Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan is filled with symbolic imagery, which is used to denote the idea of how difficult it is to balance two completely different cultures, especially in the harsh times of war, and questions the notion of remembering, urging the reader to think very hard whether it is better to remember or simply to forget, when the memory is too painful. Through the usage of the following symbols, Kogawa urges her readers never to forget their past, no matter how painful and difficult the memory may be, because without the past there would be no present as it is today.
Numerous symbols in the narrative represent different aspects of the characters themselves. Consequently, Obasan’s house is a portrayal of Obasan herself. Her body is like the house, old and worn out, but still standing, despite all the odds. In addition, the house is a storage place for a collection of what may appear to be useless objects, the proper place of which would be the junkyard, but Obasan would not dream of parting with them. This is because every single one of those objects has a specific purpose in her mind: it serves as a memory. In this sense, the house represents the character, Obasan, while the inner objects filling the space symbolize memories that the character refuses to forget, because she holds them too dear, despite the fact that they may seem useless and may cause her pain.
Connected with Obasan’s house is the image of spiders in the attic, which stand as a symbol of memory. Like memories, spiders dwell beneath the surface of things, tucked in dust and forgetfulness, but once someone disturbs them, they start scurrying around, just like memories starts to flow. Thus, like her memories, Naomi fears the spiders, but simultaneously, feels a sort of attraction to them, wanting to know more.
One of the most important symbols of family in the novel is Naomi’s portrayal of them as a quilted blanket, which is comprised of different patches of material, put together in a wonderful, properly functional unity. Naomi believes that once, when they were all together, their family unity was a wonderful feeling, but now, after all this time and missing relatives, when war and difficult times have separated them, the quilted blanket is no longer whole, as they are no longer a family unity. In addition to the quilted blanket, music also serves as a potent symbol of their family’s togetherness, as Stephen plays the record to remember his mother, while he and his father play the flute together, during good times. Thus, music accompanies them in times of love and unity, while there is nothing but silence in times of hardship. Keeping silent is also symbolic of the characters’ need to protect themselves, erroneously thinking that if they do not talk about a painful topic, they will be spared the pain. However, the novel proves that this is not possible. Aunt Emily herself fights against silence, knowing that it can bring no good to her family, her petitions and her diary represent her need to voice herself about all the horrible things that have befallen herself, her family and her nation. She refuses to comply with the rest, she speaks against what she believes is wrong and the fact that she alone was able to eat the hard bread her husband made, proves that she is a strong, authoritative woman who will fight for what she thinks is right.
Consequently, Kogawa’s novel delves deeply into painful memories of her characters, urging them not to forget, no matter how difficult and excruciatingly painful the memory is, because it is our family who makes us who we are, and we must never forget those who gave their lives for ours.
Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. New York: Anchor Books, 1994. Print.