Kathryn Barnwell (review date December 1992)

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SOURCE: “Sharing Brokenness,” in Canadian Forum, Vol. LXXI, No. 815, December, 1992, pp. 38-9.

[Barnwell is a professor of English and Women's Studies at Malaspina College in Nanaimo, British Columbia. In the following review, she discusses the relationship between Kogawa's Obasan and its seeming sequel Itsuka.]

In an article published in Canadian Forum in March 1984, Kogawa wrote: “Inadequacy is like a universal experience and we are all broken and incomplete like jigsaw puzzle pieces. Our wholeness comes from sharing our brokenness. … Rather than abandoning the way of brokenness, I believe we need to remember the paradoxical power in mutual vulnerability.” In Kogawa's first, widely acclaimed novel, Obasan, she explored the many forms of brokenness experienced by members of the Japanese Canadian community as a result of their internment during the Second World War. The property of some 20,000 people was seized, never to be returned to them. But perhaps more significantly, the members of the Japanese Canadian community were dispersed both during the war when families were separated, and after when they were still not permitted to return to the coastal region of British Columbia and were instead forced to “return” to Japan (many of them had been born in Canada, not Japan) or to resettle, predominantly in Alberta and Ontario.

As a result, Japanese Canadians have not, until relatively recently, been able to identify themselves as a recognizable community within Canada. As Kogawa notes, there are no Japan towns in Canadian cities and the intermarriage rate was extremely high. Naomi's family, like so many others, suffers the humiliation of a period of incarceration in the cattle barns of the Vancouver Exhibition grounds, the dispersal of the family and the internment of the children, in the care of their aunt (Obasan) and her husband, in Slocan in the interior of B. C. Her mother, caught in Japan on a visit to her mother, will never return to the daughter she seemed so mysteriously to have abandoned. The wound of this separation from her mother is symbolic of the many losses Naomi suffers, not the least of which is her own voice. Unable to speak for herself, she is embarrassed by her crusading Aunt Emily who tirelessly pursues redress for Japanese Canadians on the grounds that no nation, aware that it has committed profoundly unjust acts, would rest until it had offered a formal apology and compensation to the victims. As Obasan closes, the older generation finally breaks the silence concerning the fate of Naomi's mother and, with the mystery finally solved, Naomi can come to peace with her mother's memory.

Itsuka (meaning “someday”) covers, from a different perspective, some of the same family stories we read about in Obasan. Now the relationship between Naomi and her brother, who has “escaped” his humiliating past by becoming a concert violinist, is in the foreground, as is her relationship with Aunt Emily and her “cause”. Naomi is slowly drawn into her aunt's work and finds herself, somewhat to her surprise, at the centre of organizing the fractured Japanese Canadian community into a single voice demanding recognition from the Canadian government. It is difficult to persuade the older generations who, like Naomi's obasan and uncle, have remained grateful to be living in Canada even through all the painful years, to set aside their natural reticence and break the silence. But speaking out becomes the only way to piece together both Naomi's broken spirit and the fragmented community. Although Itsuka is in many respects a sequel to Obasan, the narrative techniques of the two novels differ sharply. While Obasan is...

(This entire section contains 687 words.)

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intimate and personal,Itsuka moves into the public and political realms. The highly poetic and allusive style of Obasan is nowhere to be found in Itsuka. Rather, it would seem to have been Kogawa's intent to document the process through which Japanese Canadians painfully moved themselves from the modesty of the background into the assertiveness of the foreground of Canadian political life, and finally received the long-awaited formal apology this country would, seemingly, have withheld indefinitely. We should be grateful to the Japanese Canadian community for insisting that this national wound be acknowledged, and healed.


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Joy Kogawa 1935-

(Full name Joy Nozomi Kogawa) Canadian poet and novelist.

The following entry provides an overview of Kogawa's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 78.

Kogawa is best known for her portrayal in the novel Obasan (1981) of the struggles of Japanese Canadians during and after their internment during World War II. She is also the author of several poetry collections and is considered a laudable novelist for her courageous subject matter and lyrical prose style.

Biographical Information

Kogawa, a Canadian of Japanese heritage, was born in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her family was sent to live in an internment camp during World War II, and this disruption to her life and cultural identity is explored in her later fiction. Kogawa began her career as a poet, publishing her first book of poetry, The Splintered Moon, in 1967, and subsequent collections, A Choice of Dreams and Jericho Road, in 1974 and 1977, respectively. From 1974 to 1976 she worked as a staff writer in the Office of the Prime Minister and was a writer in residence for one year at the University of Ottawa in 1978. When Kogawa decided to tackle the subject of the treatment of Japanese Canadians during World War II, she concluded that the novel was the suitable form. Hence she wrote Obasan, which was published in 1981. The novel won the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Canadian Authors' Association Book of the Year Award. She has since published a children's version of Obasan entitled Naomi's Road (1986) and has continued to write both poetry and fiction. In addition, Kogawa has worked in Canada to fight for the redress movement, which asked for acknowledgment of the treatment of Japanese Canadians during the war.

Major Works

Obasan is based on Kogawa's own family history and tells the story of a Japanese Canadian family that is torn apart due to internment during World War II. Born in Canada, the protagonist, Naomi, struggles with her identity as a Canadian of Japanese heritage. She strongly feels the absence of her mother, who was not allowed back into Canada after a visit to her own mother in Japan. Naomi is left in the care of her aunt and uncle, not knowing until much later what happened to her mother. The central conflict of the novel is the way two of the characters face the internment: Obasan, who suffers in silence, and Aunt Emily, who loudly voices her opposition. Naomi must fuse these conflicting approaches to find peace. Itsuka (1992) picks up the family's story in the years after the internment, this time focusing on Naomi's relationship with her brother and her aunt. The narrative focuses on the struggle of Japanese Canadians to find a political voice and an identity in their country and to heal the wounds caused by their mistreatment. In The Rain Ascends (1995), Kogawa leaves behind the subject of Japanese Canadian identity and tackles the difficult subject of child sexual abuse. The main character, Millicent Shelby, learns that her minister father is actually a child abuser. The story is unique in its approach to the subject in that it does not present the minister as inherently evil. Instead Kogawa portrays him as a pious man who has brought tremendous good to the world through his worship schools and radio programs and juxtaposes this with the tremendous evil the man sows in his abuse of children.

Critical Reception

Although Kogawa's poetry is favorably reviewed, most critics choose to focus primarily on her novels. Obasan is Kogawa's most critically acclaimed work. Critics praise Kogawa for the subtlety of the novel's prose and her courageous look at the often forgotten internment of Japanese Canadians and its devastating effects. Ruth Y. Hsu asserted, “Obasan is a much-needed, public corrective to official versions that down-play or rationalize the mistreatment of Japanese Canadians during and after the war.” Many reviewers asserted that Itsuka lacked the power of Obasan due to its more political and less personal focus and pointed out Kogawa's reliance on historical documentation as opposed to personal revelation. Kathryn Barnwell stated, “The highly poetic and allusive style of Obasan is nowhere to be found in Itsuka.” Some reviewers complained that Naomi's adult narrative presence was not as strong as her childhood voice found in Obasan. Kogawa herself has admitted to having difficulty finding the narrative voice in the novel, but most critics agreed that the subject matter and the lessons learned from Itsuka were worth the read. Critics praised The Rain Ascends for its unique presentation of good and evil coexisting in one character. Allan Casey lauded the novel for “refus[ing] to portray the perpetrator as inhumanly evil, or his victims as inhumanly hapless.”

Heather Zwicker (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Canadian Women of Color in the New World Order: Marlene Nourbese Philip, Joy Kogawa, and Beatrice Culleton Fight Their Way Home,” in Canadian Women Writing Fiction, edited by Mickey Pearlman, University Press of Mississippi, 1993, pp. 142-54.

[In the following essay, Zwicker traces how three novels by Canadian women of color, including Kogawa's Obasan,have changed the traditional definition of what it means to be a Canadian.]

The phrase Canadian women of color is a tense one, but it captures exactly the tensions I want to explore in this essay. Whereas “women of color” emphasizes marginalization and difference, “Canadian” tends to domesticate difference by gathering it into a geographical and historical entity which is itself situated in a larger territorial division of the world. What I will argue is that writing by women of color is essential to any sustainable definition of Canadian, not merely by expanding the term Canadian to include women of color in a pluralist sense, but by blowing wide open any easy notion of what constitutes a national tag like Canadian.

The term women of color is a relatively new category designed to provide a basis for solidarity among women of various racial and ethnic identities different from the white, Protestant Euro-Canadian popularly believed to characterize Canada.1 The term does not denote visible difference—many women of color are fair-skinned, mixed-blood, or can “pass” as white—but is a form of self-identification that recognizes marginalization and affirms difference. Inasmuch as the term operates as a self-conscious basis for solidarity by foregrounding the racism that constructs women of color as “other,” the term is useful. But, to my mind, it has two problems. First, it tends to homogenize the enormous heterogeneity among Japanese Canadian, Native Canadian, Caribbean Canadian, and Chinese Canadian women, to name just a few “hyphenated” national identities. Second, the term does not foreground the experience of immigration that is constitutive, at some historical moment, of Canadian identity.

The editors of Feminist Organizing for Change: The Contemporary Women's Movement in Canada call the link between immigration and people of color “one of the most insidious forms of racism” because it encourages the idea “that the problems of race are really temporary problems of assimilation.”2 I do not believe that assimilation is either possible or desirable, though clearly it is the goal of official multiculturalism of the kind advocated by Canada's Ministry of Multiculturalism, which has a mandate to celebrate and a tendency to police multiculturalism.3 I mean the term immigration in a large sense of settling in a country not one's own, whether alienation from ownership is a result of natality or systemic racism. This expanded definition excludes those who are technically immigrants but for whom, by reason of privilege based on class, race, or gender—unofficial “favored nation” status—assimilation is not an issue. On the other hand, it includes Native Canadians, for whom the history of colonialism and perpetuation of systemic racism interrupt any easy equation between Native and Canada. Though the land might originally (and properly) have belonged to Native Canadians, they, like immigrants, have to fight to make it home.4 I want to use the uneasy links between “women of color” and “immigrant” that I believe the novels of Marlene Nourbese Philip, Joy Kogawa, and Beatrice Culleton provoke, in order to explore and explode the way Canada is constructed and reconstructed.

For Canada cannot be taken for granted: its geography and history are marked within and demarcated from without by unequal relationships of power. In a phrase as offensive as it is telling, George Bush and his cronies describe contemporary international relations as “the New World Order.” The phrase quotes Hitler's regime of “New Order” in the quincentenary of European imperialism to locate hegemony in the so-called New World.5 Although I am fundamentally skeptical of U.S. policy, I think the “new world” trope can be used subversively precisely because it foregrounds the experience of immigration described above. Making oneself at home in the new world necessitates a radical rethinking of national identity, because the elements that conventionally constitute national identity—history, natality, family, and place—no longer fall neatly into the territorial and historical entity that we know as Canada.6

“Home” is not simply a place, but a place one makes one's own; it is both a geographical given and a discursive construct. Places have their effects on us, but we are also continually ascribing meaning to particular places. In their essay titled “Feminist Politics: What's Home Got to Do With It?” Biddy Martin and Chandra Mohanty offer a useful way of defining home.7 They start from the position that there is no single meaning to any place nor any single defining attribute to a person: as they put it, “Individuals do not fit neatly into unidimensional, self-identical categories” (205). As a complex subject, one may be simultaneously at home and not at home; furthermore, in the contemporary world, people frequently relocate from one place to another, always moving through spaces that constrain but never contain them. This notion of transience is important for conceptualizing new-world identity: people bear the imprints of their origins, but move from them to absorb and create new identities in new places. Hence the phrase Caribbean Canadian signifies a meaningful place of origin, even while it looks ahead to the new home. But just as Caribbean marks a site that is lost, Canadian signifies a location that is never easily reached, because it is always preceded by its significant modifier, Caribbean (or French, or Japanese, or Ukrainian). Once the population of Canada is divided up by such appellations, it becomes clear that there is no such thing as simple “Canadian”: Canada is based on ethnic diversity. Even though British and French ethnicity still dominate Canada, they account together for less than 50 percent of the Canadian population. Fully 30 percent of Canadians in the 1986 census claimed “multiple ethnic origins,” and by the year 2000 at least 10 percent of Canadians will be people of color.8

The idea of a subject in continual transition works against an easy identity of self with place in both the past and the future, but there is always a tension between this rootlessness and the desire for stability. The problem facing Canadians is that of making themselves at home by making themselves a home. This process is an act of attributing meaning to place. Homes as locations “acquire meaning and function as sites of personal and historical struggle,” Martin and Mohanty argue (196). The apparent stability of places is always cross-cut by the histories of struggle congealed in them—in Canada, struggles against racism and exclusion. It is not by avoiding the struggles that inhere in a place, but rather by taking part in them, that a meaningful home is created. The safest community is “that which is struggled for, chosen, and hence unstable by definition; it is not based on ‘sameness,’ and there is no perfect fit. But,” Martin and Mohanty go on to stress, “there is agency as opposed to passivity” (208-09). Community ultimately is not simply place, but also history, written with an eye to both political priorities and human needs. To quote Martin and Mohanty at some length:

Community, then, is the product of work, of struggle; it is inherently unstable, contextual; it has to be constantly reevaluated in relation to critical political priorities; and it is the product of interpretation, interpretation based on an attention to history, to the concrete, to what Foucault has called subjugated knowledges. There is also, however, a strong suggestion that community is related to experience, to history. For if identity and community are not the product of essential connections, neither are they merely the product of political urgency or necessity. … they are a constant recontextualizing of the relationship between personal/group history and political priorities. (210)

Tracing the connection between “the purely experiential” and “the theoretical oversight of personal and collective histories” is, it seems to me, the work of fiction (210). The fleshing out of history, the writing of oneself into social texts, is an act of imagination. The Canadian writers I will discuss in the remainder of the essay record desire for and fear of the nation called Canada, experiences of alienation from it and profound love. Throughout their novels, we are reminded that we cannot take this place called Canada for granted.

Of course, few of the novels operate so schematically as this emphasis on place suggests. Rather, the concept home is rendered quite narrow, often domestically, taking family members for national subjects and describing history as memory. Perhaps the most schematic of the novels is Marlene Nourbese Philip's Harriet's Daughter. The story centers on the friendship between two girls, Margaret and Zulma. Margaret, the first-person narrator, is a second-generation Canadian whose father is from Barbados and whose mother is Jamaican. For Margaret, Toronto is home. Her best friend, Zulma, has recently arrived in Toronto, to live with her mother and stepfather, from Tobago, where she lived with her grandmother. Zulma's compelling desire is to return to the Tobago that she loves. The plot of the story, in brief, traces Margaret's attempts to help Zulma get back to Tobago, even while she battles her own father's threats to send her to Barbados for what he calls “some ‘Good West Indian Discipline.’”9 In the course of enabling Zulma to choose her own home, Margaret defines her own social identity differently from the familial identity she is born into.

The figurative device by which Nourbese Philip deftly ties together Margaret's resolution to stay in Canada and Zulma's determination to return to Tobago is the Underground Railroad. It starts out as a game played by kids at Margaret's school: some students are arbitrarily slaves, others slave-owners or dogs. The object of the game is for the slaves to make it to a designated place called Freedom without being caught by the slave-owners and dogs. Hence place and liberty are linked from the outset of the game, and Margaret and Zulma have the same goal in their lives as they have in the game: making it “home-free.” Zulma's return to Tobago constitutes a historical completion of the escape from slavery by reversing the middle passage. Significantly, the destination of Zulma's voyage home is not Africa, but the Caribbean fulcral point between Africa and the New world—the main stage on which the ugly colonial violence of genocide and slavery, as well as the genesis of American revolutions, was played out. By making the West Indies the site of return, Nourbese Philip foregrounds struggle and resists an idealization of racial origin.

She similarly refuses to idealize Canada by foregrounding choice as a constitutive element of home. Although both Margaret and Zulma choose as home the countries in which they were born, the connection between place and family breaks down: while Zulma's attachment is to her grandmother, not her mother, Margaret chooses to remain with her birth family. What such a formulation implies is the importance of self-determination as a constitutive element of freedom.10 Furthermore, to extend the historical Underground Railroad suggests that the escape from oppression to freedom is an ongoing struggle that cannot end in a specific location, like Canada. Rather, the attempt to arrive at some home-free location always continues in changed and changing forms: it is what Martin and Mohanty call a “\site] of personal and historical struggle” (196).

A similar insistence on choice informs Margaret's subjective self-determination. Alongside her efforts to help Zulma and inextricable from the Underground Railroad game, Margaret rewrites her identity. She has been named by her father, an oppressive patriarch, for his mother, whom Margaret has never met but who comes to represent the “‘Good West Indian Discipline’” that Margaret's father repeatedly threatens her with. She is named, essentially, within the patriarchy. Determined to distinguish herself from her familially inherited role, Margaret renames herself. The name she chooses is Harriet, out of admiration for Harriet Tubman and in remembrance of Harriet Blewchamp, a woman who survived concentration camps, employed Margaret's mother, and bequeathed to Margaret her books and letters, as well as a trust fund. Choosing to be identified as Harriet, then, is a self-conscious move on Margaret's part to write herself into the most important historical events of the last two centuries from an explicitly feminist point of view.

Margaret's family and friends address her as Harriet for the bulk of the novel. Ultimately, however, a borrowed identity, even one which is so positively imbued with history, is an incomplete stage of subjective self-determination: rebelliousness is, in a sense, its own form of bondage. The success of getting Zulma back to Tobago—in effect, fulfilling her role as Harriet Tubman—is paradoxically the point at which Margaret reclaims her birth name. Although at the beginning of the novel she refers to herself as “me, Harriet, as leader,” she comes to read her actions as something she has “done … as Margaret” (HD, 1, 130). The complexity of resuming her birth name lies in the process of redefinition that informs it: having written herself into the grand narrative of history and enacted a historical role in the life of her friend, Margaret has forged a social identity that can never be collapsed back into the familial identity she was born with. Resuming her own name is not at all a renunciation of the feminist impulses that led her to adopt the name Harriet, but rather their necessary completion. The implication is that feminist action does not inhere in a few historical identities, but continually reappears in everyday women with everyday names.11 Margaret's socially and historically constructed identity is not just narrowly familial, but analogous to national identity. To be born in Canada is not enough to constitute Canadianness: meaningful national identity, in the terms of Nourbese Philip's novel, is a personal and historical struggle.

Struggle as a constitutive element of national identity is even more evident in Joy Kogawa's Obasan, which tells the story of a Japanese Canadian family's internment during World War II. Unlike Nourbese Philip, Kogawa takes Canada not as a choice, but as inevitable; rather than telling the story of the first generation of immigrants, as Zulma represents, Kogawa writes about the Nisei, second-generation Japanese Canadians for whom relocation is not a matter of choice but of racist governmental policy. The problem Kogawa addresses is, how do you make a country your own when it disowns you?

There is no simple answer. In fact, the novel exemplifies what Martin and Mohanty call “the tension between the desire for home, for synchrony, for sameness, and the realization of the repressions and violence that make home, harmony, sameness imaginable, and that enforce it” (208). On the one hand, Naomi has violent dreams of dismemberment: of her legs being sawed in half, of being chased by superhuman beings with hinged metal arms, and, always, of soldiers—the most direct manifestation of the national state apparatus. On the other hand, these dreams take place against the backdrop of Canadian natality:

Where do any of us come from in this cold country? Oh Canada, whether it is admitted or not, we come from you we come from you. From the same soil, the slugs and slime and bogs and twigs and roots. We come from the country that plucks its people out like weeds and flings them into the roadside. We grow in ditches and sloughs, untended and spindly. We erupt in the valleys and mountainsides, in small towns and back alleys, sprouting upside-down on the prairies, our hair wild as spiders' legs, our feet rooted nowhere. We grow where we are not seen, we flourish where we are not heard, the thick undergrowth of an unlikely planting.12

In this passage, Kogawa differentiates home as place—the relentlessly verdant national soil that keeps making Canadians of people—from home as political entity, where the undesirable are weeded out. Occupation alone cannot make a home: those unnamed in the history of a place remain unknown and are consequently mistaken for weeds rather than new strains. Kogawa's metaphor implies an ideal vision of Canada as a garden of many species, all of which deserve to be tended. This pluralist position is reiterated by Rough Lock Bill, a man of unspecified ethnicity13 who saves Naomi's life, literally and, from an ideological point of view, figuratively (O, 143). He says to the young Naomi, “‘Never met a kid didn't like stories. Red skin, yellow skin, white skin, any skin. … don't make sense, do it, all this fuss about skin?’” (O, 145).

Of course, the fuss isn't just about skin, but about stories—about which history, whose history, is recorded, and how it is used—and this is where the pluralist solution runs into trouble. Pluralist history presupposes that several versions of the past exist, and that minority positions need only to be unveiled and included in order to rectify the discrimination that hides them. This in turn presupposes that history can be told, that language is expressive rather than mystifying, and that alternate histories, once told, can be heard.

The novel enters this contentious territory by sustaining a debate between Naomi's two aunts, Emily and Obasan. Naomi herself registers a deep ambivalence, by turns suspicious of Emily's stridency and frustrated with Obasan's silence. Aunt Emily, the academic, articulates the commonsensical pro-history position that talking is good, that it lessens pain and aids healing. Habakkuk 2:2, “Write the vision and make it plain,” is her slogan (O, 31). History, according to Aunt Emily, is never singular, neutral, or objective. Says she: “‘There's no strength in seeing all sides unless you can act where real measurable injustice exists.’” (O, 35). Hers is an unarguable position, as far as it goes: if oppression takes the form of exclusion, the appropriate solution is inclusion. But she presupposes that the story of internment can be told and, more problematically, that it can be heard and used to modify conventional histories of Canada.

Aunt Emily's optimism is easy to understand: in living out World War II in Toronto, she escaped internment. Those who lived through it, represented by the deaf Obasan in her world of silence, add important correctives to Emily's valorization of speech. Against Emily's Old Testament credo, the interned community rely on the forgiveness phrase of the Lord's Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Their position is that there are some wounds that never heal, some things too painful to talk about: “What is past recall is past pain” (O, 45). History cannot express the truth of past pain because language is inadequate to the task. The same language that writes history, even alternative history, also wrote the Orders-in-Council that initiated internment, and calls internment camps “Interior Housing Projects” (O, 34). Furthermore, the silence of the interned community suggests a radical questioning of the usefulness of historical visibility. Although certainly historical invisibility is a product of racism, from the perspective of those discriminated against on the basis of visible difference, invisibility can seem safe. To “grow where we are not seen, … flourish where we are not heard” can be a form of adaptation, a way of surviving (226). If a true history can never be written, and visibility is no guarantee of ending discrimination, what is the point of history at all?

“Life is so short,” \Naomi] said sighing, “the past so long. Shouldn't we turn the page and go on?”

“The past is the future,” Aunt Emily shot back. (42)

Although Naomi agrees with Aunt Emily, she universalizes the lesson: “What is done, Aunt Emily, is done, is it not? And no doubt it will all happen again, over and over with different faces and names, variations on the same theme” (O, 199). Though doubtless Naomi is right, such a version of history silences the nationally and personally specific: greed, selfishness and hatred might be “as constant as the human condition,” but they take specific forms in particular historical moments (O, 199). It is the emphasis on historical specificity, with attention to the lessons about silence taught by the internment survivors, that inform the novel's ultimate stance toward history.

The final, jarring revelation of the plot is that Naomi's mother was critically disfigured in the bombing of Nagasaki. Naomi's mother, represented only in black and white photographs, has been an enigmatic silence throughout the novel (that is, disfigured). And yet, hers is a significant silence, a silence that contains history within it. In her charred skin and maggot-infested wounds, Naomi's mother literally embodies more history than all of Aunt Emily's conference papers and documents. The challenge for Naomi is to interpret her mother's silence:

Silent mother, you do not speak or write. You do not reach through the night to enter morning, but remain in the voicelessness. From the extremity of much dying, the only sound that reaches me now is the sigh of your remembered breath, a wordless word. How shall I attend that speech, Mother, how shall I trace that wave? (241)

The ability to hear her mother's silence takes place through concentrated listening, through a willingness and an effort to hear. “Mother. I am listening. Assist me to hear you,” Naomi asks (O, 240). Hearing is not automatically attendant on the articulation of historical events; it requires determination.

At this point Naomi's own ethnicity becomes significant. If family symbolizes national identity, any possible return to the motherland is slain with Naomi's mother. Naomi is explicitly not Japanese, but Japanese Canadian: a full Canadian citizen who is also an intermediary between two cultures. As someone who sets out to hear what is written in silence, Naomi gives us an important lesson about the equal importance of listening to telling. Easy pluralism is impossible because history is predicated on silences that point to what exceeds the expressive possibilities of language. Inasmuch as the novel follows Naomi's discovery of her mother's loss, the novel foregrounds as history the process of constructing history, the process of coming to hear its silences as well as its words.

Beatrice Culleton's first-person fictional autobiography In Search of April Raintree makes a similar point. The novel tells the story of two Metis sisters, April and Cheryl Raintree. Separated very young and placed in different foster homes, the sisters also choose very different lives for themselves: April, the older and fairer-skinned sister, assimilates into white society, while Cheryl, who cannot pass as white, adopts a militant political identity at a very young age and grows up to work for Native Canadians at a Friendship Centre. Tragically,14 it is Cheryl who turns to alcohol and eventually commits suicide, while April, in uncovering the chain of events and emotions that led to her sister's death, arrives at a politically informed self-determination. In the course of telling this story, Culleton radically revises conventional notions of the family and its relation to the nation, and argues, like Kogawa, for the importance of personal history in the construction of the national.

For immigrants, the disjuncture between family and nation is explicit: at some level, members of the same family have different nationalities. But there is no simple fit between family and nation in Culleton's work. The family is de-naturalized from the outset of the novel by the intervention of the state, which takes April and Cheryl away from their natural parents and puts them in foster homes. The sisters have opposite responses to this deprivation of family. April renounces familial ties completely, telling friends at school that her parents were killed in a plane crash. She disavows connections to community, to foster families, and even lets lapse her relationship to Cheryl. Cheryl, on the other hand, reaches to restore the natural family. She tries to locate her birth parents, and forges ties to the Indian community. Metis identity, for her, is inherent (“‘The Indian blood runs through your veins,’” she tells April) and communal: she feels most alive at the Pow Wow she and April attend.15 But ultimately Culleton suggests that such a version of being Indian is insufficient to the racist day, by juxtaposing the Pow Wow with the court hearing for April's rapists. The symmetry is telling: the character who will survive has to be able to mediate both ceremonies. The emphasis on mediation (but not assimilation—April tries but renounces that) is reminiscent of Nourbese Philip's choice of the Caribbean rather than Africa as a site of return: there is no going back to any pure origin. Metis and Creole, not Indian or African, symbolize survival in the “new world.”

April's ability to embody a truly mixed-blood identity takes place through historical discovery and political commitment. The importance of history is evident from the outset of the novel—it opens with the word “Memories”—and the process of remembering is explicitly connected to survival (SAR, 9). Says April, as explanation for telling her life story, “I always felt most of my memories were better avoided but now I think it's best to go back in my life before I go forward” (SAR, 9). It is essential, too, Culleton suggests, that this process of remembering not elide personal pain. Cheryl continually rails against official representations of Native people in school curricula: “‘Your history books are full of lies,’” she tells the school principal, and she writes revisionist essays on Louis Riel not as a traitor but as a freedom fighter (SAR, 58). However, it is not such impersonal history, but the very personal record of her sister's life that spurs April's move to political identity.16 Just as it is the horrific account of the death of Naomi's mother in Obasan that finally brings Naomi to historical consciousness, it is the record of how racism hurts people that brings about political mobilization in In Search of April Raintree.

