Guest Post by Nadia Hohn
Upon returning to Toronto in 2017 after a year teaching in the United Arab Emirates, I began seeking opportunities to help me grow as a writer and published author as well provide funding. On the Writers’ Trust website, I learned about a few writing residencies to which I could apply — spaces in which writers could focus on projects and in which the costs of lodging were covered. My inner traveller was excited by these opportunities but since I am also a full-time elementary school teacher in Toronto, it was challenging to find a writing residency that I could complete during my summer holiday. The challenge was that many writing residencies take place during the school year. Or they take place up to two years after the application deadline — when life is harder to predict down the road. I learned that the writing residency at the Historic Joy Kogawa House might be a good fit.
I knew a little bit about Joy Kogawa. When one of my younger sisters attended a class for gifted students in elementary school, the book selected that year was Joy Kogawa’s middle-grade novel Obasan. (Perhaps this selection was welcomed then because my sister also had an obsession with Japan and all things Japanese. She told me all about this book.) As this was Toronto in the 1980s, there was very little taught in school about the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II. So what my sister gained from Obasan which she then passed on to me was important. I also knew about some of Joy’s picture books like Naomi’s Tree and her novel for younger readers, Naomi’s Road. What an opportunity it would be to live and work in the childhood home of this important writer! I applied.
In April 2018, I was blessed with some great news in an email! My application was selected and I could become a writer-in-residence at the Historic Joy Kogawa House in Vancouver. They could only offer me a spot in July and August 2019. Would I accept? Of course. Fast-forward to summer 2019 and here I am!
Primarily during my residency, I will be editing my novel manuscripts as well as picture books. I will be running workshops and presenting in Vancouver and Victoria. On August 15, I look forward to celebrating the release of my sixth book, one that I began seven years ago, A Likkle Miss Lou: How Louise Bennett Coverley Found Her Voice, just in time for the 100th anniversary of this Jamaican poet. I also have some important decisions to make about my writing career.
Being a writer-in-residence at Historic Joy Kogawa House is kind of like living in a museum. There are tours and visitors on occasion. I look around at framed photographs, paintings, and plaques. I wash dishes and brush my teeth in a kitchen and bathroom from which a family was forced to flee long ago.
I try to imagine the chatter of Joy and her family going through daily routines like getting ready for school and then the imminent silence in 1942. I imagine there are a great number of stories that each wall and corner of this 1912 house may hold. I wonder if the Marpole railroad tracks along the nearby Arbutus Corridor led to train stations crammed with Japanese Canadians clinging on to their belonging, anxiety in the air, trying to make sense of their lost livelihoods and sense of dignity.
Being at the Historic Joy Kogawa House aligns with my interests in social justice education, community building, and, undoubtedly, writing. And besides these, let’s face it. Vancouver is gorgeous in the summertime. (The last time I was here it was a chilly damp December in the early 2000s.) I have taken the gondola and chairlift up Whistler and Blackcomb peaks, swum in the Kitsilano saltwater pool, watched the steam rise from the Gastown clock, and marvelled at the effortless diversity of leaves, trees, and vibrant flowers each day. I am finding my way in this great city.
I hope you will join us at the Historic Joy Kogawa House at our upcoming program on Thursday, July 25, 7:30 to 9:00pm, when I host a panel discussion on diversity in children’s lit with panelists Raymond Nakamura, Mahtab Narsimhan, and Robin Stevenson. Tickets are $5 on Eventbrite. Presented in partnership with Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Canada West.