Joy Kogawa in conversation with Ulli Diemer
Ulli Diemer spoke with Joy Kogawa in Toronto on March 14, 2017. Joy Kogawa is the author of Obasan, Gently to Nagasaki, and a number other works of fiction and poetry. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Joy: I have to say I’m full of curiosity about you and about your name. It’s an unusual name.
Ulli: It’s German. In Germany it’s both a man's name and a woman's name. So you get a lot of female Ulli’s as well as male Ulli’s.
Joy: Were you born there?
Ulli: I was born in Germany. And, actually, one of the things I want to talk to you about is aerial bombing. Aerial bombing and industrial warfare. The city that I’m from, Kassel, was heavily bombed during the Second World War: about 80% of all the homes in the city were destroyed. I read something... do you know W.G. Sebald?
Ulli: He’s a German-British author. He died a few years ago, died young in a car accident. He wrote a book called On the Natural History of Destruction. He talks about how the bombing of Germany was talked about, and reflected on, in Germany after the war. The point he tries to make is that it was rarely talked about at all. He relates that he has always had an emotional bond to ruins. He ties it to the fact that he grew up in a bombed city. I’d never really thought about it in that way, but when I read what he wrote, it resonated with me. I also grew up in a bombed city. As it happened my grandparent’s building was on the last street that survived in this particular district of Kassel. I was surrounded by rubble, I grew up playing in rubble. So rubble has always had this resonance for me. I somehow feel at home when I see rubble and ruins. My partner makes fun of me. “Why don’t we go to look at this desolate, industrial area. Oh Ulli! You’ll be at home here! Look at how desolate and ruined it is.”
Joy: How incredibly interesting that is! But what people might call hell to one person then can be heaven to another.
Ulli: To me, as a child, I didn’t know anything about it. It was the natural environment. The natural was rubble and ruins. There was rebuilding under way, but there was still a lot of rubble, certainly in my neighbourhood. Destruction in Kassel had been almost total; more than 80% of the houses were destroyed in the bombing. But to me it was just like ... in the same way as you might grow up among fields or you might grow up in an inner city. This is how the world is. But it strikes me in retrospect that nobody ever talked about it. Nobody ever said anything about the fact that there used to be houses here or there used to be people living there, and those people are all dead. The adults may have talked about it among themselves but I never heard them talking about it. So I was into adulthood before I even clued in. “Oh, something happened there. It wasn’t always like that”.
Joy: Isn’t that the most amazing thought! That a child who is born in hell and only experiences that hell can, because he’s a child, know it as heaven. So the frame that he brings to any kind of physical hell can alter that experience that other people ... the whole world might say, “No, that is hell”. But another person who experiences love there and all the joys of discovery of childhood that belong to that sacred time, may carry that forever without it being hell.
Ulli: Although I must say it wasn’t hell to me at all.
Joy: Yes, that’s what I mean.
Ulli: My family loved me. I was fed, I was taken care of and it was quite a neat place to play with my friends. So, it wasn’t hell to me. I never knew the people who died there. Nobody ever talked about the people who died there, so for me it was just ... that’s just how it is – it’s pretty nice!
Joy: Isn’t that fascinating. So, I think we need stories from that era and from that experience and from that understanding. And that lack of knowledge ... how that can protect you in ways. So silence has a way of protecting people in fact. So, that’s really an interesting perspective that I’ve never thought of.
Ulli: You mention Dr. Takashi Nagai and you use the phrase “deep sanity” for what he and his group of people were doing in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of Nagasaki. I found that a very interesting and fascinating concept, this “deep sanity”. I’d like you to say more about that if you could.
Joy: OK. I’m just wondering about this tea: should we pour it or not?
Ulli: Well, let’s pour it, yeah.
Joy: OK. Deep sanity ... I would say perhaps that, well, his capacity to respond to that unspeakable horror and to attempt to do good within it is a form of sanity. A form of insanity as we would understand insanity was when he came upon a person on the roof singing and dancing because his mind had broken. And he called that insanity. So it seems to me, we, in North America, are by and large, in that sense, insane. Because we are dancing and eating and singing in the midst of the story we hear now, and we hear it only as a story, that 20 million people in Africa are facing famine and starvation. That’s like living in the world you talked about where there is devastation but not knowing what was behind that devastation; it’s distant. And yet you see the physical effects of it and experience the joy of childhood without knowing the enormous suffering that preceded that. And that suffering from which we are shielded creates in us an insanity, I think. Whereas Dr. Nagai’s sanity came through knowing the devastation, through knowing what it was before and through his attempts to restore what he experienced as beautiful. I don’t think anybody can see humans suffering and feel alright about that. There’s something wrong if you can dance and sing while somebody is suffering. That is an insanity, which is what we are doing. So I would like to see sanity restored to us in North America. I think we should all be transplanted to the famine area and to the people in the famine area coming and experiencing the abundance of food that we have here. What would they do with it if they had known the starvation? What I imagine they would do, since they would know about it, would be to do all they could to get the food to us. And until we experience that I don’t think we’re going to become sane. I mean that off the top of my head is a response to your question and to wondering what we can do to wake people up to the reality of suffering.
