Writing Matters: In Conversation with Suzanne Kamata
By Mitali Chakravarty
Suzanne Kamata, an award-winning writer who lives in Japan and continues an American, launches a new book called Indigo Girl this year. In this exclusive interview, she talks about her writing, her works and her multicultural life.
Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan, and later moved to South Carolina where she graduated from the University of South Carolina. She is the author of the award-winning short story collection, The Beautiful One Has Come, and five novels – Losing Kei (Leapfrog Press, 2008); Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible (GemmaMedia, 2013), winner of multiple awards including the APALA Honor Award; Screaming Divas (Simon Pulse, 2014), which was named to the ALA Rainbow List; The Mermaids of Lake Michigan (Wyatt-Mackenzie, 2017); and Indigo Girl (GemmaMedia, 2019), which was awarded an SCBWI Multicultural Work-in-Progress Award. Additionally, she has edited three well-received anthologies, and written two travel memoirs – A Girls’ Guide to the Islands (Gemma Open Door, 2017) and Squeaky Wheels: Travels with my Daughter by Train, Plane, Metro, Tuk-tuk and Wheelchair (Wyatt-Mackenzie, 2019). Her essays and stories have appeared in numerous magazines, journals and anthologies around the world. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and is an associate professor at Naruto University of Education in Japan. She lives with her husband on the island of Shikoku.
Mitali: Your stories and novels flow so well. What made you start writing? Since when have you been writing?
Suzanne: Thank you so much! I have been writing since childhood, so I suppose I have had a lot of practice. But I think my history of reading has been key in my development as a writer. My mom took my brother and me to the library from an early age, so I can’t even think of a time when I wasn’t in the middle of reading a book. Through reading, I think I picked up prosody and pacing, and many other aspects of writing.
Mitali: Your novel, Squeaky Wheels, that won the inaugural Half the Globe Literati award (Best novel) in 2016, explores a mother’s travels with a child on a wheelchair. Can you tell us how this book came about?
Suzanne: Although the book won in the novel category, it is actually a memoir! The impetus for this book was my daughter’s declaration several years ago that she wanted to go to Paris. I had this idea that I would snag a massive book deal like Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, and that we would use the advance to travel. Alas, that didn’t happen, but I was awarded a generous grant by the Sustainable Arts Foundation which funded our trip to Paris.
Mitali: You have an anthology also about children with special needs, Love You to Pieces. Will you tell us something about this anthology?
Suzanne: When my daughter was small, I was frustrated by the lack of literary writing about parenting children with disabilities. I decided to seek out stories, essays, and poetry and put together a book of my own. Since Love You to Pieces came out, there have been several collections of poetry, short stories and novels on the topic, which is very heartening. I think my anthology came out at the beginning of a boom in writing about parenting. I still refer to it, as a sort of support group for myself.
Mitali: When did you move to Japan and why? Do you see Japan as your own home or a country from which you need to return home, as does the protagonist, Jill Parker, in your novel that focuses on issues faced by a child in a cross cultural marriage, Losing Kei?
Suzanne: I came to Japan shortly after I graduated from college in order to teach English on a program sponsored by the Japanese government. During my second year on the program, I fell in love with the man who is now my husband, and then we had two children, who have dual citizenship. I do feel more or less at home, here, but I am not really part of the culture. I am not a Japanese citizen, so I am not allowed to vote. Most of my books have been published in the United States for an English-speaking audience, so I feel as if my writing career is taking place somewhere else. Like many foreigners, I feel perpetually between cultures, but I am comfortable in that liminal space.
Mitali: You have an anthology on multicultural mothering, Call me Okasan. Would you say Losing Kei is also a statement on parenting in a cross cultural environment? Do you think it is justified to compare it to the movie, Kramer vs. Kramer, or does the comparison to the movie limit the scope of the book?
Suzanne: Yes, definitely. Losing Kei is on one of the darker aspects of cross-cultural parenting –what might happen if the marriage doesn’t work out. I think that the Kramer vs. Kramer comparison makes it easy to grasp the overall concept, but cultural differences are more at play in Losing Kei. Americans don’t worry so much about having an heir, and parents don’t have as much power over their adult children. The family dynamic is quite different.
Mitali: In your story, Jill Parker comes across as a self-centered American woman who lives for herself. My sympathies were on the side of her husband and child at the end of the novel. I felt most sorry for the child. Whose side are you on – that of the mother or father, of the Japanese culture or the American?
