Obasan Joy Kogawa Essay Contest

#110 Joy Kogawa

February 02nd, 2016

LOCATION: Joy Kogawa House, 1450 West 64th Avenue, Marpole district, Vancouver

This house was confiscated from the Kogawa family under the War Measures Act during World War II. It was later purchased by the Land Conservancy of B.C. in May of 2006 to prevent it from being demolished. The purchase was made possible after several years of fundraising and lobbying by members of the The Historic Joy Kogawa House Society and others. Most significantly, the home was acquired thanks to a $500,000 donation from Senator Nancy Ruth. After most people assumed it was safely held within the TLC, the childhood home of novelist Joy Kogawa was facing foreclosure after TLC declared it could no longer sustain 51 sites around the province, including Abkhazi Garden in Victoria, Madrona Farm in Saanich and Talking Mountain Ranch at Clinton. The Land Conservancy of B.C., essentially declared bankruptcy in October 7, 2013, when it filed for protection under theCompanies Creditors Arrangement Act(CCAA). Ownership of the former Kogawa property was transferred to the City of Vancouver on Nov. 1, 2016 for $634,000. Funds from the sale retired the $134,000 mortgage on title and paid off creditors. “The Kogawa board supports the transfer of the Historic Joy Kogawa House from TLC to the City of Vancouver,” said executive director Ann-Marie Metten. [Ownership of Talking Mountain Ranch and some other properties have been transferred to the Nature Conservancy of Canada.]


Joy Kogawa was named the 14th winner of British Columbia’s lifetime achievement award for authors. The George Woodcock Award was presented to her at Joy Kogawa House in Vancouver on April 25, 2008.

Daughter of an Anglican minister and a kindergarten teacher, Joy Kogawa was born in Vancouver as Joy Nozomi Nakayama on June 6, 1935. She has spent a lifetime internalizing, understanding and relating the repercussions of racism and internment during World War II. Her response is perhaps best summed up in a line from her award-winning first novel, Obasan. “What this country did to us, it did to itself.”

Obasan (1981) is a novel based upon her family’s forced relocation from the West Coast during World War II when she was six years old. Many Japanese Canadians were herded into converted barns on the PNE grounds but Kogawa’s family was spared this indignity. Joy Kogawa’s family was sent by train to the internment camp at Slocan City, B.C. and lived in “a shack made of newspaper walls”). After the war, in Canada’s Dispersal Policy, they went to Coaldale, Alberta, where the family lived in a one-room shack and she graduated from high school. The fictional memoir of Naomi Nakane, who recalls her early childhood in the Marpole area of Vancouver in 1942, has become a touchstone for the pain and drama and racism associated with the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II. At age five, Naomi’s life is radically altered after the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. “We are the silences that speak from stone” Kogawa writes. The novel describes how Naomi Nakane’s aunt and uncle, as enemy aliens were forced to provide labour for sugar beet farms while the family lived in a one-room shack “with no water, no heat, no toilet, no electricity, surrounded by gumbo.” As a child, Kogawa sent letters to the family’s former residence in Vancouver, but these letters were never answered. Her mother dreamed of moving back. “I would have done anything to get it for her,” Kogawa said in 1992, “but I couldn’t. It’s so tragic when I think about my mother’s life. She clung to an entirely spiritual life but there was such an underlying sadness.”

Joy Kogawa on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, CBC.

Kogawa’s novel Itsuka (1992) recounts Naomi Nakane’s gradual reconciliation with Canada against the backdrop of the Redress movement. More overtly political than Obasan, it takes its title from the Japanese word for someday–Itsuka. It voices the collective expectation that ‘someday’ Japanese Canadians, who had property confiscated as enemy aliens, would gain compensation from the Canadian government. In 2006, Itsuka was re-released and re-titled as Emily Kato on the 60th anniversary of the bombing that claimed Naomi’s young mother in Obasan. In Itsuka and Emily Kato, Naomi suffers when she learns of the death of the dear aunt and uncle who raised her, but her other aunt, “the feisty Emily Kato.” convinces her to move to Toronto, where she becomes involved in the Redress Movement.

The Redress Movement in which Kogawa “totally immersed” herself for five years succeeded in Canada prior to the publication of Itsuka. The Redress Agreement was signed in Canada by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on September 22, 1988, after American President Ronald Reagan set a precedent by signing the Civil Liberties Act of August 4, 1988, allocating $20,000 per Japanese American who had been interned during World War II. [Also see Roy Miki entry.]

A third Kogawa novel, The Rain Ascends, deals with the painful and complicated subject of molestation in early childhood and the importance of mercy. Kogawa has published numerous collections of poetry since 1967, plus a children’s novel, Naomi’s Road, about the internment of a girl named Naomi and her brother Stephen, both separated from their parents during World War II. A revised and illustrated 2005 edition, based on an expanded version published in Japan, includes added historical information and new information on the fate of Naomi’s mother. A Vancouver Opera version of Naomi’s Road premiered in 2005. Her latest book is Naomi’s Tree (Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2008).

Joy Kogawa has lived primarily in Toronto but has maintained an apartment in Vancouver. Divorced, she has two children and has become a grandmother. A member of the Order of Canada, she has received seven honourary doctorates from Canadian universities. Next to Alice Munro, the highest ranked living B.C. author in Quill & Quire’s 1999 survey of English Canadian literature was Joy Kogawa, ranked at number 13, for Obasan. [Also in the Top Twenty were Sheila Watson for The Double Hook, Malcolm Lowry for Under the Volcano and Elizabeth Smart for By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept. Tops was Margaret Laurence for The Stone Angel.]

The City of Vancouver proclaimed November 6 as Joy Kogawa Day in 2004 and passed a motion to plant a cherry tree, propagated from one growing in the backyard of the former Kogawa home, on the grounds of City Hall. An effort to purchase and preserve the Kogawa’s former residence at 1450 West 64th Avenue in Vancouver was instigated in 2004 by the Save the Kogawa Homestead Committee consisting of Margaret Steffler, Roy Miki, Sook C. Kong, Keiko Miki, Lois Wilson, Daphne Marlatt, Steve Turnbull, Tracy Matsuo, David Kogawa, Timothy Nakayama, Linda Ohama, Stephanie Gould, Ann-Marie Metten, Anton Wagner and Chris Kurata. New Kogawa Homestead committee member Todd Wong told CBC’s Mark Forsythe in October of 2005, “It’s not just a Japanese Canadian issue.” Kogawa remained philosophical about the efforts to save the house from demolition by an offshore owner, one of a series of owners of the house. “I don’t want to be aggressive, I don’t want to fight,” she once said. “We’ll see what friendship can do.”

Joy Kogawa and the plaque in front of her home.

In 2005, Vancouver city council formally consented to preserve the house as a heritage site if sufficient funds could be raised for its purchase from the owner. On November 3, 2005. the City of Vancouver granted a 120-day delay on the demolition permit for the house, effective November 30. In early December, the Land Conservancy of British Columbia announced they would spearhead the campaign to raise the $1.25 million needed to acquire the house, restore it and set up an endowment to secure its protection in perpetuity as a symbol of Canada’s cultural heritage. The original deadline for funding was March 30, 2006. It was extended to the end of April. In late April the Land Conservancy of British Columbia announced it was moving forward with the purchase of the house to prevent demolition. “While we still need to raise more funds to purchase and operate the house, our ‘option to purchase’ expires this weekend,” explained TLC Executive Director Bill Turner. “We are out of time. So TLC has decided to step forward, and take out a mortgage if necessary, to make sure that this important piece of our country’s heritage will not be lost.”

By this juncture, some 500 donors had raised $230,000 but the TLC needed nearly $700,000 specifically to purchase the house. An anonymous donor [later identified as Nancy Ruth; see press release below] contributed $500,000. The conservancy effort was seeking $1.25 million overall to operate the house as an educational site addressing the issue of the internment of Canadians of Japanese heritage during the Second World War and as a site for a Writers-in-Residence program. “The future of the Historic Joy Kogawa House is now completely in the hands of the TLC, and we are proud of what we were able to accomplish with such a short deadline,” said TLC Deputy Executive Director Ian Fawcett. “This is one huge hurdle cleared. The next challenge is to continue raising the rest of the funds necessary to complete this project, to restore the house ($200,000) and to set up an endowment to offset the costs of long-term maintenance and programming ($300,000).”

