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“Obasan” by Joy Kogawa Research Paper

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Introduction

Joy Kogawa, in her novel Obasan, has narrated the struggle for identity and self-identification. The novel captures the struggle of the Japanese Canadian community from the hostility that the community had face due to rising hatred against the Asian community after the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II. Canadians perpetrated the hostilities in different forms –continuous racial prejudice, wartime internment, exile and double dispersal – on Canadian citizens of Japanese origin. History always shows the struggle between two bipolar worlds for power and eventually the strong and the triumphant crushes the minority voice. Therefore, it is important to recount the point of view of the “other” in order to “deconstruct the totalizing” (Shoenut 478). In this semi-autobiographical work, Kogawa has tried to demonstrate the struggle and trauma the Japanese Canadian community had to go through during and after World War II. These events form a background to demonstrate the process of identity development of the later generations of the group through the protagonist Naomi and her brother Stephen. They demonstrates the deep-rooted distrust and contradictions that developed with many and their dual struggle to forget the trauma and search for the truth. Obasan thus narrates the tale of exploration of truth and suffering of the Japanese Canadians after World War II. Kogawa paints the journey of Naomi, as described by Rufus Cook, in a “fragmented, disconnected world” (55), and the protagonists’ struggle to join the pieces of the broken puzzle to make her identity and self-value more clearly to herself. It is only through a mining of the past can one be closer to the self, which can solely be defined by the “particularities of time or place or logical identity”, which belongs both to the past, present, and future (Cook 55). In her novel, Obasan, Joy Kogawa reveals the hardships that Japanese Canadians had to go through during the World War II, and shows how these experiences affected her and other Japanese Canadians in terms of finding their self-value and identity.

Main body

With Japanese bombing of the Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Canadians were looked upon with an eye of distrust, which eventually led to a decisive War policy by the Canadian government against the ethnic group aimed to “prevent further propagation of the species” (Kogawa 116). Christina Tourino suggests that internment camp and exile was a deliberate attempt by the government to prevent the growth of the ethnic minority whom they considered a threat (135). The Canadian government accomplished this by removing the Japanese men to work camps and then by “double dispersal and exile of Japanese Canadian families” (Tourino 135). Kogawa directly hints at this as an act of racism through her protagonist: ““Why in a time of war with Germany and Japan would our government seize the property and homes of Canadian-born Canadians but not the homes of German-born Germans? She asked angrily. “Racism,” She answered herself. “The Nazis are everywhere.””(45) The inhumanly treatment that the Japanese Canadians met at the camps which they called “protected area” is described Kogawa as “a hundred mile strip along the coast- were herded into the grounds and kept there like animals until they were shipped off the roadwork camps and concentration camps in the interior of the province” (93). This led to a mass movement of the Japanese Canadians away from Vancouver from where they were “flushed out of Vancouver. Like dung drops. Maggot bait”, which was their original home to distant land: “the Japanese race in Vancouver was sent away” (Kogawa 93). This discrimination had kept the Japanese Canadian community deeply hurt: “Nisei during World War II, and speaking up about their discrimination. Aunt Emily realizes that she “had no idea how much [she] still hurt”” (Shoenut 488). The discrimination that the community faced left them fragmented like “Fragments of fragments. Parts of a house. Segments of stories.” (Kogawa 64)

Kogawa uses his protagonists to demonstrate the struggle and conflict among the Japanese Canadian community: “I am clinging to my mother’s leg, a flesh shaft that grows from the ground, a tree trunk of which I am an offshoot- a young branch attached by right of flesh and blood. Where she is rooted, I am rooted. If she walks, I will walk. Her blood is whispering through my veins. The shaft of her leg is the shaft of my body and I am her thoughts” (Kogawa 77). The main characters in the novel are Naomi, Obasan, and Stephen. Naomi is the protagonist of the novel. She is a Sensei (Third Generation Japanese Canadian) who is in search of her self and identity. Naomi has a strong connection with her mother who is dead, which signifies “loss of self” (Shoenut 485). Here the significance of a mother is the presence of “cultural values of a “mother country”” (Shoenut 485). In the loss of her identity, Naomi is confused and estranged between her Canadian nationality and Japanese origin. Naomi’s past, which both fascinates and terrifies her, has led her to a life of silence and isolation. Naomi is not willing to identify herself with Japanese, whom the Canadians have discoursed as untrustworthy, nor can she reconcile with her past as Japanese. Shoenut states, “It is through this struggle of shared experience and memory that she is able to arrive at an understanding of her self, her people, and her country.” (Shoenut 479) On the other pole of the characters is Stephen, Naomi’s brother, who is eager to flee from his Japanese origin: “Stephen, in his discemible self-contempt, is desperate to remove the outer shell of his identity, including Japanese food, language, and various rituals, so that he may be accepted as Canadian.” (Shoenut 483). He becomes restless and unmindful and therefore ““Naomi notices that [Stephen] “is always uncomfortable when anything is ‘too Japanese’” (Shoenut 483). This jittery and unsure character is also shown by Kogawa as going through a search for self-identity. Thus, in describing Stephen Shoenut states “Stephen succumbs to the dominant ideology by becoming a master of classical music and acquiring a Parisian lover, thereby constructing what he considers to be a more powerful (European) shell to protect him from the label “other.”” (483) Obasan, Naomi’s Aunt, is the silent spectator, like a “windless sea” (Ueki 7), of the world, she feels she does not belong. Her inability to hear intensifies her silence and Naomi believes that “Obasan, however, does not come from this clamorous climate. She does not dance to the multicultural piper’s tune or respond to the racist’s slur. She remains in a silent territory, defined by her serving hands.” (Kogawa 271) Shoenut describes Obasan’s silence as follows: “In her silence, Obasan appears not to be affected by racist slurs, by Mr. Barker’s supercilious comments of “our Japanese.” (484-5) Clear from the main characters of the novel, Kogawa intended Obasan to be a bundle of contradictions. The contradiction between the characters is clear through the meal that Naomi, Obasan, and Stephen were having: “My lunch that Obasan made is two moist and sticky rice balls with a salty red plum in the center of each, a boiled egg to the side with a tight square of lightly boiled greens. Stephen has peanut-butter sandwiches, an apple, and a thermos of soup.” (Kogawa 182) Xu states that a “Thing” which people enjoy and share together is the root of identity formation (58) which Stephen rejects, thus symbolically is at a loss of identity. This contradiction between the characters is voiced through the characters, which demonstrate their search for their identity.

