For Further Study
Winning both the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Canadian Authors' Association Book of the Year Award, Obasan was the first novel to deal with the Canadian internment of its Japanese citizens during and after World War II. Written by the poet Joy Kogawa, the novel appeared in 1981 while the efforts of Japanese Canadians to win redress from the Canadian government for internment were in high gear. The novel has been the focus of much criticism exploring its treatment of landscape, identity, and mother-culture.
The autobiographical work tells the story of a schoolteacher, Naomi, remembering the struggle to grow up as a third generation Japanese Canadian amid the hysteria of World War II. Being so young when internment began, she did not understand what was happening and nobody tried to explain it to her. She loses her mother as a result, she thinks, of her sexual abuse by a neighbor. Then she loses her father when all Japanese must go to the interior or to work camps. Given the circumstances and historical whims of her story, it is surprising that the novel is not a tragedy. It does not become so because of the silent strength of the title character, Obasan. She holds the keys to the past, to which Naomi must reconcile herself. She is finally successful in an epiphanic ending—a sudden revelation—as she embraces and is embraced by the Canadian landscape.
Born in Vancouver, Canada, in 1935 as the daughter of Lois (Yao) and Rev. Gordon Goichi Nakayama, Joy Kogawa is a poet, essayist, novelist, and a Nisei—a second-generation Japanese Canadian. When World War II broke out, she, like the rest of her family, was forced from the coast. Canada and its allies were at war with Germany, Italy, and Japan and regarded Canadians of Japanese heritage with suspicion. Due to these circumstances, Kogawa had to attend grade school in the internment camp at Slocan, British Columbia. Her 1981 autobiographical novel, Obasan, relates her life as a Canadian during World War II. The novel is the first, in Canadian letters, to deal with this painful time and has won several awards. In that novel, Kogawa makes peace with the injustice of the internment of herself and others whose ancestors originated in Japan. Her novel also reflects the anti-nuclear movement as well as the growing effort to seek redress for the treatment of Japanese-Canadians in World War II.
Because internment did not end with the war, Kogawa went on to school in Coaldale, Alberta. She then entered the university system and attended the University of Alberta, Toronto Conservatory of Music, the Anglican Women's Training College, and the University of Saskatchewan. In 1957, she married David Kogawa and had two children. Kogawa and her husband were divorced in 1968. From 1974 to 1976, Kogawa worked as a staff writer for the Office of the Prime Minister. In 1978, she was writer in residence at the University of Ottawa.
Before her autobiographical novel, Kogawa was, and remains, a well-regarded poet. Her first collection, published in 1967, The Splintered Moon, reflected upon her marriage. Her next three collections reflected upon the same themes found in Obasan. She wrote of living a hybrid life as a Japanese-Canadian Nisei; divorce; an abortion in 1971; deaths in her family, specifically her uncle and mother; the silence of Obasan, her aunt; and the militancy of women seeking justice and redress. Her recent collection of poetry, Woman in the Woods (1985), is her most balanced and refined collection to date.
Joy Kogawa's Obasan centers on the memories and experiences of Naomi Nakane, a schoolteacher living in the rural Canadian town of Cecil, Alberta, when the novel begins. The death of Naomi's uncle, with whom she had lived as a child, leads Naomi to visit and care for her widowed aunt Obasan. Her brief stay with Obasan in turn becomes an occasion for Naomi to revisit and reconstruct in memory her painful experiences as a child during and after World War II. Naomi's narration thus interweaves two stories, one of the past and another of the present, mixing experience and recollection, history and memory throughout. Naomi's struggle to come to terms with both past and present confusion and suffering form the core of the novel's plot.
Obasan opens in August, 1972, with a visit by Naomi and her uncle Isamu to the coulee, a shallow grassland ravine to which they return "once every year around this time." Though Naomi seems unaware of it (until the end of the novel), her uncle returns to the "virgin land" of the prairie each year to mark the anniversary of the dropping of an atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Naomi simply recalls that "the first time Uncle and I came here was in 1954, in August, two months after Aunt Emily's initial visit to Granton." Only at the end of the book does Naomi (and the reader) learn the news that Emily brought on that occasion, in the letters of Grandma Kato, about the suffering of Naomi's mother and grandmother in the aftermath of the Nagasaki bombing.
One month after her visit to the coulee, Naomi learns of her uncle's death. In the days following her return to Granton to attend to her aunt, Naomi tries to communicate with Obasan, to understand the silent "language of her grief," to penetrate a silence that "has grown large and powerful" over the years. At the same time, Naomi sifts through the documents, newspaper clippings, letters, and diaries kept by her aunt Emily, an outspoken political activist determined to air the truth about the Japanese-Canadian experience of persecution. That experience, recounted in Obasan largely through Naomi's memories of childhood, is rooted in the actual history of 20,000 Japanese Canadians (and 120,000 Japanese Americans). Viewed as a dangerous enemy during World War II, many of these individuals were stripped of their homes and possessions, compelled to relocate to ghost towns or concentration camps, forced to live and work under terrible conditions, and generally denied the rights of citizenship. Throughout Obasan, Naomi's quest to understand the painful personal story of her childhood intersects this larger communal history of suffering.
Between the influences of her two aunts, one suffering in silence, the other a "word warrior," Naomi feels driven to review her life as a child in all of its mystery, confusion, and pain. Naomi's recollections come to her in isolated phrases, scenes, stories, dreams, and fairy tales. A photograph of herself as a child with her mother, given to her by Obasan, prompts Naomi to remember her child-hood home in Vancouver and the idyllic life it contained before her family was broken up and evacuated from the West coast. Naomi recalls steaming-hot baths with Grandma Kato, evenings spent in the family's music room, and bedtime stories told "night after night."
But as the stories of Naomi's childhood unfold, the sources of her confusion and pain emerge. Repeated incidents of sexual abuse by a neighbor, Old Man Gower, produce feelings of shame and confusion in young Naomi that seem to separate her from her mother for the first time. When her mother leaves on a trip to Japan, Naomi feels "an ominous sense of cold and absence," uncertain if her own wrongdoing caused her mother to "disappear." Finally, Naomi is troubled as a child by the growing racial tension that threatens the rest of her family with evacuation and internment, the "riddle" that made them "both the enemy and not the enemy."
When the evacuation commences and Naomi's father and uncle are ordered to report to work camps, Naomi, her brother Stephen, and Obasan board a train from Vancouver to the mountainous interior of British Columbia. In the ghost town of Slocan, Naomi and her surrogate family, along with many other relocated Japanese Canadians, attempt to reconstruct family and community life. In the face of tremendous obstacles, they succeed at least partially. Slocan comes alive, after a time, with new small businesses, new social ties, worship services and schools, and Naomi enjoys "Sunday-school outings, Christmas concerts, sports days, [and] hikes" with new-found friends. But life in Slocan is not free of suffering and confusion for Naomi. In the hospital, after being saved from drowning by Rough Lock Bill, Naomi dreams of all the brutishness and death that she has witnessed since leaving Vancouver. Her hallucinatory dream leads her to understand that "Death comes to the world in many unexpected places," even in the restored community of Slocan.
After several years in Slocan, Naomi and Stephen are overjoyed by the end of the war and the unexpected arrival of their father. But their hopes for a reunited family and a return to their former life are short-lived. Their father is once again dispatched to a work camp, where he later dies before seeing his children again. Meanwhile, Uncle, Obasan, Stephen and Naomi are "relocated" to a sugar-beet farm in the harsh climate of the Canadian plains. On the Barker farm outside of Granton, Alberta, they struggle to survive under conditions far worse than those in Slocan, without the consolations of community that Slocan had allowed. Eventually, Uncle and Obasan manage to leave the Barker farm and move to a house in Granton, where they remain after Stephen pursues a career in music and Naomi becomes a teacher.
It is this home in Granton to which Naomi returns after her uncle's death to care for Obasan. And it is also in Obasan's home, more than twenty-seven years after the bombing of Nagasaki, that Naomi finally learns the truth about her mother's suffering and the reasons for her silence. Naomi and Stephen had been spared of this knowledge by the wishes of their mother, who asked that the truth be kept secret "for the sake of the children" ("Kodomo no tame"). Even as an adult, Naomi is shielded from the truth, by Uncle (at the coulee), by Obasan (who gives her pictures in place of answers), and by Aunt Emily:
"What do you think happened to Mother and Grandma in Japan?" I asked. "Did they starve, do you think?"
Aunt Emily's startle was so swift and subtle it barely registered. But I could feel that somewhere, beneath her eyes, a shutter had clicked open and shut at my mentioning Mother and Grandma. It was as if my unexpected question was a sudden beam of pain that had to be extinguished immediately.
She stared into the blackness. Sometimes when I stand in a prairie night the emptiness draws me irresistibly, like a dust speck into a vacuum cleaner, and I can imagine myself disappearing off into space like a rocket with my questions trailing behind me.
When, finally, the remnants of her family are reunited to mourn the death of her uncle, Naomi receives answers to the questions that have trailed behind her throughout her life. At Naomi's pleading, Nakayama-sensei reads the letters sent many years before by Grandma Kato, letters that Naomi had seen and touched but could not translate herself. The letters tell tales of horror, of unbearable experiences and unthinkable memories, and they explain the enduring silence, the "voicelessness," that has tormented Naomi since her mother left her as a child. Although the horror of her mother's fate allows no easy reconciliation with the past or with the powers that brought on that fate, Naomi finally understands that her mother's silence was inspired by her attempt to protect and love her children, not abandon or punish them. At the end of Obasan, Naomi returns to the coulee that she had visited each year with her uncle, now aware of the significance of his ritual and able to embrace the past in peace, to put aside "this body of grief," to recognize that "the song of mourning is not a lifelong song."