April's ultimate self-determination takes place through reconstituting a family. The first aspect of this reconstituted family is political: in reading through Cheryl's journals, April comes to understand the racism and impoverishment her darker-skinned sister endured. April's sympathy for her birth sister grows into larger political affiliation with “\her] people” (SAR, 228). The family is not only national, but also more narrowly domestic: April adopts the son Cheryl has left behind, Henry Liberty. The novel closes with April's arrival at political consciousness:

As I stared at Henry Lee, I remembered that during the night I had used the words ‘MY PEOPLE, OUR PEOPLE’ and meant them. The denial had been lifted from my spirit. It was tragic that it had taken Cheryl's death to bring me to accept my identity. But no, Cheryl had once said, ‘All life dies to give new life.’ Cheryl had died. But for Henry Lee and me, there would be a tomorrow. And it would be better. I would strive for it. For my sister and her son. For my parents. For my people. (SAR, 228)

What Culleton does in this volatile closing passage is unite classical tragedy with national revolutionary consciousness. The psychic and familial chaos wrought by Cheryl's suicide is healed by the promise of Liberty born as the next generation. But the family is not and, given the story that precedes it, cannot be defined by simple natality. First, the son is not April's, but Cheryl's; second, it has no father. The domestic family has nothing to do with commonly available images of the nuclear family, but it is stronger for the commitment that stands behind April's conscious dedication. This mother-son relationship acts as a trope for Metis nationhood in the larger sense. April as Metis matriarch has to exist in both Indian and white societies, and must negotiate the relationship of the past to the present in order to construct a viable future. This places her at a radical crossroads, a point that is defined only by the myriad crisscrossing of lines. It is a hard place, but it is the only place for sustainable constructions of the nation.17

Ultimately, I see this as the lesson of all three writers I have discussed. I have argued for their importance as theorists of the new-world nation that sustains and is sustained by difference, that is constructed geographically and historically through struggle, that eschews ethnic purity but can never forget racism. Affiliation, political commitment, provisional alliances, struggle—these, I have suggested, are the bases of sustainable national identity. There may be no roots, but there is routedness, and it is essential, I believe, on our way into the future, to pay attention to the radical.


  1. The term is certainly imported from the United States, but I have not been able to trace its first use there or here. It is common by 1981, the publication date of the watershed This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, eds. Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua (Watertown, Mass.: Persephone Press, 1981; New York: Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, 1983).

  2. Conversely, of course, not all immigrants identify as women of color. Nancy Adamson, Linda Briskin, and Margaret McPhail, eds., Feminist Organizing for Change: The Contemporary Women's Movement in Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988), 107. See also Marlene Nourbese Philip, “Solitary Dialogue” (Broadside 7:5 \March 1986]) and Resources for Feminist Research, Special Issue on Immigrant Women, 16:1 (March 1987). I am aware that the argument I am about to make is volatile in the face of these critiques, but I think that, first, the novels invite thinking about Canada in terms other than natality, and, second, that it is essential to think about Canada in an international frame.

  3. This kind of multiculturalism reaches its zenith at festivals like Heritage Days, a public festival at which all kinds of ethnicities occupy separate tents in a single public park and celebrate diversity by selling ethnic food and trinkets. Masked in this carnival are the struggles over which ethnicities get represented and which don't, who represents any given ethnic category, who has how much space and where, and, of course, who gets how much money, from whom, and for what purposes. I am much more interested in multiculturalism which talks specifically about struggles against discrimination and exclusion, as do Nourbese Philip, Kogawa, and Culleton.

  4. It is no accident, I think, that the Canadian national anthem provocatively differentiates “our home” from “native land”: in a not very new variation on a very old theme, Indian people get the land, while white people get the homes.

  5. And does the phrase unintentionally echo “brave new world” as well? For etymology, see William Safire, Safire's Political Dictionary (New York: Random House, 1978), 459. Woodrow Wilson used the phrase before Hitler, suggesting a historical extension of cooperation between the United States and Germany.

  6. Simply put, much of the history of Canadian people takes place outside Canada's borders, as it passes through families that straddle countries and even continents.

  7. Martin, Biddy and Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Feminist Politics: What's Home Got to Do With It?” in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, ed. Teresa de Lauretis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 191-212. Subsequent references to the essay will be included parenthetically in the text.

  8. For these and other statistics, see Harry H. Hiller, Canadian Society: A Macro Analysis (Scarborough, Ont.: Prentice-Hall Canada). Hiller's figures suggest even more diversity among younger Canadians.

  9. Marlene Nourbese Philip. Harriet's Daughter (London: Heinemann, 1988), 6. Subsequent references to the novel will be included parenthetically in the text.

  10. Current debates over Qu‚becois secession and Native Canadian demands demonstrate that self-determination is central to conceptions of Canada.

  11. It is significant, too, that Margaret in mythology is the patron saint of childbearing women; Margaret moves from identifying herself as another woman's daughter to owning a procreative role herself. The shift might be read as a literalization of Harriet Tubman's role as deliverer of her people.

  12. Joy Kogawa, Obasan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983), 226. Subsequent references to the novel will be included parenthetically in the text.

  13. Rough Lock Bill's toe is “dark as a walnut,” and the way he pronounces cement—“see-ment”—sounds U.S.-American, but his stories are about Native Canadians (141).

  14. I mean this word in its literary sense: Cheryl is a hero who falls from a great height, not because of any tragic flaw but from exhaustion at fighting the racist war of attrition that is life in Canadian society for Metis people. I will return to the idea of tragedy and its implications.

  15. Beatrice Culleton, In Search of April Raintree (Winnipeg: Pemmican Publications), 167. Subsequent references to the novel will be included parenthetically in the text.

  16. Of course, the clever irony of the novel is that we get the sociopolitical history, too. I don't want to suggest that histories of individual pain can or ought to replace social and political histories, but they are an indispensable supplement because they mobilize people—readers, for instance. This seems to me the importance of politically astute fiction.

  17. The well-used trope holds particularly well for Canada, it seems to me. Canadians are by and large a border people; twenty-eight million Canadians live in 10 percent of the nation's 10 million square kilometers, mostly in a hundred-mile strip along the U.S. border. See Hiller, Canadian Society, 11.

Principal Works

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The Splintered Moon (poetry) 1967

A Choice of Dreams (poetry) 1974

Jericho Road (poetry) 1977

Obasan (novel) 1981

Woman in the Woods (poetry) 1985

Naomi's Road (juvenile fiction) 1986

Itsuka (novel) 1992

The Rain Ascends (novel) 1995

Linda Hutcheon (review date Spring 1993)

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SOURCE: “Someday,” in Canadian Literature, No. 136, Spring, 1993, pp. 179-81.

[In the following review, Hutcheon states that although the merging of history and fiction in Kogawa's Itsuka is sometimes rough, the lesson the novel teaches about redressing the wrongs done to Japanese Canadians during World War II is a useful and important one.]

Sometimes the context in which you read a novel conditions forever your response to it: I read Itsuka in Berlin, while attending a conference on multiculturalism. It was both fitting and disturbing to have brought together in one place for you themes of war and loss, the political and the private, pain and healing. Itsuka continues the story of Naomi Nakane from Obasan, Kogawa's earlier novel, as she leaves the prairie town in which she had grown up and first worked and moves to Toronto in 1976. But the real focus is on the middle years of the 1980s, the years that marked the fight for and successful achievement of Japanese Canadian redress for their treatment at the hands of the federal government during World War II. The leader of the fight, once again, is Naomi's Aunt Emily, “militant nisei,” whose motto—“Hands and a seeing heart … can do anything. Anything”—does not protect her from exhaustion and illness, discouragement and anger, even if she is vindicated in the end.

Parallel to the story of anger—of the innumerable battles both with the government and within the Japanese Canadian community itself—runs a story of love, as the gentle, silent, fearful Naomi, a self-defined “old-maid orphan, a barren speck of dust … a watcher of other people's children,” falls in love with a college chaplain, Cedric, who seems to come to incarnate what is good about multicultural Canada: “His father, an Anglican priest like himself, was predominantly English, French and Eastern European. His mother was an Ontario Francophone. On his mother's side, his grandmother was Métis, part Ojibway.” From his mother, Cedric learned “a capacity to sense sentience” and so loves in the middle-aged Naomi her very silence and reserve. As she herself notes, however, these days, this can be no ordinary love story: “In this my autumn season, in this feminist era, I am opening the book of an untimely tale. Somewhere in the air are Cinderella's slippers, and on earth, soft moccasins are dancing.” In this “untimely tale” of love, Cedric becomes her “black-robed fairy godmother,” and the awkwardness of that image may suggest something of the text's awareness that the character it describes is just too good to be true. He must carry a heavy burden in Naomi's story: teacher and companion, love interest, moral guide, symbolic sheltering “kindly tree”—in a novel in which nature takes on dimensions well beyond those of mere setting. The strong ecological motif throughout the narrative ties together, in a holistic way, threads as seemingly diverse as history, love, anti-urban (anti-Toronto) feelings, and even multiculturalism. Here, for instance, is a passionate intervention from the floor at an “ethnocultural breakfast” held by the Minister of Multiculturalism: “We're going to stamp out racism here and show the world how it's done. Not by homogenization. We know that a homogenized mindset is ecologically unsound. But by real plurality. And I'm not talking about ethnic folkdancing, I'm talking about access to power. … Not tolerance of difference, but celebration. …” Itsuka is a celebration—but of similarity within or in spite of difference: it is in Cedric that Naomi finds the sympathy, affection and understanding she can find nowhere in her “own” community.

In one of the most daring and challenging connections in the novel, the dispersal of the Japanese during and after the war becomes a metaphor for the fragmentation of Canada as a nation: “If you aren't joined to those you love, your heart shrivels up and blows away in the dust. Whole countries get disappeared that way. It could happen to Canada. … If we're to survive as a country, we need to be in touch. We need communication. … If our country isn't to erode away, our roots have to be firmly interlocked.” Like the Japanese Canadian community itself, the nation is like a jigsaw puzzle: “The scars, the marks of our separation, remain. But the picture grows clearer, our wholeness forms, when even a few of us, in our brokenness, start coming together.” Part of Canada's unity problems, in Emily's eyes, comes from its history in dealing with the Japanese Canadians: “when Canada smashed our lives apart, it sickened its own soul.” One of the important and insistent themes of the novel is that, during World War II, Japanese Canadians suffered at the hands of their own government, that they were Canadians first and foremost. For Emily, as for Kogawa, “home is where our stories are, and that's not just a question of ethnicity or even country.” But with the achievement of redress in 1988, at last, another story could come into being: finally, for Japanese Canadians, the novel suggests, “to be Canadian means what it hasn't meant before. Reconciliation. Liberation. Belongingness. Home.” The weight of the rest of the narrative suggests that this will not necessarily mean the end of stories of racism—overt or covert—and betrayal: “political betrayals, leadership betrayals, betrayals in communities and families, betrayals of our values”; but it clearly marks an ideal. Itsuka—someday—may have arrived.

The title of the novel provides a kind of refrain of hope: “itsuka, someday, the time for laughter will come” is repeated at the beginning and the end of the book, but both times in the future tense. “Itsuka” is also the message of the Japanese Canadian Father Nakayama, preaching to the first-generation issei: “someday, your sacrifice will be known.” That someday arrives, perhaps, with this novel, a eulogy and elegy to the issei, a literally dying generation. The members of the next generation, the nisei, themselves greying and suffering the effects of stress and anger, chafe against their parents’ uncomplaining silence and desire for harmony and compromise: “The isseis’ legacy, the niseis’ muzzle.” But it is, significantly, this generation that fights and wins the battle for redress.

Emily, a nisei, may choose to devote herself, as she says, to the “body politic,” but Naomi has to come to terms, first with both her body and politics. Through the novel, she moves, slowly and self-consciously, from a passivity that is almost a form of paralysis to action—on two levels at once. As she learns to fear love and sexuality less (“How do I fear and fear. Let me count the ways”) and to trust her own body and emotions, she can liberate her political along with her private passions. Kogawa has set herself a difficult problem with her first-person narrator, for Naomi is, by her own admission, “unspeakably boring.” But we watch her come to life and love as she realizes that loneliness, solitude, invisibility, and silence can be transmuted into community and communication. The persistent metaphors of flight (associated with love, sexuality, and commitment) and of breath, specifically the “breath of life,” trace the changes in Naomi away from the woman who could say of herself: “I've always known that on an emotional quotient chart I'd score somewhere between a cactus and a chimpanzee.” Cedric, Emily, her estranged brother Stephen, Obasan, Uncle—all play their roles in this change, but it is through a stylistic transformation on the level of metaphors and of “as if” structures of comparison that the reader is led to feel the change. At the beginning, images (often noticeably odd, even almost inappropriate) proliferate, litter the pages, as Naomi admits: “I can't be direct.” In her relationship with Cedric, she trusts touch more than words: “Better the instant language of limbs than the stilted messages we form and reform with the tongue.” But with the formal announcement of redress comes a change, a “washing of stains through the speaking of words.” Still aware that “speech is a trickster, slipping and sliding away,” Naomi trusts instead the piece of paper with which the novel itself ends—the government statement that is both an acknowledgement of wrong and a proclamation of ideals: “As a people, Canadians commit themselves to the creation of a society that ensures equality and justice for all. …”

The paradox of a wordsmith who distrusts words—and says so within a novel—is a familiar one, but rarely has it been as moving as here. But, battling with this affective power throughout the novel is an equally strong didactic drive, an almost fierce desire to teach us as much as possible about both the Japanese Canadian past history of repression and its recent history of redress. Naomi's words about Cedric describe herself as well: “He may not look like a professor, but he sounds like one much of the time.” The multicultural magazine, Bridge, for which many of the characters work, offers another space for documentation and instruction, and actual speeches by politicians and other figures are reproduced in the text. History and fiction meet, but do not always merge with ease here; the prose and the passion are also connected, as E. M. Forster wanted them to be, but the seams often show. But the personal warmth, commitment, and generosity that characterize the dedication of the book—to all those people involved in bringing redress—are what make the reader as student, for the most part, happy to listen here to the author as teacher.

King-Kok Cheung (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Attentive Silence in Joy Kogawa's Obasan,” in Listening to Silences: New Essays in Feminist Criticism, edited by Elaine Hedges and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 113-29.

[In the following essay, Cheung analyzes Kogawa's deft use of language and silence in her novel Obasan.]

To the issei, honor and dignity is expressed through silence, the twig bending with the wind. … The sansei view silence as a dangerous kind of cooperation with the enemy.

—Joy Kogawa, interview with Susan Yim (D8)1

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 the book is “a study in painful silence, in unquestioning but troubled obedience to the inevitable” (8); to David Low it is “clearly a novel about the importance of communication and the danger of keeping silent” (22); to Joyce Wayne it is “a tale of the submissive silence of the oppressed” (23). The resounding condemnation of silence reflects the bias of “translation” or of language itself which, as Paula Gunn Allen tells us, “embodies the unspoken assumptions and orientations of the culture it belongs to” (225). 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, 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” (337). 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” (“Hawthorne” 293; see also Edward Said for a detailed discussion of Orientalism). 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 language 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 as the narrator's specific nikkei legacy—“a nonverbal mode of apprehension summarized by the term ‘attendance’” (34). 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.2

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 soft-pedaled 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.


Kogawa bases Obasan on her own experiences during World War II and on letters, journals, and documents of the time.3 After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, over 21,000 Canadians of Japanese ancestry (17,000 of whom were Canadian-born) were forced to leave their homes on the coast of British Columbia. They were sent first to Hastings Park in Vancouver and then to various ghost towns—hastily reconstituted by the wartime authorities—in the British Columbia interior. By 1944 Japanese Canadians who still remained in the British Columbia interior were made to choose between resettlement east of the Rockies or deportation to Japan—a country most of them had never seen. Unlike Japanese Americans, who could return to the West Coast after the war, Japanese Canadians were not allowed to return to British Columbia until 1949.

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” (Fujita 41). 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 accompanied 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, “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” (58).

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” (31). 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” (94). 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 40). 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 (32).

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.


Unless the stone bursts with telling, unless the seed flowers with speech, there is in my life no living word. The sound I hear is only sound. White sound. Words, when they fall, are pock marks on the earth. They are hailstones seeking an underground stream.

—Joy Kogawa, Obasan, prologue

Kogawa articulates her misgivings about language and history primarily through Naomi. When Naomi receives Emily's package, filled with words, she at first resists reading its contents and reopening old wounds: “What is past recall is past pain” (45). Much as she tries to forget the past, however, it continues to haunt her, as in one of her dreams: “We're trapped, Obasan and I, by our memories of the dead—all our dead—those who refuse to bury themselves” (26). The dream echoes an argument that took place years before between Naomi and Emily:

“Why not leave the dead to bury the dead?” “Dead?” she asked. “I'm not dead. You're not dead. Who's dead?” “But you can't fight the whole country,” I said. “We are the country,” she answered (42).

Western readers are likely to agree with Emily and to view Obasan and Naomi as passive and timid. But the author's allegiance is much more complex. Although her novel acknowledges the need to retrace the past and the importance of expression, it also exposes the many pitfalls of language (see Goellnicht 291-94). To begin with, language is insidiously gendered so that synonymous words, such as “spinster” and “bachelor,” take on vastly different connotations. As Robin Lakoff has noted, “bachelor” is often used as a compliment, but “spinster” is normally used pejoratively: “The metaphorical connotations of ‘bachelor’ generally suggest sexual freedom; of ‘spinster,’ puritanism or celibacy” (33). When Naomi is called a “spinster” by one of her students, she recalls Emily's objection to the epithet: “She says if we laundered the term properly she'd put it on, but it's too covered with cultural accretions for comfort” (8). Laden with time-honored prejudice, words as inherited have a way of perpetuating patriarchal ideology.

Kogawa in Obasan is far more concerned with racist rhetoric than with sexist language, however. As Donald Goellnicht points out, “Language shapes, rather than merely reflects, reality for both the victimizers and the victims, its manipulation resulting in empirical, concrete actions” (291). During the war the Canadian bureaucracy uses words to camouflage the most offensive actions against people of Japanese ancestry. Canadian-born citizens are dubbed “enemy aliens” (92); prison camps are dressed up as “Interior Housing Projects.” Emily fumes, “With language like that you can disguise any crime” (34). Language becomes especially treacherous when abusive slurs and oppressive edicts pass for “news” and “laws” respectively. Emily says that the newspapers are printing “outright lies”: “There was a picture of a young nisei boy with a metal lunch box and it said he was a spy with a radio transmitter” (85). The very reason given by the government for the evacuation—that the Japanese residents pose a security risk—begs the question, for “not a single charge of treason was laid against a Japanese Canadian” (Goellnicht 290).

Not only do white Canadian officials and nikkei citizens hold opposite views about the evacuation, members of Naomi's own family also diverge in their opinions. Where Aunt Emily wants to fight “fascist” Canada, Uncle and Obasan feel only “gratitude” to their adopted country (42). Even the perspective of one person may shift with time. Emily, who once “worshipped the Mounties” to the extent of brandishing their motto—Maintiens le droit \uphold the law]—is appalled by how rudely her erstwhile heroes treat her people during the war. Her former motto is translated literally into a sour question: “Maintain the right?” (100). Kogawa emphasizes that “facts” are often inseparable from interpretations, that even when intent to deceive is absent, language can only convey partial, often subjective, realities. The narrator observes her distance from her vociferous aunt: “For \Emily], the vision is the truth as she lives it. When she is called like Habakkuk to the witness stand, her testimony is to the light that shines in the lives of the nisei, in their desperation to prove themselves Canadian, in their tough and gentle spirit. The truth for me is more murky, shadowy and grey” (32).

Besides doubting the transparency of language, the narrator questions its efficacy. Naomi wonders whether anything tangible can come out of Emily's polemics:

All of Aunt Emily's words, all her papers, the telegrams and petitions, are like scratchings in the barnyard, the evidence of much activity, scaly claws hard at work. But what good they do, I do not know—those little black typewritten words—rain words, cloud droppings. They do not touch us where we are planted here in Alberta. … The words are not made flesh. … All my prayers disappear into space (189).

To Naomi, Emily's collections of data and didactic analysis are but so much “noise” that hardly alleviate actual suffering or inspire redeeming vision. The narrator wishes to find a verbal medium that can hold a listener without sounding coercive or dogmatic, that can transform “white sound” into “living word.”


I do not wish to romanticize the Issei but to humbly and gratefully acknowledge what it was that shone with such deep energy through their lives—in their hands, in their silences.

—Kogawa, preface to Issei, by Gordon Nakayama, 7

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 forbade her to tell of the violation: “don't tell your mother” (64).4 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” (101). Naomi tells: “We are the despised rendered voiceless, stripped of car, radio, camera and every means of communication” (111).

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?” (70). Rape, Erika Gottlieb points out, is used here as “metaphor for any kind of violation” (45). Like Stephen, many Japanese Canadians also refuse to speak about what Rose calls their “political and spiritual rape” by the Canadian government (“Politics” 224). Naomi, for one, wishes to leave the past behind: “Crimes of history … can stay in history” (41). 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!” (49-50).

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” (59). 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” (108). 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 tight-lipped Obasan: “The greater my urgency to know, the thicker her silences have always been” (45). 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 future undemanding as dew” (111-12). 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” (52-53; cited in Fujita 38). 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 (56).5

There is neither explicit request nor open inquiry. At the point when her grandparents have been taken to the hospital and Obasan offers unspoken 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” (128).

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.6 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 23). 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” (224). 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 “world-traveling” advocated by Maria Lugones proves instructive here:

Through traveling to other people's “worlds” we discover that there are “worlds” in which those who are the victims of arrogant perception are really subjects, lively beings, resistors, constructors of visions even though in the mainstream construction they are animated only by the arrogant perceiver and are pliable, foldable, file-awayable, classifiable (402).

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” (226).7 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” (26). 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” (14). 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” (243). 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” (39). 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” (240).

In this receptive state she hears “the sigh of … remembered breath, a wordless word” (241). 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?” (242). 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 (243).

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.”


Beneath the grass the speaking dreams and beneath the dreams is a sensate sea.

Obasan, prologue

Attuned to the contradictory potential of both language and silence, Kogawa uses multivocal discourses to articulate the manifold nature of reality and employs a number of elliptical devices to harness the power of the unspoken. The polyglossia of Obasan has often been noted (see Merivale 68; Goellnicht 294). Here I would call attention to the author's muted rhetoric, to her way of punctuating words with silences. Kogawa deploys fables and dreams to spin a web of associations, of verbal and emotional echoes. She alerts us to the associative impact of words through Naomi's response to the honorific “Nesan” in Emily's journal:

The sight of the word … cuts into me with a peculiar sensation of pain and tenderness. It means “older sister,” and was what Aunt Emily always called Mother. Grandma Kato also called Mother “Nesan” from time to time especially if she was talking to Aunt Emily. I remember one time I called Mother “Nesan” and Grandma Kato laughed and laughed (46).

The word agitates Naomi not because of its denotative meaning but because of its connections with her mother and grandmother, with a time too blissful for memory. Of all the words in Emily's journals this one steals its way most readily into Naomi's heart.

Shattered imagery pervades Naomi's own reminiscences, described at one point as “fragments of fragments,” as “segments of stories” (53); at another as “dream images” (112). The reader must attend to the unarticulated linkages and piece together the broken parts; meaning permeates the spaces between what is said. A simple fable may set off a rippling effect. Fujita has shown that “attendance is clearly linked to … the story of Momotaro” (38), which Naomi is told as a child. The tale also reverberates poignantly in Naomi's own life. It is at the sight of Obasan that Naomi recalls “the old woman of many Japanese legends” (54) and the fable about a boy who emerges from a peach, to the delight of an old childless couple. When Momotaro grows up, he travels to a neighboring island to fight bandits; he wins the battle and brings honor to his aged foster parents. The plot is simple enough, yet each detail summoned by the narrator elicits in the reader a response to what has not been stated. The joy of the old couple at the sight of Momotaro has parallels in Naomi's own happy prewar childhood when all the adults lavish love and attention on her, when simply “by existing a child is delight” (55). The description of the day when Momotaro must leave his parents to go on the long and perilous journey also has analogues in Naomi's experience. Both the sadness of separation and the suppression of that emotion are delicately sketched:

The time comes when Momotaro must go and silence falls like feathers of snow all over the rice-paper hut. Inside, the hands are slow. Grandmother kneels at the table forming round rice balls, pressing the sticky rice together with her moist fingertips. She wraps them in a small square cloth and, holding them before her in her cupped hands, she offers him the lunch for his journey. There are no tears and no touch. Grandfather and Grandmother are careful, as he goes, not to weight his pack with their sorrow.

Alone in the misty mountains once more, the old folks wait (56).

This speaking picture prefigures several scenes of farewell in Obasan: that of Mother and Grandmother Kato when they leave for Japan, that of Father when he leaves Slocan, that of Grandpa and Grandma Nakane when they leave for the hospital, and that of Stephen when he leaves for Toronto. No tears are shed on any of these occasions. And few words. Unlike Momotaro, none of these leave-takers returns.

It is with respect to Obasan, who is now “older than the grandmother \Naomi] knew as a child, older than any person \she knows] today” (54), that the fable has multiple bearings. Obasan and Uncle are also a childless couple. When Obasan becomes the guardian aunt of Stephen and Naomi, she too treats them as her own offspring. The couple's love for Momotaro is expressed neither in words nor by touch, but through the slow movement of the old woman's hands; Obasan is similarly “defined by her serving hands.” The couple's considerate silence resonates in the actions of Mother, Grandpa, Uncle, and Obasan, all of whom try to shield Stephen and Naomi from grief.

But there is a contrasting analogue. The rice balls offered by the old woman to Momotaro directly evoke a scene on the train. Obasan offers Stephen a rice ball. “Not that kind of food,” Stephen sulks, rejecting her offer (115). The episode foreshadows Stephen's rejection of everything Japanese, including his own foster mother, who “mends and remends his old socks and shirts which he never wears and sets the table with food which he often does not eat” (215). He ends up avoiding Obasan altogether: “Stephen, unable to bear the density of her inner retreat and the rebuke he felt in her silences, fled to the ends of the earth” (14). On the day of his departure, Naomi thinks with pride of her brother as “Momotaro going off to conquer the world” (214). But the motivation of his long journey is a far cry from that of Momotaro's. He may obtain laurels in the musical world (for he becomes a concert pianist), but bringing honor to his aged foster parents could not be further from his mind. Stephen, who is “always uncomfortable when anything is ‘too Japanese’” (217), has missed a point succinctly enunciated by Emily: “Momotaro is a Canadian story. We're Canadian, aren't we? Everything a Canadian does is Canadian” (57).8

Finally, the lonely waiting of the legendary grandparents foreshadows Naomi's own pain of anticipating her mother's return: “What matters to my five-year-old mind is not the reason that she is required to leave, but the stillness of waiting. … After a while, the stillness is so much with me that it takes the form of a shadow which grows and surrounds me like air. Time solidifies, ossifies the waiting into molecules of stone, dark microscopic planets that swirl through the universe of my body waiting for light and the morning” (66). Naomi, being little at the time, is finding it much more difficult than do the old couple to heed the needs of others before one's own: “My great-grandmother \who is very ill] has need of my mother. Does my mother have need of me? In what market-place of the universe are the bargains made that have traded my need for my great-grandmother's?” (67). This child must come to attendance the hard way.

Kogawa thus captures in less than half a page a montage of emotions that the characters hide from each other and traces such self-restraint to a formative childhood tale. The author herself has learned the lesson well. Her evocative style provides a counterpoint to the dry official papers and Emily's effusive rhetoric. The reader must probe beneath the surface of the lapidary prose to catch the inexpressible.

