Joy Kogawa 1935-
(Full name Joy Nozomi Kogawa) Canadian poet and novelist.
The following entry provides an overview of Kogawa's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 78.
Kogawa is best known for her portrayal in the novel Obasan (1981) of the struggles of Japanese Canadians during and after their internment during World War II. She is also the author of several poetry collections and is considered a laudable novelist for her courageous subject matter and lyrical prose style.
Kogawa, a Canadian of Japanese heritage, was born in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her family was sent to live in an internment camp during World War II, and this disruption to her life and cultural identity is explored in her later fiction. Kogawa began her career as a poet, publishing her first book of poetry, The Splintered Moon, in 1967, and subsequent collections, A Choice of Dreams and Jericho Road, in 1974 and 1977, respectively. From 1974 to 1976 she worked as a staff writer in the Office of the Prime Minister and was a writer in residence for one year at the University of Ottawa in 1978. When Kogawa decided to tackle the subject of the treatment of Japanese Canadians during World War II, she concluded that the novel was the suitable form. Hence she wrote Obasan, which was published in 1981. The novel won the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Canadian Authors' Association Book of the Year Award. She has since published a children's version of Obasan entitled Naomi's Road (1986) and has continued to write both poetry and fiction. In addition, Kogawa has worked in Canada to fight for the redress movement, which asked for acknowledgment of the treatment of Japanese Canadians during the war.
Obasan is based on Kogawa's own family history and tells the story of a Japanese Canadian family that is torn apart due to internment during World War II. Born in Canada, the protagonist, Naomi, struggles with her identity as a Canadian of Japanese heritage. She strongly feels the absence of her mother, who was not allowed back into Canada after a visit to her own mother in Japan. Naomi is left in the care of her aunt and uncle, not knowing until much later what happened to her mother. The central conflict of the novel is the way two of the characters face the internment: Obasan, who suffers in silence, and Aunt Emily, who loudly voices her opposition. Naomi must fuse these conflicting approaches to find peace. Itsuka (1992) picks up the family's story in the years after the internment, this time focusing on Naomi's relationship with her brother and her aunt. The narrative focuses on the struggle of Japanese Canadians to find a political voice and an identity in their country and to heal the wounds caused by their mistreatment. In The Rain Ascends (1995), Kogawa leaves behind the subject of Japanese Canadian identity and tackles the difficult subject of child sexual abuse. The main character, Millicent Shelby, learns that her minister father is actually a child abuser. The story is unique in its approach to the subject in that it does not present the minister as inherently evil. Instead Kogawa portrays him as a pious man who has brought tremendous good to the world through his worship schools and radio programs and juxtaposes this with the tremendous evil the man sows in his abuse of children.
Although Kogawa's poetry is favorably reviewed, most critics choose to focus primarily on her novels. Obasan is Kogawa's most critically acclaimed work. Critics praise Kogawa for the subtlety of the novel's prose and her courageous look at the often forgotten internment of Japanese Canadians and its devastating effects. Ruth Y. Hsu asserted, “Obasan is a much-needed, public corrective to official versions that down-play or rationalize the mistreatment of Japanese Canadians during and after the war.” Many reviewers asserted that Itsuka lacked the power of Obasan due to its more political and less personal focus and pointed out Kogawa's reliance on historical documentation as opposed to personal revelation. Kathryn Barnwell stated, “The highly poetic and allusive style of Obasan is nowhere to be found in Itsuka.” Some reviewers complained that Naomi's adult narrative presence was not as strong as her childhood voice found in Obasan. Kogawa herself has admitted to having difficulty finding the narrative voice in the novel, but most critics agreed that the subject matter and the lessons learned from Itsuka were worth the read. Critics praised The Rain Ascends for its unique presentation of good and evil coexisting in one character. Allan Casey lauded the novel for “refus[ing] to portray the perpetrator as inhumanly evil, or his victims as inhumanly hapless.”
