Joy Kogawa, born in British Columbia in 1935, has authored poetry, novels, children’s fiction, and a memoir. Her first books were poetry collections—The Splintered Moon, A Choice of Dreams, and Jericho Road—published between 1967 and 1977. During World War II, when Kogawa was six, the Canadian government confiscated her family’s home, and they were sent to an internment camp, like thousands of Canadians of Japanese descent. Her first and most famous novel, Obasan (1981), reflects on that experience. It received the Books in Canada First Novel Award and was a Canadian Authors Association Book of the Year, and is regarded as a classic in Canada, where it is often taught in school. In her third novel, The Rain Ascends (1995), a daughter reflects on her father, an Anglican priest guilty of pedophilia—like Kogawa’s own father, a well-known priest. A later memoir, Gently to Nagasaki (2016), includes a more direct grappling with that legacy. Kogawa’s childhood home in Vancouver now provides space for author residencies and literary events, with special emphasis on addressing social injustice in Canada. Kogawa has received several honorary doctorates, most recently from the University of Victoria, and other honors: Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun, the Order of British Columbia, and the Order of Canada. She was interviewed by Arthur Boers. Connie T. Braun supplied additional research and questions.
Image: In your memoir Gently to Nagasaki you call yourself a “recovering Christian fundamentalist.” Your father was an Anglican priest, but you also went to vacation Bible school as a child and are familiar with altar calls and language about a “moment of decision for Christ.” You also spent time among Mennonites. Tell us how all this influenced you.
Joy Kogawa: After World War II, growing up in southern Alberta around Christian fundamentalists, I remember being told that doubt came from the devil, that my questions were foolish and so was the theory of evolution. I couldn’t accept any of that. I trusted scientists and their commitment to truth. So I was never quite there with the fundamentalists.
I do, however, hold in the core of my being a passion for the human who lived among us as the face of Love. My fundamentalist friends shared this, but our understanding and practice of love differed. A Jewish dictum states that where the laws of God are in conflict with the well-being of people, the well-being of people should prevail. I hold to this. I am not a triumphalist nor an in-your-face evangelist. I don’t accept literal interpretations of Scripture or believe that following Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life” is for all humanity. Love is not triumphal. Most of my friends abhor Christianity and find religious language repugnant, but I share the work of justice with them more than with fundamentalists.
But how much I received from the Mennonites I grew up with! Music—the singing was wonderful. And truthfulness, blessed truthfulness. I lost ten dollars one day, and a Mennonite boy brought it back. My mother said, “This wouldn’t have happened in the city.”
As a seven-year-old in the internment center of Slocan, British Columbia, I prayed every night to know the truth, though I don’t now know what that meant to me. I once shocked some Mennonite children because I suggested I would fib to my mother in order to stay longer to play with them. The fact that it shocked them shocked me.
Right now I’m experiencing difficulties with some Japanese Canadian human rights activists. Having the truths I have told in fiction turned against me is painful.
Image: Your memoir Gently to Nagasaki includes your disclosing that your father was a pedophile. Is the hostility you face connected to that?
JK: Yes. I’ve been told, for example, that I am carrying the DNA of my father’s abuse. The pen must not be an instrument of retaliation and harm, most especially against people who are already deeply harmed. But sometimes whatever you do or don’t do, your very existence is experienced as harmful.
How to negotiate these situations? Jesus didn’t defend himself before Pilate. I sometimes repeat Dag Hammarskjöld’s words: “For all that has been—thanks. For all that shall be—yes.” I may not actually feel thankful in a situation that is painful, but sometimes I can defocus and turn toward my basic trust in the Presence. I can act from within that. And for that I’m thankful enough.
Image: In Gently to Nagasaki, you look at hard realities—the rape of Nanking, the bombing of Nagasaki, your father’s actions, and conflicts within the Japanese Canadian community. At the same time you talk about hope and mercy and grace. I wonder what undergirds that unlikely combination.
JK: I have confidence in a guidance that is suffused with greater love than we can ask for or imagine. I believe that’s what undergirds even the most unspeakable suffering, and entrusting oneself and others to it keeps our souls entirely safe.
