USA is the best country in the world for the disabled! (Or not?)

When my twins were about three years old, we were at a party with several bicultural families. One guest, an American married to a Japanese woman, and father of three neurotypical children, looked at my daughter and said, “We always said that if we had a child with a disability, we would move back to the United States.”

I had just met this guy for the first time. I murmured something non-committal, but I was irked by the implicit criticism: My daughter was deaf and she couldn’t walk. As an American, I had the option of bringing her to the United States of America, which was presumed to be far more progressive concerning rights for the disabled. By choosing to remain in Japan with my Japanese husband (who was nevertheless assured of lifetime employment, and could provide cheap, quality healthcare), I was compromising my daughter’s future.

Over the years, I would hear variations on this theme. When I complained to the teachers at the School for the Deaf about the lack of English instruction for my daughter, or the absence of an elevator, they suggested that I bring her to America for her education. My daughter was born in Japan, and had never lived in America, although she has had an American passport since before her first birthday. And I do know international couples who have moved from Japan to the United States in order to better accommodate their children’s disabilities.

My daughter loves America. When she is having trouble with the mean girls in her school dormitory, she tells me that she wants to live in the United States. People are kinder there, she thinks. In New York City, where people can be brusque and brash, a vendor gave her a free smoothie just because. (Because she was in a wheelchair? Out of pity? Maybe.)

I love America, too, and I often imagine that it would have been ten times easier to bring my daughter up in my native country, within driving distance of relatives, in my native language. In the United States, I could have hired babysitters and gone on date nights with my husband, and no one would have thought I was being selfish. In Japan, however, I was the last mother in my daughter’s kindergarten class to master fingerspelling in Japanese. Who knows how far that set her back in her linguistic and social development? I struggled with the reams of paperwork in Japanese, which I botched half the time, and my bento box lunches were always subpar. I became incensed every time we couldn’t enter a building because there was no ramp for my daughter’s wheelchair. I couldn’t seem to make friends with the other, mostly younger, mothers – those makers of awesome bento box lunches, those masters of JSL fingerspelling – so my daughter had no friends who were deaf to play with outside of school.

But I also remind myself of the good, like that moment when I heard that my newly-born twins would be in the NICU for up to four months, and I thought that we were going to have to sell our house, and then learned that insurance would cover everything. And the fact that the National Healthcare System in Japan provides free healthcare for all children up to six years of age. My daughter has had a rich and varied education, which included Y.M.C.A. camp, with kayaking and canoeing, ballet workshops with professional dancers, overnight excursions to Nagasaki and Tokyo, and work experience. Although I complain about the lack of a school bus, my daughter is entitled to half-price fares on buses, planes, and trains, which has enabled us to travel. I have done my best to show her other parts of the world, in case it turns out that I was wrong to keep her here and she wants to live somewhere else someday.

Thanks to her teachers, she has learned to read and write in Japanese. After several lonely years, she took the initiative to create a social life for herself. Now, she organizes mall excursions, sleepovers, and movie-outings with friends on her own. She has developed hobbies, including a passion for manga and anime, and has proven herself to be a talented artist – all with little help from me. On a recent visit to the States, she communicated with her American cousins via Google translate. When I think back to her earliest years, when she was in and out of hospitals with various respiratory ailments and it seemed a challenge just to keep her alive, I am nothing but relieved.

My daughter recently turned eighteen. She is now old enough to vote in both of her countries, and she’s looking forward to exercising that right. She will graduate from high school in just a few months, and then, if all goes according to plan, she will leave home to live in a group home in another city, where she will learn life skills. Maybe someday she will live alone, or with a friend. Maybe she will get married! Maybe she will be able to get a job and support herself.

According to Japanese law, in two years, when she is twenty, she must settle on one nationality. As her American mother, it will make me sad if she chooses to be only Japanese. And yet, I read the newspaper, I listen to the news, I follow my Twitter feed, and I hear that under the current administration, the rights of the disabled in my native country are at risk. I wonder if my daughter would even be able to get health insurance? Now, she is an American citizen with an American passport and Social Security Number. She has the right to live and pursue happiness in the United States. May that be true next year, and the next, and the ones after that.

