British Columbia

Gently to Nagasaki: Celebrated Canadian author Joy Kogawa releases memoir

In her new memoir, literary elder Joy Kogawa delivers a first-hand account of life inside a Japanese internment camp and the search for meaning that followed.

New book explores the search for meaning and understanding during one of Canada's darkest periods

81 year-old author Joy Kogawa has released a new book, chronicling her life from a young girl living in a Japanese internment camp — to becoming one of Canada's most celebrated authors. (CBC)

Before becoming one of Canada's most celebrated writers, Joy Kogawa was a young girl living inside a Japanese internment camp in the Kootenays.

In her new memoir, Gently to Nagasaki, the 81-year-old author recounts those lived experiences — and the search for meaning and self-identity that followed.

She sat down with Rick Cluff on CBC's The Early Edition to discuss the new memoir.

"I didn't [want to write it]," she said. "I really didn't — but I was being a leaf in the wind, and the wind blew it that way. I didn't have any choice."

"[And] if you've been blown into hell, you have to do what you can to get through it." she added. "So the pen has always been my tool for travelling through thick things."

Heaven and hells

Kogawa was born in Vancouver in 1935 — but her family was forced to relocate to the Kootenays just six years later, when the Canadian government ordered the removal all 20,000 Japanese residents from the Pacific Coast, in response to the bombings of Pearl Harbour. 

They were transferred to an internment camp in the Slocan valley, which became the source material for her first novel, Obasan.

In Gently to Nagasaki, Kogawa highlights the difficulties she had making sense of her family's detainment, the pervading concept of the 'Japanese enemy' and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Many Japanese Canadians were uprooted from their homes along the West Coast and relocated to internment camps in the B.C. Interior and across Canada during the Second World War. (Tak Toyota/National Archives of Canada/Canadian Press)

"I think life does that to us," she said. "It will take us into wherever our hells are, whatever they are."

"I think we live in heaven and hell on earth. We each have whatever problems life gives us, and they are our challenges — and these were mine."

Lucky, blessed and gladdened

Kogawa says her experiences have fuelled her creative identity ever since.

"To be part of a race of people that was named as the enemy and to try to grapple with that was a tremendous privilege — to be able to live through that, without being killed by it," she said.

"I think that, as a writer, I was given these gifts of this kind of life and to realize that as an old woman now — to be able to walk through all of that — I just feel incredibly lucky and blessed and gladdened. The ending of my life is so much better than the beginning," she said.

Kogawa has been able to transform her experiences into powerful literary works that address social injustice.

Since the release of her first novel, she's been made a member of the Order of Canada, the Order of British Columbia, and Japan's Order of the Rising Sun — all honours recognizing outstanding achievement. She has also written poetry and children's books.

"It's the power of the universe to turn that hatred into something that is light, that heals, that is heavenly, that is wonderful," she said. "It's a wonderful thing, our hells — we can get through them."

The official launch of Gently to Nagasaki is September 22, from 6 to 8 p.m. PT at CBC Vancouver's Studio 700.

With files from CBC's The Early Edition

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Joy Kogawa releases new memoir chronicling her life inside an internment camp to becoming one of Canada's most celebrated authors