Joy Kogawa signing a book at the Festival of Faith and Writing.
EVERY BOOK I’ve written has changed me,” says poet and novelist Joy Kogawa. “The journey of the pen is a transforming one because when you use the pen as a pick axe to delve as deeply as you can, it will bring up the most amazing jewels, not only of memory but of insight and understanding, and it will transform you.”
A Canadian Anglican, Ms. Kogawa is best known for her first novel, Obasan, which tells, through the eyes of a child, the shameful story of the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Published in 1981, Obasan is considered by many to have been a catalyst for the eventual redress in 1988 of the wrongs done to Japanese Canadians.
“Betrayal is part of the human story,” she says. “We take a group of neighbors and demonize them. During the Second World War, we Japanese Canadians were the demonized people of the day. Our entire community was uprooted and relegated to the cesspool. The racism I imbibed as a child was profound. For years, I was proud to be `the only Jap in town.’ It was an invisible racism, my self-perception was of unworthiness, inferiority, ugliness. The watchword when I was growing up was assimilation. We were quite successful at getting lost.”
Ms. Kogawa, 63, says Obasan is “strongly autobiographical. Like Naomi, I became a person who would not speak, would not ask a question, did not expect to be heard.” Some of the silence reflected her Asian culture. “I have a great deal of respect for cultures of silence. My first language was silence; my second was speech. I understand the language of silence; yet I need a lot of communication.”
But while the story of Japanese-Canadian internment is heart-wrenching, Ms. Kogawa believes, “You can’t compare the events of the European Holocaust with what happened in North America.” She would, though, compare the Holocaust with the atomic bombings. Both spawned “the sense of hopelessness that flows from an evil that is unimaginable.
“We cannot see the atom, yet it unleashed such evil power. Is there a corollary to an unseen good that could be even more powerful than all that evil? It seems there is and it exists in our infinitesimal moral choices when we decide not to hurt somebody. We have a power of good, of love, of prayer that resides in us. We don’t recognize it and so we let it go.”
Itsuka, a sequel to Obasan, is dedicated in part to the Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto, and its Ad Hoc Committee for Japanese Canadian Redress. Naomi’s Road is an adaptation of Obasan for children. Ms. Kogawa has also written four books of poetry: The Splintered Moon, A Choice of Dreams, Jericho Road and A Woman in the Woods.
Her most recent novel, The Rain Ascends, is a tale of a woman who must face the fact that her father, a church minister who taught her that God is love and who she loves more than anyone in the world, is a pedophile.
“In the past, the church has identified with the clerics; now it identifies with the victims. Millicent’s point of view as the family member of the victimizer, is not commonly heard,” Ms. Kogawa says.
“Millicent wars within her being with the mystery of good and evil. She is `Hitler’s cat,’ born to be her father’s advocate. Millicent does not have to slay her love for her father. She has to destroy the fictions of her life. That is what it means to come out of denial. Then comes the truth that liberates.”
Born in Vancouver, Ms. Kogawa now lives in Toronto, where she has been active in St. Lawrence Works, a community development project.
Sue Careless, a Toronto freelance writer, interviewed Joy Kogawa during the Festival of Faith and Writing Conference at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, in April.