Requiemby Frances Itani
“Remarkable . . . Requiem delicately probes the complex adjustments we make to live with our sorrows.. . . [A] perfectly modulated novel.” —Wendy Smith, The Washington Post
In 1942, in retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Canadian government removed Bin Okuma’s family from their home on British Columbia’s west coast and forced them into internment camps. They were allowed to take only the possessions they could carry, and Bin, as a young boy, was forced to watch neighbors raid his family’s home before the transport boats even undocked. One hundred miles from the “Protected Zone,” they had to form new makeshift communities without direct access to electricity, plumbing, or food—for five years.
Fifty years later, after his wife’s sudden death, Bin travels across Canada to find the biological father who has been lost to him. Both running from grief and driving straight toward it, Bin must ask himself whether he truly wants to find First Father, the man who made a fateful decision that almost destroyed his family all those years ago.
“Remarkable . . . Understated . . . Requiem delicately probes the complex adjustments we make to live with our sorrows. . . . In this perfectly modulated novel, we see the emotional cost of suppression.” —Wendy Smith, The Washington Post
“Itani writes with a delicate grasp of both the obvious and the unspoken, using ordinary words charged with extraordinary meaning to produce a serious book that nevertheless invites you to keep reading past midnight.” —Maude McDaniel, BookPage
“In Requiem, Frances Itani is at the height of her powers. . . . The Japanese-Canadian story has never been told with such passion, insight and telling detail. . . . Itani has told this story in amazing, cinematic detail. . . . [Requiem] is surely Itani’s greatest novel, although calling Requiem a novel does not do it justice. Requiem is a great work of literature from a determined author at the peak of her powers. It is also a sobering history lesson for all those Canadians who belittle other countries for their racism but are too smug and too blind to examine their own nation’s transgressions.” —The Ottawa Citizen
“With Requiem, Itani has written an important and moving novel . . . told with painful and quiet eloquence.” —Amanda Holmes Duffy, Washington Independent Book Review
“Itani is an accomplished stylist; her prose is lyrical yet clear, her pace unhurried. . . . Itani’s empathy and understanding of human nature enliven her characters. . . . In this finely written, reflective novel, Bin’s physical journey and mindful recollections lead him to a place where he can choose to either hold onto his anger or make peace with his ghosts.” —Kim Moritsugu, The Globe and Mail
“An undeniably respectful and moving homage to a shameful factual episode.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Beautifully rendered . . . Both tribute and a wail of grief . . . Lyrical and undulating, Requiem rages too.” —Rebecca Higgins, Telegraph-Journal
“An evocative and cinematic tale . . . Poignantly, the story’s determined brush strokes speak of quiet perseverance, underscoring the sense of loss, of talent suspended. . . . With a precise, elegant style Itani avoids the maudlin, and delivers a taut novel.” —Jane Christmas, Maclean’s
“A beautiful, slow, meandering read that explores the past of Japanese Canadians in a particularly resonant way.” —Sally Ito, The Globe and Mail (Favorite Book of the Year)
A Washington Post Notable Fiction Book of the Year
1. On Vancouver Island, Father and Uncle Kenji have shored up their fisherman’s house with skill, foresight, and giant stilts. It is proof against the tides, “but all the while, hidden undercurrents had been making their own incursions with the tides, in and around and under the house” what are these insidious incursions (p. 3)? How much warning does the family have of impending doom?
2. Kay asks Bin, “What is it that you’re looking for? . . . Searching, searching, you travel around the world, but for what? You don’t light long enough to find whatever it is” (p. 288). And asking himself why he set out on a long, often uncomfortable trek, Bin answers himself: “Because you are chasing away your ghosts. Because you are trying to open a door, any door, to some random glimmer or prospect that might be waiting to attach itself to your loneliness” (p. 71). What is Bin hoping to find—or to give—on his grand westward journey? Heart’s ease, from his loss of Lena? Clarity about his exhibition? Rivers, yes, within the abstracts, but he needs an organizing principle, a title. What else has propelled the trip?
3. Bin, packing for the journey to British Columbia, is aware he needs to get serious, to face up. “But facing up also means admitting the dark places that are only too ready to seep from the shadows” (p. 13). Shadows, ghosts, anger—what are the demons for Bin? “Anger is not so easy to disguise to the self” (p. 13). Is it surprising that with his innate (and learned) Japanese reticence that he keeps anger repressed?
4. What is it to be Japanese? About the looting in their wake leaving the island, Bin recalls, “We did not protest. We stood, soundless, as if we were also invisible, while the boat took us away” (p. 58). Later, years later, Bin reflects, “Most of my relatives kept their heads down, stayed below the radar, as far as I could figure. Whole lives spent with their heads down” (p. 277). What does the reader learn about the culture and behavior of the Japanese from the story?
