Reviews of Losing Kei

Daily Yomiuri, January 11, 2008

by Tom Baker

There may have been something special in the Tokushima Prefecture soil that helped Suzanne Kamata blossom as a writer. But in a phone interview with The Daily Yomiuri, the editor of Love You to Pieces, a literary anthology about parenting disabled children, said it was actually the absence of certain things in the prefecture that helped her unlock her talent.

In 1988, having graduated from the University of South Carolina, she was assigned to Tokushima Prefecture by the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program. There, she met her husband and has lived ever since.

"I'd wanted to be a writer for about as long as I could remember," Kamata said. "When I arrived in Japan, I'd already written some rather earnest short stories that I was hoping to publish. I think in South Carolina there were a lot of people who wanted to be writers surrounding me. When I got to Tokushima, nobody around me really even spoke English, and for some reason that gave me the courage to start sending my work out."

She even launched her own literary journal, Yomimono, "published once or twice a year." She edited an anthology of writing by expatriates in Japan called The Broken Bridge and this month published her first novel, Losing Kei. Her short stories and essays, one of them about getting a cochlear implant for her deaf daughter, have garnered five Pushcart Prize nominations. Love You to Pieces is due out in June from Beacon Press.

Kamata's daughter is deaf because of cerebral palsy. Like the parents of the autistic boy in Keiko Tobe's Hikari to Tomoni (see main story), does she find that she has to be a public educator about her daughter's condition?

"Yeah, definitely," Kamata said. "Even very well-educated people, people with PhDs, they don't seem to know what cerebral palsy is, and I have to explain that."

Kamata stressed that Love You to Pieces, featuring work by Michael Berube, Jayne Anne Phillips, Penny Wolfson, Bret Lott and Vicki Forman, is "the first literary anthology of its kind...I really wanted something deeper and more crafted than parents writing a couple of pages about, 'Oh it was really hard, but now it's OK.'"

She said many of the entries--stories, poems and essays--reflect stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. "The book covers different stages of life. In some stories, there are parents of adult children. I suppose they're more toward acceptance.
"And there are some stories with a spiritual theme, different religions that the parents turn to for solace," she added.

Kamata said the book's cover uses a photo by a woman who has a disabled son and who has "done several series on parenting disabled children, so it's not just a stock photo. It kind of goes with the theme."

Mamazine, January 2008

by Kate Hopper

Suzanne Kamata moved to Japan in 1988 to participate in the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, which places native speakers into English classrooms in Japanese public schools. Her second year of teaching, she met and fell in love with Yukiyoshi Kamata, they married, and Suzanne settled into life in rural Japan. Twenty years later, she is an important expatriate voice. She is the editor of the anthology The Broken Bridge: Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan (Stone Bridge Press, 1997) and the forthcoming literary anthology Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs (Beacon Press, 2008). She is also fiction co-editor of Literary Mama. Her first novel, Losing Kei, was released in January by Leapfrog Press.

I first read Kamata's nonfiction in Andrea Buchanan's anthologies It's a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters and It's a Boy: Women Writers on Raising Sons. Her writing and her story of having premature twins, born 14 weeks early, captivated me. I have since read and taught a number of her essays, which I admire for their careful structure, lovely prose, and brave honesty.

It turns out that I am equally captivated by her fiction. When I picked up Losing Kei, it was difficult for me to put it down. The novel is about Jill Parker, an American landscape painter who settles in a small Japanese seaside village. Parker works as a bar hostess to pay the rent, but soon meets Yusuke, an art gallery owner, who takes an interest in her and her art. They fall in love and marry, but marriage to a chonan, the eldest son, proves difficult. Even the birth of their son, Kei, fails to ease the conflicts in their cross-cultural marriage, and they end up divorcing.

The novel is constructed in alternating dated sections, beginning in 1997 after Jill has lost custody of Kei, and going back to 1989, the year she arrives in Japan. Kamata used a similar structure in some of her previous short fiction but had never attempted it in novel-length work. "This form allowed me to begin the story in the middle of the action," said Kamata, in a recent conversation I had with her. "My earlier attempts at novels were linear and covered years, beginning when the main characters were teenagers. I realized, however, that this structure made the stories slow. Beginning with the 1997 section in which Jill has already lost Kei raises questions I hope will hook the reader: how did Jill lose him? Why did she come to Japan? What is she going to do?"

