the same swift look in the eyes of my friends. +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

"Uncle," I whisper, "why do we come here every year?" He does not respond. From both Obasan and Uncle I have learned that speech often hides like an animal in a storm. +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

Like the grass, I search the earth and the sky with a thin but persistent truth. +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

"Have you ever been in love, Miss Nakane?" Sigmund asks. "In love? Why do you suppose we use the preposition 'in' when we talk about love?" I ask evasively. "What does it mean to be 'in' something?" +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

"N I S E I," I spelled, printing the word on the napkin. "Pronounced 'knee-say'. It means 'second generation.'" Sometimes I think I've been teaching school too long. I explained that my grandparents, born in Japan, were Issei or first generation, while the children of the Nisei were called Sansei or third generation. +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

The language of her grief is silence. She has learned it well, its idioms, its nuances. Over the years, silence within her small body has grown large and powerful. +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

Stephen has always been a ball of mercury, unpredictable in his moods and sudden rages. Departure, for him, is as necessary as breath. +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

Once, years later on the Barker farm, Uncle was wearily wiping his forehead with the palm of his hand and I heard him saying, quietly, "Itsuka, mata itsuka. Someday, someday again." He was waiting for that "someday" when he could go back to the boats. But he never did. +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

"Lost," she says occasionally. The word for "lost" also means "dead". +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

There is a fundamental difference in Japanese workmanship - to pull with control rather than push with force. +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

All our ordinary stories are changed in time, altered as much by the present as the present is shaped by the past. Potent and pervasive as a prairie dust storm, memories and dreams seep and mingle through cracks, settling on furniture and into upholstery. Our attics and living-rooms encroach on each other, deep into their invisible places. +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

"I hate to admit it," she said, "but for all we hear about the States, Canada's capacity for racism seems even worse." +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

"Here's a man who was looking for the source of the problem in the use of language. You know those prisons they sent us to? The government called them 'Interior Housing Projects'! With language like that you can disguise any crime." +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

People who talk a lot about their victimization make me uncomfortable. It's as if they use their suffering as weapons or badges of some kind. From my years of teaching I know it's the children who say nothing who are in trouble more than the ones who complain. +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

"You'd think, after all we've been through-you'd think there'd be some collective social conscience." +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

"You have to remember," Aunt Emily said. "You are your history. If you cut any of it off you're an amputee. Don't deny the past. Remember everything. If you're bitter, be bitter. Cry it out! Scream! Denial is gangrene. Look at you, Nomi, shuffling back and forth between Cecil and Granton, unable to either to go or to stay in the world with even a semblance of grace or ease." +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

The woman in the picture is frail and shy and the child is equally shy, unable to lift her head. Only fragments relate me to them now, her infant daughter. Fragments of fragments. Parts of a house. Segments of stories. +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

Secretly, I realize I am more fortunate than Stephen because I am younger and will therefore be a child for a longer time. That we must grow up is an unavoidable sadness. +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

The time comes when Momotaro must go and silence falls like feathers of snow all over the rice-paper hut. Inside, the hands are slow. Grandmother kneels at the table forming round rice balls, pressing the sticky rice together with her moist fingertips. She wraps them in a small square cloth and, holding them before her in her cupped hands, she offers him the lunch for his journey. There are no tears and no touch. Grandfather and Grandmother are careful, as he goes, not to weigh his pack with their sorrow. Alone in the misty mountains once more, the old folk wait. What matters in the end, what matters above all, more than their loneliness or fears, is that Momotaro behave with honour. At all times what matters is to act with a fine intent. To do otherwise is shameful and brings dishonour to all. +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

To travel with confidence down this route the most reliable map I am given is the example of my mother's and Grandma's alert and accurate knowing. +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

I am sometimes not certain whether it is a cluttered attic in which I sit, a waiting room, a tunnel, a train. There is no beginning and no end to the forest, or the dust storm, no edge from which to know where the clearing begins. Here, in this familiar density, beneath this cloak, within this carapace, is the longing within the darkness. +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

