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Joy Kogawa Biography

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Toronto, 1935. Awards: Books in Canada First Novel award, 1981, Canadian Authors Association Book of the Year award, 1981, Before Columbus Foundation's American Book award, 1982, and American Library Association Notable Book award, 1982, all for Obasan; Ryerson Polytechnical Institute fellowship, 1991; Urban Alliance Race Relations award, 1994; Grace MacInnis Visiting Scholar award, 1995. D.L.: University of Lethbridge, 1991; Simon Fraser University, 1993. D. Litt: University of Guelph, 1992. Member: Officer, Order of Canada, 1986.



Obasan. Toronto, Dennys, 1981; New York, Anchor, 1994.

Itsuka. New York, Viking, 1992; revised edition, New York, Penguin, 1993.

The Rain Ascends. Toronto, Knopf Canada, 1995.


The Splintered Moon. St. John, University of New Brunswick, 1967.

A Choice of Dreams. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1974.

Jericho Road. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1977.

Woman in the Woods. Oakville, Ontario, Mosiac Press, 1985.


Naomi's Road (for children). Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1986.


Critical Studies:

Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa by King-Kok Chueng, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1993.

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Joy Kogawa, after several collections of poetry, published her first novel, Obasan, in 1981. It and its sequel, Itsuka, written eleven years later, show Kogawa's poetic origins, as they are extremely lyrically written books. Obasan is the story of the internment of Japanese Canadians and Canadians of Japanese descent during World War II. In so doing, it is one of few fictional accounts of the North American treatment of ethnic Japanese during this period, others being Carlos Bulosan's America is in the Heart of 1943, John Okada's No-No Boy, written in 1957, Jean Wakatsuki Houston and Jones Houston's Farewell to Manzanar of 1974, and Maxine Hong Kingston's 1980 novel, China Men.

Obasan ("aunt") is a unique and successful blending of the literary, the historical, and the autobiographical. Kogawa's novel is the account of two families' experiences told primarily from the point of view of Naomi Nakane, a schoolteacher in Alberta in 1972. The occasion of her uncle's death brings her brother (Stephen), her widowed aunt (Aya Obasan), and another aunt (Emily) together for the first time in years and precipitates a series of recollections and revelations about the war that begin when Naomi was about six (and Kogawa herself about seven). The war leads to the dissolution of Naomi's parents' families, the Nakanes and the Katos, and the seizure of their property. Naomi, her brother, father, aunt, and uncle are shunted progressively further east as the internment proceeds through and after the war, ending in Canada in 1949.

Obasan 's narrative is essentially retrospective, a backward movement into Naomi's childhood seeded by a packet of materials given to her by her Aunt Emily. They lead to a series of memories of childhood as seen through the consciousness of the young Naomi, and shaped by the literary consciousness of Kogawa, who delineates a texture of symbols that become the personal metaphoric language of this book. Thus, a loaf of "stone bread" baked by her uncle just before his death becomes a symbol of a Eucharistic sort as it is eaten by his grieving relatives. It also serves as a symbol of the Japanese exile to the prairies as it is connected to the manna of Moses' people in Egypt in Obasan 's epigraph. Kogawa develops a rich texture of personal and biblical symbolism throughout to reinforce her themes.

The novel moves into the present gradually, and the past and present are linked in the import of some documentary materials which have been kept from Naomi and Stephen until their adulthood. Naomi, who has grown up with a mixture of puzzlement and misplaced guilt about the failure of her mother to return from Japan, is eventually initiated into the horrors of her death in the atomic bombing at Nagasaki through a letter from the distant past.

This news breaks the silence of the past in Obasan, and begins the process of final healing. Aunt Emily, a fully Canadianized "word warrior" who crusades for publicity or compensation in the Japanese cause, and Aya Obasan, Naomi's ancient aunt who still has only rudimentary English after spending most of her life in Canada, seem diametrically opposed in their cultural adaptations. Secretiveness about the fate of Naomi and Stephen's mother is perhaps the only thing they have in common. Yet this novel does not attempt to dichotomize attitudes to silence into "good" or "bad," and itself negotiates the fine line between telling the past and giving the present room to grow. Obasan explores language, euphemism, and silence; traces the ties of the self to family and place; and initiates the process of healing.

Itsuka ("someday") resumes Naomi's story in Toronto in 1983, and traces her involvement in the Japanese-Canadian fight for redress for the internment, as Joy Kogawa was herself involved. The novel, like Obasan, is simultaneously mixed-up in both the personal and the political, but in Itsuka the sharp line that Naomi has tried to maintain between the two in her life becomes blurred. Itsuka also shows Naomi's personal development in her tentative romance with Cedric, a priest involved in her political world.

In Itsuka, Kogawa tells a story well worth telling, but perhaps not so successfully fictionalized. At many points the narrative verges on the didactic, and the psychology of Naomi remains static and somewhat tangential to the politics of the tale she narrates.

—Ron Jenkins

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: C(hristopher) J(ohn) Koch Biography - C.J. Koch comments: to Sir (Alfred Charles) Bernard Lovell (1913– ) Biography