Joy Kogawa BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY: "There is a silence that

Joy Kogawa
"There is a silence that cannot speak. There is a silence that will not speak. . . . The
word is stone": the opening words of the novel Obasan (1981) define the spiritual
quest for the articulation of memory in the work of Joy Kogawa, who became a voice
of the three generations of Japanese Canadians who suffered internment and
persecution during World War II. An award-winning author who became a member of
the Order of Canada in 1986 and of the Order of British Columbia in 2006, Kogawa is
known for her novels, poetry, essays, children's stories, and social activism.
Joy Nozomi Nakayama was born on 6 June 1935 in Vancouver to issei parents. Her
father, Gordon Goichi Nakayama, was an Anglican clergyman, and her mother, Lois
Masui Yao Nakayama, was a kindergarten teacher. In 1942, the year following the
attack on Pearl Harbor and Canada's declaration of war on Japan, some twenty-one
thousand residents of Japanese ancestry living within one hundred miles of the Pacific
Coast, most of whom were Canadian citizens, were moved to labor and detention
camps in the interior of British Columbia. Except for personal belongings, all of their
property was confiscated. The Nakayama family was sent to Slocan. After the end of
the war in 1945, Japanese Canadians were given the choice of returning to Japan or
going into internal exile east of British Columbia. As many of them identified
themselves as Canadians, the latter option was the only acceptable one. The
Nakayamas were relocated to Coaldale, Alberta.
In 1954 Joy Nakayama completed one year of study at the University of Alberta and
took a teaching post at an elementary school in Coaldale. In 1955 she enrolled at the
Anglican Women's Training College and Conservatory of Music in Toronto; the
following year she transferred to a music school in Vancouver. She married David
Kogawa in 1957. The couple had two children: Gordon, born in 1957, and Deidre,
born in 1959. They lived in Vancouver; Grand Forks, British Columbia; Moose Jaw
and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; and Ottawa before divorcing in 1968.
In 1968 Kogawa published her first poetry collection, The Splintered Moon . The
twenty-one poems offer a glimpse into a world of emotional intensity and spiritual
longing underscored by Kogawa's characteristic minimalism. Kogawa's exploration of
memory takes on a personal tone in her love lyric "In Memory," but her resort to the
imagery of stone both as a metaphor of immutability and as a symbol of physicality
and material "realness" of memory anticipate her use of the trope in Obasan. Similarly
significant in view of her later work are her evocations of silence as a vehicle of
memory, wisdom, and knowledge in "muted" sorrow with "no tears" in "Old Woman"
or as a contained despair and emotional angst in "Snowflake." In "I Know Who I Am"
the speaker's reflections on desire, loneliness, and emotional loss are counterbalanced
by her need for freedom and her search for an identity that defies the limitations of the
traditional male-female dichotomy. Kogawa's feminism is evident in her subversive
evocation of traditional fairy-tale imagery in "I Think I Am That Fabled Princess," in
the subtexts of sexuality and sinfulness in the "red dress" image in "Pity My Dress,"
and in her openly revisionist rereading of the tale of the Nutcracker in the poem of
that title. The theme of racial memory and history that is central to most of her work is
addressed for the first time in "We Had Not Seen It," the only prose poem in the
We had not seen it. None of us had seen it. It was not that we were incapable of sight.
But we were shielded from it. Some of us knew--most of us knew--that behind that
shield it was there. Some of us chose to forget. A very few of us . . . tore at the shield,
tore wildly. But none of us fully saw.
A reflection on the process of social awakening, the poem is the collective voice of a
people whose memories of injustice have been silenced for decades.
In 1969 Kogawa traveled to Japan, remaining there for three months. Her second
poetry collection, A Choice of Dreams (1974), resulted in part from that visit. It is
more somber and reflective than her first volume, with meditations on the lessons of
history in "For the Annual Service of Thanks That Kyoto Was Spared the Bomb" and
"Hiroshima Exit." Many poems display themes that resurface in Kogawa's prose
writing, and some sketches are incorporated in Obasan. For example, "Public Bath"
anticipates the scene in Obasan in which the narrator reminisces about taking a bath
with her grandmother: a trivial activity becomes meaningful as a ritual and as an
experience of belonging to and sharing in the Japanese culture. The physicality of
"warm soft body blending" with "neighbours strangers and friends" is transformed
into a feeling of a spiritual communion and becomes a cultural rite of passage.
