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Obasan | Study Guide

Joy Kogawa

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Obasan | Prologue–Chapter 3 | Summary




The novel's prologue begins with the following words: "There is a silence that cannot speak. There is a silence that will not speak." The story that follows, which opens in 1972, reveals what is behind the silence of the narrator's family, Japanese Canadians who lived through World War II and were victims of almost unfathomable persecution.

Chapter 1

The narrator and her uncle are in a coulee, or ravine, where they have come every year "around this time" since 1954. They are seven miles from the town of Granton, where the family settled in 1951. Uncle seems to have a purpose for coming to this spot with his niece, but he always decides that she is too young to hear what he wants to say—despite the fact that she is now 36 years old. She has learned to be patient, knowing that for Uncle and Obasan (aunt), "speech often hides like an animal in a storm."

Chapter 2

The woman who visits the ravine with Uncle is Naomi Nakane (Nuh-kuh-neh), a middle school teacher who lives in the small town of Cecil in Alberta, Canada. Naomi does not feel in control of her life, herself, or the students she teaches. She is painfully aware of being what her students call an "old maid" or a "spinster" and is unable to explain even to herself why she is not married. She feels it may have something to do with the fact that she has "the social graces of a common housefly."

Naomi's family is Japanese Canadian. She does not mention her parents, but names her older brother Stephen, who has not lived at home for years and whom she describes as "a ball of mercury, unpredictable in his moods," an older single aunt named Emily who lives in Toronto, and her Uncle and Obasan.

Chapter 3

While teaching one day, Naomi receives a call she has been dreading. Uncle has died, and Naomi hurries to Granton to be with Obasan. A loaf of rock-hard bread is on the table, the last of the inedible baked goods made by Uncle during his time in Alberta. Obasan is barely speaking, and Naomi observers that "the language of her grief is silence." Among her few responses to Naomi's questions is, "Now old ... Everything old." But watching her, Naomi is aware that Obasan is like old women everywhere, and that they are "the true and rightful owner[s] of the earth."


The book begins with a mystery: the question of what Uncle is remembering each year when he takes Naomi to the coulee. Whatever the story is, it contains something so unbearable he feels that Naomi is not ready to hear it, not even at age 36. The reader senses, though, that the events it contains may explain the absence of Naomi's parents, the silence of Obasan, and the rage of Naomi's brother.

Readers are also made aware of the significance in this story of the family's racial background. Naomi makes a point of explaining that she is viewed as exotic by her students' parents because she is Japanese Canadian and a clear minority in the small town where she lives. Her grandparents, she explains, are Issei—born in Japan. Her parents were second-generation Nisei (knee-say), and she herself is sansei, or third generation. The differences between the generations have always been apparent in how they act and how they speak, with the elders speaking Japanese or broken English and adhering to many old traditions and habits, and the generations born in Canada no different than their neighbors.

Still, Naomi feels like an outsider in Canadian society, comparing herself to the natives who were the original inhabitants of the land but who are now just another minority. Naomi notes that the Japanese and natives share similar facial characteristics, and also traits such as diffidence and a "quickness to look away." The idea of "otherness" is introduced and will become a central theme as the story progresses.

Her position as an outsider, combined with what appears to be a troubled family, have affected Naomi in ways even she can't quite understand. She is insecure, unhappy, and lonely. She is unable to stand up to or deflect the taunts of middle-schoolers, and is already "bored to death" with teaching. She resents questions about her heritage from the few men she dates and feels she is "no bargain in the marriage market." What led to this devastating self-image remains to be revealed.

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