Study Guide

Obasan Quotes

  • Versions of Reality

    The only way to be saved from harm was to become seductive. In this latest dream, three beautiful oriental women lay naked in the muddy road, flat on their backs, their faces turned to the sky… The first shots were aimed at the toes of the women, the second at their feet. (11.24)

    This quote is one of only a couple of scenes in the novel that deal with sexual stuff, and like those other scenes this portrayal is negative. Just like Naomi's sexuality becomes negative after Old Man Gower molests her, these women try to use their sexuality to save themselves but it only gets them killed. Besides Naomi's own personal experience, this dream probably also refers to the large-scale war rapes that happened during World War II.

    In my childhood dreams, the mountain yawns apart as the chasm spreads. My mother is on one side of the rift. I am on the other. We cannot reach each other. My legs are being sawn in half. (11.5)

    We see this imagery over and over again. Naomi is separated from her mother and ripped in half. But what do you think about it? Is the rift between Naomi and her mother physical, emotional, or both? Why are her legs being sawn in half?

    I am sometimes not certain whether it is a cluttered attic in which I sit, a waiting room, a tunnel, a train. There is no beginning and no end to the forest, or the dust storm, no edge from which to know where the clearing begins. (15.1)

    The places that Naomi mentions here are interesting. They are all transitory places. You don't live in an attic: you store things there for later. Tunnels, waiting rooms, and trains are all places that you go through on the way to somewhere else. Why do you think Naomi dreams about these kinds of places? Why doesn't she dream of places like home?

    I am in a hospital. Father is in a hospital. A chicken is in a hospital. Father is a chicken is a dream that I am in a hospital where my neck and chin are covered with a thick red stubble of hair and I am reading the careful table of contents of a book that has no contents. (22.1)

    Psychedelic! Sometimes Naomi's dreams are full of really crazy pictures, like this one. But they always have some kind of meaning behind the obvious strangeness. For example, chickens have already been associated with death in the novel, so seeing Naomi's father as a chicken makes us think that he's going to die. And the book with no contents? That sounds like the history of what happened to Naomi's mom. And this thick red stubble hair? Okay, you got us. We have no idea what that's about.

    The kitten cries day after day, not quite dead, unable to climb out and trapped in the outhouse. The maggots are crawling in its eyes and mouth. Its fur is covered in slime and feces. 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)

    Yeah, gross, we know. We just wanted to point out that besides reinforcing imagery that has a ready appeared in the novel Naomi's dreams also foreshadow later moments. For example, the maggots in the kitten's eyes foreshadow the maggots that Grandma Kato sees in her niece's eyes. Not that you wanted to see that imagery twice.

    She is a maypole woman to whose apron-string streamers I cling and around whose skirts I dance. (24.4)

    Maypoles are bright, tall, colorful symbols of spring. Children hold streamers and dance around the pole in circles. Naomi dreams of her mother as a maypole, which is a bright and cheerful bit of dream imagery (for once!).

    Facts about evacuees in Alberta? The fact is I never got used to it and I cannot, I cannot bear the memory. There are some nightmares from which there is no waking, only deeper and deeper sleep. (29.8)

    Throughout the novel we are presented with two versions of reality that contradict one another. Here, we get "facts" about evacuees in Alberta versus Naomi's memories of how much they sucked. By saying that her life on the sugar beet farm was a nightmare, Naomi discounts the official "facts." The real facts here are her feelings about the time.

    Those years on the Barker farm, my late childhood growing-up days, are sleepwalk years, a time of half dream. (30.1)

    We guess we wouldn't want to remember toiling on a sugar beet farm either. Not only do Naomi's dreams foreshadow reality, but apparently Naomi's reality is almost like a dream. In other words, there isn't very much of a boundary between the dream world and the real world.

    [...] Stephen leapt out of bed in the middle of the night yelling, "I've got to get out of here," and ran down the road away from the farm in the dark. [...] He said when he came back he'd had a nightmare. Something about a metallic insect the size of a tractor, webbing a grid of iron bars over him. (Later, he told me he had the same nightmare again, but escaped the web by turning the bars into a xylophone.) (33.64)

    Someone besides Naomi has a dream, for once. So tell us, dreams sleuths, what's up with the iron bars and the xylophone? Could they have anything to do with Stephen's kick-butt music career?

