Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 920
Much symbolism enhances Kogawa’s provocative story, which recounts a belated coming-of-age and discovery. It is told mainly from Naomi’s point of view, and readers must piece together information about the fate of her mother as she and Stephen are belatedly forced to face it, largely at the prompting of their very vocal aunt, Emily. Though aggressive, Emily is also compassionate, concerned for the well-being of her immediate family and for all Japanese whose story she believes must be told repeatedly and insistently. The story describes how Naomi, reared by the “silent” pair Ayako and Isamu, becomes transformed into an informed and more assertive adult, ready to speak out.
In the narrative frame that opens and closes the book, Naomi is either eating or serving or contemplating Uncle Isamu’s “stone bread,” for which he has developed quite a reputation in the Japanese community. It is tough and hard, and Stephen does not like it, but at the same time it is nurturing. The stone bread symbolizes the hardships endured by the Japanese, as well as the community spirit that helps them stick together and buoy one another.
The first of the novel’s two epigraphs imparts to Isamu’s bread a religious significance. In a quote from the Bible, the bread becomes “the hidden manna,” which points to religion in general, and Christianity in particular, as a dominant theme in the book. Kogawa herself was reared a Christian, and her minister father is the model for Reverend Nakayama. Among the Christian rituals and symbols that she makes use of in the book are Easter and the Eucharist. Two childhood incidents involving Easter chicks are used to illustrate how helpless the yellow baby chicks (the Japanese Canadians) are when they are pecked to death by a white hen (the Canadian government). Fire is an ambiguous symbol that purges (the communal Japanese hot baths) but also destroys (the firestorm in Nagasaki which causes Nesan’s death).
The novel’s second epigraph, together with the title Obasan, reveals the most important theme of the novel: the struggle within Naomi between silence and speech. This epigraph, half a page long and very poetic, using delicate and reverent language, begins, “There is a silence that cannot speak.” It mentions the freedom that can come with speaking, but also the hated “sealed vault” and “sky swallowing the echoes,” which restrict and restrain “the freeing word.” The tension between silence and speech is implied in the deceptively simple title of the book. The word obasan means “aunt.” Naomi has not one aunt, but two. She has been reared by her Aunt Ayako, who lives at the time of the plot in small-town Granton, Alberta. Her Aunt Emily, a defiantly single woman, lives in cosmopolitan Toronto. The two aunts are nothing alike, and their differences represent conflicting forces within Naomi; she grows to discover that she must ultimately choose between them.
Aunt Ayako (usually referred to as “Obasan” by Naomi) is remarkable in her silence and her stasis, and she consistently refers to herself as “old.” In her house and in her long-standing marriage, nothing ever changes. Her voice is barely audible, and her conversation is always oblique. She is forgetful, confused, and bewildered. Naomi sees her as “every old woman in every hamlet in the world.” On the other hand, Aunt Emily is characterized by speed, urgency, and change, and she is vocal and opinionated. Kogawa first introduces her in the book by saying that, at fifty-six, Emily refuses to be labeled an “old maid.” She is a relentless attender of conferences and prides herself in assembling with other survivors to share indignant and painful stories. She is aggressive, likes to take charge, and never stays still “long enough to hear the sound of her own voice.”
Early in the novel, Kogawa mentions the parcel that Aunt Emily has mailed to Naomi some time ago from Toronto, which has been stashed by Ayako under her kitchen table and forgotten. The parcel contains the journal of Emily’s conference papers, her letters to Nesan, news clippings, and government documents. Aunt Emily periodically hounds Naomi to examine the contents, to broadcast the horrors therein, but not until chapter 14 is Naomi ready to come to grips with reexamining the details of the internment, details that she had buried deep inside and initially thinks should remain buried. Emily’s retort to that apathetic line of reasoning is to urge Naomi to glue her tongue back on, to verbalize the crimes of history so that some justice may be done. Instead of Ayako’s evasiveness, Emily insists on getting “the facts” straight.
All the shocking facts about Nesan’s final days in Nagasaki come to light as the family is gathered together for Isamu’s funeral, as Nakayama-sensei reads the illuminating letters from Grandma Kato aloud. It is appropriate that Isamu, the man who has nourished his family by baking bread, should be, by his death, the occasion of Naomi’s overcoming of the ignorance that has rendered her passive. It is particularly significant that when all the horrors have been told, very early in the morning, Naomi pulls Aunt Emily’s coat around her for warmth and comfort. She goes outside, past wild rose bushes and through wet grass, and watches the reflection of waning moonlight ripple on the river. Sense details abound in the novel’s closing sentences, which imply that Naomi, braced by Emily’s truth and identity, has chosen life and speech over death and silence.