Bigger in Russia

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“A couple of years later, I got an email from the foreign rights department of a publisher in Russia. In grammatically creative English, the sender asked me to send copies of Call Me Okaasan, a collection of essays I’d edited on mothering children across two or more cultures, and my novel, Losing Kei. The message came through my website, not through my agent or publisher, so I immediately thought it was some sort of scam. Maybe they’d ask me to front a few thousand rubles for the translation of my books. Maybe they’d just ask for my bank details or credit card number, without having any intention of translating or publishing the work whatsoever.” Read more.

Review of BORDER TOWN by Hillel Wright

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By Hillel Wright

ISBN 1-933606-08-8

 

Hillel Wright’s highly entertaining novel details the life and loves of Fumie Akahoshi, a masseuse turned superstar manga artist. Akahoshi, who starts out married to a much older Western writer, known only as the Old Man, achieves fame as the creator of Chibi Hanako, a character with “the curious blending of an innocent elementary school girl – perhaps nine years old – with the grace and power of a ninja crossed with an Amazon.” Akahoshi’s stories become increasingly political, thereby incurring the wrath of Japanese right-wingers. She ultimately becomes the target of a hit man after criticizing the Emperor in her manga. Although it is a bit difficult to imagine a manga artist stirring up political sentiments in modern Japan, realism is not the point here. Readers willing to suspend disbelief are in for a rollicking ride. Fans of Wright’s previously published fiction will recognize some familiar motifs, such as fishing and Jorge Luis Borges. Also, Wiley Moon, Wright’s alter ego and the protagonist of his novel All Worldly Pursuits, makes a cameo as a literary agent. The book includes illustrations by Taeko Onitsuka which do not exactly illustrate the story, but serve to complement its themes.   Pay attention, and you’ll get a crash course in underground comics.

 

Review of PEKING TO PARIS by Dina Bennett

Peking to Paris: Life and Love on a Short Drive Around Half the World by Dina Bennett

 

When Dina Bennett’s French-born husband Bernard first proposes that they sign up for the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, she is less than enthusiastic. The road rally, which was to take place in 2007, would be a duplication of a similar car race organized a hundred years before along the Silk Route by Italy’s Prince Borghese. In that first race, five cars set out from Peking, as it was then called, to “prove that man and machine could … go anywhere, that borders between countries were irrelevant.” And here’s the kicker: in the spirit of the first race, the rally organizers only permit those driving vintage cars to take part. Dina and Bernard, who live on a ranch in Colorado, do not own such a car, and even if they did, she tends to suffer from motion sickness. Also, she is introverted, and doesn’t want to deal with the hundreds of other participants. But she also has an adventurous side which pleads, “It’ll be wild, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Consider it this way: two years from now, would you rather be driving through amazing Mongolia, or fixing a barbed wire fence?” Plus, Bernard is keen to go. So she says “yes.”

 

In addition to having been married for over twenty years, Dina and Bernard ran a software firm together, and later sold it to take up cattle ranching. They clearly get along well. According to Dina, however, the preparation for the road rally and the race itself put their marriage to the test. They buy a 1941 Lasalle, which they name “Roxanne,” and spend the next several months making it rally-ready. The car will have to travel 7,800 miles through the Gobi desert and Russian potholes, and service stations will be few and far between. Bernard assembles a team of mechanics, and Dina tracks down spare parts. However, as the months slip by, they discover that “the mechanics assigned to strip Roxanne to her chassis are more interested in drinking and dreaming than in rebuilding her.” The ensuing tension causes a bit of marital discord, which Dina recounts in less than a paragraph:

 

Bernard explodes. “You’re not doing anything,” he rages at me. “Why don’t you do something so I don’t have to do it all!” He shoves me aside and storms out of the house. He’s never said anything that could wound me so deeply. At the same time, I know he’s right. What happened to the woman he married twenty years ago, the one who seized every opportunity to learn something new, no matter how foreign that something might be?”

 

When the car is finally ready, they ship it off to Beijing. Once they arrive in the city themselves, Dina proves to be the more adventurous eater, ordering the mysterious “crispy duck parts” from a restaurant menu while her companions stick to the tried and true Peking duck. And it is Dina who wants to mingle with the locals and learn about other cultures, while Bernard is all about the driving.

 

As a reader, I, too, wanted to learn more about the people and customs along the way Unfortunately, once the race begins, there are few opportunities for sightseeing. Although we get glimpses of “maroon-robed monks in Crocs” and Bactrian camels, like Dina, we “have to be satisfied with…limited interaction with the Mongolian camp staff and random village mechanics.”

 

Much of the drama in this book comes from the various automotive breakdowns along the way. Although Dina alludes to fights with her husband, we don’t get to see or hear them. I’m assuming that the author is protecting her husband’s privacy and insuring that she stays married, however, I would have liked a little more tension. The couple seems a bit too companionable. Did they really get along as well as she portrays while being in a car together over almost 8,000 miles? Well, maybe.

 

The parts I liked best were when Dina has a chance to meet the natives, like when she ends up watching “Pinocchio” with the wife of a Siberian mechanic, or when she and Bernard go off course and attend a performance of the Bolshoi ballet. Dina’s writing style is lively and engaging, and she makes an enjoyable armchair traveling companion. Although I doubt that I will ever embark upon such a journey with my own husband, I was glad to go along on the ride with this intrepid pair.