Joy Kogawa.

The Land Conservancy of British Columbia (TLC) became the owners of the house on May 31, 2006. In response to the news that her family’s former home would be preserved, Joy Kogawa wrote: “What the house means to me — these days it’s a sense of miracle that surrounds me. The fact of The Land Conservancy coming along and taking this on, the fact that it just happened to be that Naomi’s Road was made into an opera at this time, that Vancouver Public Library chose Obasan as the One Book for Vancouver–these were miracles enough, without it all happening at this particular time. And the amazing miracle of the particular people who were drawn to the work of saving the house — Anton Wagner, Ann-Marie Metten, Todd Wong. So the house and the cherry tree and all these happenings and people are signs of miracles and fill me with hope. When we look at the uncaring in our planet, here is evidence that relationships can be rehabilitated, the formerly despised can be embraced. The dream that writers who are presently among the despised of the world, can come and write their stories here, fills me with even more hope. Racism is a present tragedy in the world, as it has been in the past. Here is one small way that we can say in Canada, that racism can be overcome.”

Also in 2006, Joy Kogawa was named as a recipient of the Order of British Columbia.


Gently to Nagasaki(Caitlin, 2016).
Naomi’s Tree (Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2008).
The Rain Ascends. (Knopf Canada, 1995).
Itsuka. (Penguin Books, 1993). (Retitled Emily Kato, 2006)
Naomi’s Road. (Oxford University Press, 1986; Stoddart 1994; Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2005).
Woman in the Woods. (Mosaic Press, 1985).
Obasan. (Lester & Orpen, Dennys, 1981; Penguin Books, 1983; Puffin Classics, 2014).
Jericho Road. (McClelland & Stewart, 1977).
A Choice of Dreams. (McClelland & Stewart, 1974).
The Splintered Moon. (Fiddlehead, 1967).


For Obasan: Books in Canada, First Novel Award. Canadian Authors Association, Book of the Year Award. Periodical Distributors of Canada, Best Paperback Fiction Award. Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award. American Library Association, Notable Book Award.
Order of Canada, 1986
Honorary Doctorate, SFU, 1993
Order of British Columbia, 2006.
George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award, 2008

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2008]

Joy Kogawa

House of Obasan Up for Sale (2003): Press Release

On Saturday, September 27, 2-3 pm, author Joy Kogawa will return to her childhood house at 1450 West 64th Avenue. She will meet with friends, teachers, fellow writers, and interested readers of her work. She will share her memories and read from her award-winning novel, Obasan. Since its publication in 1981, Obasan has become one of the most endearing novels of our time. Countless readers were first introduced to the wartime mass uprooting and internment of Japanese Canadians through the eyes of its central character, Naomi Nakane. As Naomi invokes her personal memory of this catastrophic event, she takes readers back to her childhood in the Marpole area of Vancouver – and back to 1450 West 64th Avenue in 1942. Then six years old, she recalls the moments when her tightly knit family life was violated and then torn apart by the actions of the Canadian government.

While recently visiting Vancouver, sixty-one years later, Kogawa came across the very house that she remembered in her novel – still close to its original form inside and out. The house is empty and up for sale. Kogawa was especially struck by the cherry tree in the back yard, propped up and bandaged, yet still very much alive. As she writes after being invited to return to West 64th Avenue: “I always always wanted to go back home. It was such a splendid house in my mind, a castle, compared to everything afterwards. The old old cherry tree is still there in the back yard – terribly wounded and weeping sap – but miraculously alive.” West Coast Line and the Japanese Canadian Studies Society, with the assistance of Joy Kogawa’s friend, Roy Miki, are pleased to sponsor a literary event to commemorate Kogawa’s return to this historically important site. The media is especially invited to attend this unique literary and cultural event in Vancouver. — West Coast Line, 2003

Save Kogawa House Committee (2005): Press Release

This afternoon Vancouver City Council voted unanimously to grant an unprecedented 120-day delay of demolition for 1450 West 64th Avenue, the childhood home of author Joy Kogawa.

The present home owner bought the house in 2003, unaware that the Save Kogawa Homestead committee was trying to raise funds to turn the house into a writers’ retreat. The owner has now decided to demolish and rebuild on the site, prompting the now renamed Save Kogawa House committee to action, soliciting support from writing and arts organizations
across the country.

Gerry McGeough, senior heritage planner in the Vancouver City Planning Department, was instrumental in bringing the motion before city council. He stated that the 1915 house could be registered as Class A heritage because of its cultural value and local and
national prominence.

Todd Wong and Ann-Marie Metten led the committee’s presentation to council, with additional presentations from Diane Switzer of the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, Heather Redfern of the Alliance for Arts and Culture, and Marion Quednau of the Writers’ Union
of Canada, demonstrating the wide local and national support across Canada to preserve the house,

Kogawa, received the Order of Canada in 1986 and her novel Obasan is school curriculum across Canada and studied around the world. The novel was also chosen as the Vancouver Public Library’s One Book One Vancouver selection for 2005. An operatic adaptation of the
children’s story, Naomi’s Road, is now touring BC schools with the Vancouver Opera in the Schools program.

Joy Kogawa arrived via car and ferry from a performance of Naomi’s Road in Ucuelet, BC, just in time to read from her novel Obasan. Kogawa had only left City Hall on Tuesday, November 1st, which had been proclaimed “Obasan Cherry Tree Day”, as a graft from the cherry tree from Kogawa’s childhood home was planted at City Hall.

Council was so moved by the presentation that Councillor Raymond Louie immediately challenged other councillors to pull out their wallets and match his $100 donation. Councillor Ellen Woodsworth wrote an equivalent cheque and said council would challenge
other city councils to match their donations as well. At the end of the meeting, the committee walked out of council chambers $540 richer.

An estimated $750,000 is needed to purchase the house from the owner at “fair market value.” McGeough has been mediating with the house owner and the Save Kogawa House committee, and the 120-day delay will give the committee time to fundraise this amount.

Charitable donations can be made online through the Vancouver Heritage Foundation website at http://www.vancouverheritagefoundation.org/Kogawa.html.

To celebrate this milestone in the Save Kogawa House campaign, a performance of the opera Naomi’s Road by the Vancouver Opera Touring Ensemble will be presented free to the public on November 12 at 2 pm. It will take place in the Alice MacKay Room of the Vancouver
Public Library downtown. Special guest musician is Harry Aoki, who was interned at age 20.

Kogawa Open House

Prior to renovations that will turn the former Kogawa family residence in the Marpole neighborhood of Vancouver into a writers’ retreat, an Open House was held on September 17, 2006 to celebrate the purchase and preservation of Joy Kogawa House at 1450 West 64th by The Land Conservancy. The organization purchased the property aided by donations from 550 individuals. Best known for her novel about the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II, Obasan, Joy Kogawa was in attendance. Information regarding the process that saved the house from demolition can be found on The Land Conservancy website at www.conservancy.bc.ca.

[BCBW 2006]

Donor thanked; tree planted: Press Release (2008)
Land Conservancy of BC

VANCOUVER, B.C. – Joy Kogawa, award-winning Canadian author and Bill Turner, Executive Director at TLC The Land Conservancy of British Columbia will join to thank the significant donor who helped to complete the purchase of Historic Joy Kogawa House on Friday, April 25, at 3 p.m., Historic Joy Kogawa House, 1450 West 6th Avenue.

The donor, who is a prominent Canadian dedicated to women’s rights and the environment, will be on hand to speak about their special contribution to this cultural landmark.

