Talent On Tap – East of the Rockies – An AR Journey From Joy Kogawa’s History

Do you remember being a young child and listening to your grandparents tell you stories about their life? We would be entranced by the history lesson. The times were much more harsh and convenience hadn’t been invented yet. You had to walk to get water, to find wood and to use the bathroom. You worked hard, you listened well and your family dynamic was uncompromising. Living in todays times with convenience at every fingertip it’s hard to imagine what life would have been like back then.


Technology has advanced our lives exponentially and given us multiple choices for multiple applications. If you want to listen to music, you can use a bluetooth speaker with your iphone, plug in headphones, listen to your car stereo, home stereo or listen to it through your laptop or TV. There are multiple devices for your visual pleasure as well. Every year the technology advances and the trickle effect grows larger. It does impact our social lives and it does change our society as a population. With integrated technology however, it has the ability to impact our lives in positive ways.


Acclaimed 83 yr. old Canadian author Joy Kogawa and Toronto based Jam3 in conjunction with the National Film Board have created East of the Rockies, an interactive augmented reality app based on true events about life in one of Canada’s Japanese Internment camps. East of the Rockies’ AR narrative follows 17-year-old Yuki as her family adjusts to life in a Japanese internment camp during WWII. The story takes inspiration from Kogawa’s novels Obasan and Itsuka, which chronicle the persecution of Japanese citizens in Canada during the war.


I contacted Joy Kogawa by phone at her home in Toronto. We had a lovely conversation about her involvement in creating the extraordinary app. After the interview, I was put in touch with Anne Canute, Joy’s grandchild. We were fortunate enough to be able to meet up at a coffee shop to discuss their role in the narrating of the story and the interactive character in the app. What follows is the account of both conversations, with Joy’s interview first.


“This app/program is inspired by your childhood?”

“I don’t know if it’s inspired by my childhood but it parallels some basic things about my childhood and life, which was, I was born in Vancouver. I was six years old when the Second World War broke out. Japanese Canadians were removed from the West Coast because they identified with the enemy, so my family moved to a ghost town in Slocan, BC. When the war was over the government decided we couldn’t go home and that we would be scattered across the country because of a political desicion. This story is about the family of a 17 yr. old girl called Yuki. When she went to Slocan she met a young man that she knew from Vancouver. Once the war ended, she couldn’t go back home so they went East of the Rockies on a farm in Alberta. There are three acts to the story; the first act is Slocan, the second act is Southern Alberta and the third act happens in Toronto after her death. Her granddaughters voice narrates as she goes through her grandmother’s things. That’s where it ends.”


“You said that it parallels your life but how much does it actually reflect?”

“Well, we lived in Vancouver in a house, that has been saved as the Joy Kogawa House. We moved from there and lived in Slocan for three years in a home that I still long for. After that we moved to a shack in Alberta where I grew up and lived in Coaldale for some time and got married. I lived in a few other locations before moving to Ontario but a lot of my adult life has been in Toronto. It parallels it in a geographical sense.”


“How did the idea of telling this story through AR begin?”

“I received a phone call one day from a young man that wanted to meet me for lunch. I went and met him and another man that worked for a company called Jam3.  They asked me if I’d be interested in working with them on a story. At that point, I thought why not and jumped in. I worked with them for a couple of years to get the story going and now that it’s happened, here it is.”


“Did these two men work in animation?”

“They’re Jam3, so I’m not really sure, you’ll have to look them up. The National Film Board became involved as well. The creation of it was fascinating to me because I understood it to be an interactive story that people could watch on Iphones, Ipads or laptops. They could swipe on the screen to get deeper into the story and be with the people as they were going through their lives and walk with them. They can learn about that part of the person’s history and what it was all about. It’s more fun to learn about history that way other than reading about it.”


“Have you ever been involved with technology like this before?”

“No I haven’t. I’m essentially a storyteller and I had a story that they were able to bring to life. What’s interesting about this experience is, people of my generation are quite critical of this technology and they think that it prevents people from their one to one communication. Some people also think television can be harmful to our way of interacting with people. I don’t quite feel the same way but it does bother me when I go onto the subway and see people looking into their phones and not looking into the eyes of their babies. Babies really need you to look at them to develop that connection; it’s what they desperately need. At the same time, we know we have to limit ourselves so that we’re not completely addicted to the technology and learn how to use it so it doesn’t destroy our humanity.  It’s not the technology itself, it’s our use of it that matters. For example, if you think about how terrifying fire must’ve been when it was first discovered but it’s something they learned to use. It’s the same thing today with nuclear energy. People are so terrified that they don’t want to have any kind of nuclear power plants but it’s like fire, you can use it and it can be the best thing for climate change. This story can help people overcome their fears of people who are different. This happened to Japanese Canadians because we were different and identified with the enemy. That’s the way the world still is. Our technologies have grown but our moral development has not.”


