Joy Kogawa

Joy Kogawa (born June 6, 1935) is a prolific Canadian author and poet. She is most known for her award-winning novel Obasan (1981), which details the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II, a historical event Kogawa herself experienced. Her work often delves into themes of identity, displacement, and the impact of historical injustices, rendering her an important voice in Canadian literature. Kogawa was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1986, in recognition of her literary contributions. Let's look at her books and poems as well as some facts from her biography.

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Table of contents

    Joy Kogawa: Biography

    Joy Kogawa's Biography
    Birth:6th June 1935
    Father:Gordon Goichi Nakayama
    Mother:Lois Yao Nakayama
    Spouse/Partners:David Kogawa (m. 1957-1968)
    Famous Works:
    Literary Period:Postmodernism, Postcolonialism

    Joy Nozomi Kogawa (née Nakayama) was born on June 6, 1935, in Vancouver, Canada.

    Kogawa's parents had immigrated from Japan to Canada before having her, and Joy Kogawa lived a happy childhood in her family home until the age of six. At that time, due to mistrust of people of Japanese heritage during World War II, Kogawa and her family were removed from their home in Vancouver and sent to a Japanese-Canadian internment camp in Slocan, Canada where they were held until the war ended.

    Their home was claimed by the Canadian government, and even after the war ended they could not return to it. Kogawa attended elementary school while living in the camp.1

    The internment camp in Slocan, Canada held hundreds of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, including Kogawa and her family. They were made to stay in old buildings, mine houses, and hotels.2 Around 22,000 Japanese Canadians were sent to camps.3

    When Japanese Canadians were allowed to leave the internment camps and return to a more normal life after the war, Joy Kogawa and her family moved to Coaldale, Canada. There, Kogawa attended high school; after her graduation, she went to the University of Alberta where she studied education in 1954.1

    Joy Kogawa, An image of Vancouver's skyline next to a lake at sunset, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Joy Kogowa was born in Vancouver, Canada, and lived there until her family were sent to a Japanese-Canadian internment camp.

    Adult life and career

    After teaching elementary school in Coaldale for a year, Joy Kogawa went to Toronto to study music at the Anglican Women’s Training College and Conservatory of Music in 1955. She transferred to a different music school in Vancouver the next year; it was there that she met David Kagawa, who she married in 1957. The couple had two children, and divorced in 1968. Kogawa also attended the University of Saskatchewan for the school year 1967-1968.

    Joy Kogawa published her first collection of poetry in 1968, called The Splintered Moon; her second, A Choice of Dreams, came in 1974. That same year, she began working as a staff writer working for the Canadian prime minister. Kogawa continued her poetry work with Jericho Road in 1977 and Six Poems in 1978. Also in 1978, she worked at the University of Ottawa as a writer-in-residence; she moved to Toronto in 1979.

    Her next writing venture was her first novel, Obasan, for which she is best known. It was published in 1981, and has been influential in Canada and beloved for expressing the painful experiences of Japanese Canadians who suffered racism and internment during World War II. The story from Obasan was continued in Kogawa’s second novel, Itsuka, which was published in 1992.

    Obasan has been credited for helping win reparations for mistreated Japanese Canadians. Passages from the book were even read in parliament in 1988 as part of the official apology for internment.

    In 1995 she released The Rain Ascends, her first novel to not deal with Japanese Canadian issues; instead, it is about redemption and hard truths. She has published two more poetry collections as well; A Song of Lilith in 2000 and A Garden of Anchors: Selected Poems in 2003.1

    In more recent years, Joy Kogawa pushed to save her childhood home in Vancouver from demolition. The Land Conservancy and the Save Kogawa House committee worked together with her, and in 2006 they were successful; the house is now run by the Historic Joy Kogawa House Society. Tours, events, and author residencies are now held there.1

    Joy Kogawa: Facts

    Below are some key facts about Joy Kogowa:

    1. Joy Kogawa was born on June 6, 1935, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

    2. Kogawa's most recognized novel is Obasan, which delves into the experiences of Japanese-Canadians during World War II, specifically those who were interned by the Canadian government. Obasan is considered a significant work in Canadian literature, shedding light on a part of history that was previously less known.

    3. Prior to her career as a novelist, Kogawa was a published poet with several collections of poetry to her name.

    4. Kogawa's writing often explores themes of identity, displacement, historical injustices, and the impact of these experiences on the individual and the community.

    5. She was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1986, one of the highest civilian honors in the country, recognizing her contributions to Canadian literature.

    6. Kogawa is also a recipient of the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Canadian Authors Association Book of the Year Award.

    7. She has an honorary doctorate from the University of British Columbia.

    8. Kogawa has been active in the movement for government redress for the internment of Japanese-Canadians.

    9. In 2010, a historic house in Vancouver where Kogawa once lived was turned into a literary and cultural centre known as the Joy Kogawa House.

    10. Kogawa's novel Obasan has been part of the curriculum in schools across Canada and the United States.

    11. Despite the serious themes in her work, Kogawa is known for her lyrical style and powerful use of imagery.

    Joy Kogawa: Books

    Joy Kogawa is the author of three novels: Obasan, Itsuka, and The Rain Ascends.

