Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1029

Critics and reviewers have found a lot to say about Kogawa's first novel because of its wondrous poetic prose and its successful attempt to express the Canadian hybrid as art. The most popular theme to pick up on in the critical literature is family and how Kogawa writes the family drama as non-Oedipal but a struggle of the mother-culture to survive in patriarchy. It is this struggle which either leaves the daughter devastated or barely intact. The other obvious focus for critics has been the cultural blending of the Japanese and the Canadian that Kogawa subtly accomplishes. Other interpretations have focused on the landscape as a force in the novel which eventually overcomes the government's action.

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Following the publication of the novel and the awards, the first reviews were bland. They were almost bothered by the silences of the novel. An early review in the Canadian Forum by Suanne Kelman positively assessed the novel for its ability to transcribe a very political history into a well-crafted piece of literature. Edward White repeated that praise in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, adding, “[the] novel must be heard … [for] exposing the viciousness of the racist horror, embodying the beauty that somehow survives.” Critics dealing with the work in the mid-eighties, however, had begun to delve into the complexities for which the novel was deservedly rewarded. The first of this wave was Erika Gottlieb's article in Canadian Literature. Since then, there have developed five areas of critical focus: puzzle and cross-reference; the place of literature in politics and history; the role of landscape in identity; the difficulties of cultural clash in terms of language both body and tongue; and the psychological drama of mother-daughter relations.

With Gottlieb the novel becomes more than a historical novel making poetry of human injustice. Gottlieb writes, “The novel sets up these multidimensional questions as puzzles arranged in a concentric pattern—container hidden within container within container—creating a sense of mystery and tension.” These containers, for Gottlieb, are the three riddles of hidden manna, hidden voice, and hidden reason. They reflect the three dimensions of Naomi, the cosmos, and Canada. It is Gottlieb who suggests that the spider webs in the attic mimic the time-jump in the narrative. More significantly, Gottlieb has taken the time to translate the intricacies of Japanese culture endemic in the novel. She suggests that the space of the novel is akin to the space in Buddhism for mourning. Thus the story is begun by news of Uncle's death and ends on the eve of his funeral. There is also the echo of the tea ceremony and the many icons that invoke the blend of Christianity and Buddhism in the work. Following her leads, many critics have attempted to further Gottlieb's solution to the Obasan puzzle or correct her translation. Teruyo Ueki, for example, in her article for Melus reads the novel in terms of Aunt Emily's parcel. She first agrees with Gottlieb's interpretation, but then shows how “the riddles are arranged as ‘the folder structure.’” She does this down to the very ribbons tying the parcel together. The grandest container is, of course, the landscape. Karin Quimby focuses on this aspect of the novel and draws the connection between Naomi's growth and the three locales of the story (Vancouver, Slocan, and Granton). These readings reveal that the dreams of flower and roots reconcile themselves in the last scene. There, Naomi is physically rooting in the Canadian prairie with her hands in the grass.

Readings of the novel focusing on culture clash begin with Gary Willis's article in Studies in Canadian Literature. His thesis depends on Kogawa's comparison of Western versus Japanese forms of carpentry. The latter pulls “with control rather than push with force.” King-Kok Cheung, in the collection of essays Listening to Silences, explains the power of silence and the way it functions in the novel. The key is to realize that silence does not mean passivity. Instead, the novel's silences articulate in literary form “the use of nonverbal expression.” To read the novel's silences otherwise, says Cheung, is to fall prey to Orientalism or the stereotype of the submissive Asian. “The thematics and poetics of silence are tightly interwoven.… The narrator negotiates between voicelessness and vociferousness, embodied respectively by her two aunts.” Calling the novel a polyglossia (because of the several layers of meaning, for example, contained in the ideogram for love), Cheung notices that Kogawa “deploys fables and dreams to spin a web of associations, of verbal and emotional echoes.” Cheung ends by referring to the example of carpentry suggesting that Kogawa has carved a style with “the pull of silences.” Gayle Fujita picks up on Cheung's insights and reads Kogawa in terms of the story of Momotaro.

Returning to the idea that the novel is historical, Marilyn Rose wrote for Mosaic that in a postmodern world, literature is still able to convey human experience. She compares the novel to the documentary writing being produced in the late seventies about the internment. Rose argues that by creating Naomi as a “humble and tentative narrator,” Kogawa's “argument against this historically specific injustice makes compelling art.” Mason Harris has a similar view of the novel in his essay for Canadian Literature. His purpose is to pay closer attention not just to how the novel functions on a cultural level as novel or documentary but the way in which the novel itself struggles with that function. For him the novel not only reconstructs “a suppressed chapter of Canadian history” but the transformation of the immigrant family through several generations to adjust to the new culture and the pains that arise between the generations. Both Robin Potter and Eleanor Ty offer a more exacting psychological reading of the novel with the assistance of Feminist theorists Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. Ty also picks up on a neglected aspect of Kogawa's Naomi when she compares Obasan to Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy in the International Fiction Review. She writes that the mother “evokes an otherness fraught with sexual and racial overtones for Naomi.” This condition, she continues, must be demythologized if Naomi is to create new forms of language and expression as a Canadian.

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