“What does it mean to you personally to have this opportunity to integrate one of your stories into this technology?”

“It’s really really thrilling. I think when you take young and old and different skills/talents of people from different generations then you can make all kinds of things happen.”


“What types of novels do you enjoy writing?”

“The last thing I wrote was kind of a memoire, Gently to Nagasaki published by Caitlin Press which is out in BC. I guess it could be defined as a spiritual pilgrimage and now that I’m 83, I’ll be 84 this year, I know this will be my last book, if it is a book. I know that I’m going towards the end of my life and it’s exciting because I have such a strong sense of purpose at this stage as well as a tremendous amount of freedom.”


“Have you tried the AR app yet?”

“I actually haven’t yet but I have seen the run through. I haven’t had the time really but I recently read that the reviews were good.”


“When you look back at your career as a writer, do you see your writing evolving/changing much?”

“I think I’ve seen a lot of change in my life. I don’t know if it means I’ve evolved as a writer but I’ve learned certain things. It’s all in how you deal with truth if its not fiction. How you stay true to love and how truth is very important and has to be subordinate to love. I think that’s where my evolution is going.”


“How did your granddaughter become involved in this project?”

“They’re a student at UBC and they wanted it to be for people around 17 or 18 yrs. old and they’re in that range so I suggested them. They thought it was great and so Anne came to Toronto and after a couple days of being here, did the narration. It was really amazing because Anne had no previous training and just did it. They’re very articulate and I’ve always known them to be a bright kid. A real natural for doing all kinds of things.”


“How did you feel when you were approached by Jam3 to be involved with this?”

“I generally trust others and decided to go ahead with it not knowing much about it. I was worried all along because I wasn’t familiar with this rapid process, I mean I write the bare bones of something when starting. With this, it was like a painter becoming a sketch artist; I didn’t have any colours with me. I had the bones but I didn’t have the flesh. I’m used to creating a picture with all the colours in it and with this I didn’t have the time for it, I was just getting the sketch done. I’m also used to using an eraser and getting rid of the things I feel don’t fit. It was kind of fast for my comfort zone and had my doubts all along that it was any good. I thought people would be bored of it etc, etc. I was being self-critical. It’s sort of hard for me to believe that people are really liking it and I’m quite thrilled by it. In the past I’ve felt like a poem wasn’t very good and I was going to throw it away until someone else read it and told me they enjoyed it. It’s very confusing to me because my own judgment doesn’t seem to jive.”


“Do you ever do book signings for your novels and do you know who your audience is?”

“I have in the past but I don’t really think about who my audience is. I’m just trying to figure out whatever it is that’s working from the inside. In the last book I wrote I know I was trying to reach Japan along with a few Christians in Japan. There is a publisher in Japan that’s going to bring it out, so I’m happy about that.”

That was my conversation with Joy Kogawa. An exceptional woman with an amazing history. The next conversation is with her grandchild Anne Canute. A 21 yr. old student at UBC taking Cognitive Systems and Asian Canadian and Asian migration studies.  


“When did you first get involved with this AR project?”

“It was the summer of 2017.”


“What was your reaction to being asked to be involved in it?”

“It was exciting, I’ve always been interested in AR in the arts, it’s something I’ve looked at in school a lot. I was really excited to be involved in the creative process. A lot of the work I was doing in the earlier stages was creative consultant work. I would be looking through the script and dialogue and I’d see something that I’d say and point it out, at times I would also bring things to the writers attention that could be of interest. Being able to be part of the story-making process has been pretty cool as well and it felt more natural. When they asked me to narrate the following year, it was really exciting. I had already been so familiar with the story.”


“You did the narrating at the end of the project?”

“We did all of the narrating toward the end of the project in the spring of 2018. We did it all in a couple of days inside a recording studio. They flew me out to Toronto.”


“Can you tell me how this whole project started?”

