Study Guide

Joy Kogawa

Joy Kogawa Essay - Critical Essays

Joy Kogawa American Literature Analysis

Kogawa’s bicultural identity shows in her use of both Asian and Christian religious themes. As she explores the powers of good and evil and the daily human choices that can create both, she returns to her Buddhist roots coupled with a Daoist worldview. The power of love, mercy, and prayer is available to all her characters. Kogawa portrays the Japanese Canadian experience and their community in Obasan (“Aunt”) and its sequel Itsuka (“Some Day”). The fictional Naomi Nakane’s experience from childhood to middle age parallels Kogawa’s life. In addition, in The Rain Ascends she explores the predation of an Anglican priest who molests boys.

Christianity in Kogawa’s novels tends to operate on the surface of her novels, often identifying power figures. The Anglican priest from the good Vancouver days, Reverend Nakayama, tends his scattered flock by visiting his parishioners in the dispersed communities at important junctions of their personal and communal lives. He becomes almost a mythic figure, as does Reverend Charles Barnabas Shelby in The Rain Ascends; this Anglican clergyman is seen as mythic by his daughter even in middle age, until she begins to see more clearly.

However, it is Buddhist principles that deeply guide and change characters. Kuan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, inspires the narrator Millicent Shelby to help her father uncover his crimes and helps Millicent to see her complicity in them. Mercy allows her father and herself to be healed and forgiven.

Duality in Kogawa’s novels is seen from a Daoist yin-yang philosophy, in which a quality always contains its opposite. Characters are rooted in two cultures, Japanese and Canadian. Naomi has qualities from both her Japanese aunt, Obasan, and her Canadian aunt Emily. The Canadian government sees the Japanese Canadians as the enemy and not the enemy. In their official policies and refusal to consider redress, the government treats them as enemies, but Kogawa’s novels present characters of integrity, courage, and loyalty.

In addition, forces of silence and talking form a dynamic. Obasan responds to Naomi’s questions with silence, and Aunt Emily pours torrents of words into print to inspire the quiet, passive Naomi to action. Togetherness in the community works against external and internal attempts to disperse. Naomi stays with her aunt while her brother Stephen flees from her and the Japanese culture. After silent reflections and reminiscences, the dialogues between Millicent and her father about the details of his sexual abuse reach dramatic intensity. The Rain Ascends balances the unspeakable power of the atomic bomb that killed Naomi’s mother in Obasan with contemplation of and experiences with the huge force of mercy.

Roots form powerful images. Characters like Obasan and Naomi who remember their roots gain strength from them, even when transplanted. Written and spoken memories and photos link the past with the present. Even activist Aunt Emily looks forward, linking the past with the future. In Itsuka, activists draw strength from their cultural roots with images of geology (Naomi and Cedric walk on the Laurentian Shield and along rivers): rocks, trees, mosses, worms, insects, jellyfish, snails, and reptiles. Primitive earth and ancient species suggest the power of evolving thought and passion.

In the novels, unknowing struggles with knowing. Kogawa understands the need for security that is tied up in faith and religion and the fear that destroying a truth can destroy a person. It is important to Millicent, as it is to her mother, that her father is a good man; they initially think that the integrity of their family and their church depend on his reputation. Kogawa places the most abhorred caricature of the age—the pedophile—in a loving family. The novels ask questions about what happened to Naomi’s mother and whether Millicent’s father molested boys. The fragmented narratives uncover these mysteries, sometimes traumatically. Light penetrates the fog of fiction with thoughtful meditation.

Dreams also figure strongly in her novels. In Hawaii, Naomi dreams that her dead mother is alive in thought and memory. Kuan Yin inspired The Rain Ascends. In Japan, Kogawa stayed overnight in a Buddhist temple, pondering whether the vilest crimes could ever be forgiven. She dreamed the answer that mercy and abundance are the same; only an abundant heart can extend mercy.

Obasan

First published: 1981

Type of work: Novel

A Japanese Canadian woman remembers her childhood during and after World War II, when families were displaced and interned in scattered farms and villages.

Obasan (“Aunt”) is Kogawa’s first novel. Written after most of her books of poems, it contains passages of fine poetry. The fragmented narrative reveals partial memories that the narrator revisits and contemplates at various stages in her life. The reader, like the narrator, works at choosing the fragments with value and arranging them into a whole.

Naomi Nakane, like Kogawa, was born in Vancouver before World War II. She is a sansei, a third-generation Japanese born in Canada....

(The entire section is 2158 words.)