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The Chat With Joy Kogawa

It’s an honour to be in conversation this week with Canadian literary legend Joy Kogawa.


It’s an honour to be in conversation this week with Joy Kogawa, Canadian literary legend and a determined and passionate voice for peace and reconciliation. We speak about her new memoir, Gently to Nagasaki.

Douglas Todd, writing in the Vancouver Sun, says “Gently to Nagasaki is a mature work of history and spirituality; bravely detailing the intersection between mass global evils and those perpetrated intimately by members of one’s own family. Kogawa’s memoir deeply explores how denial works in regards to racism, pedophilia, nuclear power, Canadian internment camps and Japanese war atrocities. It reveals how, in the midst of betrayal, there is still a place for trust.”

Joy Kogawa is the award-winning author of three novels, seven collections of poetry and two books for children. Obasan, which the New York Times called “a tour de force ... brilliantly poetic in its sensibility,” continues to be taught across North America, and the opera based on her children’s book Naomi’s Road has toured in Canada and the United States. Kogawa has worked to educate Canadians about the history of Japanese Canadians and is a long-time activist in the areas of peace and reconciliation. In 2010, the Japanese government honoured her with the Order of the Rising Sun.




Trevor Corkum: Your memoir, Gently to Nagasaki, is remarkable in scope, covering a range of time periods and overlapping narratives. Can you tell us more about how the project came together? Was there a particular incident or story that arrived for you first?

Joy Kogawa: I don’t think the many thoughts came together in a coherent form. I would say I was like a leaf in the wind blowing about. If there was an over-arching drive in my life, it was the need for mercy for my father and my suffering family. The dream of the Goddess of Mercy being the same as the Goddess of Abundance came to me in a Buddhist temple in Japan. It was likely the guiding event that set me on a path in life and in the writing of the memoir.

TC: A great deal of historical research underlies the book—the horrors of the American bombing in Nagasaki, the story of the hidden Christian community in Japan, the biographical details of politicians involved in the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War Two, as just a few examples. Can you talk more about your research process?

JK: At one point I think I mention that I don’t do much do research, as I find that research does me. Information arrives willy nilly. Since I have almost no university education I have had no training in scholarly research. After falling into The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang, I did start looking for information and went to the Metro Library in Toronto. There was very little systematic searching. I found things on the Internet. I asked questions of friends. I kept my eyes open. I never did understand how Nagasaki entered the novel Obasan and became the answer to the question of what happened to the mother. And I also don’t know how the title “Gently to Nagasaki” persisted without a story to go with it.

At one point I think I mention that I don’t do much do research, as I find that research does me. Information arrives willy nilly.

TC: At the heart of the memoir is the story of how you discover and grapple with the knowledge that your father, an Anglican minister, sexually abused boys over many years. You write painfully and compassionately about struggling with what you learn and reconciling these crimes with the father you knew and loved. Can you talk more about how you were able to come to terms with your father’s past?   

JK: I don’t think I have come to terms with that reality. It continues to cause pain to others and to me. I don’t know how things can be put right. The pain and outrage that others feel and express causes me pain and I think there’s no getting away from it. But being filled up by the Abundance that I experience as being poured our way, being filled up by the love and compassion that is on hand, more than helps. And I’m more than thankful for it.

TC: The book powerfully speaks to the possibility of reconciliation in the face of horrific acts of violence, both personal and collective. You speak often about the role of faith in your own journey of healing. What does the concept of reconciliation mean to you?

JK: I trust that there is guidance and comfort accessible to us as we proceed seeking reconciliations. I trust that forgiveness can happen—not by our willing it, but by our experiencing a welling up of thankfulness when we are able to see and receive gifts that come our way unexpectedly as we wait and struggle to be forgiving. When animosities dissolve between people, no matter on what small scale, I feel a sense of homecoming, of rightness. That’s what I experience of reconciliation. In the story of Jacob and Esau, when Jacob was on his way home after having cheated Esau, and when he saw the acceptance on Esau’s face, Jacob said it was like looking on the face of God. I think there’s nothing better.

In the story of Jacob and Esau, when Jacob was on his way home after having cheated Esau, and when he saw the acceptance on Esau’s face, Jacob said it was like looking on the face of God. I think there’s nothing better.

TC: Finally, we live in a time when it often feels the world is more divided than ever—by political opinion, gender, race, nationality, and many other differences. There seems to be shrinking space for dialogue and a lack of desire to understand alternate points of view. From your perspective, how do we move forward, in our own lives, with reconciliation? What can we do in order to bear witness to each other's full humanity—our own private traumas, joys, and capacity for hurt and forgiveness?

I think the light is always coming into the darkness and the light comes through us in our openness and vulnerability to one another. When we take the risk to reveal what is hidden within us, we grow in strength. When we welcome the risk that another is taking, when we accept and honour the risking in ourselves and others, when we wait patiently and attend to the other’s pain, when we carry the hurt we feel and understand that it is for the sake of others, when we are not diminished by doing this, when we are not threatened by our different truths but know that our love is more important than our different truths, when we know that we are being attended by the light—then I think our capacity to see more is being created. I think it is the attention of the light that creates our sight. I try to see that prior to and surrounding every relationship we have, there is another relationship which is more real than any reality we imagine that we have.


Excerpt from Gently to Nagasaki

August 9 is the day the atom bomb fell on Nagasaki. That is where Naomi’s missing mother was in 1945. I have never understood how that answer came to me. Nagasaki was a city about which I knew nothing—its history, its people, its geography, even where it was on the map—except that the last atom bomb had fallen there.

After Obasan was published, I wondered whether the absent mother might also be an allegory for the absent God. Both were the face of love in a bewildering world of suffering. Following the Holocaust in Europe, theologians asked where, within the horrors of the death camps, was the God who saves His people. The question gave rise to the Death of God theology.

The feminist theologian Rosemary Ruether wrote, “Each of us must discover for ourselves the secret key to divine abandonment—that God has abandoned divine power into the human condition utterly and completely, so that we may not abandon each other.”

Naomi Nakane, who suffered love’s disappearance, would learn from a letter long hidden that her mother’s absence was not an absence of love. It was an absence of power. The fictional mother made absent to her fictional children by a real event did not abandon them.

“Perhaps it is because I am no longer a child, I can know your presence though you are not here,” Naomi says to herself and to her absent mother. Love remained alive towards Naomi but the one who embodied love was defaced at Nagasaki among those who died there. And she hid her mutilated face from view.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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