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Jana Evans Braziel, Assistant Professor
229B Mc Micken Hall
Department of English and Comparative Literature
University of Cincinnati
ML 210069
Cincinnati, OH 45221-0069
Office # (513) 556-0834
Fax # (513) 556-5960

Spiritual Autobiography

Comparative Literature

Joy Kogawa, Obasan

Chapters 1 - 7

1 Compare the narrator's voice in Chapter 1 (the scene with the Uncle) to the voice of Nomi as she enters the dialogue of the narrative in Chapter 2 (as school teacher). Is there a difference in tone? if so, what elements could possibly account for this change in voice and tone? Explain any cultural differences in the role that the narrator play in each scene. Explain any differences related to age and the public/private division.

2 What do you notice about Kogawa's treatment of time in the autobiographical novel Obasan? In what manner does time structure the narrative, if at all? Why are the dates included in Chapter 1 significant? Do the various juxtaposed dates secure a linear sense of time or discombobulate it? Explain.

3 In Chapter 3, how does Kogawa characterize or delineate the character Obasan through the domestication of space (pp. 14-18)? How does Kogawa describe the space that Obasan inhabits? What does this reveal about Obasan? What physical description does Kogawa give of Obasan? How does this description compare to the description of Uncle in Chapter 1?

4 How is Kogawa's biculturalism evident in the opening chapters of Obasan? How is this biculturalsim manifest in the language that Kogawa uses in the novel? How is the English word "Uncle," as opposed the Japanese word "Obasan" (Aunt), significant in relation to each of these characters? How else is this linguistic split revealed in Kogawa's use of language?

5 Analyze the significance of the Attic scene between Nomi and Obasan in Chapter 5 (pp.27-32). How is the "attic" symbolic for cultural and familial memory? What perspective toward memory is suggested by Kogawa in this scene? What view of human existence and mortality seems to be forwarded in this scene? How do the objects present in the Attic signify human absences?

6 How does the passage (p. 30, paragraph 2) foreshadow and illuminate the dream sequence that occurs in Chapter 6? How is the body envisioned in the dream? Who are the various personages in Nomi's dream? How is the fragmented or severed nature of the womanís body (p.35) related to the transitory quality of dreams (p.36)? Does Kogawa seem to suggest that this transiency also exists in life? Why or why not?

7 How is Emily's journal (that Nomi reads in Chapter 7) a parallel autobiographical narrative to Kogawa's own autobiographical narrative that unfolds in the novel? How are Nomi and Emily different? How (if at all) are the two women alike? Compare Nomi's character both to Obasan and Emily--suggest similarities and/or differences between the three women. How does Emily's character reveal the bicultural conflict that the Nisei felt?

8 Photographs (as well as dreams and memories) are essential in Kogawa's narrative for constructing a personal identity (see pp. 21 & 57). How does seeing the photograph of herself as a young child with her mother help Nomi to relive that moment from her past and to reconstitute a remembered experience from a visual image? How is "seeing" important in understanding Nomi's recollection of the photographic event (pp. 57-58)? Why is the "language of eyes" censured? How is the flat, photographic maternal body different from the immediate fleshly body of Grandma Kato (in the childhood memory of the bath)? Why?

9 How do Emily's words reveal that the act of remembering is actually a process of "re-membering": "You are your history. If you cut any of it off you're an amputee" (60). How then is the fragmented body of the woman in Nomi's dream in Chapter 6 related to the fragmented memory of her mother, a memory that is literally re-`membered, or put back together, through the photograph?

Chapters 10 - 12

1 What is the significance of the "Momotaro" story in Chapter 10, told to Nomi by her mother? What do the "old old man and the old old woman of the Momotaro story" reveal about Nomi's "shadowy ancestry" (66)? What does the second paragraph on p. 68 reveal about Nomi's mother?

2 Analyze the scene with the chicks and the white Hen: what do the hen and the chicks seem to represent? how is this opening scene of Chapter 11 related to Nomi's subsequent dream of torture and mutilation (p. 73), again illustrating the fragmented body (p. 74)? How are both of these scenes related to the final scene in the Chapter involving Mr. Gower (pp.74-77)? In all three cases, what is Kogawa revealing about the nature of power? about the victims of power? Try to isolate all of the thematic similarities in the three scenes and explain their significance.

3 Many of the fears that Nomi experiences as a child seem to come together in Chapter 12. Discuss the opening page of this Chapter (p. 78) in contextual relation to the epigraph and opening page of the book. How is the "stillness of waiting" in which "time solidifies" (p. 78) related to the opening passages of the novel. Give specific examples from the text.

4 Compare the memory of Nesan's departure in Chapter 12 (p.79) with Nomi's other early memories of her mother, particularly the ones recalled from photographs (pp. 21-23 and 56-58). How is the problematic surrounding the eyes--literally, the blocking or prohibition of the gaze for the mother and the daughter--relevant to their relationship? [I am grateful to Alexandra for this idea!] How does Kogawa heighten this inability to see in the rest of the Chapter (see pp. 81-81)? How is the fear of the fragmented body manifest in the last two pages of Chapter 12?

5 Further explain the significance of Emily's journal (as presented in Chapter 14) as a parallel autobiographical narrative: how is the fact that much of Nomiís personal, familial and cultural history is revealed through Emily's letters important (analyze the significance of the differences between the two women and its importance)? how is the fact that Emily's letters are addressed "Dear Nesan" important to Nomi's reading of these letters? Analyze the importance of the comparison between the sufferings of the Japanese Canadians and the Jewish victims of the Holocaust: what is Kogawa revealing about war and power? How are the passages on pp. 98 and 112 ironic--what do they reveal about the nature of racism?

Chapters 29 - 31

Early in the novel, Emily describes the treatment of the Japanese Canadians in language that evokes cattle, using images that evoke livestock animals. How does Kogawa utilize different metaphoric language (in the voice of the narrator Nomi) in Chapter 29 to describe the horrible living conditions of her family? List some of the quotes that are imbued with this imagistic, metaphoric language (see particularly pp. 233-234). Compare Kogawaís use of this same descriptive language in Chapter 31, which despite its metaphorical similarities, results in a different tone. How is the tone different? Again, list quotes that illustrate this difference. Analyze the vacillation between pessimism and optimism in the two chapters. Why is Nomi irresolute in her perspective?

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