The Splintered Moon (poetry) 1967
A Choice of Dreams (poetry) 1974
Jericho Road (poetry) 1977
Obasan (novel) 1981
Woman in the Woods (poetry) 1985
Naomi's Road (juvenile fiction) 1986
Itsuka (novel) 1992
The Rain Ascends (novel) 1995
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SOURCE: “Sharing Brokenness,” in Canadian Forum, Vol. LXXI, No. 815, December, 1992, pp. 38-9.
[Barnwell is a professor of English and Women's Studies at Malaspina College in Nanaimo, British Columbia. In the following review, she discusses the relationship between Kogawa's Obasan and its seeming sequel Itsuka.]
In an article published in Canadian Forum in March 1984, Kogawa wrote: “Inadequacy is like a universal experience and we are all broken and incomplete like jigsaw puzzle pieces. Our wholeness comes from sharing our brokenness. … Rather than abandoning the way of brokenness, I believe we need to remember the paradoxical power in mutual vulnerability.” In Kogawa's first, widely acclaimed novel, Obasan, she explored the many forms of brokenness experienced by members of the Japanese Canadian community as a result of their internment during the Second World War. The property of some 20,000 people was seized, never to be returned to them. But perhaps more significantly, the members of the Japanese Canadian community were dispersed both during the war when families were separated, and after when they were still not permitted to return to the coastal region of British Columbia and were instead forced to “return” to Japan （many of them had been born in Canada, not Japan） or to resettle, predominantly in Alberta and Ontario.
As a result,...
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SOURCE: “Canadian Women of Color in the New World Order: Marlene Nourbese Philip, Joy Kogawa, and Beatrice Culleton Fight Their Way Home,” in Canadian Women Writing Fiction, edited by Mickey Pearlman, University Press of Mississippi, 1993, pp. 142-54.
[In the following essay, Zwicker traces how three novels by Canadian women of color, including Kogawa's Obasan,have changed the traditional definition of what it means to be a Canadian.]
The phrase Canadian women of color is a tense one, but it captures exactly the tensions I want to explore in this essay. Whereas “women of color” emphasizes marginalization and difference, “Canadian” tends to domesticate difference by gathering it into a geographical and historical entity which is itself situated in a larger territorial division of the world. What I will argue is that writing by women of color is essential to any sustainable definition of Canadian, not merely by expanding the term Canadian to include women of color in a pluralist sense, but by blowing wide open any easy notion of what constitutes a national tag like Canadian.
The term women of color is a relatively new category designed to provide a basis for solidarity among women of various racial and ethnic identities different from the white, Protestant Euro-Canadian popularly believed to characterize Canada.1 The term...
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SOURCE: “Someday,” in Canadian Literature, No. 136, Spring, 1993, pp. 179-81.
[In the following review, Hutcheon states that although the merging of history and fiction in Kogawa's Itsuka is sometimes rough, the lesson the novel teaches about redressing the wrongs done to Japanese Canadians during World War II is a useful and important one.]
Sometimes the context in which you read a novel conditions forever your response to it: I read Itsuka in Berlin, while attending a conference on multiculturalism. It was both fitting and disturbing to have brought together in one place for you themes of war and loss, the political and the private, pain and healing. Itsuka continues the story of Naomi Nakane from Obasan, Kogawa's earlier novel, as she leaves the prairie town in which she had grown up and first worked and moves to Toronto in 1976. But the real focus is on the middle years of the 1980s, the years that marked the fight for and successful achievement of Japanese Canadian redress for their treatment at the hands of the federal government during World War II. The leader of the fight, once again, is Naomi's Aunt Emily, “militant nisei,” whose motto—“Hands and a seeing heart … can do anything. Anything”—does not protect her from exhaustion and illness, discouragement and anger, even if she is vindicated in the end.
Parallel to the story of...
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SOURCE: “Attentive Silence in Joy Kogawa's Obasan,” in Listening to Silences: New Essays in Feminist Criticism, edited by Elaine Hedges and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 113-29.
