The issue of racial conflict has caused great controversy for many centuries. Conflict which is incited by racism is often thought to be the worst of all conflicts because it is unfounded and based on utterly false beliefs. In society today, there are many racist people who put down and almost ostracize the people of another community. In Joy Kogawa’s novel, Obasan, the issue of racism is discussed through the various letters kept by Obasan which in turn provides a first-hand look at was done to Naomi’s family. In Obasan, there are many instances where the Joy Kogawa uses images of animals, such as insects, kittens and especially chickens to support a general theme of dehumanization. Also these animals always seem to correspond to human beings, whether they are generalized groups or individual characters. In other words, it is very apparent to see the foreshadowing of the story and also the close connection between the animals in the story and the human condition of the story, through the use of these vivid images of the animals.
At the very beginning of the novel, when Obasan and Naomi are rummaging through the attic and getting reminded about all of the memories, they come across a family of spiders. These spiders are described as being “round black blots, large as a cat’s eye” (24) and in a sense, disgusting enough to send shivers down any persons’ spine. This description of the black and creepy spiders is a foreshadowing of all of the memories that Obasan and Naomi have, as the memories and the plot itself is quite dark and horrific. There are many “large and black” memories that Naomi has such as the death of her mother and the incident in Old Man Gower’s bathroom.
However, it is possible to assume that the blackest memories are the ones that deal with the racism towards the Japanese community. For example, it seems that everyone who has ever had an effect on Naomi, good or bad, has deserted her with time. Also, on the way to school, Naomi and Stephen are taunted and teased by the other school kids. Most importantly, the very way that the Canadian Government mistreated the Japanese community, sending them to concentration camps, putting them on trains and forcing them to live in tiny huts, is a cruel memory. This memory a will probably stay with Naomi for the rest of her life much like the ancient spiders in the attic.
The part of the novel with the kitten trapped underneath the outhouse in another, quite disgusting look at the issue of racism. The thing that is so shocking about this part is that the white-haired girl blames Naomi for something that Naomi obviously did not do, throwing a kitten down in the outhouse. What is even more shocking is that the girl, the owner of the kitten does not go down and get her kitten, but instead leaves the kitten there to eventually die. The girl can represent the white Canadian and the kitten can be seen as a Japanese Canadian living in that society.
The kitten is stuck in the outhouse, which can represent Canada. While it is down there, “no one is nearby…no one comes to help” (172) even though the cat makes “a faint steady mewing” (172). Since there is no one around the kitten will eventually be forgotten about. In other words, the Canadian government tries to get rid of the Japanese community by sending them to concentration camps where, despite all of the arguments and letters sent by Aunt Emily to be heard (the mewing), the Japanese community will probably be forgotten about as there is no one around.
Another example of this animal imagery is when Naomi is standing alone in the backyard next to the cage of the white hen, she places one by one little yellow chicks in the cage with the hen. Suddenly and “without warning, the hen jabs down on the [chicks]” (62) consistently. Through the use of this animal imagery, the issue of racism is clearly apparent. For example, the hen can be seen as the white people living in “the cage” or Canada. Slowly, the Japanese people, in this case the yellow chicks, immigrate into the cage. Without doing anything wrong or anything that would anger the hen, or white people, the hen comes down and starts pecking at the chicks.
In this part, it is possible to assume that the sole reason that the hen comes down on the chicks is that the yellow chicks have appearances different than the white hen. Also, there is a great deal of foreshadowing in this little part of the novel as the Canadian people will soon start ostracising the Japanese Canadian community with no warning at all. Not only will they ostracise the community, the Canadians, although they do not kill the Japanese like the hen did to the chicks, but the racism is so strong that they will send the Japanese on concentration camps away from all urban areas and even treat them like animals forcing them into little tool shed houses covered with cow manure for a roof.
Another example of the chicken imagery is in the school yard where a bunch of Japanese schoolboys are killing a white chicken. This imagery of the chicken suffering is one of the better examples of racism in the novel. This killing of the chicken can symbolise the anger that the Japanese community have against the white Canadians after the way that they have been treated. This hatred and anger is in fact so strong that it is not good enough to just kill the chicken, but they “got to make it suffer” (169). This is kind of ironic as well, because the chicken can be seen as the Japanese community and the schoolboys can be seen as the white Canadians. The Canadians in the novel continuously make the Japanese people “suffer” instead of killing them instantly as killing them or deporting them would affect the Canadian image. It is for this reason that the Canadians decide to torment the Japanese and try to cover everything up.
In conclusion, Obasan, by Joy Kogawa deals with the issue of racism in a very efficient way by using unique images of animals to not only represent human beings in society, but also to help support the theme of this dehumanization. Racism in society is extremely awful as it is based on utterly false beliefs. In the novel, for example, all Japanese were considered to be evil people even though the Japanese living in Canada did hardly anything to the Canadians. Individuals of a certain community are being ostracized by other people for being of a certain race. Obasan, teaches us that we should not consider a certain community to be evil, but embrace the differences in society. In other words, Hitler was a fanatical German, however not all Germans are fanatical.
Courtney from Study Moose
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