Joy Kogawa’s Obasan

Joy Kogawa’s Obasan (1981) is a novel about retrospective recollections of the Japanese Canadian evacuation. Obasan represents identity' as discursive, open, and incomplete, reflecting my' assertion that the internment experience continues to shape North American Japanese identity' formation. This work of fiction creatively' rethinks history' and brings it into the present by engaging readers in the process of living while reformulating the past. These novels are driven by shifts in individual perception that blur historical fact with imagination in, what could be called, fictionalized autobiography. Moreover, Obasan depicts the process of remembrance as its central characters subjectively' formulate and reformulate their WII experiences, attempting to extract meaning from their pasts and realize their contradictory', complex formations of identity. It seeks finally' to reconcile themselves with family, community, and nation.

Obasan depicts the Japanese Canadian evacuation, based partly on Joy Kogawa’s own experiences during WWII.8 In 1942, 20,000 Japanese Canadians, including 15,000 Canadian citizens or naturalized citizens, were evacuated and relocated to remote interior “ghost towns” like Slocan.9 They were forced to find self-supporting employment in local farms and businesses,1” and many were even redistributed to Alberta sugar beet farms to make up labor shortages.11 Full government restrictions on Japanese Canadians were not lifted until April 1, 1949.12 In Obasan, central character Naomi Nakane recalls her childhood in evacuation, which physically divided her family' for nearly' a decade. She struggles to reconcile herself with her family’s subsequent “forgetting” of the experience, and their “silencing” of this painful past. Critics such as King-Kok Cheung13 and Gayle Fujita Sato14 have argued that Kogawa uses silence in Obasan as a strategy to communicate the unspeakable. In my' analysis, I focus on Kogawa’s uses of verbal and non-verbal communication to express, and suppress, the pain of past events as a strategy' for survival.

Kogawa’s characters create new forms of communication from their evacuation experiences, as they construct metaphors to draw meaning from the past, in a fluid process of identity' formation. Disorder, discontinuity', and repression characterize narrator Naomi Nakane’s recollections of her childhood in WW II evacuation. Naomi remembers through the act of confessing to us but is goaded into continued articulation by her Aunt Emily' who scolds her into confronting the past. Aunt Emily warns Naomi, ‘“You have to remember . . . You are your history'. If you cut any' of it off you’re an amputee. Don’t deny' the past. Remember everything.

If you’re bitter, be bitter. Cry it out! Scream! Denial is gangrene.’”15 Aunt Emily assumes that Naomi has the ability to remember “everything,” and that Naomi’s history will emerge simply when she gathers the will to recall it. In her comment, Aunt Emily connects “remember” with “cry it out” and opposes this with “denial,” suggesting that remembering necessarily involves the performative act of articulating. If Naomi does not confront the past, Aunt Emily warns that she will suffer “gangrene,” a mortification of self that will render her incomplete and divided.

Naomi, in response, tells us that her recollections only further divide her, and she is unable to connect her disparate memories into a coherent metaphor for self identification. She says, “Aunt Emily, are you a surgeon cutting at my scalp . . . The memory drains down the sides of my face, but it isn’t enough, is it?”16 Naomi critiques the project of remembering and narrating the past by criticizing her Aunt Emily, a Nisei activist w'ho dedicates her life to political discourse. Naomi tells us that Aunt Emily “toiled to tell of the lives of the Nisei in Canada in her own effort to make familiar, to make knowable, the treacherous yellow peril that lived in the minds of the racially prejudiced.”17 Aunt Emily “toils” to disassemble the political and cultural construct of the “yellow' peril” through alternate representations of Japanese Canadian as vulnerable and victimized.

