Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Trevor Kew

Trevor Kew (author of the Tomo story “The Bridge to Lillooet”) has lived in Yokohama for three years, teaching English and traveling extensively throughout the country. He teaches at Yokohama International School and is the author of three novels for children: Trading Goals, Sidelined and Breakaway. “The Bridge to Lillooet” was partially inspired by the excellent Canadian National Film Board documentary Sleeping Tigers. Visit his website: 

Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to Japan.
Trevor Kew
I’m originally from a small ski town in British Columbia, Canada. Last year, I returned home and found that my hometown now has an izakaya! I guess the world really is getting smaller. When I was growing up there, Japan seemed like nothing more than a prawn-shaped squiggle on a map. And so when I first came to the country in 2006 to visit a friend who was teaching English in Nagoya, I did not have high expectations, but at the end of the trip, I didn’t want to go home. A few years later, while teaching in England, I received a job offer to teach English Literature at Yokohama International School and seized the opportunity. So far, it’s been three and a half great years of biking up volcanoes, cheering on Japan in World Cup soccer matches, and battling daily with the terrors of learning kanji.

This story is based on an actual event. Can you tell us how you learned about this event and what moved you to then create a story based on it?
I’d known about the Japanese internment camps in British Columbia for a long time but never really looked into them extensively. Last summer, while back in Canada, I visited the Nikkei Internment Museum in New Denver, about a two-hour drive from where I grew up. This small museum contains several original buildings from the time of the internment and has some fascinating photographs of the camps. Later that summer, I attended a Japanese festival in Oppenheimer Park, a baseball park in the area that was once Vancouver’s Little Tokyo. It got me thinking: a lot of the people who ended up in New Denver’s internment camps would have come from Vancouver. What had that experience been like? How did the young people feel about it? Soon after, I found an excellent documentary, Sleeping Tigers (available free online from Canada’s National Film Board), on the Asahi Tigers, an all-Japanese baseball team that dominated Vancouver leagues in the 1930s). The fact that the internees kept playing baseball in the camps, organizing whole leagues and even playing inter-camp tournaments, was interesting to me. Finally, I heard the story about the bridge in Lillooet used to segregate Japanese and Caucasian residents, and about how the bridge was first crossed for a baseball game between the local police and the Japanese internees. It was a true story about sport overcoming boundaries, at least temporarily. I also found some old baseball manga lying around in the back of the New Denver museum. Sport was clearly important to the young people in the camps.

You often write about sports. Can you tell us a bit about baseball in the Canadian internment camps?
Well, baseball was a huge source of pride for the Japanese community in Vancouver due to the winning ways of the Asahi Tigers. You have to remember that this was a time when Japanese people in Canada were widely thought of as an inferior race. To know they were the best at something must have meant a lot to those people. Later, in the camps, many of the internees had lost their homes, their boats or their cars, or had been separated from their families. Watching or playing baseball must have given them a brief but valuable escape during the bleakest times of their internment, as well as a sense of solidarity and shared tradition. And playing baseball against teams from local communities seemed to begin to break down prejudices, as well.

Do you know of other sports practiced in the Japanese internment camps?
Photo of boys skating at a Japanese internment camp (courtesy of Nikkei Internment Museum, New Denver, BC)
During my visit to the museum in New Denver, I saw a photograph of a young Nisei boy playing ice hockey in one of the camps. For me, the photograph was a poignant reminder of the cruelty of the internment. Here was a boy who had been torn away from his home because he was allegedly not Canadian enough to be trusted to live near the coast during the Second World War, and there he stood, playing Canada’s national sport.

You decided to write a Japanese story set outside Japan for this anthology. Why? Many of the foreign students in my classes right now in Japan are living in a society where they feel that they don’t always feel that they belong. Some have even lived in that society all their lives. In “The Bridge to Lillooet,” I wanted to explore the reverse side of this situation, focusing on Japanese-Canadians during a particularly difficult time in their history. The main character and his brother are torn between Japan, a land they’ve never been to, and Canada, a land that doesn’t seem to want them. This would be a difficult situation for anyone, but for teenagers, who are generally wrestling with issues of identity anyway, the struggle is magnified.

I also think it can be tempting to view Japan in isolation from the rest of the world, as a bizarre, foreign land that outsiders can never even begin to understand. During my time in Japan, I’ve discovered that this simply isn’t true, although understanding does take time, effort and a willingness to rethink your own perspectives. Cultural divides can be bridged and should be bridged, as I hope my story demonstrates.

Can you tell us about your most recent book?
Sure! Breakaway is about a boy called Adam who moves from a small town to the big city with his family, a transition he finds very difficult. Adam has been an all-star hockey player his whole life, but after making friends with a group of soccer players at his new school, he is tempted to try the new sport, much to the chagrin of his pushy hockey-loving father. In the novel, I wanted to highlight the difficulties that young people can face in expressing what they want to do when faced with outside pressures. I also wanted to demonstrate that sport can bolster your confidence and sense of identity in the face of adversity. There are also some very personal touches in the book. When I was young, my mom used to make my little brother wear a blue helmet so that he’d be safe playing street hockey with me and my friends, a situation mirrored in Breakaway. The novel also begins in Castlegar, a small town near where I grew up, which is quite close to New Denver, in fact. It’s interesting how Adam and the two boys in “Bridge to Lillooet” both experience upheaval in their lives, albeit within extremely different circumstances, and both use sport to try to prop themselves up.

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
Tsunami-damaged sports academy in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture
While volunteering up in Miyagi prefecture, I was surprised to see a group of young athletes emerging from a sports academy that had been partially destroyed by the tsunami. They told me that they were swimmers doing dry-land training, because their pool had been destroyed. Their determination inspires my message to teens in Tohoku. Keep playing the sports you love. Sport is like nothing else we do in life. Sport is one of the great joys of life. Whatever sport you play, I hope it brings some light to the dark days and helps you go on.

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