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Requiem, Frances Itani

2012/04/17

In the novel “Requiem,” Frances Itani chronicles the internment of a young Canadian-Japanese boy named Bin, and his family; living in a fishing community, his family and their friends are considered threats to the security of the country. Their boats and fishing licenses are taken away, their property looted and sold, they themselves shipped on trains to camps where they are forced to pay for their own imprisonment, building shanties, hauling water, and trying to coax gardens out of the bare ground. Bin, a budding artist, captures life in the camp on scraps of cardboard, while his oldest brother helps to build shelters and his sister tries to keep up with her lessons by teaching some of the other children. In between chapters describing the destitute conditions of his childhood, an adult Bin writes of the events that led him to revisiting his past — the sudden death of his Caucasian wife, Lena, and an impending reconciliation with his estranged father.

As an Asian growing up in California, I knew and read many books about the Japanese internment in America, and even visited Manzanar once, but I did not realize that this terrible act also happened in Canada. Events are presented in piercingly poignant detail — the destruction of the dolls which the Japanese families treasured so dearly, burnt by their owners when they realized the imminent forced relocation; the looting of homes even as the families were being herded away onto boats, looters making off with sewing machines, furniture, artwork, wedding gifts — the existence of which was to be denied by the authorities when the Japanese are finally released and hope to recover their belongings, their property, and pick up the threads of their lives. The prejudice that the Japanese encounter after the war — being given the option to be shipped off to Japan, or relocate somewhere away from the west coast — as well as what Bin encounters at the school from students and teachers alike: all these are rooted in real stories of citizens uprooted and dehumanized by their fellows and their government.

This is an extremely well-written, emotionally moving, and powerful novel.

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