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Saving the House of Joy

Activists rally to defend home of celebrated author Joy Kogawa.

Derek Moscato 13 Feb

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When the quest to save a house of historical significance collides with a booming Vancouver real estate market, the end result sometimes favors development, and even destruction, over preservation.

So far, that's been the case for the childhood home of author Joy Kogawa, located in Vancouver's Marpole neighbourhood. Like otherwise once-overlooked neighbourhoods in the Greater Vancouver area, Marpole is now experiencing an influx of interest and dollars -- to the dismay of historians and literature enthusiasts across the country. That's because the Kogawa house, which is located at 1450 West 64th Avenue, is facing a day of reckoning with a bulldozer.

Kogawa is the most celebrated of Japanese-Canadian writers; her novel Obasan has not only won a big following internationally, it has single handedly educated otherwise unknowing Canadians about of Canada's darkest chapters, the interment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II (the internment experience in the novel is set in Slocan City).

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 22,000 Canadians of Japanese descent, including Kogawa and her family, were forcefully evacuated from their homes on the coast and placed in internment camps, mostly in the B.C. interior.

In most cases, their homes and businesses were expropriated. In the case of Kogawa, her childhood home was auctioned off well below market value through the government's "Custodian of Enemy Alien Property" program.

More recently, the home was purchased in 2003 by private owners with the intent to renovate, and later demolish, but thanks to a stop-work order issued by the City of Vancouver, the house was saved temporarily. That's when the Save Kogawa House Committee was formed.

Symbol of forgiveness

The aforementioned Obasan describes Kogawa's happier, pre-War childhood memories at the Marpole home. It is, effectively, an important symbol of forgiveness in the wake of the internment chapter.

It's a book that has been around for decades, and yet it continues to garner increased attention and accolades. Case in point: the Canadian book trade publication Quill & Quire recently bestowed upon Obasan and Kogawa the honour of being "one of the most influential novels of the 20th century."

It's also a touchstone for youth across the country, who through school coursework, have come to know and understand some of the darker currents running through the book, and by extension, have been introduced to an otherwise unknown part of the Canadian war experience. For many Canadians, Obasan is the introduction to this historical chapter.

And for a city as young and as volatile as Vancouver, the Kogawa house is a key historical site, helping to explain not only the Japanese-Canadian experience on the West Coast, but also the city's role in the bigger pictures of immigration, industry and even war.

Fundraising push

Enter TLC, The Land Conservancy of BC, which announced earlier this month that it reached an option deal to buy out the home to protect it from redevelopment. While that in itself should be cause for optimism, the real challenge lies in raising the funds to purchase the property.

Working with the Save Kogawa House Committee, TLC has until March 30th to raise the $1.25 million required for purchase, house restorations and the establishment of an endowment fund devoted to maintenance of the home. After that crucial date, Vancouver City Council will no longer delay approval of a demolition permit.

Once protected, Kogawa House will be a used as a home for a writers-in-residence program, enabling a new generation of "writers of conscience" to be inspired both by the connection with Joy Kogawa's literary legacy as well as by the historical significance of the house itself.

In an issued statement, the organization's executive director Bill Turner maintains that this is the one and only chance to save this piece of British Columbia's heritage.

And while public sentiment in favour of saving the house grows every day, the organizations admit that the fundraising component remains a challenge, especially in light of the tight timeframe.

"Thanks to the pre-existing work done by the Save Kogawa House Committee, a lot of inroads have been made and members of the public are very supportive of the project," said Turner. "The preservation of the Kogawa House as a cultural landmark is everyone's first choice for the future of the property."

There are broader interests at play as well, from across Canada and the United States. Kogawa's Seattle-based brother Tim Nakayama, a retired Anglican priest, has argued in a supporting letter that the experiences of "people of Japanese ancestry in North and South America need to be known so that these tragedies may not be repeated."

The effort also is supported by the National Nikkei Museum and Heritage Centre in Vancouver, The Writers' Union of Canada (B.C./Yukon Caucus), the National Association of Japanese Canadians and several other like-minded organizations.

Derek Moscato is involved in the effort to save the historic Kogawa house. For more information or to make a donation to the preservation cause, visit or call 604-733-2313.

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