Today, society has become a boisterous world of communication. From telephone conversations to live Internet chat and e-mail, the world has never before been quite so in touch. In the novel Obasan, by Joy Kogawa, Naomi Nakane does not have technology to communicate. Instead, she faces the dilemma of communicating at all. From her family, Naomi is shown the many faceted truths of speech and communication. From strong, silent Obasan, to stubborn, resolute Aunt Emily, Naomi finds that one can correspond with others through silence as well as through speech. As a child, Naomi spends much of her life in non-communicative silence, only to help further the distance between herself and her mother. As Naomi grows into womanhood and beyond, she discovers that in speech lays understanding and, unfortunately, pain and sorrow. Joy Kogawa’s tale of Naomi Nakane shows how one young girl can live a tortured life and find peace living life in between silence speech.
Naomi’s relationship with Obasan is an influential one, molded from love, respect, and understanding. Naomi describes Obasan’s way of communication best when she say declares, “The language of her grief is silence. She has learned it well, its idioms its nuances. Over the years the silence with her small body has grown large and powerful”(Obasan 17). Obasan’s silent stance provides a firm starting point for Naomi to return to when she needs to find her bearings. Obasan provides Naomi only positive reinforcement when it comes down to determining the right and wrongs of silence. Obasan used her silence to protect the children from the many faceted horror known as truth. The truth behind Naomi’s mother was requested to be kept from Naomi and her brother, but it was also potentially damaging to them as well. “The memories were drowned in a whirlpool of protective silence… For the sake of the children, calmness was maintained”(Obasan 26).
Aunt Emily believes that the only way to live at peace in the present, you must live in peace with your past. Emily gets this across to Naomi when she goes on a rant and says
“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. Look at you, Naomi, shuffling back and forth between Cecil and Granton, unable to go or stay in the world with even a semblance of grace or ease”(Obasan 60).
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Unfortunately, for the quiet Naomi, Emily also believes that in order to be at peace with your past you must stand up and yell at those at fault for reconciliation. Emily shows that her beliefs remain contingent upon facts, and that everyone needs to be on the same page before healing can begin.
“’It matters to get the facts straight…Reconciliation can’t begin without mutual recognition of the facts,’ she said.
‘Yes, facts. What’s right is right. What’s wrong is wrong. Health starts somewhere.’” (Obasan 219)
Naomi cannot comprehend the angle with which her aunt approaches life.
While Naomi may believe reconciliation is in order, she is only discouraged when she looks to see where speech has placed her Aunt Emily. “If Aunt Emily with her billions of letters and articles and speeches, her tears and her rage, her friends and her committees—if all that couldn’t bring contentment, what was the point” (Obasan 50). Naomi becomes more and more frustrated when she sees the futile efforts of her Aunt. Albeit, she does believe that what her Aunt is doing is important for her Aunt, she cannot see the use if the results of such hard laborious tasks go for naught.
“All of Aunt Emily’s words, all her papers, the telegrams and petitions, are like scratchings in the barnyard, the evidence of much activity, scaly claws hard at work. But what good do they do, I do not know-those little black typewritten words-rain words, cloud droppings. They do not touch us where we are planted here in Alberta, our rots clawing the sudden prairie air. The words are not made of flesh. Trains do not carry us home. Ships do not return again. All my prayers disappear into space.”(Obasan 226)
The sight of the work Aunt Emily has done compared to the amount of success she has received has collapsed all hope that Naomi had in the government and in those who would try to aide the Japanese-Canadians currently under siege.
Naomi’s Obasan and Ojisan attempt to protect both Naomi and Stephen through their stubborn silence. Every year on August 9th, Naomi and Ojisan walked out near a river and sit on a hill. To Naomi it seemed like a quiet pilgrimage that she did not understand. Ojisan would not tell her the reason they always made the walk. “From both Obasan and Uncle I have learned that speech often hides like an animal in a storm.”(Obasan 4) Naomi searches for her answers and yet, her Obasan and Uncle do not help, but hide there answers fearfully. No matter how many questions she asked she was either ignored or brushed off with vague excuses like ‘You are still too young.’ While in a bathhouse with Obasan, Naomi attempts to play with a friend of hers from school; the friend tells Naomi quite brusquely stated that she cannot play because Naomi’s family has tuberculosis. While not wholly true, Naomi’s father has tuberculosis, Naomi did not even know what tuberculosis was and could not understand why the friend’s family would not even speak to her. When questioned, Obasan simply replied, “Perhaps there was nothing to say.”
