My Last Week at Kogawa House

The week began with the last of the Writing for Social Change readings, this time with New Brunswick artist and writer Shirley Bear, fresh from her investiture in the Order of Canada at Rideau Hall.  This was our largest turnout: standing room only with people backed into the kitchen.

Shirley read several pieces, including some new work. The conversation wove back and forth until finally I realized everyone in the room had something to say. So we went around the circle. It was quite astonishing. Many people knew Shirley from her ten years in Vancouver, so there were stories of that time along with simple statements of gratitude for her work and friendship.  It became a tribute to Shirley and her contribution to the community as well as a conversation about her writing.

This reminded me of how each event I’ve hosted at Kogawa House has had its own magic. I’ve come to feel the quality of intimacy in the surroundings naturally draws out conversation, just as the various writers have drawn their own particular audience.  It has never been necessary to have Q&A sessions at the end of a session because the conversations come naturally and start early. And it has never mattered how large or small the attendance. Perhaps the most vibrant debate came with Fauzia Rafiq’s reading with just a dozen of us there. It was Fauzia who told me after how valuable the experience was for her — to have her work discussed with such depth and understanding by others is a rare treat for writers.

There were a few stalwarts who came for more than one event, and the indefatigable Toby Dent who came out to every single one! Toby also showed up at the Kogawa House annual holiday party (and crafts sale) with an array of her colourful hand-knit scarves. Of course, I always knew these three months would fly by. The last week has been jammed packed with dinners and events, including a screening at the Vancouver Public Library of Michael Ostroff’s film on Emily Carr, Winds of Heaven, to an overflow crowd. I continue to be entranced by Vancouver and the sun-filled Fall we have had. I will miss my frequent walks along the Fraser River, the Heart of the City Festival, and the blues bar at the Yale. I return East with the view still lingering in my mind of crossing the Lions’ Gate on the evening of the lunar eclipse — a silver moon rising against a darkening sky in the East facing an equally huge orange sun setting behind us over the ocean.  East meets West, day meets night.

Many thanks to all of you who support Kogawa House. PLEASE consider joining, if you are not already a member. And, please, if you can, contribute to building fund. One of the key renovations will be to return the living room to its original size, and open up the adjacent sunroom. More light and a little more room in the living room.

Writing for Social Change — Betsy Warland & Fauzia Rafiq

Betsy Warland and Fauzia Rafiq were our featured writers in November, on back-to-back Sundays. They are both spirited feminists and activists, committed to a way of writing that reflects the real personal and political experience of women. So, as women and writers they have lived and worked close to the edge, challenging the norm; Betsy as lesbian, and Fauzia a non-practising Muslim.

I met both women in the eighties in Toronto, and so their visits to Kogawa House were opportunities to reread their work. It was delicious going back to Betsy’s early books, submerging myself in her exploration of words and meanings, her archaeological expeditions. Serpent (w)rites from 1987; Open is Broken in 1984. After a while I could see poetry in the Table of Contents. Nothing is in not considered in these texts; the visual composition of the poems matters, the bibliography matters. Here it is cast as prose, gathered  in a single paragraph.  Nothing is sacrosanct.  Quotes from other books are used, and references to feminist theory and archival documents made.  So, non-fiction poetry?

Then there is Bloodroot. A personal essay/memoir about her mother’s dying, it is at heart a meditation on how her mother dealt with homosexuality and in the end, as death approached, found a way around it to her daughter.

With Fauzia, it’s her short story “Birth of a Murder” I return to. About the stoning of a baby in front of a mosque in Karachi, that was published in This Magazine in 1989. Her 2007 novel Skeena might be taken for as a portrait of that baby’s mother, for it’s the universal story of Muslim women. In this case, the little village girl become student in Lahore, and then a wife in Toronto and at each stage finds her wings clipped, confined to the prison within the family. (At the end, though, it is the Surrey Police in the aftermath of 9/11 who put her under house arrest.)

