My first introduction to Japan came as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, or JET to its fans. This is an incredible opportunity for young people all over the world to live and work in Japan, to experience Japanese culture from the “inside” (as much as is possible), and to form a life-long connection with Japan. As you can tell from Takeshita Demons, that connection is still strong for me (I’ve just been delivered a package from the Japan Centre: okonomiyaki ingredients, instant miso soup, canned green tea without the sugar: does it get any better than this?).
But I digress!
My purpose here is to introduce Suzanne Kamata, a JET from 1988-90 in Tokushima-ken, and a prolific writer heavily inspired by her experiences in Japan. Suzanne married a Japanese man and lives and writes in rural Japan with her “bicultural” twins. In addition to writing her own stuff, Suzanne is editor of LiteraryMama. This week Suzanne won several prizes in the 2009 Indie Book Awards (congratulations!!). She took some time-out from celebrating to answer some of my questions:
Interview with Suzanne Kamata – on diversity, writing and winning the Indie Book Awards
Me: What kind of stuff do you write?
Suzanne: My first love is fiction, so I mostly write short stories and novels, often with a multicultural theme. I write for both children and adults. I also occasionally write essays, mostly when someone asks me to.
Me: Why did you start writing?
Suzanne: I’ve always written. I started as a child, and never stopped. I think that writing is fun and challenging. It’s sort of like golf, in that there is always room for improvement.
Me: Your novel Losing Kei describes the experience of an American woman living as a “fish out of water” in Japan. How much of your writing is inspired by your own experiences as a “gaijin” or foreigner living in Japan?
Suzanne: A lot of it. I find it harder and harder to write stories set in the United States, where I was born and raised. People always say “write what you know,” and I guess being a “fish out of water” is now what I know best. Having said that, Jill, the narrator of my novel, is not me. But her surroundings and some of her experiences – the visit to the art gallery to see the paintings of Yamashita Kikuji, for example – are based on mine.
Me: Your recent anthology, Call me Okaasan – Adventures in Multicultural Mothering, just won two prizes in the 2009 Indie Book Awards. What inspired you to create this book?
Suzanne: I’m pleased to report that it was also a Grand Prize winner of nonfiction overall! This book was inspired by my becoming a mother. I read several books by children of multicultural backgrounds in an effort to understand what my Japanese/American children would be going through, but I always wondered about the mothers. Since I couldn’t find any memoirs from the mothers’ point-of-view, and since attitudes toward raising multicultural children have changed in the past generation, I thought it was time for such a book.
Me: The Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices book award was introduced to encourage more diversity in children’s literature, and to promote social and cultural tolerance. Do you think there’s i) a need or ii) a market for children’s books that acknowledge and embrace multiculturalism?
Suzanne: Definitely! My own children are so thrilled when they find books featuring bicultural children or children with disabilities doing normal, fun things. I think it’s very important for kids to be exposed to kids with diverse backgrounds in this way. More and more families are multicultural these days, so there is more and more of a market for multicultural books, although not all publishers seem to understand this.
Me: What has been the response of Japanese people and press to your efforts as an American writing about Japan and Japanese culture?
Suzanne: Because my writing is in English and none of my books have been translated into Japanese, the Japanese press (including the local newspaper) has ignored my books. My Japanese friends, however, have shown a great interest in my work, and when I read a translation of my picture book, Playing for Papa (which features a bicultural family in Japan, and a child with a disability engaged in normal, fun activities), to a group of Japanese children, they listened raptly.
Expatriates and the English-language press in Japan, on the other hand, have responded very enthusiastically and favourably.
Me: Who do you write for? Who do you hope will read your books?
Suzanne: I guess I write for people like myself – expatriates, or English-speakers with an interest in other cultures. Also, for children like mine – kids from bicultural families, and kids with disabilities. But I hope that all kinds of kids will read my children’s stories and thereby become exposed to diversity.
Me: Favourite part of being a writer?
Suzanne: Having someone say that they enjoyed or were moved by something I’ve written.
Me: Least favourite part of being a writer?
Suzanne: Having someone trash my work on the Internet!
Me: One bit of advice to new writers?
Suzanne: Join a critique group. There are very few writers at any level who dash off a perfect first draft. We all need input.