Following the press conference, guest speakers (with special appearance by Iona Campagnolo, former B.C. Lieutenant Governor and TLC’s Honourary President) will participate in a cherry tree planting to celebrate second life at the Historic Joy Kogawa House. The cherry tree cutting is from the tree in the backyard at the house which was highlighted in Joy Kogawa’s children’s books: Naomi’s Road and her latest novel, Naomi’s Tree.

In May 2006, TLC became the proud owner of the Historic Joy Kogawa House. The purchase would not have been complete without the generous donation of $500,000. After a hard-fought effort by TLC and the Save Kogawa House Committee to save the house from demolition, it is being restored, and beginning in the spring of 2009, will host a writer-in-residence program.

The Historic Joy Kogawa House is a place that commemorates both the brightest hopes and the darkest hours of Canadian history. The house, representative of many properties owned by Canadians of Japanese descent, was confiscated during the Second World War when its occupants and 20,000 other Japanese-Canadians were interned.

Woodcock Award Presentation: Press Release (2008)

The Language of Music, The Music of Words: A Musical Evening with Joy Kogawa and Friends
Historic Joy Kogawa House, 1450 West 64th Avenue, Vancouver

Vancouver composer Leslie Uyeda presents two song cycles written to accompany five of Joy Kogawa’s most exquisite poems. “Stations of Angels” will be performed by soprano Heather Pawsey and flutist Kathryn Cernauskas and “Offerings,” by Heather Pawsey and pianist Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa. These performances are the world premiere of both song cycles, which were composed especially for these three artists. To complement the musical performance, poets Joy Kogawa, Heidi Greco, Marion Quednau, and Vancouver’s poet laureate George McWhirter will read. The evening will close with a stellar presentation: the Vancouver Public Library will award Joy the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an outstanding literary career related to British Columbia.

This National Poetry Month event takes place in Joy Kogawa’s childhood home-a place that is representative of the many properties owned by Canadians of Japanese descent that were confiscated during the Second World War when their occupants were interned. After a hard-fought effort to save the house from demolition, the tiny bungalow is being restored and will host a writer-in-residence program. Proceeds from this musical event will fund the honorarium for the first writer to live and work at the house, beginning in March 2009.

Vancouver Public Library

(Vancouver, B.C.) – Joy Kogawa is the next name to be inscribed onto a commemorative plaque in the Writers’ Walk at Vancouver’s Library Square honouring recipients of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award.

Kogawa is the 14th established writer to be honoured for an outstanding literary career related to British Columbia. She will receive the award on April 25 at the newly preserved Historic Joy Kogawa House owned by The Land Conservancy of British Columbia during a national poetry event of original music and poetry.

In addition to being commemorated in the Writer’s Walk, Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan will issue a proclamation honouring Kogawa, who also receives a $3,000 award.

Upon learning she was to receive the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award, Kogawa said, “I think it’s probably not possible to be more rewarded, more blessed, than I have been. It’s bewilderingly, amazingly incomprehensible.”

Kogawa, who lives primarily in Toronto but has maintained a residence in Vancouver, is much honoured both for her writing and civic involvement, particularly in the Japanese-Canadian Redress Movement.

She is a recipient of the Order of British Columbia, a member of the Order of Canada and holds an honorary doctorate from Simon Fraser University.

For her seminal novel Obasan, Kogawa won the Books in Canada First Novel Award, Canadian Authors Association Book of the Year Award and the American Library Association Notable Book Award. Vancouver Public Library chose Obasan as its 2005 One Book, One Vancouver title. Next to Alice Munro, the highest-ranked BC author in Quill & Quire’s 1999 survey of English Canadian literature was Kogawa who was ranked 13th for Obasan.

“Joy Kogawa is truly a national literary treasure,” said Alan Twigg, publisher of BC BookWorld and member of the Woodcock Award committee.

“Obasan is an extremely influential book because it captures and poignantly reflects a painful and damaging event in Canadian history while being truly poetic in its sensibility. And while it is the book that firmly placed Joy Kogawa on Canada’s literary landscape, it represents only one aspect of her work. Her full body of work, including two other novels, five books of poetry and two children’s books, confirms why she is so deserving of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award,” he added.

The City of Vancouver proclaimed November 6, 2004 as Joy Kogawa Day and planted a cherry tree, propagated from one growing in the backyard of the former Kogawa home, on the grounds of City Hall. The effort to purchase and preserve the Kogawa family’s former residence at 1450 West 64th Avenue began in 2004 by the Save the Kogawa Homestead Committee and was achieved in April 2006 when the Land Conservancy of British Columbia announced it would purchase the house to prevent demolition and ensure an important piece of Canada’s heritage was not lost.

Kogawa’s family was among 22,000 Japanese Canadians who were forcibly relocated from the West Coast during World War ll when she was six years old. The family was herded into converted barns on Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition grounds then sent by train to internment camps in the Slocan area of southeast British Columbia, then to Coaldale, Alberta and later to Saskatchewan and Ontario. Kogawa immersed herself in a major campaign launched by the Japanese-Canadian Redress Movement in the early 1980s. On Sept. 22, 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signed the Redress Agreement and issued a long-awaited formal apology.

Obasan is a fictionalized account of her family’s forced relocation from British Columbia, a theme that recurs in her work including Itsuka that was retitled Emily Kato and a children’s book Naomi’s Tree.

In 1994, in the aftermath of civic events held to recognize the literary career of celebrated Vancouver writer George Woodcock, BC BookWorld, the City of Vancouver, Vancouver Public Library and the non-profit Pacific BookWorld News Society jointly sponsored and presented an annual prize to a senior BC author whose enduring contribution to the literary arts spans several decades. The initial corporate sponsor was BC Gas, later renamed Terasen. In 2007, the Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award was renamed the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award.

Nancy Ruth Steps Forward: Press Release (2008)
The Land Conservancy

VANCOUVER, BC – Senator Nancy Ruth has moved into the limelight as the anonymous donor who helped saved the childhood home of friend and Canadian author, Joy Kogawa. Given her strong advocacy work for women’s rights in Canada and abroad, it was a natural fit for her to support a place that represents hope, healing, and reconciliation.

“This house reminds me of Joy Kogawa’s creativity, her passion, her reconciliation with foes, and her hope for the world. I wanted to help save Joy’s family home to preserve Joy’s spirit and the spirituality that I experience in association with her and the communities she nurtures,” says Hon. Nancy Ruth.

In May 2006, TLC The Land Conservancy of British Columbia became the proud owner of the Historic Joy Kogawa House in the Marpole community of Vancouver. The purchase was made possible because of a $500,000 donation from Hon. Nancy Ruth. After a hard-fought effort by TLC and the Save Kogawa House Committee to save the house from demolition, it is being restored, and plans are in the works to host a writer-in-residence program in Spring 2009.

“Hon. Nancy Ruth’s gift to the Historic Joy Kogawa House made our vision for the house come true. The purchase could have not happened without her generosity. Future children will now have a place to visit to learn about the Japanese Canadian internment, and Joy Kogawa’s literary works. The house has a second life, and we are happy to be part of it,” says TLC Executive Director, Bill Turner.

A native of Toronto, Hon. Nancy Ruth has won a series of prestigious awards such as the South African Women for Women Friendship Award in 2004; the Government of Ontario’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Human Rights in 1998; and Membership in the Order of Canada in 1994. Recently she received the 2007 Charles Sauriol Greenspace Award from the Conservation Fund of Greater Toronto.

Throughout her working life, she has played an active role in various religious, professional, political, educational and non-profit organizations in Canada, Britain and the United States. She has also been instrumental in co-founding organizations that work for women’s social change like LEAF (The Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund), the Canadian Women’s Foundation, www.section15.ca, Toronto’s The Linden School, The Women’s Future Fund and the Charter of Rights Coalition.

“I believe Senator Nancy Ruth’s action was more than one of generosity or friendship. It was an act of faith – a faith that all who laboured to save this house have shared. The world can be a kinder place. What winds blew us all together – The Land Conservancy, Nancy Ruth, Save Kogawa House Committee, school children and people great and small – I do not know. But it is more astonishing to me than words can say. I dream that the ways of reconciliation can radiate forth from this little house that survives,” says award-winning Canadian author, Joy Kogawa.

