May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada and the U.S., and this week WomenArts is spot-lighting three women artists who have been shaped by their Japanese family histories. Joy Kogawa is a Japanese-Canadian poet and writer whose book, Naomi's Road, has been made into an opera for children.  Jude Narita is a Japanese-American theatre artist who creates solo shows exploring female Asian stereotypes.  Jude's mother, Nabuko "Cobi" Narita, has been a pioneering advocate for women in jazz.  

Martha Richards
Executive Director, WomenArts

A Canadian Opera for Children of War

"There will always be war, but we can rescue each other. There is always giving and forgiving."

– Joy Kogawa, Poet & Novelist

As a child, Joy Kogawa's life was uprooted by war. Born in the beautiful coastal town of Vancouver in 1935, she was separated from her parents and sent to an internment camp for Japanese-Canadians along with thousands of others during World War II. 

As an adult, Joy Kogawa transformed this painful story of government-sanctioned racism into a semi-autobiographical novel called Obasan(1981), which has been named as one of the most important books in Canadian history by the Literary Review of Canada. In 1986 Kogawa adapted "Obasan" into a children's book called Naomi's Road, which tells the story of the internment through the eyes of a nine-year-old girl named Naomi Nakane.

The books were part of Kogawa's efforts to educate Canadians about the history of the internment camps, and she was active in the fight to obtain the official apology and repayments from the Canadian government to Japanese-Canadians which were issued in 1988. But many young Canadians are not aware of this sad chapter in their country's history, in the same way that many U.S. students do not know that over 100,000 Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps in the U.S. during World War II.

In a bold effort to educate children about racism and injustice at an early age, the Vancouver Opera commissioned an opera for elementary school children based on Naomi's Road. They commissioned a team of women (a rare occurrence in the opera world) – composer Ramona Luengen, librettist byAnn Hodges, and director Leslie Uyeda – to work with Kogawa to create a 45-minute opera that has now toured to over 150 schools in Canada and the U.S. 

At the start of their creative process, the opera team asked Joy Kogawa what she wanted children to learn from the opera. Kogawa's inspiring answer was, "That there will always be war but we can rescue each other. There is always giving and forgiveness. That war happens, but despite that – children's gifts can survive."

With a cast of four singers, one pianist and a minimal set, the production is a beautiful example of the way the arts can help people come to terms with their history and heal from deep social wounds. In our violent and war-torn world, Naomi's Road offers children hope by showing them how music, words, and love can help them survive in difficult circumstances.

You can listen to three excerpts from the opera on composer Ramona Luengen's website. You can also download the Vancouver Opera's excellent study guide about the production which includes the libretto, World War II-era pictures of Japanese-Canadians and the camps, pictures of the opera's set and costumes, statements from the artists, and classroom activities. For more information about the touring production of Naomi's Road, please visit the Vancouver Opera in Schools website.

Jude Narita Explodes Female Stereotypes

For over two decades, award-winning theater artist and activist Jude Narita has put Asian and Asian- American women center stage in shows that explore and explode female stereotypes. On Sunday, May 19 at 7:30 p.m., she will perform some of the women she has created at Zeb's, 223 W. 28th St, New York, NY. (Tickets at the door: $15 General/$10 Students & Seniors; Reservations: 516-922-2010)

Jude Narita has performed her one-woman plays nationally and internationally since writing her first play, the award-winning Coming Into Passion/Song for a Sansei, which was her artistic response to the demeaning and one-dimensional stereotypes of Asian women in films, theater, and on television.

Nabuko "Cobi" Narita Advocates for Women in Jazz

As the title of her first play indicates, Jude Narita is a "Sansei", i.e. a third generation Japanese-American immigrant, the grandchild of first generation immigrants. Jude Narita's mother, Nobuko "Cobi" Narita has also had a distinguished career in the arts with over 40 years in the jazz community, where she has been a leading advocate for women musicians.

Cobi Narita was fifteen in 1941 when the U.S. Military Police abruptly took her from her high school classroom in California to the Gila River Detention Camp for Japanese-Americans in Arizona. In the camp, Cobi and her siblings (two brothers and two sisters) and parents were detained until the end of World War II, living in a 20 foot by 20 foot room. Cobi Narita says her cultural background taught her not to complain and gave her a positive spirit and strong ambition in spite of her adverse circumstances.

Despite the oppressive conditions, Cobi started a detention camp newsletter to let detainees know what was happening throughout the camp, including pregnancies, marriages and always-positive messages.

After the war, Cobi Narita's love of jazz led her to create the Universal Jazz Coalition in 1976 to present and provide technical assistance to jazz artists. She also started the New York Women's Jazz Festiva
l, which began as the Universal Jazz Coalition's Salute to Women in 1978 and is nowInternational Women in Jazz.

Narita says that the purpose of the New York Women's Jazz Festival was simple: “I had always felt women jazz musicians did not get the attention as artists that they should. Club owners will always pick a male leader for a band. And the male leader, with an opportunity to choose among equally qualified musicians, will pick men rather than women. I felt that women needed something like that Kansas City [Women’s Jazz] Festival in New York to give them an opportunity to show that they can play."

When the first year’s Women’s Jazz Festival was presented at the Casablanca Club in New York, so many people attended that the club upped the rental fee, locking them out of the venue. So the concert was held out in the street. Narita says, “I’ll never forget Mary Lou Williams sitting on a crate eating rice and beans as dignified as if she were in Carnegie Hall."

The festival was a triumph in spite of these obstacles – when jazz impresario George Wein came and saw what had happened, he donated the Carnegie Recital Hall for the next night.  Over thirty years later, the International Women in Jazz Festival is still going strong. (See the WomenArts article about this year's festival.)

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