Study Guide

Obasan Chickens

By Joy Kogawa

Chickens

Poor chicks. We're probably not going to be able to look at chickens the same way for a while after reading this book. Whoever thought that cute little fluffy baby chicks, and sweet mama hens could be so creepy? Chicks and chickens stand for a lot of things in this novel. Unfortunately, none of them are good.

Death

This is where the chickens first appear. Naomi puts some chicks that her parents bought in a cage with a hen. That makes sense: hens are mama chickens and chicks are baby chickens. A match made in heaven, if you're a sweet little girl who with a loving mother like Naomi is.

Not quite. Did you know that hens don't like chicks from other hens? So much that they will peck them to death? Naomi didn't know that either, but you can guess what happened to the chicks.

Later in Slocan, there is more chick-killing, but this time it's by boys instead of hens. Naomi describes it like this:

"Kill it, Sho." Although the air is raining with feathers and sudden red splatterings, there is a terrible stillness and soundlessness as if the whole earth cannot contain the chicken's dying. Over and over, like a kite caught in a sudden gust, it plunges. "Kill it, Sho." (22.59)

All of a sudden, the novel gets very Lord of the Flies.

And Weakness

Okay, so now every time that she sees chickens, Naomi thinks of death. As if that wasn't enough, she picks up another horrible association for chickens: weakness.

You know how little chicks are yellow? Well you know what else is yellow? The yellow peril a.k.a. the totally racist word for the crazy idea that Asian people will immigrate to the Americas en masse and destroy society.

Naomi is a smart girl, and she can put two and two together. She says:

To be yellow in the Yellow Peril game is to be weak and small. Yellow is to be chicken. I am not yellow. I will not cry however much this nurse yanks my hair. When the yellow chicks grow up they turn white. (22.26)

So the equation is: Yellow=Weak+Afraid=Japanese. Naomi decides that she's not going to be yellow.

All Together Now

Chickens represent death, weakness, and the Japanese Canadians who are affected by the internment policies. Naomi is young when things start going crazy, so she doesn't understand very much. These symbols help her understand.

When she puts all of these associations together she ends up with some pretty frightening dreams. This is what she dreams in the hospital:

Chickens with their heads half off flap and swing upside down in midair. The baby in the dream has fried-egg eyes and his excrement is soft and yellow as corn mush. (22.89)

It could have been a little less gross, we know. Naomi is deeply affected by the events she as experienced with chickens and the result is some insane-o, disgusting nightmare food.

So next time you look at a chicken in Obasan remember that they aren't cute. They're terrifying.