One of the essential things about truth-telling is not to speak until you’ve come to a place of love. Sometimes I wait and pray my heart out and get what seems like nowhere. But what I’ve experienced is that the gift arrives when I’ve given up.
I think we need therapeutic communities of victims and victimizers. We need to share our vulnerabilities—all humans are vulnerable—and come to our common humanity. We who see ourselves as victims need to recognize the moment when we have crossed over the line and are wielding our weapons—our weapons of political correctness, of heaping guilt and blame on our perceived oppressors and so on. If we cling to an identity as pure victims and refuse to acknowledge whatever forms of abundance and privilege we have, we are in danger of becoming victimizers. I think we need healing circles, like those of indigenous people. We need to see each other’s eyes, and see each other through each other’s eyes.
There is a hunger for eye-to-eye connection. At a nursing home I visit, I see an old woman looking at a doll all day. What a waste of the nourishment of the eyes!
Babies are born with that hunger, and they look until they find eyes that establish connection. When a baby is looking around and cannot get the mother’s eyes, that baby is being starved in an essential way. In the subway, I want to tell mothers, “Put your phone down. Your baby needs your eyes. You’re starving your baby.”
Image: Before you published novels, you published poetry. Please tell us a little about how you discovered yourself to be a writer and how you developed.
JK: As a child in Slocan, I imagined that I was “Author Anonymous” writing little poems like the ones in The Book of Knowledge. That was quite an encyclopedia. We had twenty volumes full of stories and pictures. It contained the enchanting Book of Wonder, with its questions and answers. The Book of Golden Deeds was full of martyrs. There were sections on how things worked, and things to do. Whenever people ask me what books influenced me, I should point to that encyclopedia set.
I wrote little poems and songs as a child in Slocan. In high school in Coaldale, Alberta, I would show stories and essays to the English teacher—who only assigned one essay a year. She didn’t show any interest in my efforts, and there was never any encouragement. I wrote a play full of puns, and it was performed. One teacher guffawed throughout. The principal said that it was nice to write but that I could never make a living at it. That might sound sad, but I don’t think so. The urge to write was completely from within. Praise might have changed that.
After high school, I wanted to study journalism at the University of British Columbia, but that was denied me, being a mere girl, I guess. My brother had gone there. I was offered a bursary, a scholarship, to study for a year in Calgary and become a schoolteacher. I really didn’t want to do that, but I went. After a year of gruesome reading, I stopped reading altogether for a while. I did not enjoy teaching—I had always enjoyed making up stories for children, but I didn’t like having a classroom of kids who were forced to sit there and listen to me, and I wanted to be writing and adventuring. After a year I went to Toronto and studied theology at the Anglican Women’s Training College. I had imagined, when I was a child, a life working in an orphanage somewhere. I adored babies. But after another year of forced reading in Toronto and being sick a fair bit, I went to Vancouver, got a job as a kindergarten teacher, got pregnant, got married, and had the baby too soon. I stayed home with the baby and a couple of years later had another baby, and that’s when I started writing.
There were a few years of writing and rewriting and sending things out and having them sent back and sending them out again. The very first thing I published was a poem, in the United Church Observer, I think. There was another poem called “Invasions,” about a worldwide refugee crisis which I didn’t imagine would become literally true in my lifetime. It was in the Presbyterian Record. When our family moved to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in the sixties (because my husband had to work off a bursary from Saskatchewan to study social work) I had a couple of short stories published.
In 1964 I had a crisis of faith and kind of cracked up. That’s when the pen became my lifeline. I was no longer living to write; I was writing to know life. Craft no longer mattered. Poetry poured out and some of it was published, but my life was in shambles. We moved to Saskatoon, and I went through a divorce there. My ex went to Ottawa. I followed him later and we got back together for a while. All through the seventies, poems kept coming. In 1974 my first book of poems, A Choice of Dreams, came out and was nominated for the Governor General’s award. (A chapbook, The Splintered Moon, had arrived a few years earlier in Saskatoon.) Jericho Road followed A Choice of Dreams. It had one not-great review, and that was the end of my life as a poet, I thought.
