A Conversation with Terry Watada

March 15, 2013 at 5:38 am

David Fujino HeadshotReaders of The Bulletin and (previously) Nikkei Voice, have long enjoyed Terry Watada’s columns because they talk about Japanese Canadian life. But as a poet, fiction writer, playwright, English teacher, MA in English Literature, historian, and a musician and composer, Terry has distinguished himself as a true Japanese Canadian polymath (he does a number of things). Born in the east end of Toronto in 1951, Watada has clearly transmuted his life experiences into a diverse number of publications which include, among them, an historical work, Bukkyo Tozen: A History of Buddhism in Canada, a short fiction collection, Daruma Days, a children’s biography, Seeing The Invisible, and a poetry collection, Ten Thousand Views of Rain, as well as the successful main stage play, Vincent. He is also a musician who has composed and produced nine albums. His music was very much a part of the movement for Japanese Canadian redress. Terry is dedicated to the preservation of human rights and the elimination of racism and in 1991, Terry was recognized for his activism by the City of Toronto when he received the William P. Hubbard Award for race relations. Terry lives and writes in Toronto.

George Orwell wrote a notable essay, “Why I Write” … Let me ask you, Why do YOU write?
Basically, I write to define my past, my community, and my culture because, to the age of 19, I hadn’t realized my family had been interned. With family, we went to festivals, bazaars, Bukkyo Kai and shogatsu. I took it for granted. Most of my parents’ friends were Issei — there were Nisei, of course, and I took it all for granted. Certain things were a ‘given,’ there were approaches to situations and celebrations, and I guess they basically did what they were expected to do. The point is, I didn’t know anything. Rikimatsu (Kintaro) was a good friend of my father’s. Always came over for food and drink. I later found out he was Morii’s right hand man. He was scary, he had a deep and gravelly voice, the tip of his nose was cut off, he was a very intimidating person. But he was always nice to me. He gave me money every time I saw him. Five bucks.

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What’s made you travel west to Vancouver and The Powell Street Festival for what seems like decades?
At one time I considered Vancouver to be the delta, like the Mississippi delta. For me, it was like spiritually going home. I hadn’t lived there. The first time, I went in ’77 to the Powell Street area and it was a revelation: I felt something—a seismic shift in my consciousness.

President Barack Obama has been sworn in for a second term. Do we really live in a post-racial society?
In a word, no. Racism still exists. Obama—through no intention of his own—has polarized the American people. For example, Cokie Roberts [ the journalist], complained that the President was vacationing in an “exotic location” [Hawaii] and not in the continental United States. Doesn’t she know Hawaii is a part of the United States? That blew up everything.

I’ve always been curious — what kinds of folk music do you like? What about jazz?
Folk music … there’s Bob Dylan … I tend more toward folk rock, like The Byrds. I just started listening to Free Design, a family group with impeccable harmonies. They moved into jazz more like Billy Cobham or Chick Corea. I love jazz. For a time, I went through the whole fusion movement until I listened to Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and Bill Evans. Roy Miya taught me about Bill Evans, and I’ll be forever thankful for this. My most memorable times have been recording with him.

Please talk briefly about your career as an English teacher.
Thirty-two years of teaching freshman English … and being afforded the opportunity to explore Asian North American literature and film, and teaching the canon … and looking at this brand new area of study, and kind of a pioneer. There’s forces at U of T trying to get it established—Asian literature as a minor. They already have Doctoral students centring on Asian Canadian literature. With this in mind, in all humbleness, they are about to launch the Terry Watada Special Collections in the East Asian Library at Robarts Library. I get to clean up the basement. I’d encourage all other Asian Canadian writers and
artists to donate.

When you wrote your plays—for example, The Tale of A Mask and Vincent—did you start hearing your characters’ voices? … Could you talk about your playwriting process?
In the two plays, I started with news coverage … I could read and hear the voices of friends, relatives, police, witnesses. I put them in a context where they’d sound natural. That’s the playwriting process—it takes on a logic of its own. Writing plays are difficult—it’s not the writer alone that makes the play—I mean everybody … actors, director, stage manager, crew, has to be cooperative.

What movies have you recently seen?
Looper … I go with my son to see summer stuff like The Dark Knight Rises—and Lincoln—which I loved.

Video games, and ‘gaming’ in general, do you play? Are you involved in ‘gaming’?
No! (Laughter) My son is, but I’m not. Besides, it eats up time.

Would you say your writing is in the modernist school?
Yes. I say that because I don’t do a lot of experimentation; because publishers don’t like it, and maybe it’s a symptom of my cowardice. I try to advance the art of writing but I’ve been rejected many times over by publishers and by the public as well. So, writing in a modernist vein allows me to meet reader expectations, yet I can hit them with something new—for example, historical facts, cultural imperatives.

How historically accurate is your book, Kuroshio: The Blood of Foxes? Is it largely the true story of Etsuji Morii intertwined with the fictional story of Yoshiko, a mail-order bride from Japan?
The story of Yoshiko is basically true. I’d had this story for maybe a decade before I started writing it. I heard from Issei about an Issei woman who killed her daughter, but Nisei told me the story. For example, I met a woman who sat behind the daughter in school, and Jesse Nishihata—what a resource—he gave me an old clipping from The Province about the police finding the daughter’s body in Vancouver. In my research I couldn’t find another reference to it in the Archives. The police asked questions, but the community closed up. So no one was arrested. The Coroner concluded it was “murder by persons unknown.” The Morii story I found out from rumours, stray facts, unpublished autobiographies, my parents, brothers, family friends, Nisei, but no one had written about Morii comprehensively. So I decided to incorporate Morii in this story as a kind of explanation why she was never arrested.

What are you reading these days?
Haruo Murakami — great writer who’ll probably win the Nobel Prize one of these days—deals a lot with Magical Realism, which I love. Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is probably one of the most harrowing books I’ve read. And his latest, 1QR4, is a masterful novel of contemporary Japan. He stays in the present and writes about contemporary issues and situations in Japan. He does not write period pieces.

You started publishing poetry before publishing prose, right? What were your writing concerns at that time?
Yes. My mother’s passing is the reason I started writing poetry: because of the loss of all those stories. She was the reason I started writing music, too. When I asked her how she met my father, she called me Baka. You don’t need to know that stuff. But after much pushing, I got her to open up. The first poem I wrote was A Thousand Homes which became Chisato [mother’s name].

Hokusai’s Brush by Katherine Govier got a good review in The Globe and Mail in 2012. Generally speaking, what are your thoughts about Govier and Frances Itani, who both have written fiction about Japanese characters and aren’t themselves Japanese?
I haven’t read the Govier book. I’ve read Itani, but although I’d never stop them writing about JCs, I was personally disappointed. In Requiem, Itani’s novel, she had the characters talking in what I call ‘chop suey dialogue.’ I can’t exactly quote it, but I was appalled. ‘Number one son.’ Who says that? My father didn’t. As a final statement: anybody can write about anything, but you have to have sensitive, knowledgeable critics who know the subjects in these books to evaluate them truly.