Joy Kogawa on Obasan's legacy

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First aired on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight (11/7/13)

When Joy Kogawa set out to write about the persecution and internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War, she had a lot to work with: when she was just a young girl she and her family were uprooted from their home and sent away to Slocan, British Columbia. They were among the roughly 22,000 Japanese-Canadians evacuated from the coast, separated from their families and relocated in internment camps following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Joy's 1981 novel Obasan recounts those dark days in our history, as seen through the eyes of a child.

And while the story of Obasan is very much her own, it belongs to all Canadians: It's now considered a Canadian classic and is taught in high schools across the country. When the Canadian government apologized for the injustices carried out, a passage from the novel was read in the House to describe the impact of internment. And while Joy Kogawa wanted the book to speak to Canadians, she never imagined this kind of reception. "I think it's miraculous," she said to George Stroumboulopoulos. "I think that my life is just filled with all of these unbelievably miraculous things that keep happening."

Since writing Obasan, Kogawa has published two more novels and several volumes of poetry. But it's only recently she's turned to non-fiction, and she's currently working on a memoir titled Gently, to Nagasaki. Writing a memoir is something Kogawa toyed with her entire career. "It started and stopped and started and stopped and started and stopped," she said, and it's been around in some shape or form since before Obasan.

Despite the familiar material, Kogawa took away a very important lesson from finally writing her memoirs. "It took this book to make me realize this and to go along from enemy to enemy...and try to see where the friendship is there within that and realizing that without truth there is no friend," she said. 

She's also come to believe that it's important not to continue seeing yourself as a victim. "If you stay stuck in the identity of the victim and if you therefore stay focused on how hurt you are, then you can do incredibly bad things to other people because you are not aware of their suffering, you are only aware of yours," she said. "When you are a victim, that's what you are, you are aware of your own suffering."

Kogawa went on to say that the government's apology to Japanese-Canadians was an important gesture, because it represents "when there's an acknowledgement, when you are seen, when you know you are seen."

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