5. “I think of the years I looked into the mirror, never liking the person I saw, wishing to be anything—anyone—but.” (p. 19). How have the borders of identity shifted and blurred in the postwar years? Otto and Miki? Bin and Lena? How is identity a double-edged sword in the novel?
6. Does Okuma-San further Bin’s Japanese identity? How does he do this at the same time he is making Bin into a citizen of the world? How does Okuma-San teach Bin to respect himself despite attacks from the outside? How is Bin’s art finally allowed to flourish? What other teachers make a difference in the boy’s growth?
7. With no regard for their Canadian citizenship, the Japanese are systematically dehumanized. How do the authorities achieve the stripping down of dignity? In Vancouver? (Can one help thinking of Jews in Europe?) In the camp? “Like everyone in our Fraser River camp, we would have to pay for our own internment” (p. 105). What are the conditions in the shacks they build for themselves? What is their source of information for five years? Wartime mail?
8. Years later, at a neighborhood party in Ottawa, Bin meets a more civilized (or sivilized, as Huck would say) form of estrangement. “No one seemed to know how to talk to me; they behaved as if I were an exotic whom they couldn’t be expected to understand. It seemed a surprise to them that I spoke English. They were careful and polite, and spoke loudly when they addressed me, as if I were partially deaf” (p. 149). Have you seen this kind of distancing for other marginalized people who may seem “exotic”? In another instance, a parking-lot encounter with two men who call him “Chinaman,” Bin tries to figure out the animosity. “Is it about being bitter? Is it about owning the right to belong?” (p. 121). Are these usually elements of bullying?
9. “During my infrequent visits to Edmonton over the years, and while trying to pretend that we are still family, no one has ever really wanted to poke at the layers of shadow that have fallen between us since that time. Except Lena” (p. 36). How does Lena the historian prod Bin to search for his roots, for documentation about the internment? How successful is she? Were you surprised the embargo on internment information was not lifted for a half century? Do you think the locked files represented ongoing prejudice? Guilt of a government?
10. In his somewhat quixotic quest, how is Bin dependent on the realist Basil as his Sancho Panza? What is Basil’s last commentary on his loss of Lena?
11. Which is more arduous for Bin, the camp or his new school afterward with all the hakujin (Caucasians)? What are his other trials in the years after the war?
12. After the years of deprivation in the camp, what are some of the new glories for Okuma-San and Bin?
13. How has Beethoven been a lifeline for Okuma-San on several levels? How does the music bring him and Bin closer? Before they even have the used record player to enjoy together, think of Okuma-San’s playing the ponderosa pine plank keyboard, with only the rhythm of Beethoven’s “Minuet in G” or the Hammerklavier sonata to be heard. (In later years, how does Lena physically evoke these pieces for Bin?)
14. Do you see Okuma-San’s keeping up his piano technique as a symbol of the courage and grace of Japanese people in their internment? Describe their superhuman efforts to provide food and shelter in these years. Dutiful Japanese children also did their share—think of Hiroshi in his Sisyphus role of hauling water up icy hills for his family and the grandparent figures next door.
15. After Lena’s death, Bin turns to Beethoven for solace. In the Leonore Overture III, “Joy rising from an underground spring . . . Always the flute, beckoning and bringing a glimmer of light . . . that would be Lena, all of those things. I am the receding part” (p. 28-29). At one point, when Bin is facing his anger (“Removal, exile, dispersal, being on the outside. Being given away”), Lena intervenes. “‘Listen to me,’ she said into the dark, and she brought me back. ‘You and I started a new chapter. Our own chapter. One that has nothing to do with war. A chapter that began with love and opened enough space to let in hope’” (p. 279). Talk about what Lena has brought in the past and continues to bring to Bin in memory.
16. The respect of Japanese for their elders (alive as well as dead) is legendary. How is that theme recurrent in Requiem? Do older people in the book earn that veneration? First Father? Okuma-San? Miss Carrie? The eighty-four-year old who teaches traditional Japanese dance in the camp?
17. The mystery of Bin’s last name and the term First Father is held in abeyance for over half the novel. Does that narrative device work to further the story? Was your curiosity assuaged by the revelation on page 183?
18. Water: how has it been central to Bin from the beginning of his life? Lena notes, “You always bring me to water. . . . No matter what you invite me to do or where we do it, we end up walking trails beside a river. Or crossing a bridge and staring down at one” (p. 29).
19. Bin speaks of things falling into place with a click. How does his riverside epiphany of “Requiem” link his life events with a similar click?
20. In lieu of a musical requiem, Bin offers his exhibition. What does he wish to lay to rest? What losses, angers, ghosts? What remembered joys?
21. “I look around at the mountains and at the turbulent river rushing past on its long journey to the coast. I inhale the air, cool and clear. I think of the people I love and have loved, living and dead, and I think of the camp that once existed here but is nothing but shadows now, and I decide: REQUIEM. That will be the name of my exhibition” (p. 313). And then, as if Bin has finally unlocked a door, what is the ultimate revelation?
