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Column by Susan McCaslin
(in the Autumn 2017 issue of Dialogue Magazine, pp.31-34)

Quelling Hatred on the Path of "Fushigi"

Review of Joy Kogawa’s Gently to Nagasaki (Caitlin, 2016)

by Susan McCaslin, Fort Langley BC

Fushigi, a wonder, comes to those who have kept a toehold in childhood’s naïve and wide-open trust. Like the quality of tenderness, it is a deep yet fragile sensibility and can be damaged by mockery.” – Joy Kogawa

Joy Kogawa’s Gently to Nagasaki is a book for our times and for always because it penetrates to the heart of why we are called to “love our enemies.” As a child growing up as the daughter of a Japanese-Canadian Anglican priest, and as an adult who embraced the deepest teachings from her Christian heritage, Kogawa would have encountered this saying of Jesus in the King James version of the Gospels: "But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you and persecute you." In her recent memoir, she explores the universal wisdom of this teaching by drawing out parallels to similar insights in ancient Buddhism and Shintoism. The memoir’s interwoven stories and poetic meditations suggest that everyone at every stage and state can be called to recognize the feared or hated “enemy” as the beloved friend.  Or, as Leonard Cohen puts it in his song “The Future,” “Love’s the only engine of survival.”

Some readers may assume the call to perceive the potential enemy as the beloved friend is inappropriate or impracticable, especially when Kowaga struggles with the trauma of discovering that her complex, beloved father was a pedophile. Yet Kogawa is not preaching, but telling the story of her own process of working through the trauma of coming to terms with her father’s abuse of boys, and of how she was finally able to release her burden of unwarranted secondary guilt and move forward. Rather than asking her father’s victims to forgive, she meets with a number of them, engaging with them personally, hearing them out, receiving their anger and hurt, even at the risk of being unjustifiably castigated for the crimes of her father. 

Kogawa’s extended meditation on “othering,” and its relation to violence, does not require anyone to deny or forgive personal or collective harm. Rather, it gently explores the realization that to seek vengeance or retribution only sustains the cycles of violence. Her linked stories enter what contemplative writer Thomas Merton calls “the belly of a paradox” where one feels viscerally that to harm those we perceive as enemies is to harm ourselves.

A central historical event in the book becomes a vital metaphor: the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. Kogawa points out the irony of how the epicentre of ground zero was the site of a large community of Catholic Christians living in Japan who had been banned from practicing their religion for centuries, but were at last allowed a to occupy a sacred site in the city and practice Christianity freely. Kogawa argues that by bombing the cathedral, the Americans were effectively bombing themselves (those of their own western religious traditions) unknowingly.

Because her memoir looks unflinchingly at the human capacity for violence, she chooses to begin and end with poetry, a deeper music of the heart that holds the capacity for healing and reconciliation. Between the opening and closing meditations float interwoven narratives that shift back and forth between matters of public and private concern. But first we attune to the music, the deep song:

In the dark light before dawn, in the deep light before dawn, the hidden voice comes. Named and Nameless, the Goddess of Mercy, She, the compassionate one who heeds the wailing in a world of weeping, comes to us … I am with you, she sings, I am with you through the water, under the water, in the birthing, in the forgetting, in the terror and at the heart of what you most fear, I am with you.

Kogawa later reveals the identity of this hidden voice as the Japanese Goddess of Mercy, Kannon, a Buddhist figure of divine feminine Mercy. Like Hokhmah (Wisdom or Sophia) in the Hebrew tradition, or Mary in the Christian, she is a figure associated with natality, compassion, and forgiveness. Her presence reveals the inseparability of the qualities of abundance and mercy. “Abundance and mercy are indivisible,” she writes.  Mercy, the infinite overflow from a limitless source, descends into “the sensate sea,” sentience itself, universal consciousness, a vast web of interconnectedness. She presides over all the interwoven stories in the memoir, giving them their coherence and meaning.