    Once I came across two ideographs for the word "love". The first contained the root words "heart" and "hand" and "action"—love as hands and heart in action together. The other ideograph, for "passionate love", was formed of "heart", "to tell", and "a long thread". The dance ceremony of the dead was a slow courtly telling, the heart declaring a long thread knotted to Obasan's twine, knotted to Aunt Emily's package. (35.2)

    Japanese lesson time. There are two words in Japanese that can translate into love: ai and koi. Ai is the first love that Naomi is talking about, and koi is the second. Ai could be translated as "real love." We are not talking about summer hookups: this is love that's in it for the long haul and through thick and thin. Koi, on the other hand is "passionate love." It's closer to the Western idea of love, with all the holding hands and kissing and Valentine's Day chocolates. Why do you think that Obasan is dancing koi love in Naomi's dream? Which of the two Japanese words for love do you think describes Obasan's everyday attitude towards Naomi?

  • Language and Communication

    "Isn't it dangerous?" I asked. Uncle is almost never direct in his replies. I felt he was chiding me for being childishly afraid when he said abruptly, "Mo ikutsu? What is your age now?" (1.18)

    Pay close attention. When we first read Uncle's question, we assumed the same thing as Naomi. But after reading the book, we noticed that she says, "I felt he was chiding me." There are moments like this all over the novel. Kogawa is very precise with her language, and little things like that sentence can totally change your understanding of the story.

    How different my two Aunts are. One lives in sound, the other in stone. Obasan's language remains deeply underground but Aunt Emily, BA, MA, is a word warrior. She's a crusader, a little old gray-haired Mighty Mouse, a Bachelor of Advanced Activists and General Practitioner of Just Causes. (7.14)

    Why do you think Aunt Emily is so different from Obasan? Why is she so into words, while Obasan barely speaks?

    "Now look at this one," she said. "Here's a man who was looking for the source of the problem in the use of language. You know those prisons they sent us to? The government called them 'Interior Housing Projects'! With language like that you can disguise any crime." (7.28)

    Aunt Emily is the one who lets us know that language is a tool… or in some hands a weapon. For example, if you heard that you were being sent to "Interior Housing Projects," you may not be so worried. But if they wrote, "Internment Work Camps," you might start freaking out.

    "Everyone someday dies," she says again. By repeating this so often, I suppose she is trying to make realizable what is real. (8.21)

    The way that Obasan repeat these words is almost like an incantation. What magic is Obasan wielding? What magical powers does language have in this novel?

    Who is it who teaches me that in the language of eyes a stare is an invasion and a reproach? Grandma Kato? Obasan? Uncle? Mother? Each one raised in Japan, speaks the same language; but Aunt Emily and father, born and raised in Canada, are visually bilingual. I too learn the second language. (9.2)

    Remember that there are lots of different kinds of language. Not just verbal language, but body language, and the language of the eyes. How do you think Naomi feels about being bilingual in so many languages?

    "It was not good, was it?" Mother says. "Yoku nakatta ne." Three words. Good, negation of good in the past tense, agreement with statement. It is not a language that promotes hysteria. There is no blame or pity. I am not responsible. The hen is not responsible. My mother does not look at me when she says this. She squats beside the box and we watch the trembling chicks together. "Kyotsuke nakattara abunai," she says. "If there is not carefulness, there is danger." (11.20)

    Here the structure of Japanese helps to calm Naomi after a disaster. But Japanese is a double-edged sword, because the same thing that calms her here is also the source of her confusion. Since spoken Japanese often lacks subjects (a more direct translation of Yoku nakatta is "wasn't good") it's really easy to get confused. If the person listening doesn't understand the context, it's totally possible for two people to have a conversation about entirely different things. And that's what happens. Throughout most of the novel Naomi thinks that her family was talking about one thing, but really they are talking about something totally different.

