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Obasan

Joy Kogawa

Chapters 8–11

Chapters 5–7

Chapters 12–14

Summary: Chapter 8

Obasan saves the twine from Aunt Emily’s package, as she saves everything: string, thread, tiny amounts of leftover food. Naomi reflects that perhaps painful memories, like Obasan’s most disgusting bits of forgotten food, are horrifying only if brought out and looked at.

Obasan says, “ ‘Everyone someday dies,’ ” a sentence she has been repeating almost like a mantra. She leaves the room. Naomi realizes that the book Aunt Emily included in her package consists of letters from Emily to Naomi’s mother, whom Emily called Nesan (older sister). Obasan comes back holding a photo Naomi has seen before. It is of her mother, and herself as a toddler.

Summary: Chapter 9

Naomi vividly remembers the moment the photo was taken. A boy was staring at her and her mother as the picture was taken, and she was full of fear. Her Japanese relatives taught her that staring is rude and aggressive. Naomi remembers a man winking at her as she rode a streetcar with her mother. She thinks about taking scorching hot baths with her Grandma Kato, who used to scrub her clean with washcloths. Naomi doesn’t think it’s a good idea to dwell on her childhood home in Vancouver, but recalling Aunt Emily’s exhortations to remember the past, she forces herself to continue. She remembers the house as filled with paintings, records, musical instruments, and plants. She remembers listening to her mother, father, and brother play music, herself sitting as silent as the goldfish and the statue in the room despite her family’s attempt to draw her in. She remembers her toys and her pretty bedroom.

Summary: Chapter 10

Naomi thinks of the stories her relatives told her at bedtime when she was a child. She always asked for the tale of Momotaro. She recalls looking at the peach tree in her window while her mother told her about two old people, Grandmother and Grandfather. One day Grandmother was washing clothes when a peach (momo) floated to her down a waterfall. When Grandfather came home, she showed him the fruit. As they looked at it, a boy, Momotaro, jumped out of the peach. Eventually Momotaro had to leave, and Grandmother gave him rice balls for his trip. She and Grandfather said goodbye without sadness, so as not to weigh him down. They hoped that he would behave honorably, which is the most important thing.

Naomi thinks of the way her mother and grandmother anticipated her needs. She never cried, because they knew when she was hungry, cold, tired, or uncomfortable and solved the problem almost before she had noticed it herself. Naomi doesn’t remember ever being punished. According to Aunt Emily, she never talked or smiled, either.

Summary: Chapter 11

Naomi recalls an incident from her youth. Her parents had purchased baby chicks, and Naomi moved them from their box to the cage where a hen was already living. As she watched, the hen began attacking the chicks and pecking them to death. Naomi ran to fetch Mother, who was sitting with her friend Mrs. Sugimoto. As Mother calmly rescued the remaining chicks, Mrs. Sugimoto stared at Naomi. Then a group of loud neighborhood boys ran into the yard. Mother didn’t talk about the incident with Naomi until after everyone had left and calm was restored.

Naomi remembers Old Man Gower, the next-door neighbor who used to “[carry her] away,” as she puts it, always making her promise never to tell her mother. Something similar happened with a boy named Percy, who shoved her against a wall during a game of hide-and-seek. As an adult, Naomi has a recurring nightmare. In its latest variation, “three beautiful oriental women” were naked in a road, guarded by soldiers. One of the women wriggled seductively, feeling both excited and full of hate. Despite her efforts, the soldiers shot at the women’s feet. Naomi returns to her memory of Old Man Gower. When she was four, he took her into his verdant yard, sat her on his lap, and put “his mouth on [her] face.” Soon after, he undressed her on the pretext of fixing a cut on her knee. As usual, he told her not to tell her mother. Naomi tells her secret: She sought out Old Man Gower of her own volition. Not being able to tell her mother what was going on tore her apart.

Analysis

The act of recollecting the past fills Naomi with fear. She equates memories with the long-forgotten scraps of food that fill Obasan’s refrigerator. According to this metaphor, the memories, like the food, are spoiled, repulsive, hidden in dark corners, even terrifying. Interestingly, for Naomi this comparison applies not just to painful memories, but also to happy ones. She is just as unwilling to reminisce about her idyllic childhood home as she would be to clean the farthest recesses of Obasan’s fridge. Dwelling on past happiness is as dangerous for Naomi as dwelling on past grievances. Remembering a childhood spent in the bosom of a loving family only causes pain by stirring up longings that can’t be satisfied.

Despite her reluctance, though, Naomi is half-convinced that Aunt Emily is right, and that to forget the past is to cripple one’s self. In these chapters, she begins a tentative plunge backward into her childhood. It begins with thoughts of her mother, whose presence and absence have been taboo topics up to this point in the novel. Naomi’s new willingness to linger on her mother’s admonitions, songs, stories, and behavior indicates her increasing bravery about facing up to her memories.

We get the sense that despite the happiness of her childhood, Naomi has always felt like something of an outsider in her family. The remembered scene in the music room suggests that Naomi’s mother, father, and brother are unified by their ability to play music together. Naomi sits on the periphery of this charmed circle. The fact that she identifies more with the goldfish and the statue than with the members of her family points to her sense of alienation.

It is not the case, however, that Naomi’s family intentionally excludes her. On the contrary, they try to pull her into the circle. Her father and Stephen interrupt their music to talk to her, and her mother indulges Naomi’s insatiable taste for the story of Momotaro. It seems to be Naomi’s natural diffidence and inward-looking personality that sets her apart from her family. She welcomes their attentions and thrives on their love, but part of her is held apart, observing. As Aunt Emily says, Naomi was an exceptionally silent, serious, and unsmiling child.

Chapter 10 touches on two concepts that are central in Naomi’s family: the necessity of behaving with honor, and the importance of “sensitivity and appropriate gestures.” For Naomi, the concepts are linked. When she wants a real-life example of behaving with honor, she has only to think about the way her mother and grandmother anticipate her needs and try to make her comfortable in any way they can. Naomi suggests that these two concepts, if embraced, lead to remarkably serene households. Children need not cry or rebel if they are cared for vigilantly. When children become adults, they will replicate the loving behavior they learned from their elders, and care for the people who once cared for them.

In the same chapter that contains the upsetting revelation about Old Man Gower, we hear the story of the slain chicks. Naomi’s fate resembles the chicks’. She is a defenseless being, practically a baby, powerless to resist the violent attack of an adult. But there is a key difference between the incident with the chicks and the pattern of Old Man Gower’s abuse. When Naomi was distraught over the dead chicks, she was able to seek refuge in her mother’s presence and calm, and in the knowledge that a loving and responsible adult saw what had happened and cared about it. When Naomi was worried about Old Man Gower, however, his admonitions and her shame prevented her from going to her mother. The silence and the separation from her mother hurt Naomi as much as the abuse itself. She was alone with her grief and confusion.

Naomi’s recurring dream is another key to understanding the abuse she suffered. In the dream, the men are all-powerful. They are clothed, they have official authority, and they bear weapons. The women, who are explicitly identified as “oriental,” are powerless. They are naked, they are captive, and they are unarmed. The invincible, violent men and the helpless women of Naomi’s dream reflect her experience as a victim at Old Man Gower’s hands. Perhaps even more important, though, is what one of the women feels. As she writhes in the street, she is both aroused and angry. These contradictory and simultaneous feelings are what most upset Naomi as a child. When she refers to “the secret,” she does not mean the abuse, but the fact that Old Man Gower’s hands gave her pleasure even as they scared her. This sexual enjoyment, while unwanted and inadvertent, fills Naomi with shame.

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