[In the following essay, Cheung analyzes Kogawa's deft use of language and silence in her novel Obasan.]
To the issei, honor and dignity is expressed through silence, the twig bending with the wind. … The sansei view silence as a dangerous kind of cooperation with the enemy.
—Joy Kogawa, interview with Susan Yim （D8）1
Since the Civil Rights movement in the late 1960s, women and members of racial minorities have increasingly sworn off the silence imposed upon them by the dominant culture. Yet silence should also be given its due. Many Asian Americans, in their attempts to dispel the stereotype of the quiet and submissive Oriental, have either repressed or denied an important component of their heritage—the use of nonverbal expression. With many young Asian Americans turning against this aspect of their culture and non-Asians even less able to understand the allegedly “inscrutable” minority, it is not surprising that Joy Kogawa's Obasan, an autobiographical novel, has been subject to tendentious reviews. To Edith Milton the book is “a...
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SOURCE: “Dagger Descends, Rain Ascends,” in Books in Canada, Vol. 24, No. 8, November, 1995, p. 11.
[In the following review, Casey lauds Kogawa's The Rain Ascends, stating, “If the novel sometimes has difficulty transcending the tabloid nature of the subject … it remains a fascinating, troubling, and compassionate exploration of the dark side of human sexuality.”]
Joy Kogawa has a habit of writing fiction around what's filling up the newspapers. Or is it the papers who follow her lead? In Obasan and Itsuka, she offered a first-hand look at the troubled lives of Japanese-Canadians during World War II, and the subsequent fight for reparation. That those issues received the media sympathy they did in the Mulroney years is owing at least in part to Kogawa's sensitive fiction.
This time, for the central thematic pillar of her short new novel ＼The Rain Ascends］, Kogawa has borrowed the newspaper issue of the decade: child sexual abuse. Millicent Shelby, the central figure and narrator of the story, has her adolescent world come crashing down one fall day when she learns that her father—clergyman, mystic, and missionary—is also a pederast. Told in a dizzying cascade of flashbacks and fastforwards, the drama isn't about the discovery of the preacher's unwholesome tendencies, but how Millicent makes sense of it over the course of decades. Millicent...
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SOURCE: “‘This Is My Own, My Native Land’: Constructions of Identity and Landscape in Joy Kogawa's Obasan,” in Cross-Addressing: Resistance Literature and Cultural Borders, edited by John C. Hawley, State University of New York Press, 1996, pp. 257-73.
[In the following essay, Quimby analyzes the connection between landscape and identity in Kogawa's Obasan.]
Where do any of us come from in this cold country? Oh Canada, whether it is admitted or not, we come from you we come from you. From the same soil, the slugs and slime and bogs and twigs and roots.
The importance of the landscape to the formation of a national identity has been a significant concern in much North American literature. However, the literature that grew from the European expansion on the North American continent has dominated conceptions of how the land has helped to shape a national and continental identity. Nina Baym and Annette Kolodny have investigated the ways in which the European conquest and westward expansion have read the American land as female, and how this reading has served to support mythic configurations in which male agency is gained through the objectification of the female. Baym finds that in order to support the myth of the Euro-American westward-moving male individual, the...
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SOURCE: “A Conversation with Joy Kogawa,” in Amerasia Journal, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 199-216.
[In the following interview, Kogawa discusses racial politics in Canada and the themes in Obasan and The Rain Ascends.]
