Obasan and Naomi’s Road by Joy Kogawa: Literary Comparison
People today often underestimate the trauma experienced by the Japanese in World War 1. Kogawa puts Japanese treatment during that time into perspective through her novels Obasan and Naomi’s Road. By crafting two novels for different age groups, Kogawa has created two pieces of literature that contrast in syntax, point of view, and tone.
Kogawa is widely known for her figurative language and beautiful imagery as depicted through her complex sentences. Consequentially, Kogawa surprised most everyone when she managed to form a novel that aimed towards children. Naomi’s Road was composed to appeal to children through narration of Naomi’s stories, gently presenting them with the history of the Japanese-Canadian reputation (Ito 1). The novel starts off and continues with simple sentences. Kogawa remains consistent in her poetic prose, but does so in lines much easier to comprehend. “Mountains green with trees climb to the sky. Across the lake, the highest, farthest mountains are blue and purple and topped with white snow” (Naomi’s Road 43). Use of onomatopoeia throughout the book is evidence of simple yet entertaining conversations. Kogawa writes to simply depict a setting using light language and descriptive words in an order that children may understand.
Obasan is compared to a harsh documentary by literary critic, Marilyn Rose (Vander Ark 221). The book’s complex syntax has landed the book in high school and university level studies. In Obasan, Kogawa utilizes poetry to place emphasis on silence as well as focus on Japanese-Canadian internment. Through Kogawa’s poems the reader is led to riddles of “hidden manna, hidden voice, and hidden reason” (Cheung 225). Kogawa opens the novel with the following lines of poetry describing silence and its meaning. In these two lines alone, the reader is left to interpret and anticipate various “silences” that will be highlighted throughout the novel (White 212). This is only one example among many in which Kogawa’s complex metaphorical language and symbolism are wrestled with by the reader (Vander Ark 221).
In addition, the two novels are increasingly unique from each other as the stories differ in narration, or points of view. Naomi’s Road, for starters, is told from third person limited perspective; a point of view not uncommon among children’s books. Use of third person perspective is easier for young minds to comprehend as the insight is typically not as complex. This is evident as Naomi’s thoughts are kept short and narrow-minded. This may also be due to the fact that Naomi’s Road takes place when Naomi is only five. A narrative focus on this age appeals to children as it gives them a character they may relate to. Their thoughts correlate much better with five-year-old Naomi than they would thirty-year-old Naomi. Not only are younger children more likely to read a novel told from a narrator closer to their age, but the story employs characters in a way that stands apart from use of characters in Obasan. For starters, Naomi is accepting of all the abhorring events that occur around her. Kogawa emphasizes silence in a way that is appropriate for younger generations. Another character who changes from one novel to the other is Stephen. Although Stephen can be the tough older brother who doesn’t give in without a fight, he still has a soft, tender side. Stephen is seen as needy for approval from his father. He leaves the house to find a comforting reminder of his father in music. When he locates a piano in a currently vacant church, he sits down and plays music all night long (NR 98). This allows the reader to see that although Stephen may be mysterious at times, he is never without good intentions. Again, Kogawa’s style here draws in younger audiences as attachment and innocence are easily understood and relatable. Other characters remain unapplied for all of our most of one novel. This observation is made apparent by the fact that For example, Aunt Emily is never mentioned in Naomi’s Road. The absence of this character enables Kogawa to focus more on a gentle and simple style of writing. While Naomi’s mother may be an unemployed character in Obasan, she is the prominent mother figure of Naomi’s Road. This allows Kogawa to establish a relationship between the two of comfort and security. For instance, in the beginning of the novel, Naomi and her friend accidentally set a curtain on fire. Naomi’s friend abruptly abandons a frightened Naomi, who is soon relieved by the hero of the day, mom. Her mother is described as “the safest place in the world” (NR 23).
