Pioneering spirit lives in writer-in-residence’s works
Perhaps the furthest thing from the minds of Japanese immigrants struggling to make a go of a mushroom farm in a small Alberta town in the 1970s is living a story that needs to be told.
However, after witnessing this often-isolated experience unfold for her parents in Nanton, then turning to literature for meaning, only to discover a distinct lack of voices retelling stories of the Canadian experience, Hiromi Goto, the University of Alberta’s 2009–10 Writer-in-Residence, decided that such a story needed an author.
“It was the early ‘90s. I was developing my writing voice, and at the time there was a dearth of diversity in terms of characters and voices in Canadian literature,” said Goto, who at the time had just graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Calgary. “Chorus of Mushrooms was my way of speaking to that absence, or what had been distorted in terms of popular culture at the time.”
Goto’s first novel tells the story of the post-war immigrant experience of three generations of Japanese-Canadian women.
“Aside from its setting, it’s not autobiographical, except that the grandmother figure is based on my grandmother,” said Goto. “I used my grandmother’s history as a way to develop a contemporary folk legend.
“In fiction, you don’t have to wait 500 years for something to become a legend, you can do it over the course of a book.”
Chorus of Mushrooms would go on to garner the young author the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in the Caribbean and Canada region, and was co-winner of the Canada-Japan Book Award. Rather than riding the accolades with a quick follow up, Goto took on the role of motherhood, although she kept sharp writing short stories.
“I’ve always had the sense that writing doesn’t mean you’re putting words to page all the time; I have this idea that you’re living as a writer,” she said. “I would be going about my daily life, caring for my young children, but I would also be considering the moments of those interactions for stories as well.
“I think of it as carrying story seeds in my head, and later, when there’s time, those story seeds can be put to paper, and there’s a bloom.”
In 2001, Goto’s seeds were germinated and the result was a pair of novels: Kappa Child, a re-reading of The Little House on the Prairie narrative but through the subjectivity of a Japanese-Canadian family. It was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Regional Book, and was awarded the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award. She also produced her first children’s novel, The Water of Possibility.
“I was in my mid-20s and I would often receive this gendered, sexist response that if I was a young woman and also a mother, I would naturally write for children, so I refused to write for children on principle,” said Goto. “As my children grew older, however, we would go to the library and look for books, and again, there was this dearth of Canadian children’s books that figured diverse children as the central character, particularly in forms like fantasy and adventure. Often you can find books that are ethnicity-centred, such as Chinese New Year stories were located around ethnic identity, rather than having a kid who is brown and has a big adventure.”
With a shade of that same pioneering spirit that helped her parents’ mushroom farm thrive, Goto employed the farmer-immigrant, work-ethic creed of “if you can’t find it, then make it yourself,” and wrote the kind of book she thought her kids would like to read.
“I don’t plan on making my own teeth when I lose them, but writing is what I do, so if I can’t find these things that I want then I might as well make a couple,” said Goto.