Ulli: A thought that I’ve had is that one of our greatest contradictions as human beings – individually, collectively – is that one the one hand, we respond to suffering and to other people’s pain and on the other hand we shut it out. And to some extent, can’t you say that we have to shut a lot of it out otherwise we couldn’t function? Because, right now, at this very moment, people are being tortured, people are dying, people are being bombed ... you could become paralyzed thinking about it all. So how do you, on the one hand, allow yourself to dance and lead a normal life, and on the other hand to respond to it? How do we balance that in our lives?
Joy: That’s such a good question. I think... as you’ve been talking I was thinking of something else, you know, about... and all those thoughts have gone away because I’m old, but... (laughs)... I wish I had them because I wanted to respond to that further train. This is something that happens, we have these trains of thought and they can pass and conversations are like that and there’s a stream going along and we all have to be part of that stream or we cannot converse. So anyway you’re asking, “How can we have sanity in the midst of the destruction that we do and do not experience?” How do we shield ourselves so that we can in fact act and how do we at the same time hold on to the reality of the suffering? So I think that our hands are pulled in two directions. And I think that we cannot let go of either of them. We have to hold both, we have to hold on to that which enables us to act and we have to hold on to the sufferings so that our actions are not lost in escape from them.
In my Japanese-Canadian community, when I think about the average person, most of them, I know that they love golf; they love curling, they love sports and so, most of them have put their energy and their time into these things that they love. And I see that as part of the same syndrome of dancing on the roof because I think the amount of time we put into feeling so that we can act requires some of it to be spent in such endeavours because they release us from the overwhelming knowledge of the suffering. So we need some. But if we find that 80% of our time is being spent in having fun or doing whatever we can to have fun or making sure that all our energy is directed towards our being able to have fun and 20% of our time is spent looking at the news in the newspaper and putting it out of our minds, then I think there’s something imbalanced about that. And we should acknowledge that there is something insane about that.
So I’m not sure how we come to a balanced life but maybe trying to have a balanced life may not be such a good thing. Maybe we should be like Dr. Nagai and put a great deal more of our energy into trying to do something, whatever it is. And I’ve been thinking that maybe it begins with the very tiniest thing and realizing that it matters, like the butterfly wing which is why I was going to look up the butterfly wing effect, to say that our connections are that. So at the very least, for example, to have a moment of prayer, to have a thought and to realize at that moment that that thought matters and to be fortified so that we’re not helpless and thinking, “Well, there’s no use in just thinking about it so I won't think about it.” But to say, “Yes there was a great deal of use in this invisible moment and to see how that connects to further action”.
So what I was thinking about was the Pope who had sent out this directive to people that when you are out on the street and you see somebody begging, don’t think that, “Oh, I won’t give that person money because they’ll just drink it”. Don’t think about that. Just give it. Just give it without any thought about what it’s going to do. And then the other thing to do is to make contact. So the moment I received that email, I went to the bank, I got out $100 in loonies, so I got these four heavy packets and I carried them around and so I went around handing them out, these little loonies, and making contact. And what I discovered – you’ve heard about that movie, The Incredible Lightness of Being?
Ulli: I haven’t seen it.
Joy: Now I thought I should go home and write about the incredible lightness of giving because when you start doing that... you begin... your eyes open. And so I began to notice, for example things like this: I gave to this musician at Yonge and Bloor subway and when I gave that loonie there, walked away, didn’t actually make contact. When I stood and thought, “oh yes, I better make contact” and I stood there. Then the next person that came by gave him a five dollar bill and I thought, “oh, isn’t that wonderful!” And then I made contact with the musician, I smiled and he smiled back. And then I went on realizing what a gift that was; that moment, seeing the five dollars and all of that then grew in my mind and I realized this happiness that just came into me. So I think it works in that way: it’s invisible, it’s tiny but it’s incrementally increasing. And the happiness inside me from that little action grows and it goes on to the next thing. So then I was talking with a woman on one rainy day and there was nobody begging. So I thought, "Oh, today’s a day when I don’t get my happiness because I can’t give it away”. I was talking to a woman who said she was walking in Brockville when she found a hundred dollar bill on the ground. And she was looking for the owner of this and couldn’t find it so she went into the bank and got five dollar bills and handed them out. So then she said to me, “I don’t think a loonie will do much. It’s better to give a five-dollar bill.” So I was thinking, "Yes, that's my challenge. I’ll get through my hundred, then I’ll get through my twoonies and after that I’ll go to the five”. That’d be a bit of a challenge but it’s gonna do a little more and so I’ll see then if the happiness grows with that. So that’s... that’s my little walk after the reading and the email... what the Pope had to say. And so I think it grows in that way... our capacity to do little acts of sanity – little acts of giving and then when the happiness grows it can become contagious and I think with the proper contagion of this kind we can somehow have the butterfly effect and reach in some way – and I don’t know how – the 20 million.
Ulli: How did you come to realize that there is injustice in the world? And how did you come to feel called upon to do something about it? Where did that come from?