The group at Betsy’s reading were full ideas and interjections, and asked about the changes over time in her work. Not just the forms, but the ideas and arguments.  They expressed a delight in her reading, and I felt the same. It was as if Betsy had scored the passages she read. The repeated pauses, the drawing of breath.

When I introduced Fauzia to the gathering, she told us about the impact Obasan had on her when she read it shortly after arriving in Canada.  In Joy’s novel about Japanese Internment during the War she saw tremendous harshness and suffering, yet there was a gentleness, a kind of peace underlying the telling. She admired that, and aspired to do something similar in her own fiction.

Much of the talk that afternoon revolved around language — Punjabi, Urdu, and English.  Fauzia writes in all three, and she spoke about her voice differing in each. Several other writers joined in, Tariq Malik, Phinder Dulai, Ashok Bhargava, and Ajmir Rode included.

All of these writers have gotten behind a new initiative, Surrey Muse, which hosts monthly get-togethers at the Surrey Public Library with an open-mike and scheduled readers. “Interdisciplinary arts and literature presentations” which deliberately cross-over and invites intruders. It’s first meeting was on November 25th and I read along with Greek poet Manolis, and a very young and talented playwright, Sana Janjua, who read a passage from her play that had people in tears. The highlight of the evening was a young man who stumbled upon the meeting, and stayed to listen. He asked interesting questions, and before the evening was done, we’d ascertained he was a poet and pressed him to recite something. Which he did, in Ukrainian. (Manolis had also read in Greek.)

“I believe the writing we value is writing which springs from necessity.”                       — Betsy Warland

Salon Sundays

We have taken to calling them Salon Sundays.  These are the Sunday afternoon events that include the Writing for Social Change reading series and special events like the launch of  Joy Kogawa: Essays on Her Work which took place on November 20th. Edited by Sheena Wilson and published by Guernica Press, the collection of essays is written by scholars for the most part, but includes a wonderful piece by Ann-Marie Metten which documents the community effort that saved Kogawa House from demolition.

This is first-hand cultural history as it is rarely written, describing how quirks of fate, and pie-in-the-sky determination sometimes get unlikely things to happen.  It’s the story of an idea taking hold, moving a network of people to raise the funds to buy the house, but also unleashing the energy to turn the aging Vancouver Special in something that is truly special — Kogawa House. Ann-Marie who lives around the corner was an early supporter and now executive director.

As I travel around the neighbourhood, I have conversations with people about the House. At the TD Canada Trust on the corner and the Marpole Public Library down the street I put up posters and chat to the tellers and librarians. Many know the House is there but have not been to any of the events. Ann-Marie comes up with an idea — well, actually an easel which makes an excellent bulletin board with a few adaptations:  a thick plastic sleeve to protect the posters from the rain, and a couple of industrial strength clips to secure it.  This contraption we set up on the sidewalk under the cedar tree.

At first I worried it would be stolen. Then I started checking in on it every so often just to see who might have stopped to look. That led to more serendipitous conversations. And the odd knock at the front door, and a request for a visit.

The best day for meeting neighbours, and my absolute favourite duty as writer -in-residence, was Hallowe’en. Ann-Marie arrived on the doorstep around 5pm with a little pumpkin, candle inside, sporting a vicious smile. She even supplied the bag full of candy.  I expected some trick-or-treaters would know about the House, or the ailing cherry tree in the back lane.  But I discovered most of them did! “Yes, Naomi’s Tree lives here.”  Older ones knew about Obasan.

And the cherry tree?  Last Spring, volunteers orchestrated a yarn bombing, and with the help of the Fire Department’s hook and ladder truck affixed its branches with an array of permanent woollen blossoms.  The tree seems to be improving, and it’s now in bloom year round.

Writing for Social Change — Tara Beagan

Tara Beagan arrived on the redeye from Toronto on Sunday  morning, Native Earth’s annual playwrights’ workshop Weekesageechak Begins to Dance having concluded its 22th  season the night before.  A two week intensive collaboration between playwrights, choreographers, actors, directors and dramaturge, Weesageechak always ends with public “readings” of the new work. Well readings that are usually blocked out performances, and the actors often know their lines.