As a celebration to one woman’s commitment to woman and culture, TLC is hosting a private recognition ceremony for Senator Nancy Ruth this evening. Guest speakers will include: Bill Turner, TLC Executive Director, Ujjal Dosanjh, MP for Vancouver South, Joy Kogawa, award-winning Canadian author and Hon. Iona Campagnolo, former Lieutenant Governor of B.C. and TLC Honorary President. Following the ceremony, the general public are welcome to attend a national poetry month event entitled: The Language of Music, The Music of Words – A Musical Evening with Joy Kogawa and Friends at the Historic Joy Kogawa House, 1450 West 64th Avenue from 8 to 9:30 p.m. To secure a seat, please email: kogawahouse@yahoo.ca. Admission by donation.

The Historic Joy Kogawa House is a place that commemorates both the brightest hopes and the darkest hours of Canadian history. The house, representative of many properties owned by Canadians of Japanese descent, was confiscated during the Second World War when its occupants and 20,000 other Japanese-Canadians were interned.

TLC is a registered charity and land trust protecting wilderness areas, cultural landmarks, and agricultural lands in B.C. Since 1997, TLC has protected over 120,000 acres of sensitive and threatened lands around B.C., involving more than 300 projects. TLC has grown to include over 7,000 members, and is now part of an international network of National Trusts with over 7 million members.

After Obasan:
Kogawa Criticism and Its Futures

Guy Beauregard
University of British Columbia

1 Since its publication in 1981, Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan has had an enormous impact on the literary scene in Canada and abroad It won numerous prizes, including the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Canadian Authors’ Association Book of the Year Award, and the Before Columbus American Book Award; it has been widely taught in universities, not only in specialized upper-level courses but also frequently in first-year courses taken by a wide range of students; it played a key role in mobilizing support for the 1988 Redress Settlement, in which the federal government and the National Association of Japanese Canadians negotiated and signed an agreement providing a formal apology and compensation for Japanese Canadians for losses sustained in the 1940s; and it has generated great critical interest, becoming the subject, in my latest count, of some fifty-three articles or book chapters written by scholars in Canada, the United States, Europe, and Japan.1 In Canada, Obasan has become a key text for critics discussing the broad contours of contemporary Canadian literature written in English: an entry in the second edition of The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, for instance, refers to Obasan in its opening and closing paragraphs to frame its discussion of “Novels in English 1983 to 1996” — a framing that is especially noteworthy given the fact that Kogawa’s novel was not published during the historical period under discussion (see Heble).

2 This essay considers what this remarkable degree of critical attention might mean. In doing so, it attempts to contribute to an important and growing body of cultural criticism that investigates the cultural politics of Obasan and, more generally, the cultural politics of emerging “ethnic canons” in Canada and the U.S.2 Of this existing research, I would like to draw attention to Roy Miki’s ongoing attempt to investigate the incorporation and institutionalization of texts by writers of colour (including Obasan) in Canadian literary studies. Through this investigation — which has spanned most of the 1990s, and which has taken the form of numerous conference papers and essays, many of which are collected in Broken Entries — Miki analyzes, with great nuance, the cultural politics of the present. In doing so, he directs our attention toward the conflicted cultural politics of inclusion in Canadian literary studies as it attempts to come to terms with the proliferation of cultural texts produced by writers of colour and First Nations writers. In a memorable phrase, Miki asks: “What’s a racialized text like you doing in a place like this?”3 For Miki, it is crucial to recognize what he calls “an escalating cultural capital for texts of colour and for academic studies of such texts” (Broken 168) in English studies and Canadian literary studies in Canada while at the same time recognizing that “visibility is no guarantee that racialized texts can perform liberatory effects on readers” (171) — even as literary critics in Canada discuss texts such as Kogawa’s Obasan and SKY Lee’s Disappearing Moon Cafe in their teaching and writing. In a recent essay, Miki returns to and extends his investigation of the cultural politics of inclusion by theorizing the potential value of the term Asian Canadian:“Asian Canadian,” when dislodged from its foreclosures, becomes a revolving sign which re-articulates and thus exposes discourses of both globalization (i.e. towards Asian markets and economies, for instance) and a reactionary nationalism (i.e. as a “yellow peril” that is asianizing white Canada). “Asian Canadian” then becomes both a localized subject — of research, cultural production, interrogation — and a double-edged site: where relations of dominance threaten to be remobilized (more of the same), or where critiques of the nation can posit future methodologies of resistance and collective formations. (“Altered” 53)At the heart of this “double-edged site” — and the unsettling conjunction or used to hinge its possibilities — lie profound ethical questions about how we read, discuss, and teach racialized texts in contemporary Canadian literary studies.

3 Critical discussions of Obasan — what I call in this essay Kogawa criticism4 — have been and continue to be the sort of “double-edged site” theorized by Miki. As I discuss below, the sometimes uneven manner in which critics have analyzed Obasan can be understood as a symptom of how Canadian literary studies has attempted to reinvent itself by trying to address a “racist past” in a “multicultural present.” In hindsight, the detritus of this attempted critical reinvention can sometimes appear shockingly unattractive. The temptation — and I am certainly not immune from this — is to denounce some of its cultural politics and to disavow its contemporary implications. I argue, however, that an understanding of Kogawa criticism, in all its unevenness, should be at the center of a contemporary rethinking of Canadian literary studies and its potential futures.

4 Why have critics focused so intently on Obasan? One possible answer is that Kogawa’s novel is notable for making uncommonly fine use of language that often verges on the poetic. According to this explanation, the attention that critics have lavished on Obasan is a response to its formal greatness: the density of its poetic language, the depth of its haunting symbols, the precision of its narrative structure, and so on. A second possible answer is that Kogawa’s novel addresses questions of history and historiography at a moment in which literary critics were also trying to sort through such issues. Kogawa’s representation of events in the 1940s thus became part of larger debates on the reconstruction of history, the knowability of the past, and the connections between historical and literary narratives. But, to my mind, the most obvious answer to the question of why Obasan might matter to contemporary critics is the precision with which Kogawa’s novel represents a specific moment in the history of racism in Canada — that is, the internment of Japanese Canadians and its aftermath — largely from the point of view of an individual (the character Naomi Nakane) who attempts to come to terms with the implications of this history. Literary critics have responded by revisiting, time and again, Obasan and the history of racism it represents. I wish to suggest that it is time to ask ourselves what these repeated visits might mean. While critical discussions of Obasan consistently revisit Kogawa’s representation of the history of the internment, many of these critical accounts discuss the internment in ways that limit a serious critical investigation of the history of racialization and anti-Japanese racism in Canada.5 In the face of the existing scholarly record, we are left with the need to contest what Miki calls “the absence of race awareness in the critical frameworks that have evaluated Obasan as a CanLit novel” (Broken 136). But we are also left with the need to ask why critical discussions of Obasan have taken the shape they have — and how a contemporary understanding of Kogawa criticism can help us imagine potential alternative directions for Canadian literary studies as it engages with representations of histories of racism in Canada.

5 Before I present the specific terms of my argument, a few caveats are in order. First, I wish to acknowledge the perhaps self-evident point that the cultural politics of reading and interpreting a literary text such as Obasan are inevitably more complicated than the assumptions informing published literary criticism: Kogawa’s novel has circulated widely both within and outside of academia, and its potential pedagogical significance extends well beyond critical debates in scholarly journals and in the tertiary education system.6 Second, if one does focus on the cultural politics of published literary criticism, as I do in this essay, one should immediately note the conflicted nature of the scholarly record, in which various poststructuralist positions clash with humanist ones, and critics who focus on social contexts question the terms of engagement put forward in literary formalist analysis. One noteworthy example is the important and somewhat acrimonious debate between Donald Goellnicht and Rachelle Kanefsky over the status of history in Kogawa’s fiction.7 And third, I wish to underline the wide range of locations and academic disciplines in which Kogawa criticism has appeared: discussions of Obasan in Asian American studies, as well as discussions taking place in Europe and Japan, pose questions than are distinct from some of the questions raised in Canadian literary studies.