Joy: I’ve been wondering, you know... When I was a very little girl living in Slocan, British Columbia in this internment camp, my parents had brought the Book of Knowledge, a 20-volume set called the Book of Knowledge. It was made in 1918. But in it there were stories of martyrs. It was called the Book of Martyrs and I read those stories there and I used to think, “Alright, here’s the situation where children are being smuggled out of a place and at the cross point they’re smuggled under loads of hay and somebody comes along with a bayonet and spears the hay. If I were in there, would I be able to survive that? Would I be able to receive a stab and not cry out?
I used to think about that a lot and about the amount of suffering there was. I would think a great deal about the suffering in the world as a child, as a small child. And I remember as a small child praying always to know the truth. Now I don’t know where that impulse came from but the hunger to know the worst in the world has been with me for a long time. Except when I think about what some of the worsts are then I think I don’t want to know any more; I know enough. But now you’ve told me a story about the German cities being bombed and that’s a story that’s not very much told. So you ask where my sense of justice and injustice comes from. I think it was just in me to think about suffering itself and not to apply the idea of justice or injustice to it but that it was something that happened in our world, that there are people that did not feel for other people. So these days when I think about justice and injustice I think, for example, that the fact that the stories of the Germans who suffered in that area of bombing... it’s unjust in the sense that that story is not as large as the other stories of suffering that do dominate our consciousness. There are the stories of the untold that ought to be more told so I think that is not just.
But on the other hand I am thinking that, well, justice and fairness go together; the need to balance things, so I can see that justice is a very important issue. But what I’ve been thinking more about recently is the need for mercy along with justice. There’s retributive justice and there’s restorative justice and I think that we expend a lot of energy in a type of retributive justice hoping that that will help to balance the inequities and injustices. But I think that in expending so much energy in trying to make people accountable and trying to punish people and trying to fix things by punishment... I don’t think it’s working that well. Whereas I think an emphasis on mercy would help more. But I’m just caught up right now in thinking about how unfair it is that some people’s stories win the Oscars. And other people’s stories which are untold don’t, which is why I love what you say about your organization [Connexions] because it is focused on the untold stories; on the little ones, on the unheard things and they matter so much. I think they matter more than the things that are visible; the things that are invisible matter. Anyway, I'm rambling....
Ulli: About the bombing of Germany, I think one of the things that has kept it from being talked about more is the sense that the people in Germany who wanted to talk about it wanted to make themselves out as victims and by implication, deny Germany’s responsibility for the things that it had done including the Holocaust, including the fact that it pioneered in a sense aerial bombing first in Guernica in Spain and then at the beginning of the War with the bombing of Rotterdam, and Coventry in England, and then Stalingrad. Those are cities were largely obliterated by German airpower before the British and Americans were able to do it back to the Germans. So I think there was a sense among the people who in Germany who wanted to portray themselves as victims rather than as perpetrators to say, “Let’s talk about the bombing of Germany because that was done to us. That way we can appear as victims, whereas the people who resisted that said, “No, Germany has to accept responsibility for what it did and not evade responsibility by deflecting the conversation to what was done to it”.
Joy: This is the same situation in Japan. They wanted to concentrate on being victimized by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and deny culpability or diminish it for the unspeakable horrors of the atrocities. And so then I say, “Well, in what way should the citizenry of the world unite against all forms of victimization which include the bombing of Germany?” We are both the victims in all of these situations. We might say Germany itself is an entity did these acts of victimization, but where was the citizenry? The fact that people have voted in Hitler does not make the people Hitler. And I think that’s why I guess I’m looking for mercy, or something. I’m not sure what I’m saying....
Ulli: What do you mean by mercy?
Joy: Well, mercy is a quality which does not attempt to find fault, I think. It’s different from justice in that way. I think mercy is aspect of abundance. That was part of the dream that I had that mercy and abundance are the same thing. But those who are filled up with abundance can afford to be merciful which is why I think that the victims, if they could see themselves as filled up with the abundance of life, have the capacity, then, to act with mercy. I haven’t really thought through what I mean by mercy except that in the story of Abraham the holding back of the hand that was to slay Isaac or Ishmael, depending of your view of the story, the hand that held back the hand that slays was the presence of mercy at that point. So that I think that that is what we needed to come to in that story rather than the story of obedience above all and making that the prime virtue of that story, because I think obedience belongs to the military machine and mercy belongs in the human story, I think, something like that.
Ulli: Do you think that people are evil? Would you describe some people as evil or ... ?
Joy: I think people are cut off from feelings and when we are unable to feel then I think we can act and cause great harm and be cruel because we don’t feel, and so whatever it is we feel I think is important. If we feel the surge and the exhilaration of feeling power and experience of that as we kill and therefore are driven by that longing for that thrill. I don’t think that that’s evil, I think that that is a condition of unfeeling. It’s becoming machine-like. It’s losing our humanity. I think humans are creatures that feel.
