Kogawa, World Literatures in English Course 2000
Obasan: Memory, Fragmentary Identity and Survival
Imagery of memories
  • A yellow wallet-sized ID card (29)
  • spider web (29-31)
  • Naomi's first dream (33-35)
  • the parcel--like the stone bread (37)/ B.Good letter (44-45)/ Emily's manuscript-- "The Story of the Nisei in Canada"  /newspaper clippings/ the two letters in Japanese
  • the leftovers (54)
To remember or not to? 
Three ways of dealing with memories: 
  1. Obasan: ancient woman who stays in history 
    1. --can be consumed, 
      --can make use of the leftovers
    2. Emily: "The past is the future"  p. 42
    3. Naomi: "Crimes of history . . . can stay in history"  p. 41
How does Naomi start to remember?  What does she remember about the Vancouver house?
  • Stimulated by Aunt Emily, who says "Denial is Gangrene."
  • Given a photo of the past by Obasan. 

  • The past told in the present tense.
  • Chap 9: from Photograph to Naomi's awareness of two languages and 

  • two spaces -- home and outside
  • the house in Vancouver: associated with bathing, and Naomi's contented body and silent self
    • bathing -- burning ("liguid furnace") but relaxing water; Grandma's resourcefulness in using the cloth; 
    • the house as a collage of images
    • Mother, father and Stephen   vs.       Naomi and goldfish
Sexual Abuse and Racism
Is Naomi completely defenseless in her experience with Old Man Gower?  Why does she go to him repeatedly later on?
  • With her limited understanding of the adult and outside world, Naomi cannot understand how other people can force her to do things.  She defends herself by not moving and not speaking, wanting to keep herself "whole" but in vain.
  • This is an experience of sexual initiation, though Naomi is forced into it unknowingly. 
What does she feel about herself while being molested and afterwards?
  • Shame (regarding herself as a parasite over her mother; thinking that she is the cause of her mother's departure.)
How is the Old Man Gower episode part of the overal racism/discrimination against the Japanese? 
  • Old Man Gower, ironically, is the one to take over Nakane's properties.
  • Similar incidents happen to Naomi.  Chap 12 

The Children's Responses to racism and displacement 
  1. As kids, failure to understand why they are both enemy and Canadian: A riddle: end of Chap 12;
  2. As kids, fear Chap 13; 
  3. As a kid, Naomi: sense of guilt; end of Chap 11; As an adult and a teacher, she has the social grace of a housefly chap 2.
  4. Naomi's nightmares, which she still has as an adult
    • chap 6: dream of the general situation of oppression of Japanese men and women (--persecution by the state machine; --silence as a forgotten language).
    • chap11: the solder's killing the seductive Oriental women (--persecution and mutilation

    • --shame and self-contempt of the victim); related to her experience of sexual molestation, 
    • chap 24: between waking and sleep; feeling "something" and dreaming about mother.
    • chap 35 (pp. 227-39; 272-273): dream elements--the place of the dead, soldiers, flower ceremony, the Grand Inquisitor

    • --Who is the Grand Inquisitor?  --the victimizer, the oppressor
      --Naomi with her questions (p. 228; 274)
      --Emily with her insistence on speech (pp. 232-233)
  5. As a kid, Stephen has unexpressed anger and violence
    • butterfly: end of chap 16--pp.122-23
    • chap 18: refusing to go to Grandma Nakane's wake p. 129
    • chap 33:
      • his identity as an adult  214-15; less surly, still irritable, non-communicative with Obasan; 
      • uncomfortable with anything too Japanese p. 217; 
      • "Sonuva bitch" mixed language, mixed identity p. 218
      • his nightmare pp. 219-20
    • chap 34: Stephen with Claudine p. 223

I.  The Use of Fairy Tales to express their sense of displacement and fragmentation.
The significance of the story Momotaro? 
  • Cultural integration:  Momotaro as a Canadian story
  • quiet departure from the parents, keeping honor
  • Momotaro-- not born of biological parents. 
  The other fairy-tales: 
  • Snow White: end of Chap 11 -- Naomi as Snow White and Old Man Gower as the forest with all eyes.
  • Humpty Dumpty end of Chap 15; fragments which cannot be put back together. 
  • Goldilock end of chap 17: Is Naomi Goldilock whose house gets occupied by others or the little bear?
  • All revisions of the fairy-tales show the child¡¦s way of apprehending racism and displacement
II. Animal Imagery: 
  1. the chicken episode Chap 11
    • It shows the mother quiet and sure way of solving the problem, not betraying Naomi nor blaming her directly. 
    • The white hen vs. yellow chicken -- will become symbolic of the positions of white oppressor and the Japanese under oppression.
    • It is Naomi that tries to put the chicks into the hen's cage, thinking (maybe?) that the formers should be the latter's kids.
  2. Naomi as a victim,
    • treated like an animal by Old Man Gower, 
    • drowned like a red insect chap 21,p. 140, 142  vs.  King bird
    • ill in the hospital and feels like a little chicken chap 22 (will grow white)
  3. Naomi's experience of death
    • Besides the drowning experience, she witnesses and killing of a white hen and the slow death of a kitten.
    • Later, she will have to face the death of first her father, and then her mother.

III. Stephen and the other boys' violent ways
  1. Stephen (and the butterflies):  end of Chaps 15 & 16
  2. Kenji, his raft and his glasses: he is incapable of saving Naomi?  Or he does not care?
  3. The boys' (Stephen, Sho and the other boys)violence against the white Chicken Chap 22 
  4. The school's ceremony afterwards becomes ironic
    • national anthem: O Canada, our home and native land. 
    • the teacher is like a hen.. 
Survival  From "dis-member" to "remember" to "re-member"
Beginning of Chap 15 -- Their resilience is suggested early on at the beginning of their relocation. 
¡§We are the hammers and chisels in the hands of would be sculptors, battering the spirit of the sleeping mountain.  We are the chips and sand, the fragments of fragments tha fly like arrows from the heart of the rock.  We are the silences that speak from stone.  We are the despised. .  . 
We are those pioneers who cleared the bush and the forest with our hands, the gardeners tending and attending the soil with our tenderness . . . 
I. The Adults' adaptation
  1. Rough Lock Bill Chap 21 slow can go p. 146
  2. The uncle's garden Chap 20
  3. Local community in Slocan:  Chap 23: stores, public bathhouse "like a hazy happy dream" (internal discrimination)
  4. The return of the father