Friday, October 26, 2018

I Wish I'd Written This


I remember my father telling Tim and me
About the mountains and the train
And the excitement of going on a trip.
What do I remember of the evacuation?
I remember my mother wrapping
A blanket around me and my
Pretending to fall asleep so she would be happy
Although I was so excited I couldn't sleep
(I hear there were people herded
Into the Hastings Park like cattle.
Families were made to move in two hours
Abandoning everything, leaving pets
And possessions at gun point.
I hear families were broken up
Men were forced to work. I heard
It whispered late at night
That there was suffering) and
I missed my dolls.
What do I remember of the evacuation?
I remember Miss Foster and Miss Tucker
Who still live in Vancouver
And who did what they could
And loved the children and who gave me
A puzzle to play with on the train.
And I remember the mountains and I was
Six years old and I swear I saw a giant
Gulliver of Gulliver's Travels scanning the horizon
And when I told my mother she believed it too
And I remember how careful my parents were
Not to bruise us with bitterness
And I remember the puzzle of Lorraine Life
Who said "Don't insult me" when I
Proudly wrote my name in Japanese
And Tim flew the Union Jack
When the war was over but Lorraine
And her friends spat on us anyway
and I prayed to the God who loves
All the children in his sight
That I might be white.

Copyright © 1985 Joy Kogawa.  All rights reserved.

Waiting to be sent
to an internment camp inland
in British Columbia

Joy Kogawa / CBC photo

Oh, the heartbreaking last line of that poem! I wish that no child ever had to feel that way! Joy Kogawa, born in 1935 in Vancouver, B.C.,  is a beloved Canadian writer. She is better known for her fiction than her poetry, but her story is so remarkable, as told in the poem above, that I wanted to share her with you.

Ms Kogawa was published first as a poet. But the work that launched her career is her first novel, Obasan,  the story of a seven year old Japanese-Canadian girl who was sent with her family to an internment camp during World War II, the work closely mirroring her own experience. Obasan has been declared one of the most important books in Canadian history by the Literary Review of Canada. It was adapted into a children's book, Naomi's Road,  and an opera, which toured B.C. schools in  1986.

Obasan was followed by Itsuka, reflecting Ms Kogawa's real life activism in seeking redress for Japanese Canadians;  The Rain Ascends, tackling the thorny subject of sexual abuse of children; and her most recent work, the long-awaited memoir of her spiritual pilgrimage, Gently to Nagasaki.

Of interest is the story of her childhood home in Vancouver, that was stripped from her family by the government when the family was interned. All property, businesses and assets of Japanese Canadians were confiscated, "to cover the costs of their internment".

In 2005, Ms Kogawa learned the house was for sale, and was going to be demolished. The Save Kogawa House Society was formed to purchase it just in time. It now operates as a cultural treasure, preserving Ms Kogawa's story, and educating today's children about the events of yesterday, so that dismal chapter of our history is never forgotten.

I had the privilege of staying in that house when my friend, the author Christine Lowther, was there as writer-in-residence two years ago.  I was awed to sleep in the author's childhood bed. The cherry tree she wrote of in Obasan is still there, outside her bedroom window. Here is a peek at the house:

In a tv interview, when asked about the amazing journey that began with her most-loved work, Obasan, Ms. Kogawa said it has been "miraculous."

Of writing, she has said, "Poetry is a kind of gasp, and there it is, a spark on the page. Fiction, on the other hand, is swamp fire." I so adore that description!

Joy Kogawa is a member of the Order of Canada and the Order of B.C. 
Her website is at

She is a beautiful writer, and person, of gentle heart, and I can't recommend her work highly enough.

Material shared in 'I Wish I'd Written This' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings remain the property of the copyright owners, usually their authors


  1. When I read this feature, Sherry, it gave me chills. How tragic that they had to be evacuated for their ethnicity. How sad that even after the war they were spat on. How sad it is that any child would dream to be a different 'color' than they were born! What a moving story about the author's house. I am glad the Joy Kogawa House was rescued, and how wonderful that you had a chance to STAY in this house a few years ago! Thanks for this feature, Sherry.

  2. You are most welcome, Mary. I felt so honoured to be there, and to sleep in her childhood bed. Here in Tofino, there was a small Japanese-Canadian community of fisher people, and some of the old timers remember their young friends being loaded onto a boat and taken away. I have great difficulty with my "white" skin - the skin of the oppressor of people of colour all over the world. Sigh.

  3. thanks for sharing this feature Sherry :)

    It's just insane, and terrible, the way so many were so poorly treated, for being "different" - of a different nationality, culture, country (initially) etc. - and the war and all of that is no reason or excuse. But like so many other of the great peoples who are part and parcel, of blood and wheat, in this great nation of ours, they have risen above and beyond, and with great dignity, have asked and demanded for accountability and rightful respect. Clearly, the least we can all do, as honourable Canadians, is to pay attention and listen. And learn. And insure we don't allow for this type of exclusionary mentality to exist in our community.

    Great feature :)

    1. A wonderfully aware and insightful comment, Pat. Thank you.

  4. That is one heartrending poem — we often bypass the details of these incidents/acts of racial injustice in our history books but when they are seen and understood through a child's keen eye, it is more real, more urgent, and more gruesome. Her story matters, all of their stories matter.

