Literature Study GuidesObasanChapters 34 36 Summary

Obasan | Study Guide

Joy Kogawa

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Obasan | Chapters 34–36 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 34

Once again in 1972 Naomi and Obasan receive a condolence visit from Mr. Barker, the beet farmer they once worked for, and his second wife. Mr. Barker still mispronounces their names after all these years, but his intentions in visiting are good. His wife Vivian, on the other hand, is clearly uncomfortable in the unfamiliar setting of the Nakane home. Mr. Barker asks after Stephen, as people in Granton always do, but the family has barely heard from him for the past eight years, not since his last visit with a female companion. The visit lasted only a day.

Mr. Barker asks if Obasan will be able to manage without Uncle, but he words his well-meant questions in broken English, and then offers what he believes is a compliment by saying, "You people are very clever." He goes on to comment that "it was a terrible business what we did to our Japanese," and Naomi notes the possessive pronoun. Like many other white people, he means well but will always see the Japanese as "others" and somewhat beneath him. Naomi thinks that Canadians still don't really grasp that most Japanese Canadians were born in Canada and are Canadian citizens, although they are unseen or unwanted. Obasan continues to quietly serve them, and does not respond to the racist's slur.

Chapter 35

After the Barkers leave, Naomi and Obasan fall into an exhausted sleep. Naomi's rest is torn by nightmares of soldiers and a Grand Inquisitor, and her mother with a red rose hanging from a length of twine in her mouth—the same image Naomi had with her Uncle at the beginning of the novel, when he was doing the "death dance." The Inquisitor is trying to pry open Naomi's eyes and her mother's mouth.

Chapter 36

Nakayama-sensei arrives, followed by Aunt Emily and Stephen. Stephen's hair has streaks of gray, but he displays the impatience of a young boy who wants to leave as quickly as he arrives. They begin to share news, and Naomi observes that Stephen has made himself "altogether unfamiliar with speaking Japanese."

Nakayama-sensei notes letters on a table that Obasan has been reading, and glances through them himself. His expression becomes somber as he reads about events that he had had no knowledge of. He looks at Emily and asks if Naomi and Stephen are aware of the contents. When he finds they do not, Nakayama comments, "It is better to speak, is it not?" Naomi listens to the exchange, and then begs to be told whatever has been hidden for so long. Nakayama tells her and Stephen that the letters were written by Grandma Kato during the war, and that they had never been intended for the children. But now he tells them to pay attention, for their mother is speaking to them through the letters and they must "listen carefully to her voice."

Analysis

The chapter describing the visit form the Barkers shows that even though many Canadians have begun to move past their racist views of people of Japanese heritage, certain assumptions and prejudices remain, and the Japanese are still seen as "others." Mr. Barker clearly believes that he is superior to the Japanese, although he obviously feels they are good people. But when he uses broken English to speak to Obasan and makes references to "our Japanese," he shows that at least subconsciously he still sees this family, whom he has known for years, as second-class citizens, or as possessions similar to pets or farm animals.

In Chapter 35 the novel begins heading toward its painful conclusion. Naomi dreams of soldiers, her mother Nesan, and a Grand Inquisitor who is searching for answers. He is trying to end Nesan's silence and literally open Naomi's eyes—force her to see truths that have been hidden from her, or that she herself has refused to accept. When Aunt Emily, Nakayama, and Stephen arrive, the wall of lies and silence finally begins to come down. Nakayama reads the truth of the past in the letters from Grandma Kato—information he did not know before—and challenges the family's tradition of lies and silence, saying simply, "It is better to speak, is it not?" Naomi, after avoiding her memories for so long, shifts her attitude entirely, begging to finally learn what really happened to her mother and grandmother.

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