Reading the Nonverbal: The Indices of Space, Time, Tactility and Taciturnity in Joy Kogawa’s “Obasan.” – Critical Essay
In Obasan, as the popular adage goes, silence speaks, and often louder than words. But, in the words of Obasan’s protagonist, Naomi Nakane, how to “attend that speech” (289)? Much critical attention has been accorded to Obasan, and a lot of it has focused upon the strangely silent nature of the text.(1) However, as King-Kok Cheung has shown, this critical energy has, by and large, reproduced an anglicizing tendency to read the silence of the text–and characters–of Obasan in relation to a paradigmatic dichotomy of speech and silence, whereby speech is valorized as self-assertion and silence regarded as a negative absence.(2) Furthermore, critical analyses of the taciturnity of Obasan, although offering sometimes useful discussions of the role of silence, have failed to pay adequate attention to the many other aspects of nonverbal communication which speak in the text. In this essay, I do not wish to add to the silence/vocalization readings of Obasan, which have been executed well elsewhere. Rather, here I want to attend a different kind of speech in the text, namely those other forms of nonverbal communication hitherto ignored in critical exegeses.
In his innovative study, Literature’s Silent Language: Nonverbal Communication, Stephen R. Portch applies a multidisciplinary theoretical approach to nonverbal communication to readings of several well-known fictional texts. Portch identifies nine different categories of nonverbal communication. According to his categorisation, these include: physical appearance and body clues (often read together), emblems (intentional, explicit gestures, which stand in for the verbal message, like a shake of the head), illustrators (which accompany the verbal message, like hand-waving), regulators (raised eyebrows or averted eyes, which may also replace the verbal message), vocal tones (within a verbal message), touch (with or without an accompanying verbal statement), space and time. In literary textual terms, emblems, illustrators and regulators all tend to accompany speech, and we are well versed in reading this additional information, so that, for example, we could be told that a character exclaimed, raising their eyebrows, information which may help us to deduce surprise. As readers, we are adept at drawing conclusions from physical appearance, for example, reading a luxuriance of hair as an index of sexuality, or a florid complexion as an indicator of high living. These forms of nonverbal communication function in a predominantly supplementary way-within the text. Far more novel, however, is the study of touch, space and time as nonverbal intercourses in literature. Furthermore, these codes of nonverbal communication offer broader scope than Portch’s other categories for interpretation. These forms of communication may constitute a useful lexicon of analysis when applied to Obasan, a text whose quietude, although widely recognised, constantly defies and cannot be explained by the language of nonverbally-blind critical approaches.(3) Moreover, the nonverbal repertoire of Obasan may provide more fruitful ground for exploration than the better-trodden terrain of its enunciative facets.
Naomi Nakane, the narrator of Obasan, is highly attentive to the non-verbal lexicons of touch, space and time. In the sequel to Obasan, Itsuka, Naomi is described as “N. Watcher Nakane” by her aunt because of her tendency to watch the actions of others closely (9).(4) And she tells us early on in the text: “Beneath the grass the speaking dreams and beneath the dreams is a sensate sea” (preface). Naomi learns how to read speech as throughout the novel she demonstrates her ability to read nonverbal communication. The dominance of nonverbal information in the text is a result of the interiority of Naomi’s narration, as she slides back and forth through time, her memories governed by sensory perceptions and hers and others’ speech often only reported. Naomi inhabits a semi-dreamworld, a “telepathic world” where tactility, nuance, tonality, as well as spatial and olfactory awareness provide the main indices of communication and information (35).(5) These mediums constitute the symbolic lexicon in which Naomi tells her story. Frequently, non-verbal elements resonate when speech appears intrusive, redundant, inaccurate or insufficient. Even the well-charted path towards speech-as-panacea is paved with nonverbal perceptions. It is for this reason that the “word warrior” Aunt Emily appears so invasive when she is present, whereas Naomi’s other aunt Obasan’s nonverbal repertoire renders her such a powerful presence in the text (39). Naomi is closest to Obasan of all her surviving family precisely because both she and her aunt speak the same language of silent expression. As Naomi says of her aunt: “Obasan’s language remains deeply underground” (39), and Naomi alone of Obasan’s relatives is able to dive deep enough into this “sensate sea.” And as she says of their relationship in Itsuka: “Our language is gestures, the nodding and shaking of heads, the shrugging of shoulders. A pat on the side of the bed is a request for me to sit” (85).
