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Issues of Race and Ethnicity in Joy Jogawa's 'Obasan' and Michael Ondaatje's 'In the Skin of a Lion'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2754 words Published: 20th Aug 2021

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In a multicultural society like Canada issues of race and ethnicity dominate discourse because races are constructed relationally not in isolation. Thus, marginalization of immigrants is a recurring theme in Canadian history. In exploring issues of race and ethnicity the novels Obasan by Joy Kogawa and In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje give voice to the forgotten history of immigrants who endured marginality and invisibility. The authors who are immigrants themselves, used memories to reconstruct and renegotiate a part of Canadian history from the point of view of ethnic groups they belong to. Despite claims that multiculturalism makes race neutral, through contrasting history and fiction, both authors demonstrate that race and ethnicity remains a key variable in Canada that influences people’s identities, experiences and outcomes.

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Kogawa (1983) uses the Nakane-Kato family memories and journals to reconstruct a forgotten history of oppression and marginalization experienced by Japanese Canadians. To explore the issue of race and ethnicity, Kogawa challenges the pain and difficulty of balancing two different cultures. Obasan was written to give voice to the Japanese Canadians from their own point of view. From the onset, these individuals were constructed as enemies which needed to be exterminated. Hence, they were placed in internment camps after World War II. To disguise the tyranny, the Canadian government called these camps “Interior Housing”. Those who resisted risked deportation (Obasan 35). Kogawa uses herself as a representative of the Japanese community and makes use of documents produced by Aunt Emily. The events shared in Obasan illustrate the shameful immigration policies that Canada used to exclude those deemed as “Other” or different.

In contrast, Ondaatje (1987), In the Skin of a Lion, explores the issues of race and ethnicity experienced by Eastern European immigrants through giving those characters and names. Like the Japanese, their story was invisible in Canadian history. The novel portrays a different kind of exclusion perpetrated on white Europeans; an exclusion based on language and simply being different or inferior from white Canadians. While the Japanese where treated like slaves the Europeans were used as labourers in the construction of Toronto’s waterworks and viaducts. The working conditions were precarious and many died in the course of construction. Ondaatjes notes that “The men work in the equivalent of the fallout of a candle” (Ondaatje 111) which is a metaphor that points to the limited lighting in the dark tunnel were a burning candle could not provide adequate. Like Kogawa, Ondaatje gives voice to the early twentieth immigrants who built Toronto’s waterworks and viaducts; a community intentionally left out of Canadian history. But, as Patrick the protagonist notes towards the end of the novel while interrogating Commissioner Harris, these heroic men who died during the construction of the waterworks and the city remained anonymous and invisible. When asked, Harris states “No record was kept” (Ondaatje 236). There was no record because as immigrants, they were considered insignificant despite their contribution to the city. Like the Japanese, the suppression of immigrant history demonstrates the power maintained by the dominant culture to ensure the invisibility of perceived outsiders.

Kogawa engages the concept of whiteness when describing the labelling of Japanese Canadians as “Other”. Whiteness refers to cultural practices embedded in historic systems of oppression that sustain and legitimize racial privilege (Frankenberg 1993). Whiteness is the category used to construct Japanese individuals as different from Canadians. Violence against the Japanese Canadian was a part of the structural violence and boundaries of white structural spaces. They experienced material dispossession of homes, businesses and fishing rights through processes of whiteness. As a process of domination, violence was legitimized including segregation into internment camps. Old Man Gower’s character demonstrates the power he held as a colonizer and a patriarch. He sees Naomi’s body as an object that he can sexually abuse without consequence (Obasan 65). As a man he is exercising all of the unearned entitlements and privilege which are made invisible through the lens of whiteness. In Obasan, whiteness becomes a historical tool of colonization instituted on the young and old resulting in the disintegration of the Japanese community. Sexual violence is a metaphor used to symbolize the injustice inflicted not only on Naomi but on the Japanese Canadians as a community. Through these experiences, Kogawa exposes the impact of white privilege as a system of domination over the Japanese Canadians.

