Book Review by Gracy Samjetsabam

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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 2013-2014the 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.

With the literary festivals season blossoming around Asia, Singapore will host its 22 nd writers’ festival from 1st to 10th November  with big names dropping in, including Pico Iyer. Pico Iyer, who has spent the last three decades in Japan will be talking on ‘Beyond Borders, Beyond Words’. Iyer will reflect on human connection and belonging. After his talk, he will be in dialogue with acclaimed novelist who has spent a large part of her life in Japan too and now lives in Singapore, Meira Chand.

This year Pico Iyer has been the writer in residence for the newly renovated Raffles Hotel in Singapore. He penned down a book on the Hotel called This could be Home. the novel was launched on 5th august. Long ago in history, this heritage hotel had housed the likes of great writers like Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham.

Pico Iyer was born Siddharth Pico Raghavan Iyer in 1957. His great-great-great-grand father was a Gujarati writer-reformer in the late nineteenth century, Mahipatram Nilkanth . His parents were Indian academics who moved to England to study. Iyer’s unusual name is a combination of the Buddha’s name, Siddhartha, with that of the fifteenth century Florentine neo-Platonist Pico della Mirandola and the last name is that of his father. Schooled in Oxford and Harvard, Pico Iyer is known for his brilliant essays and travel writing. He has written a few novels too.

Koi Kye Lee in conversation with author Simon Rowe

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Simon Rowe, an author- photographer- lecturer and avid traveller,  lives in the samurai castle town of Himeji, Japan, and writes from there. He has recently brought out a collection of short stories titled Good Night Papa: Short Stories from Japan and Elsewhere.

Born and raised in Central Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, he moved to Australia where he graduated from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Simon Rowe not only has a passion for words, but also indulges in photography. Many of his works have appeared in TIME (Asia), the New York Times, the Weekend Australian, the South China Morning Postand the Paris Review. His short stories have been published in Flesh: A Southeast Asian Urban Anthology (2016), Another Time Another Place: A Collection of Short Stories (2015) and Noir Nation: International Crime Fiction No. 3(2013). He holds an MA in Writing from Swinburne University of Technology and is currently a foreign language instructor at Kwansei Gakuin University. He recently published another short story, ‘The Summer Hills of Pourerere’ , a story that talks of three teenage misfits forging a path through a harsh rural environment.

In this exclusive interview, he talks about travel, writing and teaching from Japan, the inspiration behind his stories, and his life as an English lecturer.

Kye Lee: Your stories have appeared in numerous publications. What made you start writing and for how long have you been writing?

Simon: That’s a long story! Growing up in rural New Zealand during the 1980s, my window on the world was National Geographic magazine. Naturally, I wanted to be a travel writer and photographer. My first story was about backpacking from Melbourne to Cape Tribulation in far-north Australia. I sold that tale to a newspaper in Melbourne and with the money bought an onward ticket. This became my existence for the next fifteen years and took me around the world three times. I finally settled in Japan where I now write short fiction, screenplays, and a blog called ‘Seaweed Salad Days’, about life in a traditional Japanese neighborhood.

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Japanese troops land in Korea, 16th century

“ In 1915, one of the fathers of modern Korean literature, Yi Kwang-su, laid out his modern manifesto. ‘We are a new people, without ancestors, without parents, that came from Heaven in the present.’ (Kim Hunggyu, 194.) This belief was amplified in 1930 by Ch’oe Caeso, who argued, ‘In terms of contemporary culture, our attitudes are dominated by those of Western culture, and not by those from the Choson period and before,'” wrote Charles Montgomery , who taught English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University, Seoul.

Choson, also known as Choseon or Joseon,  was the dynasty that ruled Korea for the longest period — five hundred years — before the Japanese invasion in 1910. Though Japan had tried to invade Korea earlier in 1592 and 1597-98, their impact at that time was minimal.  

Was that Mountain Really ThereHowever, in the twentieth century, the Japanese invasion lasted longer —  for four decades — till Japan was defeated in 1945 at the end of the Second World War by the dropping of an atom bomb. Subsequently Korea was split along the 38th parallell, one part being allied to the American and the other to Soviet Union. The pain of this partition was projected  beautifully by Park Wan Suh in her classic novel, Was The Mountain Really There? .

“When, years later I myself became a writer and was asked, ‘Are you a Haitian writer, a Caribbean writer or a Francophone writer?’I would always answer that I took the nationality of my reader, which means that when a Japanese reader reads my books, I immediately became a Japanese writer,” said Haitian-Canadian writer Dany Laferriere in his novel I Am a Japanese Writer (2008), which was originally written in French and then translated to English.

These words were used by Teju Cole, the first Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Harvard, to illustrate how translations bond readers and authors. Translated works transcend the barriers of language and ethos as long as they touch the human heart. By touching deep emotions they create bonds and links to mankind. He talks of how lives are lost over refugee crisis and borders and says “literature can save a life”.