Cultural memory is further explored in "Zen Graveyard," in which childhood
experiences blend with mythology and mysticism. Retracing her father's "flight
perpetual" and reflecting on her ancestors' graves in "Ancestors' Graves in Kurakawa"
bring out an awareness of her beginnings, although "The hiddenness stretches beyond
my reach." Similarly, her mother's "vaguely remembered girlhood" is associated with
the muteness of aged items in a trunk with mothballs in "Trunk in the Attic." Kogawa
revisits the racial discrimination she experienced in her childhood in "When I Was a
Little Girl" and "What Do I Remember of the Evacuation." In "Chain Necklace" she
explores the generation gap between herself and her mother in their responses to
internment: her mother
wore her chains
Kept her cygnets in the
Ugly barnyard world
Told me constantly to be
Gentle and to wear
The heavy chains with joy
But I . . .
. . . pick and jab my noose
At every chance.
Kogawa's next poetry collection, Jericho Road , appeared in 1977. In "On the Jericho
Road" the notion of silence generating meaning reappears:
Your tongue
was your weapon
I lay silent
on the Jericho Road
Silence is also
a two-edged sword
These words
are my donkey.
The creation of reality and identity through words is the theme of "As Though It Were
the Earth" and "Therapist." Feeling trapped in a relationship and resenting her
manipulated identity, the speaker of "As Those Who Are Too Old" struggles to break
free from the structures of power and control:
he was inventing me
but I cannot say to him
she is not real
even as he held me
he was destroying me
and creating her
he was puzzled when
I walked away.
Finally, stone imagery is revived in "Bread to Stone." Kogawa's attention to detail and
use of the small and the mundane to reveal the universal and the eternal shows her
indebtedness to classical Japanese poetry.
Six Poems (1978) opens with "Offerings," which sets the tone of the collection:
We lift
the barricades
we take the edges
of our transience
we bury the ashes
of our wording
and sift
the silences.
Kogawa's minimalist world manifests a complex interweaving of the particular and
universal, private and social. Six Poems displays a continuity with her previous
collections through the exploration of the speech/silence dichotomy and the
significance of collective memory.
Kogawa moved to Toronto in 1979. In 1981 she published Obasan. The novel, which
includes many autobiographical details, is narrated by Naomi Nakane, a thirty-sixyear-old sansei schoolteacher. Her 1972 trip to the funeral of her uncle, who helped to
raise her, frames an internal journey through her memories, which are fragmented,
elusive, and continuously reinterpreted by the narrator. To counterbalance the
subjectivity of memory, the novel incorporates Naomi's activist aunt Emily Kato's
diaries, correspondence, newspaper clippings, and copies of government documents.
Naomi's narrative is more than a personal account of an individual caught in the
workings of history: it is the voice of three generations lost to the indignities and
displacements of a wartime period. Kogawa rejects postmodernist notions of memory
as an unreliable narrative, a discursive labyrinth, or a game of construed subjectivities.
In Obasan memory is holistic and healing and the only truth that is given to the
narrator: "All our ordinary stories are changed in time, altered as much by the present
as the present is shaped by the past. Potent and pervasive as a prairie dust storm,
memories and dreams seep and mingle through cracks, settling on furniture and into
upholstery." Furthermore, memory is closely related to identity as Naomi tries to
relive the trauma of her displaced childhood. Kogawa observed in a 1990 interview
with Magdalene Redekop that "there is a need for people to feel a sense of strength in
belongingness." Naomi's "belongingness"--to a family, ethnic community, city, or
country--was shaken at an early age. With her separation from her parents and
relocation to an abandoned log hut, "shabby and sagging and overgrown with weeds,"
near Slocan in the interior of British Columbia; with her first exposure to denigrating
newspaper comments on Japanese Canadians; and with the derogatory "Japs" from
her students, the concept of "home," the epitome of "belongingness," was shattered.