See Ayako Nakane
When the family is allowed to leave the camp at Slocan but still refused access to Vancouver, they move to Granton and work in the sugar beet fields for Mr. Barker. He represents the typical Canadian of the interior. The whole family—Isamu, Obasan, Stephen, and Naomi—work the field of sugar beets. Their work, joined with similar Japanese work across the Canadian heartland, wins the respect of the farmers because the harvest is a record crop. Mr. Barker appears toward the end of the novel to pay his respects to Obasan, but the scene is very awkward and his wife is extremely condescending.
Rough Lock Bill
Though his appearance is brief, the character of Rough Lock Bill is very important. He stands in direct contrast to the other male symbol of Canada, Mr. Gower. Rough Lock sees people as people and not as races. He also knows some of the stories of the land and it is not the first time that there is a link between the plight of the Japanese-Canadians and the Native Americans. Underlining the idea that there is good left in a hysterical Canada, it is Rough Lock who saves Naomi from drowning while Kenji runs away in fright.
Old Man Gower
The next-door neighbor of the house in Vancouver is Mr. Gower. Under the varying pretenses of scraped knees and treats, he lures Naomi close enough to be sexually caressed and undressed. He is also the one who is asked to watch the house when the family must leave. The irony is that all the adults know there will probably never be a return to the house. The experience with Mr. Gower haunts Naomi in Slocan. The forest for her hides his searching eyes and groping hands. Thus, through the horror of Mr. Gower, the wilderness of the Canadian interior is masculinized. This is a novelty on the part of Kogawa because in the history of literature the male protagonist masters a female universe. Here, Naomi will finally master the wilds of Canada when she embraces the earth at the coulee.
When Grandma would travel back to Japan, Grandpa would look after Emily. This explains why Emily is less traditional. Grandma's first trip was taken while he was still in medical school. As a doctor, he has certain privileges that his family can take advantage of when internment begins. Thus Emily is able to go to Toronto rather than the camp at Slocan. Emily is unable to take the Nakanes.
Aunt Emily Kato
Governed by the old testament dictum, "Write the vision and make it plain," Aunt Emily Kato is the political firebrand. She bestows all her papers and zeal on Naomi in the hopes that she will pursue justice with her. At one point, Naomi describes Aunt Emily as "one of the world's white blood cells, rushing from trouble spot to trouble spot." Ironically, it is not Aunt Emily who makes the story known, it is the daughter of silent Obasan who tells the story. Nevertheless, Aunt Emily is the source of documentation. She offers the headlines, the executive orders, and the piles of letters. Aunt Emily is the character trying to make sense of the government's actions during World War II by gathering the facts. These facts, however, are little comfort to Naomi. Aunt Emily is the opposite female figure to Obasan. She will not be silent, she will demand that justice be done. Still, she kept silent about the death of Naomi's mother though Grand-mother Kato couldn't.
The most traditional of the family, Grandma Kato never left Japan entirely. She returned quite often, and when Mother was old enough she went too. Consequently, Mother was like both Grandmas—yasashi. While on one of these trips, World War II broke out and they were stranded in Japan. Despite being traditional, she cannot bear the suffering of her daughter. Therefore, she writes to the family in Canada describing her horrific fate.
See Dr. Kato
Kenji is a playmate of Naomi's who tells her about the King bird who cuts off the tongues of those who lie. Kenji takes Naomi to the lake one summer day and entices her, with promises of caution, onto a raft. He swims her out accidentally beyond the drop-off. Out of fear at what he has done, he runs away, leaving Naomi adrift in the middle of the lake.
See Mr. Tadashi Nakane
See Mrs. Kato Nakane
The title character of the book is based on Kogawa's aunt. She is the silent heart of the narrative—more an attitude than a person—and embodies the strength of silence. In the novel, Obasan is the daughter of a schoolteacher and was a welleducated music teacher. She immigrated to Canada where she met Grandma Nakane. They became fast friends and she married her son, Uncle Isamu. She believes in the tradition of keeping quiet and accepting whatever life offers without protest. She holds to this when her babies die, her in-laws suffer at Nagasaki, the government confiscates the fishing boats, they are removed to the camps, and when her husband dies. According to Obasan, who says little beyond "O," one must accept the injustice. In her character is also a tribute to women and mothers the world over:
"Squatting here with the putty knife in her hand, she is every old woman in every hamlet in the world … Everywhere the old woman stands as the true and rightful owner of the earth. She is the bearer of keys to unknown doorways and to a network of astonishing tunnels. She is the possessor of life's infinite personal details."
For Naomi she becomes a mother figure when her actual mother is gone. Even so there always remains "an ominous sense of cold and absence." Obasan does her best and Naomi takes comfort from her softness and constancy.
Grandma Nakane was yasashi, soft and silent. This means she was very traditional and, consequently, extremely powerful in nonverbal communication. She was the first to die in the camps, more out of a lack of understanding why she was there than the horrid conditions.
The first of Naomi's ancestors to come to Canada was a master boatbuilder. He quickly became famous and many fishermen came to his shop on Saltspring Island. He married a cousin's widowed wife. She brought him a son and bore him Naomi's father. The two sons built a beautiful boat which was soon taken by the Royal Canadian Military Police in 1941. Grandpa Nakane did not survive the internment camp.
Uncle Isamu Nakane
Born in Japan in 1889, Isamu was a boatbuilder, like his father, on Lulu Island. After the government confiscated the fishing fleet, the Nakanes sought refuge near the Katos. Because of his brother's learning, the government sent him to work camp leaving Isamu to be stepfather to his children—Stephen and Naomi.
For eighteen years, Naomi and Uncle Isamu made a pilgrimage to a certain coulee near their home in Granton. Not until the end of the story does she realize that Uncle was trying to reveal the fate of her mother. This site then becomes Naomi's touchstone or memorial to her family and to the lost community of Vancouver.
Mrs. Kato Nakane
Mother is yasashi—soft and traditional—like her mother, Grandma Kato. She is the absent presence in the novel. The horrific details of her struggle to protect children in her care at Nagasaki are heart-wrenching but she doesn't want her children to know. This wish leads to almost thirty years of mystery for Naomi.
Megumi Naomi Nakane
The narrator of the novel is thirty-six-year-old school teacher Naomi Nakane. She is called from her teaching by the Principal to receive the news of her uncle's death. She returns to her aunt's house to be with her and to remember. Her story jumps about in time but follows her through her story of being sexually abused, losing her mother, being interned, and working the beet fields. When the whole family is assembled for the funeral, Naomi and her brother Stephen finally hear the story of their mother's death.
In the telling of the story, however, the adult narrator still allows for the collusion of her abuse by Old Man Gower and the departure of her mother. Being so young, she is easily able to accept Obasan as a substitute mother. In addition to her secret, Naomi is haunted by the shadow of the King Bird which bites off the lying tongue and brings more caution to Naomi's speech. Naomi felt that her secret with Mr. Gower prompted her mother to leave and stay away. She wants the past to stay in the past and is quite bothered by Aunt Emily's insistence that all be told, that facts be known.
Naomi the child was very quiet. So much so that her relatives often thought she was mute. However, she did ask questions especially about her mother. She never received answers and ceased asking. Similarly, in the chaos of being interned to the camp in Slocan, she lost her doll but only asked about it once because she knew it was lost. This linguistic anxiety clearly marks Naomi throughout the story and even marks the adult Naomi whom we first see troubled by her students' questions about her. In her narration, on the other hand, her voice is steady. She has not raised her voice to tell about the injustice done her people as would her Aunt Emily, nor has she kept silent—which in a Euro-centric culture amounts to passive acceptance. Instead, her writing about a silence and through references to her own juvenile state and the many references to juvenile tales are an evenvoiced, steady documentation of a history of a wrong. The result is a declaration of cultural enrichment. She is Canadian, oh Canada, ready or not.
See Megumi Naomi Nakane
The elder brother of Naomi is the musical prodigy Stephen. He has many advantages over Naomi, not least of which is his recourse to music as a voice. Thus he has two voices when Naomi has trouble enough with her own. Being older, Stephen also had more time to know his mother and he is better able to understand what is happening. Therefore, he is better able to handle her departure and he is also able to reject Obasan as a substitute. Through music he has a ready bond with his father, and when they play, Naomi sits and listens.
Stephen is angry with his family and with Japanese-Canadians generally. While growing up, this is exhibited in a sour behavior and is symbolized by his broken leg. This is yet another reason for rejecting Obasan—by doing so he rejects the mother-culture. His attitude is first displayed when he is beat up before the internment. He is frustrated because he is Canadian, he plays European music, and he has nothing to do with World War II. Still, he has to be shipped off to the camp in Slocan where he hobbles about in his cast, playing records again and again on the gramophone. Finally, though he does come to the funeral, Stephen stays away as much as possible and only brings his fiancee by for a few minutes. They do not stay to eat.
Mr. Tadashi Nakane
Father was brought up as a boatbuilder but he is also a musician. For some reason he is singled out for the camps, whereas his brother Isamu eventually arrives at Slocan. His marriage to Mother is the first non-arranged marriage in the community. Father dies of tuberculosis in the internment hospital after living in a work camp.
Anglican minister based on the author's father, who had been a Buddhist before he became a Christian preacher. Nakayama is the spiritual leader of the Japanese Canadian community and is always willing to help anyone in need. He leads the service at Grandma Nakane's funeral, even though Buddhist rites are performed in accordance to Grandpa Nakane's wishes. At the end of the book, it is Nakayama Sensei who translates the letter Grandma Kato wrote to her husband after the war, revealing the tragic fate of Naomi's mother and the reason the children were never told.
