Since its publication in 1981, Joy Kogawa's Obasan has assumed an important place in Canadian literature and in the broadly-defined, Asian-American literary canon. Reviewers immediately heralded the novel for its poetic force and its moving portrayal of an often-ignored aspect of Canadian and American history. Since then, critics have expanded upon this initial commentary to examine more closely the themes and images in Kogawa's work. Critical attention has focused on the difficulties and ambiguities of what is, in more ways than one, a challenging novel. The complexity of Obasan's plot, the intensity of its imagery, and the quiet bitterness of its protest challenge readers to wrestle with language and meaning in much the same way that Naomi must struggle to understand her past and that of the larger Japanese-Canadian community. In this sense, the attention that Obasan has received from readers and critics parallels the challenges of the text: Kogawa's novel, one might say, demands to be reckoned with, intellectually as well as emotionally.
Much about Kogawa's novel makes it difficult not only to read but also to classify or categorize. First, Obasan blurs the line between nonfiction and fiction. Kogawa draws from actual letters and newspaper accounts, autobiographical details, and historical facts throughout the novel, but she artistically incorporates this material into a clearly fictional work. In addition, Kogawa's narrative operates on multiple levels, from the individual and familial to the communal, national, political, and spiritual. Stylistically, the novel moves easily between the language of documentary reportage and a richly metaphorical language, and between straightforward narrative and stream-ofconsciousness exposition. This astonishing variety in Kogawa's novel can, at times, become bewildering and unsettling to the reader. But as many readers and critics have noted, Kogawa's style and method in Obasan also constitute the novel's unique strength. Kogawa writes in such a way that ambiguity, uncertainty, irony, and paradox do not weaken her story but instead paradoxically become the keys to understanding it.
The reader's experience of ambiguity in Obasan begins with the poetically-charged proem, preceding chapter one, which opens with these words:
There is a silence that cannot speak.
There is a silence that will not speak.
Does Kogawa intend these lines to introduce "silence" as a character of sorts? Does the second line clarify the first, or does it instead differentiate one silence from another, an involuntary muteness from a willed refusal to speak? These and other questions remain unanswered in the proem. Only after beginning the novel-proper does the reader recognize Naomi as the author of these words; and only after completing the novel can the reader begin to grasp the significance of the questions introduced in the proem, particularly the charged question of silence. Obasan dwells on many silences: the silence of history concerning the suffering of Japanese-Canadians during and after World War II; the silence of those who have died and "cannot speak" any longer; the "large and powerful" silence of Obasan; Aunt Emily's outspoken opposition to silence as a "word warrior" for the Japanese Canadian cause; the silence of Obasan, Uncle, and Emily who, in spite of Naomi's questions, "will not speak" of the fate of her mother; and, finally, Naomi's "Silent Mother" herself, who initially chooses not to speak of her horrific injuries at Nagasaki in an effort to protect her children from the truth, then is lost in the permanent silence of death. Naomi's persistent attempts to penetrate these various silences form the story at the heart of Obasan.
However, Kogawa also recognizes the paradoxical power of silence. Naomi wonders, for example, if Obasan's grief might represent a "language" with "idioms" and "nuances" all its own. While Obasan's silent suffering often brings her to...
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