In contrast, Ondaatje engages the social construct of whiteness by reversing the gaze. At a glance it may appear that the issue of race is insignificant. This is because the current normative presumptions about race, ethnicity and hegemonic power in immigrant communities do not include white immigrants. Ondaatje explores whiteness as a racial category that often gets obscured when discussing experiences of oppression. The absence of racialized people in the novel displaces racial power and makes whiteness visible. The immigrants who built the Toronto waterworks are white from Eastern Europe. They are treated however as non-white or foreigners despite their skin colour which often offers privilege. As a result they work under precarious and unsafe conditions with no rights and unfair labour practices. Their race and ethnicity was defined by language as a measurement of whiteness. In fact, Ondaatje describes one Nicholas Temelcoff a prominent worker as lacking language skills. He notes, “For Nicholas, language is much more difficult than what he does in space” (Ondaatje 43). Language affects this group of immigrants who are living in a dominant culture which uses whiteness to measure difference.

Ethnicity incorporates language. Kogawa portrays the Japanese Canadians as a community that uses silence more than words. Throughout the novel, Kogawa mixes Japanese and English to make the story comprehendible. The key theme of silence is used as a powerful method of communication. As Naomi reflects on the silence and adult whispers, she notes that, “Kodomo no tame” is translated “For the sake of the children” (Obasan 26). Throughout the text, children are sheltered from the traumas of injustice. It appears that the culture of Japanese Canadians emphasized the use of silence as a way to shelter them from injustice. In western culture, this silence could be construed as weakness or passivity.

In contrast, Ondaatje portrays the Eastern European immigrant community as unable to speak the host language, English. As a result, they formed and maintained exclusive ethnic group boundaries. They had a tightly knit community and their own shops. Everyone knew everyone on a personal level. They were hardworking and daring to attain the “North American Dream”. In fact, Ondaatje describes Nicholas Temelcoff as a daredevil when it came to his difficult job (Ondaatje 34). Given a choice, Temelcoff preferred working in the dangerous dark tunnels rather than speaking English (Ondaatje 43). He loved the barriers posed by his inability not to speak English and did not see it as a disadvantage. Towards the end of the novel Nicholas Temelcoff owns a bakery. Because of this success, he imagines driving over the bridge with his wife and children and calls himself a Canadian citizen (Ondaatje 149). Lack of language does not hinder the Eastern European community from succeeding or remaining positive under difficult circumstances.

Kogawa’s novel focuses on describing the painful consequences of the various systems of racial stratification affecting Japanese Canadians. Racial stratification refers to a way of categorizing people based on race. The effects of ranking people in this manner can produce consequences that affect a person’s life and access to resources. As evidenced in the Japanese Canadian community, race became an ethnocentric way of viewing Japanese Canadians. Interestingly, despite the pain endured from oppression and racism, Aunt Emily appears to be encouraging the same categorization of white people as she continues to be enraged and tells Naomi to feel the same way she does. Although, Naomi shares the same racial and ethnic background she disagrees with Aunt Emily and is convinced that it is time for Japanese to, “turn the page and move on” (Obasan 42). Naomi’s position on racial issues reveals that immigrants do not share a similar white/other binary view of race and ethnicity.

Unlike Kogawa, Ondaatje presents Eastern European immigrants as a culture of working class individuals. He does not focus on the pain and struggles, but rather he portrays them as heroes in spite of the oppression they experienced as immigrant workers. He describes the oppression experienced by Eastern European immigrants as a social class conflict between the rich and poor. The rich in this case were Ambrose Small the missing millionaire and Rowland Harris, the public works commissioner who was recognized as the brains behind the construction of the bridge and waterworks. Yet, the success of the project should be attributed to the tireless work of the immigrants. They worked under harsh conditions as depicted in the scene where the migrant workers resorted to unsuccessfully resist by gathering illegally at the waterworks. Ondaatje describes the immigrant situation as befallen with darkness and moth (Ondaatje 111). This darkness describes their vulnerability when working under dark and dangerous conditions. This imagery further emphasizes the alienation and colonial power endured by these working immigrants. Ondaatje redirects the gaze and turns the immigrants into heroes as opposed to victims. In fact, the character of Ambrose Small the missing millionaire is not given much reverence in the novel at all. Unlike Kogawa, Ondaatje does not engage in a politics of identity.

To map out the complex multi-dimensional identities of Japanese Canadian immigrants, Kogawa uses the character of Stephen, Naomi’s brother. Despite growing up under the strong influence of Obasan and Aunt Emily, Stephen denies his Japanese heritage. He distances himself from his closely knit family and becomes unfamiliar with the Japanese language. Kogawa describes Stephen’s behaviour as extremely angry. When Uncle tries to speak to Stephen in Japanese he did not understand. Kogawa notes, “He is always uncomfortable when anything is “too Japanese” (238). Could Stephen be a hybrid who does not fit into the confines of fixed race and ethnic categories? Stephen could be a product of the multicultural discourse that has allowed for the forming of fluid identities. Perhaps, Stephen is an indication of the transformation that takes place with immigration. An idea that dispels the notion that race and ethnicities are fixed and unchanging.