6 Thankfully, the scholarly record includes a number of useful critical summaries of Kogawa criticism that has appeared up to and including the mid-1990s.8 In a critical summary published in 1993, Arnold Davidson expresses dissatisfaction with what he calls “the ethnocentricity of much of the criticism” (20) on Obasan. As Davidson observes, “For Canadian critics, the novel is, not surprisingly, mostly about Canada” (20). By contrast, many critics working in Asian American studies, particularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s, have read Obasan as if it was a Japanese American or Asian American text. Miki provides a succinct observation about this phenomenon:The now canonic status of Obasan in Asian American literature courses … has resulted in the erasure of the difference that “nationalisms” make; in an act of institutional appropriation by US academics, the site-specific formation of the Japanese Canadian subject (as one effect, say, of the Canadian-based War Measures Act which allowed for more severe violations in Canada) tends to become another version of the “Asian American” example. (Broken 155 n15)My reading of this phenomenon, which I have elaborated elsewhere (see Beauregard), is that Asian American cultural criticism continues to be informed by a tension between the cultural nationalist commitments of the Asian American movement and a concomitant desire to construct a coherent literary history with canonical texts. As a result of this tension, critics of Asian American literature have at various times attempted to incorporate texts by Asian Canadians (including Obasan) without significantly changing the U.S.-centred frame in which they are working. As a result, Asian American discussions of Obasan, despite their impressive commitment to the importance and the subtlety of Kogawa’s text, are consequently receiving careful scrutiny in contemporary scholarship.9 Receiving less critical attention are the articles published in Europe and Japan. These articles, while obviously not speaking from any single location or academic discipline, nevertheless provide additional international perspectives that have to date often framed their concerns in a form of comparative analysis one may associate with Commonwealth or postcolonial literary studies.10

7 Despite the above caveats, and despite the range of possibilities opened by the entirety of Kogawa criticism, I wish to focus particularly (but not exclusively) on Kogawa criticism that has appeared in Canada. In doing so, I attempt to investigate what certain aspects of this body of criticism might tell us about the critical conceptualization of cultural difference in Canadian literary studies. Needless to say, this conceptual-ization of cultural difference is neither singular nor complete; it is provisional, contested, and always in process. But reading Kogawa criticism published in Canada in the 1980s and 1990s nevertheless brings into focus particular coherent patterns of how critics in Canadian literary studies have read and continue to read racialized texts and representations of histories of racism in Canada.

8 The most significant pattern I wish to identify concerns the way some critics understand and analyze the representation of historical events in the 1940s. Donna Bennett’s influential article, “English Canada’s Post-colonial Complexities,” makes a brief yet significant mention of Obasan that helps to clarify this issue: “Obasan dramatizes the error made by a Canadian wartime government that resulted in the internment or relocation of Canadians, and shows the reader how that error arose from the persistent misperception of Japanese-Canadians as Japanese” (192). Bennett is of course right to draw attention to the question of nationality and how Kogawa emphasizes, at certain points in her narrative, the “Canadianness” of Japanese Canadians. Bennett’s description of the Canadian state’s actions as an “error,” however, locates her analysis squarely within the assumptions — and, subsequently, the problems — of an “aberration” model of racism in Canada. We should note that Bennett is not alone in configuring the internment in this manner. B.A. St. Andrews, for instance, refers to Japanese Canadians as “those victimized by racial misunderstandings” (31), a characterization that implies that had there been better “understanding” at that point in history, the internment and its aftermath would presumably not have occurred. Erika Gottlieb, in a much more extensive and influential reading of Obasan, similarly claims that “Canada fell victim to the hysteria — fear, greed, the need for a scapegoat — it was fighting against” (43). In each of these cases, critics configure the internment as an irrational aberration in Canadian history, one that can be explained as an “error,” or a “misunderstanding,” or a result of wartime pressures on the Canadian state. What is unaddressed in these critical accounts — and what needs to be underlined in any serious discussion of racism in the 1940s — is the complex history of anti-Japanese racism in Canada, a history that extends far beyond the narrow and tumultuous window of 1942-49. As historian Ann Sunahara has asserted: “Abuse of Japanese Canadians did not begin with the Second World War. Rather, the uprooting, confinement, dispossession, dispersal and attempted deportation of Japanese Canadians were the culmination of a long history of discrimination resulting from Canadian social norms that cast Asians in the role of second-class citizens” (161). Restrictions on immigration, the franchise, and the ability to enter or remain in certain professions are only the most obvious forms of state-directed anti-Japanese racism that shaped Canada and the subjectivities of Japanese Canadians from the late nineteenth century onward. An “aberration” model of racism in Canada disregards the accumulated weight of this history and the critical task of understanding its persistence.

9 Why has Kogawa criticism taken this particular shape? One possible answer, to echo the South Park song and its recent witty appropriation by Terry Goldie, is to “Blame Obasan” (see Goldie). In this approach, one could note with some degree of justification that Obasan’s narrative structure underlines the obvious significance of the events of the 1940s as a massive and singular disruption in the lives of Naomi Nakane and the other Japanese Canadian characters in the novel. In this approach, one could argue that Obasan, to the extent that it turns to the 1940s as a key historical starting point for its narrative, has, however indirectly, helped suggest the routes some literary critics have subsequently followed. But one could counter (with greater critical nuance, I think) that the narrative structure of Obasan is more complex than a singular focus on the 1940s as the moment in the history of anti-Japanese racism in Canada can suggest. The novel represents, early and explicitly, the social processes of gendered racialization that mark the character Naomi as an outsider to an assumed white Canadian norm, social processes that show no sign of abating in the early 1970s (the narrative present of the novel). Out of many possible examples, one could turn to Naomi’s date in the rural setting of Granton, Alberta:Once a widower father of one of the boys in my class came to see me after school and took me to dinner at the local hotel. I felt nervous walking into the Cecil Inn with him.
“Where do you come from?” he asked, as we sat down at a small table in a corner. That’s the one sure-fire question I always get from strangers. People assume when they meet me that I’m a foreigner.
“How do you mean?”
“How long have you been in this country?”
“I was born here.”
“Oh,” he said, and grinned. “And your parents?” (6-7)

For Naomi, the social processes of racialized differentiation that enabled the events of the 1940s to be imagined and implemented continue to shape her everyday life in the novel’s narrative present. As she sharply describes herself immediately following the date scene: “Personality: Tense. Is that past or present tense? It’s perpetual tense” (7).

10 A second possible answer to why Kogawa criticism has taken its present shape is to “Blame Japanese Canadian Historiography.” While Ann Sunahara states, as I quoted above, that “Abuse of Japanese Canadians did not begin with the Second World War” (161), the historical narrative she provides in The Politics of Racism nevertheless begins with the events of early 1942 (1), as does Roy Miki’s engaging introduction to the “life and times” of Japanese Canadian writer and activist Muriel Kitagawa (Miki, “Introduction” 2). In understanding the shape of Japanese Canadian historiography, it seems impossible to overstate the profound effects on the Japanese Canadian community set in motion by the actions of the Canadian state at that time. As Roy Miki stated in a May 1987 conference:there hasn’t been any other ethnic community in this country — and I hope never again will be — whose entire history was permanently disrupted and disturbed by one single event. Of course I’m talking about the mass uprooting. That single event in our history is like BC and AD, if I may use the pun. Before 1942 was BC, and after was a new world, AD. Everyone who is Japanese Canadian or who has any relationship to Japanese Canadians, if they think about their own past and their own present, will always come back to that one point of change. (“Workshop” 72-73)The emphasis Sunahara and Miki place on the events that began with the uprooting had obvious strategic value for the National Association of Japanese Canadians as it pushed for a negotiated redress settlement with the federal government. But curiously — and in my opinion disturbingly — the particular narratives used strategically in Japanese Canadian historiography to confront the racism of the Canadian state have been adopted and adapted by literary critics to contain the implications of the history of anti-Japanese racism in Canada by characterizing the events of the 1940s as an isolated aberration.