In the introductory poem to her memoir, Kogawa deliberately connects Gently to Nagasaki to her earlier novel Obasan, Kogawa’s classic exploration of the internment of Japanese Canadians during WWII as well as the bombing of Nagasaki at that war’s end. Kogawa’s novel and memoir are the alpha and omega of her literary offerings to date, bookending each other, the memoir an extended meditation on issues raised in the novel. However, the poetic voice referred to at the opening of Obasan is “a silence that cannot speak,” a silent and a silenced voice. The “I” is seeking a “freeing word” but cannot find it. In the memoir, the silence is at last broken, and the voice speaks from within the fullness of its powers. The freeing word offered by the divine feminine is “Trust.”

Yet the path of trust leads to dark places, for Kogawa is relentless in scrutinizing both the atrocities of the west against the Japanese, and those of the Japanese against both the Allies and the Chinese. Her perspective refuses nationalisms and prejudices on both sides that breed continued cycles of violence and destruction. The memoir takes Kogawa’s concerns in Obasan further than those of her earlier novel by examining the victims and oppressors on both sides, and by showing that there are always oppressors and oppressed. She looks at those who (blindly or knowingly) contribute to the suffering of others, whether the narrator’s beloved father, the young American soldiers following orders who blithely drop the bomb on Nagasaki, or the Anglicans and families of her father’s victims who seek vengeance on the family rather than justice, wishing to punish the daughter for the crimes of the father. Here Kogawa takes a long, hard look at self-perpetuating cycles of violence that can only be broken by the gaze of compassion.

In the novel as well as the memoir, Kogawa locates her personal story in the context of the global atrocities of history. The memoir juxtaposes the trauma caused by the narrator’s discovery of her beloved father’s pedophilia with public acts of violence of enormous magnitude. She revisits not only the sites of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans, but scrutinizes Japanese war crimes in the internment camps and the Rape of Nanking in 1937. At both levels, she addresses human atrocities against humans and asks why they recur.

Yet before turning to the horrors of war, Kogawa presents in her poetic opening the archetypal image of the “sensate sea” introduced earlier in Obasan, the waters of life, which become a living stream that leads to the “hidden voice,” the named and nameless presence at the core of all being. In a final epiphany at the memoir’s conclusion, which occurs for the narrator at the Bethlehem Retreat Centre outside Nanaimo, BC, the River reveals its deepest name, the River Always:

     If I could follow the stream down and down to the hidden voice,
     would I come at last to the freeing word:

     It took thirty years for the word to arrive.
     My one word is Trust.
     Trust is the least. Trust is the most.
     The decisive word, the hidden word, is Always.
     Trust always.
     And it is freedom.

Kogawa’s one word, “Trust,” evokes for me the fourteenth-century English mystic, Julian of Norwich, who had visions of Christ as a mother offering infinite forgiveness and mercy to all. Like Joy’s words on trust, Julian’s famous utterance in her Revelations of Divine Love, “It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” may seem to be based on faith rather than reason. But like the revelations of the mystics in many cultures and times, such affirmations arise from the context of the speaker’s direct experience. They are forms of inner knowing, intuitive revelations from a ground of being deeper than the individual ego.     

I would call them ontological revelations or forms of gnosis grounded in ultimate Being. They seem to arise from an inner experience that can be tested when what is absorbed through the experience is put into practice. They transcend the binary of reason versus feeling.

One example of such an epiphany from Gently to Nagasaki arrives toward the end of the memoir, a scene I consider to be the turning point of the entire volume. Kogawa shares what she insists is not a mere dream, but “a visitation.” In it her father’s ghost, spirit, or soul appears in her room at the Kogawa House in Vancouver, which had been the family home but was confiscated during the war and is now preserved as a literary centre in Vancouver. Kogawa writes that on Jan. 17, 2014 a silent figure entered her room:

