Festival Tales is a five-part series leading up to the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival, which runs July 6 to 9 in Nelson. Full schedule and ticket information can be found at emlfestival.com
Coming to Nelson to be one of Elephant Mountain Literary Festival’s featured presenters might feel like a sort of homecoming for Joy Kogawa. The celebrated author’s semi-autobiographical novel Obasan takes place in part in a Slocan Valley internment camp during the Second World War — where Kogawa herself was interned as a child.
This unfortunate passage in Canada’s history becomes art in Kogawa’s 1981 novel, which won no less than three major literary awards. The Literary Review of Canada called it one of the most important books in Canadian history.
Turning adversity into art may have cathartic benefits for the writer; for readers, a novel such as Obasan and its sequel, Itsuka (re-released in 2005 as Emily Kato) is a gift in a different way. Kogawa, who has published several poetry collections and novels for children, offers us a first-hand perspective and a window of understanding into the complex events that lead to the internment of some 21,000 Japanese-Canadians during Second World War.
It’s not an unfamiliar story for most Canadians, and Kogawa herself has been a part of making sure not only is it not forgotten, but that wounds might one day be healed. A longtime peace and reconciliation activist, Kogawa has received the NAJC National Award from the National Association of Japanese Canadians, and the Japanese government recognized her for her contribution to the understanding and preservation of Japanese-Canadian history with the Order of the Rising Sun.
Kogawa is no stranger to the difficult narrative. After exploring internment through her novels and through the children’s book she adapted from Obasan, Naomi’s Road (which later became an opera), she tackled the family shame of her father’s pedophilia in her 1995 novel The Rain Ascends.
And yet, there were still dragons to be tamed. Her newest non-fiction book, Gently to Nagasaki, considers in sharp relief Japan’s WWII atrocities, which included the wholesale slaughter of captive soldiers and civilians, and mass rape of women and girls committed by the Imperial Japanese Army. It was horrible to write about, she has said, and yet necessary should reconciliation ever be possible.
Confronting these truths wasn’t easy for her, especially as it’s a history nobody wants to talk about. “It cost me some really good friendships,” she told Douglas Todd of the Vancouver Sun in an interview last fall. She also told him that, “love and truth are indivisible.”
Truth is part of the courage that is Joy Kogawa, earning her the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia, as well as the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award, honouring an outstanding literary career in British Columbia.
Kogawa’s family’s original home in Vancouver was purchased by the Land Conservancy of British Columbia, which says something about how Kogawa’s work for the history and culture of British Columbia, as well as the literary merit of her body of work, is valued. The house functions as a writers’ retreat, the better for more writers to tell more truths, in whatever way they find to do it.
It’s a wonderful thing to have Joy Kogawa at the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival. She joins First Nations author Lee Maracle (the subject of my next column) and EMLF Writer-in-Residence Fred Stenson at the Saturday Night Live! event on July 8, 7:30 p.m. at the Hume Hotel.
Globe and Mail Western Arts Correspondent Marsha Lederman will interview all three live on stage after their readings for what will be an unforgettable evening in what promises to be an unforgettable weekend.