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Similarly, Ondaatje describes the complexity of the identity of Patrick the protagonist which is somewhat fluid despite his being white and Canadian. When Patrick moves from the country to an immigrant neighbourhood he becomes a foreigner among the Macedonians and Bulgarians immigrants (Ondaatje 53). He becomes the only English speaking person among foreigners who cause him to feel alienated in spite of belonging to the dominant group in terms of race and language. He is an outsider (Ondaatje 54) but is linked to the immigrant workers through poverty and his employment in the viaducts and tunnels. Patrick’s character dismantles the binary assumptions of a world where there is only white and other as he experiences marginalization just like the Japanese. In one scene, Patrick goes shopping in the Macedonian market and begins to weep when language difference was a barrier which impeded his purchase (Ondaatje 113). He struggled to speak the immigrant language, but still the community did not exclude him. They instead embraced him as one of them. He wept because of this profound gesture of love extended on behalf of the immigrants. They embraced him and give him a sense of belonging.

Kogawa explores use of silence to describe the oppression and marginalization of Japanese Canadians. Kogawa describes silence as a form of power and Obasan communicates her grief through silence. In spite of Obasan’s silence Kogawa states that, “She is the hamlet of the world, the possessor of life’s infinite personal details” (Obasan 16). While one may view this silence as oppression, the Japanese culture attributes dignity and power to those who persist in quiet endurance. The very Japanese culture could be the reason why the Japanese Canadians where so compliant with the order for their relocation. However, the silence is broken towards the end of the novel as Naomi confronts the memories from her past.

In contrast, Ondaatje uses the theme of darkness and light to describe the protagonist in constant search of something. Ondaatje notes, “He searched out, he collected things” (Ondaatje 57). What is Patrick searching for? Perhaps the light that brightens the darkness he feels in his life? When working with the immigrants he finds an identity with them. He is once again thrust into darkness when Clara leaves him. Patrick would often blindfold himself and move around in the dark (Ondaatje 79). Instead of fear associated with darkness he found magical moments in this unusual darkness. Ultimately, darkness is the metaphor used to describe not just the invisibility of the immigrants but the magical moments that are experienced in such situations. Ondaatje uses tunnels and bridges metaphorically to connect the disconnected places which are symbolic of the connection that existed among the immigrant workers. The vivid description of the dark tunnels reflects the unending difficult journey experienced by the immigrants as they laboured for the city and for a profound connection. Towards the end of the novel, Ondaatje speaks of “lights” (Ondaatje 244). The lights symbolize a different and positive perspective that can be taken from the painful experiences that the immigrants are experiencing. Ondaatje displaces the negative experiences by turning them into something positive.

Both authors expose how immigrants are not homogenous but that they occupy many worlds simultaneously. Kogawa draws attention to the fluidity of the Japanese Canadians identity while Ondaatje shows us that the Eastern Europeans as a racial category were obscured in race and ethnic debates. The group boundaries found in both novels focus on communal identities based on race, ethnicity and class. At the same time, both Kogawa and Ondaatje acknowledge that identity politics is not based on a single collective. Rather they complicate the relations of power using different elements of identity. Multiculturalism organizes people based on race and ethnicity forming distinct ethnic communities. Multiculturalism perpetuates exclusionary policies that maintain power hierarchies of insiders and outsiders. The two novels demonstrate that homogenizing immigrants encourages identity politics which is detrimental to nationhood.

In summary, while the two authors discuss a forgotten history, race and ethnicity remains a constant variable that influences identities, experiences and outcomes of immigrants in Canada.

As revealed by the two authors, the duality of white and other hinders the location of shared identities which exists among all people. Because identities shift, the policies of multiculturalism should address the transformation of identities that is influenced by migration.

Multiculturalism promotes fundamental politics of identity that can digress into dualities which are harmful to the progress of a shared Canadian identity. Identity politics creates more problems because often it appears just as exclusionary as those they claim to be marginalizing. However, the notion of engaging in us and them is global and not specific to Canada. Culturally the immigrants described in the two novels had their own hierarchies before ever coming into contact with the Canadian culture. As a result, multiculturalism was simply a fertile ground to enforce these structures.


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