Joy Kogawa - World Literature

World Literature

Joy Kogawa


BORN: 1935, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada


GENRE: Poetry, fiction


The Splintered Moon (1968)

Obasan (1981)

Woman in the Woods (1985)

Itsuka (1992)

The Rain Ascends (1995)



Joy Kogawa. Kogawa, Joy, photograph. AP Images.



Joy Kogawa is an award-winning author who became a member of the order of Canada in 1986 and of the order of British Columbia in 2006. She is recognized for her novels, poetry, essays, children’s stories, and social activism; she is best known for Obasan (1981), a semiautobiographical novel about the internment of japanese Canadians during World War II.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Early Internment. Joy Nozomi Nakayama was born on June 6, 1935, in Vancouver to Gordon Goichi Nakayama, an Anglican clergyman, and Lois Masui Yao Nakayama, 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 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 and, like the protagonist of Obasan (1981), underwent their internment in the Canadian interior.

Postwar Exile and Early Career. After the end of the war in 1945, Japanese Canadians were given the choice of returning to Japan or going into internal exile east ofBritish Columbia. The Nakayamas, who identified themselves as Canadians, were relocated to Coaldale, Alberta.

In 1954, Joy completed a 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. Joy married David Kogawa in 1957, and the couple lived in several places throughout Canada before divorcing in 1968.

In 1968, Kogawa published her first poetry collection, The Splintered Moon. The next year she traveled to Japan, remaining there for three months. Her second poetry collection, A Choice of Dreams (1974), resulted, in part, from that visit. This collection was to begin her use of silence as a means of finding and expressing issues of identity, which anticipated her works to follow. From 1974 to 1976, Kogawa worked as a staff writer in the office of the prime minister, and a year later her next poetry collection, Jericho Road, appeared. In several poems in the book the notion of silence generating meaning reappears.

Garnering Widespread Critical Acclaim. In 1978, the same year she was a writer in residence at the University of Ottawa, Kogawa published Six Poems. Kogawa moved to Toronto in 1979. In 1981, she published Obasan—the first novel in the history of Canadian fiction to deal with the internment of Japanese Canadians. Kogawa garnered widespread critical attention, receiving the Books in Canada First Novel Award, 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. Obasan also brought Kogawa international recognition.

In 1984, Kogawa visited Japan for the second time. The following year, she published Woman in the Woods, which introduced a more pronounced feminist voice than her previous poetry collections. In 1992, Itsuka, a sequel to Obasan, appeared. In 1995 Kogawa published The Rain Ascends, a fictional account of sexual abuse by an Anglican priest. In 1998, Knox 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.

Kogawa Namesakes. In 2001, Kogawa received a lifetime achievement award from the Association of Asian American Studies and honorary doctorates from the Uni- versify of British Columbia in 2001 and Queen’s University and the University of Windsor in 2003. In 2006, Kogawa was made a member of the Order of British Columbia, and a campaign was launched to make Kogawa’s childhood home a venue for the Writers in Residence program and a historic literary landmark for Vancouver and all of Canada.



Kogawa's famous contemporaries include:

Dame Julie Andrews (1935-): English performer of several decades, she has won multiple awards for her work in popular musicals and is loved on both sides of the world.

Vaclav Havel (1936-): Czech writer and dramatist, he was the ninth and final president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic.

Elgar Howarth (1935-): English conductor and composer, this former trumpet player has contributed his talents the world over.

Joe Orton (1933-1967): English satirical playwright who wrote risque) black comedies that shocked and amused his audiences.

John Updike (1932-): Award-winning novelist, essayist, and literary critic who is often appreciated for his indepth chronicling of American psychological, social, and political cultures.



One of the more important aspects of Kogawa's work is her concern with giving a hearing to marginalized voices and rethinking the processes of Canadian history, identity, truth, and memory. Here are a few works by writers who also made efforts to give voices to the marginalized by writing on similar themes:

Things Fall Apart (1959), a novel by Chinua Achebe. Renowned as the most widely read piece of African literature, the work tells the story of colonialism and its invasive and destructive impact on Nigerian tribal culture.

Death of a Naturalist (1966), a poetry collection by Seamus Heaney. In this work, Heaney depicts childhood, reflects on identity, and concerns the settings of rural Ireland.

Catfish and Mandala (2000), a novel by Andrew Pham. In this work, the author visits his native Vietnam to find his true self and his place in two cultures.

Sovereign Bones (2007), stories and essay collected by Eric Gansworth. In this book, Native American authors write on the imperative of keeping a collective identity.


Works in Literary Context

Spare, Minimalist Style. Kogawa writes much of her poetry in a bold style that is close to journalism. Characteristic of what is considered ‘‘minimalist,’’ for example, is The Splintered Moon (1968). The twenty-one poems offer a glimpse into a world of emotional intensity and spiritual longing underscored by Kogawa’s spare, stark, style. Kogawa’s experiences living in exile in Japanese internment camps with her family during World War II provide the inspiration for her writing and continue to influence the trajectory of her career as an author and advocate of human rights.