Suzanne: Interesting. This novel was inspired by an article that I read, about an American woman who had lost custody of her son to her Japanese husband. I believe that the court decided in the father’s favour partly because she was a working woman. And then, since there is no such thing as shared custody in Japan, the boy’s father gradually turned him against his mother, until he didn’t even want to see her any more.
I felt sympathy for the mother. Cross-cultural marriages can be very challenging, and often end in divorce. Americans tend to think that an unhappy marriage does not create a good environment for children, and that it’s better for children to see their parents as happy.
So basically, I have always been on Jill’s side, but a lot of readers feel more like you do.
Mitali: Having grown up in USA, do you actually think of the Japanese culture as ‘repressive’ or ‘xenophobic’ as says author Ellis Avery, author of The Teahouse fire, while commenting on Losing Kei?
Suzanne: Yes, it can feel that way. Japan – especially here in Shikoku, where I live – is culturally conservative. Recently, there has been some talk about increasing the number of foreign workers in Japan, to offset the decline in birthrate and population. It seems, from media reports, as if many people would rather increase the number of robots than foreigners.
Mitali: You have written a number of short stories based in Japan. Some of them deal with issues like old age. Would you say such issues transcend the borders of culture and nationality? Do the needs of the young and old transcend borders of culture and nation?
Suzanne: Yes, I think so. We are all dealing with similar issues – trying to find jobs, pursuing our goals, making friends, falling in love while young, and dealing with loneliness and health issues among other things in older age. I wrote a short story in which a Japanese daughter sends her mother a robot-pet to keep her company. Recently, I have been wondering if a robot-pet would benefit my American mother!
Mitali: You have covered parenting, special needs children and cross-cultural interactions in your books. What are the other issues closest to your heart that you would be writing about in the future?
Suzanne: Recently I have been writing a lot about my cats! But seriously, I have an interest in historical fiction, and I would like to re-introduce some fascinating figures from the past to readers through fiction.
Mitali: You have done a number of stories/ anthologies on/ with the expat community in Japan. Yet, you have lived in Japan for almost three decades. Do you still feel like an expatriate or a local here?
Suzanne: See above! I feel like an outsider who understands more than she is given credit for. As a writer, being an outsider is not so bad. We need a bit of distance to maintain perspective. But I often find myself beginning sentences with “we” when talking about Japan. And when I am watching figure skating, for example, I often cheer for Japanese skaters more than for American ones.
Mitali: Do you think there is more to learn from the Japanese culture?
Suzanne: Oh, yes. I have hardly begun to scratch the surface.
Mitali: Your novel, The Mermaids of Lake Michigan, has been described by the Kirkus Reviews as ‘A lyrical, compelling coming-of-age story with magical elements’. Would you like to tell us a little about it?
Suzanne: I grew up in Michigan. This novel is kind of my love letter to Lake Michigan. It has kind of a 1970s vibe. I think the Kirkus Reviews blurb puts it very nicely.
Mitali: You teach at a university in Tokushima. What is it like to teach students who have been brought up in an entirely different culture from you? How does this experience translate to your own writing?
Suzanne: Interesting questions! I have lived in Japan longer than my students, and have seen many changes. I feel like I know quite a bit about their culture, and I am accustomed to their views. I know that, unlike American students, Japanese students are reluctant to speak out and express their views in class. They are used to being more passive and showing respect to their professors by not disagreeing with them. I often give my students writing tasks, and I have learned a lot about them in this way.
I can’t say that the experience of teaching directly translates to my writing, because I am not really writing for them. I have occasionally borrowed stories from my students, but my readers are mostly abroad. Having raised two kids to adulthood in Japan has given me some perspective on what it’s like to be biracial in Japan, and I have created biracial characters.
Mitali: Your book, Indigo Girl is due to be launched in May 2019. Can you tell us a little about your book?
Suzanne: With pleasure! Indigo Girl is the sequel to my award-winning novel Gadget Girl, in which the main character, Aiko Cassidy, a biracial teen with cerebral palsy who aspires to be a manga artist, comes to post-disaster Japan to get to know her Japanese father. She uncovers many family secrets, and becomes friends with a displaced figure skater.
Mitali: You have contributed to Kitaab’s The Best Asian Short Stories. What do you think of Kitaab’s Best Asian series and how do you see Kitaab’s mission?
Suzanne: I think it’s fantastic! There are so many amazing writers in Asia. Why should they have to conform to Western standards in order to get read? I would love to see Kitaab’s books distributed widely and read all over the world.
Mitali Chakravarty is a writer and an editor. She blogs at 432m.wordpress.com.