Time in Obasan illustrates the way in which Naomi’s and Obasan’s sensibilities differ from those who surround them.(6) The narrative itself is governed by Naomi’s memories of her and her family’s past triggered by and intertwined with present events and sensory perceptions. The oscillation in the text between Naomi’s personal ruminations and recollections and the various reported accounts of that history reflect the juxtaposition of private and public temporalities. Naomi’s discontinuous narrative stresses the interplay between past and present as well as the chafing of personal and official chronologies. Naomi’s and Obasan’s time is private, subjective and measured by the events of their lives. In contrast, Aunt Emily’s letters, reports and newspaper articles represent the public, verbalised chronology of Japanese Canadian history.(7) Or to put it another way, Naomi’s time is informal, mental time, whereas Aunt Emily’s papers represent a measured and formalised temporality.(8) Naomi’s temporality, which structures the narration, is constructed by memory, so specific events in her life measure the passing of time. In the opening pages she notes: “In the future I will remember the details of this day, the ordinary trivia illuminated by an event that sends my mind scurrying for significance” (6). Later, in her interior dreamworld, she is careful to tell us that at that moment “[n]o incident alerts us to an awareness of time” (34).
The repeatedly enacted shift into the past in Naomi’s consciousness exemplifies the dominance of the past on both Naomi’s and Obasan’s present. Of all the characters in the text, it is these two who are least able to sever themselves from their past, and its psychological effects upon their present. As Aunt Emily tells Naomi: “You are your history” (60).(9) Obasan’s time increasingly becomes past time as the novel progresses, as Naomi observes: “… the present disappears in her mind. The past hungers for her” (31). Likewise, the escalating frequency with which Naomi’s own thoughts become retrospective symbolically illuminates her awakening consciousness of both the importance of her cultural history and her desire for a return to her mother, who died at Nagasaki. She observes that “we’re trapped, Obasan and I, by our memories of the dead-all our dead-those who refuse to bury themselves … [w]hen I least expect it, a memory comes skittering out of the dark … ready to snap me up and ensnare me” (30-31). Aunt Emily’s struggle to make sense of her history leads her to turn to the causal chronology of Japanese-Canadian history, whereas Naomi’s own search for answers involves her in establishing an internal self-referentiality, whereby her own mediating consciousness attempts to impose order on her present sensations and her memory. In fact, the novel’s time is cyclical, enacting a repeated return to a beginning through Naomi’s fragile consciousness.(10) Julia Kristeva makes the distinction between cyclical/monumental (as in “memorial”)–or women’s–time, and linear–or historical–time by asserting that cyclical time is characterized by temporal disruption and reminiscence, whereas linear time is progressive, teleological and patriarchal. The cyclical time that we find in Obasan results from Kogawa’s representation of Naomi’s subjectivity in terms of repetition, recollection and temporal disjunction.(11)
Tactile awareness, like temporal awareness, dominates for Naomi, who constantly reads her surroundings through touch. Stephen Portch stresses the importance of touch as a primary sense: “touch, the mother of all senses, developes in the womb and remains a biological necessity” (16). Naomi’s first recollection, of her and her uncle taking a walk, indicates her attentiveness to tactility as she repeatedly describes her and her uncle’s sensory engagement with their natural environment: “The hill surface, as if responding to a command from Uncle’s outstretched hand, undulates suddenly in a breeze” (2); and later: “My hands rest beside his on the knotted mat of roots covering the dry earth, the hard untilled soil” (4). Speech between Naomi and her uncle in this scene is scant, but their peaceful intercourse with their surroundings signals a harmony between them and their environment which is only disrupted in the text by Aunt Emily’s all too verbal presence.(12) Concomitant with Naomi’s tactile awareness is a sensate aestheticism, which is used at moments when Naomi shares a sensory engagement with other members of her family to indicate both a unity of perception and sensibility, as in the examples above. Another example- may be found within Naomi’s dreamworld, too, when she dreams of a man and a woman at work in the forest. Here she reads not speech, but the interoptic communication between her and the man in her dream: “There is no language but the man’s glance is a raised baton” (34). Likewise, although when the woman speaks, “the words are so old they cannot be understood” and “the language has been forgotten” (35), Naomi is able to read other actions: “in our telepathic world, the knowing spreads” (35). Significantly, too, within the dream, time is non-specific, and “no incident alerts us to an awareness of time” (34). This once more emphasises the slippage of time, in Woolf-like fashion, within Naomi’s consciousness, but also shows how the different nonverbal modes combine to communicate the impressionism that is Naomi’s mode of apprehension.
