Do we write to be free of our ghosts or to welcome them?

Guest essay by poet Katherine Lawrence

Joy Kogawa asks this question in Gently to Nagasaki, a compelling memoir that plaits the strands of global, communal, and personal tragedy. Kogawa confronted the horrors of a past that haunted her. By doing so, she moved to acceptance from shame and denial.

In her own poetic words, she wrote that it took thirty years for her to gain “Trust. / Always. / Trust always. / And it is freedom.”

Kogawa achieved this remarkable feat by writing. Like most every writer, she sat in a chair at a desk, pen in hand, and wrote one word after another until the sheet of paper filled with sentences.

And then she reached for the next page, and the next after that.

I’ve been reflecting on Kogawa’s question in preparation for my October 16 reading at Historic Joy Kogawa House. I’ll be reading selections from my poetic memoir, Black Umbrella, and from my middle-grade verse novel, Stay. Neither of my books deal with the atrocities that attend Kogawa’s work yet the question of ghosts is one that startles me each time I reconsider Kogawa’s question in light of my own work. It’s a question that had never occurred to me. Ghosts?

Do I write to be free of my ghosts or to welcome them?

Do I have ghosts? Do ghosts frighten me?

I am often asked why I write. My stock answer is always the same: I write to better understand myself. But what if the true answer is that I move through life feeling haunted? What if writing is my version of a Ouija or spirit board? Do I tap, tap, tap at my keyboard to discover answers to questions that haunt me? Perhaps.

Gently to Nagasaki is populated with the dead: those who died tragically in the bombing of Nagasaki and from Japanese war atrocities; the death of entire communities in the wake of internment camps; the death of Kogawa’s beloved parents; and the near-death of the family home. Yet emotional and spiritual deaths attend most every page. It’s here, at this psychic intersection, that I feel ready to consider the presence of ghosts in my own writing process.

Black Umbrella explores the emotional violation I underwent as a child who was asked to keep adult secrets. Specifically, my mother used me as her confidante while she indulged in an extramarital affair. I was a flat-chested kid who played with Barbies yet I remained as mute as my dolls in order to please my beautiful mother.

I have felt haunted all my life from the fallout of these family secrets. Yet I was unable to write my memoir until my parents had died because I could not bear to risk hurting the people with whom I shared such complex love.

I connect with Kogawa’s fierce love for her father, a known pedophile whose criminal acts did not destroy her love for him. My mother used to scold me about my moodiness, my preoccupation with the breakup of our family. She would tell me that I had never been sexually abused, that I wasn’t raised by alcoholics, that I had been given a home, nice clothes, and good food. “Stop being so melodramatic,” she’d say.

And so I wrote.

We all need stories in our lives because a story has the power to transform the reader, the listener, and the writer. Consider the Latin root of trans and we find ourselves on ghostly terrain as we step across, over, and beyond.

I’m a poet who writes in the tradition of the long poem. My books explore the same story through different voices and perspectives. I play, I experiment with form. But the seminal story I am compelled to tell is a journey tale through the dark woods of family breakdown where love—somehow—survives.

“Do we write to be free of our ghosts or to welcome them?”

Thanks to Joy Kogawa, I hold this question in my heart as I tap, tap, tap.

Johannes Zits

When Phantoms Come Calling:

Sun, Oct 16, 3:00 PM

Katherine Lawrence reads at Historic Joy Kogawa House on Sunday, October 16, 3 to 4:30pm. She will read from her poetic memoir Black Umbrella (Turnstone Press, 2022) and from Stay (Shadow Paw Press Reprise Editions, 2022).

Vancouver writer Shaena Lambert will facilitate the conversation to follow. Please join us!