How do you talk about your time spent with a treasured friend when you have the honour of living, for a time, in her childhood house–the first house she ever knew, having been only two when her family moved here to 64th Avenue in Vancouver? Five years later, Joy Kogawa’s family was forced out of the “zone of exclusion” and into the cattle barns at Hastings Park (the fair there was then called Happy Land) and then into rudimentary housing in the Slocan Valley.
Today Joy Kogawa and Historic Joy Kogawa House hosted an international group of Episopalian folks in town for a conference. Joy and I spent the morning together, as we spent an afternoon together earlier in the week, and then with Joan readied the house. Joy is spry and lifted the famous red chairs from the living room, setting them at the end of my bed in the room where her parents slept. About 15 people came. Joan showed the slideshows of Joy’s young life and explained the photography exhibits here at the house of Joy’s family going into internment, and to Alberta after the war (unlike in the US, Cdn JCs were not allowed west of the Rockies until 1949–were given the choice of repatriation to a country, Japan, most had not been born to or even touched their feet to, or moving east. I’m sure the government worried they would try to reclaim their stolen properties otherwise).
Joy found her childhood house again when it was for sale in 2003. It’s a convoluted story, but, so far, this old house coming up on its 100th birthday, still stands. The cherry tree planted when Joy was little still stands (or another one does in its stead … no one really knows), and speaks, as it has always spoken, to her heart.
Joy of course is famous around the world for her stunning accomplishments in fiction. She wrote the groundbreaking, masterful novel OBASAN, published in 1981, for which she became a member of the Order of Canada, and, later, the Order of BC and the Order of the Rising Sun from Japan. She followed OBASAN with an adapted children’s book, NAOMI’S ROAD, and then with a novel about the redress movement, ITSUKA.
I met Joy Kogawa when I volunteered to pick her up from the airport for an event she was doing with Betsy Warland for West Coast Women and Words. That night, her aged father was in the audience, and I felt honoured to meet him, too. I met him several other times at Joy’s place, and after his death, I housed his set of 1904 encyclopedias on top of my IKEA bookshelves in my dining room for nearly 20 years. Some time after Historic Joy Kogawa House was established as a historical monument, I donated the books back to the house–and they are here now, during my residency.
After ITSUKA, Joy wrote what I consider to be one of the best novels in the English language, and Joy’s masterwork, THE RAIN ASCENDS, about her pedophiliac father. We were long-term friends by the time Joy wrote this book, in part because I had invited her into my writing and artists’ group Sex, Death and Madness, which I had started earlier in the 90s with Sandy Shreve and Kate Braid. We didn’t workshop in our group, but rather scheduled monthly discussions on issues writers and visual artists faced: grant proposal writing, jealousy, awards, writers’ block, archives, death and so on, rotating members’ places. We moved our meetings from houses to artist studios to studio apartments, all over this city, and even into Burnaby.
Creativity was as vital to all of us as food.
It is a coincidental twist of fate that I am working on my novel about the Japanese Canadian internment while the writer-in-residency at Historic Joy Kogawa House. For many many years I refused to come to this house, because of Joy’s father, but when Tom Cho and Jackie Wykes took over as writers-in-residency here, I met them through commuity channels. Having queers-in-residency really gave me a boost to get over myself. I write every day and it’s quite often a bashing-of-the-head-against-the-wall process, so learning that Tom and Jackie were hosting Shut Up and Write sessions here once a week sealed the deal. The sessions became critical to me over the many months they were here establishing themselves as immigrants in Canada.
But of course, there was still Joy’s dad, and the horrible legacy of the damage he did as a pedophiliac priest. Sexual harm runs deep in my family veins. I didn’t know how to wrestle with what I felt. I felt as a writer feels: that the house is a vital, vibrant place to celebrate the arts. For young writers to be able to write in a house that holds the desk on which OBASAN was written, and over which Joy’s sweet generous tutelage seems to reside, is both an honour and magical. I felt as an activist and archivist feels: the house is a critical museum for a shameful but important historical time in Canada’s past–and an object lesson to never repeat our racist mistakes. But I felt as a survivor feels, too: triggered. Sorry for the victims’ families because I know the loathesome tendrils of such abuse and how it reaches down through generations carrying its unholy gifts. I have spent a lot of time trying to imagine the actual scenarios of this abuse … how he made his connections to the kids, where he took them, what their experiences there were. I have soaked myself in their confusion and pain and dential and disclosure. Sorry that on top of the racist burdens for them as disenfranchised Japanese Canadians, so many of them fell prey to a child abuser.