Naomi’s distance from other characters at certain points in the text is indicated to us through her inability to touch them. When she returns to Obasan after her uncle’s death, Naomi feels the urge to touch her aunt but knows that it will startle her.(13) At this point, she feels very distant from Obasan. Much later, after her brother has deserted the family in favour of a career as a concert pianist, Naomi once more feels his distance though her inability to touch him, as she observes in Itsuka that “he’s turning into one of those unreachable untouchable unreal people” (56); and later, that she and Obasan express their “longing,” with “our hands, mine and Obasan’s, clutching at absences” (89). In addition, Naomi recognises and signals transgressive behaviour through touch too. She is molested on two occasions, and, in each case, notes the discomfort of touch above other perceptions. Old Man Gower’s touch is unpleasant because his mustache is “scratchy as a Christmas tree” (73); and when in Slocan later, Percy presses her against a wall and she notes that “the sharp stone cuts into my shoulder” (73).
For Naomi, as for Obasan, reality is measured through touch. Naomi’s attentiveness to tactility also functions as an alternative signification system in the text, replacing linguistic signs with nonverbal messages. A reading which is aware of these signs reveals the subtle shifts in tone and atmosphere in the text. Frequently when speech proves difficult, nonverbal messages noticed and reported by Naomi serve to provide equally portentous information. For example, although her uncle doesn’t speak, “He seems about to say something, his mouth open as he stares straight ahead, his eyes wide. Then, as if to erase his thoughts, he rubs his hands vigorously over his face and shakes his head” (4).(14) Although, as readers, we are quite adept at reading nonverbal messages, particularly in fiction, in Obasan Naomi often helps to decode the signals for us, as she does here, telling us that her uncle’s actions were an attempt to “erase his thoughts.” Similarly, Naomi offers us a means of deciphering Obasan’s apparent reticence through such a method, so she notes that Obasan’s smile “was more sad than demure” (23), or that “Obasan’s … hands are moving back and forth across the grey cardboard folder–to erase, to soothe” (292; emphasis added). Naomi’s apperception of Obasan’s actions repeatedly explicitly rejects linguistic messages in favour of a nonverbal lexicon: “It’s not what she’s saying. It’s the way she sits here, her fists held tight, as if desperate to stop something from gushing out” (269). Furthermore, Naomi’s struggle to understand her Aunt Emily stems from her inability to read the verbal messages which dominate her aunt’s communicative repertoire. As she notes: “All of Aunt Emily’s words do not touch us … [t]he words are not made flesh” (226). Naomi’s biblical reference here counters her aunt’s urge at a later point to “Write the vision and make it plain” (38), with Naomi insisting on the primacy of nonverbal communication over speech. Naomi’s preference for tactile data also explains her love for the Japanese story of Momotaro, the boy who was born of a peach. Naomi’s identification with and love of this tale results in her fascination with Momotaro’s contact with the sensuous surface of the soft fruit: “Whenever I bite into peaches, I wonder as my lips touch the slippery cool tang how it must have been” (67). Naomi’s rendering of the story in her narration emphasises tactile messages, as this section shows:
The time comes when Momotaro must go and silence falls like feathers of
snow all over the rice-paper hut. Inside, the hands are slow. Grandmother
kneels at the table forming round rice balls, pressing the sticky rice with
her moist fingertips … [t]here are no tears and no touch. (67)
Naomi’s actual reunion with her father and her psychical reunion with her mother are both portrayed in nonverbal terms. Skilled in reading her father’s body language rather than his words: “… I can see it in Father’s eyes … I do not understand the words” (205), Naomi’s meeting with her father is described using the language of tactility; and, again, Naomi registers the absence of verbal intercourse: “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” (202). Naomi’s memories of her mother are also nonverbal: “From the extremity of much dying, the only sound that reaches me now is the sigh of your remembered breath, a wordless word” (288). Her path back to her mother is charted through tactility, although at first she fails to recognise her mother’s touch: “Something has touched me but I do not know what it is” (198). Although still uncertain, Naomi then begins to recognise her mother’s touch: “She is here. She is not here. She is reaching out to me with a touch deceptive as down” (199). The dominance of the theme of Naomi’s search for, and rediscovery of, her mother in the text can be in part explained by her tactile signification system. In the preface, Naomi asserts the need to hear the language of the “amniotic deep,” which refers to the various kinds of nonverbal information of which she possesses a heightened awareness. Her use of the word “amniotic” indicates that Naomi’s attentiveness to nonverbal communication is interlaced with her journey back to her mother. The novel both opens and closes with reference to this `amniotic deep’ or “sensate sea,” cyclically beginning and ending with the mother, so that symbolically the return to the maternal is also marked in tactile terms.