Kogawa also conveys the deflected emotions of the narrator—who “never spoke” as a child (57)—through “speaking dreams.” Three in particular mark Naomi's growth. The child is waylaid by a recurrent nightmare after her encounters with Old Man Gower: “In my childhood dreams, the mountain yawns apart as the chasm spreads. My mother is on one side of the rift. I am on the other. We cannot reach each other. My legs are being sawn in half” (64-65). The dream conveys the sense of physical mutilation experienced by the victim and her resulting psychological alienation from her mother. We are told in the following chapter that it is “around this time that Mother disappears” (66). For good. The successive placement of Naomi's nightmare and her mother's disappearance suggests that the child connects her sexual arousal with her mother's departure: “She feels that her abandonment by Mother must be punishment for her unmentionable offence, her fall from innocence” (Gottlieb 46).

That the victim is plagued by guilt and shame is further signified in another nightmare that recurs even after Naomi has turned adult. In this dream three beautiful oriental women, captured and guarded by several British soldiers, lie naked in a muddy road. When one of the three—“stretched between hatred and lust”—tries to seduce the soldiers, they make a sport of shooting at the women's toes and feet. Naomi writes: “The soldiers could not be won. Dread and a deathly loathing cut through the women” (62). The dream, which couples sexual overtones with punishment and underlines the victims' self-contempt, takes us into the dreamer's tormented psyche.

The most instructive dream—one that alludes to the “Grand Inquisitor” in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov—occurs just before Naomi finally learns about her mother's ordeal in Nagasaki. In her dream the Grand Inquisitor (who resembles Old Man Gower) is prying open her eyes and her mother's mouth.

His demand to know was both a judgement and a refusal to hear. The more he questioned \Mother], the more he was her accuser and murderer. The more he killed her, the deeper her silence became. What the Grand Inquisitor has never learned is that the avenues of speech are the avenues of silence. To hear my mother, to attend her speech, to attend the sound of stone, he must first become silent. Only when he enters her abandonment will he be released from his own (228; my emphasis).

Western hierarchical opposition of speech and silence are here reconfigured. It dawns on Naomi that by her incessant questioning she has unwittingly assumed the role of the Grand Inquisitor, who seeks to extort an answer from her mother. She now asks herself, “Did I doubt her love? Am I her accuser?” (228). The dream prompts Naomi to recognize her “culpability … \through] a deliberate attendance” (Fujita 39) and to enter her mother's suffering. At the point Naomi decides to give up her “inquisition,” to have faith in her mother's love for her despite the apparent desertion, she learns the truth. The avenues of silence do coincide with the avenues of speech.

These dreams hark back to the various forms of silence discussed earlier. The first dream plays out what Naomi is forbidden to tell. The second traces her repression to childhood shame and guilt. The third yields a parable counseling attentive silence. The victims in the first two dreams concentrate on their own torments; in the last Naomi sees her mother as a fellow sufferer. Once she has ceased to focus on her own vulnerability, she becomes aware of her mother's ordeal; she sees she has been wagamama—guilty of making self-centered demands. In noticing and placing another's need alongside her own, in remaining solicitous of others despite her own buried grief, Naomi is being true to her Japanese upbringing and faithful to the example of Obasan. Paradoxically, it is through Naomi's willingness to “attend the sound of stone” that the “stone bursts open.” In the next chapter she is apprised of the horror of Nagasaki. Staggering as it is, the knowledge frees Naomi from her years of gnawing doubt and unspeakable guilt.


The reflection is rippling in the river—water and stone dancing.

Obasan 247

The ending of Obasan enacts multiple reconciliations—between mother and daughter, past and present, death and life, and, above all, between the nonverbal and verbal modes of expression embodied in Obasan and Emily. Naomi learns about her mother's fate from Grandma Kato's letters, addressed to Grandpa Kato. The letters, as noted earlier, come across to her as “skeletons” unanimated by “love.” And Naomi is wont to think of love in silent terms. “Did you not know that people hide their love / Like a flower that seems too precious to be picked?” she quotes a Chinese poem (228). This turn of thought accounts in part for her uneasiness about words. Grandma, too, apologizes for writing: “For the burden of these words, forgive me” (236).

But in fact the letters belie the binary opposition of stoical, protective, and considerate silence and self-lacerating or selfish telling. Grandma, whom Naomi remembers as “thin and tough, not given to melodrama or overstatement of any kind,” describes the aftermath of the conflagration in an “outpouring” (234). Her letters show Naomi that jotting down unbearable thoughts, however excruciating at the time, can also release sorrow and help the writer “extricate herself from the grip of the past” (236). Such heartfelt expression is surely more salutary than the “vigil of silence” observed by Mother (236), whose protective silence has been long misinterpreted by Naomi as the absence of love, as evidence of abandonment. Ironically, it is through Grandma's presumably inconsiderate telling that Naomi learns of her grandmother's and mother's “deep love” (233).

For something other than deafening horror emerges from Grandma's letters. Through them Naomi learns that as soon as Grandma regains consciousness after the blast, she focuses wholeheartedly on rescuing her niece's two children: “At no point does Grandma Kato mention the injuries she herself must have sustained” (238). Mother, totally defaced and severely wounded, is found making a pyre for a dead baby. These examples of compassion in the face of atrocity provide an affirmative answer to Naomi's earlier questioning in her imaginary dialogue with Emily: “Greed, selfishness, and hatred remain as constant as the human condition, do they not? Or are you thinking that through lobbying and legislation, speech-making and story-telling, we can extricate ourselves from our foolish ways? Is there evidence for optimism? (199). Despite human shortcomings, Naomi can now break her silence by saying yes—there is evidence indeed.

Grandma's letters thus provide Naomi with both a personal reason (“extricate herself from the grip of the past”) and a political reason (through “storytelling, we can extricate ourselves from our foolish ways”) to write, to transform her personal silence and that of her family into words. Yet her (or Kogawa's) effectiveness as a “historian” lies precisely in her skepticism about historical authority. Naomi proceeds tentatively, insists that facts alone do not history make, and refuses to see things in terms of black and white. She traverses the historical landscape in slow motion and delivers a microscopic worm's eye view in terms of the muted sufferers. Her prose registers not only observable phenomena but emotional stirring unseen by the naked eye and unheard by the ordinary ear.

Toward the end of the novel, silence and speech are increasingly imaged as complementary rather than antithetical, as in Naomi's inspection of the two Japanese ideographs for the word love: “The first contained the root words ‘heart’ and ‘hand’ and ‘action’—love as hands and heart in action together. The other ideograph, for ‘passionate love,’ was formed of ‘heart,’ ‘to tell,’ and ‘a long thread’” (228). Love may take the form of Obasan's serving hands or Emily's (and Grandma's) passionate telling: “the heart declaring a long thread knotted to Obasan's twine, knotted to Aunt Emily's package” (228). The novel itself unwinds as a long thread that ties the variously strong women together.

Silence and words unite again figuratively in the lyrical ending of the novel, when Naomi decides to go to the coulee she and Uncle visited every year on the anniversary of the Nagasaki's bombing (though the reason for the pilgrimage was previously hidden from her). There she undergoes a symbolic baptism and enters a beatific vision: “Above the trees, the moon is a pure white stone. The reflection is rippling in the river—water and stone dancing. It's quiet ballet, soundless as breath” (247). This epiphany, as Goellnicht observes, “holds in harmoniously negotiated tension the ‘stone’ of silence and the ‘stream’ of language” (297).

Such harmony infuses the style of the novel as well. In recollecting and recording the past, Naomi/Kogawa answers Emily's/Kitagawa's call for public expression. In writing a quiet book, one that is attentive to detail and images, and to nuances of feeling, expressed or repressed, the author also vindicates Obasan's silence. The most trenchant passages in the novel are not the expository and explosive entries reproduced from Emily's diary, but the pages of Naomi's understating prose. Kogawa suggests that open accusations and outspoken demands, while necessary, are insufficiently effective: thundering for justice will not alone solve any problem until people genuinely care. By heeding the poetry in the narrative, by witnessing the quiet strength of issei such as Obasan, the reader may well experience a change of heart.

Speaking of carpentry, Naomi observes: “There is a fundamental difference in Japanese workmanship—to pull with control rather than push with force” (24). Kogawa herself has carved a style that controls its force through the pull of silences.


  1. This essay is adapted from a chapter of my book Articulate Silences. Hisaye Yamomoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa (Cornell, 1993). A version of the essay was presented at the first MELUS Conference at U.C. Irvine (25 April 1987). Since then it has benefited from the insights of other critics: I am particularly indebted to Gayle Fujita for her explication of the “sensibility of silence,” and to A. Lynne Magnusson and Donald C. Goellnicht for their analyses of Kogawa's ambivalence toward language. I would also like to thank Elaine Hedges and Shelley Fisher Fishkin for their suggestions.

  2. Though my essay stresses the positive uses of nonverbal behavior as a “corrective” to the prevailing critical trend, I do not mean to endorse all kinds of silences.

  3. In real life Kogawa, one year older than the novel's narrator, Naomi, was six when her family was relocated. Her family, unlike Naomi's, was not separated: “Her minister father, mother and brother survived the relocation together and then moved to a small town in Alberta” (Yim D1).

  4. Similar silencing after sexual molestation by a father figure occurs in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Alice Walker's The Color Purple.

  5. Fujita translates the Japanese words as follows: “You really notice/are aware/are attentive, aren't you?” (39). She notes that the phrase “looks back to the painting of the girl ‘attending’ the bird” (39).

  6. Commenting on the limits and strengths of Obasan and on her influence on Naomi, Fujita writes: “Her steadfast love notwithstanding, she represents the inevitability of corrosion when silence means withheld knowledge. … But Obasan's destructive silence is part of a larger conception of her character as the embodiment of a vital nikkei culture including the positive use of silence exemplified by Naomi's attendance” (40). Erika Gottlieb similarly observes, “Powerful in her silence, Obasan is indeed in charge of ‘life's infinite details,’ as if the ball of string \she has] accumulated over the years would have somehow absorbed the wisdom and experience of those years themselves. … Struggling to overcome Obasan's silence, yet also inspired by its depth, Naomi has grappled with her task faithfully, unravelling her yarn in all its intricate patterns” (52).

  7. Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston notes that Japanese Americans and white Americans frequently hold different attitudes about serving: “In my family, to serve another could be uplifting, a gracious gesture that elevated oneself. For many white Americans it seems that serving another is degrading, an indication of dependency or weakness in character, or a low place in the social ladder. To be ardently considerate is to be ‘self-effacing’ or apologetic” (20). The dominance of such an attitude perhaps explains why Obasan has so often been reproved by critics.

  8. Emily herself, as Fujita has noted, exemplifies the spirit of Momotaro who, in the original Japanese tale, “leaves home to battle ogres” (38). Emily likewise travels all over Canada and the States to fight against injustice. However, in transferring Momotaro's courage to Emily, Kogawa has also redefined traditional heroism in accordance with the pacifist tenor of her novel. Instead of glorifying martial valor, she omits all descriptions of physical combats in Naomi's version of the fable. Just as Maxine Hong Kingston in The Woman Warrior transforms a swordswoman into a wordswoman, Kogawa turns Momotaro's physical combats into Emily's “paper battles” (189). The change allows women to enter the public arena without subscribing to the military ethos of patriarchal societies.

Allan Casey (review date November 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 652

SOURCE: “Dagger Descends, Rain Ascends,” in Books in Canada, Vol. 24, No. 8, November, 1995, p. 11.

[In the following review, Casey lauds Kogawa's The Rain Ascends, stating, “If the novel sometimes has difficulty transcending the tabloid nature of the subject … it remains a fascinating, troubling, and compassionate exploration of the dark side of human sexuality.”]

Joy Kogawa has a habit of writing fiction around what's filling up the newspapers. Or is it the papers who follow her lead? In Obasan and Itsuka, she offered a first-hand look at the troubled lives of Japanese-Canadians during World War II, and the subsequent fight for reparation. That those issues received the media sympathy they did in the Mulroney years is owing at least in part to Kogawa's sensitive fiction.

This time, for the central thematic pillar of her short new novel \The Rain Ascends], Kogawa has borrowed the newspaper issue of the decade: child sexual abuse. Millicent Shelby, the central figure and narrator of the story, has her adolescent world come crashing down one fall day when she learns that her father—clergyman, mystic, and missionary—is also a pederast. Told in a dizzying cascade of flashbacks and fastforwards, the drama isn't about the discovery of the preacher's unwholesome tendencies, but how Millicent makes sense of it over the course of decades. Millicent isn't one of her father's obvious victims, yet her wounds are deep.

Another writer might shudder at the thought of saddling a work of fiction with an issue that has too much been the bread and butter of city editors and talk show hosts. Kogawa is fearless. Along with her main character, she sets herself the task of understanding how one person can be both enormously good and bad. Does one quality nullify the other? The Good Reverend Shelby has changed the lives of thousands for the better with his line of music and worship schools, his evangelical radio programs, and his sheer piety. The Good Reverend's Shadow, however, admits to diddling no less than three hundred boys.

In densely biblical language, Millicent re-enacts the role of Abraham when he took his son Isaac to be sacrificed in the land of Moriah, trusting the Lord to spare the child even as the knife descended. Her dagger is the fiction itself. The victim she hopes so desperately to spare is a childlike faith, the certainty that goodness exists, especially in her own family. The reader knows that fate cannot intervene for her, that her innocence must be traded for experience, and Kogawa is at her best in portraying the minister's daughter in this state of self-reinvention, her biblical truths failing her, as she gropes for a new, truer “fiction” that will reconcile good to evil, the father to the daughter, God to the Goddess.

The story tries hard to shake the conventional approaches to child sexual abuse that junk journalism has bestowed on us. Millicent's sister-in-law Eleanor, whom we experience in the story mostly as a voice on the phone, represents the zero-tolerance argument, the string-him-up-and-let-God-deal-with-'em school. For her, the Reverend is pure evil. Then there's Marvin, one of the child victims, though in his adult mind he is anything but. He's a free thinker, with some vaguely positive ideas about adult-child sex, and is utterly dismissive about the effects of the Reverend's sexual advances on him. At one point, Kogawa cannot resist putting Millicent, Eleanor, and Marvin together on a park bench to watch the sparks fly. One can't help feeling Phil Donahue or Oprah is just off camera.

If the novel sometimes has difficulty transcending the tabloid nature of the subject, or escaping what Kogawa calls the “harsh and merciless light of the newspaper moon,” it remains a fascinating, troubling, and compassionate exploration of the dark side of human sexuality. And, unlike our tabloid understanding of child sexual abuse, it refuses to portray the perpetrator as inhumanly evil, or his victims as inhumanly hapless.

Karin Quimby (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6923

SOURCE: “‘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.

[In the following essay, Quimby analyzes the connection between landscape and identity in Kogawa's Obasan.]

Where do any of us come from in this cold country? Oh Canada, whether it is admitted or not, we come from you we come from you. From the same soil, the slugs and slime and bogs and twigs and roots.

—Joy Kogawa

The importance of the landscape to the formation of a national identity has been a significant concern in much North American literature. However, the literature that grew from the European expansion on the North American continent has dominated conceptions of how the land has helped to shape a national and continental identity. Nina Baym and Annette Kolodny have investigated the ways in which the European conquest and westward expansion have read the American land as female, and how this reading has served to support mythic configurations in which male agency is gained through the objectification of the female. Baym finds that in order to support the myth of the Euro-American westward-moving male individual, the land has often been conceptualized in “unmistakably feminine terms” (1989, 1153). She further asserts that the mythic configuration of the land-as-woman limits the possibilities of female auctorial and subject agency by the fact that the human female is displaced by the land. She articulates the two specific femaled roles that the land represents within the Euro-American male paradigm: “The role of the beckoning wilderness, the attractive landscape, is given a deeply feminine quality. … It has the attributes simultaneously of a virginal bride and a nonthreatening mother; its female qualities are articulated with respect to a male angle of vision” (1155). Working with the same gender and historical focus, Annette Kolodny also uncovers prominent Anglo-mythic constructions of the North American landscape, finding similar gendered readings of the American land.1

While Baym and Kolodny's studies remain important feminist critiques of male definitions of the North American landscape, they fail to address histories or figurations of the land other than European American ones. Joy Kogawa's Obasan, which tells a Japanese Canadian story situated significantly in response to a specific history and landscape, presents an opportunity to investigate a historical and mythic trajectory of the land that is neither Eurocentric nor male. The landscape functions, in Obasan, to signify the problems of national and personal identity when the Japanese Canadians are forced into internal exile during World War II. Naomi, the young female protagonist and narrator, struggles, as an adult looking back on this experience, to arrive at a place of understanding what is perhaps an irreconcilable paradox—how she and her people could have been exiled upon their own native land. This specific dilemma represents the broader problem faced by immigrant and native people who share a dual or multiple national or racial identity. By investigating the way the landscape works to shore up dominant histories and identities, and hence to marginalize others, I hope to emphasize, as Gloria Anzald£a does so powerfully in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, the ways in which physical terrain defines the vast categories of identity, politics, nationality, and history. Exposing the dominant perceptions of the land will serve to clear a space, then, to acknowledge the rich variety of experience that informs a single geographical site.

Although a geopolitical border separates Canada and the United States, and there are also national and ethnic differences between Baym and Kolodny's studies and Joy Kogawa's narrative, all of these texts are informed by the same continental expanse of land and contest a similar mythic paradigm of European westward expansion and gendered constructions of the land. Therefore, it is useful to investigate the ways in which these texts play upon each other and construct new meanings of identity fostered upon this terrain. Understanding the land as intertextual is crucial in allowing for the complexity of identities that appear to be formed on some sense of a common ground. As Trevor Barnes and James Duncan remark: “\P]laces are intertextual sites because various texts and discursive practices based on previous texts are deeply inscribed in their landscapes and institutions. We construct both the world and our actions towards it from texts that speak of who we are or wish to be” (1992, 7-8). Reading Baym and Kolodny's feminist studies along with Kogawa's novel provides another way to intertextually examine the ongoing shaping of North American identities that refuses the narratives and meanings usually arrived at from the male Eurocentric point of view.

It is Kogawa's very foregrounding of the landscape that offers the most compelling challenge to the Eurocentric inscription of identity that has served to colonize the imaginations of the people on the North American continent. Indeed, one might consider Kogawa's emphasis on the landscape in her novel as a strategic response of resistance to the dominant history of Canada. By having Naomi investigate and imagine her identity through landscape imagery, Kogawa issues both a poetic and political challenge to a vast history of colonization that reached its most terrible expression for the Japanese Canadians in the exile they were forced to endure. I shall investigate how Naomi shapes her identity, and through implication a collective experience, through her interaction with and readings of the landscape in its natural, political, and mythic forms.

Annette Kolodny's most recent writing on the landscape, “Letting Go Our Grand Obsessions: Notes Toward a New Literary History of the American Frontiers” (1992), forays into new territory in which she proposes a reopening of the frontier of literary history by “thematizing frontier as a multiplicity of ongoing first encounters over time and land, rather than as a linear chronology of successive discoveries and discrete settlements” (13). Joy Kogawa's semiautobiographical novel, Obasan, constructs a thematics of the land that historicizes the Japanese Canadian eastward expulsion and exile during World War II, and as such opens a provocative new frontier. Kogawa writes explicitly of the Canadian landscape, showing how the Japanese Canadian history of forced exile from the British Columbia coast to the detention site of the Slocan ghost town and finally to the Alberta prairies significantly affects the identity of the young female protagonist, Naomi. Naomi's identity forms as she locates and relocates herself and her family in the shifting figurations of the landscape across which she is forced to move. The very idea of a homeland is radically destabilized through this history, and thus assertions of national identity are problematized as well. The paradox of the riddle “We are both the enemy and not the enemy” (Kogawa 1981, 70) acts as a central theme throughout the text and is figured repeatedly as the Japanese Canadians experience the paradox of being exiled upon their own native land. The representations of the landscapes across which Naomi and her family are forced to move serve to show how unstable national and gender identities are and how identities are shaped by the intersection of historical circumstances and the physical landscape.

A significant concern in Obasan is how Naomi makes sense out of this forced exile. There is little in Kogawa's text that suggests that “the role of the beckoning wilderness, the attractive landscape, is given a deeply feminine quality” (Baym 1989, 1154). The wildernesses of Slocan and the Alberta prairie, as the sites of exile and dispersal, are hardly inviting and are figured, rather, as “the middle of the earth” (Kogawa 1981, 111), and “the edge of the world” (191). Kogawa's very construction of the Canadian landscape and the female identities that are formed and reformed on this land thus contests the privileged literary history that emerged from the European expansion on the North American continent, which, as Nina Baym and Annette Kolodny have shown, situates a male Adamic hero inscribing himself upon a femaled wilderness. Kogawa clearly moves beyond this Euro-American male paradigm that disallows female agency and instead writes a compelling personal and collective history of the Japanese Canadian experience that does not retreat into an oppositionally gendered reading of the land but crosses and confronts the privileged histories of this land while formulating an idea of what it means to be a Japanese Canadian woman. Naomi's search for national and personal identity reflects what Paul Lauter has suggested appears in much marginalized literature, in which “the problematic of self consists more often of its emergence within conflicting definitions of community and continuity” (1990, 16). Certainly Naomi's experience of exile, in which the Japanese Canadian community is dislocated and her immediate family fractured, addresses just these problematics of self.

The poetic epigraph to the novel poses a riddle, the working out of which continues through the narrative. This epigraph also constructs a semiotic system drawn from the landscape, introducing specific signs that will recur with shifting significations:

There is a silence that cannot speak.
 There is a silence that will not speak.
Beneath the grass the speaking dreams and beneath the dreams is the
 sensate sea. The speech that frees comes forth from that amniotic deep. To
 attend its voice, I can hear it say, is to embrace its absence. But I fail
the task. The word is stone.

This poetic riddle suggests the movement of a person burrowing under the earth to an underground sea in search of the “freeing word.” A psychological move into the unconscious is revealed through the consecutive motions of descent into the earth and sea; the speaking dreams are located “Beneath the grass” and beneath these dreams/grass is a sea, an “amniotic deep.” In this underground sea, with its implication of the womb, “the speech that frees” is located. Figuratively, a return to the mother is called for, but as later learned, the mother is absent, thus Naomi cannot yet hear this voice or speak the words that would free her from the silence. The landscape acts as a maze through which Naomi must travel in the search for the mother and for herself. Erika Gottlieb suggests: “\T]he task imposed upon the reader \is] to puzzle out nuances in the natural landscape as they become key elements in the human drama” (1986, 51). Although Gottlieb attempts to work toward resolutions to the riddles of identity posed in Obasan, showing that it is “less through the people than through the landscape that she approaches the troubled questions of her Canadian identity” (42), she does not address the problematics in these landscape representations which often reveal the paradoxes of being exiled on one's native land, and thereby resist resolution.

Chapter 1 takes up the same figures of grass, sea, and underground stream, moving the imagery from a poetic epigraph to a prose narrative that is bound to a specific location and history. The movement from the grass to the underground sea in the epigraph is refigured in the narrative by the grass on the Alberta coulee becoming an image of the sea: “‘Umi no yo,’ Uncle says, pointing to the grass. ‘It's like the sea’” (1). Naomi and her grandfather travel each year to this coulee near his home in Alberta in a ritual, as later learned, in which the grandfather intends to tell Naomi of her mother's fate in Nagasaki. He has been unable to tell her for eighteen years. Faced again this year with her uncle's silence, Naomi's thoughts significantly turn to the earth upon which she is sitting. The narrative shifts discourses at this point, from the interpersonal to an interior discourse in which the land is central: “My fingers tunnel through a tangle of roots till the grass stands up from my knuckles, making it seem that my fingers are the roots. I am part of this small forest. Like the grass, I search the earth and the sky with a thin but persistent thirst” (3). Rooting herself to the land in this manner, while indicating a yearning for something else, is a recurring gesture, often occurring in response to the many silences Naomi confronts when she thinks of her absent mother. In rooting herself to the land Naomi not only indicates her need to ground the self but also claims an identity literally and significantly positioned on Canadian land.

Naomi positions herself historically upon the Canadian land as well. Looking out over the coulee she imagines: “Everything in front of us is virgin land. From the beginning of time, the grass along this stretch of prairie has not been cut” (2). This implied gendering of the land recalls Nina Baym's suggestion that a woman writer must sometimes figure the land in gendered terms because of the “archetypal resonance of the image” (1989, 1155). But Naomi suggests neither the possibility of agency nor a violence against a femaled land as Baym also posits might be characteristic. Instead, the image of a “virgin” land is followed by a recounting of a historical use of the land by the native Canadians as a buffalo jump. Together with the image in which she burrows her fingers into the grass, figuratively becoming part of the land, Naomi claims a position on a landscape to which she belongs as much as the native peoples before her. Naomi's figurative integration into the grassy land, along with her historical conjurings, which connect her present physical position with the precolonial images of the land, makes a powerful and insistent claim of identity that evolves from the landscape.

Naomi further conflates the images of the Native Canadians and the Japanese Canadians by imagining her uncle, as he sits next to her, likewise belonging to the land: “Uncle could be Chief Sitting Bull squatting here. He has the same prairie-baked skin, the deep brown furrows like dry river beds creasing his cheeks. All he needs is a feather headdress, and he would be perfect for a picture postcard—‘Indian Chief from Canadian Prairie’—souvenir of Alberta, made in Japan” (2). Combining the native and immigrant identities destabilizes the idea of an oppositional and monolithic national and ethnic identity, offering another possibility of identity. This image also subverts the Euro-American proprietary tradition represented in Robert Frost's poem, “The Gift Outright”: “The land was ours before we were the land's. / She was our land more than a hundred years / before we were her people” (31).

Locating the Japanese Canadian identity upon a landscape in which they are both native and other, Kogawa constructs a history of Canada and Japanese Canadians in which she examines the paradox of belonging and not belonging, of displacement and home. Naomi's brother Stephen later expands upon this paradox with a riddle: “It is a riddle, Stephen tells me. We are both the enemy and not the enemy” (70). Disrupting the possibility of a homogeneous identity or idea of home creates a destabilized space from which Naomi begins to reconstruct her history and identity.

Naomi's own position on the land and the identity that forms from her complex relationship with the landscape is first reflected in the sexual abuse that is perpetrated upon her by Old Man Gower. Naomi figures herself into the landscape in multiple positions when remembering this abuse. The landscape itself continually shifts significations, creating a multilayered narrative. Referencing H‚lŠne Cixous and Luce Irigaray's theories, in which they posit a “female” language as one that is nonlinear and plural, opposing the logocentrism in “male” language, Shirley Geok-lin Lim suggests that many “Asian American women's texts \are] characterized … by multiple presences, ambivalent stories, and circular and fluid narratives” (1990, 290-91). Although this claim of female discourse cannot be limited to women writers, it is useful in suggesting and constructing the possibilities of plural identities, and indeed, in Naomi's construction of her identity through landscape images, there are multiple presences and nonlinear shifts of significations.

Throughout Naomi's telling of the sexual abuse, she situates herself within a changing landscape. The wilderness first denotes safety: “To be whole and safe I must hide in the foliage, odourless as a newborn fawn” (Kogawa 1981, 63). The forest growth is protection from the invading, splintering male abuse. Similarly, while she is half-dressed in Gower's bathroom she worries: “If Stephen comes he will see my shame. He will know what I feel and the knowing will flood the landscape. There will be nowhere to hide” (64). If the landscape signifies safety, then the male gaze represents danger and the predator.

The forest as a sign of safety is immediately subverted, however, when Naomi imagines herself as “Snow White in the forest, unable to run. He \Gower] is the forest full of eyes and arms. He is the tree root that trips Snow White. He is the lightening flashing through the sky” (64). Gendering both forest and sky as male reverses the mythic construction posited in Baym and Kolodny's studies, in which the wilderness is femaled and awaiting the mark of the male hero. Despite this reversal, the result is the same; the male forest engulfs and entraps the female, thus reinscribing a terrorizing patriarchal paradigm within which female agency is impossible. Juxtaposing the figurations of wilderness as both safety and imperilment suggests, again, the paradoxes contained within the formation of Naomi's identity and implies again the thematic of Stephen's riddle, “We are both the enemy and not the enemy.”

