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May 18, 2011

Joy Kogawa Speaks of Mercy on Salt Spring

There's a crack, a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in - Leonard Cohen

The poet and writer Joy Kogawa was on Salt Spring, Saturday night, on behalf of The Land Conservancy of BC and the Salt Spring Conservancy. She`s a petite and youthful woman in her 70s who divides her time between Ontario and BC. She says, now is the best time of her life. Just wait, she says 

The Land Conservancy of BC helped ensure her family home in Marpole wasn`t ripped down by raising enough money to purchase it as a significant historical marker which now acts as a writers in residence retreat. They are attempting to renovate it further to make it even more comfortable for the writers who will live there and for when events are held.

She got up to speak and paused for a moment. She says she no longer thinks ahead of time about what to say and learned instead to trust herself, to have faith that what comes in the moment is what needs to be said. She spoke of having remained silent for so long until the pressure built to a point that she could no longer remain silent. The result was Obasan, her novel from 1981. Although she is grateful for the opportunities the book has afforded her, it was actually a later book - The Rain Ascends; a book that didn't get nearly the recognition that she calls her most important book.

She spoke about learning to befriend the enemy, purposely choosing to look at those who are or who have caused you problems and choosing to be open to befriending them. She did this with the grandaughters of the man, Howard Green, a Conservative MP for Vancouver South who advocated the Japanese (BC Citizens) be interned and long after the war was over, suggested they not be allowed to return to the BC Coast.

Kogawa had met Green's grandaughters. She spoke of mercy and how the act of mercy (which she says there is way too little of in the world) is what would save us. She was speaking from her heart and the room was silent with attentiveness the way a room is when someone captivates it.

The whole time she was speaking I began to think about the friend I'd had since I was about 5 years old until a few years ago when I felt we'd grown apart to such a degree that the friendship just didn't seem to work anymore. It would have been impossible not to think about her. Everything we shared, or had to share, was historical. We had not resided in the same city for at least 20 years and there seemed, to me, nothing to hold on to in a way that could fuel the connection and for other reasons, it didn't feel like it worked. It felt shallow.

Some people might be aghast that I could let such a friendship go; a friendship that had spanned 45 years.  I don't know if it was right or wrong but, as in a marriage, it seems to me, people either grow in the same direction and can continue to relate coming from a place of authenticity in their relationships or they can't, and the connection falls away as quickly and silently as petals falling off a flower. That's how it felt to me. The will was not there to continue.

My friend's mother had been interned at New Denver as a young woman. When I was in university, I interviewed  her for an English paper I was writing. I spoke with her at a dining room table in a house on West 30th in Vancouver, and the ghosts were in the room. The entire time I'd grown up, and she truly had been like a second mother, I'd never heard her speak of that time. I got an A+ on the paper but more importantly, I got just a hint of the anguish, just a hint because she was not someone to show emotion, behind a historical event that impacted people who had been like family to me.

I thought of my friend when Kogawa said she would have given anything, when she was younger, not to be Japanese, but to be like everyone else. I remembered these big picnics every summer in Stanley Park that I'd be invited to with my friend. I loved them. There were lots of people, amazing home-made Japanese food, and games. It was really fun. For me. Years later I learned that my friend hated those picnics. She hated being in the middle of a park, with a large group of people gathering and announcing a shared difference.  As a Caucasian person, think about the pain, behind that thought; think about what it would mean to feel shame every time you gathered with more than a few people with white skin?

I wonder, as I get older, if I will feel I've made a mistake or if letting go of a long term friendship is just a form of non attachment; lessons in having to let go of everything of all those things that no longer serve our growth?

Have you ever had to let go of something that had been so much a part of your life and yet you knew, the choice was almost not even in your hands, the choice had been made a long time ago and your actions simply needed to catch up to represent the reality that you were already experiencing?

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