How Indigo Girl finds herself in Suzanne Kamata’s new novel
Book Review by Gracy Samjetsabam
Title: Indigo Girl
Author: Suzanne Kamata
Publisher: Gemma Media (2019)
Indigo Girl is a coming-of-age novel by Suzanne Kamata, an award-winning novelist who resides in Japan. A sequel to the young adult novel Gadget Girl, a book that won multiple awards including the APALA (Asia Pacific American Award for Literature) Honor award in 2013-2014, the story centres around the life of the protagonist, Aiko Cassidy.
Aiko is a biracial and a bicultural teenager with cerebral palsy. Raised by a single mother, who now has a new family, she questions her idea of belonging and home. She yearns to know more about her biological father and the many questions that shroud her existence.
Aiko is excited about her summer break and looks forward to the solo trip from Michigan (USA) to Tokushima (Japan). It is her first visit to Japan, the place she describes as “where I belong” as she pictures it as “the land of Ghibli and iced matcha lattes, land of indigo and cat cafes and manga and J-pop”. Although she is 15 and has cerebral palsy, she is independent and confident like any other teen and thinks that she is old enough to speak for herself. The trip that was meant to be a summer getaway — to connect to her biological father and to inspire the book she was working on — ends up opening a whole new window to life for Aiko.
Indigo Girl takes the readers through the cultural encounters of a 15-year-old teenager in a new country with which she senses an intimacy. Aiko’s story is an adventure for herself, as well as for the readers, through the personal and cultural avenues that she walks into — the people, the food, the dress, the mannerisms, the rituals, the festivals and other interactions. Though she suffers from cerebral palsy, the protagonist is at heart, like any other girl of her age. Her character congeals in a curious mix of energy, independence, curiosity, insecurities, fear and uncertainty. Kamata, through Aiko in Indigo Girl, manages to capture the profundity in a teenager’s longing to trace her roots and discover herself.
Written in first person, the story is a journey into how Aiko confronts the unopened and unread chapters of her life. During her stay with her father’s rural indigo farming family and their neighbourhs, Aiko unveils family secrets and walks through the cauldron of lived and imagined realities of life.
Aiko is introduced to the world of her biological father and his extended family — his wife, who is sweet and supportive; the disapproving obaachan (grandmother); her step-brother Junpei, who dreams and aspires beyond his family, and the displaced skater, Tiaga. At the local school, Aiko also meets Sora. Sora takes her to the manga club showing her that friendship can blossom anywhere as does the refugee Kotaro who shows that we can make room for people in our lives. Aiko questions her reality, belongingness, memory, trust, love, relationships and affirms that life is complicated.
The narratives she had been told and the stories she had believed are tested against Aiko’s own experiences. What she sees and feels in Japan shapes the meaning of her life and of the people she knows. It is a tale of Aiko’s discovery of herself and the world. Love comes in all its myriads forms, and Kamata, through Aiko’s journey, gives meaning to each one of them, showing their beauty, strength as well as frailties. There is hate, anger, jealousy, similarities, differences, and moments of claustrophobia, doubt, and happiness too in the search for finding a better meaning to Aiko’s encounters.
Indigo Girl is a complex yet beautiful maze of cultures and generations, in their sameness as well as differences. Kamata effectively juxtaposes Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly, with the story of Aiko’s parents, and goes on to talk about the difficulties of multi-cultural marriages and the things that go “unsaid” because of personal constraints and societal expectations. The private and public clashes that affect both the young and the adult who try to give a meaning to their own chosen paths in the best possible manner — sometimes leading to happy resolutions and sometimes to disappointments — is skilfully tackled in the story. The stories of broken people are told wherein humour and wit does a balancing act.
It is also a story of loss. It talks of love-lost and of love-retrieved. The loss of a young one, the loss of family, the loss of an opportunity, the loss of home, the loss of one’s footings, and at the same time, how human beings have an innate capacity to overcome hardships and sufferings. Kamata’s Indigo Girl also exposes the plight of indigo planters in rural Japan and the bleak future prospects of traditional farming. The impact of globalization on the life of people in rural settings, the inevitable changes and how people cope with the demands of the traditional and the modern — form a strong core in the narrative.
Through Aiko’s story, Kamata also delves into the resilience of the people of Japan to the impact of natural calamities such as tsunamis and earthquakes. It dwells on how the people of Japan have nurtured empathy to maintain an equilibrium between Man and Nature. The resilience is reflected in the sacrifices, the unity and the compassion of the people and in their ability to put Nature before Man and to draw hope even from the worst of calamities. The optimism with which Aiko learns to see her own problems as less significant than the havoc wreaked by a tsunami is praiseworthy in a world where competitiveness and peer-pressure can negatively impact young minds.
Aiko’s story explores a teenager’s queries on growing up meaningfully. It also reflects the concerns of a child with disabilities — her childhood, her adolescence and her transitions. She encounters taboos and stigmas the society prescribes. She also finds how we all have both flaws and weaknesses and also strengths and beauty.
The complicacies of people and perspectives moulded by culture and their choice of life are uncovered. In the process, Aiko discovers that there are more world views than what she knows or comprehends and that there are bigger disabilities than the physical. She grows through her journey in the novel and at the end she is no longer the girl in the beginning of the story.
Aiko takes in every bit of the experience from her Japanese trip and gracefully evolves. The transition enables her to draw new meaning to the idea of family, home, and the self. Through her world view, Kamata subtly brings out the essence of transformation with hope in life. Parenting children with disabilities is explored. The story is a journey worth taking, both for Aiko and for ourselves. Indigo Girl offers diversity in storytelling and is an important contribution to the world of young adult literature.
Gracy Samjetsabam teaches English literature and communication skills at the Manipal Institute of Technology, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal. She is also a freelance copy editor and copy writer. Settled in the western shores of the Arabian Sea, she loves Nature besides reading over a hot cup of tea. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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