Around this time in the late seventies, with my son at university and my daughter in high school in Ottawa and living with her dad, I was passing through Coaldale, where my parents were still living. I was asleep in the church hall and had a clear strong dream that said, “Go to the archives in Ottawa.” I did that. I went to the public archives of Canada to find pictures for an article I’d written. Mark Hopkins was working there, and he brought me some papers that had just arrived. “You might be interested,” he said. And that’s how I was introduced to Muriel Kitagawa’s work.
Muriel Kitagawa had been a writer for the Japanese Canadian newspaper The New Canadian. Her package of letters addressed to her brother, Wes, in Toronto described with great passion what was happening to Japanese Canadians in Vancouver following Pearl Harbor. She was one of the nisei (those born in Canada to Japanese parents) who were desperate to prove their loyalty to Canada. It was a perspective I knew nothing about, being so young at the time, and I was gripped.
I thought at first that her writings, including her letters, should be published as they were. Later I thought I could use them in fiction, and that was the beginning of the work that became Obasan. I had written a short story with that title and began thinking about using it along with Muriel’s perspectives. A mid-section of Obasan is composed essentially of her letters to Wes, transposed into letters from the narrator’s aunt to her sister in Japan. I called the character Aunt Muriel at first, but she became Aunt Emily eventually. Emily was not a common name at the time, at least I didn’t know a single person with that name. I never met Muriel Kitagawa, but I imagined her as a feisty person who was not popular in the Japanese Canadian community because she was outspoken. For Aunt Emily, too, it was more important to be truthful than to be loved.
Image: Have you often found direction on the basis of dreams?
JK: Some of my most momentous decisions have happened because of dreams.
In Japan, sleeping in a Buddhist temple, I woke in the middle of the night and wrote in my diary, The Goddess of Mercy is the Goddess of Abundance. In the morning I saw those words and was astonished by them. It felt like a world-changing statement, though I couldn’t have said why at the time. Those words have been important in both The Rain Ascends and Gently to Nagasaki. I now know that without mercy there can be no abundance, and without abundance there can be no mercy. They are necessary for our survival. Unless those with economic abundance are merciful to the economically impoverished, we will not survive. Unless the spiritually abundant are merciful to the spiritually impoverished, we will not survive.
It wasn’t until I was writing Gently to Nagasaki that I found out that Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, was once a disguise for the Virgin Mary. Her statue saved the lives of many hidden Christians in Japan. Christian artifacts were concealed inside, and when the purgers came to persecute Christians, they’d say, “Oh, this must be a Buddhist home. They’ve got Kannon here.” So Kannon protected them.
Image: You sound like a mystic.
JK: I don’t think I’ve had many dream directions in recent years, though there was another powerful dream in Gently to Nagasaki about my father. I’ve had a few other kinds of directive experiences.
More than reading books, I think I read what is written all around me in life. I look for signs. (I was going to call Obasan “Read the Forest Braille.”) It feels as if the universe offers reading material in surprising ways. My conviction is that even when one experiences horrible things, life is nevertheless undergirded by Love.
Often what happens in life feels serendipitous. For example, in 2003, on the day that Mars was closest to the earth, I found out that my parents’ house in Vancouver was for sale—the place we were forced to leave when the Canadian government sent people of Japanese descent away from their homes on the west coast. In the backyard was a cherry tree, and I fell in love with it. It was so gnarled and old and wounded. A trestle held up a big branch that was overhanging the garage. I wrote poems to the tree, and one day I put my right hand on the trunk. A startling warmth rushed down my arm. I had never experienced anything quite like that, a distinct sensation of heat. I was filled with awe and had an overwhelming sense of the Presence—an all-knowing and all-loving presence—a sense that everything was known: all the suffering that had ever happened among us, within our family, within our community. All the suffering of the people was altogether known, and we were altogether loved. Full knowing was full loving. This is what arrived in that moment.
Although this happened at that particular tree, it wasn’t as though there was any knowing or sentience in the tree itself, but there was a surrounding Presence. I remembered that Moses saw a burning bush and a voice told him he was standing on holy ground and should take off his shoes. The words that were spoken to him were, “I have heard the suffering of my people.” That’s what I heard as well, and that’s what I think breaks through to us. It matters to us in the human condition that our suffering is known and heard. It matters to know that we are valued and completely loved. Isolation, rejection, abandonment make suffering unbearable. But being held in Love’s embrace dissolves fear. I feel overwhelmingly blessed to have been given the grid of ancient stories that assure me that Love undergirds the universe.
