Paradise Revisited: Images of the First Woman in the Poetry of Joy Kogawa and the Fiction of Thomas King

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The article offers a comparative analysis of a poem by Joy Kogawa entitled A song of Lilith, and the chosen texts by Thomas King, namely his short-story "One good story, that one" and his novel Green grass, running water. Despite being rooted in their respective cultures, these two Canadian writers are interested in the Book of Genesis. Kogawa, of Japanese origin, and King, of Cherokee and Greek origin, rewrite the story of the first woman by deconstructing the images of femininity from Old and New Testaments. King's and Kogawa's interpretations communicate much about the authors' status within the Canadian mainstream.

The respective backgrounds of the two Canadian authors mentioned in the title of this article invite parallels, since Joy Kogawa (b. 1935) is a descendant of Japanese immigrants to Vancouver (Stevens 1997: 605), while Thomas King (b. 1943), of Cherokee and Greek origin, was raised in California (Murray 1997: 595). Apart from being connected with the West Coast of North America, both writers have published poetry and fiction in which they question and rewrite the biblical heritage of the white culture they embraced. The focus of this article is the revisionary reading of Genesis 1-3 in A song of Lilith by Kogawa and in two texts by King, namely, his short story "One good story, that one and his novel Green grass, running water. Interestingly, both Canadian writers focus on the first woman, whose identity must be retrieved from stereotypes. Kogawa's and King's concern with the story of creation makes them similar to scholars whom Clines terms "feminist visitors to the Garden of Eden" (1990: 25). The interest in the biblical metanarrative places the two writers within the mainstream of Anglophone Canadian tradition, next to the authors of different generations, to mention only Northrop Frye, Rudy Wiebe, Margaret Laurence, Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood, Aritha van Herk etc.

Published in the year 2000, A song of Lilith was termed "feminist Paradise Lost" by another Canadian writer, Daphne Marlatt. (1) The legend of Lilith is said to have come into being as an attempt to reconcile the two stories of creation in the Bible, namely the Priestly version in Gen. 1,1-2,4a, and the Yahwist version in Gen. 2,4b-3,24 (Adamiak 2006: 223). (2) Whether these two really clash, has been a moot point in biblical criticism. While Clines questions Trible's attempt to depatriarchalize Genesis (Clines 1990: 26-48), Bal argues against the androcentrism of the whole creation narrative, and sees the sexist comments on Eve as a result of "retrospective fallacy" (Bal 1985:319) that was first of all due to "Paul"'s biased interpretation in 1 Tim. 2:11-14 (Bal 1985: 317). (3) My goal is not to take sides with the arguments of either party, but to analyze the different ways in which Kogawa and King deal with the sexism in Genesis, or in the interpretations of creation story.

Kogawa certainly became familiar with feminist theology before she set out to create her Lilith. A Christian by education and choice (Redekop 1990: 94, 96), this Japanese writer had already made the language of the Bible an important aspect of her first novel entitled Obasan (Redekop 1990: 97; Gottlieb 1986: 42, 49-50). Though Kogawa's interest in Lilith resulted from her friend's persuasion, her text feeds into the feminist concern with that marginal and forgotten character (Kogawa 2000: XII, XVI-XX). A song of Lilith is a result of the author's collaboration with the visual artist Lilian Broca, who provided the artwork for the poetic rendition of the legend.

Before analyzing A song of Lilith, it is essential to recall the background of the legendary female figure. Significantly, her traces are often "lost in translation". Though she is known to exist in verse 34:14 of Isaiah, her name is not mentioned (Nathanson 1996: 435). Desolation following the divine wrath is thus rendered in King James version: "The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest" (Holy Bible. …