Write what you know, they say.
On a surface level, Joy Kogawa seems to have done that. She rose to prominence on the power of her award-winning 1981 novel Obasan, which depicted the experience of Japanese-Canadians who were persecuted and imprisoned by the Canadian government during World War II. Her 1992 novel, Itsuka, focused on the Japanese-Canadian movement for redress (in which she played an important role). Both contain autobiographical elements; she’s drawn on what she knows.
Kogawa achieved renown in part because she offered a complex conscience for Canada at the time its literature was looking for one. Her novels treated the racism and bigoted brutality of early 20th century Canada; her grappling with these themes helped assuage the liberal conscience of a country that wanted to feel it was rising above that past. Canadians have always felt a sort of inferiority complex next to their sprawling neighbours to the south, and novels of this sort helped underscore the fact that yes, Canada has its dark and brutal aspects too, and yes, it too has liberal writers tackling it in the cultural industries.
For her work, Kogawa’s been awarded the Order of Canada as well as the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun, among numerous other distinctions. She’s also an accomplished poet, with numerous collections to her name.
But if Kogawa offered Canada a literary conscience at the time it sought one, it’s been a troubled conscience. Her 1995 novel, The Rain Ascends, also drew heavily on the autobiographical, but in this case it focused on the protagonist’s discovery that her father was a paedophile priest — a sexual predator who abused boys — and her effort to come to terms with this knowledge.
Now almost 20 years later, Kogawa’s latest novel also deals with her efforts to come to terms with her father’s sexual abuse of young boys.
Write what you know, they say. Kogawa’s novels may appear, on a superficial level, to do this: they’re all rooted in her life experience. But what Kogawa’s latest work reveals is that more than anything, Kogawa is possessed of an eerily clear awareness of what she does not know. And this, in truth, is the strength of her work: her ability to root out the things she does not know, and weave around that great unknown a quest for self-knowledge, interwoven with elements of literary high art. Yes, she’s a skilled writer, and one who’s not afraid to experiment. But above all else, she’s not afraid to admit that she doesn’t know what she’s writing about, or where she’s going with it. She uses that gap, that quest for knowledge, to move her work forward.
This is clear in Gently to Nagasaki: it weaves between an almost petulant desire for public forgiveness on her father’s behalf, to a sense of personal rage over his crimes. She wrestles with her love, her disbelief, her rage, and her sadness in equal measure, and what’s compelling is that it’s never clear which combination of emotions will triumph. The reader finds their conscience buffeted just as vigorously as Kogawa does, and in achieving this effect Kogawa instills in the reader a deep and profound sense of empathy.
The deeply experimental nature of Gently to Nagasaki may or may not appeal to those who enjoy her other books, but it is quite possibly the work which extols her literary skills to maximum effect.
A Panoply of Horrors
In setting out on her moral quest, Kogawa frames the book with a series of difficult moral horrors. She sets the stage with a discussion of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. She picks Nagasaki for a reason: Kogawa was raised Christian, and Nagasaki plays a special role in the history of suppressed Christianity in Japan. Indeed, ground zero of the nuclear bombing was the Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, which was once the largest church in Asia and at the time of the bombing serviced the largest Christian community in Japan. She explores how those Americans involved in the bombing wrestled with their consciences after, particularly the American priest who blessed the bomber crew, and who later became a committed pacifist and anti-nuclear activist in an effort to atone for the slaughter caused by the bombing.
Kogawa skilfully weaves together the suffering of Japanese in Nagasaki and Japanese-Canadians in internment camps, with the suffering of Japan’s victims in mainland Asia, for instance the horrific rape and slaughter in Japanese-occupied Nanking, China. She tackles Japan’s refusal to own up to its genocidal crimes in the war, its suppression of those crimes from school textbooks and its glorification of war criminals. Her message, encompassing the actions and histories of Americans, Canadians, and Japanese, is clear: no one is purely innocent, no one is purely criminal. Guilt and forgiveness is complex, especially when one is victim and perpetrator at the same time.
Against this global historical backdrop she juxtaposes the personal history of her father’s crimes: the father who was also abused and suffered as a boy, who became a priest and worked hard to support poor and struggling communities in Japan and Canada, and who also perpetrated horrific abuse against young boys himself. In addition to struggling to reconcile her personal feelings — her memories of him, before she learned of his abuse when she was in high school, are only those of fatherly love — she also faced a public struggle. The fundraising efforts she undertook to purchase her childhood home and restore it (she succeeded: Kogawa House is a museum and literary residence in Vancouver) were challenged and opposed by victims of her father and their families, who wanted the house destroyed, and also by those in the Japanese-Canadian community who preferred assimilation over redress. The moral themes this leads her to explore in the book are deep and multi-layered.
