Academic journal article Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal

Interview with Joy Kogawa "Kawaiso" (a Word Used to Comfort Children)

Academic journal article Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal

Interview with Joy Kogawa "Kawaiso" (a Word Used to Comfort Children)

Article excerpt

Joy Kogawa was born in Vancouver in 1935, a third generation Canadian of Japanese ancestry. Her father was an Anglican minister. She and her family were victims of the Canadian Government's policy of internment and dispersal of Japanese Canadians during and after the Second World War. In 1942 some 21,000 people of Japanese ancestry, 17,000 of whom were naturalized or Canadian-born citizens, were uprooted from their west coast homes and resettled in the BC interior and in Alberta.

Obasan (1981), Kogawa's powerful first novel, is a lyrical recounting of the inner history of postwar Japanese-Canadian experience, and the moral and spiritual quest of a young girl to confront and understand her family's suffering in World War II. It won the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Canadian Authors' Association 1982 Book of the Year Award, among others.

Itsuka (1993), Kogawa's second novel, shows Naomi, her protagonist, gradually caught up in the Japanese-Canadian community's struggle for redress from the Canadian government, and shows how a morally activated, socio-political movement evolves in modern Toronto, and within the stresses and divisions among family and friends. The Rain Ascends, Kogawa's most recent novel, explores the psychological and moral predicament of a young Anglo-Saxon girl who discovers her minister father has sexually abused young boys.

Kogawa's fictions probe uncomfortable moral dilemmas and emotional quandaries which spring from complex problems in modern political and social life. She deals with issues of war and violence, intimate sexual abuse, the oppression of minorities in supposedly liberal democracies, religious doubt, and the diffusion of Japanese heritage in Canadian society. Her writing is morally relentless and yet lyrical, sensitive to family hopes and rituals, shyness and reserve, and infused with a courageous spirit of resilience.

CC: Thank you for your writing. Your novel Obasan meant a lot to me when I first arrived in Canada from South Africa. It seemed to speak to my own enormous sense of loss of a whole community. I read an excerpt from it at the first conference I went to in Ontario, at the University of Waterloo. As this is Remembrance Day in Canada, and we have war losses in mind, I would like to ask you about Obasan. I interpreted it as a quest for a mother. The narrative moved toward recovery of a lost mother, and that recovery seemed to mean uncovering the meaning of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, which is where the narrator's mother and so many others were destroyed. That narrative movement toward personal and national trauma was very powerful for me as a reader, as it must have been for many others. How do you feel about that novel and those World War II events now?

JK: Before I answer your question, I find it interesting that you are from South Africa, because I'm currently reading an autobiography by Willem Verwoerd (grand-son of an assassinated ex-Prime Minister of South Africa, H.F. Verwoerd, one of the primary architects of the "apartheid" policies). He talks about his struggle around his South African name, as his grandfather was the architect of apartheid. He discusses his own desire to make reparation, to be true to his own deepest impulses and the need for justice. I'm interested in this basic desire for home that is at the root of so much of our human longing.

CC: Was the writing of Obasan therapeutic for you? Did it deal with your emotions around that Japanese-Canadian World War II experience of dispersal and loss so that you could let them go, or do they continue?

JK: Concerning the girl's search for her mother, I think that the longing we all have for home, for a primary bond, is almost a metaphor for a human longing to be at home in the universe, to be at one with God, or simply to have an at-homeness. I look back on that book, and on my particular life--we all have these little particular journeys we go on--and I now see that I had to tell a peculiar story of a peculiar people at a specific historical time. …

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