Canada Reads but does it understand? A memoir that was a tragedy in three parts.

I love literary lists. Each year I pick up one book authored by the Noble Prize in Literature; this year was the ever-confounding Kazuo Ishiguro. I sit anxiously waiting for the Man Booker Prize shortlist (though the long list actually has better writing sometimes); this year the weirdly contemplative Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders won. I become feverish and irrational as the Scotia Giller Prize lists are published; 2017winner was Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill. I read and rooted for Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson and had a brief disappointing affair with Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter.

Canada Reads, however, has never quite been my cup of tea, being too much a survivalist themed-show with a time range of books that brought back memories of English Lit in university. Unlike the other literary prizes, Canada Reads is made up of debators who trash out their support of the book they have been chosen to read, eventually voting a book a week off the stacks until the surviving one goes on to fame and glory. When this year’s list was announced, I was attracted to Cheri Demaline’s The Marrow Thieves and, tentatively, Mark Sakamoto’s Forgiveness. Perhaps it was the influence of the Giller’s shortlisted Eden Robinson’s amazing, searing Young Adult story of an Indigenous youth and his peripatetic spirit quest, all the while managing a family drama that is too real to shut out. I chose Demaline’s book, putting Forgiveness on the shelf. (Yes, there is irony in that.)

As with Robinson’s book, the Marrow Thieves is riveting and gut-wrenching YA, tearing open into full view the psychological survival of Indigenous Peoples in a dystopic future. There, survivors of a climate catastrophe, hunt the Indigenous Peoples for the key they hold to survival. It’s worth the read.

But it’s not what I want to write about today.

A reluctant reader of Sakamoto’s memoir, Forgiveness: A gift from my grandparents, I confess I feared the theme of Asian oppression that occurred in Canada as a reaction to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour. I’d also read Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep Northa powerful story of Australian POWs forced into building the Thai-Burma Death Railway; the book effectively ruined my summer – or was it winter? But then, fear is a seductive creature, drawing us ever closer to the very thing we seek to avoid.

Sakamoto’s book is a tragedy in three parts: his Japanese grandparents, born in Canada and the target of Canadian bigotry; his East Coast grandfather, escaping a brutal home life only to become a POW in Japanese-held Hong Kong and later sent to a shipbuilding factory in Osaka, Japan; and, Sakamoto’s writing, filled with grammatical and historical errors, that almost derails the early history of his two lineages.

The richness of the two sets of grandparents, their own parents and children (Sakamoto’s parents) is mostly lost as is the opportunity to capitalize on an important theme of hope and belonging, betrayal and resilience. Sakamoto’s Japanese great-grandparents came to Canada’s West Coast and became a fishing family among many other Japanese. As we so well know from centuries of history, nothing turns one part of a community against another faster than the success of one and not both. Colour of skin, accents, and other external features become the target of ridicule and bullying. Eventually, governments step in with shoddily clad legislation that sanctions prejudice. In 1941, after Japan’s entry into WW II, the government claimed “military necessity” and Japanese Canadians were shipped to the interior of British Columbia, Ontario, and the beet farms of Alberta¹. In all, 21, 000 were displaced and never compensated for lost homes, businesses, and emotional wounds of disbanding families. The timeline here shows redress occurred in 1988 but did not include compensation for loss of property and hardship.

Sakamoto’s grandparents survived by agreeing to go to a beet farm in Alberta so that they could stay together as a family, only to discover that life on the open prairie during the fierce winter in an un-insulated animal shed will challenge them in ways they could not have imagined. For his grandmother, Mitsue Sakamoto, caring for her parents and children becomes the source of her resilience. Her son, whose woundedness is not made clear, is Sakamoto’s father (the book could use a genealogy!).

Across the country on the East Coast, Sakamoto’s Canadian grandfather, Ralph MacLean, lives on The Magadelan Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. As Sakamoto narrates it, his grandfather’s story edges on cliché despite the very real likelihood of his unforgiving, brutal parental environment in an unforgiving land. So much could have been done with this, however, it distils down to a physically and emotionally abused child with a heart of gold who eventually survives his own internment by the Japanese military in Asia. His daughter, wounded as well, is Sakamoto’s mother. The painful irony of his parents bringing together two victims of oppression is unexplored other than a nod to a mysterious process of forgiveness.