It was at Weesageechak that I first saw Dreary and Izzy, Tara’s play about sister love and loyalty across race, adoption and the ravages of foetal alcohol syndrome.  The play went on to full production at Factory Studio Theatre in Toronto, and even before it opened the response from one corner of the Aboriginal community was to demand it be closed. The objection?  Beagan was stereotyping the Aboriginal community by associating it with FAS.

The show went on. And Tara talked to us about being shocked herself when she learned about FAS. Despite its widespread effects, like many, she had had no idea. It was her sister, a schoolteacher in Alberta, who  first described its effects to her, and this was the inspiration for Izzy, the  adopted Native sister, and her younger “elder” sister Dreary.

The excerpt we read – I did the lines of Mrs. Harper, the white neighbour, and Tara did all the other voices – described the horror of newborns on withdrawal, as well as the grace in children like Izzy not understanding what they’ve lost.  At the heart of the play is the relationship of the two sisters, characters who rise to the occasion, defying stereotype.

Tara talked about how real events can spark a play — as a review in the Toronto Star of Native Earth’s production of A Very Polite Genocide, or the Girl Who Fell to Earth did for Anatomy of an Indian. Despite the backgrounder Native Earth prepared for press coming to see the preview of the play, the review used the term Indian in the first sentence. Apparently the Star’s “style guide” overruled the use of Native. The term Indian, it claimed, “while objectionable to some, is perfectly useable.”

The great thing about drama is the way it can bring rhetoric down to the personal. The play involved the audience and two actors (one Caucasian, the other Lorne Cardinal) who test out how “useable” insulting epithets are in real life. Write your own worst insult on a label and see how you like hearing it announced from the stage…

Tara spoke of several other plays that do that, take a dead-serious issue and turn it whacky.  In her short play Here, Boy, a gay couple and a homeless Native man who’s living in the park and trapping small animals for food are brought together when Maurice’s partner Dale decides to approach Jesse for an apology. Maurice, who’s inconsolable at the loss of his beloved pet dog , needs closure.  (Seriously. )

In short, keep an eye open for Native theatre/performance going on near you. Don’t think that it’s only for Aboriginal audiences.

Writing for Social Change — Eric Enno Tamm

Eric Enno Tamm was the second writer to visit Kogawa House. A journalist with two books to his credit, both involving historical figures, vast amounts of research and arduous travel, he arrived at the house with a slideshow in his flash drive. The living room wall became a screen, and off we went on a time-travelling tour of Central Asia.

Eric’s latest book, The Horse that Leaps Through Clouds, chronicles the five month journey he took overland from St. Petersburg to Beijing following the route taken by Baron Gustav Mannerheim in 1906, and likewise travelling by boat, train and on horseback. Mannerheim later became the hero of Finland when he outsmarted the Red Army and saved the nation in 1940. But in 1906 he was a spy for Tsar Nicholas II. Masquerading as an ethnographic collector, he was actually collecting information for the possible invasion of China. “He was the last Tsarist agent in the so-called Great Game, the struggle for empire between Britain and Russia.”

One hundred years later, Eric finds history repeating itself.  He draws parallels between that time and this: China opening itself to the West in the wake of the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and China’s contemporary embrace of Western capitalism; the battle between old authority and the forces for change, then and now, the clandestine presence of missionaries in the hinterlands, the efforts of the State to deal with the ethnic minorities by encouraging the emigration of Han Chinese to the region.

The little living room was packed — it only takes about twenty-five people! But it worked. The photos were vivid, the maps understandable sideways, and Eric is a spirited raconteur.  Even the appearance of late-comers couldn’t throw him off the narrative. The conversation afterwards ranged from the dangers of travelling as he does, of being a foreigner and a Caucasian, and to the challenge of finding guides and interpreters locally. But he also spoke of his research, which included putting in some time riding before leaving Canada as he’d actually never ridden a horse.