And hook me, she did. I read the novel in less than twenty-four hours, something I rarely do these days. When I was away from the book, I couldn't stop thinking about the characters, and throughout the day, I kept sneaking back to it, unwilling to put it off until later.

Kamata creates a whole world for me in the pages of Losing Kei. I immersed myself in the landscape of rural Japan and the details of Jill Parker's life there—waking early to make miso soup and sweetened scrambled eggs for her husband—and into the grim loneliness surrounding Parker after she divorces her husband and loses custody of her son. As a mother, the possibility and horror of that kind of loss will resonate with you, and you will be rooting for Jill to get Kei back.

Inspiration for Losing Kei came from an article that Kamata read fifteen years ago in The Tokyo Journal about expatriate parents losing custody of their children after divorce. "In Japan, there is no shared custody," said Kamata. "Even before I had children, I was interested in this cultural difference and thought it would make a compelling story."

Kamata actually wrote a short story titled "Losing Kei" for the All Nippon Airways in-flight magazine, Wingspan, in 2001. In that story, the narrator loses her son in a divorce, but accepts that she won't see him again, finally returning to the U.S without him. Having children of her own changed Kamata's story. "I realized," she said, "that there was no way the narrator would leave, so although this story inspired the novel, I changed the novel a great deal. In the end, they share little more than a title."

Like all good expatriate writing, Losing Kei opens a new world for readers. Her experiences living in Japan give the novel authenticity, and I trust her details—the scenes and the world she creates in the pages of Losing Kei. The only thing that disappointed me about this book was that it ended. I could have spent many more hours immersed in the life of Jill Parker.

Metropolis, May 16, 2008

by Kevin Mcgue

One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the 1979 film Kramer vs. Kramer has Meryl Streep sitting at the window of a Manhattan café, waiting for her son to walk by on his way home from school. Although Mrs Kramer has chosen to walk out on her husband and child, she is obviously having regrets.
Suzanne Kamata’s debut novel, Losing Kei, includes a similar scene. An American woman sits smoking in a small playground next to a temple, waiting to see a group of Japanese schoolboys. When they pass by, playing and teasing each other, the woman calls out to one of them, prompting the boy’s grandmother to appear and promptly whisk him away. The child she is not allowed to speak to is her own son, Kei.

The power of this scene comes from the fact that it opens the novel, which then jumps back in time to the woman’s arrival in Japan. Kamata, an American-born expat living here with her husband and children, takes her protagonist, Jill Parker, on an emotional journey that spans two decades and two continents.

After the short opening chapter, which comes under the simple heading “1997,” the next chapter is titled “1989.” Here again, we find Jill emotionally scarred. “I came to Japan because a man had broken my heart,” she confesses. The plans she had been making for years to join her college boyfriend on a Peace Corps trip to Africa fell through when he simply went without her, and Jill resolves to go somewhere as far away as possible to work on her painting, deciding on Tokyo largely by whim.

Arriving at the height of the Bubble, she finds Tokyo a sterile, orderly metropolis, devoid of the inspiration she seeks as an artist. She promptly flees to rural Tokushima, where she spends her days painting on the beach and her evenings working at a small hostess bar. Before long, Jill meets Yusuke, a gallery owner who has something she has always needed without realizing: a faith in her art. He organizes her first exhibition, and in the heady days of the economic Bubble, her works sells quickly. After a whirlwind romance, Jill and Yusuke are married.

Jill must then face the harsh realities of being a housewife in a traditional Japanese household. She and her husband live with his parents while their own house is being built, and her life is strictly controlled by her tradition-bound mother-in-law, who has no faith in Jill’s housekeeping abilities. When Yusuke’s father suddenly dies, he takes over the family business, and any hopes of Jill continuing her art quickly fade. Just when the marriage is at a breaking point, she discovers that she is pregnant. Giving birth to a male child does nothing to change the fact that she is an outsider in her new family.

