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Interview with writer Joy Kogawa
by Sally Ito*

Japanese Canadian author Joy Kogawa was born in Vancouver in 1935. At the age of six, she and her family were relocated to an internment camp at Slocan City, British Columbia, Canada until the end of World War II, when, under Canada's dispersal policy, they moved to Alberta. Deeply affected by these experiences, and her mother's yearning for the home they had left behind in Vancouver, Joy has spent a lifetime exploring these painful events and their repercussions, not only for herself but for the whole of Canada, through her writing of poetry and historically-based fiction.

In 1986, Joy adapted her book Obasan, written for adults, as a children's novel, Naomi's Road, to critical acclaim. A new edition of Naomi's Road, based on an expanded version of the story published in Japan, came out in 2005; and a recent picture-book, Naomi's Tree, has also garnered many special mentions. In 2006, Vancouver Opera commissioned an opera of Naomi's Road for their Opera in the Schools program.

Following a determined campaign, Joy's childhood home in Vancouver was saved from demolition in 2006, thanks to the crucial involvement of The Land Conservancy in B.C., who now own the house. It is currently run by The Historic Joy Kogawa House Society, which hosts a writers-in-residence program.

As well as honorary doctorates and awards for her writing of both prose and poetry, Joy has received the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia; and last year she was awarded a George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award.

Both Naomi’s Road and Naomi’s Tree refer to the recent discovery, or should I say, recovery of your childhood home in Vancouver. Can you tell us more about how that happened?

It was on the day that Mars was closest to the earth, August 27, 2003, that I happened to be driving along in Vancouver with a friend, when I discovered that my childhood home was for sale. Following that discovery, I was excited and hoped that there could be some way I could have the house back.  But I gave up on the idea after talking with the real estate man, and I returned to Toronto.

As soon as I was home, there was a call from Roy Miki, suggesting that I come back to Vancouver and do a reading in the house: that way, we’d have that one event to remember.  It would be a way to say goodbye to the house; and so off I flew, and about a hundred people showed up, despite the very short notice.

The joy of that day!  I couldn’t keep the tears back, I was so happy to be there.  Later I met some people who were working on an opera of Naomi's Road. They had been in the crowd of people there that day.

Then a whole series of surprises, miracles really, happened. A national campaign started in Toronto with Anton Wagner and Chris Kurata; and in Vancouver with Todd Wong and Ann-Marie Metten. As all this energy began, the house was sold to someone from Taiwan who, as I was told, promised not to demolish it.  But a few years later, the owner changed her mind and a request was made to the city for a demolition permit.  The city of Vancouver delayed the permit long enough for the campaign to move into a more determined phase.  I don’t remember at what point exactly The Land Conservancy, headed by Bill Turner, became involved, but that was the most decisive event.

So many, many dramas happened at this point: fundraising, awareness events, media, lobbying of governments. Joan Young, a sansei teacher in Richmond played a major role in having her class participate, going to city hall with their banners and having her children speaking up.  Someone must have these things recorded.  There were so many times it seemed hopeless, but behold, the house survived and is now owned by The Land Conservancy and is being used as a residence for writers.  For me, it's all too astonishing! Senator Nancy Ruth donated half a million dollars to secure it. Ann-Marie Metten in Vancouver is running the writers-in-residence. It seems that it was meant to be.  My main practice throughout this time, was to let it go, and to trust. 

You mention an opera of Naomi's Road. Can you tell us about that?

The opera, which I have seen many times, is directed by Leslie Uyeda, and was written by Ann Hodges with music composed by Ramona Luengen. Jessica Cheung played the role of Naomi. It was wonderful to see the transformation of a book this way, and to experience the powerful emotion that that art form is able to elicit.  It toured through schools in British Columbia, introducing young children to the power and magic of opera.  What a gift!

As I said, I saw it many times and was almost always moved to tears.  The cast was superb.  I watched children taking it all in and have been deeply grateful that this has happened.  I saw it in Ucluelet, B.C., and in Lethbridge, Alberta, where it played to the Japanese Canadian community, and I was overwhelmed to see people in tears, as I was.  This was the power of healing at work.  That, I think, is one of the tasks of art – one of the tasks of humans on this planet: the healing of hurts.  I’ve recently met the Emperor and Empress of Japan and I so wish they could see the opera. 