The search for self-identity and the struggle to find one’s root reciprocates throughout the novel. Naomi describes her initial struggle to understand her identity as a child: ““The girl with the long ringlets who sits in front of Stephen said to him, “All the Jap kids at school are going to be sent away and they’re bad and you’re a Jap.” And so, Stephen tells me, am I. “Are we?” I ask Father. “No,” Father says. “We’re Canadian.” It is a riddle, Stephen tells me. We are both the enemy and not the enemy” (Kogawa 84). In describing Naomi, Shoenut has shown her development from a docile character to one who searches her own identity: ““Until her mid-thirties, Naomi is generally passive; then her Aunt Emily empowers her with language and helps her to recognize how language can be used against her, excluding her from being part of the whole, from being a Canadian citizen. Naomi’s identity is rooted in several generations of her family and in her love/hate relationship with Canada” (Shoenut 482-3). The contradiction in Naomi intensifies as she tries to identify herself with the [Canadian] fairy tales and nursery rhymes which “fail in the function ascribed to them … of helping to bring clarity and order to the chaotic realm of childhood emotion” (Cook 56). The discrimination that the Japanese Canadians faced in Canada caused many to believe that they would prefer to be otherwise. Shoenut describes the reason for this discrimination due to the different physical appearance of Japanese and the deep-seated distrust after the Perl Harbor incidence: “Japanese Canadians were considered “foreigner” and “enemy aliens” because they looked different from Anglo-Canadians, and this difference signified “other.”” (Shoenut 483) Kogawa presents contradiction through interplay of power of silence and speech through Obasan and Aunt Emily. The play of silence and speech brings forth the discriminations faced by the Japanese Canadians and Emily and Obasan show their defiance through two different methods.

Conclusion

Kogawa presents a picture of contradictions through Obasan and through this milieu of struggle and differences engage in a search of identity. First generation Japanese migrants in Canada had extreme faith in their adopted land, but the fate they faced in the country made them “silent”. Accounts of an uprooted society and its struggle to find a place in the Canada dominates the theme of the novel. The societal struggle is epitomized by the protagonist Naomi’s struggle for her self-identity and conflict. The innate conflict of being Japanese or Canadian or both demonstrates the extreme restlessness that the Japanese Canadian community suffered, mainly due to the racial treatment of the community after the World War II. In the struggle to fit in as a Canadian Stephen forgets to be Japanese while Obasan fails to fit in as a Canadian, while Naomi continually looks for the tree of which she is an “offshoot” (Kogawa 77). Kogawa, through the novel, thus, shows the struggle to find one’s identity in a land, which they believe, is their country, is recurrent and forms the main theme. Thus, Obasan may be dubbed as a journey of Naomi from repression to knowledge of self-identity and value.

Works Cited

Cook, Rufus. “”The Penelope Work of Forgetting”: Dreams, Memory, and the Recovery of Wholeness in Joy Kogawa’s Obasdn.” College Literature 34(3) , 2007: 54-69. Web.

Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. New York: Anchor Books, 1994. Print.

Shoenut, Meredith L. “”I am Canadian”: Truth of Citizenship in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan.”

Tourino, Christina. “Ethnic Reproduction and the Amniotic Deep: Joy Kogawa’s Obasan.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 24(1), 2003: 134-153. Web.

Ueki, Teruyo. “Obasan: Revelations in a paradoxical scheme.” MELUS, 18(4), 1993: 5-20. Web.

Xu, Wenying. “Sticky Rice Balls or Lemon Pie: Enjoyment and Ethnic Identities in No-No Boy and Obasan.” Literature Interpretation Theory 13(1), 2002: 51-68. Web.

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