Writer Terry Watada speaks about the importance of depicting Japanese Canadians as complex human beings

Canadian Writers in Person Lecture Series
Canadian Writers in Person Lecture Series

On March 9, the 2020-21 Canadian Writers in Person Lecture Series presented Terry Watada reading from his book, Mysterious Dreams of the Dead. York University Teaching Assistant Dana Patrascu-Kingsley sent the following report to YFile.

During his visit to the Canadian Writers in Person series at York, Terry Watada spoke about his novel Mysterious Dreams of the Dead.

Watada’s novel depicts the effects that the internment camps for Japanese Canadians during the Second World War had not only on those who lived through that trauma, but also on their family life and on the next generation.

The writer recalls learning about the internment of Japanese Canadians when he went to a conference on the Asian Canadian experience and saw an exhibit of internment camp photos. These were photographs that had been buried in the archives. “Some enterprising students at UBC [University of British Columbia] got them out and brought them for the exhibit in Toronto. I was floored. I went to my parents to ask them if they were in the camp and it was then that it all started coming out.”

He wrote about this real historical event in a work of fiction because fiction allows him to link events and experiences. “I find that non-fiction is more constraining: fiction allows me to expand on the events, and also to go from a bank robbery in Toronto to a camp in Moose Jaw.”

This is a work of fiction inspired by two real-life events: a friend of his mysteriously robbing a bank, and the two-year protest by some Japanese Canadians following the end of the Second World War. Most of the people in the camps went on with their lives when they were released, but about 200 of them decided to stay on and stage a protest that lasted for two years.

Watada explains that he wanted to “show that Japanese Canadians are human beings with a whole range of human emotions. There is a stereotype that Japanese Canadians were all cooperative, kind and forgiving. Well, they weren’t. Some of them were quite angry and it affected them throughout their entire lives. I wanted to reflect that in the writing. And I wanted to show that the third generation was affected by the internment even though they didn’t experience it.”

In this novel that crosses between 1980s and 990s Toronto and 1940s Moose Jaw, we get a sense of the complexity of Japanese Canadian experiences and emotions during the internment, and in the years that followed.

The Canadian Writers in Person series will conclude this spring on March 23 with a reading and Q-and-A session with Cecily Nicholson on Wayside Sang.

Readings are free and open to any member of the public. For more information, contact Professor Gail Vanstone at gailv@yorku.ca. All readings are held Tuesdays from 7 to 8.30 p.m. on Zoom.