Joy Kogawa Kogawa, Joy - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Kathryn Barnwell (review date December 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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, Japanese Canadians have not, until relatively recently, been able to identify themselves as a recognizable community within Canada. As Kogawa notes, there are no Japan towns in Canadian cities and the intermarriage rate was...

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Heather Zwicker (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 does not denote visible difference—many women of color are fair-skinned, mixed-blood, or can “pass” as white—but is a form of self-identification that recognizes marginalization and affirms difference. Inasmuch as the term operates as a self-conscious basis for solidarity by foregrounding the racism that constructs women of color as “other,” the term is useful. But, to my mind, it has two problems. First, it tends to homogenize the enormous heterogeneity among Japanese Canadian, Native Canadian, Caribbean Canadian, and Chinese Canadian women, to name just a few “hyphenated” national identities. Second, the term does not foreground the experience of immigration that is constitutive, at some historical moment, of Canadian identity.

The editors of Feminist Organizing for Change: The Contemporary Women's Movement in Canada call the link between immigration and people of color “one of the most insidious forms of racism” because it encourages the idea “that the problems of race are really temporary problems of assimilation.”2 I do not believe that assimilation is either possible or desirable, though clearly it is the goal of official multiculturalism of the kind advocated by Canada's Ministry of Multiculturalism, which has a mandate to celebrate and a tendency to police multiculturalism.3 I mean the term immigration in a large sense of settling in a country not one's own, whether alienation from ownership is a result of natality or systemic racism. This expanded definition excludes those who are technically immigrants but for whom, by reason of privilege based on class, race, or gender—unofficial “favored nation” status—assimilation is not an issue. On the other hand, it includes Native Canadians, for whom the history of colonialism and perpetuation of systemic racism interrupt any easy equation between Native and Canada. Though the land might originally (and properly) have belonged to Native Canadians, they, like immigrants, have to fight to make it home.4 I want to use the uneasy links between “women of color” and “immigrant” that I believe the novels of Marlene Nourbese Philip, Joy Kogawa, and Beatrice Culleton provoke, in order to explore and explode the way Canada is constructed and reconstructed.

For Canada cannot be taken for granted: its geography and history are marked within and demarcated from without by unequal relationships of power. In a phrase as offensive as it is telling, George Bush and his cronies describe contemporary international relations as “the New World Order.” The phrase quotes Hitler's regime of “New Order” in the quincentenary of European imperialism to locate hegemony in the so-called New World.5 Although I am fundamentally skeptical of U.S. policy, I think the “new world” trope can be used subversively precisely because it foregrounds the experience of immigration described above. Making oneself at home in the new world necessitates a radical rethinking of national identity, because the elements that conventionally constitute national identity—history, natality, family, and place—no longer fall neatly into the territorial and historical entity that we know as Canada.6

“Home” is not simply a place, but a place one makes one's own; it is both a geographical given and a discursive construct. Places have their effects on us, but we are also continually ascribing meaning to particular places. In their essay titled “Feminist Politics: What's Home Got to Do With It?” Biddy Martin and Chandra Mohanty offer a useful way of defining home.7 They start from the position that there is no single meaning to any place nor any single defining attribute to a person: as they put it, “Individuals do not fit neatly into unidimensional, self-identical categories” (205). As a complex subject, one may be simultaneously at home and not at home; furthermore, in the contemporary world, people frequently relocate from one place to another, always moving through spaces that constrain but never contain them. This notion of transience is important for conceptualizing new-world identity: people bear the imprints of their origins, but move from them to absorb and create new identities in new places. Hence the phrase Caribbean Canadian signifies a meaningful place of origin, even while it looks ahead to the new home. But just as Caribbean marks a site that is lost, Canadian signifies a location that is never easily reached, because it is always preceded by its significant modifier, Caribbean (or French, or Japanese, or Ukrainian). Once the population of Canada is divided up by such appellations, it becomes clear that there is no such thing as simple “Canadian”: Canada is based on ethnic diversity. Even though British and French ethnicity still dominate Canada, they account together for less than 50 percent of the Canadian population. Fully 30 percent of Canadians in the 1986 census claimed “multiple ethnic origins,” and by the year 2000 at least 10 percent of Canadians will be people of color.8

The idea of a subject in continual transition works against an easy identity of self with place in both the past and the future, but there is always a tension between this rootlessness and the desire for stability. The problem facing Canadians is that of making themselves at home by making themselves a home. This process is an act of attributing meaning to place. Homes as locations “acquire meaning and function as sites of personal and historical struggle,” Martin and Mohanty argue (196). The apparent stability of places is always cross-cut by the histories of struggle congealed in them—in Canada, struggles against racism and exclusion. It is not by avoiding the struggles that inhere in a place, but rather by taking part in them, that a meaningful home is created. The safest community is “that which is struggled for, chosen, and hence unstable by definition; it is not based on ‘sameness,’ and there is no perfect fit. But,” Martin and Mohanty go on to stress, “there is agency as opposed to passivity” (208-09). Community ultimately is not simply place, but also history, written with an eye to both political priorities and human needs. To quote Martin and Mohanty at some length:

Community, then, is the product of work, of struggle; it is inherently unstable, contextual; it has to be constantly reevaluated in relation to critical political priorities; and it is the product of interpretation, interpretation based on an attention to history, to the concrete, to what Foucault has called subjugated knowledges. There is also, however, a strong suggestion that community is related to experience, to history. For if identity and community are not the product of essential connections, neither are they merely the product of political urgency or necessity. … they are a constant recontextualizing of the relationship between personal/group history and political priorities. (210)

Tracing the connection between “the purely experiential” and “the theoretical oversight of personal and collective histories” is, it seems to me, the work of fiction (210). The fleshing out of history, the writing of oneself into social texts, is an act of imagination. The Canadian writers I will discuss in the remainder of the essay record desire for and fear of the nation called Canada, experiences of alienation from it and profound love. Throughout their novels, we are reminded that we cannot take this place called Canada for granted.

Of course, few of the novels operate so schematically as this emphasis on place suggests. Rather, the concept home is rendered quite narrow, often domestically, taking family members for national subjects and describing history as memory. Perhaps the most schematic of the novels is Marlene Nourbese Philip's Harriet's Daughter. The story centers on the friendship between two girls, Margaret and Zulma. Margaret, the first-person narrator, is a second-generation Canadian whose father is from Barbados and whose mother is Jamaican. For Margaret, Toronto is home. Her best friend, Zulma, has recently arrived in Toronto, to live with her mother and stepfather, from Tobago, where she lived with her grandmother. Zulma's compelling desire is to return to the Tobago that she loves. The plot of the story, in brief, traces Margaret's attempts to help Zulma get back to Tobago, even while she battles her own father's threats to send her to Barbados for what he calls “some ‘Good West Indian Discipline.’”9 In the course of enabling Zulma to choose her own home, Margaret defines her own social identity differently from the familial identity she is born into.

The figurative device by which Nourbese Philip deftly ties together Margaret's resolution to stay in Canada and Zulma's determination to return to Tobago is the Underground Railroad. It starts out as a game played by kids at Margaret's school: some students are arbitrarily slaves, others slave-owners or dogs. The object of the game is for the slaves to make it to a designated place called Freedom without being caught by the slave-owners and dogs. Hence place and liberty are linked from the outset of the game, and Margaret and Zulma have the same goal in their lives as they have in the game: making it “home-free.” Zulma's return to Tobago constitutes a historical completion of the escape from slavery by reversing the middle passage. Significantly, the destination of Zulma's voyage home is not Africa, but the Caribbean fulcral point between Africa and the New world—the main stage on which the ugly colonial violence of genocide and slavery, as well as the genesis of American revolutions, was played out. By making the West Indies the site of return, Nourbese Philip foregrounds struggle and resists an idealization of racial origin.

She similarly refuses to idealize Canada by foregrounding choice as a constitutive element of home. Although both Margaret and Zulma choose as home the countries in which they were born, the connection between place and family breaks down: while Zulma's attachment is to her grandmother, not her mother, Margaret chooses to remain with her birth family. What such a formulation implies is the importance of self-determination as a constitutive element of freedom.10 Furthermore, to extend the historical Underground Railroad suggests that the escape from oppression to freedom is an ongoing struggle that cannot end in a specific location, like Canada. Rather, the attempt to arrive at some home-free location always continues in changed and changing forms: it is what Martin and Mohanty call a “\site] of personal and historical struggle” (196).

A similar insistence on choice informs Margaret's subjective self-determination. Alongside her efforts to help Zulma and inextricable from the Underground Railroad game, Margaret rewrites her identity. She has been named by her father, an oppressive patriarch, for his mother, whom Margaret has never met but who comes to represent the “‘Good West Indian Discipline’” that Margaret's father repeatedly threatens her with. She is named, essentially, within the patriarchy. Determined to distinguish herself from her familially inherited role, Margaret renames herself. The name she chooses is Harriet, out of admiration for Harriet Tubman and in remembrance of Harriet Blewchamp, a woman who survived concentration camps, employed Margaret's mother, and bequeathed to Margaret her books and letters, as well as a trust fund. Choosing to be identified as Harriet, then, is a self-conscious move on Margaret's part to write herself into the most important historical events of the last two centuries from an explicitly feminist point of view.


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Linda Hutcheon (review date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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King-Kok Cheung (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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


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Allan Casey (review date November 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 652 words.)

Karin Quimby (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

—Joy Kogawa...

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Joy Kogawa with Ruth Y. Hsu (interview date Spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sonia Snelling (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Arnold E. Davidson (review date Autumn 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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William Closson James (essay date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.]


In Joy Kogawa's fictional efforts to find the location of the sacred sometimes cultural traditions blend and reinforce each...

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