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Obasan

Joy Kogawa

Chapters 35–39

Chapters 31–34

Important Quotations Explained

Summary: Chapter 35

Naomi dreams of her mother doing a death dance with a rose in her mouth. The rose is connected to Obasan’s twine, which is connected to Aunt Emily’s package. A figure Naomi calls the Grand Inquisitor descends and begins opening her eyes and her mother’s mouth. Naomi wakes. She thinks that to understand her mother, the Grand Inquisitor has to listen to her silence. She thinks that the rose stands for her mother’s story. She decides to stop her inquisition, her search for the truth. Obasan wakes and begins reading the papers from Aunt Emily’s cardboard folder.

Summary: Chapter 36

As Naomi does the dishes, Nakayama-sensei, Aunt Emily, and Stephen arrive. Naomi is surprised by the gray in her brother’s hair. He seems uncomfortable. Nakayama-sensei says a prayer over the tea and Uncle’s bread. Then he looks at the letters. Aunt Emily says she wanted to tell the children a long time ago. Nakayama-sensei reads the letters aloud. They are from Grandma Kato to Grandpa Kato.

Summary: Chapter 37

Naomi mentions that in high school, she learned that her mother’s grave had been found. The first letter from Grandma Kato is brief. The second says that Grandma Kato and Naomi’s mother decided keeping silent would help the horror abate, but it didn’t. Naomi’s mother specifically didn’t want her children to know what had happened. Grandma hoped by writing about the events to her husband, she would rid herself of some pain.

In 1945, Grandma and Naomi’s mother were in Nagasaki, helping Naomi’s cousin, Setsuko, with her new baby, Chieko, who looked just like Naomi. While they were there, many of their family members died in a bombing of Tokyo. One day, as Grandma was getting ready to make lunch, with Chieko strapped to her back, the bomb hit. Grandma was knocked unconscious. She awoke to find a scene of total devastation. The baby was unconscious, but alive. Both of Setsuko’s eyes had been blown out, and her skin came off against Grandma’s hand, but she was still alive and calling for her son, Tomio. Tomio survived unharmed. Everywhere there were people hideously maimed and dying. Grandma headed toward the house of Setsuko’s father-in-law. At a stream, exhausted, she fell asleep. When she woke, she and the baby were at the father-in-law’s house, but Tomio was gone. He was never found. One day, Grandma came across a bald woman who had lost her nose and a cheek. Maggots filled her wounds. This woman was Naomi’s mother.

Naomi’s mother recovered in a hospital. She insisted on wearing a mask after her bandages were off. At four years old, Chieko was dying of leukemia.

Nakayama-sensei says a prayer for forgiveness. Naomi asks her mother to help her listen.

Summary: Chapter 38

Naomi speaks to her mother as if she were there, telling her she shares her horror. She says that Obasan and Uncle granted her mother’s request for silence. She says that silence destroyed them both.

Nakayama-sensei is still praying. Naomi says she feels her mother’s presence and love.

Summary: Chapter 39

In the small hours of the morning, Obasan looks through a box of photographs. Although Obasan does not weep, Naomi knows she is grieving. She puts on Aunt Emily’s coat and drives to the coulee.

The novel ends with an excerpt from a 1946 memo written by the Co-operative Committee on Japanese Canadians, arguing against the deportation of Japanese Canadians.

Analysis

In a novel largely concerned with the formation and retention of family bonds, Stephen and Naomi’s relationship is remarkable for its coolness. The siblings have lost nearly everyone close to them, including their mother and father, and we might expect them to cling to each other. Yet they see each other about once a decade, and their reunions are passionless events. When Stephen arrives at Obasan’s house, for instance, he doesn’t even greet Naomi. Their remote behavior toward each other may be a casualty of their family’s total failure to communicate. For various reasons, the grownups constantly hid information from Naomi and Stephen throughout their childhoods and well into their adulthoods. This habit of obfuscation seems to have been passed on to the siblings, who never once have a conversation of real import.

In these last chapters of the novel, Naomi is still struggling with the merits of silence versus the benefits of memory. Her nightmare about her mother helps her decide, at least for a time, that silence is best. The evil figure in the dream is the Inquisitor, who brutally opens Naomi’s eyes and her mother’s mouth. He is the villain, but he is also a stand-in for Naomi. For years, she has been metaphorically attempting to force open her mother’s mouth, to wrench the story of those lost years from her absent, and now dead, parent. Over the course of the novel, she has also been forcing her own eyes open, as the Inquisitor does in the nightmare, by making herself revisit scenes from her youth. If Naomi is like the Inquisitor, and the Inquisitor is a terrifying villain, it follows that Naomi’s quest to unearth the truth is ill-advised.

Yet while Naomi understands and forgives her mother’s desire to keep silent about the atrocities she saw and suffered, in the end she seems to feel that the silence was not worth the price. It is better to know all. Chapter 38, a lyrical outpouring of emotion addressed primarily to Naomi’s mother is characterized by Naomi’s longing to share her mother’s pain. In the end, Naomi insists she feels a mystical connection to her deceased mother, as if she is still present somehow. While this is a comforting sensation, its pathos is a strong argument for truth telling. Naomi must talk herself into feeling her mother’s presence, because she has almost nothing else to go on. Hard facts, even the most disturbing hard facts, are precious to her. She clings to photos of her mother as if they are talismans, studying the buckles on her shoes as if they have some deep meaning. We suspect that if she knew more about her mother, if she had been in communication with her while she was still alive, Naomi wouldn’t so desperately need to insist that she can still communicate with her after her death.

The novel ends on a hopeful note. Naomi doesn’t explicitly or even implicitly rescind her earlier assertion that reliving the past will not help prevent future atrocities. But nearly all of the clippings and letters and other historical material included in the narrative to this point have demonstrated the breathtaking racism of Canadians. This final excerpt, in contrast, proves that there were at least some Canadians who were outraged over their country’s treatment of its citizens. The inclusion of this positive excerpt represents a shift, however small, from cynicism about the human capacity for evil toward acknowledgment that some people care about, and fight against, injustice.

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