This interview with Suzanne Kamata--a southerner who now lives in Japan-- appeared last month in my Author to Author column in the Greenville (SC) Journal.
The author: Suzanne Kamata
The books: Losing Kei (Leapfrog Press) and Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs (Beacon Press)
After graduating from the University of South Carolina in 1988, Suzanne Kamata was eager to leave the country, to “experience a non-Western culture.”
To git, as we say around these parts.
She applied to the Peace Corps and was assigned to Cameroon, but, on a lark, decided to head to Japan after being offered a one-year assistant teaching position with Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET), a program her brother had read about in the newspaper. “I figure I'd spend a year in Japan and then go to Africa,” she said. “But one year in Japan didn't seem like enough - there was still so much to see and do and learn.” Kamata decided to renew her contract for one more year.
She’s been there ever since.
Two decades later, Kamata makes her home in Tokushima Prefecture, Japan with her husband, Yukiyoshi Kamata, and their nine-year-old twins. She teaches part-time and writes in her “pockets of free time” when her children are in school. A productive writer, Kamata’s work has appeared in over 100 publications. She is fiction editor at the online magazine Literary Mama and the author of the novel Losing Kei. She has edited two anthologies: The Broken Bridge: Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan and Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs.
“I think mothers all over the world have a hard time finding time to write,” she said. “Much to the dismay of the other mothers [at her daughter’s school], I would often sneak off to a cafe or to the school library for an hour or so to read and write. I wrote my novel and edited Love You to Pieces that way.”
Kamata’s twins were born prematurely, and her daughter has cerebral palsy and is deaf. “I realized, when she was diagnosed that I had no idea how to raise such a child. As a literary sort of person, I first went to books to try to figure out what was going to happen and to try to find solace.” The result is Love you to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs, an anthology Kamata edited about raising children with special needs. The collection includes short stories, essays, and poems by renowned authors (such as Brett Lott) as well as emerging writers about families coping with autism, deafness, muscular dystrophy, Down syndrome and more.
“The best novels, short stories, and memoirs can pull in the lives of their characters and provide a deeper understanding of others,” Kamata said, adding she hoped the book “will serve as a kind of support group in far-flung places…”
Raising children outside her native culture is “bittersweet,” Kamata said. “'I’m happy that my son is bilingual and that my children have been exposed to various cultures. And I'm glad that they have a close relationship with their Japanese relatives.” On the other hand, she misses sharing “simple things like running through the sprinkler in the middle of summer,” or going trick-or-treating. “But these conflicts give me something to explore in my writing,” she said. "As a reader, I tend to be drawn to multicultural stories, though I also read a lot of fiction set in South Carolina, especially when I'm feeling nostalgic.”
Kamata’s novel Losing Kei, tells the story of a young South Carolina painter who, as an American expat, loses custody of her only son to her Japanese ex-husband and then resorts to desperate measures to get him back. “When I write nonfiction, I feel naked. When I write fiction, I feel like I'm wearing a dress --or maybe a flimsy negligee! But seriously, I like being able to move events around and make sense of them—something that happens more in fiction.” Losing Kei is Kamata’s first published novel—she’s written five—and said she’s excited about working with Leapfrog Press, publisher of Losing Kei, to plan a stateside booktour.
When Kamata arrives in South Carolina this month, she plans to visit family, catch up with friends, and sign copies of her novel.
And maybe run through the sprinkler.
Mindy Friddle is author of The Garden Angel, a SIBA bestseller and Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her second novel, Secret Keepers, is forthcoming from St. Martin's Press. Visit her blog, Novel Thoughts. Befriend her on Facebook.