Mother removes the live chicks first, placing them in her apron . . . there is calm efficiency in her face and she does not speak. 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.
This passage identifies the positive and deeply comforting side of traditionally Japanese notions of proper behavior. The preference for tranquility over displays of raw emotion does not necessarily indicate repression. It can also suggest, as it does here, a complete and calm acceptance of another person’s behavior. Naomi’s mother is not faking serenity. The matter-of-fact expression on her face is an accurate expression of her matter-of-fact attitude toward her daughter. Her daughter’s foolishness has just resulted in the death of innocent chicks, but Naomi’s mother is not angry, and she is not simply hiding her anger under a mask of calmness. Whatever Naomi does, her mother will accept. Whatever Naomi thinks, feels, and says, her mother will greet with serenity. It is a policy of total, effortless, and unconditional love. It is also a policy of respect. The eyes that “do not invade and betray” allow Naomi to have her own individual self, separate from her family and as private as she wants it to be.
In the broader context of the novel, the action Naomi’s mother takes in this passage highlights her role as powerful comforter and protector. Throughout the narrative, chicks stand for innocence, and their violent deaths reveal the unrelenting cruelty the world rains on its most undeserving inhabitants. Naomi’s mother has not been able to prevent the death of many of the chicks, which suggests that no one has the power to make an unjust world just, but in this passage she does save some of them. Her ability to scoop up and rescue the defenseless birds is unique. Elsewhere in the novel, no one intercedes on their behalf. The suggestion is that in Naomi’s life, only her mother is truly capable of protecting her. When Naomi’s mother goes to Japan, she leaves Naomi alone in a harsh world.
We must always honor the wishes of others before our own. We will make the way smooth by restraining emotion . . . To try to meet one’s own needs in spite of the wishes of others is to be “wagamama”—selfish and inconsiderate . . . It is such a tangle trying to decipher the needs and intents of others.
Naomi channels the voice of Obasan, and her other traditional relatives, in this explanation of what it means to be wagamama versus what it means to be generous and selfless. According to Naomi’s characterization, it is important to be emotionally restrained not for the sake of your own dignity, but for the sake of other people’s happiness. Those around you will feel comfortable if you are serene, whereas displays of emotion might make them feel awkward. Of all of the characters in the novel, Obasan is most successful at keeping her own emotions in check and putting the needs of others above her own. It is no coincidence that she is also the most silent and inexpressive character in the novel. If restraint of emotion and consideration for others is good, the erasure of visible emotion and the total subsuming of self to others is best by extension.
The final sentence of this passage is itself quiet and restrained, but it hides a world of passionate objection to the beliefs held by Obasan and Naomi’s mother. In fact, we could argue that the last sentence is not restrained at all, but rather that it quivers with barely suppressed anger. What Naomi hints at here and spells out elsewhere in the narrative is that self-effacement and suppression of emotion can lead to utter disaster. If you spend all of your time thinking about what other people need, she suggests, you wind up neglecting your own needs. Moreover, the theory behind this traditional view of good behavior may be fundamentally flawed. To put the desires of other people above your own desires is to assume that other people are just as well-intentioned as you are, and that their desires are just as noble. But what if what other people want is to rob you, drive you from your home, and strip you of your basic rights? Should you then stay silent, suppress your emotions, and put your own needs behind those of your would-be oppressors? For Naomi, the answer is clearly no. She worries that her aunt and mother’s system of thought is part of what left her people so vulnerable to the cruelties of the Canadian government.
Aunt Emily, are you a surgeon cutting at my scalp with your folders and your filing cards and your insistence on knowing all? The memory drains down the side of my face, but it isn’t enough, is it? It’s your hands . . . pulling the growth from the lining of my walls, but bring back the anesthetist turn on the ether clamp down the gas and bring on the chloroform . . .
Chapter 29, one of the most powerful in the novel, features this furious diatribe against Aunt Emily. To this point, Naomi has tolerated her aunt’s insistence that she think back on her childhood. She has sometimes evinced annoyance at Aunt Emily’s pushiness, but her reactions have been notably mild. Here, however, she lets fly with a full-throated rant. She is no longer concerned with keeping up a serene countenance or suppressing emotion for the comfort of those around her. Enraged and speaking honestly, she likens Aunt Emily to a mad doctor armed with folders and filing cards that work like scalpels, cutting into Naomi’s head and forcing out the bloody memories. The deterioration of the grammar toward the end of the passage reflects Naomi’s anger, which overflows the boundaries of commas and periods. The call for ether, gas, and chloroform suggests Naomi would rather die than be forced to relive her childhood any more.