See Mrs. Kato Nakane
She stays with the family at Slocan for a time. She is an old friend of the family's from Vancouver and as such is referred to as obasan, aunt. She is frail and has contracted TB. This causes a scene at the baths and is the reason why Naomi is not allowed to play with Reiko.
See Ayako Nakane
Reiko is another playmate in Slocan. But when her mother finds out that someone at Naomi's house is ill, they can be friends no more. Reiko shows how intolerance is spread because she has learned that sickness is a shame. Whereas, Naomi is taught that it is a misfortune.
Prejudice and Tolerance
The root of the internment lies in prejudice. Early in the novel when Naomi is first browsing through Aunt Emily's parcel, there is a nice encapsulation of the problem. Naomi has noted that every time the words "Japanese race" appeared in the new articles or in pamphlets, Aunt Emily has crossed them out and written "Canadian citizens." Therein lies the problem. Naomi's family were viewed as visitors and then, with the outbreak of war, as the enemy. There is no good reason for this. Asian immigrants to North America were as recent as the Irish and many of the European immigrants who came after World War I. Yet neither the Italians nor the Germans were interned. The scapegoating of the Japanese appears directly in the confiscation of the fishing boats and then when Stephen gets beat up at school. It is also visible after the war. The Japanese Canadians are still not allowed to return to the coast and many signs along the highway say, "Japs Keep Out." Still, little sense can be made out of all that happened and Naomi thinks of Grandma Nakane in her stall in prison "too old then to understand political expediency, race riots, the yellow peril. She was told that a war was on."
These forms of intolerance are not the only ones seen by Naomi. There is her brother's developing dislike of his family and his heritage. But the example of Stephen is long in developing. There is one episode, however, that is clear. Near the end of their time in Slocan, Naomi's friend is not allowed to speak with her. Their meeting, therefore, is a very awkward moment in the baths. Once outside, Naomi hears from her friends, "we can't play with you … you're sick. You've all got TB. You and the Nomuras and your dad." This is news to Naomi but Uncle Isamu later explains to her, "For some people it is a shameful matter to be ill. But it is a matter of misfortune, not shame." The attitude of some within the exiled community toward the less fortunate, being expressed by Reiko, lends a great deal of realism to the novel because it shows that the interned group is not faultless. Finally, it hints at how intolerance is transmitted. Reiko admits she knows only what "my mom told me." Just as Reiko is learning how to judge, Naomi learns to accept those who are ill like old Nomura-obasan, who lived with them for awhile on a cot in the kitchen.
The second chapter opens with Naomi receiving the third degree from her students about her love life. It is an uncomfortable but usual discussion to her as a teacher. Still, she feels the interrogation acutely because her identity is unresolved. Her tumultuous life has left her "tense" with "a crone-prone syndrome" and many mysteries, silences, and repressed traumas. Just as the young Naomi took a while to realize her father was dead, the mature Naomi has not understood how incredible was the trauma of her sexual abuse, the loss of her mother, and the disruption of community caused by war. She finally resolves these issues when she knows the whole truth and, consequently, faces her history. In the end, she is resolved when she runs out into the night wearing Aunt Emily's jacket to go to the coulee. There, inspired by the silence of Obasan and what Uncle tried to tell her, she finally feels at ease with the land and at ease with herself. The nightmares will now cease and she will bury her family in Canada, her home.
Justice vs. Injustice
Injustice in the novel is always mirrored by an accompanying act of violation. The official policy of scapegoating the Japanese violates the family in apparent and secret ways. The fishing boats are taken, their civil rights are taken, and Mother is trapped in Japan as war breaks out. But this is merely the background to the violation of innocence represented by the awful scene of the mother hen killing the chicks and Old Man Gower. The sexual abuse of Naomi initiates her into the sexual world at the same time as the world is going through tremendous upheaval.
Topics for Further Study
- Research the internment experience of people with Japanese ancestry in both Canada and the United States during World War II and compare them.
- Who was Sitting Bull? In what ways is the experience of Sitting Bull's people similar to Naomi's family? In what ways was it different?
- Do some research into the religion of Buddhism and then interpret some of the Buddhist references in Naomi's story. Is the narrator successful in blending Christianity and Buddhism?
- If you were going to make Obasan into a film, how would you handle Grandma Kato's letter from Japan?
Sexual violence is the symbolic gesture of injustice as well as being a very personal injustice—rape is the metaphoric and real violation of people in this book and all are silent as a result (all communications with the camps were censored or silenced). It is not only Mr. Gower. Later in Slocan, a boy named Percy is indiscrete with her. It is Mr. Gower, however, who haunts her and remains the one thing she cannot tell her mother. His assault on her, she fathoms, can be the only explanation for Mother leaving and not returning. Because of Mr. Gower, she feels eyes watching her in the woods and has nightmares of a saw separating her legs from each other and from her mother. Gayle Fujita wrote in Melus, "The resulting cleavage represents not only a natural separation of growing up, but unnatural guilt and fear due to the nature of initiation and its being complicated because it is 'around this time that mother disappears.'" Sexuality, Mother, and her identity are inextricably linked.
Memory and Reminiscence
"The past is the future," says Aunt Emily, and indeed it is the whole purpose of the book. One symbol of Naomi's revelation of the past is the sweep of her flashlight across the multitude of spider webs in Obasan's attic. Naomi has followed her aunt up to the attic in the middle of the silent night to find Aunt Emily's parcel that Naomi has been putting off reading for years. Instead, they find only dust and spiders in the attic. Thus the attic has served as the repository of memory and what it holds has been forgotten—left for the spiders. There is an additional reference to spiders in the "weaving" of stories. This theme recalls Penelope, the wife of Ulysses who wove and unwove a tapestry in an attempt to put off her suitors. Naomi's story itself is constructed like a web. Her mother and father are her needles but they leave and it is a long time before Naomi has the pieces from her aunts to finish herself. Also, her story jumps forward and backward, from center to edge, but, finally, as a web it catches the identity created by the story—Naomi.
There is another symbol of this telling in the King bird. He represents the narrator's fear at exaggerating or lying about the tale. This is the reason why the narrator gives way to explanation through fairy tales—Goldilocks, Heidi, and Momotaro. The latter is an oral story from Japan told to her at bedtime. It is the story of a young hero, similar to Hercules, who devotes his life to helping people in their battles against greater powers. In many ways, Kogawa's Naomi has a certain affinity with this hero. By her confessed remembrance, she gives strength to the anti-nuclear movement and, specifically, to the redress movement in Canada. As with Naomi, once all the pieces are present and the full story can be told, only then, Obasan would say, "the time of forgetting is now come."
The novel is a first person account of a woman who is breaking silence about several aspects of her life and the history she lived through. As the narrator, the adult Naomi is facing the death of her uncle Isamu, and Obasan feels it is time that Naomi read Emily's parcel full of factual anger. In other words, it is time to deal with the past. But Naomi's response is peculiar. She describes personal memories and childhood experiences that seem to have no place in the story's political commitment. As a result, reading time jumps from the present death of her uncle to points in the past, beginning with herself as a quiet little girl losing her mother. Due to the point of view being Naomi's, who rarely received answers to her questions when she asked them, the recollection is hazy and the characters often remain presences and never become personalities. The result is an almost pure recollection of girlhood whose testimony is more powerful than any of the facts collected by Emily.
The images in the novel are a blend of Christian and Buddhist traditions, coming in the forms of allegorical moments and strict dream visions. However, the central symbol of the work is Naomi's mother. She is not a character in the story so much as a remembered tale. Naomi has few stories of her mother and she constantly asks others for their recollections of her mother. The effect is to make her more a governing spirit than a real person. Words that bring mother to the story are almost prayerful. For example, "Mother, I am listening. Assist me to hear you…. You are tide rushing moonward."
All such surrounding language matches the superhuman account of Nagasaki where Mother guarded the children in her care despite the radiation burns. This apocalyptic event, both linguistically and structurally, is the high point of the novel. Amazingly, it is very soft-spoken and written in simple sentences, "it was my mother." As the symbol of motherhood, mother-culture, and the pre-war bliss, she survived the ultimate weapon with horrible disfigurement. Her survival motivates Naomi to piece herself together and finally offer her story as therapy for the whole community.
The words forming the novel are carefully chosen and become active players in the plot structure in unusual ways. The reason for this is that the novel is breaking the silence that the victims were intended to keep. Naomi recalls, "We are the despised rendered voiceless, stripped of car, radio, camera and every means of communication." In keeping silent, however, the victims are not whole. "If you cut any of [your history] off, you're an amputee…. Don't deny the past." Those are words from Aunt Emily, whose succinct and inflammatory writing style stands in stark contrast to the poetics of the narrative as a whole. Aunt Emily means well, means to tell the truth. But like the two ideograms of love, there are different ways of telling the tale.
Due to the delicacy of the situation—so many want the story to stay silent and be forgotten while others want to scream it out—the words are carefully chosen and the writing makes liberal use of allegory. The stone bread made by Uncle is like the manna that nourished the Israelites. Uncle is also compared to Sitting Bull and thus the removal of the Japanese is compared to the earlier act of putting the indigenous people on reservations. Similarly, Emily's parcel is like the stone bread as it provides nourishment for the mind. Oftentimes, biblical writing is used. "When I am hungry, and before I can ask, there is food," recalls the Christian gospel. Allegorical language also serves to blend Buddhist imagery into the tale by introducing the "white stone" and the idea of nature's dancing. The effect of Kogawa's language is to make the barrier between dream or story and reality, present and past, and nature and individual almost nonexistent.