Naomi and her older brother, Stephen, have different responses to these childhood
traumas. While Naomi represses her experiences, Stephen expresses his resistance
through anger and violence. Usually gentle and kind, he alienates Naomi by sudden
bouts of cruelty. Releasing his emotions at the sight of their dilapidated hut and
seeking a momentary feeling of control, he leaves "the ground and grasses quivering
with maimed and dismembered butterflies."
Naomi's earliest memories are of being one with her mother in womb-like comfort
and belonging: "I am clinging to my mother's leg, a flesh shaft that grows from the
ground, a tree trunk of which I am an offshoot. . . . Her blood is whispering through
my veins. The shaft of her leg is the shaft of my body and I am her thoughts." The
actual separation from her mother, when her mother and grandmother left for Japan
before the war, never to return, was preceded by the inner alienation Naomi felt after
being sexually abused by their neighbor, Old Man Gower. Keeping the secret from
her mother separated them long before her mother's physical departure; it not only
made her "become other" from the maternal body but also marked her realization of
the otherness of her own body, which no longer belonged to her but was used by
another. This shift in her consciousness is symbolically reflected in her dreams: "My
mother is on one side of the rift. I am on the other. We cannot reach each other. My
legs are being sawn in half."
Naomi lives in a dichotomized world of two languages (Japanese and English), two
countries, two nationalities, and being "both the enemy and not the enemy." A key
moment in the process of coming to terms with her identity occurs when she reads
Aunt Emily's diary, which is addressed to Emily's sister--Naomi's mother--in the hope
that the latter will read it someday. To Naomi it feels like "breaking into a private
house only to discover it's my own childhood house filled with corners and rooms I've
never seen." Seeing familiar childhood scenes through Aunt Emily's eyes fills many
gaps in her memories. Emily's unshakable Canadianness at the beginning of her
epistolary diary evolves into a mix of bewilderment, disbelief, and anger at the
segregation of Japanese Canadians. The idea of the redress movement gradually takes
shape in her letters of protest to the government, which are based on the real-life
letters of the Japanese Canadian activist Muriel Kitagawa.
The multiple silences in Obasan create a rich network of meanings and subtexts. On
the most general level there is the decades-long silence of the Japanese Canadians--a
silence that is powerfully broken by the book itself:
We are the silences that speak from stone. We are the despised rendered voiceless,
stripped of car, radio, camera and every means of communication, a trainload of eyes
covered with mud and spittle. . . . We are sent to Siloam, the pool called "Sent." We
are sent to sending, that we may bring sight. We are the scholarly and the illiterate, the
envied and the ugly, the fierce and the docile. We are those pioneers who cleared the
bush and the forest with our hands, the gardeners tending the soil with our tenderness,
the fishermen who are flung from the sea to flounder in the dust of prairies. We are
the Issei and the Nisei and the Sansei, the Japanese Canadians. We disappear into the
future undemanding as dew.
There are also the silence of the child Naomi, who does not comprehend the injustices
she witnesses; the silence of Naomi's mother, who dies in the aftermath of the atomic
bombing of Nagasaki; and the silence of Stephen, who outgrows his childhood anger
and becomes alienated from everything Japanese. There is, finally, Naomi's aunt
Obasan's silence--the most powerful silence in its meaningfulness: it is the silence of
the generation and the community. During Naomi's stay with Obasan for her uncle's
funeral their communication is minimal verbally but rich on other levels. Obasan
speaks through her house, which is frozen in time and full of scraps and leftovers and
historical junk; her memory houses every little detail. Naomi gradually wakes up to
the need to face the past: "I would like to drop the lid of the trunk, go downstairs and
back to bed. But we're trapped, Obasan and I, by our memories of the dead--all our
dead--those who refuse to bury themselves. Like threads of old spiderwebs, still sticky
and hovering, the past waits for us to submit, or depart." For Naomi, her two aunts are
associated with two different strategies of resistance: "One lives in sound, the other in
stone. Obasan's language remains deeply underground but Aunt Emily, BA, MA, is a
word warrior."