These and similar moments—which I’ve tried to describe in my last book—seem to be becoming more numerous and are making these the best years of my life. The challenge, the single action required of me, is simply to keep trusting in the All-Knowing, All-Loving. I have to bend my mind in that direction and say in the middle of pain or confusion or any kind of suffering, “Can you take care of this, please?”
Image: So you keep drawing on that experience.
JK: I wrote a fable out of that experience which is not in the book. It is about the Maker having made the world for friendship. Friendship’s food was light, and friendship would be forever because light was forever. Light was made of love and truth. Love is stronger than truth in the Maker’s light. Two parts love and one part truth. If you separate love and truth, friendship does not continue. If you speak truth without love, friendship does not continue. It’s a matter of needing both.
Image: You used the phrase “reading the forest braille” in Obasan, decades before this experience beside the tree.
JK: The moment by the tree, the dream of abundance and mercy, and similar experiences have come to me as gifts of the Presence. This sort of talk is generally viewed as hocus-pocus. It’s sad, I think, to close our minds like that. We cut ourselves off from much of humanity’s rich history of sense-making. Others may explain such experiences in psychological terms. But it’s interesting to notice their impact in one’s life. For myself, I feel a great fountain of gratitude for them.
The power of the memories may wane, but I’m glad to have written about them. The memories are like seeds which can sprout afresh, and my confidence can be renewed that no matter what horrible things have been done to us or by us, we are held by Love.
My love for my dad, even when I’ve loathed him, has not faltered, which gets me into trouble, because his particular offense, pedophilia, is seen as the worst sin possible. It does incredible harm to the foundation of a child’s health, the capacity to trust. It destroys fundamental and sacred boundaries.
And of course, though I love Dad, I stand with his victims. I do understand their hatred of him. What makes me their enemy is that I don’t also hate him. All of that continues to be painful, for them and for me and for their advocates, and maybe that’s what causes me to be shunned by some people. Or it could be that there’s just a reflexive aversion to anything or anyone associated with him. I think there’s a reason that all this is in my life. Writing Gently to Nagasaki was a scream for mercy.
I’m on standby, waiting for the attention of the light, ready to catch a glimpse as it passes by. The moments do arrive, not just as intimations, or a sense, or a moment’s feeling. I might find myself praying, “Stay with me.” And hear in response the echo, “I’m with you always.”
The universe is in charge, and I hear it saying: You have been given these moments. Answers have arrived. The abundance is real, and the capacity for mercy will be there, so act from within it.
Image: It sounds like writing about these unitive experiences is not just a way to sustain yourself, but also of encouraging others in recognizing their own experiences.
JK: Yes, it matters that those of us who have these moments share them. We can then hear one another say, “Yes, that’s true in my life, too.” The more we share, the more delight there is and the more confidence we build. Suffering is real, and we can’t wish it away. But we can recognize that it increases our capacity to identify with those who suffer. And that increases the light.
We see a lot of fear and xenophobia in our day. I’ve come across a word recently: philoxenia, love of the stranger and the foreigner. How do we incorporate this attitude into our collective life? At this point Canada stands for the welcome of refugees, but I can see a time of challenge when we’ll just close the doors.
Image: What are you working on these days?
JK: I’ve been wondering whether I’ve come to the end of the writing life. Memory fails; the eyes fail. I’ve recently met a young poet and mime artist from Japan. He fashioned a few performance pieces based on things I’ve written. It’s been fun working with him and the collective he’s part of.
Image: I’m curious about how your spiritual practices factor in here.
JK: Early in life I was a fairly disciplined reader of scripture. Then for many years I indulged in a random opening of the New Testament, first thing in the morning. It often seemed a bit ridiculous trying to force-fit whatever my eyes alighted on into some meaning. But often it was surprising.
One morning, while I was at a writers’ retreat at the Bethlehem Centre in Nanaimo, I opened to three short verses in Thessalonians: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks.” I thought I would stop the random practice and focus on those words for a while. What followed was several months of euphoria—which was utterly surprising and felt miraculous. I don’t think I will ever forget that time. I had come to an answer to a question posed in the prologue to Obasan. “If I follow the stream down and down to the hidden voice, will I come at last to the freeing word? I ask the night sky but the silence is steadfast. There is no reply.”
