Roy Miki reflects on the power of English over his Japanese Canadian parents
Roy Miki was born to second generation Japanese Canadian parents. His family was forcibly relocated and interned during the Second World War. As a poet and critic, his work has dealt with themes of race and identity, and as an activist, Roy was a leading member of a group that successfully negotiated redress from the federal government for internment survivors.
Miki won the Governor General's Literary Award for poetry in 2002 for Surrender. An anthology of his poems called Flow was released in 2018.
Shelagh Rogers spoke to Roy Miki in 2014.
The power of the English language
"When I was growing up, the English language had an awesome power over my parents' and my life. The internment process as I've come to understand it, through my research, was made possible through the power of discourse, the power to name people out of existence or name them through various categories. I've always been fascinated by that part of the English language, but I've also been fascinated by the creative powers of English as well.
"The whole internment process was done mainly through orders in council. It was the power of language to define Japanese Canadians as enemy aliens that made it possible for the government to carry out its actions without really being questioned. Throughout my childhood, my parents were always in fear of any letters that came from the government that were written in English with a lot of bureaucratic gobbledygook because it always meant something harmful to them. When I went into English and said I wanted to be a writer, my parents were quite worried about me because they didn't think it would be possible for a Japanese Canadian to succeed in the literary world, or the world of English because they'd seen it as something so in control by the dominant powers. They were actually afraid for me when I decided to go in literature."
Winning the Governor General's Literary Award
"I was always very wary of the term, 'poet.' Poetry seemed to be a pretty difficult area to be in. I've studied a lot of poetry and have great respect for so many different kinds of poets and my own work always seemed to fall short of that. I've always been fairly disappointed with things I've been writing. But I just kept persisting and when I got the Governor General's Literary Award [the GG], it was kind of strange because when I was interviewed about it, people would say, 'What's the impact of the GG Award?' And I would say, 'Before the GG Award, everything I wrote seemed to be meaningless. Now, everything seems to be meaningful, even if you don't know what that meaning is.'"
The meanings of 'surrender'
"'Surrender' is a highly fraught term and a couple of my activist friends, when they heard the title, they said 'Oh no! What's happening? You can't surrender!' I said, 'Aha! But what meaning of surrender do you have in mind?' When you fall in love, you surrender. It's a very positive act. You come under the spell of another force, but you do so willingly. Sometimes people surrender and make their way into enemy camp. There's a lot of strategies going on in that book of poems. It comes out of the sense that I had to release myself to the world of ambiguities and contradictions to see what would happen because I was going through my introduction-to-globalization phase at that time. I thought a lot of the things I had come to in my own writing had reached a dead end. I had to open my mind up to new forces and the influx of new possibilities."
"For me, it was always a struggle to both identify as a Japanese Canadian and disavow being Japanese Canadian. In my childhood, when racism was really overt, it was hard to be a Japanese Canadian. You'd say 'I'm not Japanese! I'm Canadian!' But during the 1960s and 1970s, there was a change in cultural framework in Canada with multiculturalism. Suddenly. it was good to be Japanese Canadian. People would say you're lucky to be Japanese Canadian. It was a weird thing to be seen in a positive light. That was a time when being Japanese Canadian went through a transformation."
Roy Miki's comments have been edited for length and clarity.