    We do not talk. His hands cup my face. I wrap my arms around his neck. The button of his pajama top presses into my cheek. I can feel his heart's steady thump thump thump. [...] There is no sound in the house except the satisfied "Aah'" that Uncle makes after he has swallowed a hot drink, and the scrape scrape of Obasan's knife buttering the toast. (24.31)

    If this were a scene in a movie, it would probably have some kind of dramatic music in the background. But instead Kogawa mutes the sound, and we can only see what's going on. What effect does that have on your understanding of this scene? How would it be different if Naomi were screaming excitedly or saying I love you?

    Some of the ripe pidgin English phrases we pick up are three-part inventions—part English, part Japanese, part Sasquatch. "Sonuva bitch" becomes ''sakana fish", "sakana" meaning "fish" in Japanese. On occasion the phrase is "golden sakana fish." (33.42)

    The third generation Japanese Canadians are very inventive with their use of language. It seems that every generation in the novel has their own approach to language. The first generation is silent. The second-generation is obsessed with accurate language, and the third-generation isn't bound by one culture or another. They mix all of their cultures together, making new words with new meanings. Pretty cool.

    "If these matters are sent away in this letter, perhaps they will depart a little from our souls," she writes. "For the burden of these words, forgive me." (37.16)

    Why do you think Grandma Kato sends the letter? How does talking about a subject with another person make it feel better? Do you think that Naomi's mom would feel better or worse knowing that Naomi and Stephen have heard the truth?

    Gentle mother, we were lost together in our silences. Our wordlessness was our mutual destruction. (38.13)

    How does being silent destroy Naomi and her mother? Do you think that speaking about their problems would have changed anything? Why or why not?

  • The Home

    The house is indeed old, as she is also old. Every homemade piece of furniture, each pot holder and paper doily is a link in her lifeline. [...]They rest in the corners like parts of her body, hair cells, skin tissues, tiny specks of memory. This house is now her blood and bones. (3.50)

    We kind of feel like Obasan should be on an episode of Hoarders. Why do you think Obasan's home has become such a large part of her identity?

    All our ordinary stories are changed in time, altered as much by the present as the present is shaped by the past. Potent and pervasive as a prairie dust storm, memories and dreams seep and mingle through cracks, settling on furniture and into upholstery. Our attics and living rooms encroach on each other, deep into their invisible places. (5.23)

    Earlier, Naomi says that the home is just like Obasan's body. Now she compares to her mind to a home and its attic. At the same time she foreshadows the family's exile to Granton, where they live in the house coated in dust.

    "Tell me what happened to my mother's tiny house—the house where my sister was born, with the rock garden in front and the waterfall and goldfish. Tell me what has happened." (7.55)

    This quote is from a letter that Aunt Emily sends to the Canadian government asking about her home. There is basically no answer. We wouldn't be surprised if many people in real life were asking these questions, since many Japanese Canadians had their homes taken away from them with no explanation.

    I glance at the electric clock above the stove. Unlike the faithful grandfather clock that stopped when its owner died, this one whirrs and hiccups on and on. (8.8)

    Remember kids, robots don't care whether you live or die but analog appliances are loyal to the bone.

    "Everyone someday dies," she is saying with a sigh as she clears the table. She takes half a piece of leftover toast and puts it away in a square plastic container. (8.11)

    Obasan is obsessed with preserving leftovers. She's keeping toast, seriously? She also keeps repeating "everyone someday dies." Do those ideas conflict with each other? Why, or why not?

    I am supremely safe in my nemaki, under the heavy bright-coloured futon in my house.The house in which we live is in Marpole, a comfortable residential district of Vancouver. It is more splendid than any house I have lived in since. It does not bear remembering. None of this bears remembering. (9.18)

    Why doesn't Naomi want to remember her home in Vancouver? Why do you think she felt so safe there?

    Aya's house was looted. I haven't told her. It's in such an out-of-the-way place. When I took the interurban on Friday to see if the dog might have shown up, I was shocked. Almost all the hand-carved furnishings were gone—all the ornaments—just the dead plants left and some broken china on the floor. [...] No one will understand the value of these things. (14.126)

    What effect do you think that the looting had on Obasan, if any?

