The month I spent at the Joy Kogawa House became one of the highlights of my artistic career. As I told Ann-Marie Metten after the first day, “There’s nothing like re-reading Obasan in Joy Kogawa’s childhood bedroom, looking out at her cherry tree, sitting at the desk where she wrote Obasan next to the typewriter on which she wrote Obasan.” I hadn’t picked up the book in years and my dog-earred copy was purchased at Kinokuniya in Tokyo back in 1985, during my year long stay in Japan.

Stepping into the house felt like stepping into both a time-machine and a historic site. There were the photos of Joy and her family at the house before the war, the photos of the removal of Japanese Canadians to Slocan, the apology from the Canadian government, the artwork above the stairs to the basement showing Japanese women serving food, doing laundry.

As a Japanese American it all echoed for me the Japanese American experience when 120,000 of our community, including my parents at ages eleven and fifteen, were taken from the homes and imprisoned in concentration camps behind barbed wires and under rifle towers with the guns pointed inwards. I noted that the apology from the Canadian government, an apology which was in part prompted by Joy’s writings, took place in the same year the United States Congress and President Ronald Reagan apologized to the Japanese American community.

I often tell my students of color that they should not worry about what they perceive as the so-called “mainstream” white readership will think of their work or will evaluate their work. You need to write what you need to write for yourself and your community, I say. And I do try to practice what I preach. But living for a month in Joy Kogawa’s childhood home, I was surrounded by a history which echoes my family’s history, a place where those of Japanese ethnicity were not a minor sidelight or unrecognized. Beyond this, the presence of Japanese artwork, down to the yukata hanging on the bathroom door and the kimino in the armoire and the pottery scattered throughout the house reminded me of my Aunt Ruth’s home in which she lived with a Japanese woman.

To a writer of color, so much of the world seems to be saying, We don’t care about your stories, we don’t care about how you view your race and ethnicity, you’re at best a minor matter.

But I didn’t feel like I was part of a “minor matter” at the Joy Kogawa House, I felt my family’s history was important and central, and I started on completing a memoir piece I had begun last fall about my Nisei mother who passed away in September, 2022. My mother never talked about her experience of being imprisoned by the United States government or being torn from her childhood home, but I realized that my mother was a young child just as Joy Kogawa was a young child when World War II began. But instead of silence, Joy had written about her experience of being torn from her childhood home, of being “evacuated”, of facing racial prejudice, and I began to interweave quotations from her writing and my staying at the House within my writing about my mother. In a way, her writing allowed me to see my mother anew, alive in that historical time period.

By the end of the month, I had written about 30,000 words. Now I don’t know at this stage if any of the writing is good, but I know I was productive and I know that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been in residency at the Joy Kogawa House.

The House is such a treasure for the Vancouver writing community, for the Asian Canadian writer community, and for Vancouver. I was so pleased to do two events for the Literasian conference and I am thankful to them for supporting my stay. The Sunday dim sum where many of the authors read was a particular highlight.

In addition to the Literasian Festival, I taught four classes each Thursday evening of my stay—on the writing process and identity, on poetry, on fiction, on memoir. The last three were recorded so that those who could not attend could view the class, and the classes kept getting larger (I think the last had over thirty crammed into the living room and dining room). Generally people lingered and socialized after the classes, and at the last class a few stayed for over an hour after the class ended.

In the first class, I spoke of the ways writers can censor or self-silence themselves, and I also spoke of how family or community or the greater society can censor or silence writers. One Japanese Canadian woman spoke up and said she still found it hard to write against what she felt were the dictates of her family and community, the sense that she shouldn’t be telling private matters, secrets, shouldn’t be writing anything that might upset the community she belonged to.

I had said to the class that I believed creative writing was a search for and the creation of a language to express what we know unconsciously, but don’t yet have a language to express. Taking off from that remark, I talked about how the psyche knows how and when we should heal, knows when we are strong enough and ready to address the past in a new way, to address our psychological issues in a new way, to create a new narrative and identity for ourselves. But–if we don’t write what our psyches are prompted us to write, we as writers will not engage what we need to engage as writers, we will not grow and strengthen and heal in ways we need to. So, I told the Japanese Canadian woman, whose family strictures I felt familiar with as a Japanese American, sometimes we must write something, but we don’t need to publish it. And yet everything we write about that, the unpublished writing, will be necessary for and strengthen us for whatever we write afterwards.

In my piece on my mother, there were subjects and issues, particularly around sexuality, I have been avoiding. I decided instead to follow my own advice and start writing on those subjects and issues, and say to myself, Well, David, you don’t have to publish this, you just have to write it.