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Announcing A Girls’ Guide to the Islands!

Girls GuideI’m so proud to announce the publication of A Girls’ Guide to the Islands, a nonfiction acccount of traveling around the Inland Sea of Japan with my daughter, who is deaf and uses a wheelchair. This book is the latest addition to the Gemma Open Door series for literacy learners.

“Heart-lifting and inspiring, A Girls’ Guide to the Islands explores the restorative and often unexpected way that travel breeds connection.” — Nicole Trilivas, author of Girls Who Travel

 

On wanting to write “some great American masterpiece”

When I was “home” in South Carolina last month, I dug up my high school diary and some old clips — my first media hits! The one below is from the sadly now defunct Neighbors  section of The State newspaper. Years later, as a college student at the University of South Carolina, I would work in the Customer Service department of that very same newspaper.

One small correction: I was actually Features Editor of The Buc’s Blade, my high school newspaper, not Editor-in-Chief.

Anyway, here’s what did and did not come true: I did attend Kalamazoo College for one year before transferring to USC. I did study abroad in Avignon, France, albeit for only one semester. Alas, I did not become editor of Vogue, and I have not yet written “some great American masterpiece,” but I have written books that students have read in English classes. Just yesterday I was so pleased to receive a message from a student at an international school in Japan who wrote that she would be dressing up as Aiko Cassidy, heroine of my novel Gadget Girl , for “Book Character Day” at school.

“I love your novels!” she wrote. “I really enjoyed reading this book. Please write more books like this!”

I have and I will!

 

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The Woman in the Pink Hijab

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As far as I know, my seventeen-year-old daughter had never met a Muslim before. At her Special Support School for the Deaf and Blind in Western Japan, she is the Other. She uses a wheelchair, whereas everyone else can walk, and she is the only kid in a student body of forty or so with a non-Japanese parent – I’m an American; her father is Japanese. Although there is a tiny mosque nearby, and a handful of Malaysian students at the local public university where I teach, the city where we live is largely homogenous.

My daughter knew about the Islamic religion from TV, mostly, where she sees reports of bombings in cities around the world – cities that she has visited and loved, such as Paris and Boston – and Japanese reporters abducted and slaughtered in the desert by ISIS.

When I brought her to New York City during this past summer vacation, she saw lots of people of different races and colors.

“Muslim?” she finger-spelled, when she saw a woman wearing a hijab.

“Yes,” I replied. “Probably.”

My daughter looked a little worried.

“It’s okay,” I assured her. “She’s not a terrorist.”

We walked down Fifth Avenue, looking into store windows. We saw “The Lion King” on Broadway, ate cheesecake at Junior’s, and toured the Statue of Liberty. At the end of our trip, we had dinner in an Italian restaurant across from our hotel with Bill. an old friend and former expat in Japan. He and I drank wine, and caught up with news of our acquaintances. Unable to keep up with our conversation, my daughter ate her pasta, and scribbled the occasional note to Bill in Japanese.

Suddenly, a young woman draped in a pink hijab approached our table.

“Can I tell your daughter that I love her?” she asked.

“Go ahead,” I said, without too much thought. Maybe she was inspired by the sight of a cheerful girl in a wheelchair. Who knows? Who cares? I was comfortably woozy from the wine. Love is good.

“She doesn’t speak English,” said Bill, a simultaneous interpreter by trade.

“But she knows ‘I love you,’” I interjected. I had taught her to say it in English and American Sign Language. “You could write it down for her.”

The young woman pointed at her chest, made the sign of a heart with her hands, and then pointed to my daughter. Then they hugged, and she went away.

My daughter shrugged. What was that all about? She was smiling.

A little more than a week after we left New York City, a man set fire to a tourist’s hijab while she was window-shopping on Fifth Avenue. Another hate crime, the news organizations reported.

“What did you think about Muslims before that woman came to our table?” I asked my daughter later, when we were back in Japan.

“Scary,” she replied.

“And now?”

“That woman was beautiful and kind,” she signed. “I changed my mind. And I told my friends about her.”

