Life Stories of Mary Kiyoshi Kiyooka

191 pages,
ISBN: 1896300243

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Dual Autobiography - Samantha Hodder speaks with Daphne Marlatt
by Samantha Hodder

Mothertalk follows the life story of Mary Kiyoshi Kiyooka from her birth in 1896 as the daughter of a samurai in Japan, to her immigration to Canada with an arranged marriage in 1917, through her long life on the West Coast and the Prairies as the mother of seven children. The stories remind you about the political truth that is the Japanese-Canadian experience around the time of World War II: "Havoc wears a human face? Those of us who lived all over the Prairies in small communities couldn't put a face to the hatred but we knew its ugliness by heart." Mothertalk also tackles issues of race and identity from the perspective of an older generation, but does so in a way that addresses difficult questions with familiar examples: "But all the other kids grew up and went out into the world and one by one fell in love with white people. Papa and I knew it couldn't he helped. After all their friends were white kids."
The most fascinating aspect of Mothertalk is its genesis as a "littoral" story-that is, a combination of literary and oral story-telling traditions-which became a dual autobiography of mother and son. The oral component of Mothertalk is entirely Mary's, the material coming from interviews. Her son, Roy Kiyooka, feeling his own Japanese to be inadequate, asked a friend who is a translator, Matsuki Matsutami, to conduct the interviews. In a personal letter, Roy acknowledged the strangeness of this: "I need a translator to listen to my own mother's story-what a funny position I'm in." Roy then took the transcripts and reworked the stories to create a voice for his mother that he recognized. This was done purely by instinct-Roy and his mother communicated entirely orally throughout their lives: the written word was not used for communicating. We learn from Mothertalk that even with cleft tongues, a mother with rudimentary English and a child with a lost mother-tongue can learn how to transcend traditional barriers of communication.
A friend and collaborator of Roy's commented at the launch in Toronto that editing was an exhaustive process for him. Roy once said that the editing process was finished "when the text abandons me." But he didn't get the opportunity to allow this text to abandon him. While working on Mothertalk, he suffered a heart attack and died.
Enter Daphne Marlatt.
"Roy died in January, 1994. Kiyo, Fumiko and Mariko [Roy's daughters] got together and started talking about the importance of getting the book out soon after he died. Fumiko thought that she might do it. Then they decided that they wanted a writer to do it.. Mariko wrote me in the summer [of 1994]. She said: Would I do it? And I said I didn't have to think twice about it.it felt like the last gift that I could give Roy."
I caught up with Daphne Marlatt in Toronto and had a chance to talk to her about her involvement in Mothertalk while she was here for the launch of the two books Roy was working on at the time of his death: Mothertalk and Pacific Windows, which is an incredible compilation of his poems. The event was held at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre at the end of January, and combined a book launch with a wake-of-sorts to commemorate Roy's life and work. "There hasn't been anything that has brought so many people together in the flesh in Toronto to celebrate his work," says Daphne. The evening was a true celebration of a man with an extraordinary artistic vision that stretched over boundaries as he approached them; because of that, he was a respected member of many artistic communities across the country.
When you read Mothertalk, it is hard to believe that it arrived in an entirely fractured way, in between two languages and four people, and took eleven years to become a finished product. The language is poignant; it drips with memory lost in the time-place between home and new home, and in the confusion that split brings. It offers stark insights and peers into a dark consciousness. It changes how you think about family stories by reminding you that there is never one truth. Daphne cautions in the introduction that "Mothertalk cannot be read as documentary. It is a creative retelling that has been carefully worked, a blend of both mother's and son's vision and voices."
The book has now become a seamless narrative. "When I got the manuscript and read it," Daphne recalls, "I was amazed at the shape of it. Roy had dropped out all the chronology, taken the stories and put them together in a way that repeated a lot, repeated the stories to give some idea of the obsessions in his mother's life."
Roy had tussled with the stories, re-arranging them to a point that the chronological sequence of Mary's stories was lost. "Matsuki was quite surprised," says Daphne, "that so much had disappeared of the original chronology because when he'd interviewed her, he said that she had been very specific about dates and periods, very good on that, even though she was in her nineties by then."
All the stories were there, but in an estranged order. With the transcripts as her guide, she chose to be a puzzle-piece editor: "I decided that what I needed to do was unravel the whole text. I colour-coded all the stories in terms of their content and period, and then I went through and pulled them out in constellations, clusters of stories.. [Roy's] language was so beautiful that I didn't want to tamper with [it] at all. And, of course I found that when I went back to the original transcripts, they were quite different from Roy's final draft."