When she was little, Naomi told her mother much about her life, “I tell her everything. There is nothing about me that my mother does not know, nothing that is not safe to tell her” (Obasan 72). Unfortunately, Naomi was molestated by a man known to her as Mr. Gower when she was at the tender young age of four.
“He lifts me up saying that my knee has a scratch on it and he will fix it for me. I know this is a lie. The scratch is hardly visible and does not hurt. Is it the lie that first introduces me to the darkness? The room is dark, the blind drawn almost to the bottom. I am unfamiliar with such darkness. The bed is strange and pristine, deathly in its untouched splendor.” (Obasan 75)
Mr. Gower, a fat and balding man, is at fault when considering the sources for Naomi’s silence. The hideous experience with Mr. Gower caused Naomi to feel that it was her fault that he did it to her, and to believe that “If I tell my mother about Mr. Gower, the alarm will send a tremor through our bodies and I will be torn from her”(Obasan 77). Naomi keeps Mr. Gower a secret and thus begins Naomi’s quiet life of non-communicative silence. Before Naomi can tell her mother and make her wrongs right, her mother leaves. Naomi did not know why, it is Japanese custom not to question or show sorrow when parting others, and she would not find out until much later in her adult life. When Naomi’s mother left, it was to return to Japan. Along with Naomi’s grandmother Kato, her mother was going to return to take care of Naomi’s great-grandmother. Sometime after arriving, WWII broke out and the United States began their bombing of Japan. The mother and grandmother fled Tokyo for Nagasaki just before the Atomic Bomb was dropped on the city. Naomi’s mother was caught in the blast of the bomb and was cruelly disfigured. Half of the flesh on her face was blown away leaving terrible scars. From the moment her bandages were removed in the Japanese hospital, Naomi’s mother wore a cloth mask to hide her hideous disfigurement. Not only hiding her form from those around her, Naomi’s mother sent a letter to Obasan stating what had happened to the family in Japan, including information about her own wounds. Her mother explicitly asked Obasan and Ojisan not to tell either Stephen or Naomi about what had happened.
When Aunt Emily finally discloses the story of Naomi and Stephen’s mother, Naomi takes the news very stoically. She is happy to finally know what happened, confused because she does not understand why she was not told sooner, and saddened, because she would have liked to see her mother, disfigurement and all. Now that her mother is dead, she does not get the chance relinquish the great weight of Mr. Gower from her soul, and continues to live, disfigured in her own way. Her mother was the only one that could have helped her and now, “Dead hands can no longer touch our outstretched hands or move to heal”(Obasan 294).Naomi had suffered wounds so psychologically damaging that only her mother could heal.
While Ojisan remains like a stone and Emily remains ever vocal, Naomi’s brother Stephen goes off on his own tangent. Stephen denies his Japanese heritage because of the discrimination he has faced from others. Stephen does not want to be Japanese and instead puts forth all his efforts to be white. He takes upon himself the habit of eating only ‘white’ food, like hamburgers and sandwiches, and wearing white clothing. Stephen does not talk because those who talk draw attention, which is precisely what Stephen does not want to do. Instead of speech or writing, Stephen uses music as his voice. Worst of all, Stephen distances himself from the family, moves away and attempts to rid himself of all Japanese ties, only calling home once a year. As Naomi’s last immediate family member, Stephen only hampers the healing process, which Naomi must attend to.
Naomi’s childhood, a terrible and brutal struggle for such a young delicate flower, yields to a blossoming adulthood of understanding and compassion. Although her wounds will never fully heal, Naomi has come to terms with her mother’s absence and her family’s silence. While Stephen does not adapt at all, and instead runs from his problems, Naomi allows herself to become immersed in the flood of her problems. Naomi Nakane spends the early years of her life trying to determine where in the confusion she will take her stand in the battle between verbal communication and silent acceptance, only to find that she has no choice and fate has decided that she will remain silent, longing to speak.
Obasan by Joy Kogawa