Ulli: Now I’m thinking about two kinds of acts. For example, the pilot or pilots who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki, they knew what they were doing but they never saw the people who they were killing or maiming. They were just up there. It was almost... abstract. It was just like this is our job and you don’t even see the people. Whereas in Nanking, for example, the soldiers who were bayonetting civilians, they’re right there in front of them. There was no way you could abstract that or pretend that it wasn’t happening. Are the soldier and the pilot removing themselves in the same way?
Joy: I think in this sense that they were cut off from feeling. The pilot over Nagasaki walked through the rubble afterwards and saw it and hoped and prayed that he’d be the last person to ever do that again. So I’m sure that he felt remorse. But at the same time he was absolutely convinced he had done the right thing. That it was right to do that; his rationale being that it ended the war, saved lives and so it was right. The people who did the incredible acts of cruelty were being obedient too. They had been told that in war: it is a virtue to become a beast. And they were commanded or maybe they weren’t, maybe they weren’t commanded but something in them was allowing them the thrill of the person who does not feel the other person, but the thrill of killing. The thrill of maiming, the thrill of whatever that is that is also a part of us. I think that I got a moment’s taste of that one time which really frightened me. It had to do with a cat that brought in a rat into the house and had broken its back with its teeth or broken its neck or something. And my horror at that, my taking it outside and thinking I had to kill it so it didn’t keep suffering. But there was a tiny moment in there, I couldn’t understand what that was but there was something about killing that frightened me. It was something.
And I thought: is that something like the bloodlust that there is? Is there a bloodlust in us? Can we unleash it and revel in it? Was that what was happening at the rape of Nanking? What we do with this? Is it in the hind brain? Is it somewhere lodged in us? Is the beast...? So I don’t know what that is. Civilization is this little veneer that keeps that way down but then it comes up and when it is encouraged, it can take over and we can have that again. So we’re kind of experiencing that in our day, a little bit of that door opening, and more and more blatant acts of discrimination and prejudice and causing people to be afraid and the pleasure of that. It’s very strange....
Ulli: Are you a vegetarian?
Joy: Um... not completely. Are you?Ulli: No... I was just thinking about it because of the way you talked about killing the rat. I eat meat, but there is no way I could kill a cow or a chicken or any of the things that I eat. I don’t whether to call that contradiction or hypocrisy or whatever but it certainly I don’t want to do it but I accept the fact that other people are doing the killing on my behalf so that I can eat meat.
Joy: But I think the day is coming when we’ll have forms of meat provided that does not cause suffering. And that’ll be a nice day ... I don’t know.
Ulli: When we talk about the possibility that people have bloodlust or whatever, I tend to think that there’s a minority of people who are capable of those kinds of acts and maybe enjoy doing them but the majority of people don’t but that minority is quite sufficient – especially given the kind of people who tend to gravitate to power – to make the world miserable for many other people. It doesn’t require that we all be like them as long as there’s the hypothetical 10%, they can be doing those acts. It’s the same as if you walk through the city on a day-to-day basis, all your interactions with people or nearly all your interactions with people will be either neutral or positive. You know, like, “Hi” or whatever, but if one in a thousand interactions somebody punches you at random, you remember that incident more than all the positive or neutral incidents because that’s a traumatic event. I think in the same sense that the small minority of people who are going around harming others, and enjoying harming others, can change the whole climate of our society.
(pause) I guess one kind of question I tend to ask myself about those things is why do people do those things and how can we stop them? If I’m remembering correctly, in Gently to Nagasaki at one point you ask: why does God allow these things?
Joy: Don’t think I asked that, because I guess I think that we are evolving but it’s so interesting that we are in history where we are now. I like the idea, whoever it was that said it, that the long arc of history bends towards freedom and it bends toward the good and I do trust that long arc even there are these big glitches along the way and we have these huge wars.
So I think those things are aspects of what is deeply hidden within us towards ourselves. And I think we need to become more aware of all our own bloodlust, our own hunger, our own desire for power and our lack of compassion. I think if we are able to make compassion the extraordinarily attractive thing that it is and make it somehow more desirable than the things that the world cherishes like so-called beauty which is unreal. Anything that is unreal, it seems to me, cannot be called beautiful like makeup and all these kinds of things that people spend huge amounts of their energy trying to have and attain and so on. Of course I’m hypocritical because I want that too but I think that the attraction of a loving heart, if it can be made visible. Do you remember those posters where they would show a very haggard woman, very drawn, with a cigarette dangling from her mouth and the caption would be: smoking is glamourous.
Ulli: Yes, I do. Uh huh
Joy: I think we need that for the things that are destructive but that we value such as skinny models, I mean it is so... to make a skeleton the symbol of beauty, or manicured lawns with all the pesticides on it that are damaging the water supply. If we could have a series of posters somehow making us aware of our distortion of values that are very destructive. I think one of the horrors of our time is the young people that are getting their teeth fixed orthodontically and making them all straight instead of the interestingly crooked teeth that humans have and so on. And I think that we will come back to that just as that time when women shaved their eyebrows off and so as old people they have no eyebrows and we need our eyebrows, and so on all these kinds of things... I’m way off... what were you saying? What was your question? (laughs) Do you remember what your question was?
Ulli [laughs]: Not exactly, no...