Still, the fury in this passage does not mean that Naomi is permanently angry at her aunt, or that Kogawa wants us to dismiss the work of remembering as painful and unnecessary. Naomi’s metaphor is full of violence and blood, but it does not necessarily cast Aunt Emily as a villain. She is hurting Naomi, true, but she is also like a surgeon performing a necessary operation. She seems to sadistically want Naomi to produce more and more memories, a process that Naomi likens to blood pouring “down the side of [her] face”—but perhaps she is not sadistic at all, but rather intent on removing the poison from Naomi’s system. Naomi says that Aunt Emily is “pulling the growth from the lining of [her] walls,” an image that compares her childhood memories to a cancer that Aunt Emily is rooting out. The fury on display in this passage is directed here at Aunt Emily, but its real target is the memories and the people who forced those memories into being.
And then it’s cold . . . the skin . . . grows red and hard and itchy from the flap flap of the boots and the fine hairs on my legs grow coarse there and ugly.
I mind growing ugly.
The pared-down style of this passage is typical of Chapter 29, which is narrated in a simpler, less lyrical fashion than are many of the other chapters. The unadorned prose reflects the difficulty of Naomi’s life on the beet farm. There is no time for waxing rhapsodic about nature, or making pat observations about animals. She and her family members are doing backbreaking work. They are exhausted and hungry. When Naomi isn’t frozen solid in the winter, she is warding off fainting attacks in the summer. In the paragraph immediately before this one, she describes the way the intense heat made her tear ducts dry out. Now, in this paragraph, she describes the sudden onset of winter, which brings its own set of discomforts. The straightforward prose style here also reflects Naomi’s dull anger at Aunt Emily, whom she addresses periodically throughout the chapter. There is a sense that with each new appalling detail, Naomi is asking her aunt, “You want to hear what it was like? This is what it was like.”
Naomi addresses her physical appearance in this passage, something she almost never does. She tells us early on in the novel that she is small and slight, but beyond that, she makes almost no remarks about her own body. What little information we do get about the way she looks is confined to descriptions of her clothing and shoes. The scarcity of physical details elsewhere in the novel makes this description of her raw skin and hairy legs almost shocking. The sentence “I mind growing ugly” is moving because of its remarkable frankness and simplicity, and because it marks one of the only moments during which Naomi analyzes her own body, and her natural girlish vanity, with unswerving honesty. The sentence is set apart on its own line, as if Naomi is forcing out this honest declaration word by word, with difficulty.
Obasan . . . does not dance to the multicultural piper’s tune or respond to the racist’s slur. She remains in a silent territory, defined by her serving hands. She serves us now, pouring tea into Mr. Barker’s cup. She is unable to see and stops halfway before the cup is full.
Naomi views Obasan’s attitude with a complicated mixture of admiration, frustration, and sadness. The first sentence of this passage implies that Obasan’s silence and refusal to participate in the world make her superior to the anxious Japanese Canadians who worry about multiculturalism and react in some way to racism, whether with fury, annoyance, or amusement. These Japanese Canadians may be engaged with their society, but the phrase “dance to the multicultural piper’s tune” suggests that they are little better than robots, leaping around like the children bewitched by the Pied Piper. The next sentence, however, reverses the idea that Obasan’s remove is desirable. She is “defined by her serving hands,” a clear statement that her entire identity is wrapped up in waiting on other people. If you always think of the other people’s needs before your own, Naomi suggests, you doom yourself to a life of servitude. The phrase “silent territory” is double-edged. Obasan can’t or won’t hear the jibes of the racists around her, which keeps her safe from them, but equally, she can’t communicate with the people around her. Failing to hear protects her, but failing to speak isolates her.
The last line of the passage (which is also the last line of the chapter) may be a sly tweak of Naomi herself. Obasan is waiting on Mr. Barker, the man who once employed her and treated her little better than he would a dog. Outwardly, she is all politeness, but several small details undercut her welcoming appearance. She serves the tea in greasy cups that appall Mrs. Barker. She works in silence, consciously or unconsciously emphasizing the old master-servant relationship in a way that surely makes the newly PC Mr. Barker feel uncomfortable. And in this last line, she fails to give Mr. Barker a full cup of tea. The joke may be on Naomi. She thinks she knows her aunt inside and out, but perhaps Obasan is capable of her own tiny acts of insubordination now and again.
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Obasan is a novel by the Japanese-Canadian author Joy Kogawa. First published by Lester and Orpen Dennys in 1981, it chronicles Canada's internment and persecution of its citizens of Japanese descent during World War II from the perspective of a young child. In 2005, it was the One Book, One Vancouver selection.
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