Next up on our special Governor General’s Award edition of The Chat, we speak with Hiro Kanagawa, winner of this year’s award for English-language Drama.
"Indian Arm is a timely and evocative manifestation of the characters’ struggle with their relationship to the land,” said the peer assessment committee of the work. “Hiro Kanagawa masterfully navigates the tension between Indigenous and settler identities as they work to figure out how we can live together. Mythic. Heart-breaking. Poetic."
Hiro Kanagawa is best known as an actor, but he was also a story editor on several critically-acclaimed Canadian television series: Da Vinci's Inquest, Da Vinci's City Hall, Intelligence, and Blackstone. His plays Tiger of Malaya and The Patron Saint of Stanley Park have been performed across Canada. His distinctions include an Asians on Film award and Jessie Richardson Awards for both acting and writing. Indian Arm previously received the 2015 Jessie Award for Outstanding Original Script. Hiro lives in Port Moody, BC, with his wife and two children and is a youth football coach.
Trevor Corkum: The play is your own take on Henrik Ibsen’s Little Eyolf. What inspired you to take up this particular work and make it your own?
Hiro Kanagawa: Vancouver's Rumble Theatre commissioned me to write an adaptation of a lesser-known Ibsen play, Little Eyolf. Rumble's artistic director, Stephen Drover, had decided to commission modern adaptations of the classics for his company, and this was the first one. Although I was certainly familiar with Ibsen's more famous plays, I had never actually heard of Little Eyolf before. I was reluctant at first to take the project on because I myself had recently made a decision to root my writing in the Canadian experience. I did not know how Little Eyolf could fit in with my own agenda as a writer.
A couple of fateful synchronicities got the project rolling. First, Little Eyolf is set on the shores of a glacial fjord. My home in Port Moody, BC, is about a ten-minute drive from the mouth of Indian Arm which is itself a glacial fjord. Indian Arm lies in the traditional territory of the Tsleil-Waututh people, who consider themselves Children of Takaya, or " Children of the Wolf." "Eyolf" is a Scandinavian name meaning "Lucky Wolf."
Toward the end of Ibsen's original, the main characters Rita and Alfred Allmers have a discussion about their human responsibility, in particular their responsibility toward an underprivileged community living by the water's edge. From the above coincidences and the small reference in Ibsen's play, I began to see a vision of a Canadian play set on the shores of Indian Arm, a play which could explore a topic vital and relevant to our nation: the relationship between our dominant white culture and First Nations.
As I started writing, my main fears and challenges were that I could not write the play without First Nations characters and without referencing the First Nations culture, history, and mythology of the region. I did not want to misrepresent, misappropriate, disrespect, or tread on territory that I did not have a right to. Fortunately, my wife identifies as Coast Salish and is a respected member of the First Nations arts community. With her help I was able to connect with Leonard George (son of Chief Dan George) who is a cultural ambassador for the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. I described to him the play I hoped to write and we had several lengthy conversations about representation, cultural appropriation, etc. In the end, with Leonard's approval and blessing, I was able to proceed. I don't know what I would have done if he had disapproved...
Even now, I think my play raises questions about who has a right to tell certain First Nations stories. My play is not a "First Nations" play, but First Nations characters and Tsleil-Waututh myths and history figure prominently. I do not wish to use Leonard George's approval as a shield here. I am sure there are those in the First Nations community who do not approve. We had a hard time casting the native elder in the play until Gloria May Eshkibok took on the role. Some of the women we asked to read for the part may simply have been unavailable, but some may have felt personally resistant. Going forward, this is something that I hope everyone can be cognizant of. The territory the play covers is not safe, neutral ground. But, you know, you couldn't write a good play that deals with this subject matter and have it be safe. In the end, I still have fears, the play still has its challenges. I can only hope that these fears and challenges enrich the conversations that the play inspires.
The territory the play covers is not safe, neutral ground. But, you know, you couldn't write a good play that deals with this subject matter and have it be safe. In the end, I still have fears, the play still has its challenges. I can only hope that these fears and challenges enrich the conversations that the play inspires."
TC: What more needs to be done to ensure that Canada remains a vital, envied world leader in theatre? What’s your feeling about the next generation of theatre artists in Canada?
HK: I do not know that Canada is a "vital, envied world leader" in theatre. Certainly, there are other countries with a richer theatre history who continue to take theatre and their theatre artists more seriously than Canada does. Having said that, I feel incredibly privileged to live in a nation like Canada which has the arts institutions that it does and which recognizes artists in a variety of disciplines with awards such as the GG's. I think institutions like the Governor-General's Literary Awards do play a large role in maintaining the cultural life of the nation. Being a playwright in Canada typically has very little reward, so something like the GG's is an important affirmation and recognition that the work still matters, the nation still cares.
I think institutions like the Governor-General's Literary Awards do play a large role in maintaining the cultural life of the nation. Being a playwright in Canada typically has very little reward, so something like the GG's is an important affirmation and recognition that the work still matters, the nation still cares."
As for the younger generations of theatre creators coming up, I am inspired by a lot of what I've seen. I personally often find myself amazed by the ways in which technology is being incorporated as well as the interdisciplinary fusions that abound. I'm also seeing more diversity in theatre audiences. It's encouraging to go see a play and I don't recognize most of the people in the audience.
TC: What’s your own litmus test for exceptional theatre?
HK: Ritual, poetry, transgression. On some primal level, I want the theatre experience to harken back to the days of cavemen sitting around a campfire, telling stories about the scary things just beyond the flickering shadows. I want the theatre experience to have a sense of poetry, not just in terms of beautiful words, but in terms of a poetic sensibility toward life, the universe, what is possible in the realm of imagination. And finally I want the theatre experience to be transgressive. I always want to be a little bit afraid that I am seeing something I shouldn't be seeing, experiencing something I shouldn't be experiencing.
I want the theatre experience to have a sense of poetry, not just in terms of beautiful words, but in terms of a poetic sensibility toward life, the universe, what is possible in the realm of imagination."
TC: 49th Shelf is built around a large community of readers and fans who love great CanLit. What Canadian authors are you reading these days? Any recommendations?
I have just read the other four nominees in drama and recommend them all. My personal favorite is Michael Healy's 1979. Like a lot of Canadians, I love Andre Alexis' Fifteen Dogs. I read it to my 9-year-old daughter over the course of a couple weeks at bedtime, (leaving out the sexual passages, of which there were more than I remembered), and she was very moved by it.
"Dad, this is too sad for a kid!" she'd say. "Shall we stop reading it?" "No! Keep going!"
I am really looking forward to reading the GG Fiction winner, We'll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night. I read an interview with Joel Thomas Hynes the day the GG winners were announced and he said some things that resonated with me a lot.
EXCERPT from Indian Arm
Music. Rain. Lost in themselves in separate areas of the stage: Rita, Borghejm, Alfred.
Borghejm: It was like a movie, they all say.
Rita: A mentally handicapped native youth . . .
Missing since Friday . . .
Alfred remembers something, grieves over it.
Borghejm: There I am running toward the bridge,
hoofing it past all the cars stuck on
Dollarton, and in every car I see the glow
of the little screens, everybody watching
it all go down . . .
Rita: Search crews believe they have located . . .
Alfred filled with anger and remorse.
Located but were unable to retrieve . . .
were unable to retrieve . . .
Borghejm: The fog of war they call it. The fog of war.
Means men with weapons in their hands
fucked things up. Means somebody got
killed who wasn’t supposed to.