Authors: Joy Kogawa

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Canadian novelist and poet

Identity: Japanese Canadian

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Obasan, 1981

Itsuka, 1991

The Rain Ascends, 1995


The Splintered Moon, 1967

A Choice of Dreams, 1974

Jericho Road, 1977

Woman in the Woods, 1985

A Song of Lilith, 2000

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

Naomi’s Road, 1986


Joy Kogawa (koh-gah-wah) is known primarily for Obasan, the first novel to deal with the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II. Born in Vancouver as Joy Nozomi Goichi, Kogawa had a comfortable childhood; her father, a minister, and mother, a teacher, were both second-generation Japanese Canadians. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Canadian authorities ordered the evacuation of all West Coast residents of Japanese origin; Kogawa’s family was sent to Alberta. Even after the war was over, the Canadians of Japanese ancestry were prohibited from returning to their homes. The discriminatory acts of the government left a lasting imprint on Kogawa and became the subject of her fiction.{$I[AN]9810001831}{$I[A]Kogawa, Joy}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Kogawa, Joy}{$I[geo]CANADA;Kogawa, Joy}{$I[geo]ASIAN AMERICAN/ASIAN DESCENT;Kogawa, Joy}{$I[tim]1935;Kogawa, Joy}

Joy Kogawa

After graduating from the University of Alberta in 1954, Kogawa attended the Anglican Women’s Training College and the Conservatory of Music. She worked as a teacher before joining the Canadian prime minister’s staff. Her first book of poems, The Splintered Moon, was followed by A Choice of Dreams, Jericho Road, Woman in the Woods, and A Song of Lilith. Kogawa’s well-crafted poems dealing with personal and gender issues are characterized by sharp images and enriched by biblical and political allusions. Her recognition as a poet earned her an appointment as the writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta in 1978.

Obasan, published in 1981, earned Kogawa acclaim in Canada and the United States. It won the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Canadian Authors’ Association Book of the Year Award, the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award, and an American Library Association Notable Book citation. The novel draws upon Kogawa’s own experiences of the internment and her preoccupation with its effect on the lives of Japanese Canadians. Naomi Nakane, the protagonist-narrator, is only five years old when the war breaks out; her mother and grandmother are on a visit to Japan and are not permitted to return. All Naomi can recall of this period is that her mother abandoned her and that she and her older brother Stephen were left in the care of her uncle and aunt, the Obasan.

Naomi’s close-knit family comes apart when her father is sent to a labor camp. Naomi and Stephen move with their uncle and aunt to a camp in Slocan in southern Alberta. Emily, her mother’s sister, the other major influence in Naomi’s life, moves to Toronto. Naomi, a silent, introspective child, is baffled by the mystery of her mother’s disappearance. The Obasan, born in Japan, is an Issei, a first-generation immigrant who epitomizes the ideal Japanese woman: She serves in silence, uncomplaining, unselfish, and utterly devoted to her family. Naomi’s other aunt, Emily, born in Canada, is a Nisei, a second-generation Japanese Canadian; Emily refuses to accept the injustice of the government and lead a passive existence. She tries to break the silence that engulfs Naomi and attempts to get her involved.

Naomi and Stephen respond differently to the hardships of the camp and the callous discrimination by the local people. Stephen, a musical prodigy, gradually turns away from his Japanese heritage and seeks escape from his guardians. Naomi, on the other hand, follows the Obasan’s example and bears the adversity quietly. Naomi becomes a teacher after she finishes schooling, and she continues to look after her uncle and aunt. Stephen, successful in his career, denies his heritage and never looks back.

It is after the death of Naomi’s uncle that the old and ailing Obasan gives Naomi a bundle of letters and documents that explain the mystery of her mother’s abandonment. The family had honored the request of the mother to shield her children from the horrifying news that she, along with her mother, had survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki but had been badly disfigured. The news of the mother’s death was similarly kept from them. The novel ends with Naomi’s awakening and understanding that she would have to synthesize the passive Issei and the militant Nisei ways represented by her two aunts.

Itsuka, published in 1991, is a sequel to Obasan. The Japanese word itsuka means “someday”; it was often repeated by Naomi’s uncle, who believed that someday the time for laughter would come, when the mistreatment of those with Japanese heritage would be recognized and redressed. After the death of the Obasan, Naomi moves to Toronto to be with Emily. Naomi is now forty, and Emily, at fifty-nine, is still fighting for the rights of her people. Naomi’s narrative supplies some of the missing details of the period when she was a teenager. Most of the novel, however, deals with the political battle to make the government acknowledge its wrongful acts. The novel brings out the internal dissension in the Japanese community between those who would prefer to forget the past and those who want to keep the fight going. Sixteen years after the uncle’s death, his dream of itsuka is realized when the Canadian government in 1988 offers a formal apology to citizens of Japanese ancestry, agrees to give $21,000 to each internment victim, and establishes a race-relations foundation. The narrative is based on actual events and the author uses historical documents to provide details. Overall, Itsuka succeeds as an interesting documentary of historical events, but it lacks the poetic quality and full development of characters that distinguished Obasan.

Kogawa took on very different subject matter in her novel The Rain Ascends, although the theme of making sense of traumatic experiences over the course of a lifetime continues. In this novel, Kogawa offers a multifaceted presentation of pedophilia and the effects it has on its perpetrator, its victims, and the families of all involved. It is told through the eyes of Millicent Shelby, a teenager who discovers that her clergyman father has sexually abused over three hundred boys. Kogawa grapples with the question of whether a lifetime of documented good works is nullified by an equal number of crimes, coming up with no black-and-white answer.

BibliographyCheung, King-Kok. Articulate Silences: Hisaya Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. The artistic use of silence in the novel is discussed.Davidson, Arnold E. Writing Against the Silence: Joy Kogawa’s “Obasan.” Toronto: ECW Press, 1993.Goldman, Marlene. “A Dangerous Circuit: Loss and the Boundaries of Racialized Subjectivity in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan and Kerri Sakamoto’s The Electric Field.” Modern Fiction Studies 48, no. 2 (2002): 362-388. Analyzes the way the two authors represent loss, mourning, and the role of the victim.Kanefsky, Rachelle. “Debunking a Postmodern Conception of History: A Defense of Humanist Values in the Novels of Joy Kogawa.” Canadian Literature 148 (1996): 11-36. Analyzes Kogawa’s relationship to historical events in her fiction.Kruk, Laurie. “Voices of Stone: The Power of Poetry in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan.” Ariel 30, no. 4 (1999): 75-94. Shows the ways in which Kogawa’s poetic diction imbues her fiction with “attentive silence.”Petersen, Nancy. Against Amnesia: Contemporary Women Writers and the Crises of Historical Memory. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Kogawa is one of several authors discussed, with special reference to her depiction of the roles of women in preserving “alternative” memories of historical atrocities.
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