    It seems more like a giant toadstool than a building. The mortar between the logs is crumbling and the porch roof dives down in the middle. A "V" for victory. From the road, the house is invisible, and the path to it is overgrown with weeds. (16.27)

    Let's put this in context: Naomi and her family lived in a beautiful house big enough to have a room dedicated just to instruments. Now she has lost her mother, her father, and her Aunt Emily. On top of everything else, now they have to live in a house that looks "more like a giant toadstool than a building." Kogawa doesn't tell us Naomi's emotions, but the contrast that she sets up makes it pretty obvious that this isn't the happiest situation.

    The boxes we brought from Slocan are not unpacked. The King George/Queen Elizabeth mugs stay muffled in the Vancouver Daily Province. (29.25)

    Here Naomi is describing her time on the sugar beet farm. Notice that they don't even unpack their stuff. That's basically saying that they don't consider this place a home.

    We stand awkwardly in the living room, Mrs. Barker glancing around. Her eyes dart back and forth. I find myself donning her restless eyes like a pair of trick glasses. She must think the house is an obstacle course. (34.14)

    Even though we don't like her, Mrs. Barker is useful. Through her eyes we get to see what someone else thinks about Obasan's house. In Naomi and Obasan's eyes, her house is a place full of memories and keepsakes. In Mrs. Barker's eyes, it's just a cluttered mess. Her visit is kind of like a reality check.

  • Prejudice

    It wasn't a fishing vessel or an ordinary yacht, but a sleek boat designed by Father, made over many years and many winter evenings. A work of art. "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!" (4.28)

    Because Uncle's boat is so beautiful, it makes the confiscation of all the fishermen's boats even more emotional. Later, we see Uncle taken away in the same way that his beautiful boat was.

    "Why in a time of war with Germany and Japan would our government seize the property and homes of Canadian-born Canadians but not the homes of German-born Germans?" she asked angrily. (7.59)

    Good question. Aunt Emily's answer is racism. What's yours?

    There was a picture of a young Nisei boy with a metal lunch box and it said he was a spy with a radio transmitter. (14.52)

    This is ridiculous. Radio transmitters make horrible lunchboxes. Why do you think the white Canadians feel compelled to make these racist statements? What does that have to do with World War II and the perception of Japan as a nation?

    Dan has a lawyer working for him and his parents about their desire to stay together, especially since Dan's father is blind and his mother speaks no English at all. The lawyer went to the Security Commission's lawyers and reported back that he was told to let the matter drift because they were going to make sure the Japs suffered as much as possible. (14.88)

    The Security Commission's lawyers say that they want to make Japanese people suffer as much as possible. This scene foreshadows the young boy killing a chicken in Granton. He also says that the chicken has to suffer.

    Ye gods! The newspapers are saying that there are actually Japanese naval officers living on the coast. It must be a mistake. [...] Maybe the articles are true. I wonder if there's a cover-up. (14.92)

    Wow. The propaganda is so good that it's even got Aunt Emily.

    Obviously white Canadians feel more loyalty toward white foreigners than they do toward us Canadians. (14.94)

    We like to think about it as a totem pole of prejudice. Unfortunately for Naomi and the Japanese Canadians, racism is always higher on the totem pole than xenophobia.

    ''Never met a kid didn't like stories. Red skin, yellow skin, white skin, any skin." He puts his brown leathery, arm beside Kenji's pale one. "Don't make sense, do it, all this fuss about skin?" (12.29)

    Rough Lock Bill is the only white person in the novel who actually speaks out against prejudice. He's a dude who lives in a shack in the middle of a forest, but he seems better educated than anyone.

    What is it she smells? What foreign odor sends its message down into her body, alerting her limbs? If only I could banish all that offends her delicate sensibilities. Especially the strong smell of miso and daikon and shoyu. Especially all the dust that Obasan and I are too short to see. Mrs. Barker's glance at Obasan is one of condescension. Or is it solicitude? We are dogs, she and I, sniffing for clues, our throats quivering with subliminal growls. (34.28)

    How do you think Naomi feels during this scene? How about Mrs. Barker? What about Obasan?

