Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty
Title: Squeaky Wheels: Travels with My Daughter by Train, Plane, Metro, Tuk-tuk and Wheelchair
Author: Suzanne Kamata
Publisher: Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing, 2019
Squeaky Wheels: Travels with My Daughter by Train, Plane, Metro, Tuk-tuk and Wheelchair by award-winning author Suzanne Kamata is more than just a memoir. It is a travelogue written by a mother about travelling with her disabled daughter, a manual on parenting, not only for a disabled child but also for a normal one, a heart-warming account of an expat well able to adjust and enjoy her life in a country where she was not born and an extensive guide to living cheerfully and with optimism despite hurdles.
Suzanne Kamata moved to Japan to teach English, fell in love and married a Japanese man. She gave birth to premature twins one of who suffers from cerebral palsy. Though Kamata’s daughter, Lilia, spends her life on a wheelchair, she loves travelling and dreamt of going to Paris. To realise her daughter’s dream, Kamata applied for a grant to travel to Paris and to write this book. She received a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation to fund her trip to Paris. In an earlier interview , Kamata explained that though for funding the writing of this book, she won the Half the Globe Literati Award in the novel category, her narrative is “actually a memoir”.
The prologue starts with the mother and daughter duo stuck in the subterranean station of the Paris underground, thus putting the story in perspective, giving the reader a taste of what to expect. The narrative, like Kamata’s other novels, shuttles back and forth in time and space to create a feeling of urgency and suspense. As Kamata and the family struggle to give Lilia a normal life, her empathetic telling is one that not just touches the heart but also brings forth the triumph of the human spirit without sounding preachy.
Kamata writes: “I want them to see Lilia not as a deaf girl in a wheelchair, not as my inescapable burden, but a well-rounded individual with a place in the world. She has a rich interior life. She has ideas and opinions. She is aware of things. If only Lilia could communicate directly with people who she meets, they would understand just how interesting and informed she is. Forget about the wheelchair. She’d rather talk about UFOs and Marie Antoinette, manga and murder mysteries and the possible existence of fairies. Also she is a font of information.”
She ‘trains’ Lilia for the proposed tour of Paris by making multiple trips within Japan and to USA, where she has family. When, occasionally, she feels despair for the lack of facilities for the wheelchair bound, she takes inspiration from the excitement that Lilia experiences in her adventures and finds solutions as during the trip they make to the Raccoon Mountain Caverns in Tennessee. After returning home to Japan, Kamata watches Lilia share her excitement with her twin, Jio, who prefers baseball to travel, and writes: “Maybe I should try to be more like Lilia, who is often delighted by small pleasures: the flutter of cherry blossoms, the flicker of fireflies. I remind myself not to let my own disappointments dampen Lilia’s joy.”
The trip to Paris, described by Kamata as “ the ultimate mother-daughter trip”,captures not just the draws of Paris like the Eiffel tower and Mona Lisa but also we see the American in the mother make friends, seek help where necessary, unlike her more self-sufficient, Japanese husband, Yoshi. As the Hippocampus Magazine review says Kamata is the ‘squeaky wheel’ that makes the noise to make sure her daughter gets it all — a good education, travel, fun and the ability to realise her dreams. Kamata herself explains: “I grew up hearing the squeaky wheel gets the grease. If everyone kept silent, women wouldn’t be able to vote, blacks and whites would still be using separate drinking fountains, and there would be no wheelchair ramps in the United States. I think we need to be way squeakier in Japan.”
Kamata sums up the impact of her trip and the choices they made together towards the end of her memoir: “In the months to come, I will discover that our French excursion was everything I hoped it would be for her (Lilia). She’ll impress her teachers and classmates with her new found knowledge of French customs and culture. Using the photos that we took for reference, she will paint images of the Eiffel Tower, the Mona Lisa, and other things. Her paintings will be published in a magazine for children. Now that she has a wider view of the world, she will be more attentive to current events…No matter what happens in future, we’ll always have Paris.” It almost reads like a fairy story for her daughter. And that is not the end. There is a lovely surprise awaiting her daughter and the readers beyond that.
Squeaky Wheels grabs our attention with its easy telling and smooth flow. It is a travelogue which makes me want to revisit Paris, visit Japan and the gleaming caverns in Tennessee. It makes me admire Kamata’s parenting and takes me to a world created by a beautiful, innocent, imaginative child. It makes me re-discover wonders in our everyday existence — a book that delights without any obstructions.
Mitali Chakravarty is a writer and editor and blogs at 432m.wordpress.com.
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