A poet's call for justice

February 24, 2005, vol. 32, no. 4
By Julie Ovenell-Carter

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Conceived in the spring of 1942, SFU English professor and Governor General award-winning poet Roy Miki was born just six months after the Canadian government forcibly removed his Japanese Canadian family from their British Columbia fruit farm and confined them to a sugar beet farm in Manitoba.

His birth coincided with a death of sorts, and he grew up mourning a life he had never really known.

“I always felt the dichotomy between our pre-internment and post-internment lives,” recalls SFU's author of the month. “There was the mythical and glorious world of the Fraser Valley with its great weather and landscape that my parents told me about, and then there was this God-forsaken place called Manitoba. I always had a feeling of having been sent into exile.”

Miki, whose literary works explore themes such as power, authority, identity and family history, says the “elements of internment were deeply embedded” in him from childhood. He recalls a time in Grade 4 when his distrust of the state was so intense that he would not salute the Red Ensign. He was slapped across the face and dismissed as a school crossing guard for his belligerence.

His high school years were lacklustre, but he began writing poetry in his teens, including lyrics for a few songs sung by his fledgling rock-and-roll band. “Poetry has always been my way of thinking through things,” he says. His early work was, he frankly admits, “pretty crappy.”

In the late 1950s, Miki borrowed an LP by beat poet Kenneth Rexroth from the Winnipeg public library, to which he listened “over and over and over.” In 1964, he graduated with an English degree from the University of Winnipeg. A year later he got involved in the folk music scene in Toronto, where his first poems were published in small literary magazines.

He enrolled in a master of arts program at the University of Toronto, where writer-in-residence Earl Birney attributed Miki's restless tendencies to the fact that he was a “west coaster at heart,” a comment that prompted him to apply to a dynamic new university called SFU.

Miki eventually earned an MA from SFU and a PhD from the University of British Columbia.

Since joining SFU's faculty in 1975, Miki has worked as an editor, critic, teacher and writer of numerous volumes of poetry, including Surrender, which won the Governor General's medal in 2002. He is also well known as a cultural and community activist, influential in the Japanese-Canadian redress movement that won compensation from the federal government in 1988.

Miki's newest book, Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice, is part memoir, part critical examination, and interweaves the story of the negotiators' journey to Parliament Hill with tales from Miki's own family history. Quill & Quire's reviewer applauded the book, saying Miki approached the story “with a poet's ear for language, a historian's microscope for details, and the type of political savvy that gives shivers to those in power.”

The boy who once refused to salute the Canadian flag says he feels “no enmity anymore.”

His country has honoured his literary gifts, which his own mother did not always understand or appreciate.

“My mother criticized the study of English as useless, but I always told her: all the politics in the world aren't enough if we are unable to articulate what we want.”

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