Themes of Memory and Identity. Kogawa’s minimalist world nonetheless presents a complex interweaving of the particular and universal, the private and social. In both her fiction and her poetry she addresses issues of racial and cultural diversity, persecution, and self-identity. What is central to most of her work is a theme of racial memory and history that helps address such issues. This is addressed for the first time in ‘‘We Had Not Seen It,’’ the only prose poem in The Splintered Moon. Exploration of memory takes on a personal tone in her love lyric ‘‘In Memory,’’ and the creation of reality and identity through words is the theme of ‘‘As Though It Were the Earth.’’ Six Poems displays a continuity with previous collections through the exploration of the significance of collective memory.

Six Poems also continues the emphasis on the dual construction of silence and speech that runs through her work with the themes of memory and identity and symbolic stone imagery that all lend themselves to and anticipate the highly acclaimed Obasan (1981)—wherein memory is holistic and healing and the only truth that is given to the narrator. ‘‘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 define the spiritual quest for the articulation of memory for an author and poet who has become a voice of the three generations of Japanese Canadians who suffered internment and persecution during World War II.


Works in Critical Context

Critics have praised Kogawa’s poetry for its concise, poetic language. As Edward M. White noted the poet has a ‘‘magical ability to convey suffering and privation, inhumanity and racial prejudice, without losing in any way joy in life and in the poetic imagination.’’ Gary Willis observed that Kogawa’s first three volumes of poetry are filled with ‘‘lyric verse’’ and poems that often ‘‘express feelings that emerge from a narrative context that is only partly defined.’’

Although Kogawa’s poetry has received favorable reviews, most critics have focused on her novel, Obasan, which concerns the development of a third-generation Japanese Canadian named Naomi Nakane.

Obasan (1981). The novel, which includes many autobiographical details, is narrated by Naomi Nakane, a thirty-six-year-old schoolteacher. In addition to winning a great number of awards, Obasan was highly acclaimed by critics. Speaking for the general reception of the novel of ‘‘expressive realism,’’ Cynthia Wong bestowed praise on the author for making efforts to address those social injustices left out of ‘‘official’’ histories; Wong also praises the ‘‘skeletal story conveyed with all the cadence and intonation of poetry; the powerful evocation of imposed silence ... rendered with aching beauty in the prose.’’ In his essay Speaking the Silence: Joy Kogawa’s ‘Obasan’, Willis examines Kogawa’s use of silence, speech, and insight in Obasan, arguing that in this work Kogawa ‘‘wishes to define, in relation to each other, Japanese and Canadian ways of seeing, and even to combine these divergent perceptions in an integrated and distinctive vision ... the book is an imaginative triumph over the forces that militate against expression of our inmost feelings.’’ Likewise, Edward M. White praises the book in his review The Silences That Speak from Stone and calls attention to the significance of its voice, ‘‘Kogawa’s novel must be heard and admired; the art itself can claim the real last word, exposing the viciousness of the racist horror, embodying the beauty that somehow, wonderfully, survives.’’


Responses to Literature

1. Several of Kogawa’s works are meditations on the lessons of history. In a group effort, research significant events reflected on in her writings—such as the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan and the subsequent nuclear attack on Hiroshima by the United States. What ‘‘lessons’’ appear to be learned?

2. In Obasan Kogawa’s narrator notes, ‘‘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.’’ Discuss several ways in which Kogawa uses memory to find, define, and/or establish identity—her own or that of her culture. Provide examples from the texts. For instance, in Obasan, Naomi’s earliest memories of being one with her mother in womb-like comfort and belonging are thoroughly described.

3. With Obasan, writes Gurleen Grewal, ‘‘Kogawa proved herself to be among the finest of feminist-humanist writers.’’ Kogawa’s feminism is also evident in her poetry, starting with her first collection, The Splintered Moon (1968). Research feminism in Canada. Consider surveying the sports world, the educational arena, and the work world of Canada. When did people begin to acknowledge women’s equality? How is the movement reflected in Kogawa’s work?

4. Several of Kogawa’s works isolate a trivial activity that the poet makes meaningful as a ritual and as an experience of belonging to and sharing in the Japanese culture. Identify an example of Kogawa’s use of ethnic traditions in her work, and discuss how she depicts a cultural connection through this tradition.




Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 78. Detroit: Gale, 1994.

Grewal, Gurleen. Feminist Writers. Detroit: St. James Press, 1996.

Hogan, Robert and others, eds. Memory and Cultural Politics: New Essays in American Ethnic Literatures. Boston: North Eastern University Press, 1996.

Williamson, Janice. Sounding Differences: Conversations with 17 Canadian Women Writers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Wong, Cynthia. Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.


White, Edmund M. Review of Obasan. Los Angeles Times Book Review (July 11, 1982): 3.

Willis, Gary. Review of Obasan. Studies in Canadian Literature, vol. 12, no. 2 (1987): 239-49.

Web sites

The Canadian Encyclopedia. Kogawa, Joy Nozomi. Retrieved May 16, 2008, from

Famous Canadian Immigrant Writers. Joy Kogawa. Retrieved May 16, 2008, from

The Land Conservancy. Welcome to Historic Joy Kogawa House. Retrieved May 16, 2008, from

Voices from the Gaps (VG). Joy Nakayama Kogawa b. 1935. Retrieved May 16, 2008, from http://