On Writing and Failure from Joy Kogawa

Obasan by Joy Kogawa
Obasan by Joy Kogawa was the first novel to tell the story of how Canadians of Japanese ancestry were forced from their homes and had their property confiscated during World War II.

I was thrilled to hear Joy Kogawa speak at the University of Victoria earlier this month. For all her success—as an award-winning Canadian author and poet, a member of the Order of Canada, and a recipient of Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun—she seemed genuinely overwhelmed by all of us who got up early for her talk (a 7:45am start!), and she even expressed some uncertainty about whether or not her recently completed memoir would be published (although of course there is no doubt in my mind!).

When Joy Kogawa first started writing Gently to Nagasakishe confessed that she wasn’t sure what it would be, whether a poem or something else. And when it turned out to be a memoir, she said that she immediately felt sorry because “a memoir has an i in it. In a memoir you can’t hide.”

Joy certainly wasn’t hiding in her talk either, as she shared openly about her writing, her own life, and her reflections on suffering and reconciliation.

She spoke with compassion (“The best friend resides there in the enemy”), with honest self-reflection (“What pushes me along most in life is suffering”), with wisdom (“The book doesn’t matter really, what matters is to realize these notions and have them in our life”), with humility (“My answer to a lot of things is I don’t know”), on writing and failure (“It’s great to fail, because you will know that you tried. That’s all that’s required of your work. Success is not required”).

Thank you, Joy Kogawa, for an inspiring morning, and thanks to two of my sisters for getting up early so we could start the day with this special event.

The video of her talk, “On the Edge of Always,” has now been uploaded, and I thoroughly enjoyed it a second time:

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