Asian Occupations

  • Christina Park
    The Homes We Build on Ashes. Inanna Publications and Education (purchase at
  • Lynne Kutsukake
    The Translation of Love. Knopf Canada (purchase at
Reviewed by Jan Lermitte

Lynne Kutsukake’s debut novel, The Translation of Love, and Christina Park’s novel, The Homes We Build on Ashes, share a common feature: a storyline in which female characters are central to the plot. These girls and women endure poverty, suffering, war, trauma, and even sexual slavery. In each story, the diasporic movement of their families as a result of war and military occupation adds to the complexity of the narratives and settings. A brief review of each of the novels offers some insights into times and places not typically reimagined in Canadian literature.

The Translation of Love is set in Japan during the American occupation after World War II, and focuses on two young girls: Aya Shimamura, a Japanese Canadian who is repatriated to Japan with her embittered father, and Fumi Tanaka, her Japanese schoolmate, whose older sister Sumiko is missing, presumably in the back streets and brothels of Ginza. Although Aya is initially confused and shamed by the attitudes of the Japanese students and her unfriendly relatives, she eventually finds ways to cope in her new surroundings, and ultimately Aya’s willingness to help Fumi find her sister leads to greater happiness and opportunity in Japan. The compelling plot, with interlocking storylines and dramatic suspense, demonstrates the ways in which both the occupied Japanese and the occupying Americans must learn from each other. Translation as a place of “in between” (not unlike Fred Wah’s notion of the hyphen) is a key theme in the novel that raises important questions about human values such as tolerance, courage, duty, and loyalty; the characters’ lives are joined together and enriched through acts of kindness. Yet, Kutsukake asks, how do we translate love? What does love mean in relation to friendship, romance, and family? Kutsukake invites us into the story to find answers. Important questions related to culture and ethnicity are also explored as the citizens of Tokyo meet one another and realize that—whether Japanese Canadian, Japanese American, or Japanese—they share the same need for love and kindness. The compassionate depiction of these girls and the various people with whom they interact is engaging and well crafted. One weakness, perhaps, is that the opening story of General MacArthur’s young son, who is the same age as the two girls, does not clearly develop. Although Kutsukake briefly returns to this opening event, the role of the young boy is never explained. Nevertheless, the dynamics between the two central characters, combined with a depiction and examination of the complicated emotions of both the native Japanese and the Nisei men and women, soldiers and civilians alike, present a unique perspective that is not often discussed. Moreover, Kutsukake effectively portrays the poverty and damage in Tokyo after the bombing, which highlights the plight of average civilians in the aftermath of war.

Park’s novel is darker than Kutsukake’s, the motif of ashes suggesting violence, destruction, death, and ultimately rebirth. Park describes the life of a Korean woman, Nara Lee, who raises her two daughters in the tumultuous period of the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945), and who later starts over in Canada. In the context of current world events, historical understanding of Korea’s relationship to Japan, and later the US, is helpful. As Park tells us in a CBC interview with Jeanette Kelly, it is important for Canadians to understand more of the suffering of Koreans during this time, and of the racism many Koreans have faced as immigrants in Canada. The resilience of Park’s female characters, who face the loss of their traditional values, spiritual beliefs, cultural expressions, and even basic freedoms, is both inspiring and disturbing. When Nara’s best friend is kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military, Nara cannot face the guilt that she feels knowing that her friend was accidently taken in her place. Park acknowledges that Nara’s character is modelled after her grandmother, who inspired her to depict the challenges familiar to many Korean women of her generation. In the face of military executions, natural disasters (the Busan fire in 1953 that wiped out the homes of more than 28,000 people), forced labour, and ultimately family turmoil and racism in Canada, Nara struggles to make a meaningful life for her family in the homes that she creates out of the ashes of the past.

The weaknesses of Park’s novel at times detract from the power of her story. Typos could have been corrected, and long complex sentences weighed down with extravagant detail and excessive description could have been improved with more editing. In addition, the male characters in the story often appear stereotypical and somewhat undeveloped, while even the female characters can seem unsympathetic. However, those who are interested in understanding more about the reality of life in Korea and Japan before and during World War II, especially for women, will find this novel worthy of discussion. One criticism often mentioned in terms of North American novels and film is the relative dearth of stories of women and girls in war-torn settings. Too often, war stories feature the experiences of the soldiers. In the case of these two novels, however, the heroic actions of young girls and women offer a compelling glimpse into some of the challenges faced by those whose family and friends are missing or dead because of the effects of war.

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