The tree recurs as a central sign in the text, and the resulting split from the mother because of the male abuse is signified through this sign. Naomi first remembers her mother as a tree and herself a part of this tree: “I am clinging to my mother's leg, a flesh shaft that grows from the ground, a tree trunk of which I am an offshoot” (64). The forest now contains both danger (male) and security (female). The merged mother and daughter are torn apart by male intrusion, and, manifested in secrecy, the result is a splitting and silencing of the daughter: “But here in Mr. Gower's hands I become the other—a parasite on her body, no longer of her mind. My arms are vines that strangle the limb to which I cling” (64). The silenced daughter strangles the mother, the other female self. By presenting the multiple positions within which Naomi imagines herself responding to and figured in the landscape, Kogawa represents the necessary complexity of an identity that forms through subjugation and abuse. That is, Kogawa implies that for Naomi a linear or single sense of identity is impossible, which contrasts with the dominant mythic confrontations with the landscape represented later in the text by the Anglo hero, the “Giant Woodsman.”

The actual exile into the Canadian interior utilizes the same discursive sign system that began the narrative. The expulsion into the wilderness is figured using metaphors of the land, sea, and stone. Naomi's exile develops and reflects the condition of her identity using the language and imagery of the landscape: “There is no beginning and no end to the forest, or the dust storm, no edge from which to know where the clearing begins. Here, in this familiar density, beneath this cloak, within this carapace, is the longing within the darkness” (111). Her identity takes on what becomes in the novel a familiar boundaryless shape, a wilderness encloses her and she figures herself as an animal covered by a “carapace,” a shield against the unknowing, the darkness. The “longing” she feels is strikingly similar to the “thin but persistent thirst” (3) she imagines in the first chapter, when she takes on the form of grass. In both instances Naomi transforms into another shape when a desire for the absent mother is implied. The wilderness invokes not only the experience of forced exile but signals the displacement Naomi feels because of her absent mother. Naomi languishes within this rootless state, unable to find an edge from which to create meaning. Meaning is made, however, when, juxtaposed against this personal account of her lost and fluid state, there comes a very public pronouncement: a date, 1942. This transforms Naomi's personal state into a political and historical statement.

Naomi's personal identity is contingent upon the questions of identity raised by the Japanese Canadian community's exile. The expulsion into the Canadian wilderness represents the near erasure of an entire race of people. Lim suggests: “Kogawa's novel deliberately rewrites a body of communal stories (the infamous history of Japanese Canadian wartime detention and nuclear holocaust in Nagasaki), reweaving these old fibers into new cloths” (1990, 291-92). Naomi figures the community expulsion in terms similar to her personal experience: “We are going down to the middle of the earth with pick-axe eyes, tunnelling by train to the Interior, carried along by the momentum of the expulsion into the waiting wilderness” (Kogawa 1981, 111). The forest's engulfment of the entire community is figured as a descent into the earth and suggests the erasure against which Naomi and her family struggle. Again, the forest is hardly the beckoning femaled frontier that informs so much of the European American histories of the North American continent.

Kogawa emphasizes instead a Japanese Canadian experience by referencing the beginnings of their history on the North American continent: “We are those pioneers who cleared the brush and the forest with our hands, the gardeners tending and attending the soil with our tenderness, the fishermen who are flung from the sea to flounder in the dust of the prairies” (112). Re-presenting the Japanese Canadians as pioneers, gardeners, and fishermen of the Canadian land and sea at the moment of their expulsion powerfully undercuts their perceived status as enemy and alien, and calls forth the paradox in Aunt Emily's statement “After all we're Canadians” (104).

The Nakane family's exile to Slocan, a former ghost town in the Canadian Interior, implies the recurring theme of erasure not only by the idea of inhabiting a ghost town but by the erasure Naomi discovers when she returns to Slocan twenty years later and finds that “Not a mark was left. All our huts had been removed long before and the forest had returned to take over the clearings” (117). The absence or erasure of site and sign inform Naomi's construction of history and identity and the actual return to Slocan prefaces Naomi's reconstruction of her experiences there as a child.

Naomi remembers the house in Slocan into which her family moved and recalls it being significantly earthlike. The house is a dilapidated structure that appears to grow from the forest floor: “a small grey hut with a broken porch camouflaged by shrubbery and trees. The color of the house is that of sand and earth. It seems more like a giant toadstool than a building … from the road the house is invisible” (121). The house not only grows from the forest floor but occupies a figurative space beneath the earth as well, recalling again the movement underground in the epigraph. Naomi thinks: “Although it is not dark or cool, it feels underground” (121). By figuring the house as submerged into the earth, the boundaries of home are ruptured. Biddy Martin and Chandra Mohanty examine, in their article “Feminist Politics: What's Home Got To Do With It?,” the “configuration of home, identity, and community … as a concept and desire” (1986, 191). They define their idea of home to contain at least

two specific modalities: being home and not being home. “Being home” refers to the place where one lives within familiar, safe, protected boundaries; “not being home” is a matter of realizing that home was an illusion of coherence and safety based on the exclusion of specific histories of oppression and resistance, the repression of differences even within oneself. Because these locations acquire meaning and function as sites of personal and historical struggles, they work against the notion of an unproblematic geographic location of home. (169)

The absence of familiar, safe, and protected boundaries of the house in Slocan obtains through the blurred boundaries between house and land. If the figurative walls of home transform into a toadstool, then the idea of home must extend, in this instance, to include the landscape. Both the house and forest become, then, the site of “personal and historical struggle.” This melding of home and identity into the landscape, a construction that recurs throughout the text, always also contains within it the paradox of being a Canadian exiled upon one's own land. Even as a child, Naomi is imbued with a sense of being home and not being home at the same time.

The modality of “not being home,” as constructed by Martin and Mohanty, is informed by a female subject who grows up with the “notion of a coherent, historically continuous, stable identity” (195), a position from which she breaks out by choosing to live in homes and neighborhoods unfamiliar to her. Obasan is written from a much different subject position. The history of forced exile informs the notion of home, and Naomi's complex working out of “not being home” transforms this modality into an even more radical site of resistance; as a Japanese Canadian, Naomi cannot ignore or repress the “differences” within herself as she is continually viewed by the dominant, racist government as “other.” Because home is not only the metaphorical four walls but the land as well, increasing the possibility of radical displacement, Naomi must constantly resist submersion and reassert her rightful position on her native Canadian land. Thus, the Canadian landscape becomes both the concrete and metaphorical notion of home with which Naomi struggles.

As a young girl exiled to the forest without knowing explicitly why, Naomi also struggles with her identity using images appropriate to her age and place.2 She recounts the story of Goldilocks in a way that both signals her desire for a stable sense of home and exposes the story's traditional ethnocentric reading:

In one of Stephen's books, there is a story of a child with long golden ringlets called Goldilocks who one day comes to a quaint house in the woods lived in by a family of bears. Clearly, we are that bear family in this strange house in the middle of the woods. I am Baby Bear, whose chair Goldilocks breaks, whose porridge Goldilocks eats, whose bed Goldilocks sleeps in. Or perhaps this is not true and I am really Goldilocks after all. In the morning, will I not find my way out of the forest and back to my room where the picture bird sings above my bed and the real bird sings in the real peach tree by my open bedroom window in Marpole? (Kogawa 1981, 126)

Naomi imagines herself as two identities in the story. From living in a forest, Naomi reads the story from an object position linked to place; she and her family become the family of bears. Yet, she also imagines herself as Goldilocks, which signals a desire to return to a subjectivity that allows agency; it is Goldilocks who acts, who breaks things, who eats and sleeps. From her physical experience of place, Naomi identifies herself as Baby Bear living in a forest home, but through imagination and desire, she also identifies with Goldilocks's subject agency; thus, she is simultaneously object and subject, agent and captive. The obvious fact that Goldilocks is Anglo further problematizes Naomi's desire for subject agency; implied in the fairy tale is the assumption that one must be Anglo in order to act, a position certainly supported by Naomi's experience of exile. By exposing the traditional ethnocentric reading of this fairy tale, Naomi also deconstructs a monolithic subject position, she is neither victim nor agent, but both.

After three years of living in Slocan, the Japanese Canadians are again dispersed. Naomi figures the leaving using forest imagery and reading the tale of the Giant Woodsman into the situation:

The day we leave, the train station is a forest of legs and bodies waiting. … We are all standing still, as thick and full of rushing as trees in a forest storm, waiting for the giant woodsman with his mighty axe. He is in my grade-two reader, the giant woodcutter, standing leaning on his giant axe after felling the giant tree (179).

Just as in the Goldilocks tale, in which Naomi imagines herself and her family as the bears, identifying with the object position, so too does she imagine herself, and others on the train with her, in the object position of trees, waiting to be felled by the giant woodsman. Annette Kolodny and Nina Baym both suggest that a figure such as the woodsman is a representation of the mythic Adamic hero who acts with individual agency against a femaled wilderness. Here, the Japanese Canadians become this wilderness, a gendered position within the Anglo-mythic paradigm that Naomi invokes with this tale. Thus, rather than forging into the wilderness in the agent position, they are object to be acted upon and destroyed by the Anglo-mythic hero. Yet, read another way, this victim status is also subverted in that as trees, they are part of the land and belong integrally to the Canadian soil. The felling of these trees signifies a destruction of the Canadian land, suggesting perhaps that the assault on the Japanese Canadians is also a simultaneous assault on Canadian national identity. Read as such, Naomi's identity takes on a complexity that dismantles a status as pure victim, again foregrounding a central problem in the text: that of occupying simultaneously multiple identities and positions.

Naomi's experience with the landscape, too, is complex. For instance, the mountain landscape surrounding Slocan is sharply contrasted with her later experience of the Alberta prairie, the location of their second exile. Beauty and life surround her in Slocan: “The rain, the warmth bring to bloom the wildflowers that hide beneath the foliage. Everywhere is the mountain's presence. Our bones are made porous” (139). Thus, despite the exile, Naomi has moments of joy and wonder, and is kept alive by the landscape. But when she and her family are forced even further inland, to the prairie, the imagery is quite different, reflecting the death and destruction of her family and other Japanese Canadian families.

The second exile relocates Naomi's family on the Alberta prairie. In response to the new landscape, Naomi imagines herself on an edge: “We have come to the moon. We have come to the edge of the world, to a place of angry air. Was it just a breath ago that we felt the green watery fingers of the mountain air? Here, the air is a fist” (191). Their position on the edge is further signified by Naomi's awareness of the arrangement of homes on the farm to which they move. Not only is the house into which they move smaller than the one in Slocan, but, she states: “Our hut is at the edge of a field that stretches as far as I can see. …” (192). Furthermore, Naomi notices that “We are at the far end of a large yard that has a white house in the middle” (191). The farmer's residence, as compared to their hut, is a “real house” (192). Such literal placement on the margin signifies not only Naomi's family's position but the situation of the other Japanese Canadians who were not allowed to return to their coastal homes after the war was over.

Living on and farming this desolate land is figured as debilitating and nearly deadly: “All the oil in my joints has drained out and I have been invaded by dust and grit from the fields and mud is in my bone marrow. I can't move anymore … there is no escape” (194). Naomi is captive in this landscape, choked not only by the oppressive conditions, the extreme heat and cold, but by the Orders-in-Counsel that forbid the Japanese Canadians to return to their homes. The land invades and dulls Naomi, figuratively perpetrating the displaced violence of the racist government orders. The land is now the enemy, just as the government is the enemy.

Another important process in Naomi's subject construction is her deconstruction of official history. As an adult woman, Naomi rereads newspaper clippings Aunt Emily had collected during the war. Naomi counters the “official” facts with her memory of living and working in the Alberta beet fields in a way that reasserts her experience on the land and constructs a specific history from this position. A newspaper clipping she finds in Aunt Emily's folder is one entitled “Facts about evacuees in Alberta” and shows a smiling Japanese Canadian family with a caption reading: “Grinning and Happy” (193). Naomi powerfully counters this “official” history by telling her own facts: “The fact is I never got used to it and I cannot, I cannot bear the memory. There are some nightmares from which there is no waking, only deeper and deeper sleep” (194). By challenging this official history, Naomi does wake from sleep: “‘Grinning and happy’ and all smiles standing around a pile of beets? That one is telling. It's not how it was” (197; emphasis mine). The process of reconstructing her history requires Naomi to remember and tell of the painful years on the Barker farm.

Naomi's reconstruction of her life in Alberta significantly depicts her position on and as part of the landscape. The trope of submersion in the earth reoccurs. For relief from the heat, Naomi spends time either in a root cellar, a “damp tomb,” situated significantly underground, or in a swamp in which “The water is always muddy, so brown that we cannot see the submerged parts of our bodies at all” (200). In both cases relief from life on this land implies death, and Naomi figures herself as a submerged, dying self. The tree, which has appeared throughout the text with various meanings, reappears in the swamp, this time explicitly representing death: “The only tree here is dead” (204). Further, Naomi is “sitting motionless as the dead tree” (205), again implying her identification with this figure. During this time on the Barker farm she is informed of her father's death and news of her mother's fate in Nagasaki reaches Obasan and Uncle. Again, the landscape signifies these shifts in consciousness and identity.

Naomi does not learn of her mother's death until many years later. The family minister is the one who finally reads the letter to Naomi and her brother. After the reading, Sensei begins a prayer, but Naomi refuses to listen and instead significantly turns her attention to the earth and sky:

I am not thinking of forgiveness. The sound of Sensei's voice grows as indistinct as the hum of distant traffic. 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 … I close my eyes … Mother. I am listening. Assist me to hear. (240)

Rejecting the Christian discourse and shifting to a discourse that significantly links the earth and sky to the mother, Naomi suggests now that a reclamation of the land also means reclaiming the mother. The possibility of collapsing into a “mother earth” archetype, by which is typically implied a safe and nurturing site remains, however, impossible for Naomi to envision. When she remembers, or recreates her mother from memory, Naomi figures her in problematic and paradoxical terms. She imagines the mother as a fluid force that never allows her the stability she desires: “You are the tide rushing moonward pulling back from the shore … I sit on the raft begging for a tide to land me safely on the sand but you draw me to the white distance, skyward and away from this blood-drugged earth” (241). Naomi imagines her mother as the ocean underneath her, a destabilizing force, moving her away from the paradoxical earth that is at once a “safety of sand” and a “blood-drugged earth.” The drawing away of self to the “white distance” radically depositions and destabilizes Naomi. This poetic, dreamlike passage represents not only fluid identity boundaries but, through its blending of narrative and poetic forms, destabilizes boundaries in writing as well.3

The imagery shifts again and the tree now signifies the mother: “A Canadian maple tree grows there where your name stands. The tree utters its scarlet voice in the air. Prayers bleeding. Its rustling leaves are fingers scratching an empty sky” (241). The image of Canada's national tree planted in Japan, signifying the mother, is again a powerful yet problematic claim of identity. That the tree stands in place of the dead mother who met her fate partially because Canada denied her the right to return again invokes the paradox of Stephen's riddle: “We are both the enemy and not the enemy” (70). The tree also recalls the photograph that shows Naomi as a young girl, hanging onto her mother's leg: “Your leg is a tree trunk and I am branch, vine, butterfly. I am joined to your limbs by right of birth, child of your flesh, leaf of your bough” (242-43). But Naomi counterposes this image of life with: “The tree is a dead tree in the middle of the prairies” (243). The multiple significations of the tree suggest the necessary vicissitudes, the crossings of identity one encounters when coming to terms with paradoxes such as being exiled upon one's own native land and in embracing the absent mother. Naomi's struggle to recreate the mother thus also represents her rereading of her position on Canadian land and within Canadian history.

Historicizing herself as a Canadian, Naomi turns again to locate her identity within the landscape in a passage that is both an appeal to and an indictment of the nation of Canada:

Where do any of us come from in this cold country? oh Canada, whether it is admitted or not, we come from you we come from you. From the same soil, the slugs and slime and bogs and twigs and roots. We come from the country that plucks its people out like weeds and flings them into the roadside. We grow in ditches and sloughs, untended and spindly. We erupt in the valleys and mountainsides, in small towns and back alleys, sprouting upside-down on the prairies, our hair wild as spiders’ legs, our feet rooted nowhere. We grow where we are not seen, we flourish where we are not heard, the thick undergrowth of an unlikely planting. … We come from Canada, this land that is like every land, filled with the wise, the fearful, the compassionate, the corrupt. (226)

Naomi's entreaty challenges the people of Canada, and indeed of all lands, to recognize injustice and to acknowledge histories of people who are not of the dominant group. Her claim of Canadian national identity is here in its most potent form wherein she demands recognition and valorization of her lived history.

Naomi returns, finally, alone to the coulee. Grieving over the mother, she wonders what is left after the body rots: “Up through the earth come tiny cries of betrayal. There are so many betrayals—departures, deaths, absences—there are all the many absences within which we who live are left” (245). Included in these betrayals is the white Canadian betrayal of the Japanese Canadian citizens, a betrayal from which Naomi too must heal.

Naomi's final prayer returns the imagery to the forest, signaling the eventual and perpetual organic return to the earth and implying perhaps that it is not until death that those of all colors belong equally to the land:

Father, Mother, my relatives, my ancestors, we have come to the forest tonight, to the place where the colors all meet—red and yellow and blue. We have turned and returned to your arms as you turn to earth and form the forest floor. Tonight we read the forest braille. See how our stained fingers have read the seasons, and how our serving hands serve you still. (246)

It is in this position, finally, on the earth, that Naomi both reads and inscribes her history and thus claims her place on the Canadian soil.

Joy Kogawa's Obasan constructs a history of the Japanese Canadian experience of exile during World War II, raising questions of national identity problematized by the paradox of being exiled upon one's own native land. This destabilized idea of a homeland is figured through Naomi's responses to the different sites to which she and her family are forced to move. The Canadian landscape is the actual and figurative space upon which Naomi constructs her identity, and by doing so inscribes a Canadian history through claiming a place on Canadian land.


  1. See Kolodny 1984 and Kolodny 1975, in which she emphasizes the psychological motivations in constructing the land as female, suggesting that the European male figurations of the North American continent are informed by the desire for total gratification on both a filial and sexual metaphorical level. In contrast, the imaginative play of white pioneer women focuses “on the spaces that were truly and unequivocally theirs: the home and the small cultivated gardens of their own making” (1975, 6). These private spaces, she suggests, “implied home and community, not privatized erotic mastery” (xiii).

  2. King-Kok Cheung suggests that Kogawa's use of fairy tales provides a way to critique the outrageous official government history of the Japanese Canadian internment without directly confronting it. Cheung's project is to show the power of silence in Obasan; thus she posits that Kogawa confronts dominant Canadian history “without raising her voice. Instead, she resorts to elliptical devices such as juvenile perspective, fragmented memories, and reveries, Western fairy tales and Japanese fables—devices that at once accentuate fictionality and proffer a ‘truth’ that runs deeper than the official records of the war years spliced into the novel” (1993, 129).

  3. Lim suggests that Obasan “shows an interest in prose experimentalism; mixing genres; crossing boundaries of prose and poetry; combining the work of memory and history, fact and reverie, and fiction; the discourse of myth and legend. … and the discourse of bureaucracy and law” (Lim 1990, 291).

Joy Kogawa with Ruth Y. Hsu (interview date Spring 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7427

SOURCE: “A Conversation with Joy Kogawa,” in Amerasia Journal, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 199-216.

[In the following interview, Kogawa discusses racial politics in Canada and the themes in Obasan and The Rain Ascends.]

Joy Kogawa, author of the much-acclaimed Obasan, undertook a series of readings in Hawai'i, in September 1994, as part of the Symposium, “Constructions and Confrontations: Changing Representations of Women and Feminisms, East and West,” at the University of Hawai'i. Her readings were co-sponsored by the University and the Hawaii Literary Arts Council, an all-volunteer, non-profit organization run on a shoe-string budget that nonetheless has managed to become a prime force in Hawaii's vibrant literary scene. The following conversation was conducted while she was in the state for the symposium. Kogawa lent an unusual presence to the academic conference. On occasion, she seemed pensive and was quiet, as if listening to something none of us could hear. Most of the time, she was unstinting with her time and energy, performing, talking, disagreeing, and breaking bread with numerous people on Oahu and the Big Island. She was intense. Independent. During one of her readings, she caused some controversy when she departed from the conventions governing literary and academic readings by insisting on asking questions of the audience, many of whom had settled into their seats for the evening, expecting a quiet hour of yet another author delivering her soliloquy. Instead, Kogawa switched from reading to talking with the audience. She cajoled and pushed us into telling her what was on our minds, to ask her questions. She wanted to interact, she wanted to connect, and she wanted none of the typical solipsistic literary “performance” in which writers appear more concerned with the inanimate pages before them than with the people in the audience those pages are supposed to reach and affect. She disappointed some of us that night; yet, she also delighted many others by reminding us that art can be a communal endeavor, in which readers/audience can be invited to participate in a dialogue about the text with the author. It is such a dialogue, when the thoughts and emotions in the text meet the thoughts and emotions of readers/audience, and intermingling in the minds of readers/audience (and author), that a certain re-formulation of the literary work takes place. This re-formulation is, in a sense, a re-creation of the “original,” wherein the text gains new life, bringing it fully into the present moment, in this case, not by limiting the re-birth within the borders of a single mind, but by extending the job to a collective. In a way, readers/audience are asked to be part of the creative, artistic endeavor; they are asked to be writers. In “performing” the literary event the way she had, Kogawa, inadvertently perhaps, had also set up the conditions for a critique of the traditional model of such events, in which information is passed on unilaterally, in which the audience is passive and the author is constructed as the ultimate law. Instead, she attempted to substitute circularity, reciprocity, and interchange. She reminded us that any artistic event is for the community and has to be done with the community.

Along with her poetry collections, Kogawa has now published three novels: Obasan (1981), Itsuka (1992), the sequel, and most recently, The Rain Ascends (1995).1 So far, critics have paid most attention to Obasan, which is groundbreaking in many ways. It is the first novel written by a Japanese Canadian about the Japanese Canadian internment experience during World War II. Although published in 1981, the book continues to be taught in both Canadian and United States college classrooms. Critics typically assess this work as well as John Okada's No—No Boy (1957) to be two of the most compelling treatments in fiction of the injustices suffered by the Issei and Nisei in North America, although other works have been published on this topic, most notably, Monica Sone's Nisei Daughter (1953) and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston's Farewell to Manzanar (1973).2Obasan has received significant attention from many respected critics, for example, King-Kok Cheung devotes a chapter to it in Articulate Silences (1993) and Sau-ling Wong considers it extensively in Reading Asian American Literature (1993).3

Certainly, the novel continues to attract critical attention partly due to its “historical” value; for, its use of official documents, gleaned from various archives, makes it not simply a fictive narrative but also a history. Obasan is a much-needed, public corrective to official versions that down-play or rationalize the mistreatment of Japanese Canadians during and after the war. The importance of getting out the truth becomes more apparent when one takes into account the resistance toward facing up to what happened. It took the two governments (Canada and the United States) almost fifty years to own up to the unethical nature of its war-time actions against this minority, and then only after considerable pressure had been brought to bear. The continued necessity for literary texts that push the community to remember shameful acts it would rather forget is underscored when we consider the increasing anti-Asian American sentiments across the North American continent, especially in the United States. In the past fifteen years, we have seen a sharp rise of violence against this group and other people of color, the reinstatement of unacknowledged college admission quotas, anti-immigration legislation, and the development of a discourse (in the press, by government) that seeks to disguise and to justify racist policies.4

However, the continuing resonance that Obasan finds with readers can be understood not simply as its capacity to tell a more complete story for a particular racial group, but also in its ability to underscore how the very process of narration is often implicated in power structures that disenfranchise certain groups. Both Obasan and Itsuka illustrate the relation between the right to speak and having power, that the privilege to voice one's opinions often results from being in a position of privilege. In short, who gets to tell the story and why is as important as the story itself. What is radically undercut in this narrative, therefore, is the commonly-accepted definition of history, the belief that the particular style of writing we call the genre of history is a promissory note to tell the “truth.” Kogawa's narrative—a complex mix of governmental documents, dreams, letters, diary entries, fairy tales—points to history as being all too often an accomplice of those with power. Obasan, therefore, does more than just pit one version of events against another—so that the reader can take her pick—it offers the possibility of critiquing the very process by which much of official history is made. So that, by the end of the novel, the reader may well come to the conclusion that such records are merely another kind of narration, stories that the dominant group tells about its aspirations, goals, and needs.5

As many critics have noted, the point in questioning the traditional definition of history, indeed, the conventions separating the various genres that appear in Obasan, is to construct a space so that other kinds of story-telling can happen. In fact, Kogawa's novel stresses the importance of remembering, of recovering the past that has been hidden, either out of the need to protect oneself and others, or in the mistaken belief that it is only by burying the unsavory past can one move on. Kogawa suggests that it is when we are willing to remember and to admit the past, terrible as it may be, that a truly viable present or future is possible. What happened to Japanese Canadians and Japanese Americans, then, is Naomi's story writ large. Her inability to speak stands for the community's unwillingness to examine all of the implications of the internment experience in terms of their place in Canada. Old Man Gower's silencing of her parallels the government's attempts to silence her community. So that for Naomi to hear the truth (of her mother's death) spoken is significant in larger terms as well. For the road to understanding and healing can only be taken in the company of truth, in acknowledging fully what occurred in the past. Kogawa underscores in Obasan, as she did during her reading at the University of Hawaii, that with a certain definition of community, what happens to the individual also happens to the whole, that every individual act carries the potential to ripple into the collective. Especially in Itsuka, the need to recover and to articulate the hidden past had to be a communal endeavor, for everyone needed to heal.

Kogawa's vision of what must be said and how it can be said departs from other works similarly interested in recouping silenced voices in that she does not place speech and silence in simple binary opposition. By not doing so, she provides the opportunity to critique the deeply-held belief in the West that speech is inherently superior to all forms of silence. Instead, as King-Kok Cheung argues, the story offers a complex interpretation of both, loosening the strict demarcation between the two, and illustrating how both can be forms of communication. This narrative honors “articulate” silences without necessarily negating speech. For Cheung, “In recollecting and recording the past, Naomi/Kogawa answers Emily's/Kitagawa's call for public expression. In writing a quiet book, one that is attentive to image and to nuances of feeling, the author also vindicates Obasan's silence.” The narrative reveals that “open accusations and outspoken demands, while necessary, are insufficient. Emily's thundering for justice will not solve any problem until people genuinely care.”6Itsuka contains a similar message. The story pays tribute to the redress struggle in Canada. Yet, Naomi, the now-adult narrator, throughout the story remains conflicted toward the relative militancy she witnesses around her, and at times, is caught up in. What activists, such as Emily, have wrought are certainly not undervalued; however, equal attention and respect are given the silent Issei who turned out to support redress negotiations with the government and without whom there would have been no democratic redress movement. For Cheung, Kogawa's emphasis on other notions of speech, of the power and strength residing in so-called silence poses “a radical alternative to political discourse” (155) without erasing the need for that discourse.7

Throughout her stay in Hawai'i, Joy Kogawa opened her heart to writers, students, and young scholars. Although a very private person, she consented to the following interview, which took place on a Friday afternoon, September 30 to be exact, in a small, chilly room belonging to the Department of English. I was nervous; she was thoughtful and gracious. Her responses frequently refer to the key issues that show up in her fiction. She asked the first question.

\Kogawa:] So, what's the procedure?

\Hsu:] Well, I could begin with a question or two.

That sounds good.

So was the Brown Bag Lunch with the Women's Group today fun?