 

Squeaky Wheels is a Winner!

I’m so excited to report that my mother/daughter travel memoir was named Best Novel/Biography in the inaugural Half the World Global Literati Awards! (See details below!)

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Global, July 15, 2016 – Half the World Holdings, a women-focused investment platform, Friday announced Laurie Petrou as the winner of the inaugural Half the World Global Literati Award 2016. The prestigious international award recognizes unpublished work that reflects the complexity of women’s lives, and has at their heart a central female protagonist.
The winning submission, ‘Sister of Mine’, is a psychological thriller that explores themes of loyalty, betrayal and debt through the lives of two sisters bound by a knot of secrecy. Author Laurie Petrou is an associate professor of The RTA School of Media, Ryerson University, Toronto.

“The judges rewarded the taut writing of a compulsive page-turner which explores the complex relationship between two sisters with a damaging secret. Our shortlist plays with the themes of adventure and courage, dignity and struggle, with characters motivated by an overarching sense of love” explained Caroline Bowler, representative for Half the World Holdings. “We are moved to see this award embraced by all walks of life, from all over the world. This represents a very real desire to recognize women at the center of our cultural lives.”
Along with the top prize, there were also category and People’s Choice award winners, each collecting US$1,000. Suzanne Kamata, based in Japan, collected top prize in the novel category. Her teenage daughter, Lilia, was born deaf and affected by cerebral palsy but this hasn’t dinted her sense of adventure and thirst for exploration. Suzanne’s honest and raw biography ‘Squeaky Wheels’ describes a mother’s love to open up the world to her child.

Danna Petersen-Deeprose, a student at McGill University Montreal, collected the short story prize for her work ‘Looking for Lost Girl’, which describes the journey of a woman in her mid-twenties looking for the courage to start her own life. Top screenwriter Lisa Hagen has two old ladies plot their escape from a retirement home in ‘Dancing on the Elephant.’ The two friends explore the big questions in life; what is my legacy and why am I even here? Friendship was also the key theme for the People’s Choice award, decided by thousands of votes from the general public. Eventual winner was LA-based Jude Roth whose screenplay ‘Plan B’ tells of 3 women and the bonds that carry them when the chips are really down.

The Half the World Global Literati Award was set up in response to 2015 research from author Nicola Griffith, which identified that the majority of the significant literary prizes are awarded to works written from a male perspective. The award is set to return in spring 2017.

Statistics about the Half the World Global Literati Award 2016.
• 59 countries including Eritrea, Iran, Azerbaijan, Mexico, Trinidad & Tobago
• 45.5 percent submissions are novels, 36.5 percent short stories, 18 percent screenplays

• Drama the most popular genre, topping novels & screenplays and a close second for short stories. Literary Fiction was the second most popular with Romance in third. Erotica comprised of less than 5 percent of all entrants.
• Majority of the short list are female (82.5 percent) vs male (17.5 percent)

About Half the World Holdings
Half the World Holdings, which was launched by Blackrun Ventures in March 2016, is a global investment platform in companies for whom women are the end-consumer. The
Half the World platform provides the capital, advisory and international networks needed to develop and scale these ventures globally. Blackrun and Half the World Holdings partners come from the worlds of private equity, investment banking, multinational businesses and entrepreneurship, with offices in Berlin, Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, Mumbai, New York, Sydney and Singapore.
For more information, please visit http://halftheworld.media.

The Mermaids of Lake Michigan

Exciting news! My novel The Mermaids of Lake Michigan will be published in February by Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing! Here’s the cover:

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And here’s how the deal was announced in Publisher’s Marketplace:

Suzanne Kamata’s THE MERMAIDS OF LAKE MICHIGAN, set in the 1980s, about a teenager who feels more at home in water than on land–where her beauty queen mom is constantly criticizing her and her sister is dating the boy of her dreams–until she is led to a mysterious carnival worker whose dark future has been predicted by a gypsy, to Nancy Cleary at Wyatt-MacKenzie, for publication in February 2017, by Carrie Pestritto at Prospect Agency.