It sounds like the writing and publication of Naomi's Road has been a special journey of its own, as the story has taken on different forms over the years. Can you tell us about the history and genesis of Naomi's Road?

Richard Telecky of Oxford University Press approached me and asked me to do a children’s version of Obasan.  I thought at first that it was to be a picture book and launched in.  In a very short time, I had the version that first came out.  I had doubts about it, although it seemed to be received well.   I’m afflicted with terrible self-doubt.  I have worse doubts about the current version.

As for the book in Japan, the publisher there wanted to include certain scenes and characters from Obasan so these were added, to create the Japanese edition, Naomi no Michi.  The revised Canadian version of Naomi’s Road also has certain additions but is not exactly based on the Japanese version.

I wish I knew which English version was better - the original or the revised.  I hear different things from different people and I’ve lost my own compass.  All this bending to the voices of others is part of my upbringing and is also a part of my loss of confidence. 

So there are two versions, and a Japanese translation also.   I’ve heard that this story was even once made into a play?

Yes, a play; and I’m sad that I have never seen it.  It seemed to be running whenever I was out of town.  Paula Wing wrote the play and Maya Ardahl of Young People’s Theatre (now called the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People) directed it.  It won a Chalmer Canadian Children's Play Award in 1993.

Dawn Obokata played Naomi in the original production then Diana Tso, whom I've just recently met, was Naomi during the play's B.C. tour. If it ever gets produced again, I really hope to see it.

I recently had the opportunity to talk about the Japanese Canadian internment experience to my son’s class because one of the students had read Naomi’s Road. The students had many interesting questions. How have your own views been affected by telling this Japanese Canadian story to a younger generation of Canadians who have less of a connection to the wartime past?

I don't talk about my internment etc. very much with the children I meet. I feel more concerned about their own rapidly changing world and the vast overwhelming issues they themselves face - the disappearance of species, climate change, food shortage and so on. There's a need for children to develop resilience, resourcefulness, adaptability, inner peace. What are the deepest values of children today? Are they being given the tools to survive what lies ahead?

But thinking about how one’s views of the past change, I do think our memories and understanding of the past undergo changes as we change.  I certainly now feel gratitude for my life, including the difficulties.   For example, when I was labouring out in the hot sun in the summer, I developed a capacity to ‘zone out’ that was a kind of meditativeness, which I think may be an aspect of endurance.  Sometimes when there is a need to tackle something difficult, I’m able to draw on that experience, and I just keep on keeping on, down the row, one plant at a time, one step at a time.  But there are other memories – such as the feeling of being excluded and of not being good enough.  Those continue to be experienced as pain.  People process pain in a variety of ways. 

Today’s children have so little experience of the kind of hardship we went through, I hardly know how to make the connection for them.  They have different kinds of hardships that I find frightening.  I’m afraid of catastrophes ahead for them - the ones that the scientists are talking about.  But I think what matters is for us all to find ways of dealing with fear – not by running away from it, but by running into it and overcoming it, and by knowing that we do not need to fear that love is gone.

What I think is important is for each of us to know and to do what we’re here on the planet to do.  When that happens, life is as good as it gets.  My main job is to write.  Others have different things to do.

Do children instantly identify you with Naomi?

Some do.  I’ve even been called Naomi! I’m OK with that.  In most ways, I would say, I am Naomi, although I never had an Aunt Emily and my real mother did not disappear as Naomi's did in Obasan and Naomi’s Road.

My real mother, I now know, was an astonishing woman.  She went to a special school for gifted children and was singled out on graduation to go on to higher learning.  She was a musician and a wonderful singer with a pure soprano voice.  I ache for her when I think of her now.

For my children, one of the particularly poignant points of identification with your books is the fact that Naomi’s story is similar to the story of their grandfather, my late father, whom, sadly, they never met. Your books have become a touchstone of identity for them in the same way that Obasan was for my generation of Japanese Canadians.

I’m very glad to hear that, Sally.  The Issei (those who immigrated to Canada) were the last of the people with values from old Japan; and they were powerful, silent, enduring and tender people.  The Issei suffered hugely in Canada in their dying days, for the most part rejected by the Nisei (those born in Canada of parents who immigrated from Japan) – scorned by them.