In the last class, I told the class that I was doing what I advised the Japanese Canadian woman writer to do. I was following my own advice, and I think that reinforced my message to the class: Let your unconscious speak, let your psyche teach you how to heal and reconcile with and understand the past. That I was speaking this in a class on memoir—where the writer is indeed investigating the past—made this message, I think, all the more pertinent.

In certain ways I had envisioned the House as a quiet retreat, which many days it was, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how the House is also a public and historic site.

So I was present and did a short presentation when a fifth grade class came through the house, and after I gave a brief introduction to myself, Japanese American history and the significance of the House, the first question I got from the class was a girl asking, “Is the cherry tree still there?”

The class had read Naomi’s Tree and it was clear that the tree was a detail which helped make the story of the Japanese Canadian wartime experience real to them, and then, for the children to be able to tour the home itself I’m sure made the history live for them in a way that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.

One morning a group of older people were gathered around the model of the house out front that serves as a lending library. I went out and asked them if they were on a tour, and they said they were on a walking tour. So I invited them in and gave a brief talk about Joy’s work and the history of the house. Another morning I was in the bathroom when I heard voices in the living room, and I emerged to find a Chinese Canadian family, two parents, two children, who had wandered into the house—apparently we’d left the door ajar—thinking it was a historic site, which it is, and that they could just walk in. I told them too about Joy’s work and the history of the house.

One of the things about the House that I did not foresee is how it is located in a predominantly Asian/Chinese neighborhood. A couple people addressed me in Mandarin on the street (and when I went golfing, several golfers asked me if I spoke Mandarin). My wife, who stayed with me for most of the month, and I loved the plethora of Asian restaurants in walking distance of the house.

During the month, I gave a reading for Pen Parentis with two other writers on Zoom, and one of them was the Vancouver writer Kevin Chong, who had just published a novel and who had written an article on Asian malls and food courts for Time Magazine. Once he discovered I was at the House, Kevin offered to take me to the Aberdeen Center, whose food delighted me and to which I brought my daughter and her partner and my grandson when they visited. On the way out I saw a bookstore and I told Kevin I wanted to buy his new novel, but he informed me it was a Chinese bookstore.

All of this is a way of saying I felt immersed in Japanese Canadian history at the House, I delighted in being in a neighborhood and city so heavily Asian and so laden with Asian restaurants, and I delighted in meeting so many writers at my classes and the Literasian events, and how welcoming everyone was.

Near the end of my stay I was asked to speak to a meeting of the board and members of the House, and I said much of what I’ve written here. But then I talked about the more problematic history of the house, how Rev. Nakano, Joy’s father and an Anglican minister, had sexually abused young boys in the community and at the house.

Before I had come, the Japanese Canadian playwright Rick Shiomi had informed me that there was controversy surrounding the house, and survivors and their families and members of the community still felt a deep anger and hurt from the harmful actions of Rev. Nakano. Fortunately Ann-Marie Metten had informed me of the history of the House in regards to Rev. Nakano, and indeed we had talked about ways of addressing the community’s concerns and repairing relations with the community.

When I arrived, I was heartened to find out that the Board had been working on an apology to the survivors, their family and the community, and Ann-Marie told me the Canadian Anglican church had also issued an apology. I know this apology from the Joy Kogawa House may have seemed to some to distract from the purpose of the House or what it has become. But it’s my belief that the House has been preserved as a historic site, and part of that is to acknowledge the wrongs done to the Japanese Canadian community by the Canadian government. But if the House is to preserve a historic memory of that wrong, I believe it must also address the wrongs done by Rev. Nakano.

We can’t pick and choose what we remember from history. We must remember and acknowledge it all.

And as I told one member, “The House is there in part to serve writers, and this is what writers do: We address the elephant in the living room, we take secrets from out of the closet, we remember what others don’t want to remember.” So to me the apology is very much in keeping with the spirit of the House.

