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Obasan

Main Ideas

Motifs

Main Ideas Motifs

Red

The color red is associated with Naomi and appears at both happy and difficult moments in her life. She links red with New Year’s, when her family gives gifts to her and Stephen. Every gift she receives—a change purse, a brooch, a necklace, and others—features red prominently. Red also dominates Naomi’s memory of the train ride to Slocan. She remembers carrying a red umbrella and wearing a shirt decorated with red flowers. When she recalls standing on a bridge with Obasan before Grandma Nakane’s funeral, the “wine-colored loafers” she wore stick out in her mind. The vividness of red, which is among the only colors Naomi mentions consistently, suggests the vividness of her memories themselves. She doesn’t recall everything that happened to her when she was little, but the memories she does have are bright and intense, like the red possessions she treasured as a girl.

Military Men

Men with guns, specifically white men with guns, haunt Naomi. As an adult, she dreams about them often. In one of her recurring nightmares, military men control three naked, powerless Asian women; in another, bloodthirsty armed men watch a private family ceremony. The dangerous men in her dreams point to Naomi’s two central childhood traumas: the abuse she suffered at the hands of Old Man Gower, and the persecution she and her family endured at the hands of white Canadians. The guns represent her tormentors’ potential to do harm. The mastery the clothed soldiers have over the naked women reflects Old Man Gower’s sexual power and abuse, and the women’s humiliation echoes Naomi’s disturbing and shaming response. The fact that Naomi dreams about these men so frequently, even as an adult, shows that while she can suppress her fear during her waking hours, she is subconsciously still in the grips of her difficult childhood. As she says, “We die again and again. In my dreams, we are never safe enough.” She doesn’t live in fear, but some part of her always worries that what happened once could happen again.

The Sea

The sea is an essential and part of Naomi’s family heritage. She comes from a line of fishermen and boat builders who feel most at home on the ocean. The government’s seizure of their boats not only robs them of their livelihood, but also of their connection to the place they feel happiest. Their banishment to the center of the country, first to Slocan with its muddy lake, and then to Granton with its dusty plains, is doubly painful. A forced relocation to anywhere at all would be bad enough, but to be made to move away from the ocean, which fed their families and seemed to embrace them, is almost impossible to bear. The novel’s first chapter, which depicts Uncle on his annual pilgrimage to the coulee, underlines the importance of the sea and the family’s distance from it. The coulee is a special place to Uncle because it reminds him of the ocean. While he does find a measure of peace there, his attachment to it is poignant and sad. It is not the real sea, after all; it is just a pale shadow of the place Uncle loved.