Reading the Nonverbal: The Indices of Space, Time, Tactility and Taciturnity in Joy Kogawa's "Obasan."(Critical Essay)

By Grice, Helena | MELUS, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Reading the Nonverbal: The Indices of Space, Time, Tactility and Taciturnity in Joy Kogawa's "Obasan."(Critical Essay)


Grice, Helena, MELUS


In Obasan, as the popular adage goes, silence speaks, and often louder than words. But, in the words of Obasan's protagonist, Naomi Nakane, how to "attend that speech" (289)? Much critical attention has been accorded to Obasan, and a lot of it has focused upon the strangely silent nature of the text.(1) However, as King-Kok Cheung has shown, this critical energy has, by and large, reproduced an anglicizing tendency to read the silence of the text--and characters--of Obasan in relation to a paradigmatic dichotomy of speech and silence, whereby speech is valorized as self-assertion and silence regarded as a negative absence.(2) Furthermore, critical analyses of the taciturnity of Obasan, although offering sometimes useful discussions of the role of silence, have failed to pay adequate attention to the many other aspects of nonverbal communication which speak in the text. In this essay, I do not wish to add to the silence/vocalization readings of Obasan, which have been executed well elsewhere. Rather, here I want to attend a different kind of speech in the text, namely those other forms of nonverbal communication hitherto ignored in critical exegeses.

In his innovative study, Literature's Silent Language: Nonverbal Communication, Stephen R. Portch applies a multidisciplinary theoretical approach to nonverbal communication to readings of several well-known fictional texts. Portch identifies nine different categories of nonverbal communication. According to his categorisation, these include: physical appearance and body clues (often read together), emblems (intentional, explicit gestures, which stand in for the verbal message, like a shake of the head), illustrators (which accompany the verbal message, like hand-waving), regulators (raised eyebrows or averted eyes, which may also replace the verbal message), vocal tones (within a verbal message), touch (with or without an accompanying verbal statement), space and time. In literary textual terms, emblems, illustrators and regulators all tend to accompany speech, and we are well versed in reading this additional information, so that, for example, we could be told that a character exclaimed, raising their eyebrows, information which may help us to deduce surprise. As readers, we are adept at drawing conclusions from physical appearance, for example, reading a luxuriance of hair as an index of sexuality, or a florid complexion as an indicator of high living. These forms of nonverbal communication function in a predominantly supplementary way-within the text. Far more novel, however, is the study of touch, space and time as nonverbal intercourses in literature. Furthermore, these codes of nonverbal communication offer broader scope than Portch's other categories for interpretation. These forms of communication may constitute a useful lexicon of analysis when applied to Obasan, a text whose quietude, although widely recognised, constantly defies and cannot be explained by the language of nonverbally-blind critical approaches.(3) Moreover, the nonverbal repertoire of Obasan may provide more fruitful ground for exploration than the better-trodden terrain of its enunciative facets.

Naomi Nakane, the narrator of Obasan, is highly attentive to the non-verbal lexicons of touch, space and time. In the sequel to Obasan, Itsuka, Naomi is described as "N. Watcher Nakane" by her aunt because of her tendency to watch the actions of others closely (9).(4) And she tells us early on in the text: "Beneath the grass the speaking dreams and beneath the dreams is a sensate sea" (preface). Naomi learns how to read speech as throughout the novel she demonstrates her ability to read nonverbal communication. The dominance of nonverbal information in the text is a result of the interiority of Naomi's narration, as she slides back and forth through time, her memories governed by sensory perceptions and hers and others' speech often only reported. Naomi inhabits a semi-dreamworld, a "telepathic world" where tactility, nuance, tonality, as well as spatial and olfactory awareness provide the main indices of communication and information (35). …

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Reading the Nonverbal: The Indices of Space, Time, Tactility and Taciturnity in Joy Kogawa's "Obasan."(Critical Essay)
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