Asian Heritage Month

Smaro Kamboureli on Roy Miki

Smaro Kamboureli, Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) in Critical Studies in Canadian Literature at the School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph (Maria Gilli/Greece)

Smaro Kamboureli will give the keynote address at the closing of the Tracing the Lines Symposium. Here she reflects on Roy Miki's life, work and legacy. Video clips courtesy of CBC Archives.

Roy Miki is one of a handful of Canadians that I know whose life course and career path can be described accurately only by resorting to superlatives. What makes him so exceptional is that he exemplifies what Antonio Gramsci calls an organic intellectual: someone who, rooted in a community and its local struggles, also engages in an equally committed fashion with various institutions and the nation to effect change for society at large. Dr. Miki has done this through cultural and political activism, teaching, scholarship, and poetry.

Whether it is in relation to the Redress movement of Japanese Canadians, the Writing thru Race conference sponsored by the Writers’ Union of Canada, writing and editing in the areas of Canadian literature in general and Asian Canadian literature in particular, or pedagogy inside and outside the classroom, Dr. Miki’s publications, cultural activities and social activism have demonstrated, and have done so over a long span of time, a dedication and commitment to change that are virtually unparalleled.

For example, because of his fundamental belief in justice, especially justice as it pertains to the effects of racialization and racism, Dr. Miki took on two of the most significant struggles about race relations and culture in recent Canadian history whose outcomes have had, and will continue to have, a lasting impact on Canadian society and culture.

Continue reading to see video clips of Roy Miki from CBC's Archives

The first is the Redress movement of Japanese Canadians in the mid 1980s that, led by Dr. Miki and his brother Art Miki, Watch video (runs 2:02) succeeded, after a difficult and laborious process, to receive both “acknowledgement” and “compensation” by the Canadian government for the wrongs committed against the Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. His most recent book, Redress (Rainforest 2004), is a powerfully delivered narrative of that struggle. A book that records the long, painful, and laborious processes that revisit history but also demonstrates how history is made, and an autobiographical narrative of the toll the internment took on his own family as well as his own personal and political efforts to redress that history, this volume is also seminal in that it invites us to reconsider how institutional discourses operate, how history is written.

It was around that time that I first met Roy Miki. I marveled at how he managed to maintain a family life and a demanding academic career while, at the same time, traveling constantly across the country, attending strategic meetings with community leaders, dialoguing with the federal government, and dealing with the heated arguments about that movement that often made it to the national media. Passionate but also levelheaded, and indefatigable, he was motivated by his faith in justice. The successful outcome of that Redress movement Watch video (runs 2:02) has not only righted a wrong, but it has made history in Canada and beyond. His publications on this event, based on his brilliant scholarly analysis that focused, in part, on the huge archive he had amassed (now housed at the archival collection at the University of British Columbia), have already become classic texts in Asian American and Canadian Studies, while his work and wisdom are regularly sought out by such groups as that of the Korean Japanese in Japan.

Roy Miki was equally instrumental in mobilizing in the 1990s yet another community, this time the Writers’ Union of Canada. Again, racialization was the central issue. Writing thru Race, a conference about writers of color for writers of color, that took place in Vancouver, caused mass media hysteria when a Parliament member objected to the federal support promised to the organizing committee. Despite all this, Writing thru Race did take place. What’s more, it proved to be a landmark event—an event that galvanized and empowered writers of color, but also an instructive and humbling experience for white writers and academics like me who attended the events opened to whites. Roy Miki, at the heart of the controversy that erupted, exuded a confidence and calmness that lent his message great power and efficacy. Things in the Canadian literary and cultural world at large have never been the same since.

Writing thru Race Watch video (runs 2:13) has become the focus of articles and books, as well as a subject often taught at universities. It is a great “lesson” to teach not only about how history is made, but also about what it takes to make history, precisely the qualities Roy Miki exemplifies: an unwavering belief in exposing wrongs, a commitment to doing so through collaboration and dialogue with others, and an uncanny ability to write about these issues in ways that make his readers see Canada through different eyes.

As the true organic intellectual that he is, Dr. Miki turns asymmetrical sites of repression—no matter how “subtle” that repression—into laboratories of collaborative praxis and artistic and intellectual work. A leader who leads by empowering others, a passionate advocate who never tires of offering support to students, colleagues, and cultural workers, someone with a global vision of justice who never loses site of the local and the regional, an award-winning poet, and a practicing intellectual that has produced groundbreaking work (e.g., Broken Entries:Race, Subjectivity, Writing 1998), Roy Miki is a model of the very qualities that a Canadian intellectual and citizen should demonstrate in the twenty-first century.

Smaro Kamboureli
Professor, and Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) in Critical Studies in Canadian Literature and Culture, School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph
Director, TransCanada Institute

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