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Obasan

Joy Kogawa

Chapters 5–7

Chapters 3 and 4

Chapters 8–11

Summary: Chapter 5

Obasan wakes Naomi. They go to the attic, where Obasan searches for something. Naomi sees the tools Grandpa Nakane brought from Japan. Obasan finds an old ID of Uncle’s, signed by an RCMP inspector. As Obasan looks through old possessions, Naomi muses that she and Obasan are trapped by memories of their dead relatives. A glimpse of an old quilt makes her return to the old question of why her mother never came back. As a child, Naomi asked Obasan about her mother, but Obasan provided no information. Now, Obasan can’t find what she is looking for, and Naomi helps her back to bed.

Summary: Chapter 6

Naomi dreams that she and a man encounter another couple in a forest on a mountain. Together, the two couples work at some unknown but necessary task. Suddenly, Naomi sees a giant animal that may be a combination of lion and dog. The animal belongs to the other man, who resembles a British officer. When the animal yawns, Naomi realizes that it is a robot. In an ancient language, the other woman explains a contract between herself and the man. Then Uncle appears with a rose in his mouth, performing a death dance. Naomi sees that the man is wearing an army uniform.

Naomi wakes and goes downstairs. A package from Aunt Emily has arrived. Obasan points to an orange box and says it is what she was looking for in the attic.

Summary: Chapter 7

The package contains a scrapbook, a folder, an envelope, and a journal. On a scrap of paper, Naomi sees that Aunt Emily has written, “ ‘Write the vision and make it plain. Habakkuk 2:2.’ ” Aunt Emily believes in the strength of the Nisei (second generation Japanese Canadians), whereas Naomi thinks the Nisei want only to pass unnoticed. Aunt Emily is a woman of many words, constantly writing, crusading, and attending conferences.

Naomi recalls Aunt Emily’s last post-conference visit to Granton. Aunt Emily had shown Naomi a pamphlet on racial discrimination during and after World War II. According to Aunt Emily, Canada is more racist than the United States. While Japanese were interned in both countries, American Japanese were allowed to retain their property and to form large communities after the war. As Aunt Emily talked about using language to disguise racism, Naomi felt unmoved.

At home, during the same visit, Aunt Emily showed Uncle a WWII-era form letter from the government, demanding that the Japanese hand over their property. There was also a form letter from an official named B. Good explaining that Aunt Emily’s mother’s house now belongs to Canada. Aunt Emily mentioned that the government gave Grandpa Kato three dollars for his Cadillac. Another letter tells Uncle to register as an Enemy Alien. A sixty-page manuscript by Aunt Emily asserts that despite everything that has happened to her, she identifies strongly as a Canadian. Finally, Aunt Emily showed Naomi a scrapbook full of racist newspaper clippings. Naomi wondered if they should leave the past in the past. Uncle said he considered Aunt Emily’s efforts unladylike and un-Japanese. Obasan did not join the conversation. Both Uncle and Obasan expressed gratitude toward Canada.

Analysis

Obasan is something of a mystic. She doesn’t talk a great deal, and when she does, she speaks in abstractions. Her deafness only adds to her enigmatic quality. Because she can’t hear, she can’t engage much with the world around her. Effectively unable to take in verbal information, she can only output words. Therefore, what she says often seems disconnected from everyday life. She makes obscure pronouncements such as “ ‘Everything is forgetfulness’ ” and “ ‘Everyone someday dies.’ ” She says these vaguely spiritual remarks unprompted, in response to nothing in particular. While Obasan’s deafness may account for her unmoored speech to some extent, opacity seems to have been a hallmark of her character even when she was a young woman. We learn, for example, that she refused to answer Naomi’s questions about her mother’s disappearance. If we as readers have a difficult time understanding Obasan, so too do the people who know her best.

Naomi’s dream reflects some of the themes Kogawa has introduced. The British officer is the authority figure, the person directing everyone’s actions, just as in real life Naomi’s family has often had to bow down to the wishes of Canadian authority figures. Uncle’s death dance suggests his recent passing. Naomi’s dreamed interest in puzzling out the relationships between people demonstrates her need to understand the relationships between the members of her own family. And the delay she experiences before she recognizes the truth—the animal is actually a robot, the officer is actually wearing a uniform—suggests her real-world difficulty in understanding family mysteries.

Aunt Emily, Naomi, and Uncle and Obasan hold very different views on what Japanese Canadians should do, and how they should feel, about Canada’s racist past. Aunt Emily believes that until Japanese Canadians process what happened to them and to their forebears, and deal with their repressed feelings, they are doomed to pass on anger and resentment to future generations. She is furious about the crimes committed during WWII, and believes Japanese Canadians should keep what happened then in the forefront of their minds. Naomi can’t work up much passion about events that happened so long ago. She feels that there’s no sense in raking up past injustices. On the other end of the spectrum, farthest from Aunt Emily, Obasan and Uncle are full of affection for Canada, and feel blessed to be allowed to live in the country in the first place. Far from wanting to debate the matter or defend their beliefs, they would rather not mention the topic at all. By giving her characters such opposing views, and then putting them in a room together and letting them fight it out, Kogawa is able to capture the different sides in the debate on racism and how it affects Japanese Canadians.

Aunt Emily is a particularly useful character for Kogawa. By making Emily an activist who is constantly attending conferences, Kogawa can justify inserting lots of background information into her narrative. Newspaper clippings, passages from books, form letters, and general history are constantly fluttering out of Aunt Emily’s voluminous library of material and into the novel. The device may be slightly clumsy, but it provides us with a primer on the issues so close to Aunt Emily’s heart.

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