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Remaining Silent in Obasan by Joy Kogawa

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In the novel Obasan, Kogawa uses Naomi’s narrative point of view to convey that one’s misfortunes, such as racism and abandonment, can take a toll on one’s identity which causes them to remain silent.

Throughout the book, Naomi experiences many traumatic events. She was just a little girl when she was molested by Old Man Gower. Though she knew what was being done to her was not right she chooses to remain silent. She believes being silent is what she’s supposed to do, that it’ll keep her safe, but all it does is create a deeper wound. “If I tell my mother about Mr. Gower the alarm will send a tremor through our bodies and I will be torn from her. But the secret has already separated us” (chapter 11). This text exhibits how being silent has made things worse. Instead of speaking up or talking to her mom, she must lie and continue to keep secrets.

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In one of Naomi’s flashbacks, she conveys the common injustice many Japenese families faced. ” What a beauty,’ the RCMP officer said in 1941, when he saw it. He shouted as he sliced back through the wake, ‘what a beauty! What a beauty!’ That was the last Uncle saw of the boat,” (chapter 4). Not only was their way of making a living taken away from them but so was their identity of being professional working men. This injustice would occur without anyone batting an eye.

Near the start of the book Aunt Emily refers to Naomi being a “majime”, ‘Surely I cried sometimes,’ I said to Aunt Emily when she told me what a quiet child I’d been. She shook her head. ‘I can’t remember that you ever did. You never spoke. You never smiled. You were so ‘majime.’ What a serious baby.’ A majime is some who is diligent or in other words someone who does what they’re supposed/expected to do. Reading the novel I now understand as to why Aunt Emily referred to her as a majime. For example, when Naomi got the phone call of her uncle’s death she didn’t cry and remained silent. Instead, she thought about what to do next, which was to go to Obasan’s house and plan a funeral. Racism, sexual molestation, injustice, all misfortunes that she faced as a child caused her to remain silent. They come together to make up her identity as someone who grew up during the dark times of being a Japanese Canadian citizen.


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