The Importance of Ambiguity, Irony, and Paradox

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1780

Since its publication in 1981, Joy Kogawa's Obasan has assumed an important place in Canadian literature and in the broadly-defined, Asian-American literary canon. Reviewers immediately heralded the novel for its poetic force and its moving portrayal of an often-ignored aspect of Canadian and American history. Since then, critics have expanded upon this initial commentary to examine more closely the themes and images in Kogawa's work. Critical attention has focused on the difficulties and ambiguities of what is, in more ways than one, a challenging novel. The complexity of Obasan's plot, the intensity of its imagery, and the quiet bitterness of its protest challenge readers to wrestle with language and meaning in much the same way that Naomi must struggle to understand her past and that of the larger Japanese-Canadian community. In this sense, the attention that Obasan has received from readers and critics parallels the challenges of the text: Kogawa's novel, one might say, demands to be reckoned with, intellectually as well as emotionally.

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Much about Kogawa's novel makes it difficult not only to read but also to classify or categorize. First, Obasan blurs the line between nonfiction and fiction. Kogawa draws from actual letters and newspaper accounts, autobiographical details, and historical facts throughout the novel, but she artistically incorporates this material into a clearly fictional work. In addition, Kogawa's narrative operates on multiple levels, from the individual and familial to the communal, national, political, and spiritual. Stylistically, the novel moves easily between the language of documentary reportage and a richly metaphorical language, and between straightforward narrative and stream-of-consciousness exposition. This astonishing variety in Kogawa's novel can, at times, become bewildering and unsettling to the reader. But as many readers and critics have noted, Kogawa's style and method in Obasan also constitute the novel's unique strength. Kogawa writes in such a way that ambiguity, uncertainty, irony, and paradox do not weaken her story but instead—paradoxically—become the keys to understanding it.

The reader's experience of ambiguity in Obasan begins with the poetically-charged proem, preceding chapter one, which opens with these words:

There is a silence that cannot speak.
There is a silence that will not speak.

Does Kogawa intend these lines to introduce "silence" as a character of sorts? Does the second line clarify the first, or does it instead differentiate one silence from another, an involuntary muteness from a willed refusal to speak? These and other questions remain unanswered in the proem. Only after beginning the novel-proper does the reader recognize Naomi as the author of these words; and only after completing the novel can the reader begin to grasp the significance of the questions introduced in the proem, particularly the charged question of silence. Obasan dwells on many silences: the silence of history concerning the suffering of Japanese-Canadians during and after World War II; the silence of those who have died and "cannot speak" any longer; the "large and powerful" silence of Obasan; Aunt Emily's outspoken opposition to silence as a "word warrior" for the Japanese-Canadian cause; the silence of Obasan, Uncle, and Emily who, in spite of Naomi's questions, "will not speak" of the fate of her mother; and, finally, Naomi's "Silent Mother" herself, who initially chooses not to speak of her horrific injuries at Nagasaki in an effort to protect her children from the truth, then is lost in the permanent silence of death. Naomi's persistent attempts to penetrate these various silences form the story at the heart of Obasan.

However, Kogawa also recognizes the paradoxical power of silence. Naomi wonders, for example, if Obasan's grief might represent a "language" with "idioms" and "nuances" all its own. While Obasan's silent suffering often brings her to isolation and a trance-like paralysis, Naomi also sees in her a representative figure of strength and endurance, "the bearer of keys to unknown doorways and to a network of astonishing tunnels." As King-Kok Cheung argues in her reading of Obasan, "one must avoid gliding over the tonalities of silence in the novel" in order to recognize the "quiet strength" of first-generation Japanese-Canadians like Uncle and Obasan.

Conversely, Kogawa illustrates that language is only a potential antidote to a dangerous silence: like silence, language can imprison just as it can liberate. Emily's bundle of written documents clearly exerts a powerful, positive influence on Naomi by urging her to "remember everything" and to come to terms with the pain of her childhood and adolescence. Yet Naomi also wonders if "all of Aunt Emily's words, all her papers" finally amount to little more than "scratchings in the barnyard." Emily may be a "word warrior," but her "paper battles" cannot bring Naomi's parents back to life or return the family to their idyllic Vancouver home, cannot address the deepest truth of Naomi's loss.