Brought up between US and Nigeria, Cole developed broad world views. Cole’s forte are novels and essays, including the much acclaimed Open City (2011) which was named ‘Best Book’ in more than twenty end-of-the year lists, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Economist , Newsweek/The Daily Beast, Kirkus Reviews. It was also named a New York Times Notable Book —  one of the ten top novels of the year by both Time and National Public Radio (USA).

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

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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”.

 

“Only novels can make people feel through words that they went through actual experiences. Depending on whether or not people experience those stories, their thoughts and ways of seeing the world should change. I want to write stories that will penetrate the heart. I have a lot of hope in the power that novels hold,” said Haruki Murakami, the seventy-year-old Japanese novelist, in an interview with Japan Times. 

The interview introduces his latest novel, Killing Commendatore, where the protagonist, a thirty-six year old artist  goes into his paintings. He weaves the natural and supernatural to explore reality and admits that his protagonist is based partly on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.

A popular novelist, Haruki Murakami was the sixth recipient of the Franz Kafka Prize  in 2006, given in recognition of  “humanistic character and contribution to cultural, national, language and religious tolerance, its existential, timeless character, its generally human validity and its ability to hand over a testimony about our times”. He has received many awards at both international and national levels and has three doctorates, including one from Princeton University.

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I figured I must have fainted and dropped the phone. Probably I got a bump on the head, and that was the cause of the change in my eyesight. I hurried to pick up my phone before anyone could step on it. I saw my arm reaching out—but somehow my hand couldn’t pick the thing up. I tried several times, thinking I had bumped my hand as well as my head and numbed it, like when you hit your funny bone. The feeling was different, though. Not a flash of painful sensation in my elbow or tingling in the wrist. Just—nothing. I was puzzled. How could I have hurt myself so badly that I didn’t even feel any pain?

Thinking I’d go and find some help, I stood up slowly, my feet on either side of the smartphone to keep it from being stepped on. That’s when I noticed that there was no one nearby. Turning carefully, I saw that a small crowd had congregated in front of a train which had stopped on the other side of the platform. The light and the colours were still blinding, but the sounds from the scene came up only gradually. I began to hear exclamations, and one or two women screaming breathlessly. Suddenly, a brilliant flash of white rushed past me—two men in white uniforms, with a stretcher between them piled with blankets. A group of policemen followed closely behind. Like the light and the colours, the movement of the men was so intense it made me dizzy. The policemen hustled the crowd aside while the men in white jumped down in front of the train and busied themselves with something there.

Reviewed by Koi Kye Lee

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Title: Good Night Papa, Short Stories from Japan and Elsewhere

Author: Simon Rowe

Pages:191

Publisher and date of publication: Atlas & Jones. Co (2016)

Good Night Papa: Short Stories from Japan and Elsewhere is a collection of stories written by Simon Rowe. His stories have appeared in publications such as TIME Asia, The New York Times, The Australian, The South China Morning Post, among others. Rowe is currently teaching creative writing and media studies to English language learners at university level.

Born and raised in New Zealand and Australia, Rowe has lived in Japan for more than twenty years.  He writes from Himeji, a city in the Kansai region. The city is famous for the spectacular Himejijo, the Himeji Castle. Perched on a hilltop, the castle is also known as the White Heron Castle (Shirasagijo) due to its elegant, white appearance.

The title story in this collection, “Good Night Papa”, which was adapted for screenplay and subsequently won the Asian Short Screenplay Contest in the United States in 2013, is also set in Himeji.

By Neera Kashyap

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Title: Lion Cross Point

Author: Masatsugu Ono

Translated by: Angus Turvil

Lion Cross Point by Masatsugu Ono has been recognised as a lyrical and a psychologically astute novel, lucid but spare, haunting with a tangible evocation of mystery. It has been beautifully captured in translation from Japanese by Angus Turvill, an award-winning translator.

Masatsugu Ono himself is the recipient of the Asahi Award for New Writers, the Mishima Yukio Prize and the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s highest literary honour. Born in 1970 and having first published at the beginning of this century, Ono’s work belongs to the post-Murakami period, strongly marked by the seriousness of modern Japan’s literary tradition.

Lion Cross Point portrays the mind of ten-year-old Takeru, who arrives in his village to live in his mother’s home by the sea. He is haunted by memories of unspeakable atrocities committed against his mother, his older brother and himself in distant Tokyo. As Takeru is befriended by Mitsuko, his new caretaker; by Saki, his spunky neighbour and by Ken Shiomi, his mother’s childhood friend, he discovers his mother’s history and moves inch by inch from the palpable and submerged layers of trauma to a new idea of family and home. The book emphasises the fact that memories and dreams are not individual aspects of one’s personality, but shared by the community and the environment, making it possible to heal through others, and through the forces of dreams and the seascapes that imbue them all. The boy  returns to his mother’s roots to  find catharsis and truth in a setting by the sea.