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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.2 (2002) 362-388

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A Dangerous Circuit:
Loss and the Boundaries of Racialized Subjectivity in Joy Kogawa's Obasan and Kerri Sakamoto's The Electrical Field

Marlene Goldman

In cases of extreme trauma, certain kinds of acting-out may not be entirely over-come, and working-through may itself require the recognition of loss that cannot be made good: scars that will not disappear and even wounds that will not heal.

—Dominick LaCapra, Representing the Holocaust

In 1981, Joy Kogawa published Obasan, a novel based on her experience of the internment and suffering of Japanese Canadians during WWII. Critics have described the novel as "an elegy for a lost community" (Howells 475). Owing to the extensive critical attention paid to the text's status as elegy and its depiction of loss and victimization, Kogawa's novel raises crucial questions about the ways in which literary representations [End Page 362] of grief and loss by Canadians of Japanese ancestry have informed and continue to inform debates about identity politics. To facilitate an understanding of how the narrative's portrayal of loss, grief, and victimization played and continues to play a role in structuring the boundaries of identity formation at century's end, I propose to read Obasan in the light of Kerri Sakamoto's novel The Electrical Field (1998). Viewed together, these texts stage a dialogue that illustrates how the discourses of loss, mourning, and the role of the victim have been mobilized and reshaped by Canadians of Japanese ancestry. 1 I argue further that Sakamoto's text adopts and adapts these discourses in direct response to the cultural politics of the knowledge produced around Obasan and the socio-political developments that took place in the 18 years following Obasan's publication.

In keeping with Kogawa's novel, The Electrical Field addresses the impact of the internment on the Japanese-Canadian community and probes the problematic discourse of loss. Although in both cases loss must be located in the broader context of diaspora narratives, these texts emphasize that loss and subjectivity are racialized. In using the term "racialized," I am referring to what Roy Miki describes as "the imposition of race constructs and hierarchies on marked and demarked 'groups' whose members come to signify divergence from the normative body inscribed by whiteness" (127). 2 For Japanese Canadians, particularly at the time of WWII, the discourses of nationalism and colonialism played a central role in instigating loss, which involved the stripping away of citizenship and property, and also resulted in the deaths of family members. 3 As we will see, because of the racialized nature of the loss and the cultural and political responses to the victimization of Japanese Canadians, these narratives strategically refuse the work of mourning.

In Obasan, the narrator, Naomi Nakane (who is five years old, the same age Kogawa was when the persecution began) writes of the loss of her home on the West coast and, even more traumatic, the loss of her mother, who left Canada in 1941 to visit relatives in Japan and, mysteriously, never returned. At the end of the novel, a letter reveals that the mother was in Nagasaki when the bomb dropped. When asked about the significance of the mother, Kogawa explained, "I felt that she was, in a way, the analogy for the absent God, the God that is not seen, the powerless God, the love that is there but cannot do anything except love. [End Page 363] How do we then receive empowerment from such an image of an absent love?" (qtd. in Redekop 16) On one level, the reception of the novel in the 1980s suggests some of the ways that a complex set of social practices ranging from empowerment and identity formation to the reinscription of a racialized subjectivity can be established on the basis of absence and an experience of profound loss.

Obasan, one of the first books to describe the victimization of Japanese Canadians, had a profound impact...


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