Primarily during the second World War, the Canadian government legislated the forced deportation, relocation, seizure of assets, imprisonment, and forced labour of Japanese-Canadians and Canadian citizens of Japanese descent. The racialized, cultural, and political trauma inflicted by the government during this period is explored in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan. Roy Miki importantly notes that analyses of Obasan “all tend to incorporate a resolutionary (not revolutionary) aesthetics in their overall critical framing of the novel. The agreement seems to be that Naomi resolves her silenced past, [and] so establishes peace with the human rights violations that caused such havoc and grief to her, to her family, and to her community” (115). Similarly, literary critics considering the role of trauma in Obasan (see Chen, Cook, Karpinski, McDermott & Tharp), implicitly or explicitly rely on a linear recovery model that pathologizes individuals who do not recover or forgive within an accepted period of time. Mad scholars Jennifer Poole and Jennifer Ward critique trauma theory that “present[s] grief in phases, stages, touchstones, and tasks” with the primary focus being “on moving forward, progressing through, and returning to a state of normalcy and productivity” (97).
I argue that Obasan cannot be understood through the lens of traditional recovery theory. Rather than offering a ‘solution’ of moving from grief to forgiveness or reconciliation, each character demonstrates a different response to trauma: Obasan maintains silence, Aunt Emily publicizes the archive of injustice and engages in political activism, and Naomi uses storytelling that emphasizes dreams and metaphors. These three modes of grieving in Obasan suggest that there is no ‘right’ or authoritative way to express bereavement. Instead, each method is challenged by the novel and is shown to be limited in its capacity to ‘heal’ or fully ‘recover’ individuals who experience trauma. I suggest that Obasan embodies Poole and Ward’s conception of Mad grief 1, which rejects neoliberalist progress narratives of healing, de-centers binaries of normal and abnormal, and insists on allowing grieving individuals to “teach, write about, and story their pain without clinical assessment” (98, 102). The novel’s representation of Mad grief and its refusal of resolving trauma dissuades the interpretation that Obasan is meant to alleviate national guilt or symbolize a reconciliation; rather, the novel suggests the necessity of an intersectional model of trauma that considers “a wider analysis of social and structural relations of power in mental health” (Morrow 325).
Poole and Ward describe normative conceptions of how people should grieve in the face of loss, bereavement, or trauma as “good grief” (95). They posit that good grief is “gendered, staged, linear, white, and bound by privilege and reason…[it] is productive…[it] is graceful and always grateful for expert intervention. It is not angry or selfish. It never goes public” (95). Essentially, the traditional recovery narrative of trauma relies on neoliberalism, “which promotes individualistic understandings of complex social problems” (Morrow 327). For instance, biopsychiatry fails to acknowledge how “…psychiatry historically and contemporarily continues to pathologize women and racialized groups, and specifically how psychiatry has been used a form of social control to contain and constrain individuals who are seen to be disrupting the social order,” which is particularly relevant for racialized groups criticizing the state (325). Along similar lines, Poole and Ward critique the “popular mental health recovery model/movement/discourse” as being “dangerous, exclusive, classist, white, Western, and colonizing” (96). They reveal that the dominant grief theory “keep[s] the grievers out of the production of knowledge on and about grief” and instead forces clinical assessments and diagnoses of “prolonged grief disorder” onto grieving subjects (98-9). In response, they articulate Mad grief as an alternative grief theory that is based on individual’s lived experiences explored through testimony and storytelling (102). Poole and Ward define Mad grief as a “resistance practice that…[is not concerned with] how to progress, recover, and ‘get over’ pain and loss, but how to ‘get under’ it, feel it, and claim it as it comes” (95). Unlike traditional recovery models, Mad grief encourages grieving subjects to express their loss exactly how they experience it, without prescriptions or guidelines, which entails that grieving often will be disordered, selfish, and does not necessarily lead to resolution or ‘healing’ (95). In particular, Poole and Ward propose that an “anti-sanist 2, non- pathologizing approach to grief has story as its core,” but that a practice of Mad grief allows for “multiple approaches to pain” (100, 103). I propose that Obasan implicitly conveys the concept of Mad grief, because it reveals that there are alternative modes of expressing grief outside the normative linear recovery narrative of the “staged model” of grief (Poole and Ward 97). The novel presents Obasan, Aunt Emily, and Naomi as dealing with grief differently, without suggesting that any one method is the answer to erasing the multiple forms of trauma experienced personally and collectively.