This path towards reunion with her parents and reconciliation with her parents’ history culminates in sensory connection between them all at the close of the novel:
Father, Mother, my relatives, my ancestors … [we] have turned and
returned to your arms as you turn to earth and form the forest floor. (…)
Tonight we read the forest braille. See how our stained fingers have read
the seasons, and how our serving hands serve you still. (295)
This ritualistic scene at the end of the story signals Naomi’s attempt to enact a symbolic burial of her parents who died absent from her. The references to both “stained fingers” and “serving hands” draw explicit parallels with Momotaro’s story earlier, when Momotaro leaves his adoptive parents, and his adoptive mother prepares rice balls with “moist fingertips” and “cupped hands”. At this point then, through Naomi’s recollection, the Momotaro story is cyclically connected with Naomi’s own tale, both histories of parental loss and separation. These images also specifically evoke the earlier scene of labouring the land, when the family’s beet farming provided a tactility which left “bare hands” (233), skin “red and hard and itchy” (235), and fingernails that were “black” (232). Tactility is also, then, the means of remembering the hardship of this period of Naomi and her family’s history, alongside the tragedy of her parents’ own fates.(15) It is therefore through tactility that a return to both the maternal, paternal and their collective history, takes place at this point. The closeness with the land, and with nature engendered through touch throughout the novel on the part of Naomi and her family, needs to be recognised explicitly in order to reveal this symbolic filial connection and the enactment of a rememberance and reconciliation with the past, which results in laying her parents to rest.
Space, like tactility, functions as an index of communication. As Naomi, like Obasan, often feels herself prey to the control of time, she also repeatedly describes her awareness of the power of space: “I hate the staring into the night. The questions thinning into space. The sky swallowing the echoes” (preface). Yet Naomi also dreams of space in positive terms, recognising that in its power she may find a salvation, a refuge from language: “Sometimes … I can imagine myself disappearing off into space like a rocket with my questions trailing behind me” (222). As she reads both touch and time, so too does Naomi read space. Usually she views space as a refuge, which she may share with her family: “The quietness and spaciousness of the night altered the concentration of our evening’s conversation” (222). Naomi also often has a heightened awareness of personal space. An analysis of personal space in Obasan reveals the ways in which it is, like time and tactility, used to highlight filial connectedness. For example, the theme of matrilineage in the text has been thoroughly explored.(16) However, this matrilineal connection is usually interpreted as working through speech. Such an interpretation views the separation of the mother from the daughter and the other mother-figures (Grandma Kato, Obasan, and, later, Aunt Emily), after the tragedy at Nagasaki, as imposing a stifling silence upon these women.
