Study Guide

Obasan Themes

  • Versions of Reality

    They say that your dreams tell a lot about you: your hopes, wishes, and darkest fears. Dreams in Obasan definitely tell us a lot about Naomi. By working in a different language from everyday life, dreams provide a safe place for Naomi to acknowledge her feelings. So don't dismiss dreams just because they aren't "real life." They can be just as important and even more telling than the mundane, everyday truth.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. Why does Naomi tell us so much about her dreams in Obasan?
    2. Many of the dreams that Naomi has are pretty scary. Are they nightmares or are they dreams? Do you think they help Naomi in any way? Why or why not?
    3. Do you think Naomi will continue having nightmares after the end of the novel? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Dreams are just as real as the so-called facts in Obasan.

    Sometimes in Obasan, reality makes less sense than Naomi's dream world.

  • Language and Communication

    Be careful with your words, they're dangerous! In Obasan words are not just vehicles for communication. They can wound, they can heal, they can create new things, and they can tear those new things down. So all of the characters in the novel are very precise with the words that they use. That's probably why, with the exception of Aunt Emily, almost no one says very much of anything at all.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Do you think the novel would be different if Naomi and her family didn't speak Japanese? Why or why not?
    2. Why, given the circumstances in this novel, do the characters choose silence as their preferred mode of communication?
    3. Is language primarily a force for good or a force for bad within Obasan?

    Chew on This

    In Obasan, language is a strong and powerful weapon that should be wielded carefully.

    Language is dangerous, and it's better to be silent than speak in Obasan.

  • The Home

    There sure is a lot of talk about houses in Obasan. There's a house in Vancouver, the one in Slocan, the hut in Granton. But why does it matter? Home is just where you put your stuff, right? For the characters in Obasan, home is more than just a place because it is ripped from them just like their freedoms and childhoods. It's something that they can never get back, even though they try.

    Questions About The Home

    1. We know what Obasan's house looks like, and how it reflects her personality. With that in mind, what do you think Aunt Emily's house looks like?
    2. What do you think is the difference between a house and home in Obasan? Which locations are homes, and which are just houses?
    3. Throughout the novel, Naomi says that she never gets to go home. What do you think she means by that? Do you think that changes in the last chapter of the novel? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In Obasan, home is where the heart is.

    No one in Obasan is ever allowed to return home.

  • Prejudice

    It's prejudice's fault. Everything boils down to prejudice in Obasan. That's why Naomi loses her house, is sent to Slocan, toils in Granton, and overall has a pretty lame childhood. Throughout the novel it appears like an overwhelming irrational force. It's everywhere, and no one can do anything about it. Aunt Emily tries to fight back against prejudice, but it doesn't seem that she's doing so well. How do you fight back against a giant faceless monster?

    Questions About Prejudice

    1. Why do you think white Canadians display so much animosity towards Japanese Canadians in Obasan? What was the Western perception of Japan at the time? How much of this perception was based in fact?
    2. How does Mrs. Barker show her prejudice? What about Mr. Barker? Do you think they mean to be offensive? Does that change whether or not they are offensive?
    3. How does Aunt Emily deal with prejudice? What about Naomi? Is one position better than the other? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    After World War II there is no more prejudice in Obasan's Canada.

    The prejudice displayed in Obasan is completely irrational.

  • Memory and the Past

    Some people say that it's not good to live in the past, but Obasan begs to differ. Even though she doesn't want to, Naomi plunges into a re-examination of her past because of Aunt Emily's letters. And the whole climax of the book hinges on correcting a memory of the past that turns out to be fake. Naomi may say that she wants to leave the past in the past, but it's obvious that she's obsessed with her own history.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. How do the characters in Obasan feel about the past? How are they similar or different in their approaches?
    2. Why do you think memory is such an important issue in Obasan? How certain are the characters about their memories? Do their memories fail them?
    3. For the Japanese Canadian characters in Obasan, the past is full of difficult memories. How do you think the white characters remember this time period? How might their versions of the past be different?

    Chew on This

    When things are bad in Obasan, it is better to forget than to remember.

    Aunt Emily is right about the best way to approach memories. She and other characters in Obasan need to remember things in order to deal with the past.

  • Literature and Writing

    Author writes semi-autobiographical novel about a protagonist who loves books. Hmm. Where have we seen this before? It's no big surprise that Naomi develops a love for the written word throughout Obasan. But it's not just any kind of literature that interests her, it's fairy tales. They are educational, fun to listen to, and they all have happy endings. What else could you want? Whenever Naomi runs into trouble, that's where she turns for help. But as much as Naomi hopes she will find a real life happy ending, we're not sure if that fairy tale will ever come true.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Why do you think Naomi enjoys fairy tales so much? What role do they play in her childhood?
    2. Is anyone else as interested in these stories as Naomi is? Who, or why not?
    3. Fairy tales blur reality and fiction, and so do dreams. How do they relate to one another in Obasan?

    Chew on This

    Fairy tales are just stories for kids in Obasan.

    Fairy tales and reality are not so far apart, at least in Naomi's mind.

  • Mortality

    You can't turn a page in Obasan without coming across death. We see more instances of death in this novel than we see Naomi playing with friends. But because the novel opens with the death of Naomi's Uncle, and death is such a regular feature in the text, it's not really scary. The problem is that the characters don't know how to understand how to process the deaths that they see around them. That's what this whole novel is about.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Despite all the death that occurs in the novel, we only see one funeral. Do you think Naomi's feelings about death would be different if she was able to go to funerals for each member of her family? Why or why not?
    2. What is Naomi's understanding of death when she is a child? What is it as an adult? How does it change? Does it change even more by the end of the novel?
    3. How do the characters in the novel react to death? Are these reactions the type that you would expect, or are they strange?

    Chew on This

    According to Obasan, everyone dies so there is no reason to mourn.

    In Obasan, the characters are never allowed to grieve their loved ones, so they can never move on.

  • Identity

    Who gets to define a person's identity? Themselves? The government? Other people? In Obasan, the Japanese Canadian characters struggle to assert their own identity. They are called Japanese, enemies, and foreigners by everyone else, but they just want to be called Canadian. Who wins this fight? It's hard to say. But it's easy to see that even long after the war, people like Aunt Emily are still fighting.

    Questions About Identity

    1. What does it mean to be Canadian in Obasan? What does it mean to be Japanese? Japanese-Canadian?
    2. How do you think the first-generation Japanese Canadians in Obasan feel about their identity? The second-generation? The third-generation? How are they different? How are they the same?
    3. Why do white Canadians in the novel ask Naomi where she's from? What are they assuming about her by asking that question? What are they assuming about Canadians?

    Chew on This

    Identity is a private and personal affair in Obasan.

    Only the Japanese defendants born in Canada question their identity in Obasan.