by Swagata Bhattacharya
The question of what it means to be ‘Canadian’ is contextualized in our époque by widespread economic and political globalization, including major migration patterns whose proportions have been unseen in Canada since the turn of the twentieth century. Minority and cultural rights are legally recognized within the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) and the Canadian Multiculturalism Act (1988). The question of national identification is not new but has become distinctive and even more pertinent in the context of postmodernity. The fact remains that people of Canada have always suffered from a unique identity crisis. Struggling to break away first from the cultural domination of Britain, and then from that of the United States of America, Canadians have consistently suffered from the lack of that special something (some characteristic feature peculiar to them only) which would make them feel distinctly ‘Canadian’. Hence, the question of national identity, or rather the lack thereof, assumes great importance in the context of Canada. Officially declared ‘multicultural’ with the ‘Act for the Preservation and Enhancement of Multiculturalism in Canada’ sanctioned in 1988, Canada is supposed to “ensure that all individuals receive equal treatment and equal protection under the law, while respecting and valuing their diversity” (https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/c-18.7/page-1.html). However, in practice, Canada with her cold climate and attitude remains “an unknown territory for the people who live in it” (Atwood 18). In Canada, the term ‘multiculturalism’ came into vogue in the 1960s to counter the existing bi-culturalism, i.e., the dominant Anglo-phone and Franco-phone cultures. But although the Charter recognizes equal rights and privileges of all citizens, the policy is a far cry from reality. In her collection of essays, The Dark Side of the Nation (2000), Canadian scholar of South Asian origin Himani Bannerji states – “even after years of being an ‘immigrant’, and upon swearing allegiance to the same Queen of England from whom India had parted, I was not to be a ‘Canadian’. . . As a population, we non-whites and women are living in a specific territory . . . We are pasted over with labels that give us identities that are extraneous to us” (64–65).
One such ‘label’ is the tag of a ‘woman of colour’. She is the ‘other’ in the Canadian society even if she is a legitimate Canadian citizen. In her essay “Bell Hooks Called Me a ‘Woman of Colour”’, Saloni Mathur records the shock she felt when she was referred to as a woman of colour for the first time (271–86). However, there are contradictory opinions about the use of the label. As such, Makeda Silvera edited a collection of interviews and essays by a number of non-white Canadian women, aptly titled The Other Woman: Women of Colour in Contemporary Canadian Literature (1994). In the foreword to this book, she writes, “some think that the term ‘women of colour’ shouldn’t exist, that people should be named specifically. I think that view makes it harder to wage a common struggle. I think of the term as a large, colourful quilt, a resting place, a place to form alliances” (x).
These women of colour form a homogeneous group despite their individualistic differences. They share the same experiences of racial and gender bias and discrimination in their day-to-day lives. Thus when they write, their works reveal the dark side of Canada, the side which lies beneath the glossy cover of a sophisticated First World country.
These literary examples show that ethnicity, even today, remains a big issue in Canada. In fact, it poses more problems in the modern multicultural world than it has done in the past. By definition, ethnicity, derived from the Greek word ethnos, means a number of people living together. Simply put, ethnicity is the classification of human beings by race, cultural traditions, religion, language and other traits held in common (Oxford Dictionary n.p.). Ethnicity, then, becomes a crucial factor for a multicultural nation in which people of several races live together. But we find that this classification is now being used as a basis for differentiation, and the word ‘ethnic’ is now popularly used to denote the ‘other’ group, people ‘different from us’. Here ‘us’ necessarily refers to the majority, the dominant group or race of a nation. In the context of Canada, people of white European ancestry have always had the dominant status. This has been possible because of a long history of colonization and genocidal practices against the native inhabitants of the land. Again, though Canada is now often considered a land of immigrants, her immigration history is notorious and her policies thoroughly prejudiced. Canada’s racial intolerance has been manifested in the various immigration acts which record her preference for white Europeans; her past ill treatment of Chinese and Indian immigrants; her treatment of Asian immigrants just before World War I (best displayed in the Komagata Maru Incident of 1914) and the way she dealt with the Japanese-Canadians during World War II (1939–1945). All these incidents, therefore, constitute evidence of the fact that Canada has thrived upon a supremacist racist attitude which she continues till date. It is no wonder then, that “alienation from a national entity called Canada and from ‘Canadians’ is quite common-place in the writings of Aboriginal and racial minority women” and men (Mukherjee 424–25). The Canadian rainbow fails to merge all the colours.