The trauma of racism that the Nisei experienced turned into rejection of being Japanese.  And the Issei who had loved and sacrificed so much for their children were, for the most part in my experience, rejected and demeaned by the Nisei.  I used to see this when I was living in southern Alberta.  It feels tragic to me now.  We live in a society that does not honor the old.

Naomi’s story deals with an area of potentially profound trauma for children – that is the absent mother. How have children reacted to this aspect of her story?

When I wrote the original Naomi’s Road, quite a few children wanted to know what happened to the mother. I struggled with what to do about that in the children’s book.  It’s such a sad thing.  For me, the important thing for a child to know is that the mother may be absent but love is constant.  She may have been helpless, but love is powerful.

Though we live in a world in which love often seems to be absent, and we experience ourselves as lost and abandoned, yet love is with us.  Love never leaves us.  There’s a line in Obasan about the absent mother, “Perhaps it is because I am no longer a child I can know your presence though you are not here.”  Sometimes the evidence is very, very thin.  But I know that when we open our minds and our arms and our hearts and when we trust in the living and active presence of love, when we lean into the love that underlies everything, then somehow the scales drop from our eyes and love rushes our way and fills our lives with unexpected surprise.  I’ve experienced this many, many times.  I now understand that even in the worst storm, love is present and surprises us and fills us. 

One of the central symbols in both books is the cherry tree. I know the original cherry tree of your childhood was in fact still standing in the yard when you discovered the house for sale. What happened to that cherry tree?

The tree is diseased and dying, but it is still there.  It may be the original tree, or it may be a cutting from the original one.  I had an overpowering sense when I saw it that a “knowing” surrounded it.  I fell in love with it.  I wrote poems to it and visited it often.

People who bought the house took down the old fence and excluded the tree from the yard by putting up another fence.  They also pruned it severely and cut off a branch with which I particularly identified, that was held up by a trestle and reached over to the garage.  I was told by an arborist that unfortunately the pruning was so severe, it was unreasonable.  Then some branches were broken, I think, by a garbage truck, and roots were damaged by work done on the road.  It’s barely blossoming now.  It does make me sad, but every tree, every plant eventually dies. 

Both Naomi’s Road and Naomi’s Tree are beautifully illustrated by Ruth Ohi. Can you tell me how you came to work with this illustrator?

I never met her or talked with her until after Naomi’s Tree was published.  Now that I have met her, I wish I’d known her all along!   And it would have been interesting to be part of her process.  I do like her work.

The one concern I have is that the blossoms are pink on the cover of the book, but are in fact white in reality.   The adjective ‘white’ that I used to describe them was changed to ‘pink’ by the editor, but I have asked to have that word changed back if there is a re-print.  My understanding is that only white blossoms turn into cherries.

Will you continue to write children’s books? What are you working on now?

I did write a longish fable about a tree, The Maker and the Friendship Tree, that I had originally intended for publication.  Naomi’s Tree was carved out of it, yet what I consider the most important aspects of the fable are missing from the little story.   Naomi’s Tree feels very slight to me.

I also have a little story called The Girl who Married a Blueberry Pie but haven’t spent time looking for a publisher for that. 

Right now I’m working on a memoir, Gently to Nagasaki.  Maybe when that’s done, I’ll get back to children’s stories!

*Sally Ito is a poet and a regular contributor to the PaperTigers blog.

Posted August 2009

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interviwee- Joy Kogawa

Joy Kogawa's photo

By Joy Kogawa:

illustrated by Ruth Ohi,
Naomi's Tree
(Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2008)

illustrated by Ruth Ohi,
Naomi's Road
(Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2005)

contributor to
Too Young to Fight: Memories from Our Youth During World War II
compiled by Priscilla Galloway,
(Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1999)


More on the web:

Read a fuller biography of Joy.

Follow the news from the Historic Joy Kogawa House Society... and read about the background to the campaign to save the house from demolition; and this article in the Kyoto Journal.

Read Putting Words to Music, an encounter with Ramona Luengen, composer of the opera, Naomi's Road.

Take a look at Vancouver Opera's Programme for Schools.



On the PaperTigers blog you will find our current and past themes unpacked and expanded, as well as news and views on multicultural and international books, world literacy, bedtime stories, children's literature events, and more... Please join our ongoing conversation!

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