This causes me to grapple with my life’s central work: how to hold Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde as one unified person in your arms and heart at once. How to reconcile opposites. People know I have been asking this question about artists (Gauguin, who battered his wife and probably cut van Gogh’s ear off in a lovers’ spat and whose behaviour with underage girls in Tahiti was more than questionable), Picasso (a heel to women), Sheile (possibly a child rapist), Modigliani (a roué). How can I stand in front of their work and be moved to tears while knowing how much damage they wrought to their loved ones’ lives? It is the question I ask for my personal life, too. When the people I loved for being vital, loving, generative, intelligent, funny, warm and generous also turn out to have punitive, punishing, and even battering other sides, what am I supposed to do? I can’t compartmentalize the different aspects of them. I haven’t been able to unify them. What are my choices?
This itself becomes battery again, but inside my skull, this question bashing itself from side to side, crashing into bone that doesn’t give an inch to help answer it.
One of the many things I love about Joy Kogawa is that she asks these important questions about her imperfect but yet perfectly loving father, as she does about everything–perhaps the mark of a genius. Hers is an encompassing heart. She is not able to cast the man who spent his life committed to good works, who fathered brilliantly, aside with the rapist. Rather, she works to bring the rapist back to the fold.
Luckily for all of us, she does this with prose that is more beautiful than I can contain. I read part of THE RAIN ASCENDS again this winter as I launched back into my novel revisions just to sit with prose that it so stunningly written.
A few members of the JC community have turned against Joy Kogawa. Someone demands that Historic Joy Kogawa House be torn down. Joy has been shunned by some people. At this point, for a decade.
Quite like a queer.
I’ve been shunned since I was a bald little six-year-old suffering from alopecia. Shunning is one of the most effective punishments that people mete out to each other, but it’s murderous to be the recipient of.
Victims’ families and their supporters are not wrong to seek solace and redress in any way they see fit, but I’m not sure razing this house I live in this June would solve anything or give them resolution. And, it would tear down a monument that has multiple levels of importance to multiple communities, and in doing that, deny those communities sustenance.
One thing I do know for sure: it’s certainly not fair to visit the father’s sins on the daughter, or to ask her to be less than fully human in her exploration of this complicated, multi-faceted man. Which is one of the reasons why THE RAIN ASCENDS is such a gobsmacking book. Joy works through grief, pain and anger and arrives where I have not been able to dock and perhaps am not wise enough even to seek to go: at forgiveness and reconciliation.
This week was a brutal week for my queer commuity after Orlando. I’ve written elsewhere about why this was so. Every day I was filled with increasing unease as my grief and rage collided, and, finally, by Thursday, a disabling anxiety. But then I thought that I needed to go and hug Joy’s cherry tree, and when I did, when I took off my shoes and felt the loam beneath my feet, and put my cheek against the bark of the tree and felt its thrum–they thrum, trees–and tried to take its quintessential strength into me, I understood that what I had been feeling was partly anxiety, but it was mostly fear. Fear that it was going to be open season on queers now. Fear for the US (and, by geographical extention, Canada). Fear for our toppling, increasingly cruel world. Fear for every one of my queer friends parenting young children. Fear for every young child who has to grow up seeing slaughter.
Today, Joy took us down into the yard and began to talk about the cherry tree that grows just beyond the fence. All June here, I’ve been watching birds, mostly crows and starlings, eating the ripe berries from its boughs. It was not an important tree to Joy’s dad, but it was and is a critical tree to Joy, a tree that brought her heart delight and gladness, and still heals her from the yet enormous generational pains of the internment and reactions to her writing and openness.