The photo here of Eric and Joy Kogawa — like the one above of Evelyn Lau with Joy, Todd Wong, and me — is a Kogawa House tradition.  No, Joy doesn’t wear the same red dress all the time. It is, in fact, a life size cut-out of Joy at the time of British Columbia’s 125th Anniversary when 125 significant British Columbians were immortaliozed in a special exhibit at the Royal Victoria Museum. All visiting writers are photographed with Joy.

By the way – don’t make the mistake of taking The Horse with you to read at the cabin in the woods. This is one  book you need to read with your mouse. All the pictures and maps you need are  on the book’s website, and it’s a fabulous added dimension.

Postscript: The Horse that Leapes Through Clouds has won the City of Ottawa book award for non-fiction.

Sunday Afternoons @ Kogawa House

Writing for Social Change   2pm – 4pm    

Joy Kogawa House 1450 W. 64th Ave. at Granville

Tara Beagan

Tara Beagan is a multi-talented and prolific young theatre artist, best known for her plays which have won numerous awards and nominations. A “proud halfbreed of Ntlakapamux (Thompson River Salish) and Irish Canadian heritage”, she is part of the new generation of Native artists creating ambitious work that is edgy, funny and very smart. Tara is currently artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts, the oldest professional Aboriginal performing arts company in Canada.  Sunday, October 30th

Betsy Warland

Poet. author and editor, Besty Warland has been writing on the cutting edge of feminist literature, and active in the feminist writing community for thirty years. Her poetry, and latterly her non-fiction, push the boundaries of genre and challenge the assumptions of culture. A mentor to many, Betsy is currently director of the Writer’s Studio at SFU. Sunday, November 6th.

Fauzia Rafiq

Fauzia Rafiq’s long-awaited novel, Skeena, was published in Punjabi in Pakistan in 2007, and in Canada last Spring. It is the story of a Muslim Canadian woman, written in Skeena’s own voice, which follows her journey from village, to Lahore, to Toronto and, finally, Surrey.  Novelist Tariq Malik, a member of the Kogawa House Board , will host the event with me.  Sunday, November 13th

Joy Kogawa – Book Launch

Sheena Wilson launches her collection of essays on the life and work of Joy Kogawa, Joy Kogawa, Essays on Her Works (Guernica). Wilson has contributed three articles and an extensive Kogawa bibliography to the book. Several of the writers will be present, as will Joy Kogawa.  Sunday, November 20th.

Shirley Bear 

Maliseet visual artist and writer Shirley Bear is from Tobique, New Brunswick. Her work is in many collections and in 2009 the Beaverbrook Art Gallery mounted a retrospective of her work. She is who also a writer who blurs the genres, and her book Virgin Bones  – Belayak Kcikug’nas’ikn’ug, combines story, poetry, and prose. Shirley lived in Vancouver through the 1990s and was the Aboriginal Advisor at Emily Carr College.  Sunday, December 4th.

Writing for Social Change — Evelyn Lau

A tradition at Kogawa House is the reading series Writing for Social Change. This year I have invited six writers to join me in what once was the Kogawa family living room, to read and talk about their writing. I have not restricted myself to non-fiction, as I find writers working with documentary — actual characters and real events — in all sorts of genres.

I began with poet Evelyn Lau whom I first heard about in the late 1980s. I was on a train returning to Toronto from Ottawa after an appearance with other artists at a public session on cultural policy, sitting beside the representative of the Canadian Authors’ Association. Not yet brain-dead after a long day of talk, we chatted about our writing projects and the books we were reading. He waxed on with great enthusiasm about a very young writer who’d written a book about her life after walking out on her parents at the age of fourteen to live on the streets. He was going to ensure her book was published. The man was Fred Kerner to whom Evelyn dedicated her book, and Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid was the bestseller that launched her career.

