Rupi Kaur and Me at The Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet

IMG_2160Earlier this year I was invited to participate in the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet to help launch The Best Asian Short Stories 2017 anthology published by Kitaab International in Singapore. I would be appearing along with the publisher, Zafar Anjum; the editor, Monideepa Sahu, who lives in India; and Wan Phing Lim, a young writer from Malaysia who had contributed “Snake Bridge Temple,” a lively, humorous story about a tough motorcycle racer whose bike seat is decorated with Hello Kitty. One of my stories, “Mon-chan,” about a Japanese woman dealing with her mother’s senility, was selected for this anthology as well.

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Before the festival, I read every story in the anthology. Some of my favorites were “Jelly Beans” by Soniah Kamal, about a Pakistani man in Atlanta whose parents are shocked when he marries a white woman (who turns out to be a divorcee with a child!); “Girls’ House” by Clara Chow, which concerns the marriage between a rich pampered Hong Kong girl and her devoted, yet poor and proud husband – with a big surprise at the end of the story; and Geeta Kothari’s “The Spaces Between Stars,” featuring an Indian expat in America. It was also interesting to read stories concerning Japan from a non-Western perspective, such as “March, Ma and Sakura” by Geetanjali Shree, who is from India and writes in Hindi. I enjoyed many others as well. For the record, this book is not available from Amazon, but it can be ordered directly from the publisher’s website . They will send it anywhere in the world.

Before I departed for India, I got lots of advice: “You should get shots for typhoid and dengue fever!” “Brush your teeth with bottled water!” “Don’t eat the street food!” “Wear a mask!” I packed some masks, but I had no idea what I should wear. When I checked out the website, most of the female presenters were resplendent in colorful saris and salwar kameez suits. Apparently, women were not supposed to show any skin above the ankle.

In any case, I packed some clothes and books and set out for the airport. The festival organizers had booked me on a Cathay Pacific flight, with a layover in Hong Kong. I arrived in Kolkata at about eleven p.m. A festival volunteer was waiting for me at the airport. He hustled me into a car, and I had my first taste of Indian traffic – a symphony of horns, cars and trucks veering within inches of each other. I was amazed that the streets were so lively at nearly midnight. I saw a woman in a bright clothes and a veil smoothing asphalt with a rake, Santa Claus decorations (though it was late January), light-striped poles, and the Test Tube Baby Center.

Once we arrived at the hotel, armed guards checked the hood and trunk of the car. I was also mildly surprised that I had to go through a metal detector to get into the hotel.  I checked into my gorgeous room, overlooking the pool,  took a shower, then happily tucked myself into the crisp, white sheets.

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The next morning, I went down to the lavish breakfast buffet. Geek that I am, I was thrilled to recognize famous writers at the nearby tables. The handsome, slim, white-haired guy dining off to my left was Manu Joseph, whose novel Serious Men had been published with a lot of fanfare a few years back in the United States. (I later bought, read, and enjoyed his newest book, Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, which I thought would be a fun, mad-cap thriller, but turned out to be a more serious novel with political undertones; the title refers to a certain tendency to assume that Muslims are terrorists.) Having studied the program. I also recognized shiny-pated Booker Prize short-listed author Jeet Thayil whose new novel The Book of Chocolate Saints is on my TBR list, and Ruskin Bond, an elderly British Indian, one of India’s most beloved writers, who drew huge crowds every time he presented on stage. Bond published his first book at the age of 17, and has written over 500 short stories, essays, and novellas, and more than 50 books for children. Although I have yet to read his work, I later picked up a copy of his novel A Flight of Pigeons, which was the basis for a film.

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After breakfast, I met up with my fellow presenters, and Sri Lankan-based author Chhimi Tenduf-La, who is half-Tibetan, half English. I was going to ask Chhimi if he happened to know the Tokyo-based half-Tibetan, half-American writer Ann Tashi Slater, with whom I presented at the last Japan Writers Conference in Tokyo, but Chhimi pre-empted me. “Ann is my cousin,” he said. Small world. Chhimi was charming and funny, and I made it a point to pick up a copy of his new novel-in-stories, Loyal Stalkers.

The festival organizers had set up a desk in the hotel lobby. We asked them to arrange a car for us, and we went to the venue, in front of the historic Victoria Memorial Hall. Throughout the six days of the festival, sessions were held at two locations outdoors. One was under a tent, and another in a little courtyard adjacent to the museum.

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The festival itself was exciting and smoothly run. I was humbled to be on the program along with a Nobel Prize winner, Bollywood stars, cricket heroes, and well-known writers. Our panel, on the sixth day went well, and was mentioned the next day in The Telegraph, Kolkata’s largest English-language newspaper.

Every evening, we writers were invited to a reception. The first one I went to was at the Calcutta Turf Club, which was an old colonial spot for horse-racing. That evening, I had the pleasure of meeting novelist and hematologist Vikram Paralkar who was born in Mumbai, but is now an American citizen living in Philadelphia. His latest book, The Wounds of the Dead, is an eerie, unclassifiable novel about a doctor at an ill-equipped clinic in rural India tasked with stitching up slaughtered ghosts. In this book, he proves that that one doesn’t need an MFA in order to craft beautiful sentences, but it helps to have an M.D. to get medical details correct.

The second day, TBASS editor Monideepa, who’s spent some time in Kolkata, showed Wan Phing and I around a bit. We walked along a riverside promenade and checked out an open-air market. I bought some souvenirs for my family. Then I caught a couple of sessions at the festival, including one with esteemed writer Perumal Murugan, whose latest book is from the point of view of a goat. He had just returned to writing and publishing after a controversy surrounding his last book, which had led to death threats.

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That evening, we attended a reception in the former Russian consulate, which is now a private residence. We were greeted at the door by the rich, young host. It was very posh, with a string quartet, and a chef preparing food on the patio next to the swimming pool. I met two more Booker Prize short-listers – Canadian-born David Szalay, who was one of Granta’s “Best Twenty British Novelists Under Forty,” and currently supports himself from his writing while living in Budapest, and the erudite and elegant Irwin Allan Sealy, whose books include a memoir, The Small Wild Goose Pagoda, and a novel-in-poems, Zelaldinus: A Masque.

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Needless to say, with a wallet full of rupees, and no other expenses (well, except for omiyage), I wound up buying a lot of books. In addition to those mentioned already, I snapped up copies of Murugan’s short story collection, The Goat Thief; Never Gone, a young adult novel about a group of high school friends by literary wunderkind Anusha Subramanian, who published her first novel at the age of twelve; Mrs C Remembers by Himanjali Sankar, which begins with the memorable line “ It is not that I have never imagined my mother-in-law’s death,”; and Milk and Honey, the bestselling debut poetry collection by headliner Rupi Kaur, who’d flown over with her entourage from Toronto for a spoken-word tour of India.IMG_2198

I was happy to be able to catch Kaur’s performance before setting out for the airport for my flight home. The audience was filled with teenaged girls, many in headscarves, many clutching copies of Kaur’s books. When she read a particularly resonant line, the girls raised their hands and snapped their fingers. Between recitations, I noticed that a few older men got up and left, perhaps confused by her mention of “boobs.” These guys were not her target audience. Although I’d always found her poems quite simple, when she read them aloud, I understood the allure. She had incredible presence and she connected with most of her listeners, including me. Her asides about her Indian mother in Canada made me reflect upon my own experiences as an American mom in Japan. My final impression of India was that of a country full of smart, literate, empowered young women. It was a magical ending to a storybook week.

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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.

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.