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Obasan | Study Guide

Joy Kogawa

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Obasan | Quotes


There is a silence that cannot speak. There is a silence that will not speak.

Naomi Nakane, Prologue

With these two lines, the narrator foreshadows the effect painful events have on those who experienced them. Some are unable to speak of them. Some refuse to.


Departure, for him, is as necessary as breath.

Naomi Nakane, Chapter 3

Stephen dislikes anything to do with Obasan and Uncle or his heritage. As an adult he rarely visits them, and when he does, he does not stay for long. The implication is that he has rejected his family and his past and wants little to do with either.


The past hungers for her. Feasts on her.

Naomi Nakane, Chapter 5

Naomi has a tenuous relationship with her memories—for her the past is painful. When she watches Obasan in the attic, she sees a woman whose memories of the past could destroy her.


With language like that you can disguise any crime.

Aunt Emily Kato, Chapter 7

Emily is pointing out the use of the phrase "Interior Housing Projects," which was the government's euphemism for internment camps. She is making the point that language can be used to deceive the public and disguise unconscionable acts.


It's the children who say nothing who are in trouble more than the ones who complain.

Naomi Nakane, Chapter 7

Naomi could be speaking about herself in this quote, since suffering in silence is something she is intimately familiar with. She understands that the children that do not call out for help are the ones that may need it the most. This idea of silently enduring so as not to be a burden has been ingrained in her since childhood.


One lives in sound, the other in stone.

Naomi Nakane, Chapter 7

Naomi comments here on the difference between her aunts, Obasan and Emily. Aunt Emily talks all the time, writes letters, is nothing but noise and communication. Obasan is silence, never saying much.


Shouldn't we turn the page and move on?

Naomi Nakane, Chapter 7

Naomi's conversation with her Aunt Emily reveals Naomi's preferred way of dealing with her memories. She doesn't want to remember or dredge up the past, even though that's all Emily seems to want to talk about. Naomi, at this point in the narrative, sees no point in dwelling on painful memories, thinking there is enough to deal with in the present.


Don't deny the past. Remember everything.

Aunt Emily Kato, Chapter 9

Aunt Emily is fighting for reparations for the Japanese Canadian citizens who lost their property and way of life. She believes that if past generations don't deal with the way they were treated, the bitterness and anger will only be passed down to future generations, poisoning them. She also states tells Naomi that "You are your history," and that if she ignore it, she is cutting off a piece of herself.


We must always honor the wishes of others before our own.

Naomi Nakane, Chapter 18

This quote offers another glimpse into the mindset of Japanese Canadian citizens (at least those in Naomi's family). The idea of self-sacrifice for the comfort of others, and protecting people from painful truths, informs nearly all of the relationships in Obasan.


Don't make sense ... all this fuss about skin.

Rough Lock Bill, Chapter 21

Rough Lock Bill is a member of the First Nations. Naomi meets him while in Slocan, and he expresses a belief that skin color really doesn't matter at all, and that just as all children love a good story, people are basically the same.


There are some nightmares from which there is no waking.

Naomi Nakane, Chapter 29

Naomi is deeply affected by her time on the sugar-beet farm, so much so that she barely addresses those years even as she relives other aspects of her past.


Greed, selfishness, and hatred remain as constant as the human condition.

Naomi Nakane, Chapter 29

A bitter Naomi states her belief that what happened to the Japanese Canadians will happen again, over and over, because certain characteristics of humanity will never change.


She's not like them.

Stephen Nakane, Chapter 33

Stephen is explaining to Naomi why he prefers Aunt Emily to Uncle and Obasan. To Stephen, his aunt and uncle represent the Japanese traditions and culture that he tries to distance himself from. He doesn't eat Obasan's traditional food, nor will he wear the clothes she mends for him.


She remains a silent territory, defined by her serving hands.

Naomi Nakane, Chapter 34

Obasan is visited by the Barkers after Uncle's death and retreats further into her shell of silence so she does not have to interact with their condescension and rudeness. She often uses her silence (along with her inability to hear well, and her broken English) to separate herself from people.


Our wordlessness was our mutual destruction.

Naomi Nakane, Chapter 38

Naomi discovers the truth of what happened to her mother in Japan. It was her mother's request for silence that left Naomi with many questions in her childhood, and with her feelings of disconnectedness from her family. While she understands and even respects her mother's request for silence to keep others from suffering, she also realizes the pain and damage it caused her, Stephen, and those who kept her secret from them.

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