Suzanne Kamata's Losing Kei
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.
For more of Kate's interview with Suzanne Kamata, visit her Mother Words blog.
Kate Hopper is a Minneapolis-based writer, teacher and mother. She teaches "Mother Words" at the Loft Literary Center and blogs at Mother Words: Mothers Who Write.
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