A more positive connectedness between Naomi, Obasan, Grandma Kato and Naomi’s mother may be uncovered, one which uses the language of personal space. Naomi’s journey in the text may be mapped as a path from being lost in space, back to a time where she occupied an intimate space with her mother, to the end of the text, where she imagines being once more in literal close proximity to her mother. Matrilineal connectedness with Naomi’s female forebears is indicated in the text through a series of scenes in which Naomi is seen sharing intimate and personal space with her mother, Grandma Kato and Obasan. Intimate distance and personal distance are usually defined as a proximity whereby one’s senses are aware of another’s body heat, breath, perfume or body odor.(17) One of Naomi’s most pervasive memories is of occupying personal space with her mother: “My arms are flung around my mother and she lies beside me and I breathe in her powdery perfume” (67). Thus, her mother’s former closeness to her daughter is signalled in spatial terms. In the interim period of the novel, Naomi frequently yearns for, and sometimes imagines, her mother’s actual touch, as is seen in the examples cited above. The novel closes with Naomi once more occupying the same personal space as her mother, in the old photograph that she is given of them both together. The maternal-daughterly reunion is thus here enacted symbolically using the lexicon of space: “I stand leaning into you … [m]y fat arm clings to your leg … I am joined to your limbs” (291). Obasan’s closeness to Naomi is likewise communicated spatially. Her “warmth and constant presence,” and the sensation of her next to Naomi, “soft against my cheek,” all indicate her role as a mother surrogate, providing warmth and physical closeness for the young girl (81). There is also a scene in which we witness Naomi sharing personal space with her Grandma Kato, as they bathe together. It is clear that this is an exclusively female experience, as we are told that Stephen “will not bathe with Grandma,” whereas Naomi “will suffer endless indignities of the flesh for the pleasure of my grandmother’s pleasure” (59). This process of bathing too, signals filial closeness: “My body is extended beside hers and she makes waves to cover my shoulders. Once the body is fully immersed, there is a torpid peace. We lie in this state forever” (59). In fact, it is only the female members of the family (significantly excluding Aunt Emily), who share intimate space, again affirming matrilineal connection.
Naomi’s awareness of personal space means that she often registers the presence or the absence of other family members in spatial terms. Returning home after her uncle’s death she mentions “I … sit on a stool beside the table. Uncle’s spot” (14). When her father dies, she notes his absence symbolically by the simultaneous disappearance of her pet frog from his space, so that now “[t]he bowl sits empty on the table,” reflective of the greater absence of her father (249). The family’s collective increasing isolation in Canada is measured through their personal space too. The family is forced to move to more cramped accommodation in a new town during relocation. As their personal space contracts, so their surroundings appear by contrast to be a vaster expanse of space to the young Naomi, who describes it as “a strange empty landscape” (228). The distances that she encounters in their new home in Slocan, where she comments that “we are as tiny as insects … the tiny distant bodies of Stephen and Uncle and Obasan miles away,” reflect the family’s psychological distance from both home and homeland in British Columbia (234).
Just as being too far from British Columbia registers her isolation, being too close to strangers signals danger for the young Naomi. For example, Old Man Gower’s violation is marked by his unnatural proximity: “When he lifts me up in his arms, I smell something dark and unpleasant. His breathing is noisy and too close to my face” (73; emphasis added). Naomi’s recognition that the man is too close to her alerts her to the danger that she is in. Later in the novel, Naomi becomes aware of her family’s social isolation through others’ reluctance to enter their collective personal space. The socially accepted nightly ritual of communal bathing becomes the site of social rejection for Naomi and her elder relatives, because of their tuberculosis, regarded as a social shame. Naomi notices first that her friend Yuki “stops swimming and backs away from me,” and her family leave prematurely “avoiding all contact with us” (194). In contrast, the continuing friendship and loyalty of the Saito family is measured by their willingness to bathe alongside the family.
Coterminous with the dynamics of interspatial engagement are the dynamics of interoptic communication. Here, too, Naomi is an adept sign reader. In the communal baths, for example, Naomi notes not only the physical distance between the two families, she also registers that the family keep “their eyes lowered,” an evasive gesture (193). Naomi herself has been taught the language of discretion, that “in the language of eyes a stare is an invasion and a reproach” by her family (58). Of Uncle, Mother, Grandma Kato and Obasan we are told, “[e]ach one, raised in Japan, speaks the same language.” By contrast, Aunt Emily is described as “visually bilingual” (58). Naomi’s own position between these polarities indicates that the rules of interoptic communication, like other non-verbal lexicons, vary from culture to culture. Aunt Emily is clearly far more Westernised than the other nisei of Naomi’s family, and Naomi, who often finds herself oscillating between two sets of cultural conventions, is similarly nonverbally bilingual.(18) Although she is described as a “watcher” (9), Naomi’s attention to others is not invasive, and, like her mother and Obasan, she is often startled by overly overt non-verbal advances, as this example shows:
My mother and I are on a streetcar. She boosts me up on the seat and I
reach for the cord. we will be getting off soon. As I scramble down to the
floor, I see a man hunched forward, his elbows on his knees, he is looking
around quizzically, one dark eyebrow higher than the other. When our eyes
meet, he grins and winks. I turn away instantly, startled into discomfort
again by eyes. (58)
In this extract, Naomi as usual scrutinises her subject, interpreting his non-verbal messages, noting his “quizzical” look. But at the moment when the gaze is returned, Naomi, schooled in the conventions of Japanese politeness, looks away. This evasion of optic intercourse with strangers is another cultural/maternal inheritance, as Naomi herself notes: “My mother’s eyes look obliquely to the floor, declaring that on the streets, at all times, in all public places, even a glance can be indiscreet” (58). Even at the point at which Naomi herself breaks off nonverbal communication, she still continues to read others’ nonverbal messages, as she is here interpreting her own mother’s evasive gesture.
