Joy Kogawa: Biography, Poems & Books

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

Joy Kogawa is a Japanese-Canadian whose novels and poetry reflect images from dreams, memories, and personal events. She is a writer and an activist who is strongly invested in human rights.

Early Years Shape Her Life

Joy Kogawa was born in 1935 in British Columbia. She was the daughter of first-generation Japanese immigrants. Her father was an Anglican clergyman, and her mother was a musician and a kindergarten teacher. She is said to remember her early childhood fondly; it was full of wonder, and she felt loved and protected.

That all changed when the bombs were dropped on Pearl Harbor. The fear of all Japanese forced the relocation of all West Coast Canadians of Japanese descent in 1941. During the mass relocation, some 21,000 people, mostly on the Pacific coast, were moved to the interior of the country. Families lost their homes and their belongings, and suffered greatly. Joy and her family were moved to Slocan, a ghost town in the mountains of British Columbia. They lived in a shack with newspaper-thin walls, and Joy was educated in the camp. She was an avid reader, and read everything she could get her hands on; although, that wasn't much.

A New Start to Life

When the war finally came to an end in 1945, the Canadian government struck its final blow. The families were not allowed to return to their homes on the west coast, but were given the option of relocating to farther east, or be repatriated to Japan. Joy's family moved to Coaldale, Alberta, a town even more primitive than where they had been living.

Kogawa completed high school in Coaldale and spent one year at the University of Alberta. She taught elementary school in Coaldale for a year before moving to Toronto, where she studied music at Anglican Women's Training College and Conservatory of Music. In 1956 she returned to Vancouver and enrolled in the music academy where she met David Kogawa. They were married in 1957 and had two children, Gordon and Diedre. Joy and David were divorced in 1968. In the 1967-68 school year, Joy Kogawa returned to her education at the University of Saskatchewan. In 1979, she moved permanently to Toronto.

Writing Brings Peace

Joy began writing in 1957, and her first short story, ''Are There Any Shoes in Heaven?'', was published in 1964. This story showed the reader a boy's unease living on the prairies, missing the mountains. It was a self reflective piece echoing her own losses. While this was officially her first publication, her professional career is considered to have sprouted with her first book of poetry, The Splintered Moon, which hit the market in 1967.

She continued publishing collections, releasing A Choice of Dreams in 1974, Jericho Road in 1977, and Six Poems in 1978. Her volumes of poetry focused on memories, dreams, and personal life events.

In 1981, while living in Toronto, her novel Obasan was published as a semi-autobiographical testament to the years living in exile. This novel was a winner from the moment it hit the shelves; it was the first to convey life in the internment camps, and won the Books in Canada First Novel Award. Obasan became required reading in the Canadian schools.

An Activist is Born

In 1988, Japanese-Canadians who had been relocated finally received an apology from the Canadian government. Each person was given $21,000. Kogawa was drawn into the protests. Her novel Itsuka was published in 1991, and is an attempt to take the narrator of Obasan to Toronto to participate in the movement to redress the wrongs of relocation and show the struggles associated with being a part of the protests.

Kogawa's interest in human rights was fostered and allowed to grow. Her work as an author focuses on the concepts of justice, human rights, and women's rights. Her novel The Rain Ascends published in 1995 delves into sexual abuse of children. Her poetry has also attempted to deal with her activist side. Her first book length poem A Song of Lilith came out in 2000. In this poem, Kogawa explores the story of Biblical Adam's mythical first wife, Lilith, from a feminine perspective.

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