On the eve of the American Civil War, future president Lincoln declared, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." The principle applies equally to the house of the mind as to the house of the nation. To be torn asunder between two conflicting obligations, desires, or essentialities is to be thrust into a tempest of instability, both in control of and hopelessly subject to the powerful draw of incompatible paths. To surmount the rift, the individual must craft a bridge of reflection and understanding that may somehow unify the two calls of the heart to the best solution. Sometimes, this solution encompasses neither option exclusive of the other, but honors both.

In Joy Kogawa's poignant novel Obasan, the protagonist Naomi is impossibly drawn between a duty to silence, hiding her pain to honor her cultural heritage, and a desperate need to speak and to hear, to ask and answer the questions that have haunted her since youth. Her conflict forms a microcosm for the divided mind of the Nisei as a whole, and her solution of honoring the silence that speaks love while abandoning the silence that speaks grief offers a hope of rejoining the shattered Japanese-Canadian community.

Duty to despair - The Draw of Silence

Naomi's identity, formed in the nation of Canada yet grounded in the culture of the Japanese, obligates her to a painful, grief-stricken silence about the horror of internment that yet protects her from far worse agony. She sees no way of surrendering the cloak of silence without abandoning her heritage and exposing herself to hopeless, unbearable despair. The key to her existence, to her identity within her culture, is a steadfast, elemental silence. "There is a silence that cannot speak. There is a silence that will not speak" (1). More than merely a choice, it is a defining base upon which she has built her life. The culture in which she exists honors silence as the best solution to pain.

No one better represents the power of silence than Obasan, a traditional Japanese woman in every way. "The language of her grief is silence. She has learned it well, its idioms, its nuances" (17). To turn from this silence and withdrawal into unbreakable stone would be to invalidate the world from which Obasan sprang and Naomi sheltered within for protection. Imagining herself without silence is impossible, unthinkable.

Even in the absence of the ever-growing tragedy of the internment campaign, silence was native to Naomi. Aunt Emily recalls that, "You never spoke. You never smiled" (68). Her response to sexual abuse at the hands of Old Man Gower is silence. Her reply to the invective of the racist internment process is silence. Always, at all times, she retreats to silence to protect herself. "If I speak, I will split open and spill out" (76).

Yet there is no peace within silence, it is merely a gentler sort of agony flowing through her whole body. It traps her in a darkened stasis, leaving the woman as hurt and confused as the child. "After a while, the stillness is so much with me that it takes the form of a shadow which grows and surrounds me" (78). The childhood sexual abuse and suffering have left an open, writhing wound within her, but one she must hide. The unseen wound cannot heal, all that may soothe it is further silence. With the death of her uncle, the inadequacy of silence for relieving her grief grows unbearably palpable. "I hate the stillness. I hate the stone. I hate the sealed vault with its cold icon" (1). Her silence is a curse and a burden, but to abandon the silence is to abandon Obasan for an abyss of lost identity and pain.

I have no mouth... - The Draw of Voice

Bringing to bear the pain of suffering, acting upon insatiable needs to know about her mother's death and to release the anger, bitterness, and despair of the internment years through speech, is a desire that deeply grips Naomi, but one she feels will lead nowhere. Her Aunt Emily is the principle advocate of speech. In fact, the words she seeks are powerful, enraged words railing against the injustice committed against the Japanese-Canadians. "We're gluing out tongues back on," she declares, "it takes a while for the nerves to grow back" (43).

The time for shock and grief is over for Aunt Emily; now is the time for words and for action. Naomi sympathizes. "I am tired of living between deaths and funerals, weighted with decorum, unable to shout or sing or dance... unable to breathe out loud" (218). She wants an end to silence and meekness, the cultural stoicism that smothers her with the pain she must bear.

More than just her pain, she has so many questions to ask, foremost those about her mother. She can never be satisfied and move on with life until she knows why her mother never returned. But "no one answers me and I know it is not a time for talking" (207). It is never a time for talking. Yet even were the pull of silence not so fierce, strong doubts hold Naomi back from the path of voice. Some pains are too vicious, assault her body and her mind too fiercely to risk giving them the power of speech as well. "I cannot tell about this time, Aunt Emily. The body will not tell" (235).

Even were it possible to release every experience of suffering and grief, Naomi doesn't see how any good could come of the effort. To her, it would be nothing more than screaming into an empty night sky. Symbolically, a kitten from Naomi's childhood, "cries day after day, not quite dead, unable to climb out and trapped in the outhouse" (188). The memory of that kitten haunts Naomi, for what could be worse than dragging her pain to the surface only to be drowned out by the emptiness that surrounds her, with no one to listen, no one to care? "Are you thinking that through lobbying and legislation, speechmaking and storytelling, we can extricate ourselves from our foolish ways?" (238). Though she aches with all her being to break free of the stone of silence, to question and to scream, she cannot bring herself to trust that anyone will answer.

Still resonance - Reconciling Silence and Voice

To end the strain of being pulled between silence and voice, Naomi realizes that she can embrace that silence which expresses deep love, the silence of her mother and Obasan that protected the children, while putting aside the silence that holds grief in favor of a strong voice against suffering. In the process, she outlines a path for the Nisei community as a whole. The division between silence and voice appears insurmountable. "One lives in sound, the other in stone. Obasan's language remains deeply underground but Aunt Emily, BA, MA, is a word warrior" (39). The rift represents a cultural clash, a battle between 'Japanese' and 'Canadian'.

But instead of despairing in dualism, Naomi learns to see the best of both approaches and integrate them together. She can recognize the damage of silence while also treasuring its power of communication, a power available to the entire Japanese-Canadian community. "We are the silences that speak from stone" (132). The Nisei's silence is a base of strength, a powerful protest against injustice without petulance or dramatization.

Naomi can embrace the deep love of her mother by listening to the silence speaking to both her and the nation of Canada. "Your mother is speaking. Listen carefully to her voice" (279). "Mother, I am listening. Assist me to hear you" (288). She is also able to put aside the destructive elements of silence, recognizing a new aspect of her Japanese-Canadian heritage that deserves equal respect. "We come from our untold tales that wait for their telling" (271). By telling the tale, through silence and through voice, Naomi and the Nisei community can overcome their grief and care their culture forward into a more hopeful future.

Naomi, governed by conflicting obligations to silence and to voice, spends the novel Obasan caught in a limbo of cultural heritage, deep grief, and an insatiable need for knowledge. By breaking out of unstable ground by treasuring the silence that speaks of love and heritage while ending the silence of grief, she also expresses the dawning ability of the Nisei to tell their story. Following the publishing of Obasan, Kogawa led a campaign for an apology from the Canadian government for the internment atrocity. Her powerful vision, summoning a path out of despair for a community both Japanese and Canadian, and neither Japanese nor Canadian, finally led to a full program of reconciliation that raised that issue of internment into the awareness of the entire nation. One may hope that the Japanese-Canadians, or any culture in the world, will never have to make such a journey again.

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