11 I should point out here that standard Japanese Canadian historiography also includes longer general histories, most notably Ken Adachi’s The Enemy That Never Was, that have also had a significant impact on how literary critics in Canada have understood the history of the internment and its aftermath. The impact of Adachi’s general history is especially visible in “Generations,” a chapter in which Adachi frequently refers to members of the Japanese Canadian community on the basis of undifferentiated references to their generation, references that appear in the form of assertions that “the Nisei were …” or “the Nisei felt …” (158). Literary critic Mason Harris, whose work I will discuss in some detail below, provides the following summary and adaptation of Adachi’s argument:In his comprehensive history of the Japanese Canadian community, Ken Adachi describes the conflicts between Issei and Nisei generations. These conflicts are characteristic of any immigrant culture, but made sharper for Japanese Canadians by the conservatism of the Issei community and its rejection of the mores of western culture. Like many first-generation immigrants, the Issei sought a dignified accommodation with the surrounding society, but without joining it or altering their way of life. (“Broken” 42; emphasis added)One could quarrel here with this passage’s benighted characterization of “the Issei” as autonomous liberal subjects able to “choose” whether to “join” the “surrounding society” or to “alter” their “way of life.” I would suggest, by contrast, that the very subjectivities of the Issei were constituted by and against the various forms of violence and outright exclusion directed against them, particularly following the 1907 Vancouver Riot and the subsequent so-called Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan, which severely curtailed immigration from Japan to Canada.

12 But the main point I wish to underline is that Adachi’s account of “the generations,” much like the historical narratives that begin in February 1942, has influenced the shape of the arguments put forward in Kogawa criticism. One clear example is Harris’s “Broken Generations in ‘Obasan’,” an essay that universalizes the workings of “immigrant communities” and essentializes the particularities of Japanese Canadians:In all immigrant communities the first, second, and third generations represent crucial stages in adjustment to the adopted culture. The importance of these generations in the Japanese Canadian community is indicated by the fact that they are given special names: Issei (immigrants from Japan), Nisei (the first generation born in Canada), and Sansei (the children of the Nisei). (“Broken” 41)It is tempting here to dismiss this passage’s explanatory frame as bad sociology that rests on an imprecise knowledge of Japanese: to claim that “generations” are of particular importance to Japanese Canadians because Japanese has the words Issei, Nisei, and Sansei is tantamount to saying that “generations” are important to English speakers because English distinguishes between first generation, second generation, and third generation. For Harris, the notion of “the generations” accounts for not only the particular history narrated in Obasan but also the more general category he calls “autobiographical narratives by Asian-North American women” (“Joy” 148):The most obvious feature that the novels of Kogawa, [SKY] Lee, and [Amy] Tan have in common is an intense concentration on the relation between mother and daughter as the focal point for conflicts between the values of the old and new worlds.… The central problem is a failure of communication between the generations caused by the imposition, especially on females, of old-world moral constraints that suppress the truth of both personal experience and family history, as opposed to the determination of the novel-writing daughter to liberate herself in the present while recapturing the family past — and exposing its secrets in the process. (“Joy” 148)There is much to take issue with in this critical formulation: the continued focus on “the generations,” which becomes interwoven with a focus on “conflicts between the values of the old and new worlds,” a formulation that uncritically assumes these “worlds” (as embodied by different “generations”) to be incommensurable and distinct; the assertion that “the central problem” in these narratives is “a failure of communication between the generations” in the face of sometimes overwhelming and always present social processes of cultural differentiation that are represented in the narratives; and the claim that this “central problem” is somehow “caused by the imposition, especially on females, of old-world moral constraints” and not by the historical and ongoing forms of racialization and racist exclusion in Canada represented in Lee’s and Kogawa’s novels.11

13 It should be clear that I have fundamental disagreements with some of the assumptions that inform the narrow range of Kogawa criticism I have discussed. But the point I wish to make is not simply that this criticism is “wrong.” Nor do I feel that it is especially productive to “Blame Obasan” or to “Blame Japanese Canadian Historiography” for the present state of affairs. Rather, I want to suggest that the shape of Kogawa criticism needs to be understood as a symptom of the cultural politics of contemporary Canadian literary studies, in which literary critics attempt to discuss a “racist past” in a “multicultural present.” More specifically, I want to suggest that this body of criticism serves the function of attempting to manage the implications of a particular moment in Canadian history by remembering it in a particular way — in this case, by remembering the events of the 1940s as an “error” or as a “conflict between the generations.”

14 In this sense, critical discussions of Obasan share a great deal with wide-ranging and ongoing debates over “commemorating” and “remembering” colonial histories in a postcolonial era.12 A particularly valuable debate about “historical memory” is occurring over what Lisa Yoneyama calls “Japanese amnesia” (“Memory” 500) about the violence of its colonial past. Yoneyama argues that while examples of this “amnesia” (over, for instance, Japanese military atrocities in the Rape of Nanjing) are easy to locate in the pronouncements of Japanese politicians and in the policies of the Japanese Ministry of Education, a significant shift has occurred in how “the past” is remembered (500). She writes,Contrary to the common perception, the hegemonic process within the production of Japan’s national history is moving beyond what we currently see as reprehensible — that is, beyond amnesia — to a point where those in power are contriving to “come to terms with the past” (Adorno 1986), through at least partially acknowledging the nation’s past misconduct and inscribing it onto the official memoryscape. Yet, as Theodor Adorno wrote, the coming to terms with the past (Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit) “does not imply a serious working through of the past, the breaking of its spell through an act of clear consciousness. It suggests, rather, wishing to turn the page and, if possible, wiping it from memory.” (504-05)In the case of contemporary Japan, the key issues at stake revolve around “coming to terms” with a history of military aggression and colonial rule. “To secure political and economic stability in the adjacent Asian and Pacific region,” writes Yoneyama, “it has become necessary for the government to incorporate memories of Japan’s colonial and military atrocities into national history, but in a manner that does not threaten the present order of knowledge” (513).

15 In her important recent study, Hiroshima Traces, Yoneyama elaborates on these concerns by asking “how acts of remembering can fill the void of knowledge without reestablishing yet another regime of totality, stability, confidence, and universal truthfulness. How can memories, once recuperated, remain self-critically unsettling?” (Hiroshima 5). At stake here are ethical imperatives that Yoneyama presents in the following terms:If we are indeed witnessing a “memory boom of unprecedented proportions,” as Andreas Huyssen has observed of the European cultural scene, then it becomes imperative to reflect on why issues have come to be formulated in terms of remembering and forgetting, rather than in other ways. We must also question why and how we remember — for what purpose, for whom, and from what position we remember — even when discussing sites of memory, where to many the significance of remembrance seems obvious. (4)The implications of Yoneyama’s research have been succinctly discussed by Kyo Maclear, who writes that “it may be time to move with and beyond reductive dualisms which take as their focus organized forms of social remembering and forgetting … and begin to look as well at how dominant strategies of remembrance may seek to incorporate rather than openly suppress surplus memories of loss and trauma” (143). The key issue here, emphasizes Maclear, is that “while commemorative inscriptions may be seen to litter our everyday lives, the mere presence of these inscriptions offers no guarantee of how and towards what ends collective remembering will be enacted” (203).