Her themes are difficult ones, but she doesn’t shy away from them in the slightest; the slim, innocuous-looking and gently-titled volume gives little hint of the turmoil readers will encounter within.
A Quest for Forgiveness
Can a child forgive the father who sexually abused young boys? Can parishioners forgive the church that knowingly covered up sexual abuse crimes by its priests? Can a minority forgive the country that persecuted them, that imprisoned them without cause, brutalized them, stole their hard-earned worldly possessions, and then cast them adrift under a suspicious and dismissive gaze for the next 40 years? Can a country forgive the people who dropped nuclear bombs on its innocent civilians? Can the survivors and descendants of those innocent victims forgive their own relatives for the atrocities — horrific rape, murder and genocide — they committed abroad in the name of empire?
These are among the difficult questions Kogawa explores. The contrast between these questions helps to underscore the complexity of forgiveness. When does a crime become too much to forgive? How does the crime experienced by one person compare to that experienced by another, and how does the desire or willingness to forgive by one person reflect on the refusal to forgive by another?
Kogawa sets out in Gently to Nagasaki with the hope of reconciling these questions; of coming to some understanding of racism and genocide; and of figuring out how, and whether, to forgive her own father, whom she loved deeply, for the terrible abuse he inflicted on others.
She doesn’t. There are no easy or conclusive answers to these questions, and the value of Gently to Nagasaki lies in the way that she reveals this fact. The book resonates with a sense of hope; an implied hope that people will find it in their hearts to forgive her father, or at least acknowledge the good works that he did for his community and the love he had for his family; that she will better understand how to reconcile public hatred for her father with her personal love for the man who helped raised her.
Though the book chronicles her difficult journey through this process, it doesn’t achieve any simplistic conclusions. She meets with people who loved and respected her father; she talks to his victims and is filled with physical revulsion for what he did. Her ability and desire to forgive is buffeted back and forth by these experiences.
Trust? Or Hope?
In the end, she is left only with what she calls “Trust”, but which I would say sounds more like ‘Hope’. Then again, are they not the same?
Kogawa, a Christian, frequently draws on Christian history and metaphors (while she’s clearly open-minded and taps into a fusion of faiths, the Christian spiritual elements of the book are a bit disconcerting to the secular reader). She draws, near the end, on a biblical verse from Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians. “Rejoice always. Pray at all times. Be thankful in all circumstances.”
The verse offers her solace and lifts her spirits. She repeats it daily, and finds in it a reassuring sense of constancy that she associates with a verse by Swedish writer and former United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammerskjold: “For all that has been, thanks; for all that will be, yes.”
She finds a freedom of sorts in this. “The Always river is here,” she writes.
That was the day I first mentioned the name of the river. Always. And I recognized it as the freeing word…
It took thirty years for the word to arrive.
My one word is Trust.
Trust is the least. Trust is the most.
The decisive word, the hidden word, is Always.
And it is freedom.
But this trust of which she writes, isn’t it hope? The trust that despite all the dark contradictions of self and soul, that soul will eventually wend its way toward freedom? The ability to keep moving forward, despite the deep burden of knowing the ones you loved caused great evil, is that not hope? What drags us inexorably forward but hope? What is hope, but a deep and profound trust in the future, despite all the undeniable horrors of the past?
Whether hope or trust, what’s clear is that her conclusion opens itself up to as varied a range of interpretations as the historical events and moral dilemmas which frame the book’s opening chapters. Gently to Nagasaki is a literary memoir, and a fine one, but it functions equally well as a workbook for working through questions of faith and morality. Kogawa’s imperturbable liberal calm, and the privileged position from which she writes might ruffle the average reader at times (she wanders seemingly at will between gentrified homes in two different provinces, exploring life’s questions without any apparent burden of deadline or budget, having tea with the crème de la crème of the literary and scholarly communities), but the memoirs described herein also illustrate a youth full of poverty and struggle, so perhaps she’s earned her respite.
There are some moments that are difficult to reconcile with the measured wisdom of the rest of the book (the pages she spends discussing crackpot notions about feminism being responsible for childhood sexual abuse trauma, for instance). Nevertheless, the questions with which she grapples here are universal in their scope, and her treatment of them is profoundly personal and unflinchingly honest. Gently to Nagasaki will likely not have the mass appeal of her previous works, but it’s quite possibly her most moving and powerful book yet.