Obasan challenges the traditional recovery model of trauma through her silence. Progress narratives of grief suggest that individuals may temporarily take on the “bereaved role,” that excludes them from some forms of work or social interaction, but obligates them to perform “grief work,” such as therapy or medication (Poole and Ward 99). Significantly, the bereaved role becomes pathologized as “prolonged grief disorder” when it continues beyond a set time frame, usually six months (98-9). In contrast, Obasan is arguably grieving for much of the time line of the novel through her silence: “The language of her [Obasan’s] grief is silence. She has learned it well, its idioms, its nuances. Over the years, silence within her small body has grown large and powerful” (Kogawa 14). Naomi does not present Obasan’s silence as a lack of engagement or a dismissal of trauma, but as a fluency and competency that she has learnt over years. Her silence originates with the deaths of her stillborn son and second child, who “Obasan refused to see or talk about” (18-19). By not speaking, Obasan articulates the depth of her bereavement by suggesting it is ineffable. Cathy Caruth notes that “in trauma, the greatest confrontation with reality may also occur as an absolute numbing to it […] trauma precludes its registration” (6). Rather than numbing herself to distress, Obasan attempts to mitigate the spread of traumatization by not speaking, and thus numbing her pain to others, suggesting her recognition of suffering without words. Obasan’s silence signifies her emotional distress, perhaps more so than vocalization ever could for her, which is why she “has not learned to weep,” since she does not need to cry to mourn (269). Silence is her form of engagement with grief, which is recognizable to Naomi, but perhaps less obvious through a framework of normative ‘good grief,’ which associates silence with disengagement.
Naomi describes Obasan’s silence as partially shielding her aunt from the racialized trauma she experiences and, as a result, silence also becomes a strategy for Obasan to resist participating in a discourse of national reconciliation. In Obasan’s “steadfast silence, she remains inviolate,” “impenetrable,” and “unavailable for questioning,” because her silence acts as a barrier to protect her from the “multi- cultural piper’s tune” and the “racist’s slur” (246, 248). For instance, Obasan does not respond to Mrs. Barker’s demeaning questions about whether she is able to care for herself or Mr. Barker’s comment that “[i]t was a terrible business what we did to our Japanese,” which highlights that Mr. Barker sees racialized Canadian citizens as property of the (white) Canadian government (246-7). Obasan does not respond, under the guise of being deaf, but her silence is more likely strategic (246-7). Naomi interprets Obasan’s silence as a means of resistance, since she refuses to acknowledge the Barkers’ attempt to displace their own complicity by feigning multicultural acceptance, while simultaneously instilling the same dichotomies that produce racialized, cultural, and political trauma. Similarly, Obasan does not act as a witnessing subject who expunges her traumatic experience to enable the perpetrators of trauma to alleviate themselves of guilt, which is symbolized in Naomi’s dream of the Grand Inquisitor (Oliver 85). In her dream, the Grand Inquisitor’s “demand to know was both a judgement and a refusal to hear,” suggesting that when privileged subjects ask the oppressed subjects whom they have traumatized to bear witness to their trauma, they are seeking to have their own narrative of history validated (Kogawa 250). Acknowledging that she will not truly be heard, Obasan speaks through her silence; in not speaking, Obasan articulates the depth of her bereavement by suggesting that her grief is “so thick that even the sound of mourning is swallowed up” (250, 246). Her silence vocalizes her refusal to confirm the Grand Inquisitor’s history of trauma, reconciliation, and a multicultural present. Obasan embodies a “silence that will not speak,” which consequently can never be resolved (i). Thus, Obasan grieves through the language of silence, thereby challenging both normative modes of grief and the ability to achieve national reconciliation through a performance of traumatic witnessing.