    "It was a terrible business what we did to our Japanese," Mr. Barker says. Ah, here we go again. "Our Indians". "Our Japanese". "A terrible business". (34.48)

    This is an example of a micro-aggression. We are sure that Mr. Barker didn't mean to be prejudiced, but racism is so deeply embedded into his worldview that he's patronizing without even realizing it. It's obviously not as bad as taking people's homes and sending them into internment camps, but it still perpetuates prejudice.

    Does it so much matter that these questions are always asked? Particularly by strangers? These are icebreaker questions that create an awareness of ice. (34.51)

    We can tell that Naomi is a little self-conscious about her anger over micro aggressions. What's the big deal? Naomi answers it in the last sentence. These phrases only push people farther apart instead of bringing them together.

  • Memory and the Past

    They all look rather humorless, but satisfied with the attention of the camera and its message for the day that all is well. That for ever and ever all is well. But it isn't, of course. Even my eleven-year-olds know that you can't "capture life's precious moments", as they say in the camera ads. (4.16)

    We often see Naomi describing scenes from photographs in the novel. What role do photographs play in her memory of her childhood? Is it true that you can't capture life's precious moments in a picture?

    Everything, I suppose, turns to dust eventually. A man's memories end up in some attic or in a Salvation Army bin. His name becomes a fleeting statistic and his face is lost in fading photographs, the clothing quaint, the anecdotes gone. (5.22)

    This is a pretty sad interpretation of the phrase "from ashes to ashes, from dust to dust." It also strangely contrasts with the overall feeling of Obasan's house. If everything is eventually lost and turns to dust, how does Obasan have a house full of preserved knickknacks and memories?

    She seems to have forgotten her reason for coming up here. I notice these days, from time to time, how the present disappears in her mind. The past hungers for her. Feasts on her. (5.34)

    Why do you think Naomi says that the past hungers for Obasan? What would it mean for the past to eat her?

    "We have to deal with all this while we remember it. If we don't we'll pass our anger down in our genes. It's the children who'll suffer," Aunt Emily said. (7.46)

    Is Aunt Emily correct? Do Naomi and Stephen suffer as a result of their family's anger?

    "Life is so short," I said, sighing, "the past so long. Shouldn't we turn the page and move on?" "The past is the future," Aunt Emily shot back. (7.105)

    This one interaction epitomizes the difference between Aunt Emily and Naomi. Naomi is so done with the past, she doesn't even want to talk about it. But that's all Aunt Emily ever wants to talk about.

    She places the picture in my hand. "Here is the best letter. This is the best time. These are the best memories." When would this be? I turn the photo around to see if there is any identification on the back, but there is none. (8.29)

    When Naomi points out that the photo Obasan says is the best time has no date on it, she implies that it never happened. Like a Photoshop amalgamation, Naomi's happy childhood is a fiction created by her Aunts to keep her happy.

    The woman in the picture is frail and shy and the child is equally shy, unable to lift her head. Only fragments relate me to them now, to this young woman, my mother, and me, her infant daughter. Fragments of fragments. Parts of a house. Segments of stories. (9.43)

    Why do you think that Naomi feels so disconnected from her past? What has separated her from this time when she was happy with her mother? Is it possible for her to be connected to that time again?

    Everything we have ever done we do again and again in my mind. I rehearse the past faithfully in preparation for her return. (12.11)

    This is super cute. For little kids, the past slips away. We guess it's because they don't have a lot of it. But this attitude seems so strange in the context of the novel, where we know an adult Naomi who does everything she can to forget the past.

    "Grinning and happy" and all smiles standing around a pile of beets? That is one telling. It's not how it was. (29.27)

    By saying "that's one telling," Naomi lets us know that there's more than one version of the past. Her version just happens to disagree with the official version. But does that make it less true?

    "In the heat of the August sun," Grandma writes, "however much the effort to forget, there is no forgetfulness. As in a dream, I can still see the maggots crawling in the sockets of my niece's eyes. Her strong intelligent young son helped me move a bonsai tree that very morning. There is no forgetfulness. (37.4)

    Perhaps this scene speaks for itself. Sometimes it's better to forget than to remember.