The negative experience of the “woman of colour” as manifested in their literary works, exposes their marginalization and exclusion from the society at large. In order to illustrate my point, I shall discuss Obasan (1981) by Joy Kogawa and its sequel Itsuka (1992) shall also come within our purview of discussion.
In her interview with Karlyn Koh published in The Other Woman, Joy Kogawa confesses: “I had virtually no consciousness, except in a negative sense, of Japaneseness. I would see myself as white…it didn’t occur to me that anybody would ever publish a story about anybody that wasn’t white, hadn’t an Anglo-Saxon name, because those were the only ones I ever heard” (20–21).
Born in 1935 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Joy Nozomi Kogawa spent her childhood in Slocan and Coaldale in Alberta as an interned Japanese-Canadian during World War II (1939–1945). Her best-known work, the semi-autobiographical Obasan has as its protagonist the soft-spoken Naomi who goes through the same harrowing experiences as Kogawa. Born a Canadian citizen (a Sansei, or third-generation Canadian of Japanese origin) and holding a Canadian passport, the one sure-fire question Naomi faces from strangers is “Where are you from?” and/or “How long have you been in this country?” (Kogawa, Obasan 7). Obasan records the plight and distress of the people of Japanese origin residing in Canada during World War II. The Pearl Harbour bombing of 1941 led to the evacuation of the people of Japanese background from the Pacific coastline of British Columbia where their chief sources of sustenance were fishing and ship-making. They were pushed back towards the inland region of the Prairies. Like Naomi, Kogawa herself, “hated the prairies, and wanted to go back, and I was always to go home…the themes [of Obasan] were themes from my life” (Koh 21).
Obasan is essentially a story of three female figures—Ayoko Nakane (Obasan), Miss
Emily Kato (Aunt Emily) and Miss Megumi Naomi Nakane. The sequel to Obasan, Itsuka (1992), continues with Naomi and Aunt Emily after Obasan dies early in the novel. In both these novels, the women occupy the center-stage. Obasan and Aunt Emily represent the two faces of Japanese womanhood: Obasan is silent, composed and all-enduring like a solid rock; Aunt Emily is the vociferous, agitated and impatient speaker whose only aim in life is to seek redress for the wronged Japanese-Canadians. Somewhere in between is Naomi, supportive of Obasan, “overwhelmed” by Aunt Emily and herself “perpetually tensed” (Kogawa, Obasam 7).
Naomi was a victim of sexual harassment early in her childhood – “It is not just an isolated incident. Over and over again, not just Old Man Gower –but years later there is Percy in Slocan, pressing me against the cave wall during hide-and-go-seek, warning me against crying out” (Kogawa, Obasan 61). Naomi also dreams of Oriental women lying naked in the muddy floor and the soldiers aiming their rifles across the bodies of these women, thinking “this was sport. A game to play with animals in the forest” (63). This dream leaves Naomi perpetually intimidated in the presence of men, more so because she is a ‘woman of colour’. She has faced rejection and discrimination in the land of her birth for her skin colour since she was a child. This leaves her identity jeopardized forever, facing the same question on innumerable occasions: “where are you from?” (7).
With the outbreak of World War II, Naomi and her brother Stephen find themselves in a curious position, “[i]t is a riddle, Stephen tells me. We are both the enemy and not the enemy” (Kogawa, Obasan 70). Naomi asks her father whether they were Japanese because she had heard in school “they’re bad and you’re a Jap” (70). But her father replies with “no…We’re Canadians” (70). Aunt Emily always maintains this as well. She crosses out the words “Japanese race” wherever they appear in her paper and writes “Canadian citizens” instead, contrary to the common notion of “once a Jap always a Jap” (83). Initially unaware of their distinct physical appearance, Stephen and Naomi assume that their refusal to speak in their mother tongue might gain them acceptance as regular Canadians. But there is no escape for them. In spite of Aunt Emily’s repeated emphasis that they are Canadian citizens, Naomi faces discrimination as a woman of the visible minority status: “From nowhere the sharp stabs come, attacking me for no reason at all. They come at unexpected times, in passing remarks, in glances, in jokes. How come you got such a flat face, Naomi? Steam roller run over ya?” (201).