But here was the reply. I did come to the freeing word. I had followed the underground stream. My one action had been to trust, and the freeing word that arrived was Always. I was to trust at all times. The river to which the stream led was named Always, and a current of prayer and rejoicing and gratitude flowed through it at all times, no matter what.
That is my one spiritual practice now. I haven’t been to church for a while. Nor do I do the random reading much anymore. Most mornings I walk up a flight of stairs to an exercise room in the condominium, and I have been taking that as a time to turn to prayer. Sometimes I sing, not that I can sing anymore.
I’ve been wondering whether I will attend church services again. Maybe or maybe not. I see the structure of the church as a skeleton, a structure that practices rituals and ceremonies to mark certain days in the church’s life and the lives of people in the congregation. But more often than not, I experience the church as a skeleton without flesh.
Lois Wilson (former moderator of the United Church of Canada) was saying that she thinks we’re going to lose all the church buildings. We’ll go back to being house churches. Maybe that’s needed.
Image: As I read your books I notice the way you use the language of faith in unconventional ways. I’m intrigued how you talk about the goddess of mercy for example. She comes up a lot, not just in one book.
JK: Well, it was that dream. And Kannon as the Virgin Mary protecting the hidden Christians. To me, the boundaries between our collective faiths are permeable.
The film Silence was fantastic. I struggled to feel what was going on in the minds of those Jesuits when they apostatized. What was their faith? How are we to understand it? Sometimes we may go away from our faith and even betray it, but the love extended toward us is so powerful that we cannot extricate ourselves from it.
Image: Can you say more about “rejoice always” and that euphoria?
JK: I think I was being shifted out of time into Always. It felt like the gift at the end of the road of Obasan. It was the end of the search for the presence of mercy. That I was allowed to be that happy not just for a brief moment but for that long was amazing to me. Life feels to me like a spiral. It keeps turning upwards.
Image: That verse “Rejoice always” is fitting for you, because your name is Joy.
JK: In my early writing days, a friend said, “Your name should be Grief Kogawa.” Maybe joy and grief are joined at the hip. It’s in the human condition to have them both. But we can choose at the banquet table what we will eat today. I would like to choose gratitude for my daily bread. That’s what Dag Hammarskjöld did, with his “Yes” and his “Thanks.”
I am saying yes to the particular difficulties I happen to be in. In Gently to Nagasaki I described a scene in which a woman was trying to make mincemeat of me at a public meeting. I was shocked at first, but I realized later that the bullets were blanks. They were powerless to do damage to the soul.
Image: You mentioned your reaction to early reviews. Has the way you’ve received criticism of your writing changed over the years?
JK: I used to have a horrible lack of confidence. And I still do in many ways. But perhaps I’m a touch less dependent on the opinions of others. At least I hope so.
After my second novel, Itsuka, came out, the first review was very bad and it felt like it could stop me forever. It said the book was “unpublishable,” with “pages and pages of painfully embarrassing writing.” Even though the book was covered on CBC’s The National and had a few decent reviews and was chosen for book clubs, I couldn’t believe that it was any good. I looked at it and wondered, which are the pages and pages of embarrassingly unpublishable writing? I tried to rewrite it twice and maybe made it worse. In all those years I was never able to reread it, and then this past week, I did. Now I wonder why was I so upset; it’s not that bad. It’s a little embarrassing and I don’t know that I’d write it like that now. But it wasn’t worth damning to that extent. It’s going to come out again, with Caitlin Press, the same press that published my last book. If I received the damning review today, would I believe it so completely? Likely not. As I say, these days of my old age are my best years. I’m less fearful.
Image: Warning against fear is a big theme in your writing. How did you learn to speak against your fear, in spite of your fear?
JK: When I was a child in Slocan I read a fairy tale about a prince on his way to save a princess in a castle. He meets a guide who tells him that he must not hesitate when he faces fear. The first thing he comes to on the path is a puddle of water, and as he hesitates it grows and grows until it becomes a lake. So he jumps, and as he does, it returns to a puddle. After that he faces a dog that turns into a beast, then a thicket which becomes dense with brambles. Each time, as the fear magnifies the obstacle, he plunges ahead almost impulsively in spite of growing fear.
