Losing Kei and other books
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Originally from a small American town on Lake Michigan, Suzanne Kamata now resides in Tokushima prefecture and in January had her first fiction novel published. Losing Kel (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 form 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 Yusuke Yamashiro—who sponsors her show.
The two have an intense romance and marry, moving into Yusuke’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 worthy 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. The 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 not only a novel 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 bi-cultural children.
Kamata is also the editor of 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.
A few other books worth reading: Amanda Seaman’s Bodies of Evidence: Women, Society, and Detective Fiction in 1990s Japan. This is an excellent overview of Japanese women’s detective fiction which includes criticisms and insights into the ways in which themes of gender, power, social order are represented in Japanese detective fiction. Dr. Seaman’s profiled authors include Miyake Miyabe, Natsuo Kirino, and Asa Nonami all of who currently have English translations available.
The latest Miyuke Miyabe release is the Devil’s Whisperer (October 2007), an engaging mystery focusing on a woman convinced that she is meant to be killed by forces beyond her control, and a young boy whose family is struggling amidst gossip and hidden family scandal.
Natsuo Kirino is also profiled in Bodies of Evidence. Kirino’s most famous novel available in English is OUT (2005), a dark suspense about a group of working class women who murder and dismember a co-workers gambling, abusive husband. Her latest in novel in English translation is Grotesque (March 2007) available through Kodansha.
Finally, I would like to mention that Asa Nonami’ s fast paced police procedural The Hunter (September 2007) is also available. Amanda Seaman discusses this novel also in terms of its representation of women and power within the police culture.