There are many dreams in the work but all stem from the two forces driving the novel—sexual abuse and the loss of mother because of the war. The dreams grow out of Naomi's anxiety over sex due to early abuse and whether that initiation into sexuality caused her mother to leave. But her dreams also offer answers by showing the ways in which the family members are linked. Her uncle appears to be attempting to help her and thus the dream vision is not easily separated from the reality of the story. In one dream, Uncle is making a ceremonial bow as his part of the flower dance. It is Naomi's struggle, then, to realize what the ceremony is that she must complete in order to put the ghosts of the past to rest. She finally does this in the novel's closing epiphany.
Canada is a large and sparsely populated country and a member of the British Commonwealth and NAFTA. It is generally seen throughout the world as a relatively neutral, and therefore non-threatening, nation. However, the tales of Amerindian and Inuit removals and the internment of Canadians with Japanese ancestry in World War II remain whispered tales. Also, Canada's recent skirmishes with European countries, especially Spain, over fishing area hints at larger environmental faults.
Canada's constitution is surprisingly new and unsettled. After steadily gaining nominal independence, discussion of rescinding the British North America Act began in 1927 as the first step toward making Canada independent. Limbo existed until 1981, when the Constitution Act was passed under the Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The Act was in turn accepted by Queen Elizabeth II in the following spring. This effectively replaced the British North American Act as the working document of the Canadian government. Unfortunately, not all of the provinces were ready to accept the Act. Quebec wanted independence and would not sign. To keep Quebec in the union it was offered the special status of "distinct society" by the Meech Lake Accord of 1987. The Inuit and Amerindians of Canada were also granted "distinct society" status. Quebec's privilege angered the provinces of New Brunswick and Manitoba, who refused to ratify the Act. Another compromise came in the Charlottetown Accord of 1992, but that was rejected by referendum.
World War II
Canada under the premiership of William Lyon Mackenzie King entered World War II earlier than the United States. It contributed more than one million men to the Allies' war effort and lost 32,000 men. The anti-Asian sentiment in Canada had been prevalent in the late thirties and was officially expressed when the Canadian government confiscated the fishing fleet of its Canadians of Japanese ancestry. This racist policy increased to the point of hysteria with the news of Pearl Harbor's demise on December 7, 1941. In the United
States, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, calling for the immediate evacuation and internment of 110,000 West Coast Japanese despite the fact that fully two-thirds of them were American citizens. In Canada, where evacuation had been underway, the process was speeded up. Thus, 21,000 Canadians of Japanese ancestry were forced into work camps and interment camps far from the West Coast. Of those removed, 17,000 were Canadian born and, therefore, the removal was a gross violation of human rights and civil liberties. Un-like internment in America, Canada still restricted Japanese-Canadian movements for many years after the war. Furthermore, the United States returned confiscated property—Canada never did—and, therefore, the Japanese community in the United States recovered much faster.
The illegality of the removal was not unnoticed even by members of King's own government. Asian immigrants, however, had long been seen by both the United States and Canada as "sojourners," or as immigrants who would eventually return home. In addition, before the early part of this century, Asians were subject to various mandates that effectively barred them from citizenship and limited their property owning capacity. Therefore, the allowing of Asian-immigrants the same status as immigrants from anywhere else in the world was a recent development. This does not excuse the internment but it offers some explanation to the perception of Asians as foreigners and, consequently, as a potential threat to security during World War II. In other words, the resentment against "foreigners" taking away the jobs of citizens contributed to the enthusiasm for scapegoating certain people. The idea of ruining the prosperous Japanese-Canadian community by taking their land, ships, and fishing areas so soon after the depression years helped to drive the removal hysteria.
National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC)
The NAJC achieved the Redress Agreement in 1988 with the Government of Canada on behalf of all Canadians of Japanese ancestry. This agreement was a settlement of the conditions of restitution to those Japanese Canadians illegally interned and dispossessed of their property during World War II. As a result of the Agreement, the Government of Canada formally apologized for the violation of human rights committed by the act of internment and dispossession. In addition, the government paid out symbolic amounts to those Japanese Canadians affected; it established a $12 million community fund to be administered by the Japanese Canadian Redress Foundation. Lastly, the government established the Canadian Race Relations Foundation for the purpose of researching and fighting racism.
In addition to the demand for redress from those Canadians affected by the government's actions during World War II, Canada has had to deal with other cultural stresses. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the indigenous peoples of Canada won many court battles and were given money and land from the government. Their success was helped by the concurrent move in America by tribes to have treaties honored. But for a few exceptions, this remained a legal struggle with a happy outcome. Another problem that persists is oil revenue. Alberta and Newfoundland have various disagreements with the government over regulation, pricing, and revenue sharing. In Newfoundland, this prevented the exploitation of the vast Hibernia oil reserves offshore until the 1980s.
A more violent stress in Canada has been Quebec and French-speaking Canadians generally. The problem here is a larger one because it involves a problem in the working document of government and the status of Quebec. During the 1970s, the Quebec Liberation Front performed various terrorist acts which led to the invocation of the War Measures Act in peace time and the banning of the group. The declaration of French as the official language of Quebec helped calm some anxiety. In 1976, the separatist Parti Quebecois, under the leadership of Premier Rene Levesque, was elected to power in Quebec and immediately proposed independence. The ballot measure was defeated in a referendum with an 82% turnout.
Critics and reviewers have found a lot to say about Kogawa's first novel because of its wondrous poetic prose and its successful attempt to express the Canadian hybrid as art. The most popular theme to pick up on in the critical literature is family and how Kogawa writes the family drama as non-Oedipal but a struggle of the mother-culture to survive in patriarchy. It is this struggle which either leaves the daughter devastated or barely intact. The other obvious focus for critics has been the cultural blending of the Japanese and the Canadian that Kogawa subtly accomplishes. Other interpretations have focused on the landscape as a force in the novel which eventually overcomes the government's action.
Following the publication of the novel and the awards, the first reviews were bland. They were almost bothered by the silences of the novel. An early review in the Canadian Forum by Suanne Kelman positively assessed the novel for its ability to transcribe a very political history into a well-crafted piece of literature. Edward White repeated that praise in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, adding, "[the] novel must be heard … [for] exposing the viciousness of the racist horror, embodying the beauty that somehow survives." Critics dealing with the work in the mid-eighties, however, had begun to delve into the complexities for which the novel was deservedly rewarded. The first of this wave was Erika Gottlieb's article in Canadian Literature. Since then there have developed five areas of critical focus: puzzle and cross-reference; the place of literature in politics and history; the role of landscape in identity; the difficulties of cultural clash in terms of language both body and tongue; and the psychological drama of mother-daughter relations.
With Gottlieb the novel becomes more than a historical novel making poetry of human injustice. Gottlieb writes, "The novel sets up these multidimensional questions as puzzles arranged in a concentric pattern—container hidden within container within container—creating a sense of mystery and tension." These containers, for Gottlieb, are the three riddles of hidden manna, hidden voice, and hidden reason. They reflect the three dimensions of Naomi, the cosmos, and Canada. It is Gottlieb who suggests that the spider webs in the attic mimic the time-jump in the narrative. More significantly, Gottlieb has taken the time to translate the intricacies of Japanese culture endemic in the novel. She suggests that the space of the novel is akin to the space in Buddhism for mourning. Thus the story is begun by news of Uncle's death and ends on the eve of his funeral. There is also the echo of the tea ceremony and the many icons that invoke the blend of Christianity and Buddhism in the work. Following her leads, many critics have attempted to further Gottlieb's solution to the Obasan puzzle or correct her translation. Teruyo Ueki, for example, in her article for Melus, reads the novel in terms of Aunt Emily's parcel. She first agrees with Gottlieb's interpretation, but then shows how "the riddles are arranged as 'the folder structure.'" She does this down to the very ribbons tying the parcel together. The grandest container is, of course, the landscape. Karin Quimby focuses on this aspect of the novel and draws the connection between Naomi's growth and the three locales of the story (Vancouver, Slocan, and Granton). These readings reveal that the dreams of flower and roots reconcile themselves in the last scene. There, Naomi is physically rooting in the Canadian prairie with her hands in the grass.
Readings of the novel focusing on culture clash, begin with Gary Willis's article in Studies in Canadian Literature. His thesis depends on Kogawa's comparison of Western versus Japanese forms of carpentry. The latter pulls "with control rather than push with force." King-Kok Cheung, in the collection of essays Listening to Silences, explains the power of silence and the way it functions in the novel. The key is to realize that silence does not mean passivity. Instead, the novel's silences articulate in literary form "the use of nonverbal expression." To read the novel's silences otherwise, says Cheung, is to fall prey to Orientalism or the stereotype of the submissive Asian. "The thematics and poetics of silence are tightly interwoven…. The narrator negotiates between voicelessness and vociferousness, embodied respectively by her two aunts." Calling the novel a polyglossia (because of the several layers of meaning, for example, contained in the ideogram for love), Cheung notices that Kogawa "deploys fables and dreams to spin a web of associations, of verbal and emotional echoes." Cheung ends by referring to the example of carpentry suggesting that Kogawa has carved a style with "the pull of silences." Gayle Fujita picks up on Cheung's insights and reads Kogawa in terms of the story of Momotaro.