In my talk to the house, I quoted from Judith Herman, who wrote a seminal book in the 1990’s on trauma, Trauma and Recovery, and has just come out with a new book, Trauma and Repair. While the earlier book focused on the personal psychological journey survivors of trauma and abuse must undergo in orther to heal, Herman’s latest book focuses on the need of survivors to have their community and the public acknowledge what has happened to them, the abuse and trauma they have suffered. Ironically and tellingly, many survivors express greater rage at their community’s refusal to acknowledge their abuse, particularly when it involves members of an institution like a church, then the survivors express towards their actual abusers. In my speech, I quoted from a review of Herman’s new book in The New Yorker:

“Trauma and Recovery” proposed what was then a novel diagnosis—“complex post-traumatic stress disorder”—for prolonged or repeated abuse, whether it occurred in a war zone or in the supposed sanctum of a family home. Herman outlined a three-stage recovery process, which has since become a therapeutic template in the field of psychiatry. Before anything else, trauma survivors must salvage a basic sense of safety (step one). Only afterward can they mourn what they have lost (step two) and resume some version of ordinary life (step three). Following the publication of “Trauma and Recovery”—which the feminist psychologist Phyllis Chesler, in a New York Times review, called “one of the most important psychiatric works to be published since Freud”—Herman began contemplating a fourth stage of recovery. If trauma was a problem of public recognition as much as of personal suffering, shouldn’t true healing entail more than a private undertaking by the survivor?

If her earlier works were like floodlights in the night, baring systemic abuses that had long been blocked from view, “Truth and Repair” is more like a magnifying glass, scrutinizing subtler preconceptions that have persisted through the progress of the #MeToo movement and the mainstream recognition of trauma and its aftermath. Milestones like the criminal conviction of Harvey Weinstein do little to alleviate what Herman sees as the most fundamental breach for victims: the sense that their own communities have failed them. “Truth and Repair” takes aim at the enablers and the apologists, “who profit from the subjection of others,” and also at the onlookers, “who prefer not to know the truth or choose not to help.” Often, Herman argues, “survivors will feel the bitterness of these betrayals more deeply even than the direct harms inflicted by perpetrators.” The new book is slimmer and less overtly revelatory than its predecessor, but Herman’s methodology of assiduous listening serves as its own argument for a new model of justice. In theory, asking survivors of crime what would make things right for them—or “as right as possible,” as she puts it—sounds like a simple thing to do. “In practice,” she writes, “it is hardly ever done.”

It is necessary and just and healing for the Joy Kogawa House to make an apology to the survivor community. It is, as they say, “God’s work”. And it is a tribute to the board, the members and Ann-Marie Metten that you are doing so. And I encourage you all to continue dialoguing with the survivor community. Perhaps this dialogue must start with private individual conversations where representatives of the House simply listen to what the survivor community has to say. Trust is a process, not a product, and if you keep reaching out to that community, movement will happen.

Kevin Chong and Ann-Marie Metten had told me that writers had felt the presence of ghosts in the House. I didn’t experience that. I’m not a believer in such phenomena. But I do think the work the House is doing now, this apology, is a way of exorcising the ghosts of the past, of helping them to heal and move on. You are turning a site which for some of the community is a site of great pain, into a site of memory, preservation, instruction, writing, art, community, a gathering place for people to come together; you are pouring healing energy into the House itself.

I thought of all this when my daughter visited and I was playing with my grandson in the backyard—How long has it been since a child of 2 has slept in the house, a child bearing only a child’s innocence, as Joy was once an innocent child who was ripped from her childhood home? We cannot change the past, but we can change the meaning of the past and we can change how those in the present deal with the past, a past which should not and in a large existential and spiritual sense, cannot be forgotten.

I want to thank Joy Kogawa House, Ann-Marie Metten, the board, the members, Todd Wong and others of the Literasian community for making my stay at the House possible, for providing such a welcoming space for me and my writing, and for the ways my stay at house interwove with writing about my late mother and the history of Japanese Americans. The House did for me what it is supposed to do: It inspired me and gave me time to write and I will always be grateful to you all for this opportunity.

About David Mura

David Mura is an Asian American poet, novelist, playwright, critic, and performance artist whose writings explores the themes of race, identity, and history.

The Stories Whiteness Tells Itself: Racial Myths and Our American Narratives was published in January 2023.

In 2018, Mura published a book on creative writing, A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity and Narrative Craft in Writing, in which he argues for a more inclusive and expansive definition of craft.

Mura has published two memoirs, Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, which won the Josephine Miles Book Award from the Oakland PEN and was listed in the New York Times Notable Books of the Year, and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality, and Identity (1995).

His most recent book of poetry is The Last Incantation (2014); his other poetry books include After We Lost Our Way, which won the National Poetry Contest, The Colors of Desire (winner of the Carl Sandburg Literary Award), and Angels for the Burning. His novel is Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire.

This residency is presented in partnership with Asian Canadian Writers Workshop with funding from the Province of British Columbia through BC Arts Council Literary Programs.