Christian and Buddhist traditions are woven into the narrative both explicitly and
implicitly. The first epigraph is taken from the Bible and structured by Kogawa as a
To him that overcometh
will I give to eat
of the hidden manna
and will give him
a white stone
and in the stone
a new name written.
The stone imagery evokes connotations of silence, muteness, and stillness. The second
epigraph flows smoothly into the narrative of the novel and reads as part of it:
"Beneath the grass the speaking dreams and beneath the dreams is a sensate sea. The
speech that frees comes forth from that amniotic deep." This epigraph highlights the
difference between Christian and Buddhist treatments of life and death. Naomi
accompanied her uncle on his annual trips to the coulee in the prairie on a full-moon
night to pay respect to their dead and their history; although the younger Naomi did
not comprehend the purpose and meaning of these trips, they gave her a powerful
feeling of belonging: "My fingers tunnel through a tangle of roots till the grass stands
up from my knuckles, making it seem that my fingers are the roots. I am part of this
small forest." The image of the sea-like prairie--"Ripple after ripple of grass shadows,
rhythmical as ocean waves"--is evoked in the allusion in the second epigraph to
ancestral wisdom, knowledge, and spiritual power through "speaking dreams": if the
silence is to be broken and speech is to be set free, it must come from the "amniotic
deep" of the memory of the dead. In Japanese culture silence does not necessarily
have a negative value but is associated with wisdom and revelation, allowing one to
perceive, as Teruyo Ueki notes, the "very essence of a matter hidden behind silence."
Kogawa utilizes both treatments of silence through Obasan's silence of memory,
wisdom, and forgiveness, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, Aunt Emily's
militant words and Naomi's narrative, both of which overcome the silence invoked in
the two epigraphs.
Obasan incorporates a circular narrative structure, moving from Naomi's
reminiscence of visiting the coulee with her uncle as an eighteen-year-old at the
beginning of the first chapter to the older Naomi performing the same ritual in the last
chapter after her uncle's death. The final trip to the coulee is an answer to the
continuous uncomprehending "why?" of the younger Naomi. For Naomi it symbolizes
coming back to the beginning, completing the circle and becoming one with the
ancestral past: "my relatives, my ancestors, we have come to the forest tonight, to the
place where the colors all meet. We have turned and returned to your arms as you turn
to earth. My loved ones, rest in the world of stone."
The novel ends with a postscript that follows the final chapter. It is an excerpt from
the memorandum sent by the Co-operative Committee on Japanese Canadians to the
House and Senate of Canada in April 1946 that condemned the internment of
Japanese Canadians as a violation of rights and liberties of Canadian citizens and
demanded official recognition of this fact from the government. This document--the
concluding "voice" in the novel--stands in direct contrast to the poetic and highly
personal attempt at "speech" at the beginning of the narrative. The verbalization of the
experiences of thousands of people in an official document reflects Naomi's personal
evolution toward understanding the necessity of recognition of the past. Obasan won
the Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1981 and the Canadian Authors
Association Book of the Year Award, the Before Columbus Foundation American
Book Award, and the American Library Association Notable Book Award in 1982. It
also brought Kogawa international recognition.
In 1984 Kogawa visited Japan for the second time. The following year she
published Woman in the Woods , which displays a more pronounced feminist voice
than her previous poetry collections. The title of the book emphasizes the importance
of nature as a sphere of freedom where a woman can abandon her socially imposed
chains and return to her primordial roots as an uninhibited natural being. In "She Has
Fled" Kogawa presents an image of a "wild woman" fleeing into a dream-like
mythological landscape:
She (the wife
the nameless one)
has fled
to where the
name tree grows
its leaves
in the breezes
In "Garden Poem" the speaker resents the proprietary chains of the male-female
"Marigolds," he said
rooting her firmly
in his garden bed
"are sacrificial plants
for garden slugs."
In "Autumn" Kogawa experiments with the traditional Japanese tanka lyric form to
capture the tranquility and beauty of a moment:
A wrinkled leaf
has fallen into
the cup of tea.
