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Gently to Nagasaki

By Joy Kogawa

Review By Susan Knutson

March 1, 2017

BC Studies no. 196 Winter 2017-2018  | p. 169-170

Joy Kogawa’s place in literary history has been secure since 1981, when Obasan swayed more hearts and minds than art can generally hope to do. Told from the point of view of a six-year-old girl, Obasan recounts the internment, impoverishment, and scattering of British Columbia’s Japanese Canadian communities during the Second World War and after, and the destruction of families and communities that resulted. At the close of the novel, the mystery of the disappearance of Naomi’s mother resolves into the horror of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki, Japan.

In Obasan, good and evil are clearly distinguished, but Gently to Nagasaki is a different kind of book. Destined to be read by fewer people, it is just as beautifully written and even more profound. A memoir committed to complex truths, it is framed by the dark irony of the West’s destruction of the Christian community of Nagasaki, with its cathedral and university. Kogawa’s quarrels and meetings of mind with friends dealing with racism and abuse are carefully recorded. One personal, irresolvable contradiction lasts for decades and moves effortlessly between Toronto, Vancouver, Nagasaki, Okinawa:

The truth was that the person I loved and admired more than anyone in the world, the one with whom I most identified, the one who told stories and made life fun, who wept and laughed and sang, who was good and did not give up, the one in whom I could see no wrong and who saw no wrong in me, my father, a visionary and charismatic priest in the Anglican Church, a man who had served his scattered flock and his people without letup: my adored father was a paedophile (52).

This is, she writes, her “Nagasaki, a barren place of no light” (158). Or, she might have said, her Auschwitz, for that darkness too lurks in the shadows of this book and is not forgotten.

She finds her path, however, and walks us gently into a kind of community of the whole, all of us, erring humans and those others we harm, cats and plants and spiders and children, as we recklessly indulge our capacity for denial and violence.

Imagine a Dresden firebombing museum in London and New York, an Armenian Genocide Museum in the centre of Istanbul, a Nanking memorial museum beside Yasukuni shrine, the names of every Palestinian and Israeli killed in that conflict etched into the walls that divide them. Imagine memorials of war in which the victor is forced to experience the suffering of the victim. Imagine the shock of discovering that all war is friendly fire, that we have mistakenly slaughtered our beloved only child (195).  

The reference is to Abraham, patriarch of the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths. Kogawa never abandons her Christian faith, but she does introduce a theological reading that is perhaps more than a nuance. Gently to Nagasaki explores the hidden Christian traditions of Japan, where official persecution led to a secret but profound identification between the Virgin Mary and Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. A syncretic figure of the divine feminine, she is associated with water and named as “the amniotic deep” (16), the image linking her to the opening passage of Obasan. Now, in her memoir, Kogawa reads the goddess’s influence into the patriarchal myth, as “She who had the last word at Moriah” (205). Moriah is where Abraham would have obeyed God’s command to sacrifice his son. Linking to the present, Kogawa writes: “From the beginning of our human story, the Lieutenant Colonel Chos and Major Sweeneys, good and loyal servants, have obeyed the command to kill. Christians, along with our siblings, Jews and Muslims throughout the world, have done the same. We, the heirs of Abraham, have received our guidance from our foundational myth.…. But by choosing the path of blind obedience rather than the path of mercy, we have deflected the human journey into the ways of war” (169).

Among the many whose voices are heard in these pages is Father George Zabelka, a Christian priest with the US Military in 1945, who said prayers over the missions of August 6 and 9. He later repented of this and publicly spoke out to “expose the lie of killing as a Christian social method, the lie of disposable people, the lie of Christian liturgy in the service of the homicidal gods of nationalism and militarism, the lie of nuclear security” (23). 

The closing lines of Gently to Nagasaki affirm this way forward.


Gently to Nagasaki
Joy Kogawa
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2016. 214 pp. $24.95 paper.