Against a painful and powerful background such as this, Sakamoto had ample material to weave a rich narrative. However, the rushed sketches of these characters, who were so critical to the later narrative that intertwines to shape the author’s own life are frustratingly sparse and staccato. I want to know more about Sakamoto’s father beyond his self-involved tendency to move from dream to dream. Then again, is it self-involvement or a desperate need to repossess what was lost? How did his mother become who she became, besides the usual “falling in with the wrong crowd”? Ironically, the chapters about his parents are read better, yet the characters all stand unavailable, still caught in their psychological internment.

The final tragedy of Forgiveness is captured by Goodreads reviewer, Edward Fenner‘s whose comments save me writing out the frustrations of reading a book that is poorly edited and sloppy in its fact-checking. It doesn’t take much to validate geographical locations – there is only one ferry from the Magdalen Islands and it goes to PEI. It crosses a “strait”, not a”straight”.  The first sections of the book had a sense of notes taken in conversation with his grandparents. The latter sections about his parents and his own life were better written and, I am guessing, might have been the manuscript he was to send to the Globe and Mail for publication, from whence someone thought it would make a great book (it would have). Certainly, the language and style of the early years describing his family seem akin to parents or grandparents telling grandchildren about their life experiences. How Forgiveness won the Canada Reads debate is perplexing. However, one can hope Sakamoto will use this revival of his book to consider his family’s stories again because we only die when we are forgotten. Somehow, I think that would be the gift from his grandparents.

As an immigrant generation, we are losing our history. When my parents passed away, they left a gaping historical hole in our family, much like the missing photographs in their albums. In my mother’s later confused years, she had taken out the photos of my brother and placed them in a separate album – supposedly because I would not be interested in seeing his life in grainy black and white snapshots. So, I have albums comprised in part of grainy snapshots of my life in Burma and in part of blank spaces of black. My lineage skips across these spaces and my now-troublingly poor memory tries to backfill the emptiness. I suppose I should be happy because the memories that fill the spaces are likely less triggering than the ones in the lost photos!

It’s a shame Sakamoto didn’t do a greater justice by taking the time to produce the powerful story it would have been if only to show that his grandparents’ ability to forgive was not about the individual. It was a clarity that the world is good, evil, neither, and both. It was a realization that we can encourage our stories to blind and bind us or shed light on another way to honour our narrative – ones that are already hidden in the folds of the stories we tell ourselves.

 

  1. http://japanesecanadianhistory.net/historical-overview/general-overview/

 

Book Review: Why Buddhism is True – the art of being Wright

Robert Wright’s latest book, Why Buddhism is True: The science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment, extends his previous thesis in the Moral Animal that we’ve evolved to evolve. This time Wright appeals to Buddhism, a 2600-year-old religion and its philosophy to scaffold a more positive spin on genes-making-genes-making-genes.

Is Wright right?

Has he broken through to Buddhism as true?

By “true”, he means he’s discovered enough scientific evidence to support it as the True Path to making those nasty narcissistic genes a kinder, gentler mechanism for a world riddled with anger, craving, and delusion.

Wright starts tentatively, with a level of apologetics one would expect from someone about to tell a 4-year-old there isn’t any Santa Claus. Except that he’s about to tell us there is one. To give him credit, he does it was a chatty style and several appeals to modern tropes – the Matrix, addictions (to sugar donuts), tribalism – so that we can feel Buddhism is really about feeling good in our 21st-century life. And that’s where, in many places, Wright may be getting it wrong.