It’s a story about leaping before you look, which isn’t always the best advice. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it sends you hurtling straight to the rocks. I tend to be impulsive. What I have discovered for myself is that when I do trust first in the Presence and then leap, the everlasting arms are there, and I am lifted up to higher ground.
But I also realize that some people do fall to the rocks and perish. In the story of the temptations in the wilderness, Satan told Jesus to jump off the pinnacle and the angels would be there to catch him—but he didn’t jump. I guess it matters who is telling you to jump and why.
In any case, the fairy tale about leaping into your fears may not be wise at all times, but it warns that you can get paralyzed by fear. And besides fear, perfectionism can paralyze you, too.
Image: In Obasan and Itsuka, you have two aunts who represent different approaches to life’s difficult realities. One suffers largely in silence; one agitates for justice. I imagine they’re both part of you?
JK: We are all many people, and different facets come to the fore depending on the situation. We have so many voices within. It’s good to acknowledge them. When we feel like the victim, it’s helpful to know that a victimizer’s voice is also within.
Image: Being a truth-teller is important to you.
JK: That came very early in life. What was I thinking as a child in Slocan when I prayed every night to know the truth? What did I mean by that? What is the truth for a seven year old? I think I wanted to know what was hidden and what I didn’t understand. Also, I think what drew me, and still does, is suffering. What is the truth of suffering? Where does it come from? How does one stop it?
Image: What compelled you to write The Rain Ascends, a novel about a daughter who discovers that her father is a pedophile?
JK: The volcano of denial within me had reached a point of eruption. That happens for different reasons at different times. I used to have horrific nausea, from early adolescence on. I would feel it coming, I would dread it, and it would overtake me. Once the book was written, the pressure was out of my body and the illness vanished. After The Rain Ascends, it’s never come back.
Image: You set your early novels in a Japanese Canadian context, but The Rain Ascends takes place in an Anglo context.
JK: It had enraged some people that I made the story into fiction, that I made my father into a white man.
Image: In Gently to Nagasaki you were more explicit.
JK: Yes. Some Japanese Canadians in Vancouver told me that the community was “seething with rage” about my dad, and that his house, my childhood home, was being saved. This happened in 2006. Some of those who confronted me were then and still are vocal about opposition to Kogawa House. I was asked to participate in the destruction of a cutting from the cherry tree that I loved, where I felt that sense of warmth and presence. The baby tree was planted at a local church and was dubbed “the tree of reconciliation.” But it was transformed by those who hated my dad into a symbol of evil, and it was destroyed.
Image: After The Rain Ascends you kept dealing with the issues. You met with some of the victims, got to know some of them.
JK: Yes. I’m so grateful for their friendship and that they bear me no ill will. I’d love to get on with my life and walk away from Dad’s legacy, but I’m going to have to carry it as long as I feel the rage towards me. Still, it’s like being shot with blanks. It’s not the same thing as being guilty.
Image: What are the necessary steps towards healing, justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation?
JK: The way is via relationship. I think we need to examine the way we seek reconciliation today. It’s changed from a way of standing with victims and seeking justice for victims into a political game of winning. It’s a game played mostly by advocates for those in the categories of victims and victimizers. Public sentiment is often with the victim; people are inclined to support “my victim, right or wrong.” I question whether that process brings healing. I think what heals are the emotions that arise from knowing the other—the grieving, the weeping, the hearing, the embracing, the “a-ha” when each sees one’s self in the other. When people get locked into a game where the winner gets money, does appropriate grieving happen? I doubt it. It seems to be mainly a game played by advocates for advocates, a game based on self-interest.
I think we need to understand that blame is not useful when we’re in a situation where safety is what we need. When we hear about a tsunami, we don’t waste time blaming the sea, but we rush to help. We need a shift in how we deal with human catastrophes.
These days the words that mean the most to me and that seem most helpful are Jesus’s words on Good Friday: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I think the call to forgive and be merciful is Christianity’s best contribution to the conversation among the faiths. And it’s the name of the road that I’m attempting to walk in these best years of my life.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.