16 The critical accounts of Obasan that I have discussed fall precisely within this larger problematic of “historical memory”: the sheer volume of criticism that has appeared makes it clear that literary critics in Canada and elsewhere are not suppressing a “racist past”; they are instead revisiting that past (often, of course, in particularly circumscribed ways) while expressing an undoubtably sincere form of regret over it. Coral Ann Howells, for instance, refers to the “tragic history” (93) of Japanese Canadians, whom she refers to as “vanished people” (87). Such an account does more than express regret: it also forecloses the possible historical agency of Japanese Canadians by assuming their disappearance. This tone of regret is implicated in a form of white guilt that may, in the words of Scott McFarlane, work to situate “Japanese Canadian culture” as “a sign for a violated Canadian culture and past” (407-08), and situate “Canada” in a narrative of “an already fallen yet redeemable nation” (408).13

17 Given the problems with the Kogawa criticism I have discussed, one may be tempted to view it as a series of “misreadings” that should be replaced with readings that are considered to be more historically accurate, or more theoretically sophisticated, or more attuned to the author’s poetics — in other words, by readings that are considered to be more “literate.” George Elliott Clarke takes this particular tack in a recent essay that critiques various critical discussions of the work of Claire Harris, M. Nourbese Philip, and Dionne Brand, whom he polemically calls in the title of his essay “three authors in search of literate criticism.” Clarke asserts that “we do Harris, Philip and Brand a vacuous — but vicious — injustice, and we short change the entirety of African-Canadian literature, by elevating them to triumvirate status without paying them the compliment of examining all aspects of their poetics” (178; emphasis added). This desire to replace a proliferation of “mis-readings” with more “literate” criticism is certainly understandable. From my position, it matters to investigate and rethink the history of anti-Asian racism in Canada and the various ways this history is taken up in cultural texts — and, in these critical investigations, some positions are better informed, or more carefully theorized, or more nuanced in their analysis than others. However, and here I wish to state as clearly as possible that my purpose in this essay differs from Clarke’s, I feel that it is not enough to attempt to simply replace “misreadings” with more “literate” criticism — a process that echoes, in the critical arena, well-intentioned attempts to replace “negative” images of minoritized groups with “positive” ones. Rather than attempt to generate new and more “literate” readings of Obasan (a text, I need to emphasize, that has been discussed time and again over the past two decades), we would do well to step back and redirect our attention toward the changing disciplinary conditions that have made the current contours of Kogawa criticism possible.

18 While changes in the discipline of Canadian literary studies in the 1980s and 1990s have been many and varied, I would like to emphasize two prominent, interrelated developments: what Frank Davey calls a “return to history” — that is, an increasing concern with various “interrogations of history and historiography” in English-Canadian fiction (24) — and, as I have mentioned, what Roy Miki calls “an escalating cultural capital for texts of colour and for academic studies of such texts” (Broken 168). These two developments in Canadian literary studies are, to my mind, crucially important, particularly for critics addressing literary representations of the historical production of racialized cultural difference in Canada. But these changes in Canadian literary studies have also brought to the surface some of the genuine difficulties involved in analyzing literary representations of racialization and racism in Canada. As Stuart Hall has observed in a different context, “We always knew that the dismantling of the colonial paradigm would release strange demons from the deep, and that these monsters might come trailing all sorts of subterranean material” (259). Kogawa criticism, as an uneven attempt to come to terms with a particular history of racism in Canada, has certainly come trailing all sorts of debris those of us working in Canadian literary studies may not wish to claim as our own. Indeed, there is ample evidence to conclude that the Kogawa criticism I have discussed above practises a form of sedative politics in the sense suggested by Smaro Kamboureli: it practises “a politics that attempts to recognize ethnic differences, but only in a contained fashion, in order to manage them” (82).14

19 What is to be done?

20 Stephen Slemon wryly observes in his discussion of “postcolonialism in the culture of ascent” that “It is conventional to end a paper that describes a problem by volunteering a solution” (28). Accordingly, readers of this essay may reasonably expect a vision of where critical analysis of Obasan, or Canadian literary studies as a discipline, could or should go in the future. Needless to say, the problems I have identified are unlikely to be solved in the immediate future (if at all) — and they are certainly not going to be solved in my brief concluding remarks. My sense, however, is that reading a text such as Obasan, and understanding the central place this text has occupied in Canadian literary studies over the past two decades, underlines the ongoing need to develop various forms of transdisciplinary cultural criticism that can assist us in tracking histories of racism in Canada and the ways these histories are represented in cultural texts. Needless to say, there will always be necessary (and hopefully productive) disagreements about the shape of this cultural criticism: its aims, its methods, the archives it investigates, the audiences it speaks to, the visions of social justice it imagines, and so on. We do not need a singularity of purpose. But at the present moment we could benefit from a greater collective familiarity with the historical record, with the assumptions of standard historiography, and with the disciplinary conditions that have directed critical discussions in particular directions — all of which could help push forward critical discussions of Obasan and, by extension, critical discussions of other racialized texts in Canadian literary studies. One significant question that remains particular to Obasan and other Asian Canadian texts is whether these forms of transdisciplinary cultural criticism would or could be generated in a genuinely interdisciplinary Asian Canadian studies that incorporates research in history, the social sciences, cultural geography, legal studies, and literary and other forms of cultural criticism. The question of interdisciplinarity (and the precise shape it might take) should remain central to future critical discussions of Asian Canadian texts.

21 In the meantime, scholars working in Canadian literary studies continue to face the difficult implications of reading a “racist past” in the context of a “multicultural present.” As I have argued, a key challenge facing us in the present moment is to recognize how various hegemonic discourses have, in the words of Yoneyama, moved away from active suppression of racist histories to attempt to “contain and domesticate unreconciled discourses on the nation’s past” (“Memory” 501). To be sure, a critical understanding of how these hegemonic discourses are functioning offers no guarantees for disciplinary or other social transformation. But considered pedagogically, as an ongoing process of contestation over how we might understand the representation of Canadian history and Canadian racial formations in literary studies, Kogawa criticism provides important glimpses of where Canadian literary studies has been in the 1980s and 1990s — and where it may possibly go in the future. In this sense, the task at hand is not to disavow this body of criticism and move on. Nor is it to attempt to simply replace this body of criticism with more “literate” readings of Obasan, despite the promise offered by forms of transdisciplinary cultural criticism or the formation of an interdisciplinary Asian Canadian studies. The task at hand is rather to take on the slow and difficult process, already underway, of rethinking, as Kyo Maclear has underlined, how and towards what ends we discuss and teach cultural texts that foreground the historical and ongoing production of racialized subjectivities in Canada.

Author’s Note

An earlier version of this essay was presented to members of ACCUTE at l’Université de Sherbrooke on 3 June 1999. I’d like to thank audience members for their feedback; Donald Goellnicht, Tseen Khoo, Marie Lo, Kyo Maclear, Thy Phu, Joanne Saul, and Caroline Sin for their generous comments at various stages in the writing process; and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for the financial support provided during the time in which this essay was written and revised.

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Kobayashi, Audrey. “Birds of Passage or Squawking Ducks: Writing Across Generations of Japanese-Canadian Literature.” Writing Across Worlds: Literature and Migration. Ed. Russell King et al. London: Routledge, 1995. 216-28.

Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. 1981. Toronto: Penguin, 1983.

Lo, Meng Yu Marie. “Fields of Recognition: Reading Asian Canadian Literature in Asian America.” Diss. U of California, Berkeley, 2001.

Maclear, Kyo. “Beclouded Visions: Hiroshima-Nagasaki and the Art of Witness.” MA thesis. U of Toronto, 1996.

McFarlane, Scott. “Covering Obasan and the Narrative of Internment.” Privileging Positions: The Sites of Asian American Studies. Ed. Gary Y. Okihiro et al. Pullman: Washington State UP, 1995. 401-11.

Miki, Roy. “Altered States: Global Currents, the Spectral Nation, and the Production of ‘Asian Canadian.’” Journal of Canadian Studies 35.3 (2000): 43-72.

—. “Asiancy: Making Space for Asian Canadian Writing.” Privileging Positions: The Sites of Asian American Studies. Ed. Gary Y. Okihiro et al. Pullman: Washington State UP, 1995. 135-51.

—. Broken Entries: Race Subjectivity Writing. Toronto: Mercury, 1998.

—. “Introduction: The Life and Times of Muriel Kitagawa.” This is My Own: Letters to Wes & Other Writings on Japanese Canadians, 1941-1948. By Muriel Kitagawa. Ed. Miki. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1985. 1-64.