Daphne left out some parts to keep the story concise, but decided to add nothing of substance. "No doubt, you asked yourself the question while reading Mothertalk: How does one finish the autobiography of a close friend? How does one do this when it is essentially the author's first work of narrative. When I unravelled all these stories, I had a problem: How can I make the stories flow into each other, as they did when she told them, without having bridging sentences? I didn't want to add anything. So I developed various strategies. When I was really stuck, and couldn't find a sentence elsewhere in the manuscript, then I went back to the original transcripts and lifted sentences from them. Sometimes, I would flesh them out-the English is a little rough in some of the transcripts-add a preposition here, an article there. But I didn't add anything of substance."
What gives Mothertalk the depth and impact that it has, as Daphne reminds us in her introduction, is that "this is not just the story of an extraordinary woman. As Mary herself keeps reminding us, she is an Issei, a first-generation Japanese immigrant to Canada. They are a generation of survivors, and she is proud of them, even as she elegizes the hardships they experienced." Mary's stories show you without telling you about a time and a people who endured what was arguably one of the darkest periods of Canadian history. Mary's stories show you that nebulous space between being so completely a Canadian woman, and yet so completely a Japanese woman at the same time. This identity then became riddled in the fallout of World War II, leaving what was once a people branded as "enemy aliens". A story like this one goes to shape our understanding, and as Daphne points out, "It goes to shape the whole of the collective experience, and until very recently, our enshrined experience of the collective was very one-sided. That's been shifting for more than a decade now."
Perhaps the fact that Mothertalk is a double narrative makes it doubly eloquent. "The stories themselves are Mary's. But the narrative detail, the evocative detail, is often Roy's, except perhaps some of the details about growing up in Tosa [Japan]. Also some of the political commentary is his, and in that sense it is truly a dual autobiography: it's both Roy's and Mary's. Two voices that are so incredibly twinned that it's really difficult to pull them apart." The combination of insight and experience from both mother and son delivers a chilling narrative: "I think those born in the ashes of Hiroshima are often spiritually at odds with themselves and I suppose that's why they're workaholics. More and more things don't lead to pleasure let alone happiness."
With more than twenty books published, Daphne Marlatt is a distinguished member of the Canadian literary community. She has a personal connection to Mothertalk in that she and Roy lived together from 1975 to 1981, during which time Mary made frequent visits. And in the early 1970s, Daphne worked on an oral history project in the early 1970s about Steveston, an entire Japanese-Canadian community that was relocated because of the war, called Steveston Recollected. In addition, she has co-edited two oral histories, and participated in conference proceedings with two different groups of women about oral narration. For Daphne, story-telling is "an incredibly powerful tool for exploring identity and the myths that are embedded in our world-view. Like the one we have about having some sort of monolithic, solid self, whose parameters we can outline. I love stories that point to what contradicts this view. And it was a great deal of fun working on the book for this reason. It was painful, personally painful, but also wonderfully exhilarating, because so much of Roy's attention addressed those contradictions."
What you learn from reading Mothertalk is that family stories are all about understanding-and allowing yourself to realize that differences often mean similarities. Roy's family understood this as well, and at least two of them told Daphne that "this is Roy's version, and it is clearly Roy's version. I remember it differently, but this is Roy's version."
The ease with which Mothertalk handles family secrets, family truths, and stories that elucidate intensely personal facts is delicate, and somehow none of it is immodest. Mary offers this commentary for an accompanying photo of her eldest daughter, Mariko, whom she was forced to leave behind with family in Japan for many years because she was worried about their financial stability in Canada: "Looking through the album I'm reminded of Mariko's absence and all the pain her prolonged absence caused.. But I've told her many times since she joined us that it wasn't just my fault. First we had the Depression. Then in '39 the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia and ignited the Second World War. Then after Pearl Harbor we were uprooted fingerprinted and duly registered as `enemy aliens'. All these horrible events overtook us and got in the way of Papa and I uniting the family."
Just when you want to buckle under the emotional weight of Mariko's story, Mary reminds us that any which way we turn, history eventually faces us : "I guess it's for all these reasons she doesn't want to go back [to Japan] but I know she will one day because we all have to face the fact that our past goes on living through us."
As Matsuki remarked in a personal letter: "It must have meant a lot for him to render his lost mother-tongue into English." If Mothertalk set out to accomplish the almost impossible-turning something that is highly personal into art-then Roy has succeeded, and far beyond. "Clearly this is," adds Daphne, "the story of a woman with a marvellous spirit who functioned as a sort of story-collector through very difficult times for her family and her community in Canada. She never lost that buoyancy of spirit or her interest in others.. The Official Version of Canadian Culture has not until recently included the stories of non-white immigrants. Mary's story represents the stories of so many Issei, so many first generation Japanese Canadians. She herself tells stories of other Issei, as such, it's a really important story. It's an account of a whole generation."

Samantha Hodder is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Toronto.


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