Similarly, when Emily writes "Canadian citizen" over "Japanese race" in a pamphlet, the gesture appears utterly futile next to the Canadian government's powerful naming. Those in power can, for example, call Japan the rightful "homeland" of Japanese-Canadians or mask official acts of racist persecution with deceptively-bland terms such as "evacuation," "relocation," and "assistance." Kogawa understands that the efficacy of language depends in part on the power to enforce words, to enforce a version of reality. At the same time, she powerfully depicts Naomi's struggle to find words of her own to describe her childhood experience. Naomi needs to find language to mark out a middle ground between Emily's solution, "spreading words like buckshot," and Obasan's retreat into silence.

Kogawa also uses the motif of language and silence to illustrate the paradoxical or ironic nature of Naomi's experience as a child. For instance, Naomi's abuse at the hands of Old Man Gower produces a particularly painful double-bind of silence. On the one hand, with Mr. Gower, Naomi feels that remaining silent is the only way to be "whole and safe": "If I am still, I will be safe.… If I speak, I will split open and spill out." On the other hand, her secret knowledge and shame threaten the wholeness and safety that Naomi feels with her mother: "If I tell my mother about Mr. Gower, the alarm will send a tremor through our bodies and I will be torn from her. But the secret has already separated us." But paradox and irony also characterize the experience of the Japanese-Canadian community as a whole during and after World War II. Stephen summarizes the situation of every Japanese-Canadian citizen when he tells Naomi, "It is a riddle.… We are both the enemy and not the enemy." In a similar fashion, Aunt Emily points to fundamental irony in the situation of the Japanese immigrant generation: "In one breath we are damned for being 'massimilable' and the next there's fear that we'll assimilate." Finally, as Sau-ling Cynthia Wong notes, movement and mobility also take on ironic resonance in Obasan, since a people determined to settle down are forced to move repeatedly, leaving homes and possessions behind, while those who resist relocation are imprisoned. In all of these painful, paradoxical situations, neither silence nor speech offer any effective means of resolution to Naomi or her community

But Kogawa incorporates paradox in Obasan in more positive, life-affirming ways as well. When Aunt Emily says to Naomi, "it must have been hell in the ghost towns," she is only half correct: Naomi's memories of life in Slocan include not only disturbing images of cruelty and death but also compelling scenes of friendship and community. Just as memories of Mr. Gower disrupt Naomi's recollections of an idyllic childhood before the evacuation, so too the restoration of a sense of community in Slocan undermines Emily's single-minded view of its absolute destruction. Of course, Naomi's positive memories of Slocan do not lessen the crime of relocation and internment, do not excuse what the Canadian and American governments did to Japanese residents and citizens. But Kogawa's portrayal of Naomi's experience presents a more complicated vision of human suffering than any allowed by Emily's outspoken political protest.

In a review entitled "Impossible to Forgive," Suanne Kelman contends that Obasan illuminates "the most horrible of all human paradoxes," that "injustice provokes more guilt in its victims than in its perpetrators." However, a desire to believe that forgiveness is not impossible also runs throughout Kogawa's novel, spoken most clearly by Nakayama-sensei: "It is a high calling my friends—the calling to forgive." Naomi resists Nakayama-sensei's message, leaving the room when he speaks of Love, drowning out his voice when he speaks of forgiveness. But the resonance of his message is not lost, and his voice—though he speaks of paradoxical truths—is not, as some critics have argued, finally ironic. Instead, Kogawa instills in her novel faint echoes of hope, small but powerful signs of forgiveness, that persist even in the midst of a despair that will not ever be wholly overcome.

