Globe & Mail: Restoring a book to life – Michael Posner interviews Joy Kogawa about rewritten “Emily Kato”

Globe & Mail:  Michael Posner interviews Joy Kogawa about rewritten “Emily Kato”



Restoring a book to life:

Joy Kogawa has rewritten one of her novels. It's less easy to save her family home, writes MICHAEL POSNER,

Globe and Mail, March 9, 2006. p. R3.
MICHAEL POSNER

For
Joy Kogawa, this should be a time of celebration and fulfilment.
Penguin has just released her new novel Emily Kato, a substantially
revised version of an earlier book, Itsuka. Instead, it's become a time
of great anxiety. In less than four weeks, the city of Vancouver is
expected to issue a demolition permit to the Taiwanese owner of a
small, wood-frame home at 1450 West 64th Ave. in Vancouver's Marpole
neighbourhood.

It was in that home that Kogawa spent the first
six years of her life before being summarily evicted and resettled,
along with some 22,000 other Japanese-Canadians, as part of the federal
government's 1942 Second World War internment program. After the war,
Kogawa's childhood home was expropriated by Ottawa and auctioned off at
below market value.

Now, the Land Conservancy of British
Columbia (TLC) is desperately spearheading a campaign to raise
$1.25-million to buy it, stop its demolition and convert the heritage
property into a writers-in-residence retreat. But as of Tuesday, TLC
had managed to collect less than $200,000. The federal Heritage
Department has so far indicated an unwillingness to step in with
financial aid, although TLC head Bill Turner says he's still hopeful
Heritage Minister Bev Oda will change her mind, and that the necessary
funds can be assembled in the remaining days.

“There isn't much
time,” Kogawa conceded in an interview last week in her Spartan condo
in downtown Toronto. She will speak and read from her work at a
fundraising event at 5 p.m. today at Toronto's Church of the Holy
Trinity.

  Kogawa says that if she were a member of the
Jewish community, she has no doubt that affluent Jews would step
forward to save the house. Although there are many equally well-heeled
Japanese-Canadians, “not one of them will step forward,” she maintains.
“It's because of the way this community was destroyed. The dispersal
policy was intended to make us never a community again, and it was
successful. Cohesion does not exist.”

It's rare for an author to
do a major revision of a novel and reissue it under another name. But
Kogawa has her reasons. For years, she was lauded for Obasan, her
thinly fictionalized 1983 account of her family's forced resettlement
to Slocan, in British Columbia. “There was not a single negative
review. Then when Itsuka came out in hardcover [in 1993], I was killed
by a single review in The Globe and Mail. He said it was unpublishable,
full of pages and pages of painfully embarrassing writing. It killed me
as a writer for years. I took it to heart, even though I didn't know
what was embarrassing about it.” Although there were other, more
positive reviews, “I couldn't hear anything else. I trusted The Globe.
I thought that was the truth. Other people were just being kind.”

She
spent years thinking about how to rewrite it. But now that it's out,
she says she can't find it in bookstores and hasn't seen a single
review. “Penguin did not advertise it or promote it. My feeling is it's
worse than Itsuka. That at least stayed in print. But my question is,
is it okay as a book? I just have no idea.”

Despite the
accolades heaped on Obasan — Quill & Quire magazine called it “one
of the most influential novels of the 20th century” — Kogawa considers
The Rain Ascends (1995) her most important book by far. It's the story
of an Anglican priest who is discovered to be a pedophile. The book,
she says, “brought me out of debility and weakness and fear into
strength. When [retired Anglican archbishop] Desmond Tutu holds out his
hands and says, 'all, all, all,' I now understand what that means. It
includes the pedophile and even, God forbid, Hitler.”

She hopes
to address these issues in a new book, still in gestation. The working
title is Gently to Nagasaki, where the second atomic bomb was dropped
in August, 1945. “It's about Naomi's” — the fictionalized version of
Kogawa — “search for the lost mother, the lost Goddess, lost love.”
She sees no fundamental difference between natural disasters like the
2004 Asian tsunami or hurricane Katrina and man-made tragedies like the
atom bomb that killed millions of Japanese.

“I think humans are
a natural disaster. We're here to love each other in the midst of all
the disasters in which we find ourselves. We must find the place of
kindness, gentleness and forgiveness. The calling is for the weak to
become strong, recognize it and then stand with the weak.”

Genuine
or sham, many writers project a persona of great confidence about the
merit of their work. Not Kogawa. Only the favourable opinion of critics
and readers she respects, it seems, can validate her talent. Stung by
the one blistering critique of Itsuka, she stopped writing and devoted
almost a decade to a community-aid project called the Toronto Dollar.
Consumers who use the currency — available from certain ATMs in
downtown Toronto — at participating retailers effectively give 10 per
cent of the purchase price to an organization that invests in community
projects.

“It's a new paradigm, a way of cutting loose from the
greed that motivates the economic model. This is the symbol of money
not based on profit first, but on the idea that people can help each
other. We can become more realized human beings and more loving. This
seems to be at least as important as writing books. Community action
can speak just as loudly.”

As for her childhood family home, the
looming prospect of seeing it destroyed — for the sake of another
monstrous homage to Vancouver's soaring property values — sickens her.
“But if it goes down, it won't go down unseen. Death is a part of life.
Murder is a part of life. You can murder buildings. You can murder
history. But healing goes on forever. So if it goes down, the healing
goes on forever.”

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