Naomi’s representations of her traumatic evacuation and relocation experience are indirect, her pain subsumed deep in the narrative. The novel opens with Naomi walking the prairie with her Uncle Isamu, and she observes to us,

Above and around us, unimaginably vast and unbroken by silhouette of tree or house or any hint of human handiwork, is the prairie sky.. . We sit forever, it seems, in infinite night while all around us the tall prairie grasses move and grow.18

Naomi’s descriptions of the prairie landscape initially seem to refer to freedom and exploration. Naomi almost describes herself and her uncle as pioneers breaking the “virgin land.”19 Close analysis of Naomi’s diction, however, suggests a contrary interpretation. She calls the prairie sky “unimaginably vast,” the night “infinite,” and she and her uncle sit “forever.” These terms are exaggeratedly expansive, as if Naomi’s relationship to time and space is uncertain and undefined, ungrounded in reality. She and her uncle are not intimately engaged with the land, or with the nation symbolized by the land, but are outside national space and time.

Naomi adapts a combination of English and Japanese to speak with her other relatives, and observes that her communications between even her Canadian-born and Japanese-born aunts, Obasan and Emily, are very different: “One lives in sound, the other in stone. Obasan’s language remains deeply underground but Aunt Emily, BA, MA, is a word warrior.”20 Obasan communicates, like the other immigrant members of the Nakane family, as much through w'ords as through indirection and gestures. Naomi asks herself,

Who is it that teaches me that in the language of eyes a stare is an invasion and a reproach? Grandma Kato? Obasan? Uncle? Mother? Each one, raised in Japan, speaks the same language; but Aunt Emily and Father, born and raised in Canada, are visually bilingual. I too learn the second language.21

Naomi’s mother tells her, for example, that “even a glance can be indiscreet” on the street, a direct stare as “unthinkable as nudity.”22 Inside the home, nudity is “completely thinkable” and Naomi freely bathes with her grandmother, screeches in the bathroom, and runs around the house.23 Between outside and inside, Naomi therefore learns often conflicting codes of privacy, shame, modesty, and inhibition, and learns that she must adapt to become a cultural moderator.

Naomi does not, however, easily negotiate the discrepancies of trauma between outside and inside, public and private. She tells us that, “outside, even in the backyard, there is an infinitely unpredictable, unknown, and often dangerous world.”24 Naomi symbolizes the tensions between the “dangerous world” of the “outside” and the safety of her family’s house “inside,” by her relationship with Old Man Gower, a white neighbor who sexually molests. Naomi learns that the security she enjoys inside her home makes her unprepared to defend herself against the outside predation of Mr. Gower. At home she is “not permitted to move, to dress, or to cry out,” and so when faced with Mr. Gower, Naomi does not know to resist his advances.25 Mr. Gower carries her into his bathroom and he tells her, “Run away little girl.”26 Naomi does not run. “‘Don’t tell your mother,’” he whispers into her ear, and Naomi does not tell her mother.27 Naomi’s abuse by Mr. Gower illustrates the terrifying consequences of misapprehending the differing codes of propriety between “outside” and “inside.”

Mr. Gower’s molestation initiates for Naomi a dark and confused negotiation between “outside” and “inside,” foreshadowing the later dissonance evoked by her exclusion and evacuation during WW II. She tells us, “It is not an isolated incident. Over and over again, not just Old Man Gower.”2S Naomi conflates the later traumas and paradoxes of evacuation with her sexual molestation, confessing that she harbors a morbid fascination with her abuser, “The secret is this: I go to seek Old Man Gower in his hideaway. I clamber unbidden onto his lap. His hands are frightening and pleasurable. In the center of my body is a rift.”29 The “rift” in Naomi’s body refers to the division of her loyalties: in sharing a secret with Mr. Gower which she does not divulge to her mother, she indirectly betrays her mother. The symbolism extends to Naomi’s relationship with her nation: in claiming loyalty to Canada she is forced to disavow any affinity toward her Japanese heritage. Naomi’s experience with Mr. Gower distorts the divisions between “outside” with “inside,” and she struggles to redefine her relationship between the two supposed binaries of “outside” and “inside.”