Although Obasan uses silence to defend herself, silence as a means of bereavement is still challenged in the text. Obasan consistently hides all unpleasant realities from Naomi, who in turn feels like she is raised in a “whirlpool of protective silence” (22). Consequently, Naomi describes “another danger, another darkness, soft and mysterious” that she fears, which consists of “whispers and frowns and too much gentleness,” since this behaviour always precedes another loss for her family that is masked by Obasan’s calm face (22,79). Obasan teaches Naomi to “always honour the wishes of others before [her] own […] by restraining emotion” (137-8). As a result, Naomi is unable to communicate with her aunt or others about traumatic events, such as the death of her father. When Naomi is questioned about her father, she becomes overwhelmed: “‘My father’s dead,’ I reply as calmly as if I were offering the time of day. But a few moments after I say it, I find myself collapsed on the sofa with a sharp pain in my abdomen and a cold perspiration forming on my forehead” (231). Obasan’s secrecy causes Naomi additional emotional duress, because in attempting to hide cruel realities from her as a child Obasan deprives Naomi of the opportunity to grieve in her own way, which causes the “memories of the dead” to remain unburied in her mind (26). Obasan’s silent grieving ironically exemplifies that Mad grief is selfish and potentially destructive (Poole and Ward 95), because while her silence is motivated by the belief that not speaking can prevent others from suffering, it is precisely this silence that is the source of Naomi’s distress. More so than Obasan, Naomi’s relationship with her mother is strained by silence. Naomi claims that she and her mother are “lost together in [their] silences” and that their “wordlessness was [their] mutual destruction” (267). Ironically, Naomi’s mother “specifically requested that Stephen and [Naomi] be spared the truth,” out of her love for them and desire to protect them, but it is precisely this silence that causes Naomi to “doubt her [mother’s] love” (259, 250). Naomi primarily represses her feelings of betrayal and abandonment, with a few subtle exceptions: “In what market- place of the universe are the bargains made that have traded my need for my great- grandmother’s?” (72). Her mother’s silence consecrates this abandonment, which parallels the Canadian government’s desertion of its citizens: “We come from the country that plucks its people out like weeds and flings them into the roadside” (248). The damaging effects of silence on Naomi and her mother’s relationship parallels Naomi’s wounded relationship with her nation-state that treated her as disposable. Therefore, Obasan does not present silence as an idealized ‘good grief,’ rather the text demonstrates that silence is productive for Obasan and Naomi’s mother, while simultaneously recognizing that the process of grieving can still be imperfect, selfish, and damaging for others (Poole and Ward 95).
In juxtaposition to Obasan, Aunt Emily insists that “[r]econciliation can’t begin without mutual recognition of facts” (201). Her mode of grieving is dependent on a shared diegesis or historical narrative that recognizes trauma. Aunt Emily’s life is dedicated to political engagement and creating an archive of facts—a “heap of words”—of the trauma she and her family experienced (201). Unlike Obasan, Aunt Emily’s means of defense is textual evidence and the “power of print” (38). She attempts to remobilize the tactics of language, which the Canadian government uses to “disguise any crime,” to bring attention to racialized and political trauma (36). However, to rewrite history Aunt Emily has to constantly revisit history, and, as a result, “the injustice done to [her] in the past [is] still a live issue” (35). She is unwilling to forget or progress past trauma, which has unified her experience of time by marking her experiences irrevocably: “The past is the future…You are your history” (45, 54). Contrary to Obasan, who claims “[i]t is better to forget,” Aunt Emily’s approach to grieving requires her to learn as many facts as she can and “[r]emember everything,” even though it causes her to realize “how much [she] still hurt,” because the objective of her method of grieving is not “contentment,” but a rewriting of history (48, 54, 34, 45). For Aunt Emily, if one does not bear witness and “Scream!” and “Cry… out!” her or his emotional response to trauma, then he or she is in denial (54). By refusing to forget, Aunt Emily disallows the government to erase or rewrite its crimes, which effectively inverts the normative progress narrative of healing. She denies that reconciliation comes from ‘getting over’ trauma by insisting that national forgiveness can only be found from returning to and reliving the sites of trauma.