“Jam3 had this idea of what they wanted to do and reached out to my grandmother because she’s done so much work on those stories before. They were looking for her input and her help in crafting the story. They had Waltz Williams, who’s an AR and has a career in it. He was working with my grandmother and had the skeleton of the story. She really took on the story and devoted herself to it. They were looking for someone to play another perspective from the granddaughter of the main character. I’m a millennial, ‘hmmn… how will we find someone to narrate this?’. My grandmother was like, ‘I happen to have a grandchild’. It really worked out really well.”


“What was your takeaway from this entire experience?”

“I learned a lot about the history of the Internment in general. I knew the story but always as a personal family story and being able to look at it from a different perspective was really very interesting to me. When my grandmother was initially writing it, we sat down and looked through old photos and old newspaper articles about statements the government had put out. After reading through all of the horrible headlines and really digging into it; being able to share that experience and going back and living a moment in her shoes has been really gratifying for me. It allowed me to connect with part of my family tree in a unique way. The process of putting it out on a platform for graduates to be able to draft with.”


“Were you close to your grandmother before working together on this AR experience?”

“We’ve always been close. When I was younger I’d fly out to see her and spend my summer with her. She’s always been open about this part of her history, which is pretty unique for people of her generation. Being able to engage with it, not just personally but also creatively. Her past has shaped her but its also shaped my identity and in the third chapter, it reflects on the grandchild and the choices they’ve made. I think it’s really pushed me to think about those things on my own life as well.”


“Has your grandmother inspired you to make certain choices in your own life?”

“I would say so, yes. She brought me up engaging in productive dialogue and getting me to think about helping others. A lot of the things she talked to me about as a kid was shaping my world view. It pushed me to think about things in a way that I probably wouldn’t, had we not been close.”


“Can you tell me where people can get their own copy of the AR experience?”

“It’s been available in the App store since March 1st. East of the Rockies is available on the App Store.  The app is free to download from March 1-15. I believe an iphone 6 and up, iPad 5th generation and Pro (iOS 12) should be able to run it. At the moment its just apple products. They used the Apple ARKit to develop and release it. It’s more user friendly with apple rather than android. Maybe in the future they may broaden the devices capable of playing it.”


“Have you had any feedback on the interest and downloads?”

“It’s been pretty good. The last time I checked we were number 5 in education in the Apple store, which is pretty exciting. I hope it continues to be well received; I think their main goal is to really implement it into the education system. I know a lot of classes now use iPads in teaching, so hopefully it will be distributed throughout the classrooms. The NFB is working hard on making that happen.”


“Have you used this type of technology before?”

“Yes, in my program, a lot of what we study is intersections of computer science and psychology.  I was very familiar with AR and VR when I started working on the project. I know for a lot of people AR and VR are very new but we’re hoping that it becomes a more acceptable platform.”

“Do you feel that this app is more interactive than VR?”

“I wouldn’t say it’s more but not everyone has a headset and the AR is capable of reaching a larger audience. If you have an apple product you can download it and you’re ready to go.”


“Do you know if this is available in another language?”

“Not right now but I assume they’re planning on it in the future. We had discussed a Japanese version but I think it hinges on the success of this release.”


“What do you hope people will gain from using this app?”

“I think education is the first priority because this part of Canadian history isn’t taught in schools. I’d really like people to be able to look back at their own history and their environment and think about all the factors that go into shaping their own identity. I hope they can take something from the app and apply it to their own life.”


“I only have time for one or two more questions. Who cuts your hair?”

“I go to Big Joy Barber. They’re pretty cool and do some interesting things.”


“Have the rest of your family had a chance to try the app?”

“Oh yah, I gave them a walk through of the app. They’re so excited. They are so supportive and my dad has been sharing it on facebook.”


“If Jam3 asked you to be involved in another project, would you?”

“Absolutely, its been a great experience.”   


East of the Rockies is an experimental augmented-reality story written by 83-year-old Joy Kogawa, one of Canada’s most acclaimed and celebrated literary figures. The story is told from the perspective of Yuki, a 17-year-old girl forced from her home and made to live in the Slocan internment camp during the Second World War     


Students will also have the opportunity to take a more in-depth look at East of the Rockies with a high-school learning kit. The NFB Education kit poses questions and scenarios to help students understand and go deeper into the experience of life in the Slocan Internment Camp. The learning kit is available at eastoftherockies.com.


Finally, a new technology I can embrace that doesn’t require me to read a bible size manual to understand. I’ve tried the app and highly recommend it.


Related Articles:

The Most Advanced AR Development Tools in 2019-2020

The 9 Best Virtual Reality Stocks To Buy Right Now!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.