Yeah, it was okay. We talked. I always feel good when I'm able to talk about a certain statement in Obasan. “Perhaps it is because I am no longer a child I can know your Presence though you are not here.” I like that thought. And because I was able to talk about the Presence, I felt good. To me, we are in the world, running around, full of anxiety, not knowing anything really, the stars are a long ways away, and we're little bits of dust floating about. We only have that thing we call faith to sustain us. When I'm able to touch that part of me and that part in others’, when I'm able to touch that sense that there is—what is the word—that there is an adequacy of love in the universe or in the world, then I can feel okay. It's a special moment in Obasan when Naomi realizes love is present even as she experiences her mother's absence. I walk around not feeling that most of the time, you know. I'm full of doubt, and terrible, terrible insecurity. But occasionally when I feel that adequacy of love in the world, I feel grounded.

Yes, I sensed that vision of love in Obasan.

Well, when we were talking about that, I felt restored. It seems to me life is so tenuous and fragile, and so is that feeling of love. But, I think we have a sense of something being born in us, a sense of the Presence, for want of a better word, a sense of our belongingness in the universe, a mystical sense that is within a lot of people. When you look at starving and dying babies, it's difficult to have any faith at all or believe in any benevolence in the universe. Then, life doesn't make sense at all. It only makes sense to do all you can to alleviate suffering. And so I think people who are doing that with their lives, working in whatever way their path takes them to alleviate suffering, I think they're there. They don't have time to even think about abstract ideas, they're just living the Presence. I think it's harder for those of us who can luxuriate in our own bewilderment to understand our lives, because our physical lives are not right on the frontline. We're thinking about policies, or theories, or about stories, and that's so much less immediate, so I think we get lost more easily. So I feel lost a lot of the time, you know.

Because we're not on the frontline, or in the trenches of real human suffering?

Yes. We know that there is a war going on. We can even perhaps attempt in our work to find the enemy by understanding systems, by making visible the way greed works. And these are all huge efforts we make, but we can still go to sleep at night in a soft bed. But people who are out there at the front don't have the luxuries we do. One of my friends, a photographer, flew into the midst of the Biafran tragedy, and started to take pictures of the dying children. But in four days she had to become so distanced from her own reactions that it was like walking into a movie for her. That's how unreal it became. And maybe there is something within all of us that makes that happen. For us to cope with just living, we have to block from our minds the suffering that's there. I think maybe we label it schizophrenia when people can't block out certain perceptions or sensations. But then it seems to me that may be a much greater kind of sanity than being able to block some of it the way we do, so that we can carry on, and feel kind of fuzzy most of the time.

Well, what struck me about Naomi is her capacity to feel and re-experience her memories. …


Naomi's sensitivity is an example of that tremendous capacity for love you're talking about. We're looking at a largesse of the soul. Unlike Steven. In both Obasan and Itsuka, Steven is the one character I have a difficult time liking. Because his choice seems to be to compartmentalize, to cut himself off from family, friends, his Japanese cultural heritage.

Well, that's interesting. I wish I felt freer to talk about what I'm writing now. I might publish it under a pseudonym so I don't feel I have the freedom to really talk about it. But anyway, I think we're here in the world to love, that's what we're supposed to do, so there is that dictum, almost a prescription to love. But, sometimes one cannot, you know, and so you get to an edge, and you stop, because you have to accept the fact that you can't. And, so, what happened to me was that I came to a point where I realized I was supposed to love but I could not. It was impossible. So I had to find out what do I do next? I felt constantly depressed. Then, I thought that the only thing to do was to find out what it was in me that was wrong, so that I could, you know, get beyond whatever it was. But, I couldn't find it. I just kept looking and looking and looking. I searched my dreams. Finally, I admitted to myself that I could not love. I admitted it. I'd tried everything that I could think of to try and I just couldn't. And without being specific, I broke out of the rules and found myself in free fall. At one point, it came to me in a flash, that I was still able to say that I trusted God is good. I still basically trusted in a benevolent universe. That was in 1964. From that point on, I went on a journey, from trust to trust to trust to trust. But each time of crisis I felt I was going over the ledge. Each time I thought I might not make it. And sometimes I think about Sylvia Plath, she said she wouldn't commit suicide? But she did, you know, and I sometimes wonder whether I would. Who knows? Maybe I go where I shouldn't. I'm testing my limits. I don't know. But, I nevertheless walk on, you have to just keep walking. Which is why it's an important thing for me to have really accepting friends. As for Steven, I was estranged from my brother for a long time, right through Itsuka. In fact I was going to call the book Letter to Steven because I wanted to reach my brother. I wanted him to know that I was suffering. You know, we all go through certain journeys that get harder and harder. Political struggles are hard. But struggles that are very close to home can be even harder. The Japanese Canadian community's struggle against the government was a big struggle, but the community's struggle inside itself was, I think, even harder. Now, there are rifts that may never be closed. But then even worse are the struggles within the family. Those struggles are just monumental. Beyond that are the struggles within our own souls, and that must be the place where the final barriers are, the deepest battles. At first, I thought it would be a miracle for Steven and Naomi to become friends after everything that happened. She's turned into stone herself, her wound has ossified, and the room where Steven dwelled has turned into stone. In the beginning, she doesn't see how she could possibly become living flesh again. But what's happened in my life it seems, at least for now, is that I have become friends with my brother. Our relationship feels restored. That is, I feel tenderness and understanding towards him rather than judgement. Sadness rather than anger. I think the really tough journeys are spiritual ones. And our political journeys are only metaphors for our internal journeys. I am reminded of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, in which the journeys to middle earth are in our souls.

I see.

What I've discovered is that when you work and you create, a greater understanding follows. I think that this next book may actually bring me out of my lifelong depressions. That's what I'm hoping for.

That would be great. What a critic does is in a way also creative, although obviously not in the same way as fiction writers are creative. Because I don't write fiction myself, I'm always fascinated with the decisions that writers make. What circumstances brought you to Obasan and Itsuka?

Well, what brought me to Obasan were those years of writing poetry, between '64 and whenever I started Obasan. I am very affected by what critics or reviewers, and readers say about my work. A Choice of Dreams received a flood of really very positive reviews. But Jericho Road got one review that was less than flattering, and I went into a slump. I thought, “I can't write poetry and I'm not going to write any more.” So then I wanted to turn to prose. So that was Obasan. It was actually a response to some dreams I had. But before even beginning Obasan, I thought it's time to start writing prose, so I wrote a short story. After the short story, I came across this stuff in the archives in Ottawa that was linked directly with dreams I'd been having telling me to go to the archives. When something explicit comes out of a dream, I really listen to it. That's a funny way to live perhaps. I mean one could just as well pick a straw out of the air or something, you know. But, then people get directions from the I Ching, you know. Anyway, I did that. And all kinds of really nice things happened to me while I was writing Obasan. Once, I was reading these letters by Muriel Kitagawa. I got to this part where she was talking about this man. She was actually saying, “Goddam his soul.” She was so angry with him, but I didn't know why. I didn't know who he was. So as I was thinking about this, I went downstairs for some hot chocolate, and met a woman, who had just come from Victoria, which is a long way from Ottawa. She had just come for that one day to the archives, and she was studying the internment, too. Well, she knew all about that man, and she told me everything I needed to know. I was so amazed. So then I went back upstairs and continued writing. I had the feeling that, yes, I'm on the right track. So that kept me writing the book.

When you're on the right track, doors open for you.

It seems like that. So that's how Obasan got written. I was writing it the way I would write my poems. I would dream something which would help me get a part of the novel done. Then, something would push me onto the next segment. I was just listening to my dreams.

Was that how Itsuka worked, too?

Let's see. How did that one happen?

Do you feelItsuka was a natural progression fromObasan?

Well, after Obasan came out, I didn't know what I wanted to write about. Then, I started something and stopped, started again and stopped. I tried to think of a basic story line, for instance Obasan was basically the story of my life—there was Vancouver, Slocan, and Southern Alberta. But in Itsuka, I had some problem in my mind that I wanted to work on. So I tried to develop some characters to fit with the problem. I was consciously trying to construct the plot. But in 1983, I got seriously involved in redress. The book stopped once that happened. I couldn't write about redress while I was involved with it, for some reason. I made notes and put them aside. I think I was worried that later I might hate it, or that I might write something inaccurate, or something that might possibly hurt someone. I was surrounded with doubt. I kept wondering whether there were deeper issues about this movement and the various positions. Maybe the people who now seem to be right might later be proved wrong, in the long run. There were many factions within the redress movement. I couldn't help but wonder whether they were doing themselves more harm than good by their fighting with other groups. I know we have to stand up and speak out—that's certainly Emily's stance, but it's not Obasan's. At the time, I believed that working within the framework of a national organization and democracy was the right way to proceed. But I also saw how the issei were being hurt by the controversy. And I didn't want to add fuel to that by writing about it. I don't want to hurt them. It was horrific. So I couldn't write for the longest time. I just made notes to myself and wrote my diary. Finally, it just happened. I started to write. Then I realized that the problem was being true to events, to the people. That was impossible too, because it would have been too black and white. Politics is one dimensional. There is such a fervor and blindness that goes with that fervor, because you really don't see what the other side is all about. I hated that one-dimensional quality. But I tried to write about it anyway. I tried to step into Emily, to think like her, to understand her way of being. I turned into her for quite a while, you know. I did a lot of rallying and talking and fundraising. Then Itsuka came out. But I had some real problems with the Emily character. While writing the book, I began to want to dismiss Emily, and yet she's the main character, so I couldn't.

What about her relationship with Father Cedric?

Yes, now that was a problem. I don't think there should have been a Father Cedric. There should have been some less complex character. The Father Cedric in the book is lost. Actually, I think he got in the way of the book. If I'd followed that story through, it would have been a totally different book. I was intending another book when I started, then it got changed by redress. In a way, Father Cedric got sidelined. And so people who were reading it for the romance got disappointed, and people who were reading it for redress were irritated. I think those are the reactions to the Cedric character.

I thought you were trying to use Father Cedric to continue with the religious issues in Obasan.

Well, when I started off, I wanted three kinds of priests. Father Cedric was going to be one kind. Now, in Obasan, Obasan was different from Aunt Emily. In the new book, I had planned three kinds of priests. But that got sidetracked. I didn't want to do the story of redress and the story about the three priests at the same time.

The Japanese Canadian community now. In your opinion, where are they at? The Asian American communities in New York, the Bay Area or L. A. are pretty vocal. Have you heard of a new magazine from L.A. called Yolk, y-o-l-k?

Oh, egg yolk. Ha! Ha!

See, it's difficult for us to have a sense of what's happening up in Canada.

There's a contingent in the Vancouver area, in southern Alberta. There is an Okinawan community in southern Alberta. The largest group is in Toronto. Now during the redress struggle, I became more aware of the landscape. I realized that Vancouver and Toronto had high concentrations of Japanese Canadians, but then Montreal, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa, etc., also had sizable communities. Now whether we could legitimately say that we are a real community is something else. The dispersal in Canada was very different than what happened in the States. I mean the government's goal was that we should be scattered. Like other Nisei I grew up thinking I had to be “the only Jap in town.” In Toronto, when the community decided to build a center, they built it way out in the outskirts. Japanese Canadians live all over the place, not together. There is no Japantown anywhere. In Vancouver, an attempt was made by a few to live together, in the Powell St. area. But more recently there is an impetus to move away from there. Now they're building a heritage center in Burnaby outside of Vancouver. Apart from buildings, there's the question of our inner dwellings. I think people who went through the redress battle were transformed by it. They have become politicized and there's considerable awareness about justice issues. There's been also some really interesting alliances with Native peoples. That's one hopeful thing to come out of redress—the politicization of some people, including younger people. But, aside from these people, I think the majority feel disconnected from any but the larger Canadian community. The majority stayed dispersed. The intermarriage rate is very high because most of the kids do not associate with other Japanese Canadian kids. And so we are an assimilated body.

I see.

In Canada, to be Japanese was so shameful for my generation that we did everything we could to erase it from our consciousness and from the consciousness of our kids. And that's a very deep thing, because it was happening in our formative years. With the third generation, many have intermarried and have these racially mixed children. Some are coming back with a vengeance to claim a part of their racial heritage, perhaps because they have a lot more strength or freedom to explore identity than their parents did, and because the prejudice is not as great as it was back then. The overt kinds of prejudice we had to go through, like the yellow peril stuff, and being barred from this, that and the other thing—all that's gone. But new and more hidden forms of prejudice have developed. So the third generation also feel a rage that is unspoken.

So there is still a lot of prejudice and discrimination in Canada?

I think there is everywhere. I think it's here. If we're talking about the dirty looks or even slurs as you go down the street, there's a certain amount of that. Of course, there's the systemic forms of it. You can see it if you just look at the statistics. But in the Vancouver area now, it's become worse, because of the sudden influx of the East. It's becoming visible again.

Right, very much so. I have friends in Vancouver.

But I think it's quite different from the kind we encountered when we were young. It's almost a class thing because money is mixed up in it. In Vancouver, I think the prejudice based on money is worse than prejudice based on race. Racial barbs hurt but poverty kills. People who feel disenfranchised by the money are enraged about the recent influx of immigrants, and it's not just a race thing. If there's anybody coming in with money and taking over and making the prices go up, there is rage against that. But because it's associated with race as well, then it takes on another tone, and it's very complex. But interestingly, the current Lieutenant Governor in B. C. is Chinese.

A Chinese Canadian, or a Chinese from China, Taiwan?

I'm not sure.


It's as if there is an invitation at the very top. But as for ordinary people … once, I went to get a hair cut, and this Eastern European woman refused. She told me the shop was closed. I wanted to test it out. My partner's white, so I asked him to go in there and see if she would cut his hair. And the shop was open for him. It was obviously racism. So, that kind of thing is still there.

Have you experienced racism anywhere else?

I experienced a lot of racism in England the first time I visited. This was years ago though. It's very different now.

But, there's Paki bashing in London. What about Canada's collective consciousness? The country seems to have gone through a great deal with the redress movement. And the Japanese Canadians were trying to get the nation to acknowledge what happened during the Second World War. Officially they made reparations, and somebody gave a speech. But do you think that future generations or even this present generation of Canadians have really come to terms with all of the implications with what happened to Japanese Canadians during the war?

You know, an interesting difference between the Canadian process of redress and the American one was that it was front page news in Canada. I think one reason for that is that the Japanese Canadians are so thoroughly assimilated that our friends, our husbands, our wives, etc., or people in the media, who were our friends, they put it on the news. And you know we had friends in City Hall; we had friends everywhere. In the 1940s, we didn't have any friends. That taught us a lesson. Later, we made friends. So, I think it would be hard for people in Canada now not to know about what happened. It's mentioned anytime there's talk about the past injustices. It's in the textbooks, in the curriculum, in the high schools and in the universities. And so I think we did a tremendous amount of education as part of our own redress movement. In the States, there were the hearings, which was great for the communities. But, I don't know how much publicity all those hearings got. The bizarre thing was the resistance from within our community about having our story put out there. Some people wanted to let it slide and not rock the boat. I wonder if Canada was the reverse of the States. A relatively small number of Japanese Canadians were politicized, but in general many other Canadians were informed. In the States, perhaps a large segment of the community was politicized but on the whole the rest of country was less informed?

It seems as if we're not learning the lessons because the same sort of brutal and violent imagination that can enable this type of situation still exists. In L. A., about three months ago, two Japanese students were shot. In Texas, this Japanese exchange student was shot in the back by this homeowner. In 1982, Vincent Chin was beaten to death with baseball bats in Detroit because he looked like he could be Japanese. In 1988, five school children of southeast Asian descent were shot to death in a Stockton schoolyard. In 1989, another Chinese American was pistol whipped to death because he looked Vietnamese. So it seems as if the lessons aren't really being digested.

Well, our countries are quite different, you know. I mean we have really strict gun laws. People just don't have guns. So I think we have a different level of violence. People don't shoot each other quite as much. The media's presentation of these terrible events is also an interesting issue. Did you see that movie Natural Born Killers? It's a horrific film about the media's ability to incite violence, because people want recognition or fame at any cost. It was great for me to see this kind of attack on the media. In Canada, we don't see this level of violence against Asians. What we got recently in Vancouver is coverage of a riot when we lost a hockey game or whatever it was. Remember that thing? There was violence in Vancouver. A few days later, a newspaper cartoon presented the violence as being caused by Asian gangs. That form of media discrimination is terribly violent against the people, and different from an individual being so demented that they would actually shoot somebody. So I think it's true that in all countries, there are these crazy things that happen, whether they're done by individuals or by newspaper cartoons. To say we haven't learned the lessons of the past is true for the whole world. We keep having to relearn. But I think the question is also whether or not we have progressed in any way? How can we measure that? I suppose we can say that at least we don't have slaves anymore. And now, it would be very difficult to put people in camps. I think people do learn some things.

Yes, it's probably not as easy nowadays to recreate a situation in which a whole group of people could be put into concentration camps.

The Jewish community is very strong, isn't it, in that area, especially after the Second World War. I can't see that they would stand by and let another group do that to them. Although you know in Canada we had something called the War Measures Act which is the Act under which we were all incarcerated. In Quebec, during something called the October Crisis, people belonging to the FLQ, Front Liberation Quebec, were rounded up under the War Measures Act. During the redress movement, our national organization wanted that whole Act seriously reviewed. And it was.

One last question. In Telling It: Women and Language Across Cultures, you said, “What matters is that you listen to the voice that calls you. Your calling is to respond to the voice that calls you. …” Fundamentally, that response is the response of love. So the writer's role is no different than any other human being's role, which is fundamentally to love and to respond to a voice that cries out to you. It seems to me that you're talking about having an empathetic imagination. Do you see this as one of the fundamental differences between most male writers and most women writers, or are gender categories at all useful when talking about writing? Do you even see yourself as a woman writer, or as an ethnic writer?

I wonder if what I said then was too glib. Now, inasmuch as I know myself, I do not love. I only seem to know what love is not. I know I want suffering to stop, and what is often required are sacrifices that I can't pay. And so I know that I do not love. In response to whether there is any gender or ethnicity associated with that quest, the quest to love, I don't know what the answer to that is. I think that as a mother, one feels great longing in relation to the child, and I know it's in little girls and in militant women to want to remain connected. Maybe that indicates a vast gender difference. But I haven't really sat down to think about that, to think about it as maleness or Asian-ness or anything. I know I value the connectiveness and I value the peace that comes from the alleviation of suffering. But maybe people who stretch their minds will think about all these questions philosophically. I think pain is brain food, it makes the brain stretch. So people who are willing to go through that, not for self-glory but out of caring about the world, then what they offer is so valuable. It's sort of like a little guide for the rest of us. If you get a lot of people doing that in a political movement, but then political movements are so messy. They're full of self-glory and self-seeking. But nevertheless, if enough people carry on political work for the right reasons, then some progress might be made. So, you know, most of the time I stumble here and there. Then, I say, okay, I will trust that I am doing the right thing. If I go wrong, I will trust myself to the mercy and to the forgiveness that is there. You see, that somehow has to be good enough.

\After this interview, Joy Kogawa published her long-awaited third novel, The Rain Ascends (1995). Since this book takes on some of the same issues that can be found in her previous two novels, I asked the author a few questions regarding her latest work.]

In your latest novel, The Rain Ascends, you repeatedly mention the Goddess of Mercy. Readers may be drawn to think of Kwan Yin. Could you let readers in on just what you had in mind when you included this Goddess of Mercy in a story about a Protestant minister, who molests young boys?

What I had in my mind exactly, I don't know. On the second page, Millicent says that it is not so much she who is seeking the Goddess, but that the Goddess is seeking her. The Bible has a phrase about humans loving God because God first loved us. I accept this. One reviewer speaks of this book as being Millicent's struggle with the God who is beyond names. So whether the term used is God or Goddess or Spirit or Love or Presence—perhaps, it is all the same. I do not know.

One of the greatest puzzles for us is certainly how evil can exist side by side with good, often within the same person. Can such a contradiction ever be reconciled in the character, Father Shelby? Is the object even to try to reconcile such contradictions?

My crisis in 1964 had to do partly with the problem with evil. I don't know any way that a notion of a good God can be reconciled with the existence of evil. It remains a mystery, but in 1964, my resolution to the problem was to trust that God was good, and therefore, the urgency of addressing the problem was lessened. It was put on the back burner. In The Rain Ascends, the problem was back on the front burner. And here, the resolution was the discovery that Mercy reigns at the heart of the untellable truth. Mercy is present and unleashed into life when the journey of truth is made.

The novel seems to be as much a story about Millicent Shelby, the daughter/narrator, as it is about her father, the minister. At one point in the story, the narrator says: “Where the will to truth meets the will not to harm, a struggling fiction is found.” Is exposing the truth about her father the only way for Millicent to heal? Do you see Millicent as a tragic figure?

Millicent accepted the impossible task of truth-telling because of a prior faith that truth was required of her. She held to that faith almost blindly, but trustingly—not so much in order to heal, but in order to be obedient to the commandment. And in so doing, she discovered a level of strength that was not available to her before. No, she is not a tragic figure. She is triumphant.

Some readers may see this novel as an indictment of Western organized religion. What do you see the role of the Church to be today in the West, specifically in Canadian society?

I think that the Church has no business being militant, following its desperate failure in the Second World War. Organized religion, in my view, is not where it's at. I trust in the Spirit to erupt wheresoever the Spirit chooses. These days I have been thinking that the most powerful are the most vulnerable. When people speak of “Almighty God,” they may not have heard that God was a child at Auschwitz hanging from a scaffolding. The newborn baby has the power to wake us at night because the baby draws us with the mighty bonds of love. And where is the Church? I don't know. It may be like the mannequin in the store window. A body with nothing in it. On the other hand, maybe someone is hiding inside the mannequin. I think the role of the Church is to do justice. It is doing that in Latin America, I hear. But in Canada, I know some Church people who are working hard.

Was this novel difficult or trying for you to write? In what ways was it trying or not? Which of your three books is the most satisfying to you? Why?

It was hell. But coming out of hell was and continues to be great. I am more optimistic. I think and feel much stronger than I have ever done. I don't know if this book will be “successful” in the way Obasan is, but it was probably the deepest journey I have yet made.


  1. Joy Kogawa's novels include Obasan (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1981; Boston: Godine, 1982); Itsuka (Toronto: Penguin Books, 1992; New York: Anchor, 1994); and The Rain Ascends (Toronto: Knopf, 1995). Her poetry books include Woman in the Woods (Tuscon, Arizona: Mosaic Press, 1985; Jericho Road (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1974), and The Splintered Moon (Fredericton, New Brunswick: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1968).

  2. John Okada, No-No Boy. (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1957; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979); Monica Sone, Nisei Daughter (Boston: Little, 1953; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979); and Jeanne Wakatsuki and James Houston, Farewell to Manzanar (Boston: Houghton, 1973).

  3. King-Kok Cheung, Articulate Silences (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993), and Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, Reading Asian American Literature (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993).

  4. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States. From the 1960s to the 1990s (New York: Routledge, 1994); and Dana Y. Takagi, The Retreat from Race: Asian American Admissions and Racial Politics (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

  5. Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representations of Reality,” On Narrative, edited by W. J. T. Mitchell (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 1-23.

  6. Obasan, 167.

  7. Itsuka, 155.

Sonia Snelling (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5698

SOURCE: “‘A Human Pyramid’: An (Un)Balancing Act of Ancestry and History in Joy Kogawa's Obasan and Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, 1997, pp. 21-33.

[In the following essay, Snelling discusses how the search for an ancestral past in Kogawa's Obasan and Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Familyrelate to the process of making history.]

The significance of a traceable ancestral line in Western culture is an expression of the continuity and purity which is perceived as integral to the structure of European history. The disruption of this seamless line of descent in Joy Kogawa's and Michael Ondaatje's search for absent or lost parents in Obasan and Running in the Family becomes a challenge to the authority and universality of Western historicism. Through this device both writers unsettle not only the received history of their colonial past, as told by the imperial masters, but also the narrative structures and forms through which history enforces and validates Europe's appropriation of the rest of the world. Robert Young1 discusses how Western discourses of metaphysics and history work in parallel to other the colonial subject, assuming a universal narrative of progression from the primitive to the civilized, as defined by Europe. Within this context, Young asserts, imperial expansion found its justification. Drawing on the insights of post-structuralism and the work of theorists such as Michel Foucault and Edward Said discontinuity and plurality in historiographic enterprises have been utilized by many postcolonial writers as means of disassembling and interrogating the assumptions and impositions of humanism and history. Kogawa's and Ondaatje's experience of the West's discursive dominance has led them to employ similar tactics and produce texts which tell their histories through multiple perspectives and voices, with self-conscious omissions and incongruities and with an open awareness of their own limitations. Their quests for absent parents examine the irony of a European imperialism, legitimized by the universalization of its values of development and continuity, which, in its enactment, creates rifts, severs links and alienates peoples from their past. The inaccessibility of Naomi's mother in Obasan and of Ondaatje's father in Running in the Family also emphasizes the elusiveness of a knowable past, the inadequacy of totalizing narratives and the impossibility of closure. In both works the search for an ancestral past develops into an interrogation of the whole process of history-making.

Joy Kogawa's Obasan traces the lives of three generations of Japanese-Canadians during and after the Second World War. Their history is narrated by Naomi Nakane, but the narrative position shifts repeatedly throughout the novel, not only between Naomi, the adult schoolteacher in 1972, and Naomi, the child during the war, but also between the personal and the passages of reported history: the journals, letters and documents that Naomi reads as she recalls the legalized alienation and persecution of the Japanese-Canadians throughout World War II and its aftermath. Ondaatje, too, records the lives of parents and grandparents in Running in the Family. Yet, here again, the narrative voice is not fixed with Ondaatje as stories and comments from friends and family punctuate his narrative. The plurality of narrative positions which both texts employ signals both the writers' refusal to adopt the terms of the colonizer and a single, coherent, linear narrative in their retelling of the past. This is also reflected in the problem of categorizing these works, for while it may appear that Obasan is an entirely fictive novel while Running in the Family is a factual biography both works self-consciously blur these genre distinctions. For Obasan, this entails suggestions that the narrative is not wholly fictive, not only in terms of its “verifiable” historical context, but also on a personal level. Kogawa herself, in a prefatory note, signals the ambiguous relationship between fact and fiction in the novel: “Although this novel is based on historical events, and many of the persons named are real, most of the characters are fictional”,2 but which are which is not made clear. Running in the Family, conversely, is ostensibly a biography of an eccentric family but Ondaatje continually undermines his factual reliability and self-consciously fills the gaps with fiction. This biographical, and autobiographical, novel starts with a dream and ends with the provision that:

\w]hile all these names may give an air of authenticity, I must confess that the book is not a history but a portrait or “gesture.” And if those listed above disapprove of the fictional air I apologize and can only say that in Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts.3

The history described in both these texts is, therefore, neither wholly factual nor wholly invented in relation to the reality outside the text, but this subversive problematizing of genre suggests that all historiography negotiates this ambiguity between fact and fiction or what Hayden White describes as “science” and “art”, “The historian's investigative operations on the one hand and his narrative operation on the other”.4

Ancestry becomes a microcosm for history as a whole in Obasan and Running in the Family. Family history provides a route back into a history which is vast and complex by concentrating on the personal link and the sense of continuum. The past is made more accessible because it is validated by memories which “confirm” that it existed and that it had meaning. However, that both Kogawa and Ondaatje suggest problems in retelling even these most familiar and apparently tangible of histories implies that any, indeed all history is subject to the processes of selection, interpretation and fictionalization which are foregrounded in these works. Memory is shown to be partial and intensely subjective; the childhood recollections of Naomi, in Obasan, are incomplete versions of events and are inadequate for her to come to terms with her experiences, and, in Running in the Family, Ondaatje stresses the exaggerating, selective and dramatic tendencies of his sources. When personal accounts of personal incidents reveal the numerous possibilities for discrepancies, the repercussions for the documentation of “major” historical events are significant. The absent parent provides the most intimate metaphor for this elusive past. The parent, like the past, is literally absent, detached, but has given, and continues to give, life to the narrator in the present. Naomi and Ondaatje engage with their dimly remembered parents in a relationship which echoes, perhaps even defines their exchange with the past.