Like silence, however, Aunt Emily’s mode of responding to trauma through archives is troubled by Naomi. Aunt Emily’s revisiting of history mainly responds to the collective political trauma caused “when the very powers that we are convinced will protect us and give us security become our tormentors: [and] when the community of which we considered ourselves members turns against us” (Edkins 4). Consequently, Aunt Emily imitates the systems of power that disenfranchised herself and her family by creating her own counter-archive with her diary and “her billions of letters and articles and speeches,” (Kogawa 44) in order to justify their authenticity as legitimate citizens: “Wherever the words ‘Japanese race’ appeared, Aunt Emily had crossed them out and written ‘Canadian citizen’” (34). She attempts to retroactively combat racialized violence and trauma by emphasizing their Canadian citizenship, and thus refusing to be seen as an Other: “Everything a Canadian does is Canadian” (61). As Edkins points out, “the only words” available to the victims of political trauma are “the words of the very political community that is the source of their suffering,” which is simultaneously why Obasan refuses to speak, and Aunt Emily insists on speaking (8). Aunt Emily embodies “the [paradoxical] desire to be seen and to be recognized” by the perpetrators of oppression to confirm “her own self-worth” as a legitimate and accepted Canadian citizen (Oliver 149). Thus, there is a tension in the novel surrounding whether Aunt Emily’s archive will create political change, or as Naomi claims, her “academic talk just immobilizes the oppressed and maintains oppressors in their positions of power” (37). The novel fails to address this tension with any definitive answers. Naomi raises the concern that a re-writing of history or a political redress will rely on the same systems of power that enabled racist persecution and could produce it again: “What is done, Aunt Emily, is done, is it not? And no doubt it will all happen again, over and over with different faces and names, variations on the same theme” (219). She reveals that the limitation of Aunt Emily’s focus on revisiting trauma through archives is that it relies on the same systems of power that disenfranchised racialized Canadians and it diverts attention from the prevention of trauma through a broader intersectional analysis of oppression.
Another concern raised about Aunt Emily’s archive is that her obsession with “get[ting] the facts straight” suggests that history exists as a totality that can be fully accessed through investigation (201). In contrast, Naomi’s testimony, and the intertextuality of the novel itself, implies that history is composed of “[f]ragments of fragments…. [s]egments of stories,” with silences and absences that can never be filled (57). Most notably, the thousands of victims of internment camps in Canada or the Canadian citizens deported to Japan who suffered and died in the war cannot retroactively share their stories (203). Their voices will always be absent from history, even with Aunt Emily’s re-telling, as they are from Obasan, with the exception of Grandma Kato’s letters, which still contain silences: “At no point does Grandma Kato mention the injuries she herself must have sustained” (261-2). As a result, the novel suggests that the “investigation of the past will necessarily involve grappling with fragments – of texts, of memories, and of voices – which cannot be fully known or fully reconciled” (McDermott 142). Obasan self-reflectively undermines the possibility of Aunt Emily unearthing all historical facts and achieving reconciliation through a new archive, ultimately preventing the novel from doing so either. The novel “(re)construct[s] the national memory of traumatic events related to the treatment of Japanese Canadians,” while it simultaneously denounces the possibility of ever achieving a non-fragmented collective memory (146). It thereby remains unclear whether Aunt Emily’s project of reconciliation based on a “mutual recognition of facts” is possible and whether ‘healing’ after traumatic loss is achievable (Kogawa 201).
Naomi embodies a “bilingual” position between Obasan and Aunt Emily, because she understands both the language of silence and the power of text, but she also recognizes the limitations of both (Kogawa 51). Naomi is often depicted as the “silence that cannot speak,” (i) though she eventually finds a conduit for speech through storytelling. Her silence, both as in childhood and adulthood, differs from Obasan’s silence, because it is not a choice, but an inability: “I am aware that I cannot speak” (9). As a child, she turns to silence, as Obasan does, as a means of protection, but it fails her: “I [Naomi] do not respond. If I am still, I will be safe” (67). Naomi’s silence ultimately harms her when she never informs anyone of Old Man Gower’s repeated sexual assaults, or when these events reoccur “[o]ver and over again” in her life, and she is consequently unable to receive support or protection (65, 69). McDermott argues that “[s]hame works in the novel to render certain events unspeakable” for Naomi, and, as a result, there is a distinction between Obasan’s silence and Naomi being silenced by shame and fear (143). Unlike Obasan’s “powerful” decisive silence, Naomi’s “[s]peech hides…watchful and afraid” (14, 62). The sexual trauma she endures makes her afraid to ‘confess’ what she finds shameful; as a result, she must deny these events occurred in order to preserve her self-security: “If I [Naomi] speak, I will split open and spill out. To be whole and safe I must hide in the foliage” (68). Naomi’s silence is a more appropriately considered a silencing,because her inability to speak is motivated by fear and shame, and silence does not allow her to grieve or empower her in the same manner as Obasan.