Joy: Something about why does God allow evil? And I did struggle with the question of evil when I was... in 1964 the whole question of good and evil would not fit with the idea of a good God and it was a crisis for me and I went through the crisis and it came to this: that yes, there is evil in the world and it does not make sense with the idea of a good God, in spite of that, the only thing that is left to me is to trust that God is good. And I will trust that in the midst of evil. It will not be a question of why it is allowed. I think we have A, B, C, D, E, F, G allowed so that we can see the differences and I think maybe evil exists so that we can see the difference between evil and good because we wouldn’t know it if it wasn’t there. We wouldn’t know what it was. And so we are creatures that know by contrast. We know night and we know day. There was an astrophysicist who was saying if we lived in a universe without night then we would be in an eternal universe but because we have night know that the universe is finite. So maybe there is or are other universes of night or whatever but ours is one of darkness and light is. That is how we know anything and so we have evil as well as good.
Ulli: I was going to ask you a bit more about the way you’ve actually acted in the world. What I know most about you is your response to the expulsion and interment of the Japanese-Canadians. You responded to that by writing about it [in Obasan] and making it more known and that’s what you’re famous for.
Joy: Yeah, I guess so but I wasn’t thinking about all that at all when I was writing. I was only thinking about my life. After I wrote The Rain Ascends then the question that faced me is what next? Well the statement that I came to was that the next leg of the journey is into the abundant way, which is why I fell into the Toronto Dollar.
Ulli: Tell me more about that.
Joy: About the Toronto Dollar? I look back on that and I scratch my head but I think what came out of it for me was a community and connection. I’ve just lived my life like a leaf in the wind, going from one thing to another without knowing. And I write like that too. The pen and the hand puts the word on the empty page and I haven’t any idea really about what I’m doing until after the act. That’s why my trust grows. So I just had this energy like a volcano within me and the pen had to release that, and so I wrote The Rain Ascends. I wrote about my father in fictional form and when I came to the end of this book then... maybe it’s in the hardcover first edition... the last words were: the journey will lead into the abundant way. I just felt I was being obedient to the call of the pen to act, although I didn’t know what about, and I usually walk around not knowing and these days I usually speak without a speech ahead of time and just talk.
Right now I’m being asked to give a speech in Victoria and I’m asked to write it down so I’m thinking, “Hmm, that’s not what I usually do”, but anyway I will try to do that. So anyway as I was going along after the book was written I was looking for what that meant: what did the abundant way mean? And I thought, the abundant way means the opposite of the scarcity way and what is the scarcity way? The scarcity way is the pie and people cut pieces of it and when you’ve got your piece, there’s much less for everybody else. And the magic penny is the one that keeps on going the more you give it away. So what is the difference between that magic penny and the pie? So somebody was talking to me, I think it was Bonnie Erickson who’s a sociologist who was telling me about something called community money. And it just lodged in my head as something I needed to know about. So then I found out more; there's somebody called Michael Linton who is doing something called LETS, Local Employment and Trading Systems or something like that. And so I invited him over, I got to know about that, tried to start a system in Vancouver with some people who might be interested in doing that and it survived for a little while and then I came to Toronto and I discovered there was a LETS happening here and I joined and tried to do some trading on it but I’m in the old model where I’m saving it rather than spending it. And there’s a word called, I don’t know how you say it, demurrage?
Ulli: I've heard of it but I don’t what it means.
Joy: It has something to do with spending rather than hoarding, you know. If you spend it then... but if you keep it, you’re somehow penalized in some way for it. It loses its value if you just hoard it. And I’m a hoarder so I have money that I keep in the bank and it’s the opposite of what I’m supposed to do. But I’m caught up in the notion that if you have it, you can have it for a rainy day and there’s a lot of rainy days so I want to have a lot of it. (laughs)
Ulli: Yeah, yeah ...
Joy: But still, from LETS I fell into the idea of the Ithaca hours which is a kind of paper currency that they had over there and which is attractive. I got together with people like David Walsh and Susan Bellan and other people and we talked about it for over a year, I think, before we actually started something called the Toronto Dollar. We worked on it, at least I did, for at least a decade. That’s a long time to put into this thing without knowing what I was doing or why. And I’ve done that in my life. I would stay with things without knowing why.
The redress for Japanese-Canadians was another thing I did for about a decade, well maybe not quite that, without ever thinking of the money aspect of it, although that was central to most people who were doing it. And I think about the Toronto Dollar and our trying to bring community together and to work with St. Lawrence Market and how most merchants at St. Lawrence Market were just suspicious of us and felt we were taking advantage of them and so on and so on when in fact we were bringing people together in quite good way, and how it failed, because I’m not the type of person that interacts well with a lot of people. I’m better on the one to one.
So I look back on those ten years and think, “Well, Mayor Lastman came and wanted me to talk with him and I should have done that because I think he could have taken it and made a difference with it in the city”. But I didn’t, my judgement was not the greatest and so it’s I guess a failed project in that it made a bit of difference to some people and it was an idea but it didn’t catch on. And I watched the other people doing their thing and I look at all of the various things going on in the States and so. The community currency movement is still alive and maybe it’s growing and there are thinkers who think about these and who feel that multiple currencies is the way to go rather than this huge monolithic thing, the way the world is now, and that communities can survive and they point to whatever countries, Switzerland I guess, that has a dual currency system, the local one for the country which keeps it stable and then the worldwide one. And so if each country had their own currency as well as being connected to the worldwide one maybe that would work. I don’t know, but I don’t think about those kinds of things.
