How is the flashback technique used in Obasan?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Kogawa uses the flashback technique in Obasan as a way to reclaim both subjective and communal notions of identity.  Naomi has to go back into her own past and understand aspects of her own identity.  As Aunt Emily suggests in her idea that “The past is the future,"  the flashback technique  becomes a vital part of the narrative process.  Naomi must go into her past while she lives in the present.  Through this use of the flashback, Naomi is able to understand more of herself and more of what it means to be "the other" in a time when this was demonized.

The flashback technique brings Naomi in direct confrontation with elements of her past.  Flashbacks of both what had happened to her at the hands of Old Man Gower and the government in their treatment of Japanese enable Naomi to better understand herself.  The flashbacks of her own life and her own experiences within it enable her to understand more of her past, present, and future.  Having Emily confront these realities through flashback allows the reader to understand her repression.  At the same time, the forceful nature in which Naomi relives these moments through the flashback allows her to understand how there is something more.  As Naomi reflects on the Slocan community, she recognizes that "Death comes to the world in many unexpected places."  Such a revelation is forcefully made and understood through the use of the flashback technique, enabling Naomi to shift between past and present.  In doing so, Naomi is able to live out Aunt Emily's idea of how the past and future are inextricably linked to one another. Flashbacks enable Naomi to address what is there.  Uncomfortable as it might be, the urgency and potency of the flashback enables Naomi to understand her past. In overcoming her "voicelessness," Naomi's flashbacks allow her to have a voice and articulate that which existed outside communication.  It is in this light where the flashback is used effectively both in a literary sense and a thematic one.

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