What makes the telling of Jill’s tragic journey so compelling is the nonlinear structure of the novel. Each chapter is headed simply with year it takes place, and there is a lot of jumping back and forth. Scenes of Jill falling in love with her Japanese husband are juxtaposed with frightening tales of that same man sending yakuza goons around to threaten her to keep away from Kei.

Losing Kei also underscores the shortcomings of Japan’s divorce laws. When Jill finally decides to leave her husband, she assumes she will at least get shared custody of Kei, only to learn that such arrangements are rare. Desperate, Jill visits a lawyer who drops a hint, telling her “in Japan it is not illegal to kidnap your own child,” which she is eventually driven to attempt.

These legal obstacles only compound the isolation Jill experiences. But thanks to her love for her son, she manages to pull herself from the brink, freeing herself from her unhappy life

Brain, Child, Spring 2008
by Elizabeth Roca

This first novel by Kamata, a longtime Brain, Child contributor, tells the story of a mother forcibly estranged from her child. Jill, an American artist, moves to Japan initially to escape the memories of a failed romance. But the lush surroundings feed her creativity, and a new romance with Yuseke, who seems to appreciate her paintings, heightens the country’s appeal. Jill looks forward to married life until she realized that Yuseke expects her to play the part of the perfect Japanese housewife, filling her hours with chores and obeying her live-in mother-in-law. The situation worsens after baby Kei arrives, and after years of frustration Jill finds herself ousted from the family home and lurking in parks in an effort to catch a glimpse of her son. Although the jumps in time can be confusing—the short chapters alternate among six nonsequential years—the novel contains the vivid observations of Japanese life that make Kamata’s nonfiction so appealing. It also is an effective portrait of the agonies of mothering a child in absentia, but fortunately for Jill, its ending contains a tender affirmation of the effectiveness of hope.


Culture, Spring 2008
by Winnie Shiraishi

Originally from a small American town on Lake Michigan, Suzanne Kamata now resides in Tokushima prefecture and in January had her first novel published. Losing Kei (Leapfrog Press, paperback, 196 pages, $14.95) was originally a short story that Kamata later developed into a narrative exploring issues of cultural conflict, class expectations and familial ties.

The main character is a young American woman, Jill Parker, who originally moves to rural Japan to study Japanese culture and explore her art. A sensitive woman recovering from a recent heartbreak, Jill is fundamentally unsure of her identity before leaving for Japan and a sense of foreboding develops as she struggles to adapt in another culture. She is a painter; and it is through her painting that she meets her soon-to-be husband—a handsome, young Japanese man named Yuseke Yamashiro—who sponsors her show.

The two have an intense romance and marry, moving into Yuseke’s parents’ household. The move marks the cultural shocking point for Jill. Her husband appears to morph into a cold, distant eldest son of a social climbing family and her only real relationship is with her less than accepting mother-in-law. As Jill struggles to prove herself a worth Japanese wife (though foreign) to this rigid, traditionalist matriarch, she also transforms from a free-spirited, confident woman to an insecure wife unsure of her personal choices. Te birth of the couple’s son, Kei, only intensifies the scrutiny and Jill eventually asks for a divorce. Not realizing divorce laws in Japan favor the Japanese spouse, she finds herself separated from her son and begins a desperate personal and legal battle to gain custody.

Losing Kei is a novel not only about divorce and child custody, but also the loss of the self. Kamata’s characterizations resonate for long-term residents of Japan, particularly those in international marriages or raising biracial children.

Pacific Rim Review of Books, spring 2008
by Hillel Wright

With Losing Kei, Suzanne Kamata, a prolific Japan-based short story writer and editor of The Broken Bridge, a noted anthology of expatriate writers, has produced her first novel.

While one might be tempted to interpret Losing Kei as autobiographical, it is not; it’s based on an article the author read in a Japanese English language magazine. Similarities between the author and her protagonist, however, do exist. Both are American women from South Carolina living in rural Tokushima Prefecture and married to a Japanese man. But Jill Yamashiro, nee Parker, becomes entangled in a nightmare custody battle once she makes the very American but decidedly un-Japanese decision to divorce her husband, while Suzanne Kamata’s domestic life, as far as we know, it stable.