  • Literature and Writing

    "Mukashi mukashi o-o mukashi …," Obasan says, holding the photograph. "In ancient times, in ancient times, in very very ancient times..." (10.1)

    The phrase "mukashi mukashi" is the Japanese equivalent of "once upon a time." Here, Obasan is using this phrase to talk about a picture of Naomi and her mother, so the language that she uses makes it seem as if that time was only a fairy tale.

    Seeing Obasan now, older than the grandmother I knew as a child, older than any person I know today, I feel that each breath she takes is weighted with her mortality. She is the old woman of many Japanese legends, alone and waiting in her ancient time for the honor that is an old person's reward. (10.3)

    There are lots of Obasans in Japanese fairy tales. Almost every female character is either a princess or an Obasan. By calling her Aunt Obasan instead of calling her Aunt Ayako or even Ayako Obasan, Naomi references these fairy tale women.

    Each night from the very beginning, before I could talk, there were the same stories, the voices of my mother or my father or Obasan or Grandma Kato, soft through the filter of my sleepiness, carrying me away to a shadowy ancestry. "Tonight, which story? Momotaro again?" (10.4)

    This should tell you how important literature is to Naomi. Before she can even talk, she's immersed in the world of fairy tales. She won't tell you this, but she's definitely a book nerd.

    Mother, it seems to me, could. So could Grandma Kato or Obasan. But not, I think, Aunt Emily, though perhaps that is not so. She is too often impatient and flustered, her fingers jerking her round wire-rimmed glasses up her short nose. (13.9)

    Now, that's not a nice thing to say about your Aunt, is it? In this scene Naomi is wondering which of her family members could be brave even in scary situations, like in fairy tales. Why do you think Naomi says that Aunt Emily is not fit to be a fairy tale heroine?

    All this talk is puzzling and frightening. I cradle the rubber ball against my cheek and stare up at the white tufts like tiny rabbit tails stuck all over the bottom of the mattress. I am thinking of Peter Rabbit hopping through the lettuce patch when I hear Stephen's lopsided hop as he comes galloping down the stairs. (13.34)

    Remember how we said that Naomi is a book nerd even before she can speak? Well then it makes sense that she would use fairytales to comfort herself. In fairy tales lots of scary things happen, but there is always a happy ending.

    In one of Stephen's books, there is a story of a child with long golden ringlets called Goldilocks who one day comes to a quaint house in the woods lived in by a family of bears. Clearly, we are that bear family in this strange house in the middle of the woods. I am Baby Bear, whose chair Goldilocks breaks, whose porridge Goldilocks eats, whose bed Goldilocks sleeps in. Or perhaps this is not true and I am really Goldilocks after all. In the morning, will I not find my way out of the forest and back to my room where the picture bird sings above my bed and the real bird sings in the real peach tree by my open bedroom window in Marpole? (17.25)

    Which is Naomi? Is she Baby Bear or is she Goldilocks? Or is she both?

    He picks up several twig people from our sand village and puts them in a cluster at the base of one mountain. "These," he says, "are people. And this"—he points to the hole again—"lake. Wanna hear a story?" (21.28)

    How can you not love Rough Lock Bill? When he needs to random kids in the forest, his first instinct is to tell them a story. It's a mighty big coincidence that Bill is a fellow fan of fairytales and the most honorable white person in the whole novel.

    I am in a grade-two reader full of fairies, sitting in the forest very still and waiting for one fairy tiny as an insect to come flying through the tall grasses and lead me down to the moss-covered door on the forest floor that opens to the tunnel leading to the place where my mother and father are hiding. (22.8)

    Naomi has loved stories since she was a child. Do you think that Naomi makes a distinction between reality and fairytales as a child?

    When Germany surrenders he tacks the headline page over his bed. I am more interested in the lives of Little Orphan Annie, Mandrake the Magician, Moon Mullins, the Gumps, the Katzenjammer Kids, Myrtle with her black pigtails sticking out the sides of her wide-brimmed hat. My days and weeks are peopled with creatures of flesh and storybook and comic strip. (23.3)

    Stephen is obviously not interested in this fairytale stuff. He's more interested in the real world than things that are going on in books. Why do you think that is? Is it because he's older? Is it because his personality is different from Naomi's?