By the end of Obasan, Naomi does not miraculously resolve her painful struggle with the past or achieve any easy catharsis, but she does find a more positive, less paralyzing way of seeing. The double-bind of silence that Naomi suffered as a child because of Old Man Gower's abusive touch, a silence that threatened to separate her forever from her mother, now opens her eyes to her mother's own suffering and impenetrable silence. Though Naomi rejects her mother's decision to protect her children by "lies" and "camouflage," she recognizes the love that motivated it and the bond that joins mother and daughter: "Gentle Mother, we were lost together in our silences. Our wordlessness was our mutual destruction." Having learned the truth of her mother's suffering and death, Naomi can perceive her mother's immutable presence in her life even as she acknowledges her literal absence. She can envision a certain gentleness in Griefs eyes, a "brooding light" amidst the darkness of death, and an "underground stream" flowing around the "world of stone" that holds her lost loved ones.

At the end of Obasan, Naomi returns to the coulee to mourn her own deep loss, to grieve for her Uncle, and to carry on his ritual of remembering those lost forever to that "world of stone." But she goes with new insight into his grief and her own, having come to terms with the painful experiences and the troubling silences that have haunted her life. Fittingly, Kogawa captures Naomi's newfound peace in a paradoxical yet hopeful image of stone and water in harmony, in the reflection of the moon on the river: Though her own shoes are "mud-clogged" and heavy, Naomi can envision "water and stone dancing" in a "quiet ballet, soundless as breath."

Source: Anthony Dykema-VanderArk, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998. Dykema-VanderArk is a doctoral candidate in English at Michigan State University.

Attentive Silence: Obasan

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3417

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 then* 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 [writing in the New York Times Book Review, September 5, 1982] the book is "a study in painful silence, in unquestioning but troubled obedience to the inevitable"; to David Low [writing in Bridge, 8:3, 1983] it is "clearly a novel about the importance of communication and the danger of keeping silent"; to Joyce Wayne [in RIKKA, 8:2, 1981] it is "a tale of the submissive silence of the oppressed." The resounding condemnation of silence reflects the bias of "translation" or of language itself which, as Paula Gunn Allen tells us [in The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, 1986], "embodies the unspoken assumptions and orientations of the culture it belongs to." 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 [in Boundary, 1984], 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." 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 inObasan: "'Orientalism' has been so internalized by this Oriental minority, that their silence is an inadvertent bow to the occidental hegemony which legitimizes their abuse" [Dalhousie Review, 1987]. 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 [in MELUS, 12:3, 1985] as the narrator's specific nikkei legacy—"a nonverbal mode of apprehension summarized by the 'term attendance.'" 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.

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.…

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" [according to Fujita, MELUS, 1985], 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 acccompanied 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 [in Canadian Literature/Litterature Canadienne 116, Spring, 1988], "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."

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." 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" [Canadian Woman Studies 4:2, 1982]. 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). 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.

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.…

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." 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." Naomi tells: "We are the despised rendered voiceless, stripped of car, radio, camera and every means of communication."

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?" Rape, Erika Gottlieb points out, is used here as "metaphor for any kind of violation" [Canadian Literature 109, Summer, 1986]. Like Stephen, many Japanese Canadians also refuse to speak about what Rose calls their "political and spiritual rape" by the Canadian government [Mosaic 21, Spring, 1988]. Naomi, for one, wishes to leave the past behind: "Crimes of history … can stay in history." 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!"

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." 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." 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." 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." 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." 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.

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."

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. 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, RIKKA, 1981]. 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." 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 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." 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." 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." The quietest character in the novel, Obasan is also the most attentive. (She performs what Wordsworth in "Tintem 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." 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." 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."

In this receptive state she hears "the sigh of … remembered breath, a wordless word." 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?" 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.

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 needfulness. She finally discovers the key to the cryptic epigraph: "To attend its voice, I can hear it say, is to embrace its absence."

