Joy Kogawa's Obasan Research Paper

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Obasan, Oppression, & Remembrance

Children whose parents survived the Holocaust often report that their parents spent their entire lives attempting to conceal the fact that they were persecuted, had narrow escapes, and -- for many survivors -- were interred in concentration camps. The desire to protect their children from the horrors they experienced is certainly one of the reasons that survivors give for their silence. But their silence also enables them to keep their fears, anxieties, and regrets at bay, at least for those brief periods of time when forgetting has its intended effect. In effect, the reluctance of survivors to remember puts up a barrier that neither generation can easily cross -- not the generation of survivors, who have grown old in the years that have passed since World War II, and not the generation of children who have managed not to ask too many questions or follow their suspicions too deeply.

The art of omission. Naomi seeks more information about the disappearance of her mother, but her efforts are not entirely unequivocal. There is a part of Naomi that holds back, embracing silence and inaction as forces that will protect her from further harm. The simplicity of silence as a protective barrier appeals to Naomi's self-effacing nature. In fact, she has been carefully schooled in how to be unobtrusive and plastic, bending with the forces that are inevitable without fully understanding the impact of such acceptance. A systematic paring away of resistance and protest in the members of Naomi's family has left them al -- except for Naomi's Aunt Emily -- passively seeking a limbo-like homeostasis.

Contrast is an important element in Japanese thought. It can be seen in the simple yet stark treatment of Japanese design where form is best described against an absence of form or detail. In Japanese flower arranging, Ikebana, the space around the flowers is critical to the concept and the interpretation. The shapes and lines of the floral arrangement, which are classified according to types, express the coming together of human and natural interests. Ikebana is a highly disciplined traditional activity that is conducted in silence in order to offer opportunity for the flower arranger to more fully appreciate the symbolism and spiritual qualities of handling the living flowers. The Japanese aesthetic -- in which less is more -- is fully developed in Ikebana. It is only through the process of discarding the extraneous, clamorous, clutter that one is able to appreciate the beauty of a singular object.

Themes of isolation and silence are fundamental to Buddhist thought. But it is the juxtaposition of "silence against speech" (Kogawa 1981, 39) that makes the power of silence salient and relevant to the family's struggle. This polarization of values characterizes Naomi's social and familial world, and several dyadic relationships emerge (Kogawa 1981, 50; Cook 2007, 55). Gratitude is positioned opposite protest; remembering is counterpoint to forgetting (Kogawa 1981, 60; Cook 2007, 55). Obasan exists in a bilingual world that is the two languages of Japanese and English and is also the language of silence and the language of speech. Obasan must become fluent in these languages which are manifested by her two aunts. Aunt Emily advocates for speaking and Aya Obasan relies on silence. Comparing one aunt to the other, Naomi asserts that "One lives in sound, the other in stone. Obasan's language remains deeply under-ground but Aunt Emily, BA, MA, is a word warrior" (Ueki 1993, 32).

The personal accounts of people who have lived in countries with oppressive governments often include references to the necessity of silence. In such countries, it is important to keep one's own counsel and to never trust others completely and to never disclose too much information. Even as a little girl, Naomi understood the necessity of silence -- a lesson she learned better and before she learned about the necessity of remembering. Kogawa cloaks this necessary silence of Naomi's voice in the conceit of a package that has been hidden away. For nearly twenty years the package is concealed in Aya Obasan's attic. But the reveal of Emily's voice occurs gradually over the course of the novel as though she is testing whether disclosure is safe and is attempting to define the meaning of her articulation.

Historical fiction. Naomi's truth is not reflected in the historical documentation that she reads and understands as the story put forth by the majority (Cook 2007, 58). The documents are a fiction the existence of which makes it more difficult to speak out and more difficult to remain silent (Cook 2007, 294). For Naomi, the documents reflect the ease by which the media obfuscates the truth about the pervasive racism that was manifested by the internments and the relocations (Cook 2007, 58). Against this backdrop, Naomi recognizes that she cannot just rewrite the history based on her own experience (Cook 2007, 58). There is no one history, a fact of which Naomi is well aware; she has seen the interpretations and felt the impact of actions justified by presumptions (Cook 2007, 58). But if Naomi cannot rewrite history in reality, she can have complete license to do so in her dreams. The emotional involuntary memories that constitute dreams serve as a means of "escape from time and temporal identity" but if they remain in memory upon waking, they force acknowledgement of the realities that shape the content of the dreams (Cook 2007, 58).

Confronting past and future. Naomi is pulled by the conflicting orientations of her Aunt Emily on the one hand and her uncle and Aya Obasan on the other. Aunt Emily does not permit Naomi the luxury of ignoring memory nor of remaining silent as a means to homeostasis. Naomi declared, "The very last thing in the world I was interested in talking about was our experiences during and after World War II" (Kogawa 1981, 33). Naomi would choose to focus on the future, "Life is so short,...the past so long. Shouldn't we turn the page and move on?" (Kogawa 1981, 42). But Aunt Emily will not be persuaded and asserts that, "The past is the future" (Kogawa 1981, 42). Emily cannot fathom knowing the truth -- her truth -- and not acting on it. She argues inexhaustibly for action, "Some people...are so busy seeing all sides of every issue that they neutralize concern and prevent necessary action. There's no strength in seeing all sides unless you can act where real measurable injustice exists" (Kogawa 1981, 35). Aunt Emily asserts that the barriers must come down and that, "Reconciliation can't begin without mutual recognition of facts" (Kogawa 1981, 183).

Uncle and Aya Obasan are not entirely silent, but their voices are used to emphasize the gratitude they feel in the present, and not to reflect on past inequities and wrongdoing. They are in agreement that, "In the world, there is no better place.... This country is the best. There is food. There is medicine. There is pension money. Gratitude. Gratitude" (Kogawa 1981, 42). The studious refusal to speak of the wrongdoings of the past is the facet of Obasan that refuses to acknowledge her grief. Where Aunt Emily is the water, Obasan is the stone -- resolute, impenetrable, still, and silent -- over which the water flows. "The language of her grief is silence" and it has become an enormous and powerful force within her small body (Kogawa 1981, 14). Naomi comes to understand that "speech often hides like an animal in a storm" (Kogawa 1981, 14). Acknowledging the reality of the past aloud changes everything, like being catapulted behind the castle walls. The truth must then be reckoned with and the enormous dilemma is unveiled. When the facts are mutually recognized, as Aunt Emily said, the speakers are faced with a dilemma. They may either choose authenticity and act on what they now know or they may be consumed by the effort of pretending that there is no choice to be made -- that there is no sensible response but to return again to that place of silence.

Paradoxical scheme of concealed revelations. Emily's hidden package contains her diary, official documents, and newspaper clippings. The hidden package also contained a grey cardboard folder that functioned somewhat like a Russian matryoshka nesting doll. The folder held two envelopes that contained letters that told about Naomi's mother being victimized by the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. But since the letters are written in Japanese -- and Obasan will not translate them for her -- this family history information is not intelligible to Naomi until near the end of the novel. With the discovery of the hidden package, the question of whether it is better to forget the past or to work at remembering takes on a new shape approaching an exigency. Naomi's life is disrupted by her fascination with the past that she only partially knows and her fear that knowing more will be painful and undercut the delicate balance she works to maintain. The conceit that is…

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