Joy Kogawa’s dual cultural heritage as a Japanese Canadian has given her an extraordinarily rich array of images and concerns that inform her writing. Obasan, her most acclaimed work, is threaded with evocative images. Symbolic objects loom large in the memories and dreams of the narrator, Naomi, as well as in the events of her life. They almost always have other levels of meaning beyond the simple chain of cause and effect that powers a novel’s narrative.
Among the novel’s most persistent motifs is that of stone. “Stone” is mentioned at least three times in the short prose poem that introduces the novel; its silence and density hides secrets, and it represents a spell of unknowing cast over Naomi’s life. Stone also appears at the book’s end in a reconciliation with Naomi’s past and a subliminal connection with her dead mother’s spirit: “the moon is a pure white stone. . . . The reflection is rippling in the river—water and stone dancing.”
In the body of the story, stone images appear many other times, usually as an emblem of silence and passivity. Even Uncle Isamu’s “stone bread,” so hard it is almost inedible, is baked in silent protest against losing his real vocation, boat-building. Yet underlying the stone-as-silence metaphor is another subtext—the tradition of the Japanese rock garden. Such stone gardens create serenity, beauty, and coherence out of the most unlikely materials. As Naomi re-creates her family’s ordeal by memory and discovery, a similar pattern emerges out of the cold, unpromising Canadian soil.
Also significant is the opposition of silence and speech woven throughout the novel. In Naomi’s life there is silence about the important things. Japanese culture views silence as a positive quality, especially for women; silence holds overtones of attentiveness, discretion, and the unasked-for meeting of needs. Obasan, Naomi’s aunt, has this virtue. It is not that she does not talk at all; rather, she does not speak of anything important in their lives. Her comments are a sort of undecipherable shorthand to her thoughts.
Silence can protect when things are too dangerous or painful to speak about. Yet when silence masks the events of one’s life, it can also prevent healing or growth. Naomi’s other aunt, Emily, is a “word warrior” who prizes speech. Her research, letters, and petitions, she says, are necessary; without work such as hers, facts will never be revealed and suffering can never be redeemed. Naomi’s natural inclination is to silence, but before the novel ends, she realizes the value in both approaches. Without the “telling,” she could never know her mother’s fate or accept the fact of her eternal absence.
Kogawa’s own journey as a writer and public figure parallels Naomi’s. She speaks of her writing as a “tool for the journey.” If speech is necessary for justice to be done, her fiction and poetry are a good, indirect way to use it. They encompass some of the indirection that served Obasan so well.
The themes found in Obasan inform Kogawa’s other works as well: bigotry and its poisonous fruits, personal and national identity, justice, the maternal bond and its jeopardy, memory, and silence. Her other works of fiction venture into new subject areas, but each shows a multileveled awareness at odds with the simple black and white of issues advocacy. In Itsuka, even after Naomi “goes political,” there is still conflict between Japanese Canadians who want to forget the past and those who keep fighting. The Rain Ascends shows a daughter’s dilemma, when she discovers that her father, a “good man,” is also a child molester.
Kogawa’s poetry foreshadows most of the themes of her fiction, but also includes many laments and realizations on identity and marriage. Especially noteworthy are the poems written after a 1969 visit to Japan and published in A Choice of Dreams. Hiroshima, ancestors’ graves, and her mother’s girlhood revealed in items saved in a trunk are all subjects that speak poignantly of the author’s rich dual heritage and offer readers a window into it.
First published: 1981
Type of work: Novel
A little girl, torn from her parents by the Canadian government’s dispersal of citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II, suffers privation and prejudice.
Five-year-old Naomi Nakane’s secure life in her Vancouver home is shattered by a series of events far beyond her control. First, a neighbor lures her into an episode of abuse, leaving her with a guilty heart. Then her mother leaves for Japan to help nurse an ailing grandmother. Her Aunt Emily comes to visit, and Naomi overhears frantic, whispered conversations, which she does not understand. The culmination comes when Naomi, her older brother Stephen, and their Aunt Aya (Obasan of the title) are sent to live in Slocan, a...
(The entire section is 2039 words.)