Joy Kogawa (koh-gah-wah) was born Joy Nozonie Nakayama in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1935. Gordon Goichi Nakayama, her father, was an Anglican clergyman; Lois Masui Yao Nakayama, her mother, was a musician and kindergarten teacher. Kogawa’s very early childhood in Vancouver was secure and full of wonder; she later spoke of loving the fun of the city, with Christmas lights and escalators, and being surrounded by a warm family circle. A gathering danger, however, was the fact that her parents were second-generation Japanese immigrants. Although loyal Canadian citizens, like all Japanese Canadians on the country’s West Coast, they were subject to laws hastily enacted after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which ordered all residents “of Japanese ancestry” to be relocated inland. In 1942, some 21,000 people, most of them Canadian citizens, were forced to leave their homes near the Pacific coast. Their property was confiscated, many men were sent to labor camps, and the rest, including whole families, were resettled in ghost towns in interior British Columbia.
The Nakayama family ended up in Slocan, an almost deserted mining town amid the wooded mountains of inland British Columbia. They spent the World War II years there, living in a shack with newspaper walls. Kogawa attended school there and read everything she could find, although her choices in this ghost town were limited. The Slocan internees did retain features of community, however. Enough Japanese Canadians were living there to start stores and a school and to maintain some traditional customs.
When the war ended in 1945, the Canadian government inexplicably refused to let Japanese Canadians return to their West Coast homes. Instead, they were offered two choices: to move farther east to the prairies or to be “repatriated” to Japan. Kogawa and her family settled in Coaldale, Alberta, where their living conditions were even more primitive than before. Kogawa completed high school there and spent one year studying at the University of Alberta. She then took a job teaching elementary school in Coaldale. In 1955, she moved to Toronto and studied...
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