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Speaking loudly so that her deaf Obasan (aunt in Japanese) can hear, Naomi asks if Uncle suffered. We now understand that Uncle is dead. While Obasan makes tea, Naomi looks around at the familiar clutter of the house. She sees that Obasan’s eyes and mouth are gummy, and notes that she has never seen Obasan cry.
A loaf of Uncle’s homemade bread sitting on the counter reminds Naomi of his first attempt at baking. Naomi was ten, and wanted to try a recipe for bread. Uncle wound up doing the baking himself, and produced a rock-hard loaf. Naomi’s older brother, Stephen, tried to serve it to her with margarine, but she refused to eat. Over the years, Uncle refined the recipe, but the results were always terrible.
Obasan describes the morning’s events. Uncle was taken to the hospital, where he died. Naomi wonders to herself what Uncle’s last hours were like. She wonders whether he returned to the sea, or to his mother. She thinks about what Obasan will do. She realizes that Stephen won’t help her. He is a moody, restless man.
Obasan says that she is too old, and then goes to scrape the mud from Naomi’s boots. As Naomi wonders if Obasan could live with her, Obasan says that both her body and the house are old. Naomi reflects that the house and all its clutter are inextricably linked to Obasan. Watching her aunt crouch over the boots, Naomi thinks that Obasan is the same as old women in France, or Mexico, or anywhere else on earth.
Naomi thinks about Grandma Nakane, Uncle’s mother. She was imprisoned in Vancouver Hastings Park, an internment camp, during World War II. Naomi remembers a family photograph depicting her closest relatives. Dr. and Mrs. Kato were her maternal grandparents, and Mr. and Mrs. Nakane her paternal grandparents. Grandpa Nakane, a boat builder, moved to Canada first, in 1893. He married his cousin’s widow, who had a son by her first husband. This son, Isamu, is the man Naomi calls Uncle. He married Ayako, the woman Naomi calls Obasan. Obasan has told Naomi that she married Uncle for the sake of Grandma Nakane, who shared Obasan’s love of music. Obasan bore two stillborn children. After the second birth, Aunt Emily gave Uncle and Obasan a puppy.
In the photo, Naomi’s father holds baby Stephen. Naomi’s mother is next to her sister, Emily. Naomi sees no resemblance between Aunt Emily, who is chubby, and Mother, who is delicate. Even as a girl, Naomi sensed tension and unhappiness in the family. Naomi’s mother and father, who were the first in their community not to have an arranged marriage, worked hard to draw their two families together. Naomi makes a vague reference to a worrisome letter from Japan that arrived after her own birth. She says that if her family was once close, it isn’t anymore.
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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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