Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Japanese Canadian writer and activist Joy Kogawa is best known for her novel Obasan (1981), which was based on her own experiences as a captive in a Canadian internment camp during World War II. The book won Books in Canada First Novel Award and Canadian Authors Association Book of the Year Award.

Kogawa was born in Vancouver on June 6, 1935, a second-generation Japanese Canadian (nisei). During World War II she and her family, together with more than 20,000 other Japanese Canadians, were shipped to detention camps in the interior of the country. Kogawa was sent first to Slocan, British Columbia, then to Coaldale, Alberta. In Obasan, the adult Naomi, as an activist seeking justice for the victims of internment, reconstructs what had happened to her as a child as she scrutinizes the records that document this dark period of Canadian history.

Kogawa studied education at the Universities of Alberta (1954) and Saskatchewan (1968) and taught elementary school in Coaldale for a year. Her first book of poetry, The Splintered Moon, was published in 1967. She subsequently published three other collections of poetry. She has written three other novels since Obasan, two of which also feature Naomi. Like her main character, Kogawa has campaigned tirelessly for the rights of Japanese Canadians, so much so that in a 1988 interview she expressed concern that her writing would be overwhelmed by her political commitment. Her most recent novel, The Rain Ascends (1995), moved away from the previous autobiographical character of her fiction to tackle an equally charged subject matter: the abuse of children by clergymen.

David J. Wishart University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Williamson, Janice. Sounding Differences: Conversations with Seventeen Canadian Women Writers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993: 148-59.

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