    "Write to us, Stephen," I shouted as he watched us from the train window. I was feeling proud of him and thinking of Momotaro going off to conquer the world. (33.5)

    It makes sense that Naomi would hold on to fairytales as a little girl, but what about now? Why do you think she is still using them as a way to understand the world? Do you think she is stuck in time?

  • Mortality

    "Everyone someday dies," she says eventually. (3.9)

    Obasan says this phrase repeatedly after Uncle Sam dies. Even though it's technically true, we know from the beginning that there's something strange about this statement. By the end of the novel it's clear that Obasan repeats the phrase because she's trying to convince herself that it's true.

    "Lost," she says occasionally. The word for "lost" also means "dead." (5.13)

    The word that Obasan is probably using is nakunaru (無くなる). Just like Naomi later finds two versions of the word love, here one word has two meanings. Nakunaru literarily means "to stop existing," or "to become nonexistent." It's pretty appropriate that she uses this word instead of a word that would only be used for losing objects, since throughout the novel people and memories are compared to the things in Obasan's home.

    The bed is strange and pristine, deathly in its untouched splendor. I have never seen his wife. Does she not live here? Is this where they sleep? (11.41)

    This scene takes place when Old Man Gower molests Naomi. If we weren't sure before that he wasn't a good guy, his bed being "deathly," is a pretty good sign that something bad is going to happen.

    Stephen whispers to me that the man who is going to take Grandma's body up the mountain is called Mr. Draper. He owns a grocery store in New Denver, and when people die he uses his truck for funerals. He drove Grandma's body all the way down from the hospital at New Denver to Slocan. (18.17)

    Are we the only ones who were a little creeped out by the same truck being used for groceries and funerals?

    The kids in school said that when old Honma-san died in Bayfarm, there was a ball of fire that came out of the house and then moved off up the mountain. (22.11)

    The children in Slocan have magical views of the world. Death, unfortunately, is all around them so they try to understand it to magical objects like fireballs.

    "It's old people who die, isn't it, Stephen?" "Yes." "Daddy won't die.'' "Of course not." (22.17)

    Do you think Stephen believes what he's saying? Or is he just saying it to comfort Naomi?

    Hospitals are places where Death visits. But Death comes to the world in many unexpected places. (22.30)

    In this quote Naomi is talking about the boys killing the chicken near the school, but is that the only unexpected place that death comes? What other places does death turn up unexpectedly? Is death ever expected?

    Perhaps, in the end, it's Penny Barker who really convinces me that Father is dead. I say the words so casually. "My father's dead." It's as if I've known for years, yet when I actually hear myself talking I feel a strange shock as if I am telling a monstrous lie. (32.1)

    Why do you think that Naomi feels she's lying when she tells Penny Parker that her dad is dead? What is it about speaking of death that changes its reality?

    The last day she spent with her mother and sister in Tokyo, she said they sat on the tatami and talked, remembering their childhood and the days they went chestnut-picking together. They parted with laughter. The following night, Grandma Kato's sister, their mother and her sister's husband died in the B-29 bombings of March 9, 1945. (37.15)

    Just when you think that everything is going great, death shows up again. This moment is even more shocking because only a few sentences earlier the family had welcomed the brand-new baby girl into their midst. That's a total about-face in fortune.

    My loved ones, rest in your world of stone. Around you flows the underground stream. How bright in the darkness the brooding light. How gentle the colours of rain. (39.14)

    These words take place just before the end of the novel, in the final chapter. It's like Naomi is finally saying goodbye to her dead family members. Do you think it was possible for her to have done this earlier in the novel?

  • Identity

    "Miss Nah Canny," he says. "Not Nah Canny," I tell him, printing my name on the blackboard: NAKANE. "The a's are short as in "among"—Na Ka Neh—and not as in "apron" or "hat." Some of the children say "Nah Cane." (2.7)

    What do we learn about Naomi and about race relations in Canada by starting the novel with this interaction?

