Requiem by Frances Itani

March 30, 2015 at 10:56 pm

RequiemHarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
314 pages
by David Fujino

Why do non-Japanese Canadians feel compelled to write fiction about Japanese Canadians?

Such an abrupt question is usually asked behind closed doors in our community, but because we have our own writers, we have our own sense of culture and history, and when non-JCs depict us in their short stories and novels, we understandably ask, ‘why’?

After all, JCs take a certain pride in their writers like Joy Kogawa, Roy Kiyooka, Shizuye Takashima, Roy Miki, Muriel Kitagawa, Pamela Sugiman, Hiromi Goto, Kerri Sakamoto, Ken Adachi, Gerry Shikatani, and Mona Oikawa, to name only a few. In this day and age, we are no longer spoken for. We speak for ourselves. We have our own writers.

With such thoughts filling my mind, I recently sat down and read Frances Itani’s novel, Requiem. Itani herself is of British Isles descent and is married to a Japanese Canadian — hence, the Itani in Frances Itani. That much of her autobiography seems relevant here.

But returning to Itani’s novel, Requiem, it is largely about the Japanese Canadian experience and the impact it has on the life of its main narrator, Bin Okuma, a Japanese Canadian visual artist.

For starters, there’s more than a few quirks to our main character, beginning with his name. Bin (which is short for Binosuke) uneasily walks about in life bearing the surname Okuma, which also doesn’t seem to fit him. As it turns out, he’s undecided whether he will even visit the man he calls “First Father”— a name, and the novel’s central mystery, that needn’t be explained here.

What does stand out in Requiem is Itani’s lucid prose and her obvious belief in the power of storytelling. There is much to admire. In the chapters titled “l941-1942”, “1942”, “1945”, “1945-1946”, her believable scenes of the internment as experienced by Bin and his family, who are forced to live in a hastily erected shack in the Upper Fraser Valley, are clearly the fictional product of a lot of intense research and consulation. But because we’re constantly shuttled back-and-forth between these evocative chapters and other chapters that are more present tense and titled, “1997”, the central road trip story keeps getting lost and is difficult to remember.

The central story is that of Bin Okuma, a celebrated visual artist who has recently and quite suddenly lost his wife, Lena. He and his son, Greg, are left to deal with the shock, but Greg has returned to his studies on the East Coast and finding himself alone, Bin impulsively decides to drive across the country with his hound dog, Basil, from Ottawa westward to Alberta and British Columbia, where lie the repressed memories of his bitter internment and a father who perhaps has been forever lost to him.

Grief … bitterness … history … memory … regret … and a hint of mystery, make for a potent brew in this present-day story that serves as a framework for Bin’s mournful consideration of his classic ‘unexamined life’ — and yet, the read was less than compelling, and Bin’s character was not as alluring as the well-researched war years chapters; also, the 11th hour reconciliation between Bin and his biological father — the previously alluded to “First Father” — does seem a little too neatly tied up.

However, taste is a funny thing. You can point out all the good things in a book: you can love the writer’s sentences, and you can appreciate how the writer structures their novel, but that still doesn’t mean you’ll ‘like it’.

Make no mistake. My remarks have nothing to do with race.

– David Fujino – Toronto – March 5/15 –