We are leaving the B.C. coast - rain, cloud, mist - an air overladen with weeping. Behind us lies a salty sea within which swim our drowning specks of memory - our small waterlogged eulogies. We are going down to the middle of the earth with pick-axe eyes, tunnelling by train to the Interior, carried along by the momentum of the expulsion into the waiting wilderness. We are hammers and chisels in the hands of would-be sculptors, battering the spirit of the sleeping mountain. We are the chips and sand, the fragments of fragments that fly like arrows from the heart of the rock. We are the silences that speak from stone. We are the despised rendered voiceless, stripped of car, radio, camera, and every means of communication, a trainload of eyes covered with mud and spittle. We are the man in the Gospel of John, born into the world for the sake of the light. We are sent to Siloam, the pool called "Sent". We are sent to the sending, that we may bring sight. We are the scholarly and the illiterate, the envied and the ugly, the fierce and the docile. We are those pioneers who cleared the bush and the forest with our hands, the gardeners tending and attending the soil with our tenderness, the fishermen who are flung from the sea to flounder in the dust of the prairies. We are the Isseu and the Nissei and the Sansei, the Japanese Canadians. We disappear into the future undemanding as dew. +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

"There is a time for crying," Saito-ojisan whispers, his voice quavering. "Some day the time for laughter will come." +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

And I am tired, I suppose, because I want to get away from all this. From the past and all these papers, from the present, from the memories, from the deaths, from Aunt Emily and her heap of words. I want to break loose from the heavy identity, the evidence of rejection, the unexpressed passion, the misunderstood politeness. I am tired of living between deaths and funerals, weighted with decorum, unable to shout or sing or dance, unable to scream or swear, unable to laugh, unable to breathe out loud. +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

"Reconciliation can't begin without mutual recognition of facts," she said. "Facts?" "Yes, facts. What's right is right. What's wrong is wrong. Health starts somewhere." +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

But what good they do, I do not know - those little black typewritten words - rain words, cloud droppings. They do not touch us where we are planted here in Alberta, our roots clawing the sudden prairie air. The words are not made flesh. Trains do not carry us home. Ships do not return again. All my prayers disappear into space. +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

There is a word for it. Hardship. The hardship is so pervasive, so inescapable, so thorough it's a noose around my chest and I cannot move any more. All the oil in my joints has been drained out and I have been invaded by dust and grit from the fields and mud is in my bone marrow. I can't move any more. My fingernails are black from scratching the scorching day and there is no escape. +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

Ah, here we go again. "Our Indians". "Our Japanese". "A terrible business." It's like being offered a pair of crutches while I'm striding down the street. The comments are so incessant and always so well-intentioned. "How long have you been in this country? Do you like our country You speak such good English. Do you run a cafe? My daughter has a darling Japanese friend. Have you ever been back to Japan?" +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

Where do any of us come from in this cold country? Oh Canada, whether it is admitted or not, we come from you we come from you. From the same soil, the slugs and slime and bogs and twigs and roots. We come from the country that plucks its people out like weeds and flings them into the roadside. We grow in itches and sloughs, untended and spindly. We erupt in the valleys and mountainsides, in small towns and back alleys, sprouting upside-down on the prairies, our hair wild as spiders' legs, our feet rooted nowhere. We grow where we are not seen, we flourish where we are not heard, the thick undergrowth of an unlikely planting. Where do we come from Obasan? We come from emeteries full of skeletons with wild roses in their grinning teeth. We come from our untold tales that wait for their telling. We come from Canada, this land that is like every land, filled with the wise, the fearful, the compassionate, the corrupt. +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

Once I came across two ideographs for the word "love". The first contained the root words "heart" and "hand" and "action" - love as hands and heart in action together. The other ideograph, for "passionate love", was formed of "heart", "to tell", and a "long thread". +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

"If these matters are sent away in this letter, perhaps they will depart a little from our souls," she writes. "For the burden of these words, forgive me." +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

"That there is brokenness," he says quietly. "That this world is brokenness. But within brokenness is the unbreakable name. How the whole earth groans till Love returns." +Obasan, Joy Kogawa

Additional Resources:

25th Anniversary of the Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement, Canadian Race Relations Foundation National Association of Japanese Canadians Joy Kogawa House

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