    "How long have you been in this country?" "I was born here." "Oh," he said, and grinned. "And your parents?" "My mother's a Nisei." "A what?" "NISEI," I spelled, printing the word on the napkin. "Pronounced "knee-say." It means "second generation." Sometimes I think I've been teaching school too long. I explained that my Grandparents, born in Japan, were Issei, or first generation, while the children of the Nisei were called Sansei, or third generation. (2.25)

    Canada is not the only place with Issei, Nisei, and Sansei. The global population of the Japanese diaspora is generally referred to as Nikkei. Brazil has the largest population of Nikkei, with the American Nikkei population taking second place. Throughout the world these communities have developed and combined the local culture with traditional Japanese culture.

    Obasan is searching through bundles of old letters and papers. She picks up a yellow wallet-size ID card. I shine the flashlight on it and there is Uncle's face, young and unsmiling, in the bottom right-hand corner. Isamu Nakane #00556. Beside the picture is a signature which looks like "McGibbons"—Inspector, RCMP. (5.17)

    An ID card is an officially verified version of the person's identity. It is that what matters about someone's identity, or is there something more? Is Uncle Sam just number 00556?

    I skimmed over the pages till I came across a statement underlined and circled in red: I am Canadian. The circle was drawn so hard the paper was torn. (7.69)

    Naomi finds this phrase in Aunt Emily's journals. We knew that she was serious about this whole Canadian thing, but we didn't realize how emotional she must be about it. Why else would you circle the words so hard that you tore the paper?

    "Milk and Momotaro?" I asked. "Culture clash?" "Not at all," she said. "Momotaro is a Canadian story. We're Canadian, aren't we? Everything a Canadian does is Canadian." (10.24)

    If everything that a Canadian does is Canadian, is it possible for a Canadian to do something un-Canadian?

    The girl with the long ringlets who sits in front of Stephen said to him, "All the Jap kids at school are going to be sent away and they're bad and you're a Jap." And so, Stephen tells me, am I. "Are we?" I ask Father. "No," Father says. "We're Canadian."(12.35)

    Which question is Naomi's father answering? No, they are not bad? Or no, they are not Japanese? Does being Canadian mean that they're not bad? Does it mean that they're not Japanese? The way that he answers Naomi's question seems to be very ambiguous. Maybe he's saying that they're Japanese and Canadian, but they're not bad. What do you think?

    But worse than my irritation, there's this horrible feeling whenever I turn on the radio, or see a headline with the word "Japs" screaming at us. So long as they designate the enemy by that term and not us, it doesn't matter. But over here, they say "Once a Jap always a Jap", and that means us. We're the enemy. And what about you over there? Have they arrested you because you're a Canadian? If only you'd been able to get out before all this started. Oh, if there were some way of getting news. (14.44)

    This scene shows you just how flexible identity is depending on who's defining it. In Canada, Naomi's mother would be considered too Japanese to be Canadian. But since he's in Japan, Aunt Emily is worried that she will be considered too Canadian to be Japanese.

    Mark says Nomi thinks she's the same as the neighbours, but Stephen knows the difference. Came crying home the other day because some kid on the block broke his violin. Children can be such savages. (14.45)

    Stephen's experience with identity is very different from Naomi's. How does it affect his personality as he grows up?

    Where do any of us come from in this cold country? Oh, Canada, whether it is admitted or not, we come from you we come from you. [...] We come from the country that plucks its people out like weeds and flings them into the roadside. [...] We come from Canada, this land that is like every land, filled with the wise, the fearful, the compassionate, the corrupt. (34.52)

    Despite everything that has happened to Naomi and her family, she still has not renounced Canada. Wow, that's some serious patriotism.

    Obasan, however, does not come from this clamorous climate. She does not dance to the multicultural piper's tune or respond to the racist's slur. She remains in a silent territory, defined by her serving hands. She serves us now, pouring tea into Mr. Barker's cup. She is unable to see and stops halfway before the cup is full. (34.53)

    Why do you think Obasan is not worried about multiculturalism or racism? What is her identity? How does she express it?