Naomi, in Obasan, is separated from her mother when she is still a very young child. The wartime racism and the atomic bombing of Nagasaki which prevents her return immediately link the personal and political but Kogawa provides a more subtle and complex portrayal of the inter-relation between individual and collective histories, using a personal experience which mirrors and affects Naomi's understanding of universal events. Mother's departure corresponds, actually and emotionally, with Naomi's ongoing experience of abuse by Old Man Gower, a white neighbour who has “large and demanding” hands (p. 62). Mr Gower invents excuses to take Naomi into his house and garden where the abuse occurs: “He lifts me up saying that my knee has a scratch on it and he will fix it for me. I know this is a lie. The scratch is hardly visible and it does not hurt” (p. 63). This manipulation of the situation prefigures the methods of the Canadian government later in the novel, as Aunt Emily's journal chronicles:

The newspapers are saying that there are actually Japanese naval officers living on the coast. It must be a mistake. … Maybe the articles are true. I wonder if there's a cover-up. Surely we'd know if there were spies. (p. 94)

Like Naomi with Mr Gower, Emily does not believe the information she has been given but the white men's self-assured statements seem resistant to any attempt to counter their lies. The perceived authority of their single narrative serves to maintain their “truth”. Naomi is expressly told by Mr Gower to keep quiet: “‘don't tell your mother,’ he whispers into my ear. This is what he always says.” (p. 64), and in doing so, he introduces Naomi into a code of silence which she maintains through all the years of hardship and loss during the war and by which she contains painful memories as an adult woman. Although Naomi is remembered as a quiet child and the language used in her childhood home appears quite minimalist, she is aware that the silence that follows Old Man Gower's abuse of her is different. The quietness of Naomi's family derives from “mother's and Grandma's alert and accurate knowing” (p. 56), which tends to any needs or desires before it is necessary to speak of them: “A sweater covers me before there is any chill and if there is pain there is care simultaneously” (p. 56). The silence with which Naomi covers Mr Gower's repeated assaults is linked with secrecy and separation rather than knowing and community, and thus with racist government practice rather than with open democratic process. It serves to alienate her from her whole family, especially her mother, to whom, up until this point, she feels there is “nothing that is not safe to tell” (p. 60). This sense of separation, which makes Naomi feel like a “parasite” on her mother's body, corresponds very closely in time to Mother's physical departure for Japan, the journey from which she will never return, prevented from re-entering Canada by wartime racial prejudice. Parallels are constructed between Mr Gower and the white leaders of British Columbia in their mutual use of lies, their manipulation of fear and their careless destruction of lives, but the response of Naomi and her mother also demonstrates a similar pattern. The silence adopted by both mother and daughter links them thematically just as it separates them in narrative terms, for while physically it is the Pacific that lies between them, the “rift” is really created by their mutual failure to speak, verbally to share their experience. Kogawa suggests that it is the responsibility of those silenced by white, colonial history to disturb the order and authority by which the past is controlled in the present.

Mother, though absent for most of the narrative, is a central figure in the novel as the object of Naomi's quest and the means by which she comes to terms with her own and her community's wartime experiences. Yet, like all of the history recorded in Obasan, the mother is elusive, difficult to find in words and pictures and inaccessible through concrete terms. After her uncle's death, Naomi is presented with two means to “know” her mother: Aunt Emily's package containing the letters explaining her mother's disfigurement after the attack on Nagasaki and Obasan's old photograph of her mother and herself from the distant past of family life in Vancouver. Although the letters are old, Aunt Emily has never mentioned them before, despite her characteristic insistence, “\d]on‘t deny your past. Remember everything. If you're bitter, be bitter. Cry it out! Scream! Denial is gangrene” (p. 50). When Naomi does finally receive these letters they are in Japanese, which she does not understand; they are still inaccessible to her and are written, significantly, on “slippery sheets” (p. 45) of rice paper. Obasan will not translate the letters for Naomi but offers her instead a “familiar photograph” and the advice, “\h]ere is the best letter. This is the best time. These are the best memories” (p. 46). The photograph of Naomi as a toddler and her mother's “childlike and wistful” face (p. 46) does not, however, explain anything to the adult Naomi and, indeed, it does not even capture her actual memories which recall the sensual experience rather than the visual one:

My mother places her cool hand on my cheek, its scent light and flowery. She whispers that the boy will laugh at me if I hide. Laugh? There is no worse horror. Laughter is a cold spray that chills the back of my neck, that makes tears rush to my eyes. My mother's whisper flushes me out of my hiding-place behind the softness of her silk dress. (p. 47)

The photograph is static and partial; it captures one aspect of one moment. Naomi's mother is still inaccessible to her. The discrepancy between the photograph and the memory emphasizes that the past existed in dimensions that cannot be captured textually or in archives and so again undermines the validity of history's claims to provide a complete narrative.

Images of Naomi's mother frequently recur in dreams and Naomi still feels an umbilical emotional connection with her, which transmits feelings that she cannot understand:

It is early autumn in 1945 … I wake suddenly, before the regular summons of the rooster, to the soft steady stream of rain and fog and the greyness thicker than sleep. Something has touched me but I do not know what it is. (p. 167)

However, Naomi yearns for facts about her mother's whereabouts and health and refuses to accept that the long silence signals her mother's death. It is important for Naomi to know the “facts” and break the stifling silence which has trapped her and her mother in their “mutual destruction” (p. 243). These words, which Grandma Kato fears will be a burden, are, in many ways, liberating for Naomi, as she is freed from the need to pursue the “facts” about her mother, a quest inspired by her acceptance of Western historicism, and so able to realize that she has known her mother and her mother's experience most clearly through dreams and presences. In the chapter that follows the letters, Naomi recalls images from the dreams that have visited her over the years. She comes to understand that although her mother cannot speak to her in the words and pictures that become historical archives, she is still a significant presence:

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 your grave. (p. 243)

It is an ironic blow for history in the novel that Naomi's mother, her link with the past, is most real in a way that history cannot or does not document.

This is equally the case for Ondaatje, whose father is most accessible to his son in the most fictive passages of Running in the Family. For the most part, however, Mervyn Ondaatje is a character in the anecdotes and gossip around which Ondaatje constructs his family history, and through which he hopes to discover his father. These stories and rumours are subject not only to Ondaatje's fictionalizing (in “biography” that makes no claim to factual verity), but also the exaggerations and omissions of their “original” teller:

She belonged to a type of Ceylonese family whose women would take the minutest reaction from another and blow it up into a tremendously exciting tale, then later use it as an example of someone's strain of character. If anything kept their generation alive it was this recording by exaggeration. (p. 169)

As Ondaatje self-consciously researches the life of his father he repeatedly demonstrates the problems and the flaws inherent in the gathering of historical information. For Ondaatje it is the methods by which he constructs his ancestral story that form the microcosm for all historiographic endeavour.

The methods of gathering evidence are seen to be precarious in the context of Ondaatje's biography, both in terms of reliability and accessibility. There are unexpected additions and omissions in the tale, like the extra Ondaatjes whom Michael and his sister find in the old church records: “We had not expected to find more than one Ondaatje here but the stones and pages were full of them” (p. 66). Yet, as one tale is told another is disregarded or missed:

As we are about to get into the Volks, my niece points to a grave and I start walking through the bush in my sandals. “Watch out for snakes!” God. I make a leap backwards and get into the car. (p. 68)

A snake, as the reader later discovers, is thought to be the transformed spirit of Mervyn after his death; this small incident is, perhaps, symbolic of Ondaatje's mixture of curiosity and trepidation about his father and his past. Alternatively, this may be Ondaatje textually reminding himself to contain his search and not become further embroiled in the plethora of tangents which persistently threaten to overwhelm, as well as to inform, the story which he sets out to tell. This is a dilemma confronted throughout the work, as Mervyn's history is often postponed as other stories intrude upon the text. The other histories do, of course, interrelate and expand upon the biography of Ondaatje's father, but they also serve to demonstrate the intricacy of history and the arbitrariness of inclusion.

It is an arbitrariness which Ondaatje relates to his father and his ancestry in general. The early descriptions of Mervyn and his life illuminate the precariousness of Ondaatje's very existence. In the space of two pages Mervyn is engaged three times and his final engagement to Doris Gratiaen is again, apparently, a matter of chance: “It is said that he was enchanted by both girls, but Noel married Dorothy while my father became engaged to Noel's sister” (p. 34). After an unexplained break and an equally mysterious resolution, Mervyn and Doris are finally married and Michael's existence begins to appear more secure. Ondaatje suggests that history is littered with these chance incidents and encounters which have huge historical consequences:

The insurgents were remarkably well organized and the general belief is that they would have taken over the whole country if one group hadn't mixed up the dates and attacked the police station in Wellawaya a day too soon. (p. 100)

This playful speculation on the random progress of personal and national histories seeks to undermine attempts to find coherent patterns of historical development and again places the emphasis on subjective selection and discourses. The West's master historical narrative of progression is made to appear suspiciously neat in comparison.

The anecdotes, rumours and reminiscences that Ondaatje collects about his father's life vary in source, detail and perspective. There are small, sketchy incidents and widely known, often recounted adventures. When Ondaatje visits his father's old army colleague, the ex-Prime Minister, he is able to prompt Sir John from his own familiarity with the tale: “He is enjoying the story now. I've heard it from three or four other points of view and can remind him of certain bones—the pots of curd, etc” (p. 158). However, this conversation is placed in the narrative directly after Ondaatje's own description of Mervyn's last train ride, the incident he has been discussing with Sir John. In Ondaatje's version John Kotelawala is unconscious for most of the journey, and specifically for those events which Ondaatje admits to prompting him on:

He rushed back time and again to the train and brought out the pots of curd that passengers had been carrying. They were carefully loaded into the jeep alongside the prone body of the future Prime Minister. Before my uncle drove to the hospital, he stopped at the Kelani-Columbo bridge and my father dropped all twenty-five pots into the river below, witnessing huge explosions as they smashed into the water. (p. 155)

Sir John's version is given a context of unreliability before he even begins to tell his story. The ordering is significant as it suggests that such “historical evidence” cannot be assumed to be accurate until later discredited, but must be recognized as fallible from the outset. This discrepancy in information also calls into question the accounts of Ondaatje's “three or four other points of view” (p. 158). There was no one consistently present, sober or conscious with Mervyn on the train who could provide a “complete” version of events, but Ondaatje recognizes that even if there was such a person, theirs would still only be a version. In doing so he validates his own collection of fragments as one of the many, still growing, stories of Mervyn Ondaatje's last train ride.

In her essay, “The Well-Lit Road and the Darkened Theatre: Photography in Biographies by Michael Ignatieff and Michael Ondaatje”, Deborah Bowen remarks on another occasion of Ondaatje undermining his own textual verity. She refers to Ondaatje's description of the photograph which he says, “I have been waiting for all my life. My father and mother together” (p. 161), and observes:

Ondaatje says he takes it as evidence that “they were absolutely perfect for each other”, as superior hams in their own private theatre (162). Not only does the content of his photograph tell a tale, but so too does the context in which Ondaatje places it. The story that immediately precedes this snapshot of Ondaatje's parents “is partly about the way the camera can be made to lie” (Draper 20).5

Again Ondaatje represents his biography as a personal interpretation, rather than a factual life-history. However, the questioning of historical accuracy is not intended to negate the value of Ondaatje's stories. Another photograph, of various ancestors at a fancy dress party (p. 103), is remembered so well by Ondaatje's half-blind Aunt Dolly that “\s]he reels off names and laughs at facial expressions she cannot see” (p. 112). Both photographs hold their characters in highly theatrical poses and both have come to mean something beyond the image they present to their viewers, Ondaatje and Dolly and the reader. The outlandish costumes and expressions and the theatricality of the situation validates Ondaatje's fictionalizing in the present of his text. As Bowen says, “the photograph represents the reality of those people in their mystery”,6 and this gives Ondaatje licence to create his own reality of his ancestors', and particularly his father's, lives in his fiction.

Mervyn Ondaatje cannot be entirely contained or conveyed by the facts, (however loose and qualified that term becomes), of his life in this biography and Ondaatje admits “the book again is incomplete” (p. 201) in recovering his father. Like Naomi, in Obasan, Ondaatje feels that his father is lost despite, or, perhaps, inside the information that he has been given by other people, and in an imagined sequence which follows Mervyn from the hotels of Colombo to the loneliness of his room, Ondaatje attempts to recreate his father for himself. In this section Ondaatje draws upon those aspects of his father which he feels to be alive within himself and some kind of shared emotional experience. Here the biography of Mervyn self-consciously merges with autobiography and, as Linda Hutcheon points out in The Canadian Postmodern, there is “one telling sequence in which ‘he’ reaches for a whiskey bottle and the ‘I’ drinks from it (p. 188)”,7 reflecting Ondaatje's own awareness and fear about his emotional inheritance. The cinnamon peeler, whom Mervyn meets on his journey, recalls the poem which occurs earlier in the text. The poem refers to a person's relationships and affiliations being apparent not through words but through smell: “I am the cinnamon / peeler's wife. Smell me” (p. 97). The scent is not only an identification but an “act of love”:

And you searched your arms
for the missing perfume
                                         and knew
                               what good is it
to be the lime burner's daughter
left with no trace (p. 96)

It is this sensual experience of his father which Ondaatje now finds he cannot capture in his writing, in his words. As the ants carry away the page of Mervyn's book, the same page that Ondaatje is writing and we are reading, page 189, Ondaatje metafictively surrenders his attempts to contain his father in words and compels the reader to recognize the gap between language and experience.8 Yet, as Ondaatje returns to the process of writing in the next chapter, the reader is aware that their experience of Mervyn relies entirely on the very words that Ondaatje fears fail him. This paradox signifies an awareness of the problems of telling all history through media which are both fixed and removed from experience, and emphasizes the subjectiveness of a single voice in the polyphonic historical concert.

These personal quests expand beyond the limits of intimate history to suggest and include a more public past. Both Obasan and Running in the Family broaden in scope from the lives of absent parents to relate the experiences of other family or clan members. Naomi remembers, in Obasan, that on the train travelling to the ghost towns of their exile, “even strangers are addressed as ‘ojisan’ and ‘obasan’, meaning uncle or aunt” (p. 112). Kogawa implies, through Naomi's family history, the history of all the Japanese-Canadians of British Columbia in that era. Ondaatje, too, refers not only to a large number of aunts but also to a whole generation of Ceylonese society of which his father and mother were a part and whose changing lives remained inter-related:

From the twenties until the war nobody really had to grow up. They remained wild and spoiled. It was only during the second half of my parents' generation that they suddenly turned to the real world. Years later, for instance, my uncle Noel would return to Ceylon as a QC. to argue for the lives of friends from his youth who had tried to overthrow the government. (p. 53)

A wider world of public politics is suggested here and each text addresses such a world with a varying degree of directness.

Obasan charts in some detail the disenfranchizement, dislocation and exploitation of the Japanese-Canadians during the war, yet its perspective is not confined to this one instance of injustice and displacement. The many references to Native Indians throughout the novel implies an awareness of an allegiance to other oppressed minority groups whose history has also been silenced. From the very first chapter Kogawa alludes to a shared historical fate by remarking on the visual and behavioural similarity between Japanese and Native children in Naomi's class at school, and by creating the ironic image of her uncle as an “‘Indian chief from Canadian Prairie’—souvenir of Alberta, made in Japan” (p. 2). The geography, too, reflects the history of a people:

About a mile east is a spot which was once an Indian buffalo jump, a high steep cliff where the buffalo were stampeded and fell to their deaths. All the bones are still there, some sticking right out of the fresh landslide. (p. 2)

The bones which still protrude despite the landslides of mud are a powerful metaphor for the histories which defy attempts to bury them. In turn, therefore, this is also a history of Canada, one of many, certainly, but one that cannot be ignored. The description of the effects of the atom-bomb on the population of Nagasaki broadens the consideration to a global history. The real effects of the atom-bomb are, of course, not only local or even national, but world-wide, as Obasan demonstrates, but in the novel it also serves to bind together the personal and the political, and illustrates that history is not a procession of immutable and impersonal facts but the development of individual lives. It is significant that Kogawa does not attempt to write this in the first person, but allows Naomi to describe her grandmother's words: she shows an unwillingness to appropriate this deeply personal, but in some ways very public experience. As in Ondaatje, this partly reflects the space between writing and experience. Ondaatje's Running in the Family does not progress outwards so directly to a national and universal history, but nevertheless the narrative does suggest an interactive relationship between personal and public histories. Sections of Sri Lankan “national” history are suggested through their engagement with the Ondaatje family: the insurgents' cricket game on the lawn at Rock Hill (p. 101); Mervyn's epic train journeys with the future Prime Minister (pp. 148-9 and 152-5); Ondaatje's Uncle Ned, “who is heading a commission on race riots” (p. 26), and “the old governor's home in Jaffna” (p. 24), that he has been given to live in, and which is actually in the corner of an eighteenth-century Dutch fort. However, Arun Mukherjee notes Ondaatje's neglect of the Sri Lankan experience outside of a particular class and accuses him of “tak\ing] sides with the colonizer”,9 in his writing. Yet although Ondaatje does not write a direct response to the social and historical consequences of centuries of colonial rule, he subtly undermines and discredits the racist and uninformed comments of European visitors that appear as epigraphs of certain chapters. The text celebrates the landscape and cultural identity of the island and praises the country's “folk poems” and beautiful alphabet. The absence of a direct engagement with the colonizers seems less a side-stepping of the issue, and more a deliberate ploy to exclude them from his history in a mirror-image of European history's traditional exclusion of the colonized. Ondaatje's text seeks to unsettle colonial history on many levels: the narrative disruptions and inconsistencies, his refusal to conform to the Western emphasis on grand-scale historical events, both personal and political (the bishop's journey rather than his parents' wedding or the insurgents' cricket game rather than the uprising), the many voices and versions that co-exist in his biography, all provide a significant challenge to the coherence and authority of Western historiography. The text as a whole unsettles notions of colonial control. Ondaatje demonstrates an awareness of the political suffering of the Sri Lankan people which is encapsulated in the lines quoted from Lakdasa Wikkramasinha “Don't talk to me about Matisse … ” (pp. 85-6). In the same way that Kogawa self-consciously avoids trying to appropriate the experience of the bomb victims, so Ondaatje does not attempt to answer or add to Wikkramasinha's lines and appropriate the experience of “\t]he voices I didn't know. The visions which are anonymous. And secret” (p. 85). It may be that he feels himself too much a foreigner, returning to Sri Lanka after years in the West, to adopt this voice. Ondaatje is aware of his own limits as an historian. Ultimately, both Obasan and Running in the Family reveal a postmodern approach to representations of history. Kogawa and Ondaatje write narratives which not only exhibit an awareness of the difficulties of communicating a coherent record of the past but that also actively seek to problematize their own means of doing so. Both texts undermine notions of historical “fact”, as a fixed and complete statement, and reveal the subjective and partial nature of archival evidence. Linda Hutcheon in The Politics of Postmodernism discusses the status of archives as texts which, as such, are “open to all kinds of use and abuse”.10 This is clearly demonstrated in Obasanas the political bias of those in power in the past is also present in the material that becomes historical evidence in the present. As Japanese newspapers were quickly closed down, what remains are stories and articles for the white population which reflect the fear and racism of that society. In this context reading archives becomes an interactive part of making a certain history, of discerning, as much as is possible, journalistic integrity from the propaganda, personal choice from the party line, and making many other judgements in the process of reading which will make the history that is read different for each reader. This becomes further complicated by Ondaatje's concentration on the processes of transcription, where the text is being heard/read and told/written several times distant from the experience. After visiting the church in search of his relation Ondaatje collects his notes: “Sit down in my room and transcribe names and dates from various envelopes into a notebook” (p. 68). The same is true of Ondaatje's childhood baths as he listens to stories of things that happened to him, but which he cannot remember, knowing the various tellers of the story and their predilections: The guests, the children, everyone is laughing and Gillian is no doubt exaggerating Yasmine's account in her usual style, her long arms miming the capture and scrub of five-year-olds. (p. 138)

Histories, therefore, always exist in the plural as Naomi, in Obasan, realizes as she reads Aunt Emily's journal: “Aunt Emily's Christmas 1941 is not the Christmas I remember” (p. 79). Like “all the new stories in my mind and the birds totally compatible but screaming at each other” (p. 27), and the human pyramid of family that all talks at once (p. 27), Running in the Family bristles with many and various voices telling Ondaatje their different-similar stories which he self-consciously transcribes into his own story, which he offers to us, the readers, to continue the process. Like the palmyrah toddy, which Ondaatje sips at the beginning of his biography, that continues to ferment in the stomach (p. 27), Ondaatje and Kogawa resist the closure which the West attempts to impose on the past. The absent parents of both texts become a double-edged metaphor that expresses the sense of loss which the writers experience as part of their colonial separation from their old cultures and a liberating escape from the restrictions and conventions of Western historicism. Their works suggest not only alternative histories but alternative access to the past through the senses and imagination which traditional historical method officially rejects but inevitably employs. In self-consciously exposing their own discontinuities, multiple influences, selections and omissions Kogawa and Ondaatje do not seek simply to replace one totalizing narrative with another but to create a textual space which allows for the exchange of a plurality of historical voices and forms.


  1. Robert Young, White Mythologies: Writing History and the West, London, New York: Routledge, 1990.

  2. Joy Kogawa, Obasan, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983 (1981). All references are taken from this edition.

  3. Michael Ondaatje, Running in the Family, London: Picador Pan Books, 1984 (1982), p. 206. All references are taken from this edition.

  4. Hayden White, “Introduction to Metahistory”, reprinted in Literature in the Modern World, ed. Dennis Walder, Oxford: OUP, 1990, p. 345.

  5. Deborah Bowen, “The Well Lit Road and the Darkened Theatre: Photography in Biographies by Michael Ignatieff and Michael Ondaatje”, World Literature Written in English, 31, 1 (1991), 47.

  6. ibid., p. 45

  7. Linda Hutcheon, The Canadian Postmodern: A Study of Contemporary English-Canadian Fiction, Toronto: OUP, 1988, pp. 91-2.

  8. Hutcheon writes more extensively about this relationship between language and experience, see The Canadian Postmodern, pp. 82-93

  9. Arun Mukherjee, “The Poetry of Michael Ondaatje and Cyril Dabydeen: Two Responses to Otherness”, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 20, 1 (1985), 56.

  10. Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism, London, New York: Routledge, 1989, p. 80.

Arnold E. Davidson (review date Autumn 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1616

SOURCE: “A Daughter's Dilemma,” in Canadian Literature, No. 154, Autumn, 1997, pp. 148-50.

[In the following review, Davidson argues that while Kogawa's The Rain Ascends does not live up to the artistry of Obasan, it “is still a novel well worth reading.”]

The silence that sounds so persistently in Joy Kogawa's first two novels, Obasan and Itsuka, figures prominently in her third as well. But whereas Obasan richly exploited the silence of dispersal and death, of devastating collective and individual traumas in order to tell the story of Canada's mistreatment of Japanese-Canadians during and after World War Two, Itsuka explored the less resonant silence of the country's long refusal to acknowledge explicitly or in any way redress what it had long recognized to be a blatant miscarriage of justice. With The Rain Ascends, however, Kogawa examines quite a different silence, one that is situated in contexts other than the experience of successive generations of Canadians of Japanese ancestry. Now the focus is on how a middle-aged, proper English-Canadian daughter of a much-admired clergyman comes not quite to terms with but at least to the acknowledgment of the fact that her loved and respected father has long sexually abused young boys.

As even that brief summary of the plot suggests, the silence of The Rain Ascends is hardly univocal. There is, first, a deep divide over the question of whether to speak or not to speak the disgraceful truth. Millicent, the daughter, wants to protect her father from the consequences of his past actions, whereas Eleanor, his daughter-in-law (with the emphasis falling on law) insists that he must be forced to confront those consequences. The novel thus partly restages the division in Obasan between Obasan determined to silently endure injustice and Aunt Emily insistent on denouncing it and loudly demanding justice, but with the significant difference that the protagonist of The Rain Ascends, unlike Naomi in Obasan, is not poised between those two poles but attempts to occupy one of them.

Yet the daughter clearly does not fully believe in either the silence she advocates or the mercy she would thereby bestow. Partly her problem is the dual nature of her father. In some ways, as various vignettes signify, he was a good man and even an exemplary clergyman. In other ways he was a moral monster who preyed on those who trusted him and preyed all the more effectively—and appallingly—by masquerading as a virtuous man of God. This division in the father is, moreover, reflected in the daughter as well, for she does not care for him quite as much as she regularly claims she does. From the very beginning of the novel, the lady protests too much, vociferously maintaining that her love for her father consigns her to silence with respect to the crimes she knows he has committed, and in the process she is of course partly recounting the very story that she insists she would not voice for the world. The novel itself is thus testimony to the instability of the speaking/silence polarity whereby the daughter figures her own self division and which she tries to resolve externally by casting herself as the figure of silence (with respect to her father) in opposition to her sister-in-law who readily serves as the figure of speech.

Furthermore, the daughter's early attempt to speak but yet also to remain silent, to tell only her story but not his, is, as she well knows, doomed from the start. Thus the prologue to the novel begins by recounting the “proudest moment” of her childhood when “\t]he town of Juniper, in the foothills of Alberta, celebrated the opening of the Juniper Centre of Music by declaring it C. B. Shelby Day after the founder of the Centre, \her] father, the Reverend Dr. Charles Barnabas Shelby. School children were given a holiday. Banners and balloons decorated the stores. The Shelby Family Quartet \the narrator, her brother, her mother and father] sang with the combined church choirs in a free concert in the shining new auditorium.” But this opening note of harmony and grace does not hold even though the father goes on to found three other “centres of music and healing” in other parts of Canada, and the prologue concludes with a complex reversal of the Biblical account of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. It is the child, the daughter, who is sacrificing the parent. Her implement is the pen, not the knife. And most of all, she rightly suspects that there will be no last-minute rescue:

I bind him and lay him on the altar on top of the wood. I stretch out my hand. I take the knife and raise it high. And higher.

Where is the ram? Where in the bushes is the alternate sacrifice? Where is the voice that says, “don't kill”?

She hopes that “if I hold the pen tight enough” and “let it fall just to the point—right up to the throat—that's when the ram will appear” and “I won't have to say the lethal words, will I?” And of course she is doubly wrong. First, how better can you speak the unspeakable than by so pointedly not saying it? And second, the ram has been there all along. She herself as well as many others have been the sacrifice that the father made in his own perverted reenacting of Abraham and Isaac, and this point is emphasized by the daughter's editorial interjection into her quoting of the Biblical account: “It is innocent blood that is to be shed. You shield the child from the awful, the unspeakable truth. It's Isaac, your love, your laughter, your joy, your everything, that is the sacrificial lamb to be slain and offered to your ravenous God.” A pointed contrast to her father's case: he didn't shield children from the awful truth and sacrificed them to his ravenous God who was the father himself.

