I wrote a blog post for Beacon Broadside on last week’s slaughter of 19 people, and the attack on 26 others in a home for individuals with disabilities in Japan. You can read it here.
I have some exciting news! My mother-daughter travel memoir Squeaky Wheels, a celebration of accessibility, art, girl power, and Paris (among other things) has been named a finalist for the Half the World Global Literati Award. I’m thrilled to find my book in the company of so many great projects from all over the world! While the judges deliberate, popular voting will decide the People’s Choice Award. So click here and please vote!
It takes some planning to visit the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum Japan. For one thing, the museum is located in a village Mure near Takamatsu, on the island of Shikoku – not exactly a well-trodden spot. For another, the museum is only open three days a week — Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday — and tours are held three times a day by appointment only. In order to make an appointment, potential visitors must write their preferred dates and times on a postcard and mail it – no email allowed, at least for those living in Japan. And finally, the admission fee for adults is 2,160 yen, which is a bit pricey, as museums go.
These barriers are intentional – a winnowing process to limit the number of people who trample through the spaces. They pretty much worked against me, though I’d wanted to visit the museum from the time I first heard about it years ago. I had developed an interest in his art, which includes sculptures in bronze and stone, paper lanterns, furniture, gardens and even a playground. As an American living in Japan, I was also interested in his life story. He was born in California to an American mother and Japanese father and spent part of his childhood in Japan. He would later travel all over the world creating installations, designing sculptures and monuments, and gathering stones. Late in life, he discovered Mure and lived and sculpted there.
I finally made arrangements to visit with my friend Wendy, who had coincidentally grown up in the small town of Rolling Prairie, Indiana (pop. 500) where the young Isamu had attended an experimental school. We were joined by Wendy’s friend Cathy, who sometimes does translation work for the museum. As we approached the museum, a light rain misted down. Somehow the gray sky and the wet stones made the scene all the more poignantly beautiful.
First, we entered the Stone Circle sculpture space where many stone sculptures – some finished at the time of Noguchi’s death and signed with his initials, some not. Although the sculptures have been named, they are not labeled. We asked the guide about some of the sculptures’ names. She told us that one tall sculpture of sleek stacked blocks was made partly of imported stones. Although the area has a history as a quarry and Noguchi sometimes used stones from Shodoshima, he also sourced his materials in Italy and other far off places. Imagine the shipping costs!
We also peeked into his workspace, which has been preserved as it was when he used it, the tools meticulously lined up. Following our meditative stroll among the arranged rocks, we climbed stone slab steps to a sculpted garden featuring hillocks green with grass, a moon-viewing platform, and a stone sculpture encasing some of Noguchi’s ashes. Finally, we had a look at the house where he lived in the last years of his life with its tatami floors and stone tables.
“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.
Kami and Kaze by Wena Poon, Sutajio Wena, (2014), pp. 136
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.
“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.
In honor of National Poetry Month, I’d like to introduce some of my favorite novels in verse for young adults, in no particular order.
Lowitz imagines the earthquake and tsunami which devastated Northeastern Japan five years ago through the eyes of Kai, a biracial Japanese boy. At turns harrowing and heartbreaking, this book is ultimately hopeful.
Set in 1965, this book follows the lives of a group of high school friends whose lives are impacted by the war in Vietnam, riots, and assassinations. But they also go to drive-in movies, fall in love, and go to parties.
Third Culture Kid Emma Karas finds herself in Massachusetts after living in Japan for many years. She begins to volunteer at a long-term care center, helping a poet with locked-in syndrome get her poems down on paper. Meanwhile, Emma stats spending time with a Cambodian dancer who is a fellow volunteer.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Mina Tagawa and her Japanese-American family are rounded up and sent to an internment camp in the middle of the desert. Nagai presents a shameful slice of American history with beauty and grace.
Talk about gritty, realistic fiction! Tony, Vanessa, and Connor battle self-destructive impulses ranging — pill-popping, cutting, and suicidal urges. Hopkins is the queen of intensity.
One day Jane has just about everything a fifteen-year-old girl could want, the next, a shark bites off her arm while she’s swimming. Bingham explores disability and self-acceptance in this stand-out novel.
Cultures clash in this story of Viola, a young woman refugee from South Sudan who tries to adjust to her new life in Portland, Oregon.
This book is epic adventure set in India, just after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Fifteen-year-old Canadian Maya is visiting India with her father after her mother’s suicide, when she gets swept up in the mayhem.
Philips captures all of the angst of high school in this story of four teens in a Canadian classroom. Through distinct poetic voices, Natalie, Kyle, Trish, and Miguel share stories of domestic violence, sexual abuse, step-families, and rebellion.
Lezotte, who is deaf herself, wrote this story of Paula Becker, a deaf teen in Nazi Germany, where people with disabilities were systematically eliminated, along with Jews and others. Sometimes the most difficult subjects are best expressed in the simplest words.