To my immense relief, the man who stood there was a safe, familiar figure. My father. His round eyes, grave and gently oblique, looked my way with deep sadness. Around his neck he wore a pink bib the texture of a bath mat, the shape and size of a toilet seat cover. But all this was impossible. My father was dead! My first thought was that I had gone insane.
Nothing about the moment was dream-like. But it could be a dream, I thought. If it were a dream, he would go away. If it were a dream, I would wake up.
At this point my father turned as if to leave. I didn’t want him to go—this one man whom I loved more than any man in the world. I said, “Dad, Daddy, stay. Stay. Don't go.”
Solemnly, quietly, with his usual composure he said, “Tasukete.” Please help.
Then he was gone.
I burst though the state of that reality as if from underwater, with a gasp, my lungs filling, heart hammering. Heaving with sobs, I pulled myself to sitting and rocked, back and face down, towards the wine-and-pink-coloured duvet.
It was almost 7:00 am. Streetlights from a block away peeked through the window slats.
It was the first dream I’d had of Dad since his death.  But it was more than a dream. It was a visitation. (Gently to Nagasaki, 175-176)

There are several such epiphanies in Gently to Nagasaki, which cannot be dismissed as merely subjective, or psychologized away. In fact, Kogawa’s sense of the presence of the Japanese Goddess of Mercy is likewise based on a visionary experience, for she writes that when she and her father climbed a hill in Kyoto during what was to be his last journey to the place of his birth, the Goddess “came to her.” This does not mean that such experiences should be taken as authoritative for others, or that they do not reveal psychological information about the teller.  However, post-enlightenment rationalism has led many to dismiss them rather than wondering if they emanate from mysteries we can’t penetrate through linear thought. Kogawa’s account of the “visitation” by her father leaves me wondering if the soul can survive death, and whether true encounters between the living and the dead sometimes occur.

In the symbolism of the experience, the speaker’s father is wearing a “pink bib,” which could suggest that he had to turn and begin as an infant in order to go forward.  We also discover in the course of the narrative that her father himself had been sexually abused as a child, though Kogawa never offers this information as an excuse for his offenses. Kogawa expresses elsewhere in the book that the divine Mercy provides infinite chances for each of us to begin again, and that the universe is more forgiving than vengeful or indifferent. Whatever readers derive from records of such visionary moments, Kogawa’s inclusion of them suggests they should be treated as mysteries rather than being shut down, sealed, or dismissed as “wish fulfillments.” 

The title of Kogawa’s memoir signals the tone of her meditation in the choice of the word “gently.”  She invites us to walk with her “gently” into the ultimate horrors created by humans, but leads us to know feelingly that, because of our freedom, we are charged with the work of peacemaking. The book takes us on a journey, a pilgrimage, to the very epicentre of horror, which is also the epicenter of healing and release. Kogawa is not called to atone for the sins of her father, but to move gently to release him in trust. The power of art, of storytelling facilitates this letting go. Exposing the darkness, the flaws, the imperfections in her father, herself, and by implication, all us imperfect ones, she realizes that we are not called to judge. The narrator comes to see human complexities with the eye of love. We learn too how the creative and the destructive can co-exist in each of us. We are all flawed, imperfect, but sustained by an infinite flow of love.

At the end of the memoir Kogawa figuratively buries her father and releases his spirit. She “helps” him as he requested in the visitation by writing her book. Her gift, the memoir itself (which exposes his wrongs rather than concealing or excusing them) reveals how once we realize how deeply interconnected everything is, forgiveness may issue from the way the universe creates through a continuous, abundant outpouring of love. 

From this perspective, the call to the peace-path becomes not just a moral imperative, but the heart’s desire. 
                                                                           – Susan McCaslin


Susan McCaslin has published fourteen volumes of poetry.  Her most recent is Into the Open: New and Selected Poems (Inanna Publications, Sept. 2017).  Her previous ones include Painter, Poet, Mountain: After Cézanne (Quattro Books, 2016) and Demeter Goes Skydiving (University of Alberta Press, 2011), which was short-listed for the BC Book Prize (Dorothy Livesay Award) and the first-place winner of the Alberta Book Publishing Award in 2012. Susan has also published a memoir, Into the Mystic: My Years with Olga (Inanna, 2014). She resides in Fort Langley, British Columbia where she initiated the Han Shan Poetry Project as part of a successful campaign to protect an endangered rainforest along the Fraser River.  Website: www.susanmccaslin.ca  

Read John Porter’s review of Susan’s new book in
the next (Winter 2017-18) issue of Dialogue. 

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