The father's sins, blatant as they are, are not, however, the main subject of The Rain Ascends, just as its implication of the perverse and the unnatural is not the main point of the title. Centering the novel on the daughter's anguished response to her father and in the ambiguous ways that she has been and continues to be his victim both in her own life (for example, her sad affair with an older clergyman also given to music—a clear stand-in for her father) and in the price she pays for trying to protect him (especially when she discovers how close to home his sexual predations can come), Kogawa clearly intends something more than a post-Mount Cashel fable of abuse in black and white. The father's good deeds are played out against his bad. We see how he can finally plead that he too had been sexually victimized as a child. We see how his predations were a search for his own lost innocence and we also see how untenable those extenuating considerations also are. We see the divisions in the family that is itself partly the product of homophobia, of the father's attempt to pass as someone that he is not, and we also see the daughter's painful attempt to resolve conflicting claims—to love her father and to judge him. We see, in short, a complex interplay of good and evil. The rain falls, after all, to make life possible, only because the rain also ascends.

The Rain Ascendsis an ambitious novel; in many ways it is an impressive novel; but, for me, it was finally in some ways also a disappointing novel. To start with, Obasan remains a hard act to follow, and Kogawa's third novel, like her second one, falls short of the artistic success she achieved with the first one. For example, the deployment in the prologue of the Biblical account of Abraham and Isaac is rather mechanical in its implications, and the regular reference to and rewriting of The Island of Dr. Moreauis even more obvious in its suggestion of men turned into beasts. Similarly, although one strength of the novel is Kogawa's poetic prose, so, unfortunately, is one of the weaknesses. Thus the fog of the opening—“In the beginning is the fog, the thick impenetrable fog. The lie is the source of the fog, and the lie is the fog”—lies as heavily symbolic as the fog at the beginning of Dickens' Bleak Houseor T. S. Eliot's “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and at this late date rather more mechanically so. Or condemning her father, his daughter, late in the novel, declaims: “You took the pastel shadings of their dreams and splashed crimson and dung across the canvas of their innocent days. You swooped upon the sheltered nests of infant birds, their beaks open, their heads awkwardly angled upwards in a trust as large as the sky. With your unseeing hunger, you plucked the trust from their upturned faces and fed yourself until you could eat no more.” Rhetoric, here, too much outweighs recrimination. But even if the silence of a daughter trying not to admit her father's sins is rather less ringing than the silence of a country trying not to admit its own and even if the art of the third novel falls a little short of the art of the first, The Rain Ascends is still a novel well worth reading. First, it tells, for the most part effectively, a powerful story without slighting the larger moral complexities of that story, as victim's narratives are prone to do. And second, it is an intriguing study of how one of Canada's better fiction writers is still striving to surmount the handicap of having written a great first novel.

William Closson James (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10639

SOURCE: “Mutuality and the Sacred: Joy Kogawa,” in his Locations of the Sacred: Essays on Religion, Literature, and Canadian Culture, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1998, pp. 213-39.

[In the following essay, James analyzes how Kogawa tackles the question of a minority in Canada searching for identity in the dominant European majority. He focuses on the interrelation of different cultures in Kogawa's novels, including Buddhism, Christianity, North American, and Asian.]


In Joy Kogawa's fictional efforts to find the location of the sacred sometimes cultural traditions blend and reinforce each other, while at other times they conflict and clash. From her Japanese-Canadian perspective she affirms and criticizes aspects of her dual heritage in an admixture and interpenetration of different cultural symbols—Christian and Buddhist, North American and Asian. In Obasan (1981) Joy Kogawa seeks the abode of sacrality in a quest for cosmic meaning during a period of suffering and hardship for Japanese Canadians. In Itsuka (1993) she continues her search into a realm where the sacred requires a political resolution and justice for her community. Kogawa's third novel, The Rain Ascends (1995), though it does not deal with Japanese Canadians, continues the examination of the conflict between love and justice in a woman who discovers that her clergyman-father has been a persistent sexual abuser of boys.1

As in the case of the crisis among the Belcher Islands Inuit examined in chapter 5 \of Locations of the Sacred: Essays on Religion, Literature, and Canadian Culture], Kogawa's fiction displays the complex and sometimes ambiguous relationship between a Canadian minority (this time of Asian origin) and the dominant culture of European ancestry. The Belchers Inuit also struggled to preserve their identity in the face of cultural dominance and claims of Christian exclusivity. The descriptions in Obasan of the removal, internment, deportation, and expulsion during World War II, and in Itsuka of the movement for redress during the 1980s, partially incorporate mainstream Canadian conventions from a largely Christian religious milieu while simultaneously representing the Japanese-Canadian attempt to maintain their distinctive traditions.

Joy Kogawa's first two novels, Obasan and Itsuka, are set amidst the two major events in the history of Japanese Canadians in the twentieth century. While Obasan portrays all the negative effects of their relocation, internment, and dispersal in the 1940s, its sequel Itsuka describes the success of their movement for redress in the 1980s. In Obasan Naomi narrates her experiences between 1941 and 1954: her family's relocation in 1942 from Vancouver to Slocan in the British Columbia interior and the subsequent removal in 1945 to a sugar-beet farm near Granton, Alberta. Itsuka displays, again from Naomi's narrative perspective, the persistency of Japanese Canadians in the face of setbacks, internal dissensions, and other obstacles during the 1980s leading up to the Canadian government's acknowledgment of its injustices. After a consideration of its context in Kogawa's life and later writing, this essay will be concerned principally with an interpretation of Obasan.

In these first two novels, where the subject is the Japanese-Canadian experience, Kogawa's skilful and sophisticated fictional treatment exemplifies a problem familiar within the study of postcolonial literatures. The minority culture, as part of the strategy for maintaining its distinctiveness, must differentiate itself from the mainstream dominant culture. Such maintenance of difference inevitably entails critique of the dominant majority, its values and practices. But, the minority portrays its difference in terms recognizable within the cultural context of the mainstream. Kogawa's novels follow the conventions of Euroamerican fiction in a Canadian context and setting where Japanese Canadians have gone through several generations of acculturation (she is always conscious of the differences between successive generations, the Issei, the Nisei, the Sansei). Because the minority is both similar to and different from the majority Kogawa goes far beyond a simple-minded bifurcation in which Japanese Canadians are morally superior to Canadians of other than Japanese ancestry.2

Rather than choosing to “deconstruct an existing subjectivity or posit an essentialist, universal, unitary subject,” she investigates multiple identities situated at “the intersection of nation, gender, sexuality, class, and race, as well as history, religion, caste, and language” (Hutcheon 1995, 11).

In Obasan Naomi, looking back from her vantage point in 1972, sifts through her childhood memories, losses, and sufferings. Naomi's childhood consciousness filters these hardships as they are wrought through her emotions, experiences, and perceptions. Documents and letters from her Aunt Emily provide an historical context and adult perspective, expanding the domestic surroundings Naomi shares in her life with her aunt and uncle, Aya Obasan and Isamu. Itsuka resumes Naomi's story in Toronto in 1984, both recapitulating events since her arrival there in 1976, with further background from her teen years in Alberta, and then following the organized efforts to seek compensation and amends for the injustices of the 1940s, culminating in the government apology of September 1988. Naomi's adult sensibility registers these activities as she moves gradually from her passivity and solitude into a community, sharing its labours to attain justice. At the same time, now in the middle years of her life, Naomi takes the risky first steps of trust and love in a relationship with Cedric, an Anglican chaplain at one of the colleges of the university.

In both novels the political and communal dimensions of life among Japanese Canadians are given personal depth by conveying their effects on the narrator. But Naomi's uniquely personal problems intensify the difficulties she shares in common with her Japanese-Canadian friends and family members. In Obasan the interior counterpart of the cataclysmic losses the community undergoes is Naomi's loss of her mother, who left for Japan in 1941 and who, so Naomi at last discovers in 1972, eventually died there from the effects of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. But four-year-old Naomi, with a child's logic, believed she had caused her mother's departure because of her “secret,” that is, the sexual abuse inflicted on her by a next-door neighbour, Old Man Gower.

Naomi's aunt, Aya Obasan, the novel's title character, becomes the emotional anchor of Naomi's life during the years in Slocan and Granton. Naomi's father too is absent for much of this time, separated from his son and daughter during the relocation, then hospitalized with tuberculosis, until his death in 1951. The novel ends when, after the death of her Uncle Isamu, Naomi learns about her mother's fate, at last understanding that her silence was a way of protecting her children. Indeed, throughout the novel the protective silence of Japanese Canadians is seen as a way of shielding children from the horrors of the 1940s—the refrain kodomo ne tame (for the sake of the children) recurs throughout. At the end Naomi experiences the epiphany of knowing and of prayerful communion with her absent, silent mother: “Because I am no longer a child I can know your presence though you are not here” (243).

Kogawa has claimed this as her favourite passage in Obasan. In an interview with Val Ross about Itsuka she connects this notion of presence in absence with a quotation from theologian Rosemary Ruether that was to become the epigraph of The Rain Ascends: “Each of us must discover the secret key to divine abandonment—that God has abandoned divine power into the human condition utterly and completely, so that we may not abandon each other.” At the same time she goes on to remark of Obasan, “It's about the death of God” (Ross 1992, C15). Here, as elsewhere, and uncharacteristic of many other writers, Kogawa proves to be an insightful and reliable guide to the meaning of her own art. Her fictional domain is the relation between art and politics, that relation being understood and interpreted in theological terms. Joy Kogawa, both existentially and within the context of the Japanese-Canadian community, wants to know what trust means when one's basic trust in life has been undermined by metaphysical abandonment, experienced amidst racism and persecution. She wants to find out what embodied love means when the body of the other is absent and when one's own body has been abused in loveless exploitation. She wants to explore the terrible conflict between the love of a child for her parent and the need for justice in the community.

Among the constancies and continuities between Obasan and Itsuka is the bond of Naomi with her dead mother, though the sense of her mother as an embodiment of the sacred diminishes in the sequel. Itsuka tells of a journey Naomi makes in 1976 to visit her mother's grave near Tokyo: “Within this one hour at Mama's grave, I meet the one I need to meet” (83). Oddly, though, there is almost no mention in Itsuka about her father's influence or her recollections of him (but see page 10), though in Obasan Naomi loves him deeply. For some months she is unable to acknowledge openly his death to a schoolmate. In Obasan Stephen, who continually rejects anything Japanese, fled Granton for a career in music immediately after high school and returns only briefly; in Itsuka contact with Stephen remains intermittent and strained—he refuses to have anything to do with the redress movement.

The portraits of Aya Obasan and her husband, Isamu, are likewise consistent in the first two novels, though now her other aunt, Emily, strident and outspoken, comes to the fore in Itsuka. Kogawa has commented that whereas Obasan is Aya Obasan's story, Itsuka is Emily's. The contrast drawn in Obasan stands in Itsuka also: “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” (32). In Itsuka too we recognize certain traits of the Naomi of the earlier novel—her withdrawal into silence, her social awkwardness, and her emotional distance, especially from men. What differs is a changed voice or tone on the part of Emily and especially Naomi—both are less gentle, less patient, less tolerant, less innocent. Itsuka adds to Naomi's past a largely negative experience of Christian fundamentalism during her teens in Granton. The geographical setting has changed from the mountains of British Columbia and the farms of rural Alberta to the streets of downtown Toronto. Japanese Canadians have become active and politically engaged in Itsuka as they take up the struggle for the reparations of wrongs done them during and after World War II, the period represented in Obasan.

In Itsuka there is no mention either of the childhood sexual abuse by Old Man Gower that figures so prominently in Obasan. The second novel relates how during Naomi's teens in Granton she was approached by someone whose appearance is similar to Gower's, “a fat bald man who has blown into the area with the chinook” (Itsuka, 25-26). Mr. Gower is described in Obasan as having a “large and soft” belly and “a shiny skin cap” on the top of his head (61). The look-alike stranger in Itsuka is rumoured to have fondled a girl behind the Granton curling rink. He stops his car one Saturday morning beside the sugar-beet field, where Naomi is working some distance from her uncle and brother, and offers her a five-dollar bill. Naomi flees in nausea, a pattern repeated with her cowboy suitor Hank (42, 44) and, to a lesser extent, when Father Cedric first touches her.

In Obasan the adult Naomi wonders at one point whether Mr. Gower (referring presumably to some subsequent and metaphoric reincarnation of that abusive persona) still walks “through the hedges between our houses in Vancouver, in Slocan, in Granton and Cecil” (62). Perhaps this figure of the abuser has become a composite in Naomi's mind, still inhabiting her nightmares. In Lethbridge in 1945 a stranger in a restaurant kept beckoning to Naomi while holding out five dollars (Obasan, 190). But it is the recollection of the stranger approaching her in the sugar-beet field that Naomi summons up in Itsuka, as well as the attendant encounter with Hank, in the immediate aftermath of her flight from Cedric's embrace.

While Kogawa knew in 1987 that the novel would concern Naomi's sexuality and her fundamentalist Christian background, she was not then sure that it would deal with the Japanese-Canadian community (“although it's likely it will”). When an interviewer asked Joy Kogawa how Naomi was going to develop in this forthcoming novel (Itsuka was then in progress), Kogawa answered: “I'm going to struggle with Naomi's sexuality, just as I struggle with my own. Whether I'll be able to do that successfully, in my life or in this book, I do not know” (Komori 1987, 63).

If, as Kogawa has suggested, using the words of Rosemary Ruether, Obasan is about divine abandonment whereas Itsuka is about human solidarity, the character of Naomi provides both the negative and affirmative connections with the sacred in both novels. In Hugh MacLennan's The Watch that Ends the Night and Ignazio Silone's Bread and Wine the protagonists move through similar stages, from a childhood religion that gives way to political involvement until that in turn is supplanted by a radical experience of human love. MacLennan's George Stewart finally arrives at a further stage of return to transcendence with the death of the beloved; Silone's Pietro Spina experiences the sacralization of companionship among human beings. At the end of Itsuka it is in doubt whether Naomi's experience of either political involvement (and its fulfilment) or Father Cedric's love will suffice for her. After the triumphant ecstasy of the success of the redress movement, whose struggles Naomi has made her own, what will ordinary life mean for her? The Rain Ascends problematizes this relationship between the political and the personal by putting the bonds of a daughter's love for an aged parent in conflict with the obligations of justice to others.

But Kogawa does not think that political reality holds any importance for Naomi at the end of Obasan: “What to her matters is the cosmic quest, the capacity for faith and meaning” (Ackerman 1993, 222). At the same time she acknowledges that Naomi's experience of separation from her mother's love is “my (fairly conscious) analogy of postholocaust experience of faith.” She explains: “The preholocaust experience is the presence of God, the God of history, the God who saves; the postholocaust experience, or the reaction of the Christian Church, at any rate, is the feeling that God is dead. There is a sense of abandonment. They abandoned their faith or their faith abandoned them” (ibid., 220-21).

With these terms Kogawa locates the fictional experience of her narrator, Naomi—whatever relation that experience may bear to her own—alongside that of Elie Wiesel and other Holocaust survivors. Fran‡ois Mauriac, in his Foreword to Wiesel's classic memoir of the Holocaust, Night, declares that among other outrages “the worst of all to those of us who have faith \is] the death of God in the soul of a child who suddenly discovers absolute evil” (Wiesel 1960, 9). “For a child,” the adult Naomi reflects, “there is no presence without flesh” (Obasan, 243). While Naomi does not experience “absolute evil” in the manner of Eliezer, the child in Night, she does experience prejudice, injustice, hardship, and dislocation. For Eliezer what made the comparatively greater sufferings of Auschwitz even bearable was the presence of his father whose welfare and care became the focus of his life's meaning. The death of the elder Wiesel towards the end of the war removed from Eliezer his last reason to go on living. The younger Naomi had a surrogate mother in the form of her aunt, but even so the inexplicable absence and silence of her mother form the cloud under which she lives and which, in effect, eclipses the divine in her life. Naomi's experience of the absence of the divine in Obasan, whose immediacy is given in the absence of her mother, and the means by which she copes with those absences, need exploration.

Kogawa and Wiesel, in spite of these similarities, differ decisively in their attitudes towards the perpetrators of the injustices against them. Both authors share an understanding of the meaning of silence (although perhaps Kogawa sees more of its positive aspects than does Wiesel), and both share a sense of obligation—even compulsion—about bearing testimony and telling their story. For Kogawa, however, the continuing life of Japanese Canadians in Canada means coming to terms with those who perpetrated injustice and denied human rights. That, coupled with a strong sense of the Christian meaning of forgiveness and reconciliation, motivated her work within the redress movement. For Elie Wiesel, siding with the victims means opposing the murderers. He sees it as no part of his enterprise to explain why the Holocaust came about or to understand the viewpoint of the oppressors: “If the victims are my problem the killers are not. The killers are someone else's problem” (Wiesel 1990, 17).

Joy Kogawa, on the other hand, feels it necessary to understand the enemy. As she states in a 1992 film, The Pool: Reflections of Japanese-Canadian Internment, victims should take on “the imaginative exercise of being part of the victimizer.” She wants “both victims and victimizers to be in dialogue, in communication, in communion, and in recognition mutually of each other's positions.” In another interview, with Rita Deverall on Vision TV in 1994, Joy Kogawa speaks of the necessity of overcoming blindness by taking on the enemy's viewpoint. She elaborated her position in response to the question, “Can you see through the enemy's eyes now?” Kogawa spoke of being on a journey towards mercy, having discovered that “the Goddess of Mercy is the goddess of abundance.” Kogawa believes that if you have “a sufficient sense of the abundant life—if you are able to perceive with genuine gratitude, if you can have that largeness within yourself—you can so see the other that they cease to be the enemy.” This kind of transformative vision of the other she takes even further, to the point that it reaches a kind of transference:

You can so see them that you can become them. … That we ought to be able to live a part of Hitler inside of ourselves, that we ought to be able to see that—or the Ku Klux Klan, or whoever we all are. I mean we are all humans and in some way we are all connected and we are all capable of anything given the right circumstances.

Millicent, the loving daughter in The Rain Ascends, finds herself in the position of Hitler's cat, who on Judgment Day “can stand in front of that awesome cloud of witnesses and yowl its unacceptable tale of affection” (1995, 12).

Whether or not Kogawa's argument for mutuality is applicable in the case of Japanese Canadians in relation to the rest of Canadians, it is doubtful that a merciful seeing through the eyes of the enemy can be applied to the case of the Jews and Hitler. In the first place the scale and nature of the atrocities differ, occurring in a context where the relation between victims and victimizers cannot be resumed. How are the six million dead to see through the eyes of their murderers? And perhaps too, as Cynthia Ozick points out, quoting from the rabbis, “Whoever is merciful to the cruel will end by being indifferent to the innocent.” Victims and victimizers can only be in dialogue and communion, can only experience mercy and reconciliation, in cases other than murder. As Ozick states: “Murder is irrevocable. Murder is irreversible. With murder there is no ‘next time’” (1976, 185-86). Early in 1995, on the fiftieth anniversary of its liberation, Elie Wiesel prayed at Auschwitz-Birkenau: “God, merciful God, do not have mercy on murderers of Jewish children. … Do not have mercy on those who created this place. Do not forgive the people who murdered here” (Globe and Mail 27 January 1995, A14).

The connections—and disjunctions—between Joy Kogawa's first two novels create opportunities for comparison and commentary as well as interpretive difficulties. Itsuka as a sequel of Obasan provides an effective opportunity for the resolution of the injustices of the evacuation and dispersal policies of the Canadian government in the 1940s with the redress and apology of the 1980s. But as a continuation of Naomi's story Itsuka is less effective, failing as it does to take up, continue, and perhaps resolve the problems that were Naomi's own within the context of the first novel. Childhood sexual abuse and abandonment by her mother give way to the legacy of fundamentalism and a teenaged encounter with a seducer. Political issues are engaged in Obasan principally at the artistic, imaginative, and personal level through the consciousness and experience of Naomi and are resolved in those terms. Naomi's childhood perspective makes Obasan work effectively. But Kogawa has confessed that she continues, even after the publication of Itsuka, to find difficulties with its narrative point of view.

The problem, it seems to me, is that in Itsuka Joy Kogawa has it as her principal aim to recount the events with which she was directly and personally involved attending the redress movement. Perhaps what is lacking here is an appropriate persona (like the childhood Naomi) from which she is properly distanced, at least temporally (and temporarily), and whose story matters to the reader in and for itself, not only as an entr‚e into political events in which she participated. In Itsuka Aunt Emily states—and the author has quoted her character in several contexts afterwards—“When we follow the light, we extinguish the night, and we do this through politics as much as through art” (248). Notwithstanding Kogawa's appreciation for this statement as a legitimation for other means than art to banish darkness, ironically it can also be an artist's rationale for abandoning art. But the appearance of a third novel at this point in her career differentiates Kogawa from Margaret Laurence who, after The Diviners, turned away from fiction writing to such causes as the antinuclear movement and Pollution Probe. The literary artist's task, even when her subject is politics, is to render artistically the effects and efficacy of political involvement in the lives and on the pulses of her characters.

In her 1983 address “My Final Hour” Margaret Laurence expresses some of her own views about the relation of artistic endeavour to human survival: “… the artist affirms the value of life itself and of our only home, the planet Earth. Art mirrors and ponders the pain and joy of our experience as human beings” (1988, 260). Laurence continues by reflecting that we face the possibility of a world in which all the works of the human imagination might be destroyed, and then goes on to state that her responsibility as a writer is “not to write pamphlets; not to write didactic fiction” (ibid., 261). Laurence feels that would be “a betrayal of how I feel about my work” and that her responsibility is “to write as truthfully as I can, about human beings and their dilemmas, to honour them as living, suffering and sometimes joyful people” (ibid.).

In Itsuka, contrary to the methods and expression of Obasan, Joy Kogawa confuses the realms of politics and art. To paraphrase a comment of R. W. B. Lewis about the relative importance of religion and literature, on an absolute scale it may be that politics is more important than art, but in the literary realm, politics ought to follow art, and to do so naturally. The metaphysics of divine abandonment, where the sacred is found in the void of absence, functions as the theological correlate of the communal experience of exile and of the individual experience of sexual abuse and the loss of the mother. This relocation of sacrality succeeds admirably in Obasan. But in Itsuka, though the experience of human solidarity may function as consolation for the earlier abandonment, and the redress movement may be a historical example of that solidarity, the novel lacks a correspondingly convincing resolution on the individual level for Naomi who, though she falls in love with Cedric, remains something of a bystander and observer in relation to the search for justice. In The Rain Ascends Millicent is fully engaged on both the individual and political levels.


Joy Kogawa has said that she does not know what part of her is Japanese; but at the same time she thinks that the “deepest aspect” of her is Christian (see Redekop 1990, 96-97). In Obasan that “deepest aspect” may be conveyed most immediately in the novel's biblical epigraph: “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna and will give him a white stone and in the stone a new name written” (Rev. 2:17; cf. Obasan, v). The biblical context assures faithful Christians of rewards if they endure suffering, hardship, and persecution. “Manna” refers originally to the food provided to the Israelites during their wanderings in the wilderness (see Exodus 16:35), a supernatural sustenance that becomes, metaphorically, in the New Testament gospels Christ as the bread of life come down from heaven (John 6:31). In the epigraph from Revelation this “hidden manna” is a form of eschatological spiritual food, a christianized version of rabbinic legend in which the manna was concealed during the destruction of the Temple until the dawn of the messianic age.

The “white stone” (Greek psephos, pebble) may be an amulet engraved with a name—perhaps a Christian adaptation of the protective charm used in mystery cults—or a commonly used ancient admission token (here, for example, for entrance to a heavenly banquet). The “new name” may be Christ's name, shared by those who participate in his sufferings, or a new identity following a new birth.3 Kogawa uses the terms of this epigraph—hidden manna, white stone, new name—as thematic links throughout the story, indexes of her own preoccupations and insights about the religious significance of this persecuted and exiled Canadian minority. Her use of these symbols in Obasan is partially controlled and shaped by their biblical use; Kogawa also transports biblical metaphors across cultural boundaries and infuses new meaning into them.

In the Hebrew scriptures “bread” signifies food in general. Manna and the unleavened bread of the Exodus are the prototypes of bread used in religious feasts and celebrations (e.g., Passover).4 The connection is explicit in Exodus 16:15: “They said to one another, It is manna; for they wist not what it was. And Moses said unto them, This is the bread which the Lord hath given you to eat.” A stone, though usually suggesting hardness, immobility, and endurance (and perhaps eternity, as when memorial stones are heaped up to commemorate an event) is often the antithesis of living or biological entities. (An interesting exception is 1 Peter 2:5 where the rejected “living stones” become a spiritual priesthood and the materials for building a new edifice.) In Kogawa's epigraph stone is antithetical to bread and the nourishment it provides. In Luke's Gospel Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness to prove that he is the Son of God by turning a stone into bread (4:3). And Jesus asks, “If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone?” (Luke 11:11; cf. Mt. 7:9).

Aunt Emily quotes the words of Habakkuk to Naomi—“Write the vision and make it plain.” But she does not quote the succeeding words—“upon tables,” that is, tablets, probably of stone, like those on which Moses received the Ten Commandments (cf. Deut. 9:9). The writer's task parallels the prophet's (or even the divine lawgiver's) who engraves something new in stone. The novelist as seer listens to silence, turns stones into bread, confers names upon the unnameable, writing it all down upon an unreceptive and flinty surface, generally struggling to redeem materials often unpromising and resistant. King-Kok Cheung interprets Kogawa as reevaluating both language and silence and thereby undermining logocentrism: “She reveals the strengths and limits of discursive power and quiet forbearance alike; in doing so, she maintains the complementary functions of verbal and nonverbal expression” (1993, 128).

Kogawa shows mainstream majority Canadians (those of European descent) their failure to live up to their own ideals in their treatment of Canadians of Japanese ancestry. Her view is that minorities can be the healing “leaven” within society, perhaps paralleling and legitimating her own prophetic artistry, providing the majority with the means of their own restoration and salvation. Evoking John 9:1-12, the narrator poetically describes the evacuees as being “sent to the sending, that we may bring sight” (111). The practice of Christianity by Japanese Canadians proves to be more active and forgiving than that of other Canadians. Because, as she writes in the Preface to her father's book, the Issei refused to see Canada as the enemy, they created (and preserved) the possibility of friendship, “by persisting in seeing the face of the friend even when it was not there.” She affirms, in terms paralleling what she says elsewhere about the relationship between the victim and the victimizer, that “that capacity to transform a broken reality and to make it whole can only come from strength—the most deeply powerful spiritual strength available to us, superseding all political power” (Nakayama 1984, 8). At a conference in Japan in 1992 Joy Kogawa spoke of the various ways in which minorities continue to fulfil this role.5

Of the three central terms of the epigraph (bread, stone, name) the prefatory narrative comment (on the page opposite the opening page of the first chapter) invokes only one, stone. That stone is for Naomi a negative silence that, here at the outset, is the opposite of the word: “I hate the stillness. I hate the stone. I hate the sealed vault with its cold icon. I hate the staring into the night” (vi). Naomi can neither embrace the absent voice in its silence nor follow the underground stream down to the hidden voice and the freeing word. At the opening of chapter 1 Naomi at age thirty-six visits the coulee on the virgin prairie with her uncle, as she has done for many years without knowing the purpose of this annual visit. The magnitude of his remembered loss on the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki and of his silence about the death of Naomi's mother are only hinted at. The rippling prairie grasses are reminiscent of other personal losses—the sea he has left behind and his confiscated boat. When Naomi leaves him briefly to descend into the gulch, she listens to the water of the intermittent underground stream for its “hidden voice” and “freeing word.” Yet the natural context here remains a cosmic silence as steadfast and secretive as her uncle's.

As Erika Gottlieb has put it so well, “the natural setting in the first chapter is more than background: it represents the stillness and tension in the cosmos and the soul” (1986, 35). Gottlieb explains that the three landscapes of the novel's opening proceed from the universality evoked by the “cosmic-mythical symbols” quoted in the epigraph from Revelation, through the “narrator's soul as wasteland” depicted in the prefatory narrative comment, to the actual Canadian prairie landscape of chapter 1 as described on the evening of 9 August 1972 (ibid., 34-35). These interrelated landscapes introduce us to the novel's concentric system of puzzles.