On the contrary, Obasan brings into play two narrators as opposed to one. Obasan uses two first person central narrators. A majority of the novel is written in Naomi’s perspective. Most of it is centered on present day events, with frequent flashbacks dispersed throughout. Naomi’s unfolding of events enables the reader to reflect on her painful past and how it has affected her present-day idea on society. Meanwhile the entire 14th chapter is Aunt Emily’s diary during World War 1. Aunt Emily’s journal aides the reader in understanding the racial discrimination as Aunt Emily was old enough to remember and comprehend events more than naïve Naomi. “’No British subject would live in such conditions.’ Then if we improve our lot, another says, ‘There is danger that they will enter out better neighborhoods.’ If we are educated, the complaint is that we will cease being the ‘ideal servant’. It makes me choke. The diseases, the crippling, the twisting of our souls is still to come” (Obasan 99 ). Aunt Emily’s foreshadowing allows the reader to empathize with the imprisoned hopelessness Aunt Emily is feeling at this point in time. No matter what the Japanese do, the rest of Canadian society will remain discontent with their actions. When Naomi is the narrator, the audience is left to interpret symbolism. However, Aunt Emily’s blunt narration provides insight to the emotions that were actually experienced at the time. During Obasan, Aunt Emily serves as the opposing character to Naomi as Aunt Emily is the “political fire band” of the novel (White 213). Kogawa enforces a writing style known as a foil. This is as Aunt Emily is the hard-driven Japanese-rights activist whereas Naomi would much rather forget her painful past (Cheung 225). Another instance where a major character in one novel participates as a minor role in the other would be Naomi’s mother. Naomi’s mother remains unmentioned with the exception of a collection of Naomi’s flashbacks. This enables Kogawa to allow Obasan, Naomi’s aunt, to rise as the dominant mother figure in Obasan.
Through writing two novels that settle on sending out the same message in two differing ways, Kogawa has formed two books that capture completely contrasting tones. As a result of being told from the third person point of view, the narrator gives off a detached tone throughout Naomi’s Road. The narrator never expresses sympathy for Naomi and all the hardships she is forced to face at such a young age. Naomi and Stephen both are bullied at school and in for being different in their appearance (NR 66). Another more specific example in which the author remains unattached to the characters would be when the narrator is stating how Naomi is so hot she would be willing to dip her feet in dirty brown water even if it meant sitting among thorns. This instance describes a scene in which Naomi is desperate to go for extremes that may be small to an older audience, yet awful to children and kids. The narrator still, however, remains stoic about Naomi’s desperate situation. In Naomi’s Road captures a satiric tone, even though it is for children. She is able to do so as she utilizes a lighter satire that truly treats everything in a light, joking manner. One day when Naomi and Stephen are out playing along the river bank, Naomi wonders what it would be like to be in control of a country full of tiny people that you could do whatever you want with (NR 34). The irony is that she is living that way currently is described by that particular scenario. Only she is not the one that is in control, instead that would be the Canadian government that is in control of Naomi and her family. Irony is later implemented again trough use of an allusion to “Little Orphan Annie”. Naomi was fond of reading them and liked to imagine herself as Annie, picturing the day that her parents would walk through the door to greet her and Stephen. This gives the reader hope that this may indeed happen in the novel. Although the book has many depressing circumstances throughout, it still has an innocent tone surrounding Naomi and her adventures. She is new to the world and is still in the process of learning how cruel people can be. When Naomi first meets Mitzi, Mitzi refuses to talk to them and makes sure that Naomi is aware she is in no place to even glance in Mitzi’s direction. Naomi must learn how to adjust to situations similar to this one when it seems as if everyone but herself is against her.
Due to the fact that Naomi herself is the narrator, Obasan takes on a more objective tone. Naomi makes it clear early on that she is not Aunt Emily’s biggest fan when she states “For the rest of the car ride home I kept quiet while Aunt Emily bulldozed on. I could see that we were in for an evening of marathon talking whether anyone else felt up to it or not” (Obasan, 43). The negative connotation that comes with the word “bulldozed” stresses the fact that Naomi finds Aunt Emily loud and annoying. The objective tone paves way for a much harsher satire compared to what is discernible in Naomi’s Road. When Aunt Emily’s documents make their appearance in the story, she questions why Canadians seem to be more afraid of Japanese people born in Canada than they are of Germans from Germany. If satire is not obvious throughout the novel enough, this line alone is enough to make one aware. Even though Naomi is more laidback, her reflections on her painful past cause the reader to feel an urge to do something to make a change of how people treat one another. The book as a whole displays a serious tone signifying sadness and highlighting the importance of silence.
As one can clearly see, Kogawa highlights silence and human interaction during the time of World War 2 in two literary pieces that are heavily distinguished from each other. In one she creates an objective tone with light satire by use of simple syntax and third person point of view. In the other she sets a serious tone with heavy satire through complex syntax and first person point of view.
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