Losing Kei is mainly concerned with the cultural and legal gulfs that distinguish marriage, family and divorce in Japan from the same institutions in America. Jill Parker comes to Japan on a one-year artist’s fellowship. Shocked by the extreme over-crowding she experiences in Tokyo, she follows the suggestion of a casually met expatriate: “’I went cycling in Tokushima—that’s in Shikoku—over the Bon holidays and nobody speaks English down there,’” he tells her. “’I didn’t run into a single American.’”

Jill, however, does meet a fellow American, Eric, a local English conversation teacher and surfer in the tiny coastal community which becomes her home. Neither are interested in the other romantically—young, blond surfer Eric being a babe magnet to the local lovelies—and so a reliable friendship develops between them. Jill begins painting exotic landscapes, but soon runs short of money. Eric introduces her to Mama Morita, proprietress of the Cha Cha Club, a local “snack” bar, who hires her as a hostess to complement her all-Asian staff of Filipina and Japanese girls. 

As the women of the Cha Cha Club get to know one another, Mama Morita commissions Jill to paint something to upgrade the club’s rather tacky visual appearance. Small towns have few secrets and Jill is soon identified and the local artist. Consequently, she’s invited to an Opening at a gallery in the prefectural capital where she meets the owner Yusuke Yamashiro, and courtship, romance and marriage follow apace.
International, bicultural marriage, however, difficult enough in Western countries, becomes an ordeal in rural Japan. Following Japanese tradition, Yusuke remains living in his parents’ house and Jill falls into a quite typical adversarial relationship with her mother-in-law, who treats her like a servant. Things change about a year later when Jill gives birth to a baby boy, named Kei. Although Jill feels that the growth of their family will inspire Yusuke to assert his independence and move them into their own house—the Yamashiro family  business is, after all, a construction company—the fact is that Kei, a first-born son of a first-born son, is now viewed as “the heir,” an elevated position in the Japanese family hierarchy, and Yusuke becomes tied ever more closely to tradition.

When at last, desperate to escape the confines of the Yamashiro household but unable to move her husband either physically or emotionally, Jill does the American thing and walks out, taking Kei with her. Out of the house and presumably out of her marriage as well, Jill and Kei hole up in a hotel while she tries to figure out what to do next. But her first mistake was not running far enough or fast enough, for Yusuke soon tracks her down and, upon hearing his father’s voice, Kei opens the door. Japan has no laws preventing a parent from kidnapping his or her own child, now has it any provision for joint custody, so as Jill watched Yusuke drive off with Kei, she is still unaware of the magnitude of the struggle that awaits her—not only to regain her son, but even to simply see him.

I’ll stop narrating the plot at this point, for the twists and turns that follow make up some of the most intriguing and compelling pages of the novel—pages most readers will be unable to stop reading. Kamata, who has won awards for short fiction and has five times been nominated for the Pushcart Prize of Best American Short Stories, has admirably succeeded in expanding a previously published short story into a page-turner of t novel. By alternating chapters of pre- and post-kidnapping, she manages to move the action rapidly along without revealing too much r disclosing too little, and to keep the reader anticipating the next unexpected turn of events.

Although my own experience in Japan leads me to question a few of her descriptions—at one point she has Kei in kindergarten and a few pages later in nursery school—she is by and large a very reliable narrator, and readers unfamiliar with Japan and its arcane, not to mention xenophobic , cultural practices, will be abundantly informed.

In her soon-to-be-published next book, Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs, Kamata once again dons her editor’s hat, and also contributes an essay about her own experiences with such a child. Now that that project is completed, one hopes to see her return to writing fiction and this reviewer looks forward to reading another novel by a very talented and courageous writer.


PAGES: 196
TRIM: 6 x 9
ISBN: 978-0-9728984-9-2
PRICE: $14.95 / Paperback Original
Pub Date: January 2008 

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