Winner 2013 Webby Awards for Best Political Website
Top Banner, Site wide
Apr 17, 2014

 Choose a size
Text Size

Top Leaderboard, Site wide

Star-Spangled Baggage
Science Finds New Routes to Energy

Paul Robeson: A Life

Truthdig Bazaar more items

Arts and Culture

The Wounds and the Gifts Are Inseparable

Email this item Email    Print this item Print    Share this item... Share

Posted on Sep 5, 2012

By Wendy Smith

A book by Frances Itani

Frances Itani’s new novel, like its predecessors “Deafening” and “Remembering the Bones,” addresses a powerful emotional situation with unsentimental rigor. Her economy and discipline are all the more remarkable because “Requiem” deals with a shameful episode in Canadian history that invites rhetoric and recriminations: the internment of 21,000 citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II. But instead of raging, “Requiem” delicately probes the complex adjustments we make to live with our sorrows, adjustments both necessary and confining.

Not that Itani scants the everyday cruelties and blatant injustices her protagonist endured. Bin Okuma was a little boy when his family and others in the Japanese Canadian fishing community on Vancouver Island’s west coast were forced from their homes and saw their boats auctioned off by government order: “A prudent look to the future,” the adult Bin notes sardonically, “ensuring that ... there would be nothing to come back to.”

Fifty-five years later, Bin confronts his bottled-up anger when his sister calls to say that their elderly father is asking for him. Although they are estranged, Bin decides to make the long drive from Ottawa to British Columbia to see his father and to visit the site of the internment camp where he spent his childhood.

book cover



By Frances Itani


Atlantic Monthly Press, 320 pages


Buy the book

Bin’s wife, Lena, died a few months earlier, and the loss has unmoored him, setting him on the trail of memories he has long shunned. His work as an artist has allowed him to close in on what he could not face directly. A growing stack of drawings and paintings from far-flung travels attests to his obsession with rivers, inexorably leading him to “the great river that defined our lives in the camp”: the Fraser, in whose waters Bin clung to his father on the day in 1944 when an act of rejection scarred him. He needs to finish his river project, a friend tells him at Lena’s funeral: “You’ve dragged it behind you long enough.”

Bin heads west, accompanied by his dog, Basil (one of the more charming canines in recent fiction), and a folder of family documents assembled by Lena that he refused to read when she was alive. As he travels, scenes from the internment camp and from his marriage flash through his mind, working together to build a faceted portrait of this complicated man. The scarf Bin tenderly wrapped around Lena’s neck in a rare public display of affection recalls the warmth his mother provided with a scarf in their freezing tent. Memories of joyful moments with his son counterpoint Bin’s youthful conflicts with his own father, too hard-pressed by the exigencies of camp life to display sympathy for the boy’s fledgling artistic ambitions.

To see long excerpts from “Requiem” at Google Books, click here.

Okuma-san, a pianist also imprisoned in the camp, fostered those ambitions. The illustrated books and artworks Okuma-san encouraged Bin to peruse sparked the liberating conviction that he “could make up [his] own story” as an artist. The music of Okuma-san’s beloved Beethoven promised that personal pain could be transcended through the act of creation. Denied a piano in the camp, Okuma-san calmly practiced his fingering on a wooden plank, “never giving in to anger.” In this perfectly modulated novel, we see the emotional cost of that suppression, but we see that it enabled Bin to move forward with his life. The wounds inflicted by his past are inseparable from its gifts.

A deliberately understated and ambiguous scene near the end makes us wonder if Bin is drowning his history or getting rid of his ghosts. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. As Bin drives toward the camp, listening to a recording of the Beethoven string quartet he chose for Okuma-san’s funeral, he’s already taken the more important step of recognizing a love he has denied for years.

Wendy Smith is a contributing editor at The American Scholar and she reviews books frequently for The Washington Post, AARP and The Daily Beast.

©2012, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group


More Below the Ad


Square, Site wide

Get truth delivered to
your inbox every week.

Previous item: Christopher Hitchens: ‘Mortality’

Next item: Listen: Nicki Minaj ‘Endorses’ Mitt Romney ... Maybe?

New and Improved Comments

If you have trouble leaving a comment, review this help page. Still having problems? Let us know. If you find yourself moderated, take a moment to review our comment policy.


sign up to get updates

Right 1, Site wide - BlogAds Premium
Right 2, Site wide - Blogads
Join the Liberal Blog Advertising Network
Right Skyscraper, Site Wide
Join the Liberal Blog Advertising Network

A Progressive Journal of News and Opinion   Publisher, Zuade Kaufman   Editor, Robert Scheer
© 2014 Truthdig, LLC. All rights reserved.