One would be hard pressed to find a narrative more fiercely potent and elegantly sung than what is found in Joy Kogawa’s dark personal account, Gently to Nagasaki. But then again, there are few authors like Joy Kogawa.
One of Canada’s most revered authors, she has received the Order of Canada 1986 award, as well as honors from the government of British Columbia and the Order of the Rising Sun from the Emperor of Japan for the legacy in her books about the Japanese Canadian experience. Her 1981 book Obasan is now a classic and a “must read” in Canadian literature classes.
In Gently to Nagasaki, Kogawa confronts the persistence of the tragedy of evil, both in the large events such as the bombing of Nagasaki and the Rape of Nanking, and in the personal ones she has suffered in her own life. Born in 1935, she suffered through the dual injury of the brutal internment of Japanese Canadians in World War II (in many ways even more severe than the Japanese American incarceration), and later with the public revelation of her cherished father, an Anglican minister, of being a pedophile.
Gently to Nagasaki opens up the deepest recesses of her personal life and reveals painful events that few people would admit, much less talk about in wounding detail. This literary journey is a quest for truth and accountability, and Kogawa courageously ventures straight into her raw and abrasive past that reinjures, and persists even when her own imperfections self inflict.
She writes: “My story is from the belly of the dark. I am forbidden to tell it and commanded to tell it. I am told that to speak is to slay and not to speak is to slay. What is needed is right action.” And action she takes.
There is real danger to books like this. Books that venture deep into darkness can easily enfold and smother the reader, or worse yet, be an exercise of self-indulgence that serve only the writer. Gently is neither, for Kogawa is too skilled a writer and too humane and wise a person.
Kogawa’s prose delivers. Her choice of words has the immediacy of the voice of youth, but their meaning carries such aged layers of reflection. Make no mistake, there is real pain and suffering here, and Kogawa spares no one of feeling these with her. Rather than using words to soften these, she uses them to enlarge the complexity of persons and imbue the value of her wisdom that she has earned through many tears and years of living.
Chapters are short, easing the weight of their content, and the topics and stories are varied and diverse, even in their themes. Here she confronts the problem of evil. Can good people commit serious evil acts, and still be good? Can there be faith and trust, and can these stay alive in the midst of endless evil? In spite of the spectrum, the persistent reader will eventually discover the singular vision of the book.
Kogawa is unrelenting in her quest for justice. She meets with two grandchildren and advocates of Howard Green, the Canadian politician who spearheaded the movement to imprison Japanese Canadians during WWII, as well as a childhood acquaintance whom she had not seen since that time, and who was a direct victim of her father’s abuse. Kogawa, too, is confronted by accusers because of association with her pedophile father. For her, there is no truth uncovered until the journey through confrontation happens and no reconciliation until mutual understanding occurs.
And in talking about large scale events such as the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945, she focuses on persons rather the events themselves. She tells stories about Father George Zabelka, the priest who prayed and blessed the American flight crew before departure to destiny on that August day, as well as Takashi Nagai, a Japanese nuclear physicist who was caught below that same day in the firestorm that was the atomic bomb.
Ultimately, this is a book about lives, and that is what saves this narrative from a fatal drop into darkness. It is about choices that people make, their subsequent ramifications, and the potential of seeing a different truth in the later years of life. Gently to Nagasaki shows that nothing is simple in answering life’s most difficult questions, and even without clear answers, the effort is well worth it.