One of the beauties of blogging is that you get to “meet” interesting people you’d probably never run into otherwise. Suzanne Kamata is an expatriate writer whose blog, Gaijin Mama, allows its readers a glimpse into the life of an American mother and wife bringing up twins on an island in rural Japan. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, and she is the editor of the anthologies, The Broken Bridge: Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan, and Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with special needs.
In her first novel, Losing Kei, published by Leapfrog Press, Suzanne Kamata tells the story of Jill Parker, an American artist who marries a Japanese man. Unfortunately, try as she may to meet the demands of Japanese traditional society, and in spite of the birth of a beautiful son, Kei, she ends up divorcing. Thus begins her struggle to remain in her son’s life, as Japanese divorce law does not recognize shared custody and the parent not granted custody is expected to disappear entirely from the life of the child.
The novel’s protagonist is a complex, multidimensional character; she can move the reader to tears, one moment – especially when she expresses her passion for her son – and slightly irritate, the following. In fact, I could never quite decide whether I liked her or not. When I asked the author how she felt about her character, she replied that Jill Parker is “passionate, but imperfect. I wanted to create a character who got into trouble on her own, and then found a way to redeem herself. I didn’t want her to be simply a victim. She’s young and impulsive at the start of events, but she eventually gets her act together.”
The book is much more than a fascinating introduction to Japanese culture. It is the journey to maturity of a sensitive, not quite “finished” young woman through an harrowing experience. Something that Jill realizes herself toward the end of the story: “I was born into a middle class family, in a prosperous, peaceful country. There was no obvious war to protest, no important cause that caught my attention. But I had wanted to suffer. I was so young then. Look what happened to me. I no longer had to borrow misery. I’d created it all by myself.”
In spite of my reservations about Jill Parker, or maybe because of them, I enjoyed reading Losing Kei. It is a sensitive work, elegantly written, and always respectful of the culture it depicts.
Suzanne Kamata was kind enough to answer a few questions.
How did the inspiration for “Losing Kei” come to you?
I first read an article 10-15 years ago about expatriate parents who’d lost custody of their children to their Japanese ex-spouses and who were then denied access to their children. One of the parents interviewed was a woman journalist who, apparently, lost custody because she was a working woman. Her ex and his new wife gradually turned her son against her, so that he no longer wanted to have anything to do with his mother. I thought that this would be an interesting subject to explore in fiction. In Japan there is no such thing as joint custody, and this sort of thing actually happens quite a bit – to Japanese as well as foreigners.
What would you say has changed you about living in Japan?
I have become comfortable with being an outsider. And I suppose I have learned to appreciate a certain amount of frugality. Living in the U.S. is very comfortable – entire houses are heated, so you can go from room to room without being cold. Here, we heat one room at a time in winter, but it’s more ecological, less wasteful.
How about becoming a mother in Japan? Do you find that you have assimilated aspects of your host country’s culture, or do both cultures, the American and the Japanese, remain separate?
When I first came here, I said that I would never sleep with my children, and I thought that the idea of fathers bathing with their little daughters was perverse, but we slept with our kids till they were about four, and my husband has taken a bath with them until recently.
In some respects, I remain American. The Japanese tend to stick to traditional gender roles, but I encourage my son to help in the kitchen and read books that might be considered girly, and I like it that my daughter is proud of her biceps.
Thank you, Suzanne, and best of luck to “Losing Kei.”