I would like to start this essay with the quotation of one critic’s words: “When personal and political traumas converge in a work of fiction, its success hinges on the avoidance of pop psychology, instead of expressing how a complex character suffers.”
We can surely say that all the characters of The Electrical Field by Kerri Sakamoto are impacted by internment of the Japanese Canadians in the time of the Seconad World War. Some of these characters were interned being just children, another were born after all these had happened, but noone of them was eager to escape the terrible impact of this social trauma. There was a great deal of either external, or internal pressure upon those who were a success to survive in the camps just to try to forget about what had happened to them, or to remain silent.
All Sakamoto’s characters live under these pressure and remain silent, they bear everything. All of them, except Yano. He is the only character who occupies his own position – it’s the position of remembering though he remains the outcast, the odd one out even among the Japanese Canadians. Chisako, his wife explains it as following: “All he does is talk about the war and the camps when they just want to forget. They think he’s crazy, I know”. This act of remembering is seen as a certain way of coping with the past, of moving forward with one’s life, of staying sane. However, as the text progresses, those binaries start to crumble.
The novel’s narrator, Asako Saito is both alarmed and irritated by Yano’s searching redress for their experience in the camps and his principles of remembering. She tells us: “I had no interest in that kind of discussion, of things I’d long ago left behind and made my peace with.” In the early conversations with Yano she is triyng to persuade either us, or herself that the camps and everything tied with them, have made no impact on her own life and the lives of all the people who surround her. The characteristics of Yano she gives at the beginning of the text show her conviction that his commitment to redress is just a definite kind of mania: “It was Yano, the thought of him, wild, crazy man in the middle of my placid afternoon, riling me. He was forever ranting about something, raking back his hair with his dirty fingernails… Over and over heÕd ask me about the camps.” Her own attempts to forget about the camps, which are also shared by her family and neighbours, are considered to be sane and normal.
Step by step Asako’s control over her memories of the internment, her ability to deny its lasting impact start to crash. She starts to narrate glimpses of her life, of her regular fantasies and talks about her brother Eiji, who died in the camps. We recieve a great amount of information about the dialogues she has regularly: “there I’d be, muttering away to myself or counting my steps”. Step by step the border between her and Yano starts to dissappear. Asako is left feeling less confident about her principles and beliefs: “I shuddered, wondering if I sounded anything like him with my mutterings: more than a little crazy”. The feelings and memories she has tried so hardly to suppress start to surface. All these causes her to begin to comprehend the definite ways in which Yano is right about the internment and its traumatic inmpact, and to feel close and connected to him. The last Yano’s words to Asako are “things would have been different for you too [had the internment never happened]” and Asako finally says, “I know”.
In spite of the fact that the Government of Canada had no right to imprison the Japanese Canadians, the greatest part of whom were the citizens of Canada, many Canadians of the Japanese origin for years afrerwards felt, and possibly still feel that the internment was to some extend their fault. This issue is raised by Yano in that part of the novel where he explains to Asako that Chisako, who during the war was in Japan “doesn’t know what it feels like to be ashamed to be nihonjin”. I do think that this feeling of “somehow”provoking the internment in a certain way explains the unwillingness of the Japanese Canadians to search redress and all the difficulties Yano had faced while asking people to come to his meetings.
But we should also note here that those attempts to forget about the unbearable experience of intrenment can be also seen as a special technique for survival; those people who failed in suppressing their memories or denying the impact of the internment faced naerly an impossible task in continuation to live and function without grief, rage and fear.
To my mind Yano’s brother is vivid example of such a person. Being locked away in a mental hospital, he now can’t stand the sight “of an Oriental,” as Asako believes, to the intense closeness forced on all of them by the camps, “those smells, those noises, those voices”. But something is lost in the act of forgetting and suppressing. The survivor fails to move beyond ‘surviving,’ and while the survival itself is an accomplishment, the energy expended in forgetting cannot be applied to creative use or to confront those who caused the trauma.
The bright suppression of emotion allows to continue functioning which has a lasting impact, even on those characters who have no the experience of the camps firsthand, such as Sachi for example. Frustrated by her parents’ being unable to express and show love for her, indeed by their, as she says “inability to feel”, Sachi is often “thinking too much, feeling too much”.
Her great desire for attention from her parents together with her lack of an outlet for emotions and frustrations are the main reasons which cause Sachi to lash out by attempting repeatedly to climb the electrical towers and by slashing her hands with a knife. Everything angers her, and especially the numbnesss which she senses in the adults who surround her, especially her own family.
…To my mind The Electrical Field deals with two main personal traumas, they are the following: the murder-suicide of Yano, Chisako, and their children and Eiji’s death. Either the first, or the second event overlap with the internment, making a great impact on the way they are experienced and interpreted by those characters who survive them.
… I would like to finish my essay with the words of the literary critic Tara Kimura: “Some novels start off strongly only to sputter and die by the last page. Others plug along slowly, gathering momentum until they climax in some plot shattering event or revelation The Electrical Field does neither.”
“The Electrical Field by Kerri Sakamoto” <http://www.randomhouse.ca> (March 15); “Modern Literature and Its Most Vivid Representatives” <http://www.wwnorton.com>; “Questions and Answers: Interviews and Conversations” <http://www.amazon.com>.