The communicative power of the indices of space, time and tactility in Obasan may be likened to Joseph Frank’s seminal notion of spatial form in literature.(19) Spatial form is identified by Frank as the favoring of synchronic rather than diachronic time, creating a discontinuous, fragmentary narrative, which disallows a sequential or linear chronology. Connectedness is established by reverberant images, leitmotifs and aesthetic appreciations. In Obasan, spatial form dominates as the narrative thrust is as often retrospective or digressive as it is progressive. In addition, the codes of time, space and tactility are interconnected, producing the effects of simultaneity, interiority and sensuality.
Likewise, the dominance of sight, too, as a form of nonverbal intercourse, coupled with the prevalence of pictorial imagery in the text, emphasises the spatial dimensions. In particular, the key image of a young girl attending a bird above Naomi’s bed, watching and listening, emphasises this aspect (64). Furthermore, several scenes depict both Naomi and Obasan looking at pictures and photographs, or giving photographs’ to each other; whereas Aunt Emily is seen reading, and offering words, rather than pictures, to others. The predominance of pictorial imagery reinforces the sense of quietness and stillness in the text. Obasan and Naomi, too, are often seen in still poses. Naomi, especially, often compares herself with inanimate objects around her, so that both her serenity and her immobility are accentuated, while the objects surrounding her assume an animation:
I am sitting in my nemaki on the wicker chair beside the fern, eating a tea
biscuit and watching the goldfish with their little round mouths puckering
open and closed endlessly. We three, the goldfish and I, are the listeners
in the room, as Mother sings and Stephen and father play. (…) beside me
on its carved wooden pedestal is another silent listener, the Ninomiya
Kinjiro statue. My fingers slide over its head, down over the lump on its
back, to the porcelain books in its porcelain hands. (62-63)
Naomi’s hypersensitivity to nonverbal data, of touch, time and space, necessitates a reading equally alert to these modes of apprehension. Such a reading, as I hope that I have demonstrated, unearths a previously submerged significatory system, a “sensate sea” where the nuances of Naomi’s and Obasan’s taciturnity can be heard and interpreted. Such a modus operandi offers a means of avoiding the Anglicizing inclination to valorize speech identified by Cheung in Articulate Silences, as well as enriching our comprehension of those elements of Obasan not uncovered by attention to its glossal aspects alone.
(1.) Examples of the scholarship dealing with the silence/speech dichotomy in Obasan include Gayle K. Fujita’s “`To Attend the Sound of Stone’: The Sensibility of Silence in Obasan” and Shirley Goek-lin Lim’s “Japanese American Women’s Life Stories: Maternality in Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter and Joy Kogawa’s Obasan.”
(2.) King-Kok Cheung’s analysis of the nuances of silence in Obasan breaks away from and critiques the tendency to valorize speech unconditionally, and paves the way for the kind of analysis that I am attempting here. Although she does not enter into an in-depth discussion of the spectrum of nonverbal communication as elaborated by Stephen Portch in Literature’s Silent Language, she does note that nonverbal gestures are a form of “articulate silence” (4). In addition, both Cheung’s and Fujita’s interpretations provide invaluable readings of the cultural meanings of “attentiveness,” as a form of non-verbal communication, with particular reference to the eyes. Fujita argues that “attentiveness” is a specifically nikkei (Japanese-American) legacy; whereas Cheung is interested in “attentiveness” as a maternal inheritance.