Returning to the idea that the novel is historical, Marilyn Rose wrote for Mosaic that in a post-modern world literature is still able to convey human experience. She compares the novel to the documentary writing being produced in the late seventies about the internment. Rose argues that by creating Naomi as a "humble and tentative narrator" Kogawa's "argument against this historically specific injustice makes compelling art." Mason Harris has a similar view of the novel in his essay for Canadian Literature. His purpose is to pay closer attention not just to how the novel functions on a cultural level as novel or documentary but the way in which the novel itself struggles with that function. For him the novel not only reconstructs "a suppressed chapter of Canadian history" but the transformation of the immigrant family through several generations to adjust to the new culture and the pains that arise between the generations. Both Robin Potter and Eleanor Ty offer a more exacting psychological reading of the novel with the assistance of Feminist theorists Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. Ty also picks up on a neglected aspect of Kogawa's Naomi when she compares Obasan to Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy in the International Fiction Review. She writes that the mother "evokes an otherness fraught with sexual and racial overtones for Naomi." This condition, she continues, must be demythologized if Naomi is to create new forms of language and expression as a Canadian.
Anthony Dykema-VanderArk is a doctoral candidate in English at Michigan State University. In the following essay, he analyzes the importance of ambiguity, irony, and paradox in Obasan.
Since its publication in 1981, Joy Kogawa's Obasan has assumed an important place in Canadian literature and in the broadly-defined, Asian-American literary canon. Reviewers immediately heralded the novel for its poetic force and its moving portrayal of an often-ignored aspect of Canadian and American history. Since then, critics have expanded upon this initial commentary to examine more closely the themes and images in Kogawa's work. Critical attention has focused on the difficulties and ambiguities of what is, in more ways than one, a challenging novel. The complexity of Obasan's plot, the intensity of its imagery, and the quiet bitterness of its protest challenge readers to wrestle with language and meaning in much the same way that Naomi must struggle to understand her past and that of the larger Japanese-Canadian community. In this sense, the attention that Obasan has received from readers and critics parallels the challenges of the text: Kogawa's novel, one might say, demands to be reckoned with, intellectually as well as emotionally.
Much about Kogawa's novel makes it difficult not only to read but also to classify or categorize. First, Obasan blurs the line between nonfiction and fiction. Kogawa draws from actual letters and newspaper accounts, autobiographical details, and historical facts throughout the novel, but she artistically incorporates this material into a clearly fictional work. In addition, Kogawa's narrative operates on multiple levels, from the individual and familial to the communal, national, political, and spiritual. Stylistically, the novel moves easily between the language of documentary reportage and a richly metaphorical language, and between straightforward narrative and stream-ofconsciousness exposition. This astonishing variety in Kogawa's novel can, at times, become bewildering and unsettling to the reader. But as many readers and critics have noted, Kogawa's style and method in Obasan also constitute the novel's unique strength. Kogawa writes in such a way that ambiguity, uncertainty, irony, and paradox do not weaken her story but instead—paradoxically—become the keys to understanding it.
The reader's experience of ambiguity in Obasan begins with the poetically-charged proem, preceding chapter one, which opens with these words:
There is a silence that cannot speak.
There is a silence that will not speak.
Does Kogawa intend these lines to introduce "silence" as a character of sorts? Does the second line clarify the first, or does it instead differentiate one silence from another, an involuntary muteness from a willed refusal to speak? These and other questions remain unanswered in the proem. Only after beginning the novel-proper does the reader recognize Naomi as the author of these words; and only after completing the novel can the reader begin to grasp the significance of the questions introduced in the proem, particularly the charged question of silence. Obasan dwells on many silences: the silence of history concerning the suffering of Japanese-Canadians during and after World War II; the silence of those who have died and "cannot speak" any longer; the "large and powerful" silence of Obasan; Aunt Emily's outspoken opposition to silence as a "word warrior" for the Japanese Canadian cause; the silence of Obasan, Uncle, and Emily who, in spite of Naomi's questions, "will not speak" of the fate of her mother; and, finally, Naomi's "Silent Mother" herself, who initially chooses not to speak of her horrific injuries at Nagasaki in an effort to protect her children from the truth, then is lost in the permanent silence of death. Naomi's persistent attempts to penetrate these various silences form the story at the heart of Obasan.
However, Kogawa also recognizes the paradoxical power of silence. Naomi wonders, for example, if Obasan's grief might represent a "language" with "idioms" and "nuances" all its own. While Obasan's silent suffering often brings her to isolation and a trance-like paralysis, Naomi also sees in her a representative figure of strength and endurance, "the bearer of keys to unknown doorways and to a network of astonishing tunnels." As King-Kok Cheung argues in her reading of Obasan, "one must avoid gliding over the tonalities of silence in the novel" in order to recognize the "quiet strength" of first-generation Japanese-Canadians like Uncle and Obasan.
What Do I Read Next?
- Kogawa's Itsuka (1992) continues the story of Naomi's family as they try to win redress from the Canadian government for the unjust internment.
- Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony (1977) is the story of a Native American man trying to recover from his experience fighting in World War II for the U.S. Army in the Pacific against the Japanese. His nightmares involve the frightening idea that as a sometime enemy of Americans he was killing an enemy that looked like him. Eventually he is able to regain his mental health by returning to his tribe's traditions.
- Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy (1990) is a tale of another girl coming of age while dealing with sexual nightmares. Lucy's sexual secrets, like Naomi's, make the already difficult task of coming to womanhood as a racial minority all the more difficult.
- An American who wrote of a character trying to restore the Japanese community to its preinternment state was John Okada. His 1957 novel, No-No Boy, takes place in the United States.
Conversely, Kogawa illustrates that language is only a potential antidote to a dangerous silence: like silence, language can imprison just as it can liberate. Emily's bundle of written documents clearly exerts a powerful, positive influence on Naomi by urging her to "remember everything" and to come to terms with the pain of her childhood and adolescence. Yet Naomi also wonders if "all of Aunt Emily's words, all her papers" finally amount to little more than "scratchings in the barnyard." Emily may be a "word warrior," but her "paper battles" cannot bring Naomi's parents back to life or return the family to their idyllic Vancouver home, cannot address the deepest truth of Naomi's loss.
Similarly, when Emily writes "Canadian citizen" over "Japanese race" in a pamphlet, the gesture appears utterly futile next to the Canadian government's powerful naming. Those in power can, for example, call Japan the rightful "homeland" of Japanese-Canadians or mask official acts of racist persecution with deceptively-bland terms such as "evacuation," "relocation," and "assistance." Kogawa understands that the efficacy of language depends in part on the power to enforce words, to enforce a version of reality. At the same time, she powerfully depicts Naomi's struggle to find words of her own to describe her childhood experience. Naomi needs to find language to mark out a middle ground between Emily's solution, "spreading words like buckshot," and Obasan's retreat into silence.
Kogawa also uses the motif of language and silence to illustrate the paradoxical or ironic nature of Naomi's experience as a child. For instance, Naomi's abuse at the hands of Old Man Gower produces a particularly painful double-bind of silence. On the one hand, with Mr. Gower, Naomi feels that remaining silent is the only way to be "whole and safe": "If I am still, I will be safe…. If I speak, I will split open and spill out." On the other hand, her secret knowledge and shame threaten the wholeness and safety that Naomi feels with her mother: "If I tell my mother about Mr. Gower, the alarm will send a tremor through our bodies and I will be torn from her. But the secret has already separated us." But paradox and irony also characterize the experience of the Japanese-Canadian community as a whole during and after World War II. Stephen summarizes the situation of every Japanese-Canadian citizen when he tells Naomi, "It is a riddle…. We are both the enemy and not the enemy." In a similar fashion, Aunt Emily points to fundamental irony in the situation of the Japanese immigrant generation: "In one breath we are damned for being 'inassimilable' and the next there's fear that we'll assimilate." Finally, as Sauling Cynthia Wong notes, movement and mobility also take on ironic resonance in Obasan, since a people determined to settle down are forced to move repeatedly, leaving homes and possessions behind, while those who resist relocation are imprisoned. In all of these painful, paradoxical situations, neither silence nor speech offer any effective means of resolution to Naomi or her community.
But Kogawa incorporates paradox in Obasan in more positive, life-affirming ways as well. When Aunt Emily says to Naomi, "it must have been hell in the ghost towns," she is only half correct: Naomi's memories of life in Slocan include not only disturbing images of cruelty and death but also compelling scenes of friendship and community. Just as memories of Mr. Gower disrupt Naomi's recollections of an idyllic childhood before the evacuation, so too the restoration of a sense of community in Slocan undermines Emily's singleminded view of its absolute destruction. Of course, Naomi's positive memories of Slocan do not lessen the crime of relocation and internment, do not excuse what the Canadian and American governments did to Japanese residents and citizens. But Kogawa's portrayal of Naomi's experience presents a more complicated vision of human suffering than any allowed by Emily's outspoken political protest.
In a review entitled "Impossible to Forgive," Suanne Kelman contends that Obasan illuminates "the most horrible of all human paradoxes," that "injustice provokes more guilt in its victims than in its perpetrators." However, a desire to believe that forgiveness is not impossible also runs throughout Kogawa's novel, spoken most clearly by Nakayama-sensei: "It is a high calling my friends—the calling to forgive." Naomi resists Nakayama-sensei's message, leaving the room when he speaks of Love, drowning out his voice when he speaks of forgiveness. But the resonance of his message is not lost, and his voice—though he speaks of paradoxical truths—is not, as some critics have argued, finally ironic. Instead, Kogawa instills in her novel faint echoes of hope, small but powerful signs of forgiveness, that persist even in the midst of a despair that will not ever be wholly overcome.