Naomi’s experience of trauma does not “bear remembering” and her “body will not tell” of her ordeal, so unlike Aunt Emily, she will not archive or relive her history (54, 217). Her inability to re-visit or re-write her past memories that are too painful reveals that some traumas are unspeakable, and consequently, unresolvable. Naomi also points out that her memories, even as a first hand witness, are insufficient to re- write history: “Aunt Emily, are you a surgeon cutting at my scalp with your folders and your filing cards and your insistence on knowing all? The memory drains down the sides of my face, but it isn’t enough, is it?” (214). Naomi recognizes that she cannot fully bear witness to her experiences of trauma, which supports Oliver’s claim that “what makes testimony powerful is its dramatization of the impossibility of testifying to the event” (86). Unlike Aunt Emily, Naomi avoids speaking in terms of facts and historical accuracy, because neither encompass her experience, and she can never catalogue the entirety of what she has endured and forgotten, both intentionally and unintentionally: “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” (Kogawa 214). Naomi rejects archiving her past because it forces her to engage with traumatic occurrences she is unable or unwilling to revisit. Moreover, Naomi’s rejection of facts suggests that archives are insufficient tools to catalogue actual lived experience, hence why she chooses to grieve through dreams and metaphors instead.
Naomi grieves through storytelling, which mobilizes the same “power of print” as Aunt Emily’s archive, but in an alternative discursive space that allows her to abandon facts in favour of metaphors and dreams that more accurately represent her experiences of trauma, since her own personal history is “murky, shadowy and grey” (38, 32). The narrative flow of the novel is broken up with fragmented dreams that analogously interrupt the story just as they have interjected into Naomi’s life. For instance, Naomi has a reoccurring dream of “beautiful oriental women” who attempt to use seduction and desire to save themselves from soldiers, which originally appear to be guarding the women, but ultimately brutally murder them (66). This dream simultaneously embodies Naomi’s experiences of racialized sexual violence, as well as her feelings of disenfranchisement as an authentic Canadian citizen by state authorized violence (42-43): “Be good, my undesirable, my illegitimate children, be obedient, be servile, above all don’t send me any letters of enquiry about your homes, while I stand on guard (over your property) in the true north strong, though you are not free” (39). Naomi’s dreams emphasize how the Canadian government betrayed its own citizens, while simultaneously demanding loyalty and obedience. Furthermore, the repetition of her violent dream mimics the sexual harassment that Naomi experiences “[o]ver and over again” (69). This reoccurring dream merges the racialized, sexual, childhood, and political trauma that she experiences into one “complex puzzle,” emphasizing that these traumas are connected (26). Naomi will never be physically reunited with her mother, and, as result, in her narrative reconstruction of her past she tries to hear her mother “speak through dream[s],” in order to allow her to grapple with her feelings of childhood abandonment, which parallel the political trauma she experiences (251). For instance, Naomi’s reoccurring memory of “a white hen [who] pecked yellow chicks to death, to death in [her] backyard,” suggests both the familial and racialized state violence of her childhood (165). By expressing her trauma in terms of a story, Naomi is able to incorporate her dreams and use metaphor to effectively illuminate how trauma and oppression can intersect and compound “[l]ike threads of old spider webs” into a knot of fear and emotion that cannot be easily dissected into facts (26). Naomi does not experience the multiple traumas of her life as disparate or factual and storytelling allows her to express her lived experiences of trauma in a manner that is truer to that complex experience. As a result, Naomi’s storytelling resists ‘good grief,’ which oversimplifies traumatic experiences without considering how oppressions can intersect.
