'The pen must not harm': Authors Joy Kogawa and Mark Sakamoto on forgiveness and Japanese Canadian internment

We bring together two Japanese Canadian authors, Joy Kogawa and Mark Sakamoto, to open up the dialogue about one of the darkest chapters in Canada's history.
Authors Mark Sakamoto and Joy Kogawa in the q studio in Toronto, Ont. (Elaine Chau/CBC)

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, thousands of Japanese Canadians had their homes and belongings taken away from them. They were forced to live in internment camps and endured devastating and traumatic experiences. Today, these tragedies are still difficult to talk about.

To open up the dialogue about this dark chapter in Canada's history, we brought together two authors, Joy Kogawa and Mark Sakamoto, both of whom have written about the Japanese Canadian experience during the Second World War.

In 1981, Kogawa wrote the first novel on Japanese Canadian internment, Obasan, which is told through the eyes of a child as she watches bewildered at the persecution she and her family face in their own land. Sakamoto has just won Canada Reads 2018 with his book, Forgiveness, a compelling memoir that intertwines the true stories of his grandfather Ralph MacLean and his grandmother Mitsue Sakamoto.

Together, Kogawa and Sakamoto discuss friendship, forgiveness and the delicate balance of bringing their stories, and the story of Japanese Canadian internment, into the spotlight.

"You've obviously written about tragedies in your family's life and I've written the same," Sakamoto says to Kogawa. "And you have to be so damn brave about telling your truth, but trying not to crush people around you at the same time."

"Yes, the pen must not harm," agrees Kogawa. "Sometimes when a society denies you the right to speak and silences you then that is a form of destroying the soul. The soul of the whole people."

Sakamoto goes on to say that hope is also imbued in their stories. "What we've written about is dark and sad and tragic and needs to be known," says Sakamoto. "But like Leonard Cohen would say, 'There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.' It's one of my favourite lines. And so I think, in many ways, forgiveness is extremely hopeful."

Currently, Kogawa and Sakamoto are working together to adapt Forgiveness into a television series for CBC. It's a project that means a lot to both of them on a personal level, and both authors hope it's just the beginning of their collaboration.

"I certainly hope that our working together will go much beyond the adaptation," says Kogawa. "Wonderful as it is, there's a lot to do."

Produced by Elaine Chau

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