    Obasan (1981)

    Obasan, Joy Kogawa’s first novel, is inspired by her experience growing up Japanese Canadian during WWII. It follows a family that is interned in a camp during WWII, and explores family dynamics and your relationship with your heritage when dealing with such trauma.

    Where do any of us come from in this cold country? Oh Canada, whether you admitted it or not, we come from you we come from you. From the same soil, the slugs and slime and bogs and twigs and roots. We come from the country that plucks its people out like weeds and flings them into the roadside. (ch 34)

    Joy Kogawa, An example of a run down dwelling that featured in internment camps. The ground outside is cracked and the scenery behind the house looks desolate, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Many homes in internment camps like Kogawa lived in and wrote about in Obasan were cramped and cold.

    Itsuka (1992)

    Kogawa’s second novel is a sequel to Obasan. It continues the thread from the first book as a now-adult Naomi Nakane becomes active in seeking governmental redress for the mistreatment suffered by Japanese-Canadians in internment camps.

    The Rain Ascends (1995)

    Joy Kogawa’s third novel, The Rain Ascends, tackles facing hard truths and redemption. It tells the story of a grown woman who learns that her father has long sexually abused boys in his church; the woman must re-examine her own childhood and come to terms with her new understanding of her father.

    There are so many stories of betrayal in the world. This is one. There are so many hells. This is one. I have been brought down to this particular hell, into the liquid fire, into judgement and despair. (ch 25)

    Joy Kogawa: Poems

    Before gaining acclaim as a novelist, Joy Kogawa started her career as a poet. Her debut poetry collection The Splintered Moon was published in 1967, followed by A Choice of Dreams (1974), Jericho Road (1977), and A Garden of Anchors: Selected Poems (2003). Kogawa's poetry, like her prose, often explores themes of identity, injustice, and personal and communal memory. The poem "Where There’s a Wall," for instance, is a contemplative piece about barriers—both physical and psychological.

    What Do I Remember of the Evacuation? (2009)

    What Do I Remember of the Evacuation? poetry collection recounts memories from Kogawa’s childhood, specifically her experience of being forced into a Canadian-Japanese internment camp during WWII.

    Joy Kogawa,  A window with a rotting red frame and a chain handing in front of the glass. StudySmarterFig. 3 - What Do I Remember of the Evacuation? deals with Joy Kogawa's childhood in the internment camps.

    A Song of Lilith (2000)

    This poetry collection tells the story of Lilith, who is considered by some practitioners of Judeo-Christian faiths to have been Adam’s first wife. In the mythology Kogawa used, Lilith would not submit to Adam’s authority over her and she then became a demonic figure. Kogawa’s poetry is a feminist take on old stories.

    A Garden of Anchors (2003)

    This collection includes poems from previous works, older pieces she reworked, and also new poetry. It is one of her more popular poetry books.

    Joy Kogawa: Other Works

    Additionally, Joy Kogawa has written two children’s books, Naomi’s Road (1986) and Naomi’s Tree (2009), as well as two nonfiction works, the book Gently to Nagasaki (2016) and the augmented reality game East of the Rockies (2019).

    Joy Kogawa - Key takeaways

    • Joy Kogawa was born in Vancouver, Canada on June 6, 1935.
    • She is Japanese-Canadian, having been born to parents who immigrated to Canada from Japan.
    • During her childhood, Kogawa was forced to leave her home and live in a Japanese-Canadian internment camp during WWII.
    • Joy Kogawa is best known for her novel Obasan (1981).
    • Most of Kogawa’s works center around her experience as a Japanese Canadian during WWII.

    1Jessica Young, “Joy Kogawa”. The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2011.

    2“Slocan Extension Internment Camps”. HeritageBC.

    3“1939 to 1945 - World War II and the Japanese Internment”. Legislative Assembly of British Colombia.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Joy Kogawa

    Who is Joy Kogawa?

    Joy Kogawa is a Japanese-Canadian author most famous for her novel Obasan (1981). 

    Why did Joy Kogawa write Obasan?

    Joy Kogawa wrote the novel Obasan to explore the pain caused by the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.

    Why is Joy Kogawa important?

    Joy Kogawa is considered one of the most important and influential Japanese-Canadian authors because of the impact her writing has had in garnering awareness of the painful history of internment camps in Canada.

    What is the book Obasan about?

    The book Obasan is based on Joy Kogawa’s experience being forced into a Japanese-Canadian internment camp as a child. The novel follows an adult woman who is remembering and trying to work through her memories of internment. 

    What are some quotes by Joy Kogawa?

    In Obasan, Kogawa wrote, “Where do any of us come from in this cold country? Oh Canada, whether you admitted it or not, we come from you we come from you.” (ch 34). In The Rain Ascends, she wrote, “There are so many stories of betrayal in the world. This is one. There are so many hells. This is one. I have been brought down to this particular hell, into the liquid fire, into judgement and despair.” (ch 25).

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Where was Joy Kogawa born?

    True or false: Joy Kogawa’s parents both moved to Canada from Japan.

    Which was Kogawa’s first novel?


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