Honestly, when he started talking about the “Red Pill”, I was casting back to Lewis Carroll whose Wonderland is a far tighter lesson in impermanence, not-self, suffering, delusion, and all those nice things we wade around in when we practice Buddhism. In fact, most of the metaphors or teaching points Wright uses are thin explorations of the depth and richness of Buddhist philosophy and practices. Well, let me step back from that flat-footed statement: if you’re Buddhist-curious but religion-averse and philosophy-eclectic, Wright’s interpretation and frequent insertion of 21st-century desires into Buddhist foundational concepts help get over the aversion and through the often confusing rounds of Buddhist-y thought.

Start with his attitude to meditation: “I wouldn’t advocate meditation if I didn’t think there was something people could achieve by it.” That might help as a rationale to meditate. Then he gets into a circular spin-out scare-quoting “success” in meditation and offering the typical paradox of “try not try”. Still, given the zeitgeist today of everyone and their parent being meditation-curious or a meditation-surfer, the second chapter carries some appeal and reassurance that even scientists can fall into more twisted logic than a dozen boxes of red licorice. Ironically and with the possibility that this review loses all credibility, Chapter Two has some merit.

After that, if you’re schooled in Buddhist practice and have some glancing familiarity with the Noble Truths (4 of them), poisons (3 and they’re nasty), aggregates (five and they create everything), you may find Wright’s reading of psycho-social-neuro-psychology into them an interesting journey. For the most part, he does well with the attributes of being human and how meditation has support as a means of unravelling the knots of our suffering. However, and it’s a BIG however, Wright is never clear about the term “feelings”. Of course, it’s easier to foster companionship between Buddhism and evolution psychology (genes just wanna have fun) if we call it all feelings/emotions. That allows for setting up the fight-flight-flee model to explain how we come to crave sugar donuts (really).

But Buddhist feelings are not Western Feelings. It may seem a picayune detail but, really, it’s not. Because Wright maintains a confounded view of vedana with emotions throughout the book, his careful building of arguments that meditation (insight meditation specifically) is the cure-all of the poisons (his focus) misses the point: Meditation is not a DIY self-renovation project attained through understanding its psycho-socio-neuro-correlates. In fact, he goes quite a bit astray when he continuously notes that the common ground of Buddhism and evolution psychology is the desire to improve, to avoid unpleasant experiences (because that ends the genetic lineage), and to not get worked up in case those genes make a bad decision.

When Wright writes:

Mindfulness meditation is, among other things, an attempt to give the calm passions more power and give the violent passions less power.

he is making the role of practice an instrumental process and, while that may be start-point, to remain there is what is called a thin understanding.

The frustration is that Wright has the chops to offer a thick understanding of the philosophy and process of Buddhist thought and practice. Unfortunately, from the feeling/Feelings frying pan he leaps into the fire of emptiness and then “oneness”. Having taken an online course on Buddhism and Psychology he offered, I did like his teaching style and found him thoughtful. I still do. But not in every aspect of Why Buddhism is True.

If you read between the lines of the dialogues he had with his teachers (Joseph Goldstein among them), there were words of caution offered to him about the direction of his thinking. I wish he’d listened a bit closer and let the teachings penetrate deeper. Then again, like Gutei’s student who ran around holding up his finger because he saw Gutei do that, who hasn’t been consumed with the need to explain the inexplicable. And with the glut of “This is the real Buddhism” books, I certainly understand the urge (like his addiction to sugar donuts) to get his view out there. 

Writing style: chatty, personable, easy to read

Will it help: Depends on what you’re looking for. Beginners would feel reassured. Seasoned practitioners may find some interesting nuggets that tie together a spiritual canon with modern science. Some may have quibbles about many things and depending on your level of seasoning these may become points of practice.

 

Other Reviews

Assessing the Value of Buddhism, for Individuals and for the World by ANTONIO DAMASIO Aug 7, 2017

What Meditation Can Do for Us, and What It Can’t: Examining the science and supernaturalism of Buddhism by Adam Gopnik Aug 7 & 14, 2017 (Wright’s comments defending his take on emptiness are in the comments.)

A Science Writer Embraces Buddhism as a Path to Enlightenment by Gregory Cowles Aug 25, 2017

Meditation can make us happy, but can it also make us good? by Nick Romeo Aug 25, 2017