Reflections on the Joy Kogawa House

Kogawa in front of her childhood home. Photo by Dan Toulgoet.

Memories are strange things. You can remember something a certain way, with details and abundant details, and find out later that what you remember isn’t really how it was at all. Or somehow, a memory of a place can feel more genuine, more real than the place itself.

These are the kind of thoughts a recent visit to the Historic Joy Kogawa House, the author’s reclaimed childhood home, inspired in me. In Obasan, her seminal novel about surviving Japanese Canadian internment during World War II, Kogawa writes, “The house, if I must remember it today, was large and beautiful.”

Upon walking up to the house, it’s already clear that it is not large. In actuality, it’s quite small, many of the rooms feeling cramped when entering them. But, when I imagined I was a child—that I measured half my current height—it’s easy to understand why Kogawa remembers the house’s size that way. Size is relative, and so are memories.

Some descriptions from the book were swiftly confirmed by walking into the rooms—“the living room is the darkest room”—while other, more poetic, abstract descriptions took some effort and imagination to recreate in the mind: “The sofa is a mountain to climb, a valley for sleeping in, a place of ambush for surprise attacks on passing parents.”

However, this second description is more important than the first. The most important memories are based in mood and emotion; the most special remind us not necessarily how something looked or sounded or smelt in the past, but how something made us feel. If all the details in a memory aren’t right, it doesn’t matter to us as long as the feelings can still be gleaned from the recollection.

This relates to Obasan and its objective as a historical and semi-autobiographical novel. Not all of what happens in the book happened exactly that way in the real past; but in the scheme of things this is unimportant when Kogawa’s presentation of the impact of the history on those still living, of the emotional and psychological effects of such painful memories, rings so true. The big picture rings true, even if some of the details do not.

In Obasan, Kogawa reminisces about some things that don’t seem to be there anymore—“scissors, folding paper, Plasticine, huge picture books, a Meccano set, doll dishes, and a rocking horse with its mouth open wide in laughter.”

Japanese Canadians evacuated to Hastings Park. They were soon moved to internment camps. Photo from the Japanese Canadian National Museum.

There are hardly any traces of the Japanese Canadian internment camps left in the interior of B.C. But, the fact that the shacks do not still stand does not mean they don’t exist in the minds of every internment survivor. Just because one cannot see them still there, does not mean they never were there, as much as some survivors might wish this to be the case.

Kogawa writes, “If I search the caverns of my mind, I come to a collage of images—sombre paintings, a fireplace and mantle with a heavy key like a small metal bird that fits in my palm.”

Part of what makes Obasan such an impressive novel is how Kogawa was able to put these mnemonic collages of images—and many of them traumatic images to boot, images most people would rather like to forget—into the compelling narrative that Obasan is today.

“Fragments of fragments. Parts of a house. Segments of stories.” All stories start out as a collection of fragments, but particularly stories about diasporic groups. Japanese Canadian families were torn apart by the actions of the government, fragmented—their homes were taken away and all they had left were pieces, pieces of memory. But as the reclaiming of the Kogawa house shows, fragments can be put back together.

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