She followed that with You Are Not Who You Claim which won the Milton Acorn Peoples’ Poetry Award given to courageous writers who, like Milton, challenge mainstream complacence. Two years later, in 1992, Oedipal Dreams was nominated for a Governor General’s Award making Evelyn the youngest nominée in the award’s history.  And since then she has continued to push limits, court controversy, and to write stunning poetry.

I have always liked listening to artists in conversation with other artists; ever since I heard (and met!) James Baldwin in conversation with a small audience at a local bookstore when I was living in Italy in the sixties.  So the readings I host are conversations, too.  Evelyn read mostly from her 2010 collection Living Under Plastic, a title referring to Vancouver’s infamous leaky condos. These poems are about urban life, about death (her father, an aunt, several friends), about shopping malls, leaking buildings, and probably the trippiest poem you’ll ever read about mosquitoes. Seriously.

In Lau’s poetry, the nasty side of humanity is presented without fanfare or saving grace, yet with measured compassion. Even in her poem “The Pickton Trial” where she speaks of “the body’s memory of prostitution”, and depicts the universal experience of women living with terror in the shadow of indifference, she quotes the murderer saying “…once, I had a chance, for me, believe it or not…”

In between “sets” of readings, we chatted back and forth, and others leapt in with questions and comments. We discussed the sense of time in the writing of poetry versus prose, the business of writing about others, and what happens when you cross a boundary and make mistakes. Evelyn had a few tough questions for me on that one.  So it was a great afternoon!

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011, Vancouver Mayor, Gregor Robertson will welcome Evelyn as the City’s Third Poet Laureate.

My Favourite Vancouver

I moved into Kogawa House (pictured above) on September 15 and that evening a group of volunteers and friends of Kogawa House showed up for dinner. Bringing dinner with them! There to welcome me to Vancouver and the Marpole neighbourhood.

What has changed about Vancouver since my last long stay? All the indie bookstores I knew and haunted are gone, save the venerable Macleod’s Book down on Pender Street and Banyen Books in Kitsilano. Ditto the video rental places I used — Alpha Video on the Drive and even Videomatica. Old familiar mainstays I am glad to see again:the Kitchen Corner stores, Famous Foods, and 3 Vets where you can still get enamelware basins, dishes and pots.

But right now the Vancouver Film Festival is playing, and later in October the annual Heart of the City Festival takes place in the Downtown Eastside. This is one of my favourite places in Vancouver, actually. Not only because of the memory of the famous fish place called The Only which was located on Hastings near the Carnegie Centre at Main, but because of Chinatown and Strathcona and the vibrant arts community there. The Heart of the City Festival grew out of that, and my friend Terry Hunter’s Vancouver Moving Theatre which has been operating there for twenty years or more. The downtown eastside is not what you read about in the papers. Yes, there are poor and troubled folks living there, but it is a community and it works.

In Residence At Kogawa House

In mid-September I began a three month residency at the family home of Joy Kogawa in Vancouver. Joy is a colleague and friend. We have both been active in the Writers’ Union, and we often meet on picket lines and rallies, at the St. Lawrence Market Book Fair or Word on the Street.

I well remember the year Joy brought the issue of Japanese redress to the annual meeting of the Union which I am proud to say passed a motion supporting the movement and calling on the government to accede to the demand for acknowledgment and redress. Some of the arguments pointed out that in addition to the economic, physical and psychological trauma, there was cultural damage inflicted by internment. And that this included the loss to all Canadians of the contributions many talented people, including writers, might have made but for the massive disruption to family life, community and education.

It’s a privilege for any writer to be given time and a place to write. The big bonus of being asked to do that at Kogawa House is the house itself which comes with a community. And with a mission — that being for us all to be mindful of the embedded injustices that still exist in Canadian society. For starters, I’ll be hosting the Writing for Social Change reading series, speaking with writers who are actively engaged in community, whose work crosses cultures and assumes difference. We’ll be announcing the line-up soon.

Meanwhile….check out Historic Joy Kogawa House at

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