If initially silence is negative in its connotations, the “stony silence” of a universe largely indifferent, so too are Naomi's uncle's attempts at breadmaking at first depicted as pathetically failed efforts to assimilate. He received his bread recipe just after the war at the local grocery store with the purchase of a bag of flour. Naomi's response, at age ten, to her uncle's first attempt at baking is to ask, “How can you eat that stone?” (12). She continues to refuse his “stone burreddo,” even when offered with butter by her brother Stephen. No matter what her uncle added to it, whether oatmeal, barley, potatoes, or carrots, “it always ended up like a lump of granite” (13). She declares: “If you can't even break it, it's not bread.” When Obasan ate her husband's bread, she soaked it in homemade “weedy tea,” though both children prefer Japanese tea on their cold rice with salted pickles late at night. At the gathering after his death Naomi wonders if baking that loaf of black bread was her Uncle Sam's last act.

Early on in the novel Kogawa also introduces bread as a symbol whose initial meaning, like word and silence, is negative, interpreted as being like rock or stone, and an illustration of a miserable and failed attempt to integrate themselves into a Canadian lifestyle. Here Naomi interprets Stephen's offering bread to her in terms of his “always ordering me around.” But she later makes a kind and sympathetic response to his preference for bread over rice during the evacuation. On the train to Slocan Naomi has her doll offer Stephen a sandwich. Part of his efforts to distance himself from anything Japanese, Stephen had rejected his aunt's earlier offer of a rice ball with the angry retort, “Not that kind of food.”

During the evacuation Stephen's obdurate silence shields and betrays his fractured identity. Naomi—herself likewise silent, but also perceptive and observant—sees Stephen as broken, like Humpty Dumpty, his leg in a cast and using a single crutch. He is also “half in and half out of his shell,” not knowing who he is, and ashamed of his Japanese background because of racial slurs and taunts suffered at school. When Naomi (or her doll speaking for her) recites aloud the first two lines of the nursery rhyme, the final two lines are implicitly present also: “All the King's horses and all the King's men / Couldn't put Humpty together again.”6 This irony alludes to Aunt Emily's comment about her loss of faith in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police after Japanese Canadians were beaten at Hastings Park—“At one time, remember how I almost worshipped the Mounties?” (100). Her letters reflect the hurt and sense of betrayal experienced by Canadians of Japanese ancestry that the Canadian government and the agents of the British crown—the institutions in which they believed (“all the King's horses and all the King's men”)—are now arrayed against them. Itsuka mentions Obasan's scrapbook of royal-family clippings and her response to the King's death: “The day King George VI died, no one in Granton mourned more than Obasan. She sat by the radio, head bowed, hands folded in prayer, listening to CJOC Lethbridge” (10). On the train en route to Slocan Naomi imagines that rice paste (Obasan uses a single grain to seal an envelope) might be enough to put Stephen back together again. Their ancestral culture has the potential of healing for Stephen, by life-sustaining means not available in Canada. Western-style bread has not been the staff of life for Japanese Canadians, and no replacement for the rice of Asia.

The symbolic significance of a name—and the negative power of misnaming, as in the epithets endured by Stephen—also arises early in the novel. Teaching her class, just before she receives the summons to return home after her uncle's death, Naomi corrects a student's pronunciation: the class troublemaker insists on saying her surname, Nakane, as “Nah Canny.” When the next question is whether she has ever been in love, Naomi deflects it with a question of her own about what it means to be “in” something.7 Naomi ponders the negative meaning of “spinster” (or “old maid” or “bachelor lady”) as a designation for herself, contrasting her reaction with Aunt Emily's assertion that “if we laundered the term properly she'd put it on” (8). The questions from the class persist, evoking memories for Naomi of being interrogated on a date about her birthplace and length of residence in Canada and the meaning of “Nisei.”

The schoolgirl who tells Naomi's brother Stephen that “all the Jap kids at school are going to be sent away and they're bad and you're a Jap” (70) prefigures the name-calling of the Canadian newspapers and of politicians and citizens in general. Typical of many victims, Stephen passes on the abuse he has received, telling Naomi that she also is “bad” and a “Jap.” (Her father informs her that this is wrong, they are Canadians.) The most injurious instances of name-calling occur in the context of the deportation of the Japanese-Canadians away from the British Columbia coast. Aunt Emily recognizes this for what it is: “None of us, she said, escaped the naming. We were defined and identified by the way we were seen” (118). Identified as “a stench in the nostrils of the people of Canada,” the Japanese Canadians “are therefore relegated to the cesspools” (ibid.). Aunt Emily comments on the appropriateness of the term “evacuation:” it was an “evacuation” (in the sense of emptying the bowels) because the Japanese Canadians were “flushed out of Vancouver” like “dung drops.” As so often in the horrible history of racism, a negative label that differentiates “them” from “us,” that shows that “they” are not people like “us,” then legitimates “them” being treated as if they were not fully human.

Stephen reacts to his schoolmates' treatment by attempting to distance himself from his Japanese identity (when he refuses to eat rice, for instance) or by passing on his own victimization to Naomi. On arrival at the little house in Slocan Stephen retreats to the backyard where, using his crutch, he slaughters the butterflies in revenge for his own hurt. They are “gold and brown winged things,”8 but by (mis-)naming them “moths,” he repeats the insults his schoolmates inflicted on him: “They're bad. … They eat holes in your clothes” (123). “Bad” things like “Japs” and “moths” deserve to be sent away or destroyed.


Naomi gives indications of being less deeply wounded than her brother, even though she is the silent one who almost never speaks. On the train she is unable to comply when her aunt urges her to take an orange as a gift to the young woman with the baby. But she watches as first Obasan and then the old woman preserve the Japanese custom of gift-giving even in their present extremity of scarcity and deportation. Returning to the ancient rhythms of traditional Japanese life provides reassurance and healing amidst the wounds and insults of their present crisis. A little later Naomi follows the example of Obasan by responding to Stephen's hurt and isolation. She puts her treasured rubber ball in his jacket pocket. At their new home Naomi observes her brother's slaughter of the butterflies; she observes as well something outside the field of his vision: “One butterfly he cannot see is hovering over his head” (123). Perhaps too she recognizes the butterfly in its traditional symbolic role as an image of hope, eternity, and the human spirit. While Stephen cannot stand the silence of Obasan's house, and has to get away from it, finding partially at least his voice and his refuge in music, Naomi appreciates the positive aspects of her aunt's quiet ways, reminiscent of her mother's protective and accepting silence that did not scold, blame, criticize, or invade. King-Kok Cheung notes that most reviewers have seen silence in Obasan in exclusively negative terms, a Eurocentric bias that favours speech and condemns silence (Cheung 1993, 126-27). She maintains that Kogawa distinguishes among various forms of silence and stresses “the positive use of nonverbal behavior as a corrective to the prevailing critical trend that privileges speech” (ibid., 128).

The eloquent complement to Naomi's mother's silence is her visual language: “Her eyes are steady and matter of fact—the eyes of Japanese motherhood. They do not invade and betray. They are eyes that protect, shielding what is hidden most deeply in the heart of the child” (59). In contrast, Mrs. Sugimoto's eyes, on the day that Naomi put the (yellow) baby chicks in the cage with the (white) mother hen, “search my face:” “Her glance is too long. She notes my fear, invades my knowing” (60). With her invasive stare and her fussing over her sons Mrs. Sugimoto reminds Naomi of the white hen who kills her own chicks. While the politics of colour here contrast white and yellow, Caucasian and Japanese, modes of behaviour, Kogawa does not make these absolute moral categories that are rigidly distinct.

Mrs. Sugimoto falls short of the ideal and practice of Japanese motherhood and, at least implicitly, behaves in a manner typical of a non-Japanese mother. Similarly, neither prejudice nor kindness is the exclusive property of either racial group. Although the next door neighbour, Old Man Gower, sexually abuses Naomi in Vancouver, and although in Slocan she has a similar experience, again involving a white male (her schoolmate Percy), her experience with white males is not restrictively negative. In Slocan, Rough Lock Bill provides a positive counterpart to Old Man Gower's harmful treatment of Naomi. Bill gently exchanges names (written in the sand) with the silent Naomi, tells her a story that is accepting of her silence (“smart people don't talk too much”), and ends up by saving her from drowning. When Naomi recovers she finds “he is peering at me, his face close to mine,” but even this looking is only in the matter-of-fact way she prefers, in accordance with her mother's example.9

Furthermore, the ignorance and prejudice evident in the name-calling Stephen experiences from white schoolmates in Vancouver also has its Japanese parallel in Slocan. Naomi is shunned in the bath by Reiko and Yuki whose mother believes that Naomi's family has tuberculosis because of her father's hospitalization and Stephen's limp. When Naomi asks her uncle for an explanation he replies that illness “is a matter of misfortune, not shame” (166). And the incident of the white mother hen killing her own yellow chicks, an allegory of what the “mother” country has done to her Japanese-Canadian “children,” also has its dark vengeful reversal in Slocan when Stephen and Naomi watch six schoolboys, all of them apparently of Japanese ancestry, participate in the prolonged killing of a white hen (“Got to make it suffer” \155]). One of Kogawa's poems has a similar incident set in Japan, its imagery reminiscent of a scene of torture. A chicken is slaughtered by five men, “One with knife, one grinning toothless.” The poet imagines herself “dangling feet first from the sky” and wonders if she should struggle (“The Chicken Killing” in Kogawa 1974, 21). In the same collection another section, headed “Forest Creatures,” has several poems evoking Joy Kogawa's experience of the evacuation.

For Naomi this business of yellow chicks and white hens becomes a confused melange of associations and images attending issues of motherhood and racism and victimization and death. When Naomi is in the hospital after her near-drowning her aunt gives her the story of Chicken Little, “an oversized baby chick.” Naomi connects this story of the alarmist chicken with Stephen's “Yellow Peril” board game where “a few brave defenders” are pitted against a large number of Japanese enemies: “There are fifty small yellow pawns inside and three big blue checker kings” (152). Naomi's understanding is that to be yellow is to be small and weak—in a word, “chicken”—but yellow chicks turn white when they grow up (and the former victims become victimizers?).

On a personal level these negative experiences of Naomi's early years leave her with a legacy of abuse, internalized guilt, and a sense of abandonment. She has experienced the hardship and dislocating upheaval of the evacuation, the racism of schoolmates and society at large, the inexplicable departure of her mother (and her subsequent silence as well as uncertainty as to her fate), the death of her father, and, after the end of the war the tragedy of another removal from the British Columbia interior to Alberta with the renewal of hardships that are if anything more inexplicable and intense. The accuracy of Kogawa's description of Obasan as being about the death of God means that for Naomi all that is ultimate in her world is shattered or gone. The reaction of Naomi and of Aya Obasan and her uncle Isamu is chiefly one of passive endurance of their suffering. Its redemptive aspects come through a fusion of cultural symbols and through the unlocking of the secrets of Naomi's mother, whose silence has both a negative and a positive impact on her daughter.

Naomi believes that the secret of her abuse by Gower is the explanation for her mother's absence. Even as an adult Naomi seems hesitant to probe this mystery and to discover the truth. Her links with her absent mother are through her father (until his death), her favourite doll (until its loss just after arrival in Slocan), and through her aunt (Obasan). Other objects—“transitional objects” a psychologist would term them—bridge the gulf of her mother's absence and ease the passage to her new home. She takes with her a rubber ball found beneath a cot the night she overheard an adult discussion of the measures against the Japanese Canadians. But she gives the ball as a gift to her brother when she sees his hurt. She retains the two yellow toy Easter chicks previously stowed in the drawer of her mother's sewing machine, intended as a surprise for her upon her return. Perhaps Naomi intended at some level these toy chicks to be an apology and redemption for the ones whose deaths her carelessness had caused.

Just before the departure from Slocan friends and relatives are gathered in the Nakane house for a communion service conducted by Nakayama-sensei (an Anglican priest who shares both the name and profession of Joy Kogawa's own father). As the service proceeds in a mixture of Japanese and English he finishes praying for “all Christian Kings, Princes and Governors” when Stephen's weight on an open box of belongings results in a loud crack. He has broken his mother's favourite record, “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” from which “one small piece is broken off like a bite off a giant cookie” (176). While the service proceeds Stephen passes the broken piece to his father just before the communion wafer is broken and distributed: “Sensei carries a small silver box in one hand and lifts out a tiny paper-thin white square which he snaps in half” (177). Kogawa thereby suggests a connection between these broken discs taken from their respective boxes and passed around as tokens of love in absence. (Later the link is made between the communion wafer and Aunt Emily's letters as means of communion; cf. 182—“white paper bread for the mind's meal”).

Here Kogawa portrays the ironies and ambiguities of the situation in a rich and complex tapestry. In a Christian communion service, under conditions of internment and just prior to removal to begin worse sufferings, these Japanese Canadians pray that their King may govern them in a “quiet and godly” manner. Simultaneously Stephen fractures the means of his own communion with his absent mother. Significantly, his connection with her, and with his father with whom he plays the flute during a brief reunion visit in Slocan (171), is through the medium of music. In an early part of the story Naomi describes Stephen's listening with rapt attention to his mother's records, though of her favourite she remarks: “It does not occur to me to wonder why Mother would have liked this song. We do not have silver threads among the gold” (126).

Whenever Nakayama-sensei prays he stresses their mutual support of one another. On arrival at Slocan he says, “together … by helping each other,” and gives thanks “that we are together again” (122); at the close of the communion service upon departure he says, “We will not abandon one other” (178). After Naomi's discovery of her mother's fate the Rev. Nakayama says, “That there is brokenness. … That this world is brokenness. But within brokenness is the unbreakable name” (240). A little later he prays again: “Father, if your suffering is greater than ours, how great that suffering must be …. How great the helplessness. How we dare not abandon the ones who suffer, lest we abandon You. … Teach us to see Love's presence in our abandonment” (243). Having emphasized to an interviewer that “Nakayama-sensei is a real character, a real Anglican minister—he's my real father,” Kogawa continues: “Those services really happened, those words really happened, those prayers really happened” (Ackerman 1993, 219). Given her insistence on the authenticity of this theological formulation as her father's own, we must take it that Rosemary Ruether's view that God has abandoned divine power so that we might not abandon one another is a post facto verification of a position that Kogawa already held, one she got from her father. Ruether's liberation theology has women, in company with other oppressed peoples, leading the way in a revolution against transcendence and dominance and technological power towards “communal personhood” (Reuther 1979, 51).

King-Kok Cheung uses the word “double-voicing” (in the sense of “more than one” voice) to describe Joy Kogawa's “discourse(s) of silence” which brings together both Western and Asian sensibilities: “Kogawa fuses the Japanese legacy of attentiveness and intuitive knowing with Buddhist and Christian meditations” (1993, 20). Elsewhere though Cheung sees more opposition between Christianity and Buddhism than actually exists. She overemphasizes their differences when she claims they hold “contradictory attitudes towards word (logos) and silence. Whereas the Christian prophetic tradition stresses the importance of voice, Buddhist meditation evinces reverence for silence” (ibid., 129 n). Cheung might have found a similar reverence for silence in Christian meditative traditions. In October 1992 the abbot of Tenryuji, a temple in western Kyoto, gave a lecture in which he described a European visit by some Japanese Zen Buddhists to share their experiences of meditation in dialogue with Roman Catholic priests.

Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, referring to the “stone bread” as a “religious symbol devoid of specifically ethnic connotations,” is precisely right when she states that “Christianity in Obasan is never portrayed as ‘Western,’ as opposed to ‘Oriental’” (Wong 1993, 23). Wong, however, restricts the meaning of the Eucharistic bread to a reenactment of Christ's sacrifice whose parallel in the novel is to be found in the Christlike sacrificial figure of Naomi's mother “who literally loses her flesh and blood” (ibid., 23). In fact it would seem that the communion through love in absence is Nakayama's (and Kogawa's) Eucharistic theology in Obasan, not sacrificial reenactment. The concern is more pastoral than priestly or ritualistic.

Nakayama-sensei's celebration of the Anglican form of the Eucharist in Obasan tends towards a “horizontal” Protestant interpretation in its emphasis on Christians gathering together in “communion,” not even so much with God as with each other. There is little evidence of the more “vertical” Roman Catholic stress on Christ's sacrifice as means of atonement between God and humanity. There is little discourse about sin and redemption in these prayers and services. Aunt Emily, speaking to Naomi about Nakayama-sensei's “desperation to keep the community together,” describes him as “a deeply wounded shepherd trying to tend the flock in every way he could.” She maintains that the postwar repatriation and dispersal policies were worse in their effects than the evacuation: “To a people for whom community was the essence of life, destruction of community was the destruction of life” (186).

This interpretation of the communion service emphasizing its dimensions as communal meal illustrates the liturgical adaptation of a Western religious form accommodating Japanese meanings. In monotheistic traditions such adaptation to incorporate different cultural values verges on syncretism. For Japanese people, used to moving back and forth between Shinto and Buddhist—and now Christian—practices, religious exclusivity seems strangely restrictive. There is a Japanese saying to the effect that one is born as a Shinto, marries as a Christian, and dies as a Buddhist, an expression conveying how each of these three religions comes to prominence with a particular rite of passage. In fact, “it is well known among Japanologists that at present the major role of Buddhism in Japanese society is its near monopoly of funeral services for the dead” (Lai 1993, 73).

As one scholar of Japanese religions, Ian Reader, explains, “The Japanese do not live in a system that demands full-blooded, belief-orientated and exclusive commitment that precludes any other. Rather, their orientations are situational and complementary: the necessity of dealing with the problem of death demands one set of responses and orientations while the time of year or birth of a child requires another” (Reader 1991, 16). In Obasan Japanese Canadians seem readily able to incorporate both Christian and Buddhist practices at the funeral of Naomi's Grandmother Nakane. Japanese people who have converted to Christianity frequently report missing in their new religion the death practices, and especially the connection with their ancestors, provided in Buddhism. After Nakayama-sensei conducts the Christian funeral service the grandmother's body is cremated in the Buddhist manner on a pyre of logs, a practice Aya Obasan relates both to the appearance of the angel in the fiery furnace of the Book of Daniel and to the tempering of samurai swords. The Buddhist practice of cremation drives out the impurity attending death, transforming, with the accompaniment of other rituals, the corpse into the purified spirit of the ancestor. As part of this process the priest grants a posthumous name (“a Buddhist name”) to the dead person. The ancestor thus becomes a source of blessings for the descendants, available to be prayed to for protection (see Earhart 1984, 60-61; cf. Reader 1991, chap. 4).

In Obasan Naomi incorporates Buddhist beliefs and practices into her own observances for the deaths of both her parents. In Granton Naomi returns home one evening with a captured frog to hear of her father's death, news that comes during a now-rare visit from Nakayama-sensei. Naomi has decided to call her frog “Tad,” “short for Tadpole or Tadashi, my father's name” (206). She thinks of the frog as a messenger from her father until one day it disappears. The next sentence is: “My last letter to father has received no answer” (208). Her pet frog functions as another transitional object for her, unable as she is to acknowledge fully at this point her father's death—“for years I simply do not believe it.” But there is a deeper symbolic significance here too. In general the frog, amphibious and lunar in nature, appearing and disappearing, is connected with creation and resurrection, and placed on Egyptian mummies (see Cirlot 1971, 114-15). More specifically, many Japanese temples and shrines sell lucky frog figurines. According to one scholar, “the symbolic efficacy of this frog derives from a linguistic pun, for the word for frog, kaeru, is pronounced the same as the verb kaeru, to return” (Reader 1991, 178).10 The frog symbolizes the hope for a safe return from a journey as well as the safe return to health from illness. Perhaps here Naomi's wish is for her father to return from death as ancestral spirit to guide and protect her.

For Joy Kogawa, as for her narrator Naomi Nakane, dreams figure in a prominent way as warnings, means of communication, signposts of directions to be taken. Kogawa relates that in a dream she was directed to go to Ottawa and to the Archives. There she received the Muriel Kitagawa papers that became the basis for Emily's letters in Obasan, chapter 14 (see Ackerman 1993, 217-18). As a schoolteacher in Cecil Naomi has recurring dreams of “flight, terror, and pursuit,” and one in which three Asian women attempt to forestall their deaths at the hands of soldiers by seductive behaviour: “It was too late. There was no hope. The soldiers could not be won” (62). In the context of these nightmares of “abject longing, wretchedness, fear, and utter helplessness” Naomi describes, for the first time in her story, her abuse by Gower at age four, wondering, “Is this where the terror begins?” At the time of her uncle's death Naomi has a dream about stairs to “a courtyard and the place of the dead” in which the Grand Inquisitor, looming over her and her mother, is depicted in the same terms as Old Man Gower—“the top of his head a shiny skin cap” (228; cf. 61). He is trying to pry open Naomi's eyes and her mother's lips: “What the Grand Inquisitor has never learned is that the avenues of speech are the avenues of silence. To hear my mother, to attend her speech, to attend the sound of stone, he must first become silent. Only when he enters her abandonment will he be released from his own” (228).

This dream is a prelude to Naomi's discovery of her mother's fate—the nightmare of her dying and the reason for her “vigil of silence”—when she hears her mother's voice in Nakayama's reading of the letters from Grandma Kato. This gathering with Nakayama-sensei, Stephen, Aunt Emily, and Obasan parallels previous ones, becoming as much a memorial for Naomi's mother as a wake for her Uncle Isamu. It echoes the liturgical setting of the communion at Slocan, for instance, as Naomi slices her uncle's stone bread to serve with the green Japanese tea, a cultural transposition of the elements of the Eucharist. (There is even the parallel incident of Stephen breaking off, “then changing his mind,” a piece of his uncle's bread during Nakayama's praying.)

Grandma Kato's words become sacred scripture: “Sensei pauses as he reads. ‘Naomi,’ he says softly, ‘Stephen, your mother is speaking. Listen carefully to her voice’” (233). Naomi learns too from Aunt Emily of her mother's grave, the memorial stone with no date, the plaque with her name, and the Canadian maple tree planted by missionaries. The entire three pages comprising chapter 38 are a prayer addressed to her mother in various terms—“Silent Mother,” “Martyr Mother,” “Young Mother at Nagasaki,” “Maypole Mother,” “Gentle Mother.” Following the pattern of a Buddhist observance of death, Naomi's mother undergoes transformation from scarred and suffering body, tortured with a radiation sickness—from one, that is, who cannot be properly remembered and honoured while her story remains untold—to a purified spirit present to guide and bless Naomi in the role of ancestor. On the novel's penultimate page as Naomi grieves she addresses her song of mourning to “Father, Mother, my relatives, my ancestors” (246).

With the discovery of love's presence in her abandonment Naomi discovers positive meaning in the symbols understood negatively at the novel's outset. Her uncle's stone bread, first understood as a sign of Issei defeat and assimilation, becomes a means of communion for Naomi—with other friends and other family members, with him, and as mediating element for Japanese Canadians with the mainstream Canadian culture. Even “the world of stone” in which the Issei lived now becomes their place of rest (246), a memorial to their endurance and their memory. And in fulfilment of the biblical promise, perhaps here best understood in terms of the Buddhist posthumous name, those who endure receive a “new name,” either concealed in a stone for Christians or written in a memorial tablet for Buddhists: “This honorary name indicates, in Buddhist terms, that the material aspect of the dead person has been extinguished, and the person has gone on to enlightenment, or paradise” (Earhart 1984, 61). On the concluding page Naomi returns to the coulee where she had been with her uncle a month earlier, now able to hear the hidden voice and the freeing word in the underground stream.

Obasan ends with Naomi finally being released from a stony and imprisoning silence of prolonged grief for her mother into true mourning. The hope that tears will one day become laughter is carried forward and realized in the next novel, Itsuka, where the success of the redress movement becomes vindication of the Issei sufferings. Joy Kogawa in her quest for the sacred amidst the personal and communal sufferings of the past fifty years finds ways of combining her ancestral traditions with those extant in Canada derived from European and Christian roots. Her particular kind of synthesis or syncretism favours a blend whose promise is for a future of mutuality in fulfilment of the highest hopes Canadians have for themselves.


  1. Kogawa, Obasan (1983), and Kogawa, Itsuka (1993). The Penguin paperback edition of Obasan is a reprint of the Lester & Orpen Dennys edition, having identical pagination. The Penguin paperback edition of Itsuka is a revised version of the hardcover edition published by Viking. Page references to the respective Penguin paperback editions are cited parenthetically here.

  2. Stuart Hall, writing about ethnicity in the representation by and of blacks in English cinema, says “you can no longer conduct black politics through the strategy of a simple set of reversals, putting in the place of the bad old essential white subject, the essentially good black subject” (“New Ethnicities,” in Institute of Contemporary Arts 1988). Such a strategy, according to Hall, makes all black people either good or at least “the same,” and that is “one of the predicates of racism.”

  3. See Dictionary of the Bible, s.v. “stone,” “manna” (Hastings 1963). See too Caird 1966, 42. T. Schrire comments that amulets, not mentioned in the Old Testament, were common by the time of the Maccabees. He continues: “The Jewish approach to protection from the Evil Eye is based on … the firm belief in the tremendous power of the written Names of God, of angels, and of biblical quotations generally” (1966, 9). While Jewish amulets were usually parchment, Arabs used silver, which “because of its white colour and brightness was considered to be a lucky metal” (ibid., 24).

  4. In the eleventh century the “Azyme Controversy” focused on whether the bread of the Eucharist should be leavened or unleavened. Does leavened bread better represent the risen body of Christ than the “dead bread” of Israel? (Smith 1978).

  5. Joy Kogawa was keynote speaker at the Canadian Studies Seminar at Kwansei Gakuin University, Nishinomiya, Japan, held 21-22 November 1992. She suggested five roles for minorities: to be a bridge; to critique the dominant position; to bring healing through mutuality; to stand with other minorities on the side of justice; and, to give voice to alternate perceptions. With respect to the third role—mutuality—she indicated that the redress movement was a struggle for mutuality, whose alternative is silence. She quoted from Itsuka: “What heals people is the power of mutuality.”

  6. While teaching Obasan I came across a cartoon based on the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme. The queen, with a pot of glue, surveys a smiling and restored Humpty. The caption reads: “I know all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't do it—but that didn't mean it couldn't be done.” If Marshall McLuhan is right that every joke conceals a grudge, here the grudge turns on gender whereas in Kogawa it is about government.

  7. Ann-Janine Morey links food and sex and salvation as problematic areas for women (see Detweiler and Doty 1990, 169-79). If the body is seen as a bounded container, what passes in and out of it is important. Thus food is significant for Naomi because of her childhood sexual abuse by a neighbour. Eating disorders among women, especially anorexia nervosa, have recently been related to rape or sexual abuse. The issue, presumably, is control over one's body, at least through the regulation of food intake because of unwanted sex. Naomi's sexual abuse is one of the main reasons for her silence—her refusal to let words pass from her.

  8. Though it seems unlikely from their description, it would be symbolically significant if these were Monarch butterflies, thereby suggestive once more of the negative authority of the British Crown.

  9. Marilyn J. Legge refers to Rough Lock Bill as “an Indian living on Slocan Lake” (1992, 190). There is no clear evidence of his native ancestry, though his brown skin is darker than Naomi's and Kenji's and though he tells a story of the first Indians who came to the area. Significantly, he distinguishes his own family's history from that of the natives who preceded them: “When my Grandad came, there was a whole tribe here. … But last I saw—one old guy up past the mine—be dead now probably” (146).

  10. The frog's progression through various stages of metamorphosis makes it a widespread symbol of transformation (see Margaret Atwood, Surfacing, for example). Ian Reader mentions that frog figurines are sold at the Buddhist temple at Kiyoshi Kojin near Takarazuka, where I bought one without knowing its significance.

Additional coverage of Kogawa's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 101; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 19, 62; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; andDISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Multicultural.


Joy Kogawa World Literature Analysis