Cook claims that the “power of memory…[enables] Naomi to achieve the vision of wholeness and integration that she does in the closing chapter” (55). However, while Naomi turns to dreams in the story as a surrogate for her mother’s voice, they remain an imperfect solution because “[d]ead hands can no longer touch our outstretched hands or move to heal” (Kogawa 269). Although storytelling proves a useful outlet for Naomi to embody her experiences of trauma in a less prescriptive medium, the novel cannot fully mend the relationship between Naomi and her mother that was damaged through silence: “I [Naomi] apply a thick bandage but nothing can soak up the seepage. I beg that the woundedness may be healed and that the limbs may learn to dance. But you stay in a black and white photograph, smiling your yasashi smile” (267). This conclusion suggests that grieving will not ‘fix’ Naomi and her mother’s relationship—the wounds of abandonment and betrayal will never be completely healed. Analogously, the novel reveals that the scars of political and cultural trauma have not been erased by the government’s redress movement. The metaphor of the “double wound” serves to symbolize Aunt Emily’s claim that “[w]hat this country did to us, it did to itself” because “[w]e are the country” (35, 44). Naomi has no alternative to being Canadian, or being her mother’s daughter; thus, she cannot simply discard her nationality or heritage, despite the fact that her government and her mother abandoned her: “This is my own, my native land…The answer cannot be changed. Yes. It is. For better or worse, I am Canadian” (42-43, emphasis original). Naomi is isolated from her own identity as a Canadian citizen and daughter and this dissociation is in itself a source of pain and trauma. Moreover, in present time Naomi still experiences racialized treatment from her white students and potential suitors, showing that racialized trauma is not a segment of her past, but an ongoing experience (6-7). Naomi’s relationship with her mother and her country, both of which betray her in different respects, remain problematic at the end of the novel, illuminating that these traumas are potentially unresolvable. The story begins and ends with Naomi walking through the coulee in Granton, which gives the novel aesthetic closure and also emphasizes that Naomi remains where she started, no closer to ‘healing’ in the traditional sense (1, 271). The novel does not present grieving through storytelling as an ideal alternative to Obasan’s silence or Aunt Emily’s archive, but it remains Naomi’s method of grieving, highlighting the limitations of the traditional recovery approach to grief and trauma.
Obasan refuses the reader any comfort with the traditional recovery narrative of trauma and grief that pathologizes subjects who are not able to ‘heal’ or progress past experiences of trauma by claiming that these individuals are ignoring or refusing to acknowledge their grief. In contrast, the novel demonstrates that individuals can engage in active strategies of grieving, even if they do not lead to resolutions. None of the presented modes of grieving—silence, archives, and storytelling—are ideal or collective, which is why the novel self-reflectively critiques all three, while simultaneously demonstrating their usefulness to specific characters. As a result, I posit that Obasan embodies Mad grief, which focuses on individual expressions of grieving without considering grand narratives of linear recovery models. It is important to note that Obasan does not offer any resolutions, for the characters or for Canada, by suggesting that both racialized trauma and grief continue beyond the confines of the novel. Obasan does not present a ‘quick fix’ solution on a national scale to promote forgiveness; rather, the characters seem to actively resist participating in a discourse of national reconciliation. Obasan critiques the idea that there is ever an end or ‘getting over’ of trauma and grief caused by the racialized violence of the Canadian government, which problematizes our modern day idealization of Canada as a multicultural haven. Contrary to the traditional recovery model, psychiatric survivors have advocated for an alternative conception of recovery that “disrupt[s] biomedical dominance in favour of social and structural understandings of mental distress” (Morrow 323). Under this model, our attention is directed not towards whether or not individuals such as Obasan, Aunt Emily, or Naomi ‘recover’ or ‘heal’ through “a personal journey” in order to symbolically alleviate national guilt, but how systemic issues of sexism, racism, and sanism led to the traumatic events that they experienced, as well as how these same systems of oppression continue today (325). Only by recognizing that the atrocities committed by the Canadian government are unforgiveable can real conceptual change take place that fundamentally challenges racist state-sanctioned violence and de-pathologize individuals whoexperience the resulting trauma.
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- The capitalization of Mad is purposive and denotes my affiliations with Mad Studies, where the previously pejorative label of “mad” has been reclaimed as a positive alternative to the clinical diagnosis of mental illness, similar to the reclaiming of queer in the LGBTQ2 community. Mad Studies is a burgeoning field that has developed out of anti-psychiatric grassroots movements from the 1970’s, Foucauldian discourse analysis, disability studies, and poststructuralist feminism. ↩
- Sanism is a belief system that makes it acceptable to judge, discriminate, reject, silence, or commit violence against those labelled or perceived to have a mental illness. ↩