By the end of Obasan, Naomi does not miraculously resolve her painful struggle with the past or achieve any easy catharsis, but she does find a more positive, less paralyzing way of seeing. The double-bind of silence that Naomi suffered as a child because of Old Man Gower's abusive touch, a silence that threatened to separate her forever from her mother, now opens her eyes to her mother's own suffering and impenetrable silence. Though Naomi rejects her mother's decision to protect her children by "lies" and "camouflage," she recognizes the love that motivated it and the bond that joins mother and daughter: "Gentle Mother, we were lost together in our silences. Our wordlessness was our mutual destruction." Having learned the truth of her mother's suffering and death, Naomi can perceive her mother's immutable presence in her life even as she acknowledges her literal absence. She can envision a certain gentleness in Grief's eyes, a "brooding light" amidst the darkness of death, and an "underground stream" flowing around the "world of stone" that holds her lost loved ones.
At the end of Obasan, Naomi returns to the coulee to mourn her own deep loss, to grieve for her Uncle, and to carry on his ritual of remembering those lost forever to that "world of stone." But she goes with new insight into his grief and her own, having come to terms with the painful experiences and the troubling silences that have haunted her life. Fittingly, Kogawa captures Naomi's new-found peace in a paradoxical yet hopeful image of stone and water in harmony, in the reflection of the moon on the river: Though her own shoes are "mud-clogged" and heavy, Naomi can envision "water and stone dancing" in a "quiet ballet, soundless as breath."
Source: Anthony Dykema-VanderArk, in an essay for Nov-els for Students, Gale, 1998.
King-Kok Cheung is an author, educator, and associate director of the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California at Los Angeles. She not only points out the difference between a Eurocentric and Oriental understanding of "silence," but makes three further distinctions—protective, stoic, and attentive silences—and Ko gawa 's attitude toward them in Obasan.
Since the Civil Rights movement in the late 1960s, women and members of racial minorities have increasingly sworn off the silence imposed upon them by the dominant culture. Yet silence should also be given its due. Many Asian Americans, in their attempts to dispel the stereotype of the quiet and submissive Oriental, have either repressed or denied an important component of their heritage—the use of nonverbal expression. With many young Asian Americans turning against this aspect of their culture and non-Asians even less able to understand the allegedly "inscrutable" minority, it is not surprising that Joy Kogawa's Obasan, an autobiographical novel, has been subject to tendentious reviews. To Edith Milton [writing in the New York Times Book Review, September 5, 1982] the book is "a study in painful silence, in unquestioning but troubled obedience to the inevitable"; to David Low [writing in Bridge, 8:3, 1983] it is "clearly a novel about the importance of communication and the danger of keeping silent"; to Joyce Wayne [in RIKKA, 8:2, 1981] it is "a tale of the submissive silence of the oppressed." The resounding condemnation of silence reflects the bias of "translation" or of language itself which, as Paula Gunn Allen tells us [in The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, 1986], "embodies the unspoken assumptions and orientations of the culture it belongs to." In English, silence is often the opposite of speech, language, or expression. The Chinese and Japanese character for silence, on the other hand, is antonymous to noise, motion, and commotion. In the United States silence is generally looked upon as passive; in China and Japan it traditionally signals pensiveness, alertness, and sensitivity.
These differences are too often eclipsed by a Eurocentric perspective to which even revisionist critics may succumb. As Chandra Mohanty has argued [in Boundary, 1984], much of Western feminist representation of oppressed "third world" women is pitted against the implicit self representation of Western women as educated, liberated and, I might add, verbally assertive: "These distinctions are made on the basis of the privileging of a particular group as the norm or referent." A similar norm frequently governs the assessment of racial minorities in North America. Marilyn Russell Rose, a sophisticated critic keenly aware of the danger of Orientalist discourse, nevertheless places inordinate blame on the victims in Obasan: "'Orientalism' has been so internalized by this Oriental minority, that their silence is an inadvertent bow to the occidental hegemony which legitimizes their abuse" [Dalhousie Review, 1987]. Undeniably, nikkei have been subject to political exploitation, but to view their reticence as no more than the internalization of Occidental stereotypes is to tune out the "other" perceptions of silence in the novel. Countering Orientalism means challenging Western reduction or homogenization of Asian traits, but not necessarily denying or denouncing the traits themselves.
Situated on the crossroads of cultures, Kogawa in Obasan shows a mixed attitude toward both lan guage and silence and reevaluates both in ways that undermine logocentrism. Certainly, language can liberate and heal, but it can also distort and hurt; and while silence may smother and obliterate, it can also minister, soothe, and communicate. The verbal restraint that informs Kogawa's theme and style manifests not only the particular anguish of voicelessness but also what Gayle Fujita describes [in MELUS, 12:3, 1985] as the narrator's specific nikkei legacy—"a nonverbal mode of apprehension summarized by the 'term attendance.'" Where Fujita subsumes several forms of reticence under the rubric "attendance," however, I find it necessary to distinguish among protective, stoic, and attentive silences, which Kogawa regards with varying attitudes. Kogawa also deplores negative manifestations of silence, such as political oppression through censorship and enforced invisibility, and the victims' repression.
The thematics and poetics of silence are tightly interwoven. On the thematic level, the narrator negotiates between voicelessness and vociferousness, embodied respectively by her two aunts. The style of the novel likewise evinces a double heritage. The biblical injunction to "write the vision and make it plain"—advocated by one of the aunts—is softpedaled by the narrator's preference for indirection, a preference which sociologist Stanford Lyman associates with the nisei generally. Even as the narrator confronts the outrages committed during World War II, she resorts to elliptical devices, such as juvenile perspective, fragmented memories and reveries, devices which at once accentuate fictionality and proffer a "truth" that runs deeper than the official written records of the war years spliced into the novel. The gaps in the narrative demand from the reader a vigilance and receptivity that correspond to the narrator's attentiveness….
The novel is presented from the point of view of Naomi Nakane, a 36-year-old schoolteacher. It begins in 1972 when Naomi's Uncle Isamu is still alive in Granton, Alberta. A month later, Isamu dies and Naomi goes to comfort his widow Aunt Aya—the title character. Obasan is Aunt in Japanese, but it can also mean woman in general. The title thus implicitly "acknowledges the connectedness of all women's lives—Naomi, her mother, her two aunts" [according to Fujita, MELUS, 1985]. At Obasan's house Naomi finds a parcel from her Aunt Emily that contains wartime documents, letters, and Emily's own journal written between December 1941 and May 1942. (Many of Emily's letters of protest to the Canadian government are based on the real letters of Muriel Kitagawa, a Japanese-Canadian activist.) As Naomi sifts through the contents of this package, she reluctantly sinks into her own past. She recalls the uprooting and dissolution of her family during and after the war: her father died of tuberculosis; two of her grandparents died of physical and mental stress. Naomi and her older brother Stephen were brought up by Uncle Isamu and Obasan. Hovering over the tale is the riddle of what has happened to Naomi's mother, who acccompanied Grandma Kato (Naomi's maternal grandmother) to Japan on a visit shortly before the war, when Naomi was five. Only at the end of the book do Naomi and Stephen (and the reader) discover that their mother had been totally disfigured during the nuclear blast in Nagasaki and died a few years later. Before her death she requested Obasan and Uncle to spare her children the truth. The adults succeed all too well in keeping the secret; Naomi does not find out about her mother's fate for over thirty years.
The novel depicts Naomi's plight of not knowing and not being able to tell. Naomi has been speechless and withdrawn throughout childhood and adolescence—her quiet disposition tied to her mother's unexplained absence. As a girl she questions but receives no answer; as an adult she prefers to leave the question unspoken because she dreads knowing. As Magnusson has observed [in Canadian Literature/Litterature Canadienne 116, Spring, 1988], "Naomi's individual drama is closely caught up in her linguistic anxiety, which comes to serve as a synecdoche for her estrangement—from others, from her cultural origins, from the absent mother who preoccupies her thoughts, from her past."
In her quest for identity and for peace, Naomi is influenced by her two aunts' contrary responses to their harrowing experiences during the war. Obasan, the reticent aunt who raises Naomi, counsels her to forget and to forgive. Aunt Emily, the political activist, presses her to divulge the indignities endured by Japanese Canadians—to "write the vision and make it plain." Emily brings to mind the Old Testament prophets who cry for justice; Obasan, the New Testament preaching of humility, forgiveness, and charity. But both sets of behavior also have roots in Japanese culture. As Michiko Lambertson points out, "There are two poles in the Japanese way of thinking. One is a fatalistic attitude of acceptance, endurance, and stoicism and the other is a sense of justice, honour, and fair play" [Canadian Woman Studies 4:2, 1982]. Obasan's attitude is as much Buddhist as Christian; she moves with equal ease in Christian and Buddhist burial ceremonies, always ready with her serving hands. Emily's activism, though ascribed to her Canadian schooling, is also promoted in the Japanese tale, recounted in the novel, of Momotaro—the boy who defends his people valiantly against cruel bandits (see Fujita). Naomi remarks:
How different my two aunts are. One lives in sound, the other in stone. Obasan's language remains deeply underground but Aunt Emily, BA, MA, is a word warrior. She's a crusader, a little old grey-haired Mighty Mouse, a Bachelor of Advanced Activists and General Practitioner of Just Causes.
Naomi feels invaded by Emily's words and frustrated by Obasan's wordlessness. She undercuts Emily's polemics with irony and strains to hear Obasan's inner speech….
If skepticism about language and interrogation of majority consensus aligns Kogawa with many a woman writer and postmodernist thinker, her ability to project a spectrum of silence is, as Fujita suggests, traceable to her bicultural heritage. To monitor this peculiar sensibility, one must avoid gliding over the tonalities of silence in the novel, or seeing them all negatively as destructive. The protagonist, to be sure, struggles against oppressive and inhibitive silence. She also feels divided about the protective and the stoic silence of the issei which has sheltered her as a child but paralyzes her as an adult. She continues nevertheless to cherish the communicative and attentive silence she has learned from several female forerunners.