Sometimes, knowing Joy’s voluable pain, I do ask, I do ask: Isn’t that pain enough for you, that she suffers so? And then: Why isn’t her agony, apology and sorrow enough for you?
And I ask: Don’t Japanese Canadians deserve to have this one original property of theirs returned to them in perpetuity? To have it safe in perpetuity from real estate predation? And retaliation for a dead man’s crimes?
And I ask. Canada has saved so few writers’ houses. Scarcely any of the standing ones are the houses where female authors grew up. This is one. This one stands. And Joy Kogawa is a lion of prose. Shouldn’t we fight for that?
All the weeks I’ve been here, I’ve been having the communication with crows. At first, they flew cawing past my window every 5 a.m., waking me, and cawed miserably every time I or my cat went near the porch. They were guarding a nest, and fiercely. Finally I decided I needed to have a talk with them. I asked them if they might consider silence in trade for a bit of kibble. Yes, they said, they would. And did. I gave them kibble two days running until they were comfortable sitting right on the ledge while I was reading. I didn’t want to create a worse problem for neighbours, so I knocked off the feeding at that point and made it just here and there. But the crows still came, closer and closer. One day I noticed a third bird that stayed up on the telephone pole, a little shaky and aloof, and it turned out that they had brought their fledgling for a visit.
Joy is very articulate. If you are ever lucky enough to hear her speak, jump. She talked to us about how when she came across her childhood home again after so many years away from it and found it still, somehow, in this city of home destruction, still standing, she wasn’t attracted to the house as much as the tree.
I came to it,” Joy said, “and I want to tell you what happened. … I put my right hand on it … and when I did that, there was some heat that went down my arm. It was very distinct. I never forgot that. After that, I just had this sense that there was a knowing, there was a presence, and I knew at that moment that everything was known. Everything about my family, everything that we have done, everything that was done to us, everything about our community, it was all known. Knowing is loving. When you don’t know something, you can not love it, but when you really really know, then you love. Later I was thinking that this is holy ground for me. It is where I experience the love of God.
“I have acknowledged the truth. I can’t stand the hatred that I feel. It’s a hatred against evil, but I don’t think that cutting down a tree gets rid of evil. [My] message is that we are people who believe in the triumph of love.”
Partway through Joy’s moving talk at the trunk of her cherry tree, I looked up to a tiny caw–mother crow had been there the whole time, listening and ruminating.
When I talk to people about social justice, I tell them that love is not enough. Love must be paired with action.
Bravely, Joy Kogawa has paired love with a lifetime of action in the redress movement and in her long, wise, astute, loving literary gifts to us.
Please read her. Read OBASAN to discover what happened to Japanese Canadians in WWII. And ITSUKA if you don’t know about the redress movement in Canada. But read THE RAIN ASCENDS because it is briliant and to find out what happens to a daughter’s heart when an elderly father admits to being a pedophile. A more moving and meaningful action than this book I cannot imagine, though in September Joy’s new book, GENTLY TO NAGASAKI, releases.
Meantime, I continue to work on SNOW, my novel about child abuse that expands my short story THE LOST BOY. I am working on the fourth draft here at Historic Joy Kogawa House.
Today it was Father’s Day. My father, who committed suicide when I was eighteen, was on my mind. Joy’s father was on both our minds. Sexual assault was on our minds. The aftermath of trauma was on our minds. The slaughter in Orlando was on our minds as we contemplated the children left fatherless, the fathers left childless.
I will still go sleep in this pedophile’s bedroom tonight with my new novel about the avalanche that is love between a mother and daughter almost finished on my computer beside me.
But I will go to sleep in this pedophile’s bedroom knowing my heart can hold room for his good acts, too, beside his bad, the whole aching complication of him made one, thinking about how he doubt rested his head in this room tormented and conflicted by his own urges, and I will contemplate Joy’s life’s work with forgiveness and reconciliation, for I also have much to forgive and reconcile in my life. I will know that while I think of him, and the woman who battered me, my heart will brim with thanks and well wishes for Joy, this wonderful, cherished daughter and mother whom I cherish for her friendship and her acute questing mind, but mostly for her ever-expansive heart.