So I just think, “Well I put in time and the thing that has come through for me from that 10-year effort is the people that I got to know whom I still know, who are the main people that I know here, I think. I was a member of the Church of the Holy Trinity at the time and it didn’t really take off there. There was a lot of bureaucracy in there and I think of the churches as being these huge business bureaucratic organizations with all of the red tape and all the control and so on. It doesn’t feel to me like the spirit is very alive in the churches as we have them, although the churches are a kind of skeleton that carries an essential historic ongoing-ness, so I dance around the edges of the churches.
Ulli: You were involved in the peace movement as well, I gather, from your vivid description of Metta Spencer (laughs). I don’t really know her personally but she’s a Facebook friend.
Joy: Yeah.. No... I love Metta. She says, “I don’t know how we can be friends 'cause we disagree about everything”. She loves capitalism, for example.
Ulli: Does she really?
Joy: Oh yeah, not that I know what it is either, it’s a word to me, but she thinks it’s doing great things. I don’t know if she still thinks that but I think she does. And we see each other but we never talk about nuclear power. ’Cause she thinks I’m sick in the head, as she says because I have my questions and I don’t know if the world is going to survive without it, so I think it does need to be talked about and the science of it. And the many things that people say, I think if there is a huge amount of misinformation then there’s a need for education and I don’t know how to bring that about.
Ulli: I think on nuclear power I’m something of an agnostic because I don’t feel I know enough, but it does strike me that a lot of discourse starts on the basis that there is a correct answer to this and there’s no point in discussing, so don’t bring up facts and don’t bring up evidence because we already know the answer. I don’t find that helpful. Because for one thing, if we’re trying to change the world and persuade people who don’t agree with us, to approach them or fail to approach them, on the basis of ‘we know all the answers, so if you ask questions you’re an idiot’ that’s not a good way to win people over. I think one has to be more respectful and questioning and open to changing one’s own mind.
Joy: Yeah, and I’d like to stay open as well because, even if I spoke to a lot of nuclear physicists and they were quite convincing about the science and the lack of knowledge in the general public about the measurements that are touted and about our capacity to repair and all of these things that they say, I think, well maybe they’re missing something, maybe there’s an instinct out there that is accurate, that is pointing us away from this for some reason. And yet I just think there’s a huge need for education and information and for openness and capacity to question oneself, whoever you are, about things that we are certain about, to question them.
Ulli: One of the challenges we have, especially with the Connexions website, is that we have tens of thousands of documents, and various ways of searching and browsing, and we’re trying to guide people to find things that are helpful, things that will make them think and give useful information. One of the things that we have to fight against is the idea, which is pretty current nowadays, with a Google kind of a worldview, is that you have a question and there’s an answer to the question. That may be true if you want to know where the closest Chinese restaurant is, yes, that’s a question and there’s an answer. But about important social, political, economic, moral issues, there is no one answer to your question. In fact one of the things that one learns when you research and study, is that the first question you ask is not usually even the right question, and you’ve got to come up with different questions, and whatever questions you come up with, there’s not just one answer, and there’s always more to it and there are always contradictions. Thinking that you can just ask the question, and get the answer, is not going to get you anywhere that’s important. That’s why we're trying to build a website that makes connections, that connects people to different ways of looking at things. It's a challenge to that but it's also fun.
(pause) Another thing I was going to ask you about: is there such a thing as collective guilt? Are the Japanese people, as a people responsible, for what Japan did to China? Are the American people responsible for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Joy: I never thought about that question , it’s really a good question. What I think is that we have governments which are supposed to represent the people and I think there may be a responsibility for these entities called governments to, on behalf of the people, address the moral issues of the country’s actions. The military machine is part of all these things and when a country, when a government sends out soldiers and so on and does all these things on our behalf then I think as citizens we have a responsibility.
And my question then to this is: how can citizens be empowered to act? And if citizens go all out and act and have their actions ignored, this is very demoralizing to the citizenry. I think that citizen action is important, and there are also these organizations that now seem to have some power, Internet and collectives of that sort, these are people who share values, and then it seems from what they say that their actions are counting. I don’t know if this is the case or not, or whether they are, you know, whistling in the dark. Because suffering is ongoing, of course it is ongoing. I think that all of these entities that are representative of and stand for things, the leadership in all of these things do have a responsibility. And the citizens need to act in whatever way we can, form groups and so on and so on. But the more open the society is and the more responsive it is to its citizenry, then I think that the more the citizenry then assumes responsibility.
But in those kinds of societies which are more feudal, which have power at the top and it’s not layered out with other kinds of organizations around it, in those systems I think that there is very little responsibility on the part of its people. You can’t even call them citizens, you call them serfs. So I think we are in a time where we have seen that democracy fails in many kinds of ways and is easily manipulated by certain kinds of interests and so on. So it’s a really confusing – question, where does responsibility lie, and I think we all of us have responsibilities. I think even the least among us bears a kind of responsibility that may not be visible to anybody else. An infant that is born, what responsibility can that possibly have? And we have many infant-like beings including creatures that have no connection with us in the obvious way and we eat them and so on. How does all that connect? And I don’t know, but I think, I trust, that the least thought has a response, that the least creature, the least leaf, the butterfly wing, has, I know not how, it’s either a magical thought, or it’s faith, or I don’t know what it is, but it’s something I hold... (pause) I forget your question....
Ulli: I was asking about collective guilt. And I also want to ask you about your own sense of, not sure how to call it.... in Gently to Nagasaki you write about your father and his story and I get the impression that you had a need to do that, I don’t know, you felt a responsibility to do it? And also you met with people who had been victimized. I have to say, just my personal reaction, where you describe you’re going to meet somebody who’s very hostile to you, who’s already been hostile to you, and I think, “Don’t go, Joy. Don’t go. This won’t be good for you”. Personally I can tell you I would stay away from somebody who’s that hostile because you don’t deserve their hostility ... you didn’t do what your father did and yet in some way you seem to have taken on some guilt or responsibility.
Joy: I have that dream, you know, where my father arrived and asked me to help him. So in a sense I have accepted the mantle of my father’s guilt and although I don’t like, the word is Sippenhaft, you know what that is? That concept that if you belong to this family, you are all tainted by one person. I know what that feels like and I have been treated like that. Somebody told me about the DNA of my father’s guilt that I carry. And it just makes me so angry, but I suffer from that, from feeling that in society. I don’t know whether the idea of our unearned guilt, when we carry it, that there is something redemptive in there. I think that is repulsive to some people, that whole idea. But I think collectively we all are touched by every evil thing that happens in the world, that somehow we are connected to it, and we bear then a responsibility for trying to do something about that. (pause) I think in many ways I have been driven by a longing to have honour brought to my parents. And I remember my dad saying that he was alive because of me, because in the family I was the only one to stand with him. But I think that love that I feel for him and have felt all my life has its own reward because love is the greatest reward we can have. So that makes me think right now about the connection between love and guilt, that love is more powerful than our guilt and when we have that love and nothing can take it away, are we not the luckiest of people to have that? (pause)
So if one is fortified by that, you can walk through the fire and come out unscathed although, although, I am scathed by it still. But I’m glad, I’m glad that I loved my dad. It’d be like saying to somebody, “I’m glad that I loved Hitler.” I would like to be able to say that. After I wrote The Rain Ascends my feeling about Hitler changed and I saw myself as Hitler’s cat. And I was amazed at that, that I could embrace him as a human being, not as a demon. So I think it advanced me.
Ulli: I’m not sure I could do that. You write in Gently to Nagasaki “she carried her parents’ pain faithfully for the rest of her life. Children do this for their parents.” It strikes me that you’ve done that?
Joy: Yes, I think so ...
Ulli: Well it’s difficult, isn’t it? When all of us are filled with contradictions; good things and bad things. We come to see our parent’s love and strength, and we come to see their faults, sometimes those faults are grave faults, and it’s often a lifetime struggle, a lifelong struggle to reconcile those two parts, the pain that they may have caused us or caused others, and the love that they gave us.
Joy: Yeah... (pause) It’s like you living in the rubble and loving your life there, to see what is beautiful in the midst of what is seen as horrible. There’s something so blessed about childhood, the innocence of it and the welcoming that is there and the capacity for seeing beauty, I think we shouldn’t lose that.
Ulli: My two grandfathers, that makes me think about them. My mother’s father was a career soldier, he was a major eventually, and he served in the German Southwest Africa which was a colony at that point. Shortly before his time of service there, Germany committed what was the first genocide of the 20th century against the indigenous Herero people.
Joy: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Ulli: It’s now called Namibia. It was called German Southwest Africa then.
Joy: I thought the Turkish genocide of the Armenians was the first of the century.
Ulli: The genocide of the Herero was earlier, it just hasn’t received as much attention, but it was a deliberate attempt to exterminate much of the population. This was in the first decade of the 20th century. The reason I’m aware of this one is because my grandfather was there. He arrived a few years after the genocide happened when they were basically keeping the surviving indigenous population subjugated so that the German colony could be profitable. Not something to be proud of. Now, my other grandfather, my father’s father, was a Communist who was in the resistance to Hitler and went to prison for treason. Now obviously I have no responsibility for anything good or bad that either of my grandfathers did, but emotionally I have a desire to identify with the heritage of the one who resisted Hitler, and to disassociate myself from the one who served in the colonial occupation. Yet in actual fact, I have no claim to feel proud of what my one grandfather did before I was born, and more than I have reason to feel guilty for what the other one did before I was born.
Joy: How about your own parents? Where did they stand?
Ulli: My father went into the German army and was sent to North Africa, and there was quickly taken prisoner, and spent most of the war in Canada in a prisoner of war camp. Which was very lucky for him and by extension very lucky for me. And my mother, she was a child when the Nazis took power, and then a teenager.
Joy: North Africa.... So how did your father end up here?
Ulli: He was captured by the British. The British sent the prisoners they captured by ship over to Canada.
Joy: Where did they stay?
Ulli: There were a number of camps. Initially my father went to a camp in Quebec, and then to one near Gravenhurst in Ontario, and then to Kananaskis in Alberta. That’s where he spent much of the war.
Joy: And then, after the war, your parents came to Canada?
Ulli: They immigrated to Canada in the mid-1950s. A lot of German prisoners came back to Canada after the war.
Ulli: The German economy wasn’t good, and the Canadian economy looked like it was doing well and needed immigrants, encouraged immigrants. There were jobs to be had. So that was why. In the case of my father or my parents, the choice was between going to the United States and going to Canada, and they didn’t want to go to the United States because the United States had a military draft and they didn’t want me to be subjected to the draft.
Joy: Were there other children?
Ulli: I have a brother who was born here.
Joy: Where did you live?
Ulli: Mostly in Toronto and then in Newfoundland for a while and then my parents divorced and my mother and brother and I came back to Toronto.
Joy: What happened to your father after that?
Ulli: He lived in Newfoundland, he was a photographer, he ran a photo business there.
Joy: How did your mother support you?
Ulli: Well she had a job, single mother, we were poor but she got by....
Joy: How did you fall into this work?
Ulli: I was always involved in political activism ever since high school, one kind or another. I was aware of the Connexions project because it had a newsletter and I received copies of the newsletter and I read it and was interested in the work they were doing and then at a certain point they were hiring somebody so I applied for the job. They had money for a staff person briefly – later the money ran out – and so I applied and got hired for the job. So initially I was working as a paid employee and then as a volunteer.
Ulli: Recently I’ve gotten into doing more interviews with people. We’ve mostly concentrated on preserving documents. But it seems that there are a lot of stories out there that should be recorded and shared so I’m trying to help do that. And there are certainly lots of other oral history projects going on as well, and I think that’s great – different places, different people.
Joy: It’s very interesting. So you’re happy with all this?
Ulli: Yeah There is more administrative work to do than I would like. Somebody’s got to write cheques and balance the books and all that kind of stuff I wish I didn’t have to do that stuff but it's the price you pay for getting to do the other stuff. And I find it also takes away time from my own writing. I’d like to have time to do more of that and it’s a struggle to find.
Joy: So you enjoy most what part of it?
Ulli: Well, I enjoy finding out about things, because there's always new information, new articles, new analyses. And I enjoy reading, so I get to read a lot and I get to choose what I read, and I get to share what I read with other people so I enjoy that.
Joy: So how come you read Gently to Nagasaki?
Ulli:David Walsh mentioned that you were coming out with a new book. I read Obasan years ago. So I thought, “Oh, she’s coming out with a new book; I liked Obasan, so I’m going to get this one. So I went to Book City and they didn’t have it so I ordered it and I read it.
Joy: Yeah, I didn’t think it was going to make it because it was rejected a lot.
Ulli: Oh, was it?
Joy: Yeah, so it’s there and it’s doing interesting things. It hasn’t received the kind of attention that Obasan did, which became a classic and got hugely reviewed. This one is getting very few reviews, but I’m just happy enough that it’s published at all. Because there’s no sort of character development or any of that kind of thing that draws people in, it’s just sort of blah, blah, blah, like the leaf in the wind blowing from here to here. I wonder about writing some more. I don’t know if I'm supposed to write any more, maybe I am, maybe I’m not...
Ulli: Well, do you? Because you mention you put words on paper and not necessarily knowing where they’re going to go.
Joy: Yeah. That book Itsuka, the small press that did Gently to Nagasaki might be interested in re-publishing that. I don’t know whether it’s worth much energy. It got one bad review and so I stopped thinking about it. But I like The Rain Ascends as a book, but it’s only Obasan that has really moved on in the world, you know?
Ulli: Well, it's funny the fate of books and writing I just finished reading a biography on the Marx family, Karl Marx and his wife and daughters, by Mary Gabriel, a very good book, fascinating biography. One of the things that interests me about Karl Marx is that very little of what he wrote was ever published in his lifetime. Even a couple of decades after his death when there was a worldwide Marxist movement, what they were reading were tiny fragments of his work, including The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, and some other things which are certainly substantial works, but still most of what he’d written was completely unknown for decades and even now, 2017, they’re still working on a project to publish the complete works of Marx and Engels, and it’s supposed to come out at, I think, about 125 volumes, whereas the original collected works were three volumes.
Ulli: So the people who considered themselves Marxists didn’t know most of what he had to say and most of what he thought about. It’s interesting to reflect on the fate of those writings. I guess it’s by way of saying that you never know what the fate will be of books. Often books don’t really acquire their full life until after the author’s gone. (pause) We’ve been talking for over an hour and a half. Should we wind down then?
Transcript by Robert Pennant
Books by Joy Kogawa:
Wikipedia article about Joy Kogawa