Years later in Itsuka, the matured Naomi feels that the physical appearance which shoved the Japanese identity on her face, in reality led to a misconception about her. She is not now and never has been a part of the Japanese community: “We don’t really have a community after all….we were all deformed by the Dispersal Policy and grew up striving to be ‘the only Jap in town’. ‘No, I don’t speak Japanese,’ we’d say proudly” (Kogawa, Itsuka 107).
Nonetheless, in Obasan, Naomi can identify herself with the yellow chickens mercilessly slaughtered and the Yellow Peril Game where “to be yellow is to be weak and small” (Kogawa, Obasan 152). She notices that on their arrival in Slocan the small white community “watched us come with a mixture of curiosity and fear” (118). Years later, she notices the same curiosity on the faces of the parents of her white students, noting that “when I first started teaching sixteen years ago there were such surprised looks when parents came to the classroom door. Was it youthfulness or my Oriental face? I never learned which” (6). Likewise, in Naomi’s classroom the students who ask the most questions are the white boys; the “coloured” students have learned to remain quiet from the beginning (6).
Without being able to find her own identity throughout her lifetime, Naomi has, however, had the identity of an interned Japanese person imposed on her by her ‘friends’ who tell her – “my mom says we can’t play with you…you’re sick. You’ve all got T.B. Nobody will marry you” (Kogawa, Obasan 165). Naomi feels that “I wanted to break loose from the heavy identity, the evidence of rejection, the unexpected passion, the misunderstood politeness” (183). Aunt Emily’s repeated insistence on ‘we’re Canadians’ is never paid any heed to. Considered an “enemy alien”, cut off from her parents, thrown out of
her own house, Naomi Nakane says –
But at first I was proud, Knowing that I belonged.
This is my own, my native land After our former homes had been sold over our vigorous protests, after having been re-registered, fingerprinted, card-indexed, roped and restricted, I cry out the question:
Is this my own, my native land? (40)
Obasan is a story of silence. It was initially written in the form of a short story by the Japanese-Canadian activist Muriel Kitagawa to address the unfair treatment meted out to the Japanese citizens by the Canadian government during World War II. Joy Kogawa adapted Kitagawa’s story and later developed it into its present novel form. She modeled the character of Aunt Emily on Kitagawa and made her the voice of protest (Boers and Braun n.p.). Though Naomi is the protagonist, the two other principal characters of Obasan and Aunt Emily influenced her as she oscillates between the silenced Obasan and the protesting Aunt Emily. Obasan and Itsuka trace the journey of Naomi from childhood to womanhood, from a terrified, traumatized child to a reserved woman who finally learns to accept her life and dreams to open up before the rest of the world. Unlike Obasan, Itsuka, however, ends on a note of hope. The Canadian government at last accepts that it had wronged the Canadians of Japanese origin during World War II and wants to compensate. Itsuka ends with one of the characters, Ken, saying, “I finally feel that I’m a Canadian” (Kogawa, Itsuka 277).
W. H. New, in his editorial to Canadian Literature, states that –
Margins have a way of speaking back from the edges of power, of resisting those who occupy a center by having laid claim to the terms that declare that they occupy a center. If they are recognized for the creativity of the differences they bring to bear on cultural perception, margins also have a way of making the center irrelevant and speaking on their own. (8)
Joy Kogawa’s novels, speaking from the margins of the Canadian society, attempt to deconstruct the literary canons of Canadian Literature while demonstrating that the concept of the Canadian rainbow is indeed a myth.
 We find references to such instances in the literary works of various diasporic writers in Canada as well as in nonfictional works such as Neil Bissoondath’s Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada (1994)
Swagata Bhattacharya, “The ‘Other’ Women of Canada: Is the Canadian Rainbow a Myth?” Alluvium, Vol.9, No.4 (2021): n.pag. Web 6 September 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v9.4.02
Swagata Bhattacharya holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University, India. Her doctoral thesis was on the representation of female characters by women writers of Indian origin in Canada. Her areas of interest include Diaspora Studies, Postcolonial Studies, and Translation Studies. At present, she is working as a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University.
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