Instead of drinking
we ponder the shape.
In a short series of six poems titled "Road Building by Pick Axe" Kogawa revisits the
issei and nisei experience in British Columbia. Written in bold style that is close to
journalism, the poems tell of particular people and refer to particular dates and places.
In 1992 Kogawa published Itsuka , a sequel to Obasan. The novel begins in 1983, the
year Japanese Canadians began to petition through the Ad Hoc Committee for
Japanese Canadian Redress, the National Association of Japanese Canadians, and the
National Coalition for an official apology from the government and compensation for
the wartime internments. The Liberal government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau
treated the petition with indifference; Brian Mulroney, the opposition leader, promised
to negotiate a settlement if his party won the upcoming election but failed to deliver
on the promise after the Progressive Conservatives' 1984 victory. In 1988, after years
of lobbying and petitioning, the Mulroney government was forced to offer a formal
apology for "wrongful incarceration" and "disenfranchisement" of thousands of
citizens of Japanese ancestry and a settlement of $21,000 each to the approximately
twelve thousand surviving internees.
These facts provide the background for Itsuka. The title means "someday" in
Japanese; Naomi's memories of her uncle invariably include his semimeditative,
semiprophetic references to "itsuka": "someday things will change, someday, the time
for laughter will come." There is, however, a distinct difference between his use
of itsuka and the connotation of the title of the second novel. Like Obasan's silence,
the uncle's insistence on the coming of "someday" refers to reconciliation: the nisei-Obasan's and the uncle's generation--forgave, and, although they did not forget, they
let the past go. Naomi's itsuka, on the contrary, signals her awakening from the years
of socially enforced amnesia and the beginning of her active contribution to the
community. The death of Obasan is a significant moment in this process. Sitting with
her dying aunt, Naomi feels herself part of the intergenerational connection: "we are
there together, our hands speaking of the kitchen queendom and the past. Our
language is gestures, the nodding and shaking of hands, the shrugging of shoulders."
Naomi moves to Toronto and takes a trip to Japan and Hawaii, the latter of which has
a Japanese diasporic community. Through Aunt Emily she becomes aware of the
redress movement and gradually develops an activist political position.
Naomi is not beautiful and elegant like her mother, who is a symbol for her of the
eternal feminine. She is also single and does not have children, signs of failure in a
woman in both traditional and emancipated societies. Aunt Emily, an eternal rebel,
proudly embraces her unmarried status and defies the "spinster" label: "if we
laundered the term properly she'd put it on, but it's too covered with cultural
accretions for comfort," Naomi says. Naomi, however, lacks the confidence to
disregard social conventions; moreover, when the opportunity arises, she discovers
she cannot maintain a relationship with a man. This inadequacy leads her to go deeper
into her psyche to recover all the forgotten traumas: "Who knows what the
psychogenesis of an illness may be? There are so many mysteries in the past--so many
unknown and forbidden rooms." Her "whole body has been a foot binding all my life,"
she decides; it has been her worst enemy, holding her mind hostage.
On 22 September 1988 key members of the redress movement are invited to
Parliament Hill for the official speech of apology and the signing of the settlement
between the government and the Japanese Canadian community. The prime minister's
speech is a "feast of words," and the ceremony is the beginning of a new life for
Naomi and thousands like her: "I laugh. I am whole. I am as complete as when I was a
very young child. . . . Reconciliation. Liberation. Belongingness. Home." After the
ceremony, Naomi meditates on the hill, which overlooks the Ottawa river; the scene is
reminiscent of her earlier ritual trips with her uncle to the coulee near Granton.
Naomi's silent communion with her uncle and her ability to say that his hopes of
"someday" have finally come true close the circle.