Joy Kogawa, author of the much-acclaimed Obasan, undertook a series of readings in Hawai'i, in September 1994, as part of the Symposium, “Constructions and Confrontations: Changing Representations of Women and Feminisms, East and West,” at the University of Hawai'i. Her readings were co-sponsored by the University and the Hawaii Literary Arts Council, an all-volunteer, non-profit organization run on a shoe-string budget that nonetheless has managed to become a prime force in Hawaii's vibrant literary scene. The following conversation was conducted while she was in the state for the symposium. Kogawa lent an unusual presence to the academic conference. On occasion, she seemed pensive and was quiet, as if listening to something none of us could hear. Most of the time, she was unstinting with her time and energy, performing, talking, disagreeing, and breaking bread with numerous people on Oahu and the Big Island. She was intense. Independent. During one of her readings, she caused some controversy when she departed from the conventions governing literary and academic readings by insisting on asking questions of the audience, many of whom had settled into...
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SOURCE: “‘A Human Pyramid’: An （Un）Balancing Act of Ancestry and History in Joy Kogawa's Obasan and Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, 1997, pp. 21-33.
[In the following essay, Snelling discusses how the search for an ancestral past in Kogawa's Obasan and Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Familyrelate to the process of making history.]
The significance of a traceable ancestral line in Western culture is an expression of the continuity and purity which is perceived as integral to the structure of European history. The disruption of this seamless line of descent in Joy Kogawa's and Michael Ondaatje's search for absent or lost parents in Obasan and Running in the Family becomes a challenge to the authority and universality of Western historicism. Through this device both writers unsettle not only the received history of their colonial past, as told by the imperial masters, but also the narrative structures and forms through which history enforces and validates Europe's appropriation of the rest of the world. Robert Young1 discusses how Western discourses of metaphysics and history work in parallel to other the colonial subject, assuming a universal narrative of progression from the primitive to the civilized, as defined by Europe. Within this context, Young asserts, imperial...
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SOURCE: “A Daughter's Dilemma,” in Canadian Literature, No. 154, Autumn, 1997, pp. 148-50.
[In the following review, Davidson argues that while Kogawa's The Rain Ascends does not live up to the artistry of Obasan, it “is still a novel well worth reading.”]
The silence that sounds so persistently in Joy Kogawa's first two novels, Obasan and Itsuka, figures prominently in her third as well. But whereas Obasan richly exploited the silence of dispersal and death, of devastating collective and individual traumas in order to tell the story of Canada's mistreatment of Japanese-Canadians during and after World War Two, Itsuka explored the less resonant silence of the country's long refusal to acknowledge explicitly or in any way redress what it had long recognized to be a blatant miscarriage of justice. With The Rain Ascends, however, Kogawa examines quite a different silence, one that is situated in contexts other than the experience of successive generations of Canadians of Japanese ancestry. Now the focus is on how a middle-aged, proper English-Canadian daughter of a much-admired clergyman comes not quite to terms with but at least to the acknowledgment of the fact that her loved and respected father has long sexually abused young boys.
As even that brief summary of the plot suggests, the silence of The Rain Ascends is hardly...
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SOURCE: “Mutuality and the Sacred: Joy Kogawa,” in his Locations of the Sacred: Essays on Religion, Literature, and Canadian Culture, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1998, pp. 213-39.
[In the following essay, James analyzes how Kogawa tackles the question of a minority in Canada searching for identity in the dominant European majority. He focuses on the interrelation of different cultures in Kogawa's novels, including Buddhism, Christianity, North American, and Asian.]
FROM DIVINE ABANDONMENT TO HUMAN SOLIDARITY
In Joy Kogawa's fictional efforts to find the location of the sacred sometimes cultural traditions blend and reinforce each other, while at other times they conflict and clash. From her Japanese-Canadian perspective she affirms and criticizes aspects of her dual heritage in an admixture and interpenetration of different cultural symbols—Christian and Buddhist, North American and Asian. In Obasan （1981） Joy Kogawa seeks the abode of sacrality in a quest for cosmic meaning during a period of suffering and hardship for Japanese Canadians. In Itsuka （1993） she continues her search into a realm where the sacred requires a political resolution and justice for her community. Kogawa's third novel, The Rain Ascends （1995）, though it does not deal with Japanese Canadians, continues the examination of the conflict between love and justice in...
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