Skip to content

Canadian Voices

Home » Joy Kogawa

Joy Kogawa

Joy Kogawa

Musings from a Writer’s Life

Date Recorded: Sep 23rd, 2006
Recorded At: Kootenay Book Weekend, Nelson, BC
Recorded By: Zoe Creighton, Canadian Voices
Duration: 0:57:15  

Topic Background

The Canadian Book Review Annual cites Joy Kogawa’s accomplishment in her award-winning first novel, Obasan, is that she “put human flesh on the familiar bones of one of the sorriest skeletons in Canada’s closet”. Obasan , published in 1981, is a memoir of Kogawa’s family’s forced relocation from the West Coast during World War II when she was six years old. The Japanese-Canadian family was herded into converted barns on the Pacific National Exhibition grounds in Vancouver, then sent by train to internment camps, first in the Slocan Valley in the British Columbia Interior, then in Coaldale, Alberta, where Joy graduated from high school.

The Globe and Mail explained Obasan’s power as “coming from the beauty of the writing, the stark imagery and vivid symbolism, and from the calm recitation of events that destroyed families, a culture, and a way of life.” The fictional memoir of Naomi Nakane, who recalls her early childhood in the Marpole area of Vancouver in 1942, has become a touchstone for the pain, drama and racism associated with the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II. Obasan has been named as one of the most important books in Canadian history by the Literary Review of Canada
By her own description, Joy Kogawa has spent a lifetime internalizing, understanding and relating the repercussions of racism and internment. Her response is perhaps best summed up in a line from Obasan. “What this country did to us, it did to itself.”

Kogawa’s 1992 novel Itsuka, follows up on the life of Obasan protagonist, and recounts the young woman’s gradual reconciliation with Canada against the backdrop of the Redress movement. This Movement in which Kogawa immersed herself for three years succeeded in Canada prior to the publication of Itsuka. The Redress Agreement was signed in Canada by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in September, 1988 after Ronald Reagan set a precedent by signing the Civil Liberties Act of August 4, 1988, allocating $20,000 per Japanese American who had been interned during World War II.

Kogawa has published numerous collections of poetry since 1967,and a children’s novel, Naomi’s Road, about the internment of a girl named Naomi and her brother Stephen, both separated from their parents during World War II. A revised and illustrated 2005 edition, renamed Emily Kato, based on an expanded version published in Japan, includes added historical information and new details on the fate of Naomi’s mother. A Vancouver Opera version of Naomi’s Road premiered in 2005.

Speaker Biography

Joy Kogawa was born in Vancouver, but currently lives primarily in Toronto while maintaining an apartment in Vancouver, to accommodate visits to her father. She has two children and has become a grandmother. In 1986. Kogawa was made a member of the Order of Canada, and in 2006, a member of the Order of British Columbia. She received an honorary doctorate from Simon Fraser University in 1993.

The Save Kogawa House committee initiated a campaign to save Joy Kogawa’s childhood home in the Marpole neighbourhood of Vancouver from demolition. They developed national support from writers and writing organizations across Canada demonstrating that the house was regarded by many as having historical value and literary significance. The Save Kogawa House committee made a successful presentation to the City of Vancouver councilors to create an unprecendented 120 day delay of the processing of a demolition permit for the house in November, 2005, two days after the City of Vancouver had pronouced Obasan Cherry Tree Day [1] and planted a graft of the cherry tree at Vancouver City Hall from the original cherry tree at Kogawa House.

The Land Conservancy of British Columbia became involved in the saving of Kogawa House in late 2005 and, working with the Save Kogawa House Committee, took over the fund-raising efforts and media attention. The Land Conservancy became the owners of the house on May, 2006, and continue to raise funds to renovate the house and establish a writers-in-residence program.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *