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Book review: Joy Kogawa’s new collection maps loss and memory

This collection of the author’s poems is an impressive legacy in itself.

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From the Lost and Found Department

Joy Kogawa | McClelland & Stewart, Penguin Random House Canada Limited Toronto 2023

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$24 | 368pp.

Beware of icon status!

When a writer or artist is full of years and honours, we often refer to them as an icon. Too often, iconic status has the effect of pickling whatever is fresh, vibrant and important about the art in a brine of unreflective and vapid praise.

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For years now, Joy Kogawa has endured iconic status. Her well received novel about the Second World War internment she and her family suffered, Obasan, (1981) marked an important breakthrough in Canadian recognition of the crimes committed against Japanese-ancestry residents of Canada during and after the war.

Obasan won the Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1982. Her poetry collections include The Splintered Moon (1967), A Choice of Dreams (1974), Jericho Road (1977), Woman In the Woods (1985), and A Garden of Anchors: Selected Poems (2003). Her new collection, From the Lost and Found Department, includes selections from each of these volumes. She is also the author of the memoir Gently to Nagasaki.

From the Lost and Found Department
Cover of the book From the Lost and Found Department by Joy Kogawa.

Her work has been honoured by the Canadian, B.C. and Japanese governments.

It is the nature of icons that they attract iconoclasts, purveyors of scandal out to break and deface the formerly honoured.

Kogawa’s turn for this treatment came when it became public knowledge that her father, an Anglican priest and important figure in the church and the Japanese community, had covertly operated as a sexual predator for decades, assaulting many children.

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The revelations came as hostile counterpoint to the campaign to preserve the Kogawa family home in Vancouver (where some of the abuse may have occurred) as a writers’ retreat.

Readers curious about how this disturbing revelation was addressed by the Kogawa House, or curious about how the house honors Kogawa’s legacy by nurturing younger writers, may want to visit the project’s website here. (https://www.kogawahouse.com/wp/about-the-house/

This collection of the author’s poems is an impressive legacy in itself. It features Kogawa’s signature blending of love poetry, celebrations of nature, urban grit, grief, and biblical and spiritual references, all rendered in spare, elegant lines. The lost and found department indeed!

The author moves seamlessly from the flesh of the holy, luminous world, rendered in sensory detail of granular specificity, to a latticework of more abstract conceptual terms, humming with intimations of spiritual grandeur and transcendence.

We are honoured to be witnesses. Don’t think of her as an icon. Honour her as the magisterially accomplished Canadian poet she is.

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Highly recommended.

Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at [email protected].

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