—. “Workshop Three: The Generations: Identity, Leadership, Intermarriage.” Spirit of Redress: Japanese Canadians in Conference. Ed. Cassandra Kobayashi and Miki. Vancouver: JC Publications, 1989. 71-74.

Miles, Robert. Racism. London: Routledge, 1989.

Paddon, Seija. “New Historicism and the Prose of Joy Kogawa’s Obasan and Leena Lander’s Cast a Long Shadow.” Scandinavian-Canadian Studies 9 (1996): 91-103.

Palumbo-Liu, David. Introduction. The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions. Ed. Palumbo-Liu. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995. 1-27.

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Slemon, Stephen. “Climbing Mount Everest: Postcolonialism in the Culture of Ascent.” Canadian Literature 158 (1998): 15-35.

Snelling, Sonia. “‘A Human Pyramid’: An (Un)Balancing Act of Ancestry and History in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan and Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 32.1 (1997): 21-33.

St. Andrews, B.A. “Reclaiming a Canadian Heritage: Kogawa’s Obasan.” International Fiction Review 13.1 (1986): 29-31.

Sunahara, Ann Gomer. The Politics of Racism: The Uprooting of Japanese Canadians During the Second World War. Toronto: Lorimer, 1981.

Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia. “‘Sugar Sisterhood’: Situating the Amy Tan Phenomenon.” The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions. Ed. David Palumbo-Liu. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995. 174-210.

Yoneyama, Lisa. Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999.

—. “Memory Matters: Hiroshima’s Korean Atomic Bomb Memorial and the Politics of Ethnicity.” Public Culture 7.3 (1995): 499-527.


1 I thank Roy Miki for generously passing along a copy of “Obasan Criticism: A Checklist,” against which I cross-checked and expanded my own bibliography.

2 “The Cultural Politics of Obasan” is the title of a session I organized at ACCUTE, University of Alberta, 26 May 2000, while my use of the term “ethnic canons” refers to an important collection of essays edited by David Palumbo-Liu. In the body of research to which I am referring, Roy Miki, Scott McFarlane, Glenn Deer, and Eva Karpinski have questioned the politics of Obasan’s reception. In a U.S. context, Sau-ling Wong has written a thorough and convincing discussion of what she calls “the Amy Tan phenomenon,” while David Palumbo-Liu has made the following important point regarding the formation of “ethnic literary canons” in the U.S.: certain “texts” deemed worthy of representing the “ethnic experience” are set forth, yet the critical and pedagogical discourses that convey these texts into the classroom and present them to students and readers in general may very well mimic and reproduce the ideological underpinnings of the dominant canon, adding “material” to it after a necessary hermeneutic operation elides contradiction and smooths over the rough grain of history and politics, that is, those very things that have constructed the “ethnic” in the United States. (2; qtd. in Miki, Broken 179 n2) For these discussions, see Miki “Asiancy”; Miki, Broken 135-44; McFarlane; Deer; Karpinski; Wong; and Palumbo-Liu.

3 This question is part of the title of an essay in Miki’s Broken Entries; see 160-80.

4 We should of course note the distinction between “critical discussions of Obasan” (which focus on a single novel) and the wider category of “Kogawa criticism” (which, in addition to critical discussions of Obasan, would potentially include critical discussions of Kogawa’s poetry, her children’s book Naomi’s Road, her subsequent novels Itsuka and The Rain Ascends, and her non-fiction prose). With very few exceptions (see, for example, Kanefsky), literary critics have focused on Obasan while paying minimal attention (and, in many cases, no attention at all) to Kogawa’s other writings. In this essay, I use the inclusive term Kogawa criticism as an imprecise shorthand to describe critical discussions of Obasan that in some cases include analysis of Kogawa’s other writings too.

5 By racialization I mean, following Robert Miles, “a representational process whereby social significance is attached to certain biological (usually phenotypical) human features, on the basis of which those people possessing those characteristics are designated a distinct collectivity” (74). By racism I mean, following David Theo Goldberg, an attempt to promote the exclusion of, or actually exclude, people on the basis of racialized categories (98). It is important to note here that “Racist culture is fluid and often manifests itself in covert and subtle forms” (Goldberg 222). In other words, racialization and racist exclusion need to be understood — and theorized — as historically shifting social processes that take different forms and have different effects in different historical conjunctures.

6 I thank Apollo Amoko for making this point.

7 For Goellnicht, a “major point of Kogawa’s fiction” is that “her text [i.e. Obasan] problematizes the very act of reconstructing history by comparing it to the process of writing fiction” (287-88). Goellnicht refuses, however, to slide into relativism: “while language is not representational, does not reflect empirical reality … , it can shape reality on both personal and socio-political levels” (299). Thus, while Naomi in Obasan is aware that “The truth for me is more murky, shadowy and grey” (Kogawa 32; qtd. in Goellnicht 302), Goellnicht underlines that she is also urged into action (302). Kanefsky’s article, which openly attacks Goellnicht’s work, argues that “antiessentialist implications are evident in Kogawa’s writing only to demonstrate their practical futility” (15). But ultimately, Kanefsky’s “debunking” of “a postmodern conception of history” (as the title of her article would have it) rests on what I consider to be an overly rapid argumentative move: conflating a critical questioning of discourse and the construction of history with an easy-to-attack relativism, in which “history” is merely a “subjective construct” (11).

8 In chronological order, these critical overviews include Arnold Davidson’s engaging and extended discussion of the critical reception of Obasan from early reviews until the early-1990s; Audrey Kobayashi’s brief and pointed analysis of how Canadian literary critics have “written back to Kogawa, further mainstreaming the experiences that Kogawa documents by ‘interpreting’ those experiences in ways that re-invent Japanese Canadians as ‘other’” (221); Mason Harris’s critical overview ranging from early reviews until the mid-1990s, an overview that covers much of the same ground as Davidson’s but with different critical assessments and more attention paid to Asian American sources; and Roy Miki’s concise assessment of the contours and the implications of Kogawa criticism that has appeared in Canada, the U.S., and Japan up to the mid-1990s. See Davidson 17-23; Kobayashi 220-22; Harris, “Joy” 154-61; and Miki, Broken 155 n15.

9 See, for instance, an important dissertation by Marie Lo, who investigates what she calls “the politics of representation implied by Obasan’s valorization in Asian American literary studies,” a valorization Lo argues “is based upon Asian American racial formations assumed to be transposable onto a Canadian context” (25).

10 Out of many possible examples, see, for instance, essays by Howells, Paddon, and Snelling. In focusing on the question of history, these essays underline the significance of the terms of the debate discussed in note 7, as well as the adaptability of Kogawa’s novel to the concerns of Commonwealth and postcolonial literary studies both within and outside of Canada. Essays published in Japan (see, for example, Sato) provide what Miki calls “new insider-outsider perspectives on the ‘Japanese’ elements fictionalized in the narrative” (Broken 155 n15).

11 The problems posed by Tan’s work merit an extended discussion that is outside the scope of this essay. For a comprehensive discussion of these problems, see Wong.

12 I’m indebted to Kyo Maclear for directing me to this important set of debates and helping frame the issues I discuss in this and the next paragraph.

13 Miki describes this sort of criticism as a “salvage operation” through which “a reconstituted — even improved — ‘Canadian’ can be retrieved through ‘minority’ subjects who are supposedly connected to vital cultural networks with the resources to rejuvenate a nation that, by implication, has made them possible” (“Altered” 58).

14 Kamboureli uses the term sedative politics to analyze the implications of Bill C-93, commonly known as the Canadian Multiculturalism Act (which became law in 1988). In her evocative and wide-ranging discussion (see Kamboureli 81-130), she makes the following important point: By legitimizing cultural diversity, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act strives to lay the ground for an “ideal” community. In this “ideal” community, differences are granted nominal positions. Diversity is respected and supported only insofar as it is presumed to articulate subjects rehearsing collective identifications that are determined categorically and not relationally — precisely the point of the federal policy’s sedative politics. (112)

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