Study Guide

Obasan Tone

By Joy Kogawa


Self-Depreciating, Dream-like, Matter of Fact


Naomi isn't the biggest personality on the block—she likes to play her cards close to her chest—but we do see her being self depreciating and sarcastic. It's one of the first things that we learn about her. She says:

I throw up my hands in futility. Let the questions come. Why indeed are there two of us unmarried in our small family? Must be something in the blood. A crone-prone syndrome. We should hire ourselves out for a research study, Aunt Emily and I. (2.42)

Admit it, you thought that was kind of funny didn't you? We did. Though funny moments are few and far in between in Obasan, when they do appear they help humanize Naomi and lighten the tone of this supremely depressing book.


This lady has the most imaginative dreams. We normally just dream about forgetting our homework, or going to school naked. Our dreams are super boring compared to Naomi's.

Almost every chapter has at least one dream in it. They more or less sounds similar (in writing style) to this one:

She is here. She is not here. She is reaching out to me with a touch deceptive as down, with hands and fingers that wave like grass around my feet, and her hair falls and falls and falls from her head like streamers of paper rain. (24.4)

Kind of trippy and confusing, right? Sounds like a dream to us.

There are so many dreams in the text that it is kind of difficult to separate them from the "reality" of the story. Not only that, but Kogawa uses the same dream imagery to describe real situations. So it often feels as if the whole novel takes place in a dreamlike haze.

Matter of Fact

How can it be both dreamlike and matter-of-fact? What we mean is Kogawa doesn't shy away from telling us everything. The bleak nitty-gritty of Naomi's life is presented to us without euphemism. For example, Naomi says:

Their first child, a boy, was born dead. He looked, Obasan told me, like Grandpa Nakane. Exactly the same outline of the face. (4.11)

Naomi didn't just gloss over this sad event, as might happen in many other novels. Nope, she even gives us extra detail.

The mixture of the matter-of-fact and dreamlike tone given interesting effect when Grandma Kato describes Nagasaki after the bombing. Even though we want to look away, Kogawa doesn't let us and writes an unflinching description of the horrible event. But the facts are so terrible that it's hard to recognize as real-life. They seem like a nightmarish extension of Naomi's dreams.