'A Human Pyramid': An (Un)Balancing Act of Ancestry and History in Joy Kogawa's Obasan and Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family

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Author: Sonia Snelling
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Date: 2000
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,786 words

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[(essay date 1997) In the following essay, Snelling discusses how the search for an ancestral past in Kogawa's Obasan and Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family relate to the process of making history.]

The significance of a traceable ancestral line in Western culture is an expression of the continuity and purity which is perceived as integral to the structure of European history. The disruption of this seamless line of descent in Joy Kogawa's and Michael Ondaatje's search for absent or lost parents in Obasan and Running in the Family becomes a challenge to the authority and universality of Western historicism. Through this device both writers unsettle not only the received history of their colonial past, as told by the imperial masters, but also the narrative structures and forms through which history enforces and validates Europe's appropriation of the rest of the world. Robert Young1 discusses how Western discourses of metaphysics and history work in parallel to other the colonial subject, assuming a universal narrative of progression from the primitive to the civilized, as defined by Europe. Within this context, Young asserts, imperial expansion found its justification. Drawing on the insights of post-structuralism and the work of theorists such as Michel Foucault and Edward Said discontinuity and plurality in historiographic enterprises have been utilized by many postcolonial writers as means of disassembling and interrogating the assumptions and impositions of humanism and history. Kogawa's and Ondaatje's experience of the West's discursive dominance has led them to employ similar tactics and produce texts which tell their histories through multiple perspectives and voices, with self-conscious omissions and incongruities and with an open awareness of their own limitations. Their quests for absent parents examine the irony of a European imperialism, legitimized by the universalization of its values of development and continuity, which, in its enactment, creates rifts, severs links and alienates peoples from their past. The inaccessibility of Naomi's mother in Obasan and of Ondaatje's father in Running in the Family also emphasizes the elusiveness of a knowable past, the inadequacy of totalizing narratives and the impossibility of closure. In both works the search for an ancestral past develops into an interrogation of the whole process of history-making.

Joy Kogawa's Obasan traces the lives of three generations of Japanese-Canadians during and after the Second World War. Their history is narrated by Naomi Nakane, but the narrative position shifts repeatedly throughout the novel, not only between Naomi, the adult schoolteacher in 1972, and Naomi, the child during the war, but also between the personal and the passages of reported history: the journals, letters and documents that Naomi reads as she recalls the legalized alienation and persecution of the Japanese-Canadians throughout World War II and its aftermath. Ondaatje, too, records the lives of parents and grandparents in Running in the Family. Yet, here again, the narrative voice is not fixed with Ondaatje as stories and comments from friends and family punctuate his narrative. The plurality of narrative positions which both texts employ signals both the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100032465