Kogawa received a Ryerson Polytechnical Institute Fellowship and an honorary LL.D.
from the University of Lethbridge in 1991, an honorary Litt.D. from the University of
Guelph in 1992, an honorary LL.D. from Simon Fraser University in 1993, an Urban
Alliance Race Relations Award in 1994, and a Grace MacInnis Visiting Scholar
Award in 1995. In 1995 she published The Rain Ascends , a fictional account of
sexual abuse by an Anglican priest in a small town in Alberta. The novel is narrated
by Millicent, the only daughter of the Reverend Dr. Charles Barnabas Shelby, who is
in his mid eighties. Millicent must deal with the fact that her father was guilty of
sexually molesting an unspecified number of boys, including his own grandson-Millicent's son. She finds it impossible to reconcile the image of her father as she has
known him all her life with the idea of him as a stranger with a terrible secret in the
The wonder of your father has always existed--the warmth, the tenderness. He was a
god. In the beginning he was the one who could do no wrong, the maker and the
keeper of all laws. With the wave of his hand he formed the land. The clinging mist
that surrounded the house could not extinguish the light, the bravely flickering light.
Now, in his old age, it continues to glow through the mist. You move towards it. You
trust it still.
The patriarchal structure of the Shelby family makes it even harder for Millicent to
break down the myth of her father's god-like status. Meekness, obedience, and
unconditional faith in her father, enforced by her mother, were the core of her
upbringing. Her older brother, Charlie, the other male member of the family and
another authority figure, invariably reminded her of her place: "You are asking too
many questions. . . Stop asking questions." Millicent's sister-in-law Eleanor, who in
her rebellious spirit and straightforward character is reminiscent of Aunt Emily
in Obasan andItsuka, forces Millicent to accept the necessity of facing the truth: "If
there's just one thing that history teaches us . . . it's that bystanders and perpetrators
are both on the same side."
Millicent is forced to reevaluate her life as a continuum of fictions: "We construct our
lives out of the tales we tell ourselves, our myths and legends, the grids of
understanding that chart the paths of good and evil, right and wrong." Reminiscing
about her childhood, she realizes that the happy family scenes stored in her memory
are fictional representations and that she has been living "in the house of lies."
Millicent's path to finding peace lies in "slaying the fiction" and finding words to
articulate the unspeakable truth. Kogawa shows, however, that there is not a distinct
line of demarcation between good and evil: though a child molester, Shelby was well
educated, charismatic, generous, and approachable and had a profoundly positive
impact on the community. A surprising voice of support for Shelby comes from
Eleanor's nephew, Martin, who was abused by Shelby. A homosexual, Martin knows
what it is like to be scorned by society for one's sexuality: "You're jealous of our
freedom. All through history it's been good people like you who stone people. You
drown them. You burn them at the stake. You think you have the right to decide who
the deviants are and then you sacrifice them. Now that's what I call abuse. It's abuse of
power." Martin likens the persecution of those who engage in unorthodox sexual
practices to the burning of witches. His refusal to consider himself a victim is thrown
into question, however, when it is revealed that he tried twice to commit suicide. As
Millicent ponders the events that made her reexamine her most sacred values, she
realizes that speaking out for the victims of abuse was at the same time an act of love
and absolution for her father.
Knox College of the University of Toronto bestowed an honorary doctorate of divinity
on Kogawa in 1999. The previous year she had received a request from Kristine
Bogyo, a classical-music performer, to write a narrative on the Lilith myth for a
multimedia performance that would include narrated text, artwork, and music.
Kogawa's first impulse had been to decline: community work was consuming most of
her time, and she was not familiar with the Lilith material. But, she says in the
"Author's Preface" to the published text of the work, when she received the artwork of
Lilian Broca that was to be used in the project, she felt "deluged" with the "rich,
powerful images." Broca also sent Kogawa an outline of her research on Lilith, and
Kogawa was captivated by the beauty of the legend and the strong character of Lilith.
The published version of the collaboration appeared in 2000 as A Song of Lilith.
While some feminist theorists view the legend of Lilith as having prebiblical roots and
providing a clue to women's role in the evolution of social organization, Bible
scholars point to the two different stories of creation in Genesis, which imply that
another woman existed before Eve, as the basis of the myth. In Gen. 1:28 "God
created human beings . . . male and female" and put both of them "in charge" of the
animal world. Here the man and the woman are created independently of each other
and equal. But in chapter 2 God creates Eve out of Adam's rib. According to
feminists, the exclusion of the story from the canon and the later demonization of
Lilith testify to the danger the myth presented to the patriarchal world.