Naomi has both a horror and a fascination of the unknown beyond her family and home, but she develops similar ambivalence toward the safe “inside.” Naomi’s mother, for example, represents unconditional love and acceptance for Naomi, but Naomi also begins to associate her mother with passivity and victimization. When Naomi’s mother speaks in Japanese, Naomi interprets her words for us:

“It was not good, was it,” Mother says. “Yoku nakatta ne.” Three words. Good, negation of good in the past tense, agreement with statement. It is not a language that promotes hysteria. There is no blame or pity. I am not responsible.30

Naomi interprets a lack of agency in her mother’s speech, suggesting that her mother’s word order removes the subject and creates a passive voice.31

The Japanese Canadians, forced to relocate to the interior ghost town of Slocan, draw together in a distinct evacuation community. The public bathhouse, a place of “deep bone warmth and rest,” becomes the site in which community alliances form and frictions emerge. Naomi emphasizes the intimacy of the community by describing their bathing as “one flesh, one family, washing each other.”32 In the bathhouse, friends are no different from family members, and the community members literally wash each other’s backs. In this place of safety and comfort, however, bitter conflicts intensify and Naomi describes the tension, “I have never felt the edges that I find here tonight.”33 As Naomi and her family leave the bathhouse, one girl finally taunts her, ‘“You’re sick. You’ve all got TB . . . You sleep on the floor!”’34 This place of safety reveals more starkly the fractures within the intimate “family” community. The bathhouse reveals the artificiality of the forced commonalities as well as the intensified differences of the evacuation, consequences of the unified identity forced onto the Japanese Canadians in grouping them together in camps. The evacuation caused suspicion, division, and distrust within the community as “insiders” like Naomi and her family quickly become “outsiders,” and these boundaries break and reform.

Even within Naomi’s own family, the evacuation experience intensifies differences. Aunty Emily collects newspaper clippings about WW II which Naomi reads, years later, in narrating her past to us. Naomi quotes one article ironically, a report on the Japanese Canadian evacuees in Alberta where she and her family were relocated to work on a beet farm:

The newspaper clipping has a photograph of one family, all smiles, standing around a pile of beets. The caption reads, “Grinning and Happy” . . . Find Jap Evacuees Best Beet Workers . . . Japanese evacuees worked 19,500 acres of beets . . . Generally speaking Japanese evacuees have developed into the most efficient beet workers, many of them being better than the transient workers who cared for beets in southern Alberta before Pearl Harbor . . ,35

The “official” voice of the newspaper convinces even Aunt Emily, who did not evacuate to Alberta, and she labels the article under the heading, “Facts about Alberta.”36 Naomi challenges,

Facts about evacuees in Alberta? The fact is I never got used to it and I cannot, I cannot bear the memory . . . “Grinning and happy” and all smiles standing around a pile of beets? That is one telling. It’s not how it was.37

Naomi asserts that her individual experience contradicts the homogenizing rationalizations of the article. The article suppresses details by generalizing the evacuation under the broad title, “Jap Evacuees.” The proper telling, Naomi suggests, is not in simplifying diverse experience under the designation of “Jap Evacuees,” but in her individual narration of “how it was.”38

Naomi’s telling portrays the psychological and emotional trauma of the evacuation, sentiments conspicuously missing from the economic and social facts in the “official” version. Naomi’s narration of Alberta contrasts distinctly with Aunt Emily’s “facts” about Alberta, illustrating also the divergence of evacuee experiences even within the same family. Evacuation caused irreversible differences between family members, and the conflicting pasts within the Nakane family elicits sometimes contradictory strategies of narrating and understanding the evacuation. Naomi’s brother Stephen, for example, removes himself from the evacuation experience by developing his own intimate vocabulary that mocks the Japanese-English words of Uncle Isamu and Obasan, adapting their family’s pidgin English into his own language. Naomi says, “Some of the ripe pidgin English phrases we pick up are three-part inventions - part English, part Japanese, part Sasquatch. ‘Sonuva bitch’ becomes ‘sakana fish,’ ‘sakana’ meaning ‘fish’ in Japanese.”39