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Obasan by Joy Kogawa; A Child in Prison Camp by Shizuye Takashima; Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson; Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame by Barry Broadfoot; Manzanar by John Armor and Peter Wright; The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy; The Ghost Brush by Katherine Govier; Guernica by Dave Boling; Deafening and Remembering the Bones by Frances Itani
Battle of the Books Kingston WritersFest 2012
1. Requiem Op. 5, Sanctus, Berlioz (“I particularly remember the Sanctus of Berlioz’s Requiem . . . a solo tenor voice. It was a blend of pain and beauty . . . As for the answering women’s choir, they were intent on bringing solace from afar. The women sang as if something clear and important had to be said. Perhaps that is when something I was holding back fell away.” p. 8)
2. Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 (“Eroica”), First Movement, Beethoven (“What I hear is a burst of chaos’.A violent clash of sounds. Notes brought together against their will.” p. 26)
3. Leonore Overture III to Fidelio, Beethoven (“[It] reminds me of Lena and not only because of the name. It’s the opening. The extended note. The descending scale that levels in a thickening of darkness. And then, a flute entering from far away, leading up into the light as if announcing its arrival through a long tunnel. Joy rising from an underground spring, that’s the way I hear it.” p. 28)
4. Minuet in G, Beethoven (“My ears have memory, too. I could . . . hear the emphatic tick of the grandfather clock that loomed in a dark corner of our living room. . . . The music went on, mixing and blending with the ticking of the clock.” p. 46)
5. Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67, First Movement, Beethoven (“Basil raises his head at the click of the tape and Beethoven’s four-note motif. What does Basil hear—apart from m thoughts? What does any dog hear? Wah-wah-wah-wah. . . . The theme repeats itself in insistent ways. Fate knocking at the door.” p. 60)
6. Ballad in Blue, Benny Goodman (“Lena always got the last word; I didn’t dispute it. It was the way we were together. I suppose I even relied on her for that.” p. 79)
7. Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 (“Eroica”), Second Movement, Beethoven (“The first movement ‘says, Listen. It’s the second movement that makes me believe Beethoven heard many voices crying in his head. Well, it’s a funeral march, after all.” p. 126)
8. Minuet in G, Beethoven (“Not a long piece, but a good one for piano students to practice. . . . [Beethoven] created this minuet 150 years ago. He was a great artist, but he did not have an easy life. There were many problems that had to be faced. But he did not give up just because he had problems.” p. 200)
9. Missa Solemnis in D Major, Op. 123, Beethoven, esp. Toscanini recording (“Sweeping along Saskatchewan prairie, I am surrounded by the sounds of the Missa Solemnis, the great and glorious mass. From the heart! May it go to the heart. Beethoven’s message, written in his own hand above the Kyrie.” p. 222)
10. Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106 (“Hammerklavier”), Beethoven (“Okuma-san’s left hand occasionally became swollen because of connecting with wood that had no give to it, on painted keys that did not depress in response to the pressure of his fingers. At those times he asked me to soak a towel in a basin of warm water and to bring it to him, especially after the Hammerklavier. Sometimes I watched the clock. And when I recognized the rhythmic raps on the keyboard and knew the ending was near, I poured water and brought the towel before I was asked.” p. 238)
11. Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major (“Emperor”), Op. 73, Second Movement, Beethoven (“Okuma-san prepared our supper and I set the table, and the two of us sat in silence while the music surrounded us. Okuma-san could not keep his fingers still. Every inch of space in the room was filled with glorious and noble sounds’. The second movement was so beautiful it seemed to float into the walls of the chicken coop.” 265)
12. Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53 (“Waldstein”), First Movement, Beethoven (“The camp, the shack, the cold. . . . His head nodding forward just before his hands came crashing down on ponderosa pine. . . . The splitting of his thumb and the way he sewed it back together with black thread.” p. 281.)
13. Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58, First Movement, Beethoven (“One chord on bare skin. Both hands. One-two-three-four, one-two three-four . . .” p. 281)
14. Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93, Second Movement, Beethoven (“Light touch, playful, steady beat, non-stop, bit of melody, steady, steady, rock-rock, rock-rock, tah-tah, tah-tah, tah-tah.” p. 281)
15. Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major (“Emperor”), Op. 73, Second Movement, Beethoven (“The powerful surge of realization. The unmatchable creation that would always be there for every race, for every generation, for all time. . . . The music was in my body. I was clinging to life itself.” p. 283)
16. String Quartet in F Major, Op. 135, Fourth Movement, Beethoven (“There is a delicacy to this quartet, a reminder of contrasts of opposites, the more so while I’m surrounded by the majesty of the mountains. Everything comes together. Perhaps everything Beethoven knew. Maybe he had some grand vision of humanity. Muss es sein? he asked. Must it be? And he answered his own question. Es muss sein. It must be.” p. 306)