National Post – Rescuing Obasan's House
– interview with Joy Kogawa
National Post has published a story about Joy Kogawa and the campaign
to save the literary icon's childhood home. Contrary to the NP
story by Brian Hutchinson, the campaign to save the house is actually
being done by The Land Conservancy in partnership with the Save Kogawa House
committee ( I am a member along with Ann-Marie Metten and many
others). Despite this incongruency… it's a good story and
brought a tear to my eye, with the imagery of a young child named Joy
playing at the house, her family being forcibly moved from the house,
and the forever longing by Joy's mother and her family – knowing that
no house they ever lived in afterwards would ever be as nice. Oh – another thing. Obasan was not
an autobiography as stated by NP writer Hutchinson, it is a novel –
based on autobiographical references. There is a difference.
Rescuing Obasan's house
VANCOUVER – There is nothing remarkable about the small wooden house, not at
first glance, aside from the fact it has somehow survived all these years.
Others around it have fallen, destroyed in the last decade by the wrecker's ball
and replaced with mundane, two-storey buildings sheathed in ubiquitous pink
stucco and smooth vinyl siding. McMansions.
The bungalow is 93 years old. It looks out of place in this increasingly
affluent and expensive neighbourhood called Marpole, located a few blocks from
the Fraser River's northern arm.
A modest house on West 64th Avenue, nestled behind a few gnarled, ancient
looking trees, its small yard delineated by a white picket fence. Now it too is
threatened. The present owner has no love for it. At the end of March, the house
is scheduled for demolition.
There is a movement afoot to save the old house, which is not so ordinary,
after all. It is part of literary lore and a small but symbolic reminder of a
painful chapter in Canadian history. A reminder of things lost, including
The celebrated poet and novelist Joy Kogawa spent the best of her youth in
the bungalow. She moved there with her family in 1937, when she was just two.
She learned to play the family piano inside the house's small living room. She
climbed the fruit trees in the backyard, swung from their branches, ate the
cherries and peaches.
Five years later, with war raging in distant Europe and in the Pacific,
21,000 Canadians of Japanese descent were forcibly removed from their homes,
under conditions set forth by the War Measures Act. They were declared enemies
of Canada. Their property was confiscated. They were placed in internment
Ms. Kogawa and her family were among those uprooted. They were sent to the
B.C. interior, to the rugged Slocan Valley, where life was brutal, cold,
Their little Vancouver bungalow sat empty, and then others moved in. The
Kogawas yearned for it. Ms. Kogawa dreamed of it, many times. Ultimately, she
wrote about the little bungalow. It became Obasan's house.
Obasan is the title of Ms. Kogawa's famous autobiographical novel, published
in 1981 and reprinted many times, in multiple languages. The novel describes in
heartbreaking detail the Japanese-Canadian internment. The experience is
recalled by a character named Naomi Nakane and is based on the author.
In the novel, a wise aunt named Obasan raises Naomi. They lived in the little
bungalow on West 64th Avenue until the war. “It is more splendid than any house
I have lived in since,” Naomi remembers, in the novel.
“It does not bear remembering. None of this bears remembering.” It's too
Obasan won four major literary awards. Ms. Kogawa was propelled into the
limelight. In 1986, she was made a member of the Order of Canada. She went on to
receive seven honourary doctorates from Canadian universities. She published
more books, but none resonated more than Obasan.
Ms. Kogawa had already moved to Toronto, where she married, and raised two
children. But the house on West 64th Avenue stayed in her thoughts, and in her
dreams. “The longing for that house was forever,” she says now. “I always,
always wanted to come home. My mother, who had turned senile, also wanted to
come home. But it was impossible.” The house belonged to others.
She passed by a few times. In 1992, on a visit to Vancouver, she actually
knocked on the front door and stepped inside. The moment was bittersweet.
“Seeing the house reminds me of the sadness and the years when I wanted to go
back home so badly,” she told a Vancouver Sun reporter, who accompanied Ms.
Kogawa on her first visit home.
Ms. Kogawa began dividing her time between Toronto and suburban Vancouver.
Three years ago, she drove past the house on West 64th Avenue and saw a For Sale
sign in the front yard. She was exhilarated; the house, she imagined, might be
reclaimed. Then she learned the asking price: more than $500,000. Too much for
her to contemplate buying.
The house was sold. The new owner began making renovations that altered its
“She wanted no truck with me,” says Ms. Kogawa, who tried to intervene. “At
least she didn't pull it down, like all the other bungalows on the block.”
Last year, however, the owner changed her plans. She applied to the City of
Vancouver for a demolition permit. That's when the campaign to save the old
house went into full gear.
Led by friends, academics, fellow members of the CanLit community and the
Land Conservancy of B.C., a committee was formed to raise funds, buy out the
owner and restore the building to its original condition. The plan is to turn
the house into a writer's residence. Total cost of the project:
The owner is now willing to sell, should the money materialize. The city has
delayed approval of its demolition permit until March 30. Time is running out,
and Joy Kogawa is worried.
An omen: A cherry tree still stands in the backyard. It's a beautiful tree,
Ms. Kogawa says. A tree from her youth. It was severely pruned in 2004 and no
longer produces blossoms or fruit. It is dying. Ms. Kogawa managed to collect a
cutting. She planted it beside City Hall.
That may soon be all that's left of Obasan's house.
“The story is being written right now,” Ms. Kogawa says. “We don't know what
the ending will be. Will the house survive? Well, Obasan survived. So I wait,
and I watch.”
Kogawa will be doing a reading with friends such as Roy Miki, at
Chapters Book Store on Robson St., in downtown Vancouver – Feb 11,
Saturday 2pm to 4pm.