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.”