October 21, 2003
Councillor Jim Green
Vancouver City Hall
453 West 12th Avenue
Dear Jim Green:
I am writing to you in order to add my voice to those who are urging you and the city of Vancouver to act quickly and decisively in order to preserve the Marpole area home lived in by Joy Kogawa, the author of Obasan, and her family prior to their internment during World War II. Apparently this home, currently on the real estate market, recently received an offer of $450,000 which was turned down by the owner, who is now asking $480,000. The availability of this historic home provides a wonderful opportunity for the city of Vancouver and the province of British Columbia to take immediate action to ensure that this house will be preserved as an historic site for all Canadians. If this one home, out of all those taken away from Japanese Canadians during the dark period of internment, could be returned to all the
people of Canada, the act would be symbolic and powerful indeed. From where I stand, it seems very obvious.
I have taught Joy Kogawa's Obasan to university students at McMaster and Trent University for almost twenty years. The reaction to this novel on the part of the students over the years has been remarkable and powerful on both an intellectual and emotional level. For many, it is the first time they have heard of the internment of Canadians of Japanese descent and they are outraged by the actions of the Canadian government and are also disturbed by the fact that they have not been told about this event in Canadian history.
Those who do know about the internment are profoundly moved by the personal level of the story as told by Kogawa. I have taught no other book in Canadian literature that has moved my students to the tears and anger inspired by Obasan. When students finish reading and discussing Obasan, they are often less naïve and idealistic, but they also feel moved and empowered to act in order to ensure that such history does not repeat itself in Canada. I do not think we can ever measure the impact of this book on our country in the role it has played in raising the onsciousness of young Canadians, who carry that awareness into adulthood.
On a personal level, I found the reading of Obasan to be a painful and yet healing act. Growing up in a west coast family settled for many years in Victoria, I felt complicity and guilt each time I read the novel. Although those of us not victimized by the internment could never presume to understand the feelings evoked by such an act, we can all share in the outrage that Kogawa's Obasan so deftly conveys for the silence that represses and refuses to acknowledge such acts. The voice of Obasan broke that silence in a very careful manner. It managed to convey the horror and the outrage, but included space for forgiveness. The horror and the outrage for me as a reader included the silence that had surrounded the internment,
allowing a situation in which I, growing up in British Columbia and attending schools during the 1960s and 1970s, never really knew or was faced with the details of this period of history until I taught Obasan in Ontario in the 1980s. For many readers, this is the case. It is through Kogawa's novel that we have learned about the internment and it is the voice of that novel that has carefully guided us.
What an opportunity to continue to break this silence. There is so much that could be done with this home, described in detail by Kogawa in Obasan and Naomi's Road. The home was a place of beauty lost forever when the family was moved to the interior of B.C. and then to the beet fields of Alberta. If this building were some type of memorial building or museum, the story of the Japanese internment could be told within the house that for so many Canadians was the setting that began the breaking of the silence as we closely listened to the story told by Joy Kogawa. The house could also serve as a retreat for young Canadian writers. At this point on a practical level I and others are simply asking you to step in and preserve a Canadian building that should not be demolished, but should obviously be preserved as an historic site that can help all of us as Canadians.