 

The Writer Without a Hometown

Before I came to Japan to teach English” for one year,” before I met and married a native son and settled here with my family, I lived in South Carolina, land of Palmettos and peaches, alligators and Gullah women selling handmade baskets at the side of the road, hurricanes and pampas grass and hush puppies. I’ve written about South Carolina, too, especially in my most recent novel, Screaming Divas, which is about an all-girl punk rock band in 1980s underground Columbia. These girls attend art shows in abandoned warehouses and dance in clubs with graffitied walls. Wanna-be punks with Southern accents, they eat plates of grits at 2AM in a café, across the street from the, capitol building pocked with Union bullets. Screaming Divas FINAL.indd.)

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The stories that I tell are odes to the places I love; writing is revisiting. Out of homesickness, I’ve found ways to link Japan and South Carolina in my writing. For instance, when I was working on my first novel, I learned that a young, aspiring artist from Columbia, named Blondelle Malone, had stopped off in Japan to paint on her way to France, where she would meet Claude Monet and impress him with her Japanese landscapes. After poring over her letters and articles on Japan at the South Caroliana Library, I wrote an article about Malone’s sojourn in Japan, and later wove her story into my first novel.

I have lived in various places, but I am, for all intents and purposes, a writer without a home town. There is no shelf for the works of local Anglophone-only writers at the nearest book store. My awards go unacknowledged by the Tokushima press, and it’s unlikely that a press release would get me onto Shikoku TV. While most writers can depend upon the support and enthusiasm of friends and neighbors, and have a list of people to invite to a book launch party, the good people of Aizumi take no notice of what I do because I am writing in a foreign language. My editors, readers, and critics are, for the most part, thousands of miles away, across oceans.

When I leave my desk in the afternoon and go out into the world, children passing by on the way home from school with satchels strapped to their backs, look at me and shout “Hello!” They see me as an English-speaking person, nothing more, nothing less – an opportunity to try out foreign phrases they learned at school. Usually, I smile and return their greetings. The farmers harvesting rice nearby have no knowledge of awards I’ve won, or failed to win, of acceptances, or rejections, of sales, or lack thereof. The fact that I am a writer has never come up in conversation with my neighbors, and maybe it’s better that way. The woman who lives next door would never think to ask how my new novel is selling when she brings a bag of freshly harvested carrots (or spinach or watermelons) to my door. People never volunteer ideas for my next novel, or even ask what my latest book is about. Left in peace, I am free to observe and write as I wish, at my own pace. Obscurity has its own rewards.

Review of KAMI AND KAZE by Wena Poon

Kami and Kaze by Wena Poon, Sutajio Wena, (2014), pp. 136

 

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As the novella begins, Kate, an independent American woman arrives in Occupied Kyoto to do public relations work for the U.S. Army. Specifically, she has been assigned to deal with the fallout from the deaths of 68 Japanese infants who’d been vaccinated for diphtheria by American Army medics.

Against her will, Kate is assigned a Japanese driver, Shinji Nakamura, who gradually becomes not only her window into Japanese culture, but also her friend, and then something more.

The title refers, of course, to the Japanese pilots who were sent on suicide missions during World War II. For Kate, “kamikaze” is “Fourteen-year-old boys brainwashed, put in junk planes – retired planes that didn’t even work properly – so that they could crash themselves into our ships. Stupid, stupid.” But for Shinji, the word is more complicated:

“Kami is God, It is the power that you feel around you in a mountain forest. It is the empty heart of the shrine. Even saying the word, kami, creates a feeling of wonder, of being watched and protected by something big, a giant…Kaze is wind. Kaze can be a typhoon that destroys a village, or a gentle spring breeze on your face. But now, because of the war, kami kaze, two beautiful ideas put together, has become one dirty word…It’s very painful.”

Although this is an historical novel, Poon’s breezy writing style gives it a contemporary feel, as does Kate’s preoccupation with wheat, and the occasional up-to-date slang. Poon would be the first to tell you, however, that she isn’t interested in being entirely accurate. As she writes in the notes at the end of the book, “It is annoying to think that some smart aleck reader would write in or review this saying ‘you are an ignorant author, for the earthquake did not happen in winter, it was actually summer…In some parts I have deliberately chosen to depart from known facts in order to advance the story, or adhere to certain aesthetic preferences.” Sticklers to historical fact are welcome to refer to Poon’s list of bibliography at the back of the book.

Neither American, nor Japanese, Poon is a Singaporean of Chinese descent, and a Harvard graduate, now living in Texas. Even as an outsider, she has managed to create a believable, bittersweet story.

 

An Interview with Me on Reading, Writing, and Diversity

img084“Suzanne Kamata has become a respected author for teens and adults, probing issues of physical ableness and cultural identity. An experienced anthologist, she has also edited short fiction about Japan, as well as nonfiction about multicultural motherhood and raising children with special needs. She lives in a farming community in Shikoku. In this interview for SWET, Kamata describes her published writing and some of her experiences promoting her works. She also previews her current projects.” Read more.

My Profile of Ama Ata Aidoo

Over the seven decades of her career, Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo has published award-winning novels, plays, short stories, children’s books, and poetry, and influenced generations of African women writers. Before Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie of the award-winning bestselling novels and viral TED talks, before Doreen Baingana, Helen Oyeyemi, Sefi Atta, Taiye Selasi, NoViolet Bulawayo and any other of the number of rising female literary stars out of Africa, Aidoo was blazing trails. In fact, in her endorsement of Aidoo’s most recent book, Adichie writes “I occupy the space of a ‘Black African Happy Feminist’ because writers like Ama Ata Aidoo came before me. Her storytelling nurtured mine. Her worldview enlarged and validated mine.” – See more at: http://www.literarymama.com/profiles/archives/2016/02/a-profile-of-ama-ata-aidoo-draft.html#sthash.qgOfgt7Q.dpuf

 

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