Stephen distances himself from the awkward foreignness of Uncle Isamu and Obasan’s speech by appropriating their mispronounced words. This results in his “three-part” invention that combines Japanese and English to create something newly and uniquely Canadian. Stephen’s pidgin language also uses long-developed “insider” information, so when Aunt Emily visits from Toronto she laughs, “‘Is that how you talk out here? . . . What a place,’”40 As Stephen transforms his pidgin language further, Naomi says, “Stephen called margarine ‘Alberta,’ since Uncle pronounced Alberta “aru bata,” which in our Japanese English means ‘the butter that there is.’”41 Stephen finds a second use for his pidgin, using it to make fun of their painful evacuation experience, and his playful pun on “Alberta” and “butter” distances him from their past hardship. Stephen recalls their suffering in Alberta by incorporating the word into his vocabulary but dissociates its meaning. This linguistic transformation thus transposes Stephen’s memory of Alberta, and he creates a new language in survival that at once expresses and suppresses meaning.

Naomi strives, through her narration of Obasan, to locate her past somewhere within the conflicts between her individual experiences, the “official” statements of fact, her family’s expression or suppression of events, and her confused conflations of childhood abuse and traumatic evacuation memories. She attempts to separate her recollections from these confusing, contradictory’ representations and connect her past to that of her family, community’, and nation. Her process of remembering, however, remains incomplete. Her older family’ members attempt to insulate her from the truth of her mother’s death, emphasizing constructions of elder generation and younger generation as an excuse to protect Naomi from the past, as if she were a child. Naomi overhears, for example, a conversation between her uncle, Aunt Emily, and Obasan:

“Kodomo no tame.”

That phrase again. “For the sake of the children.” Which children? Stephen and me? Stephen in particular, home for the summer after his time in Toronto, can hardly be called a child. . .

“But they are not children. They should be told,” Aunt Emily whispers.42

Aunt Emily, Uncle Isamu, and Obasan hide the truth of her mother’s grotesque death in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The generational division they insist upon maintaining becomes ironic however, because keeping silence “for the sake of the children,” stunts Naomi’s emotional development. Naomi cannot continue her process of recollection without knowing the fate of her mother. The refusal, within the family, to communicate exacerbates Naomi’s internal “rift,” provoking her to address her mother, “Gentle Mother, we were lost together in our silences. Our wordlessness was our mutual destruction.” Only when Uncle Isamu dies, do Aunt Emily and Obasan finally relent and tell Naomi of her mother’s death. Naomi finds bitter peace by telling us in indirect symbolism that the “seed” finally “flowers with speech,” and she can find in her life the “living word.”43 Naomi, finally erasing some of the mystery obscuring her past, can begin connecting her memories to the present.

Naomi’s process of self-reconciliation continues even as the novel ends. Now that her family finally reveals their “untold tales,” Naomi returns to the coulee where she walked with her uncle in the beginning of the novel. At the coulee, she symbolically reconnects to her individual, family, and national past. As the sun begins to rise, Naomi feels a connection with the land that she did not feel at the beginning of the novel, and she no longer feels outside of the time and space of her nation. Naomi replaces the static stillness which characterized the coulee for her before, with movement and progression, “water and stone dancing.”44 As Naomi looks out at the prairie, she remembers her now deceased uncle’s words, “Up at the top of the slope I can see the spot where Uncle sat last month looking out over the landscape. ‘Umi no yo,’ he always said. ‘It’s like the sea.’”45 Naomi finally experiences the “blossoming” of speech, as she smells the wildflowers, “If I hold my head a certain way, I can smell them from where I am.”46 The novel ends with Naomi looking out onto the coulee, smelling the wildflowers. This uneasy ending leaves her sitting alone, without returning to society or her family. Kogawa leaves us without conclusive closure, encouraging us to form our own metaphors from Naomi’s discursive memories. We must engage with the text, connect the pasts Naomi has presented us with, and extract our own meanings.

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