Oppressive silence in the novel takes both individual and collective forms, inflicted on women and men alike. As a child Naomi was sexually abused by a neighbor—Old Man Gower—who for-bade her to tell of the violation: "Don't tell your mother." Later, it is the Canadian government that harasses the Japanese Canadians and suppresses the victims. Emily notes: "All cards and letters are censored…. Not a word from the camps makes the papers. Everything is hushed up." Naomi tells: "We are the despised rendered voiceless, stripped of car, radio, camera and every means of communication."
Not an uncommon reaction to suppression is repression on the part of the victims. Instead of voicing anger at the subjugators, they seal their lips in shame. Child Naomi, whose relationship with her mother has been one of mutual trust, begins to nurse a secret that separates them after her molestation. Racial abuse similarly gags the victim. When Stephen is beaten up by white boys, he refuses to tell Naomi what has caused his injury. Naomi intuits, "Is he ashamed, as I was in Old Man Gower's bathroom?" Rape, Erika Gottlieb points out, is used here as "metaphor for any kind of violation" [Canadian Literature 109, Summer, 1986]. Like Stephen, many Japanese Canadians also refuse to speak about what Rose calls their "political and spiritual rape" by the Canadian government [Mosaic 21, Spring, 1988]. Naomi, for one, wishes to leave the past behind: "Crimes of history … can stay in history." Her attitude of acceptance is, however, ultimately complicit with social oppression: her self-imposed silence feeds the one imposed from without. Naomi nonetheless learns that she cannot bracket the past, not only because it is impossible to do so, but also because it is self-destructive. "If you cut any of [your history] off you're an amputee," Emily warns. "Don't deny the past. Remember everything. If you're bitter, be bitter. Cry it out! Scream!"
What makes it especially difficult for Naomi to "scream" is her schooling in the protective and stoic silence of the issei, which she is gradually coming to regard with ambivalence. She appreciates the efforts of Mother and Obasan to create a soothing environment for the children. She recollects Mother's reassuring manner during a childhood crisis, after she tells her that a big white hen is pecking a batch of infant yellow chicks to death (an event that clearly foreshadows the pending interracial dynamics). Mother comes immediately to the rescue: "With swift deft fingers, Mother removes the live chicks first, placing them in her apron. All the while that she acts, there is calm efficiency in her face and she does not speak." Obasan also exhibits serenity in the face of commotion. Even on the eve of the evacuation, "Aya is being very calm and she doesn't want any discussion in front of the kids. All she's told them is that they're going for a train ride." An involuntary exodus is recast as a pleasant excursion—for the children's sake.
A point comes when such protective silence—a form of enforced innocence—infantilizes. Naomi, now an adult, is constantly frustrated by tightlipped Obasan: "The greater my urgency to know, the thicker her silences have always been." When Naomi asks her about the letters written in Japanese—letters describing the bombing in Nagasaki—Obasan produces instead an old photograph of Naomi and her mother, once more substituting a sweet image for harsh facts. Her silence can be as misleading as words.
The stoic silence of the issei is presented with a similar mixture of appreciation and criticism. The issei believe in quiet forbearance, in dignified silence. During the war they mustered enormous strength to swallow white prejudices, weather the ravages of the internment, and, above all, shelter the young as much as possible from physical and psychological harm. To the dominant culture their silence suggested passivity and weakness, and encouraged open season on them. Kogawa capsulates these divergent perceptions of silence in two successive images from nature: "We are the silences that speak from stone…. We disappear into the fu ture undemanding as dew." Stone connotes sturdiness, endurance, and impregnability; dew, by contrast, suggests fragility, evanescence, and vulnerability. Placed side by side, the two figures for silence reveal the complex attitude of the Japanese-Canadian narrator. She acknowledges the physical and inner strength of the issei: their sturdiness is a requisite to survival in taxing environments such as the ghost town of Slocan and the beet farm of Alberta. The silence exemplified by Uncle and Obasan attests at once to their strength of endurance and their power to forgive. At the same time, the narrator knows all too well that their magnanimity—redoubled by their Christian belief in turning the other cheek—lends itself to exploitation by the dominant culture. Like dew, they can become "wiped out."
Kogawa does not allow the negative implications of silence to engulf its positive manifestations, of which the most disarming is attentive silence. Fujita notes that attendance is instilled in Naomi since infancy, through the very decor of her prewar home: "Above my bed with the powdery blue patchwork quilt is a picture of a little girl with a book in her lap, looking up into a tree where a bird sits. One of the child's hands is half raised as she watches and listens, attending the bird." The girl's heedfulness is significantly inseparable from her thoughtfulness and poised hand. Far from suggesting passivity, this form of silence entails both mental vigilance and physical readiness. Complementing the visual aids are the actual examples set by Grandma, Mother, and Obasan. They supply positive reinforcement for Naomi. Their "alert and accurate knowing" has left a lasting impression on her:
When I am hungry, and before I can ask, there is food. If I am weary, every place is a bed…. A sweater covers me before there is any chill and if there is pain there is care simultaneously. If Grandma shifts uncomfortably, I bring her a cushion.
"Yoku ki ga tsuku ne," Grandma responds. It is a statement in appreciation of sensitivity and appropriate gestures.
There is neither explicit request nor open inquiry. At the point when her grandparents have been taken to the hospital and Obasan offers un-spoken yet palpable solace, Naomi registers: "We must always honour the wishes of others before our own…. To try to meet one's own needs in spite of the wishes of others is to be 'wagamama'—selfish and inconsiderate. Obasan teaches me not to be wagamama by always heeding everyone's needs. That is why she is waiting patiently beside me at the bridge."
These instances trace attentive silence to a maternal tradition in Japanese culture. Naomi has learned it from Grandma, Mother, and her surrogate mother Obasan, all of whom have been raised in Japan. Yet it is also to be directed beyond one's kin, as is evident from what occurs on the train that takes Obasan and the children from British Columbia to Slocan. A young woman has given birth just before boarding, but she does not have a single baby item with her. Obasan quietly places in front of her a bundle that contains a towel and some fruit. Her kindness inspires another old woman to follow suit. Little Naomi, taking stock of these generous acts, is herself moved to charity: she notices her brother's unhappiness and slips a present (her favorite ball) into his pocket.
Grandma and Mother disappear from Naomi's life early on. The extant person, in whom the woe and wonder of silence converge, influencing Naomi into adulthood, is Obasan. Kogawa has set her name as the title of the book because Obasan "is totally silent." "If we never really see Obasan," the author has stated, "she will always be oppressed" [Wayne, RIKKA, 1981]. Kogawa realizes that Obasan's quiet fortitude makes her an easy target of subjugation, and she appeals openly to the reader to see Obasan and to hear "the silence that cannot speak" (epigraph). But she does not enjoin Obasan to emulate Emily. As readers, we must be wary of adopting the attitude of Stephen, who scorns Obasan's Japanese ways; or that of the chilling Mrs. Barker, whose "glance at Obasan is one of condescension." Or we may be guilty of the very blindness that the author attempts to cure. Dismissing Obasan as a victim would legitimize her victimization….
The narrator herself, unlike Stephen and Mrs. Barker, never regards Obasan arrogantly. She does not view her through Eurocentric or even revisionist eyes: "Obasan … does not come from this clamourous climate. She does not dance to the multi-cultural piper's tune or respond to the racist's slur. She remains in a silent territory, defined by her serving hands." In portraying her aunt she pointedly departs from the view of silence as absence or as impotence. She divines unspoken meanings beneath Obasan's reticence and wishes to enter "the vault of her thoughts." She textualizes the inaudible: "The language of her grief is silence. She has learned it well, its idioms, its nuances. Over the years, silence within her small body has grown large and powerful." The quietest character in the novel, Obasan is also the most attentive. (She performs what Wordsworth in "Tintern Abbey" eulogizes as those "little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.") One marked achievement of this novel is the finesse by which the author renders a wordless figure into an unforgettable character.
The destructive and enabling aspects of silence are recapitulated together in the climax of the novel. Naomi finally learns (from her grandma's letters) about her mother's disfigurement. Bewildered, she at first can only deplore her mother's protective silence: "Gentle Mother, we were lost together in our silences. Our wordlessness was our mutual destruction." Yet almost in the same breath that remonstrates against protective silence the narrator is invoking attendance which, as Fujita observes, "supports Naomi in her moment of greatest need." The act ushers in the process of healing: "Gradually the room grows still and it is as if I am back with Uncle again, listening and listening to the silent earth and the silent sky as I have done all my life…. Mother. I am listening. Assist me to hear you."
In this receptive state she hears "the sigh of … remembered breath, a wordless word." She is able to conjure up her mother's presence, and empathy restores the original bond: "Young Mother at Nagasaki, am I not also there?" The communion continues:
I am thinking that for a child there is no presence without flesh. But perhaps it is because I am no longer a child I can know your presence though you are not here. The letters tonight are skeletons. Bones only. But the earth still stirs with dormant blooms. Love flows through the roots of the trees by our graves.
Naomi breathes life into the verbal knowledge transmitted by the letters ("bones only") by means of a nonverbal mode of apprehension. Her ability to grasp an absent presence through imaginative empathy is fostered by her sedulous heedfulness. She finally discovers the key to the cryptic epigraph: "To attend its voice, I can hear it say, is to embrace its absence."
Edward M. White
White is an American educator and critic. In the following positive review, he praises Kogawa's depictions of suffering, injustice, and survival within the context of specific historical events in Obasan.