    I remember joking one too many times with my peers that the world belongs to the white man (that isn't deemed to be taken too seriously given our own privileges). But that is what the history tells us. And there are other forms of power-play and majoritarianism which harms the minorities everywhere. The oppression still goes on along the lines of race, religion, ethnicity, caste, class, et al. It is disheartening to say so but that seems to be the way of the world. I just hope more people recognize it, practice the changes required for a truly equal and free world, and uphold humanity above all divisions. May we all do the best we can on our part!

    Thanks for this powerful feature and a strong reminder, Sherry! :-)

    1. I am just now becoming aware of the starving people of Yemen, suffering from more of humankind's affliction - war between factions. We have populations on the move everywhere, just looking for a safe place to live.......yes, may we awaken......we are taking too long to evolve as a species. Right now, it feels like we're going backwards. Thanks for your wise words, Anmol.

  5. Very interesting and powerful account of what happened in Canada WW2.I agree with does seem to be the way of the world (jungle ie)...Tribalism is deeply rooted in the homo sapiens species (not basically a nice species) . In the jungle anything different to the prevailing'norm' is perceived as dangerous . The last lines of this excellent poem are very moving but not a surprise or shock to me. I have heard it too many times before.

    I don't have a problem with my skin colour.I have a problem with people of my skin colour who hold thoughts and values alien to mine and attempt to impose them on me.I am not part of the main stream tribe. People like me are more dangerous to the status quo than any person of a non white skin colour.I'm a cat amongst the pigeons who has all the physical attributes of a pigeon...and undetectable providing I don't speak:)

    A subtle persecution and sometime not so subtle persecution campaign to eradicate us (non conformist thinkers) has been waged throughout history. I have just discovered that in WW2 thousands of ordinary German people were killed for holding unfashionable unacceptable views according to those historical fact conveniently overlooked to date by historians.They have received no recognition and no one even knows who they are.Fortunately the thought police have not quite managed to completely infiltrate all of our minds yet successfully... may it continue a little longer at least while I am earth bound:)

  6. Our "education" about history has certainly been incomplete. That is amazing about the Germans. I love your description of yourself as a disguised cat among the pigeons. Made me smile. I am so appreciating everyone's thoughtful comments here. Thank you for adding your voices to the conversation. Joy Kogawa has read this post and is sharing it with her family. So i really appreciate your weighing in.

    1. Really??? Whoooooa! That is beyond stunning. I'm gob-smacked. and then must add in a HUGE thank you to her - Ms. Kogawa - for speaking the truths necessary about this shaded and ugly side of our past. And I commend her courage, tenacity and dignity in being such a advocate, through her writings, in sharing these important stories, for honestly - if they speak of one "group" - they speak of us all - not only of what we are capable of doing in the worst of ways and times, but more importantly, they speak of the light and love we can bring forth to be better people. Whole. Undivided. Diverse - yes. But Equal.

    2. I believe our diversity is the best thing about us, especially as a country, Canada. There have been a coupl of wonderful films made about this chapter of our history: Snow Falling on Cedars and Come See the Paradise. The second one is especially good.

  7. Oh gosh, I had no idea about any of this. These things do ned to be told! And all the better when they are told so well. The fact that people's property was stolen to pay for their internment is beyond disgusting! And yet, what wonderful parents, 'careful ... not to bruise us with bitterness'. And how good that the house, in all its significance, has been preserved and used for such good purpose.

  8. It is wonderful, Rosemary, that the house is preserved. I loved visiting it. I read Obasan many years ago, and never dreamed i would , through my friend Chris, make this connection. I will re-read it soon again........i have read all of Ms Kogawa's work.

  9. I understand that internment of over 4000 Japanese residents or captured civilians from adjacent countries also occured in Australia, many being repatriated to Japan after the war! Sadly war sometimes results in unreasonable cruelty to innocent citizens. I too am pleased their house has been preserved and they chose to stay in Canada despite the cruel behaviour of others when peace came.

    1. Wow, even I – a dinkum Aussie – did not realise that happened to Japanese people here, though I did know about the internment of German migrants. How many more of us must be similarly ignorant?

  10. And some even served in the forces during the war. Watching the craziness happening south of our border right now, one can only conclude humans are doomed to repeat their grave injustices forever. So depressing.

  11. Everyone has said the meaningful things. I am so grateful that Joy wrote this poem to share her experience and to both lift and break our hearts. We've got to do better; we're starting to do better! May we spread the word of love and transformation. I would visit her house.

  12. And this morning the hateful shooting in Pittsburgh. Sigh. How many times can a heart break? Daily, it seems, these days. Yes, may transformation come - and soon.

  13. What a fascinating and poignant post. The things that we humans do to each other is heartrending. I was not familiar with the work of Joy Kogawa (an embarrassing admission, having lived - for the last 20 years, or so, in Vancouver). Thank you so much for this, Sherry. I really appreciate it.

    1. Thanks, Wendy. You might check out one of the events at Kogawa is wonderful!

  14. This is another book to read... I still remember the book snow falling on cedars that touched on the subject... The end of the poem was especially chilling...

    1. That book was made into a movie and an even better portrayal of the camps is the movie Come See the Paradise. Heartrending.

  15. Such a sad poetic record of an atrocious historical time. I didn't realize internments shappened in Canada too. I will definitely add Obasan to my reading list. Thank you Sherry for posting this poem and author.

    1. You will love it, Myrna, and Gently to Nagasaki is wonderful as well. ALL of her work is wonderful, but those two I especially love.

  16. this is a chilling and heart-breaking poem. what do a child knows of the adults' political quarrels?
    It is good that Ms Kogawa's house is saved. a reminder of war's absurdity.


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