Monday, May 29, 2017

Gently to Nagasaki by Joy Kogawa: Memoir, history and philosophy in one

Gently to Nagasaki is more than a memoir of a wise elder. It's an education in the ambiguity, and ultimate unknowability of the suffering and deception that lie hidden in history. Canada's first woman senator, Cairene Wilson, was complicit in mistreating fellow citizens of Japanese descent. The art of the beloved Dr. Seuss included propaganda cartoons portraying Japanese Americans as sub-human monsters.

And though Japanese speakers were needed in wartime Burma, the Canadian government sidelined the pleas of its British allies to recruit these Canadians for the cause. After the Canadian government interned its nisei parishioners, the Anglican church took over Japanese properties. Chinese American historian Iris Chang documented the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers in The Rape of Nanking, then committed suicide before reaching forty.

After the war, properties stripped from Japanese Canadians as "enemy aliens" were given to Canadian vets. Yet a Japanese Canadian veteran who volunteered for the British army when the Canadian forces refused to admit him tried and failed to get back his confiscated home.

A scholar as well as a poet and activist, Joy Kogawa has long pursued unpalatable truths, opening herself to an unblinking awareness of terrible human history. She decries the deluded nationalism that taught the Japanese to obey their emperor as a god. She visits museums of remembrance, and quotes authors as diverse as Simone Weil and Dag Hammarksjold. She studies the history of the peace-loving Okinawans, and the hidden Christians of Nagasaki, who got the brunt of the atomic bomb not because they were the intended target, but because the weather didn't cooperate, The bomb was heavy, and too much circling would burn the fuel that would be needed to return the bomber to base.

As she tried to make sense of the rags and tatters of the dark history she was uncovering about her nations, Joy Kogawa had to face some disturbing family history. She needed to confront the fact that her father was a pedophile who abused young boys. This was a double betrayal for an Anglican priest. Yet he also helped his community tremendously through terrible times. In the face of rage and vilification, his daughter was divided by painful and conflicting loyalties.

She would never give up loving her father. She also loved both her countries, in spite of all the water under the bridge. Thirty years ago, the Canadian government apologized for its treatment of Japanese Canadians. Today, communities of victims compete and clamour over whose wartime suffering was greatest. Out of love for Japan, Kogawa hopes that nation's people will "forthrightly acknowledge the facts of their country's past, and shameful denial will be swept away."

This genre-defying memoir, filled with history, philosophy and sociological analysis, has much to offer. Listening to Joy Kogawa's impressive talk at the recent CNFC conference at Green College, I knew I had to read her memoir. I found solace in such wisdom as this: "Throughout the world, histories suppressed enable crimes to repeat. Victims and victimizers trade places unawares." To be aware and to witness is to be open to the possibility of healing.

After a lifetime of seeking after truth, this wise elder has completed her journey. Trust has opened a space for this questing seeker, allowing her to lead the reader to the place of peace she has found at last. As the thoughtful commentator Douglas Todd says in the cover blurb, the book "reveals how, in the midst of betrayal, there is still a place for trust."

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