"Nisei," we learn from this extraordinary first novel, [Obasan], means "second generation," embracing the children of the Canadian and American first-generation immigrants from Japan. Everyone by now knows that the internment and theft of property suffered by Americans of Japanese descent during World War II represents a national disgrace second only to the massacres of Native Americans. It is a small comfort to realize that Canadian Nisei were treated at least as badly as the Americans, but the distance created by the Canadian setting perhaps will help make the pain this novel evokes more bearable for U.S. readers.
Joy Kogawa, a Canadian teacher and poet, has drawn upon her own experience as a displaced Canadian Nisei to write a unified story of a battered and broken family that endures under the worst conditions. The systematic outrages inflicted by the Canadian government on its own citizens echo the Nazi treatment of the Jews; the novel, in turn, shares some of the tone of The Diary of Anne Frank in its purity of vision under the stress of social outrage. This novel too has a magical ability to convey suffering and privation, inhumanity and racial prejudice, without losing in any way joy in life and in the poetic imagination.
The narrator is Naomi Nakane, now a 36-yearold teacher: "Marital status: Old maid. Health: Fine, I suppose…. Personality: Tense. Is that past or present tense? It's perpetual tense." Like her author, Naomi was torn at the age of 5 from a warm and loving family inside a secure Japanese-Canadian culture in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her mother is stranded in Japan, finally to encounter an atomic bomb, and her physician father's fragile health fails before the hardships of dispersal and brutal labor.
Naomi and her resentful brother Stephen (a musical prodigy) depend on their aunt, "Obasan," whose silence and strength form the solid center of the novel. The death of their uncle draws the family together, and draws Naomi's past into perspective as she reviews documents that expand her im-perfect understanding of what has happened to her and her family. These documents include not only the diaries and notes collected by her irrepressible Aunt Emily, but a series of chilling nonfictional official papers and newspaper accounts.
Part of the strength of this novel is in its historical particularity, but another part is in its larger resonance: This is also an account of human barbarity wherever it occurs. This motif is made explicit early on in a description of Obasan:
Squatting here with the putty knife in her hand, she is every old woman in every hamlet in the world. You see her on a street corner in southern France, in a black dress and black stockings. Or bent over stone steps in a Mexican mountain village. Everywhere the old woman stands as the true and rightful owner of the earth. She is the bearer of keys to unknown doorways and to a network of astonishing tunnels. She is the possessor of life's infinite personal details.
"Now old," Obasan repeats; "everything old." The rhythms of the prose, when under extreme pressure, expand into Biblical patterns:
We are leaving the B.C. coast—rain, cloud, mist—an air overladen with weeping. Behind us lies a salty sea within which swim our drowning specks of memory—our small waterlogged eulogies. We are going down to the middle of the earth with pick-axe eyes, tunneling by train to the Interior, carried along by the momentum of the expulsion into the waiting wilderness…. We are the silences that speak from stone. We are the despised rendered voiceless, stripped of car, radio, camera and every means of communication, a trainload of eyes covered with mud and spittle. We are the man in the Gospel of John, born into the world for the sake of the light.
The poetry remains quiet behind the prose, even as the universal theme radiates from the strong and driving plot. The story keeps unfolding, until its full sadness is complete. The next-to-last word is Nakane's:
This body of grief is not fit for human habitation. Let there be flesh. The song of mourning is not a life-long song…. The wild roses and the tiny wild flowers grow along the trickling stream. The perfume in the air is sweet and faint. If I hold my head a certain way, I can smell them from where I am.
The last word in the book is from the memorandum sent by the Co-operative Committee on Japanese Canadians to the House and the Senate of Canada in April, 1946. It points out that the orders-in-council for the deportation of Canadians of Japanese racial origin are "wrong and indefensible" and "are an adoption of the methods of Nazism." This protest was ignored by the government and by the world at large.
Kogawa's novel must be heard and admired; the art itself can claim the real last word, exposing the viciousness of the racist horror, embodying the beauty that somehow, wonderfully, survives.
Source: Edward M. White, "The Silences That Speak from Stone," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 11, 1982, p. 3.
King-Kok Cheung, "Attentive Silence in Joy Kogawa's Obasan," in Listening to Silences: New Essays in Feminist Criticism, edited by Elaine Hedges and Shelley F. Fishkin, Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 113-29.
Gayle K. Fujita, "'To Attend the Sound of Stone': The Sensibility of Silence in Obasan," in Melus, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp. 33-42.
Erika Gottlieb, "Silence into Sound: The Riddle of Concentric Worlds in Obasan," in Canadian Literature, No. 109, Summer 1986, pp. 34-53.
Mason Harris, "Broken Generations in Obasan," in Canadian Literature, No. 127, Winter , 1990, pp. 41-57.
Suanne Kelman, "Impossible to Forgive," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LXI, No. 715, February, 1982, pp. 39-40.
Robin Potter, "Moral—in Whose Sense?: Joy Kogawa's Obasan and Julia Kristeva's Powers of Horror," in Studies in Canadian Literature, 1990.
Karin Quimby, "'This is my own, my native land': Constructions of Identity and Landscape in Joy Kogawa's Obasan," in Cross-Addressing: Resistance Literature and Cultural Borders, edited by John C. Hawley, State University of New York Press, 1996, pp. 257-73.
Marilyn Russell Rose, "Politics into Art: Kogawa's 'Obasan' and the Rhetoric of Fiction," in Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Vol. XXI, Nos. 2-3, Spring 1988, pp. 215-26.
Eleanor Ty, "Struggling with the Powerful (M)Other: Identity and Sexuality in Kogawa's Obasan and Kincaid's Lucy," in The International Fiction Review, Vol. 20, No. 2, 1993, pp. 120-26.
Teruyo Ueki, "Obasan: Revelations in a Paradoxical Scheme," in Melus, Vol. 18, No. 4, Winter, 1993, pp. 5-20.
Edward M. White, "The Silences that Speak from Stone," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 11, 1982, p. 3.
Gary Willis, "Speaking the Silence: Joy Kogawa's Obasan," in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1987, pp. 239-49.
Cheng Lok Chua, "Witnessing the Japanese Canadian Experience in World War II: Processual Structure, Symbolism, and Irony in Joy Kogawa's Obasan," in Reading the Literatures of Asian America, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling, Temple University Press, 1992, pp. 97-108.
This essay highlights the ritual structure and the "ironic narrative mode" of Kogawa's novel. Chua also contends that Obasan "puts an ironic question to the Christian ethics professed by Canada's majority culture."
Andrew Garrod, interview with Joy Kogawa, in Speaking for Myself: Canadian Writers in Interview, Breakwater (St. Johns, Newfoundland), 1986, pp. 139-53.
A lengthy interview in which Kogawa speaks revealingly about her childhood, her theological and political convictions, and her writing, especially her writing of Obasan.
Gurleen Grewal, "Memory and the Matrix of History: The Poetics of Loss and Recovery in Joy Kogawa's Obasan and Toni Morrison's Beloved," in Memory and Cultural Politics: New Approaches to American Ethnic Literatures, edited by Amritjit Singh, Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr., and Robert E. Hogan, Northeastern University Press, 1996, pp. 140-74.
This essay draws useful comparisons between Obasan and Toni Morrison's Beloved as novels that "enact the process of loss and recovery" through "ceremonial performances of memory."
Rachelle Kanefsky, "Debunking a Postmodern Conception of History: A Defence of Humanist Values in the Novels of Joy Kogawa," in Canadian Literature, Vol. 148, Spring, 1996, pp. 11-36.
In her "defence" of a humanist vision in Kogawa's novels, Kanefsky poses a direct challenge to critics who interpret those novels in terms of postmodern views of history and language. Kanefsky contends that both Kogawa and her protagonist finally support a humanist conviction that "What's right is right. What's wrong is wrong."
Joy Kogawa, "Is There a Just Cause?," in Canadian Forum, March, 1984, pp. 20-24.
In this compelling editorial, Kogawa writes of her own involvement in and understanding of social activism, affirming "the paradoxical power in mutual vulnerability" and arguing that "our wholeness comes from joining and from sharing our brokenness."
Joy Kogawa, "What Do I Remember of the Evacuation," in Chicago Review, Vol. 42, No. 3-4, 1996, pp. 152-53.
This poem, originally published in 1973, offers an intriguing glimpse at Kogawa's reflections about the evacuation several years before she wrote Obasan. Like the later novel, this poem draws its expressive force from an ironic juxtaposition of "adult" realities and childhood perceptions.
Maryka Omatsu, Bittersweet Passage: Redress and the Japanese Canadian Experience, Between the Lines, n.d.
Records the struggle of Japanese Canadians to obtain redress from the Canadian government.
Edward Said, Orientalism, Random House, 1979.
Said details the history of the way in which the Western powers view eastern or oriental people. In other words, it is a history of stereotypes and the attitudes enabling policies like internment.
Ann Gomer Sunahara, The Politics of Racism: The Uprooting of Japanese-Canadians During the Second World War, Lorimer, 1981.
A detailed work on the event of Canadian internment. It is a work that Aunt Emily would appreciate for its careful documentation.
Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance, Princeton University Press, 1993.
Wong offers compelling "intratextual" and "inter-textual" readings of Obasan in this study of Asian American literature, focusing in particular on Kogawa's use of the "stone bread" image and her "obsession with mobility" in the novel.
Mitsuye Yamada, "Experiential Approaches to Teaching Joy Kogawa's Obasan," in Teaching American Ethnic Literatures: Nineteen Essays, edited by John R. Maitino and David R. Peck, University of New Mexico Press, 1996, pp. 293-311.
Though primarily intended for teachers, this essay presents a useful model for reading Kogawa's novel through three different frames: "the aesthetic, the historical, and the experiential."