(3.) Fujita’s and Cheung’s discussions of traditional Japanese symbols and concepts in the text are the exception here.
(4.) Naomi’s ‘watching’ should be understood as both vigilance and insight.
(5.) See Cheung on telepathy as a form of attentive sign-reading (146).
(6.) This point has been made by Cheung, amongst others. It is, however, true to say that Emily’s time is also personal in the sections of her private diary, addressed to her sister, which appear in the central section of the novel, although even this ostensibly private form of communication is nevertheless a more public memory of the past than Naomi’s. I am grateful to the anonymous reader who pointed this out in an early response to this article.
(7.) A corresponding example of the juxtaposition of private and public, or official and unofficial chronologies can be found in Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, in which she actually includes a history section alongside the China men’s personal stories. A pertinent discussion of the politics of memory versus history in Obasan, another way of mapping this dichotomy, may be found in David Palumbo-Liu’s “The Politics of Memory: Remembering History in Alice Walker and Joy Kogawa.”
(8.) In this sense, the novel is “polychronotopic,” to use Lynne Pearce’s term, because different chronotypes coexist and interact with each other in the same text. A “chronotope” is Bakhtin’s term for the representation of time/space in the literary text. Pearce uses the term “polychronotopic” to describe the presence of multiple chronotopes within the text. See Lynne Pearce’s Reading Dialogics for a discussion of polychronotopes. The novel does lend itself to a Bakhtinian reading. Whereas Aunt Emily’s time is diachronic, Naomi’s and Obasan’s time may be mapped as synchronic.
(9.) Emily’s injunction to Naomi here reflects their differing responses to the past. Whereas Naomi has internalised her history, a repressed history which repeatedly returns to psychologically haunt her present, Emily has coped by maintaining a very public reaction to her history. In this quotation, she urges Naomi to follow her example, a call Naomi subsequently takes up in the sequel to Obasan, Itsuka.
(10.) Another novel in which the narrator’s consciousness constructs the temporality of the narrative in this way is Chuang Hua’s Crossings, in which the narrator Fourth Jane’s consciousness dominates and repeatedly enacts a yearning for the remembered past. Crossings, too, has been described as a very silent text. See Amy Ling’s discussion in “A Rumble in the Silence: Chuang Hua’s Crossings.”
(11.) See Julia Kristeva, `Women’s Time,’ (445-46).
(12.) Speech is minimal at this point in the text, as Naomi’s uncle is still unable to verbally communicate the story of her mother’s death at Nagasaki to his niece, and this prohibits verbal communication between the two.
(13.) As an anonymous reader pointed out in an early response to this essay, this may also be because touching Obasan at this time would be inappropriate within the cultural context of Japanese-Canadians. I am grateful for this observation.
(14.) Naomi’s desire for her uncle to speak to her about her mother’s history may inform her close observation of Isamu here.
(15.) I am grateful to an anonymous reader for pointing these connections out.
(16.) See, for example, Shirley Goek-lin Lim’s essay, “Asian American Daughters Rewriting Asian Maternal Texts,” for a discussion of maternality in Obasan.
(17.) For a discussion of intimate, personal and social distance, see Edward T. Hall’s Beyond Culture.
(18.) Nisei are the first generation born of ethnic Japanese.
(19.) A useful elaboration of Frank’s work is Smitten and Daghistany, Spatial Form in Narrative.
Cheung, King-Kok. Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993.
Chuang, Hua. Crossings. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1986.
Frank, Joseph. “Spatial Form in Modern Literature.” Sewanee Review 53 (1945): 433-56.
Fujita, Gayle K. “To Attend the Sound of Stone”: The Sensibility of Silence in Obasan.” MELUS 12.3 (1985): 33-42.
Hall, Edward T. Beyond Culture. New York: Anchor, 1976.
Hune, Shirley et al. Asian Americans: Comparative and Global Perspectives. Pullman: Washington State UP, 1991
Kingston, Maxine Hong. China Men. London: Picador, 1981.
Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. New York: Anchor, 1994.
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Helena Grice is a Lecturer in American Studies at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, UK. She has published extensively on Asian American literature and culture, and is a co-author of Beginning Ethnic American Literatures (forthcoming). She is currently working on a book-length study of Asian American women writers.
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