Source: King-Kok Cheung, "Attentive Silence: Obasan," in her Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto Maxine Hong Kingston Joy Kogawa, Cornell University Press, 1994, pp. 126-167. King-Kok Cheung is an author, educator, and associate director of the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The Silences That Speak from Stone

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 855

"Nisei," we learn from this extraordinary first novel, [Obasan], means "second generation," embracing the children of the Canadian and American first-generation immigrants from Japan. Everyone by now knows that the internment and theft of property suffered by Americans of Japanese descent during World War II represents a national disgrace second only to the massacres of Native Americans. It is a small comfort to realize that Canadian Nisei were treated at least as badly as the Americans, but the distance created by the Canadian setting perhaps will help make the pain this novel evokes more bearable for U.S. readers.

Joy Kogawa, a Canadian teacher and poet, has drawn upon her own experience as a displaced Canadian Nisei to write a unified story of a battered and broken family that endures under the worst conditions. The systematic outrages inflicted by the Canadian government on its own citizens echo the Nazi treatment of the Jews; the novel, in turn, shares some of the tone of The Diary of Anne Frank in its purity of vision under the stress of social outrage. This novel too has a magical ability to convey suffering and privation, inhumanity and racial prejudice, without losing in any way joy in life and in the poetic imagination.

The narrator is Naomi Nakane, now a 36-year-old teacher: "Marital status: Old maid. Health: Fine, I suppose.… Personality: Tense. Is that past or present tense? It's perpetual tense." Like her author, Naomi was torn at the age of 5 from a warm and loving family inside a secure Japanese-Canadian culture in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her mother is stranded in Japan, finally to encounter an atomic bomb, and her physician father's fragile health fails before the hardships of dispersal and brutal labor.

Naomi and her resentful brother Stephen (a musical prodigy) depend on their aunt, "Obasan," whose silence and strength form the solid center of the novel. The death of their uncle draws the family together, and draws Naomi's past into perspective as she reviews documents that expand her imperfect understanding of what has happened to her and her family. These documents include not only the diaries and notes collected by her irrepressible Aunt Emily, but a series of chilling nonfictional official papers and newspaper accounts.

Part of the strength of this novel is in its historical particularity, but another part is in its larger resonance: This is also an account of human barbarity wherever it occurs. This motif is made explicit early on in a description of Obasan:

Squatting here with the putty knife in her hand, she is every old woman in every hamlet in the world. You see her on a street corner in southern France in a black dress and black stockings. Or bent over stone steps in a Mexican mountain village. Everywhere the old woman stands as the true and rightful owner of the earth. She is the bearer of keys to unknown doorways and to a network of astonishing tunnels. She is the possessor of life's infinite personal details.

"Now old," Obasan repeats; "everything old." The rhythms of the prose, when under extreme pressure, expand into Biblical patterns:

We are leaving the B.C. coast—rain, cloud, mist—an air overladen with weeping. Behind us lies a salty sea within which swim our drowning specks of memory—our small water-logged eulogies. We are going down to the middle of the earth with pick-axe eyes, tunneling by tram to the interior, carried along by the momentum of the expulsion into the waiting wilderness. We are the silences that speak from stone. We are the despised rendered voiceless, snipped of car, radio, camera and every means of communication, a trainload of eyes covered with mud and spittle. We are the man in the Gospel of John, born into the world for the sake of the light.

The poetry remains quiet behind the prose, even as the universal theme radiates from the strong and driving plot. The story keeps unfolding, until its full sadness is complete. The next-to-last word is Nakane's:

This body of grief is not fit for human habitation. Let there be flesh. The song of mourning is not a lifelong song.… The wild roses and the tiny wild flowers grow along the trickling stream. The perfume in the air is sweet and faint. If I hold my head a certain way, I can smell them from where I am.

The last word in the book is from the memorandum sent by the Cooperative Committee on Japanese Canadians to the House and the Senate of Canada in April, 1946. It points out that the orders-in-council for the deportation of Canadians of Japanese racial origin are "wrong and indefensible" and "are an adoption of the methods of Nazism." This protest was ignored by the government and by the world at large.

Kogawa's novel must be heard and admired; the art itself can claim the real last word, exposing the viciousness of the racist horror, embodying the beauty that somehow, wonderfully, survives.

Source: Edward M. White, "The Silences That Speak from Stone," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 11, 1982, p. 3. White is an American educator and critic.

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