In Kogawa's reinterpretation of the myth Lilith emerges as a powerful, independent,
and intelligent woman who refuses to be subservient to Adam and prefers exclusion
from society to male domination. Kogawa emphasizes that like Adam, Lilith was
created "from dust . . . from earth's crust." The initial idyll ends when the man asserts
his power over her:
The lion finds its prey
The hunter, the hunted;
The bond of equality severed
Is become the whip of domination.
Lilith despairs at first, but then she utters the ineffable name of God and is granted
wings and freedom from Adam's domination. Characteristically for Kogawa, speech
plays a crucial role in securing the character's freedom. Lilith's story is
Not mediated through history
Where she is locked in the turbulence
Of man's memory.
Her story is of her body, her blood
Her wings and wanderings
And her many new beginnings.
One of the important aspects of Lilith's freedom is that she, together with God,
"creates / Names, re-names / Shapes and re-shapes." The word is an act, and she is an
agent and a cocreator.
Adam is unhappy about losing his mate, and in the traditional Christian version of the
myth God sends three angels to talk Lilith back into obedience. Kogawa, however,
refers to the messengers as tempters and demons who try to call Lilith back to the
security of enslavement and to the wifely role of "woman of silence." Lilith's rejection
of both their threats and their lavish promises infuriates the demons, and they exile her
into eternal "Otherness": she is
bound and relegated to the region beyond memory
To the land of legend
Where at the whim of mythmaking man
You are transformed into the needful
Demon of the race.
The curse applies not to Lilith alone but to "every powerful woman" who will come in
the future and represent Lilith in spirit. Kogawa is rewriting the traditional myth of the
demonized Lilith as a product and a means of patriarchal ideology. Further, by
bringing Eve into A Song of LilithKogawa departs from the traditional treatment of the
two figures as archenemies and mutually exclusive symbolic opposites. Eve and Lilith
become united through the solidarity of all women who "walk boldly / Out of the
whirlwind of unspeakable memories / Into the mighty rivers / Of truth telling." These
women regain the language of their own, "knit each tale of grief" through the voice of
their memory and speak "Under the banner / Of our true and original name."
In 2001 Kogawa received a lifetime achievement award from the Association of Asian
American Studies, an honorary Litt.D. from the University of British Columbia, and
the National Association of Japanese Canadians National Award. In 2003 she received
honorary LL.D.s from Queen's University and the University of Windsor. Obasan was
chosen for One Book, One Community in Medicine Hat, Alberta, in 2004. The City of
Vancouver designated 6 November 2004 Joy Kogawa Day; the following
year Obasan was chosen for One Book, One Vancouver and 1 November was
declared Obasan Cherry Tree Day in the city.
In the interview with Redekop, Kogawa said that "life is a matter of being chosen and
choosing at the same time. The primary thing for me is a sense of being aligned to
something that makes me feel at peace." In one of her earlier poems she reflects on
her need to reevaluate the past without hatred and bitterness: "tell me how I may not
live / or write of love." Although Joy Kogawa's contribution to Canadian literature is
diverse, one of the more important aspects of her work is her concern with giving a
hearing to marginalized voices and rethinking the processes of Canadian history,
identity, truth, and memory.
Magdalene Redekop, Other Solitudes: Canadian Multicultural Fictions, edited
by Linda Hutcheon and Marion Richmond (Toronto: Oxford University Press,
1990), pp. 94-101.
Janice Williamson, "In Writing I Keep Living, I Keep Breathing . . . ," in
her Sounding Differences: Conversations with Seventeen Canadian Women
Writers (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993), pp. 148-159.
Karlyn Koh, "The Heart-of-the-Matter Questions," in The Other Woman:
Women of Colour in Contemporary Canadian Literature (Toronto: Sister
Vision Press, 1994), pp. 18-41.
Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition)
Sywenky, Irene. "Joy Kogawa." Twenty-First-Century Canadian Writers. Ed.
Christian Riegel. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol.
334. Literature Resource Center. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.
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