THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF
Finding the self and losing others
By DONALD RICHIE
LOSING KEI by Suzanne Kamata. Wellfleet, Mass.: Leapfrog Press, 2007, 196 pp., $14.95 (¥1,554)
Like France, after World War II Japan has hosted a varied group of expatriate writers. Though no Hemingways or Gertrude Steins have yet emerged, expectation remains.
A part of this expectation is the necessity that you know yourself abroad better than you do at home. As an expatriate you are put into a situation where you become a social unit of one or, in Japan, even less. Deciding upon just who you are, of what your individuality consists, is one of the requisites of any personal writing, but being an expatriate writer considerably dramatizes the experience.
Suzanne Kamata, whose first novel we are here considering, knows the milieu of the local expatriate writer very well, having been the editor of “The Broken Bridge: Fiction From Expatriates in Literary Japan” (Stone Bridge Press, 1997), and written the foreword for “Jungle Crows: A Tokyo Expatriate Anthology” (Printed Matter Press, 2007). Consequently she knows the various problems, all of them potentially dramatic, that can be encountered.
Among these is cross-culture marriage and its results. When the woman expatriate enters a Japanese family, self-knowledge had better be one of the consequences. How she reacts to the resulting pressures will influence their outcome.
The American woman in Kamata’s very interesting novel runs into a number of problems once she is married into a rural Japanese family. There is the classic mother-in-law problem (something all brides in Japan, expatriate or not, run into), there are local shibboleths when cancer is encountered (do we tell or do we not), and there is the big problem when divorce comes. What to do about the child.
Kei is beautiful little boy whom his mother cannot bear to lose. Yet, as her Japanese lawyer tells her, no one ever appeals decisions in divorces and she will never get her son back. A friend tells her: “This is not the USA where everyone gets a divorce and then stays best friends. There is no joint custody here.”
She falls into depression, she “marinates” in her emotions. Kei lived in her body for nine months, “matching his rhythms to mine. At birth he left it. Everything afterward was a move further away from me.” Though she recognizes the necessity of this, she does not accept it.
When she phones, he speaks Japanese “as if all the English I taught him have been scrubbed out of his head . . . he’s brainwashed.” Another reaction might have been pleasure that he is adjusting to his life, but this she does not allow herself.
Are we here dealing with an unreliable narrator? I hope so because that would make the novel even more interesting, as in Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” (to choose an august example) where we can never be sure if the first-person narrator is a repressed hysteric or whether there really are ghosts.
Much as I would like to believe in the added levels that such a narrator would provide, I am not sure they are there because the author has kept the heroine very close to the genre pattern for victimized mothers. She hovers at the playground, she hangs outside the boy’s window, staring in, like the stock figure in such hankie-friendly melodramas as “Stella Dallas.” And very affecting she is.
On the other hand, the writer does not always agree with her character and gives us ways to slip past the persona: “After making miso soup for the first time I felt kind of tired”; in her maternal sorrow she muses about Mel Gibson “one eye patched, soaking with sweat” as he runs toward her; at someone else’s wedding “Braham’s [sic] wedding march fills our ears.” What kind of a narrator is this? Would you trust her?
My advice is, don’t. The novel is more interesting when you experience it as the story of an expatriate in the throes of self-creation, trying to decide who she is and making one instructive error after another.
It is a text for all of us. If you do not find it in the bookstore, it is available through www.amazon.co.jp