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Obasan

Joy Kogawa

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1. What effect does Old Man Gower have on Naomi?

In one way, Old Man Gower’s effect on Naomi is devastating. He abuses her terribly and repeatedly when she is little more than a toddler. He separates her from her mother just as dramatically as her mother’s departure for Japan does. He also alienates her from Stephen, from whom she must keep this terrible secret. He makes her feel, at the age of four, that she is alone in the world and can confide in no one. He elicits feelings of horror in her, but he also elicits pleasurable sensations, and for that she feels ashamed and disgusted with herself. He imprints in her mind the conviction that men are not to be trusted. We know that Naomi does not have a husband or boyfriend, and that she feels pessimistic about her chances of finding love. It may be that Old Man Gower’s abuse scarred Naomi permanently, making her unable to trust potential partners.

At the same time, though, Old Man Gower’s effect on Naomi seems transitory, and that is cause both for celebration and for grief. As an adult, Naomi is not fixated on the sexual abuse she suffered. She does not despise men or believe that all men have the capacity to commit acts of great evil. She devotes a few chapters to the abuse, but she does not circle back to it again and again as she does to, say, the disappearance of her mother. It is one terrible episode in a childhood full of terrible episodes. Yet while Naomi’s ability to put Old Man Gower behind her is a happy relief, it is a mixed blessing. She forgets him because she must. Larger problems blot out what would be, for most women, a defining tragedy. We might say that Naomi does not have the luxury of thinking about Old Man Gower and feeling furious about what he did to her. Matters of basic survival—whether she will have enough to eat, a place to sleep, and physical protection—subsume questions about a disaster that is safely in the past.

2. What is the significance of chicks and chickens in the novel?

Chicks and chickens, symbols of helpless innocence, are closely associated with Naomi, and their fates recall the violent upheavals that plague her life. She hides two toy Easter chicks in the hopes that her mother will find them and be delighted; she releases chicks into an adult chicken’s cage; she sees a chicken at school; she dreams of chickens when she is in the hospital; and she reads about chicks in a book Obasan gives her. Nearly all of these chicks meet bloody, or at least sad, ends. The toy chicks are never found, for Naomi’s mother never returns; the chicken pecks most of the chicks to death in a murderous rampage; the chicken Naomi sees at school flops and struggles as boys torture it to death; the chickens in her dreams are bloody and half-decapitated. Like Naomi, these birds cannot fend for themselves. Also like Naomi, they find themselves stuck in a bloody, violent world that seems set on squashing them.

Chickens relate not only to Naomi, but also to the adults around her. As a child, Naomi notices the chickens in her backyard look up whenever anything flies overhead since nearby, airborne beings pose the threat of death. As a woman, she likens the chickens’ reflexive terror to the adults’ response to threats. Like the chickens, the adults run squawking for safety whenever a shadow passes overhead. The comparison suggests an unthinking and perhaps unintelligent reaction to danger. Naomi also compares Aunt Emily to a chicken, likening her letters to buckshot aimed “at the shadow in the sky.” There is a slight tinge of scorn about the metaphor, an intimation that Aunt Emily’s project is just as doomed to failure as a chicken’s efforts to fight against a hawk. Naomi’s impatience may come from her frustration that adults are just as vulnerable to attack as children, that maturity is no protection against the world’s cruelties.

3. How does Naomi feel about her mother? How are we meant to feel about her?

Naomi longs for her mother, loves her, thinks of her constantly, and ultimately forgives her. She remembers her mother as a kind woman who always put her children’s needs before her own, a singer of lullabies and a teller of stories, a supremely patient parent who didn’t lose her temper or chastise her children for their mistakes. While her mother’s years of silence torment her, she makes her peace with that silence even before she finds out the truth about what happened. Once she does discover the truth, her forgiveness becomes voluble. She is convinced that she can communicate with her dead mother, and Chapter 38 is like an elegy and a love letter to her. While she admits her mother’s silence assured their “mutual destruction,” she does not blame her mother for staying away or keeping quiet. She regrets the silence only because it prevented her from sharing the burden. She calls her mother a martyr.

While Kogawa paints Naomi’s mother as a good and kind woman who acted in an understandable way in unbelievably horrifying circumstances, she does not seem to share Naomi’s complete conviction that her mother is a martyr who died for her children’s happiness. Naomi does not think much about the fact that her mother essentially chose her own mother over her children, or that she stayed in Japan even after it was possible for her to return to Canada. To linger over these facts, Kogawa suggests, would be too painful for Naomi. Chapter 38 is moving and lyrical, but it also seems curiously unsatisfying. It comforts Naomi to believe that she can commune with her dead mother, but Kogawa emphasizes that the passion Naomi flings into the void is met with total silence. In an effort to shield her children from the unbearable pain she had suffered, Naomi’s mother cut herself off from them. Naomi accepts that choice fully, but Kogawa does not allow us to do the same.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. What is the effect of Obasan’s structure? How would the novel be different had Kogawa chosen to narrate its events chronologically?

2. Compare and contrast Slocan with Granton. What makes Granton so much more difficult to bear than Slocan?

3. Discuss Uncle’s role in the novel. He is not as important a character as, say, Obasan; why then does Kogawa choose to begin and end the novel by focusing on him?

4. The narrative is interspersed with newspaper clippings and excerpts from official government documents. Why does Kogawa include these in her novel? What is their effect?

5. For whom did Kogawa write Obasan? Is her primary intended audience of a specific age, ethnicity, or nationality? How do you know?

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