My MFA

For the past two years, I’ve been working on an MFA in Creative Writing through the Optional Residency Program at the University of British Columbia. It’s been challenging and exhilarating, especially since during that time I also started my first full-time job in fifteen years, and launched a new novel. I’ve now finished my course work. I still have to complete a dissertation, but I can see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. I took some classes in subjects that I wasn’t quite comfortable with, such as poetry. I’m so pleased to present a couple of poems that I produced in that workshop and revised with feedback from my classmates, many of them well-published poets.

Here are “Night at the Theater” and “1.5 Kilometers from Ground Zero.”

 

 

My Night as a Diva

Only in Japan, folks. (photo courtesy of www.sequinsandcherryblossom.com)Rock girl fantasies aside, I’ve always been shy. For a long time, the only thing worse than speaking in public was having to sing in public, i.e. at those end-of-the-year parties I had to attend while working at the Board of Education in a small Japanese town. I didn’t know many of the songs on the karaoke machine because they were in Japanese. There were some Beatles hits and Carpenters classics, but that’s about it.

I sometimes sing while listening to music, or when I’m by myself, doing something mindless, but I don’t regularly hang out at karaoke bars. My daughter, however, wanted to go. She enjoys trying out her rock star moves while attempting to follow the lyrics on the TV screen during music shows. To be honest, she’s not good at singing, but she has a good time.

My son likes to sing, too, and I can often hear him when he’s plugged in to his iPod, wailing away. He’s started going out to karaoke boxes with his friends. I’d heard rumors that he was pretty good, that he’d gotten nearly a perfect score on “Let it Go.”

When my husband suddenly suggested going out for karaoke last week, I thought it might be fun. The kids would enjoy it, and we’d be doing something as a family. I was pleasantly surprised that my son was willing to go with the rest of us.

We went to a karaoke club and rented a box (a room with a table, sofas, and a karaoke machine) and started picking out songs. A lot had changed since my last trip to karaoke. Instead of looking through a song book, there was now an electronic device that seemed to have every song in the world.  Also, the machine rated each performance.

My son, with his renditions of hits by Exile and One Direction, had the highest scores, and we started re-thinking his future. Maybe he had potential as a pop star. My daughter tried the theme songs to her favorite anime shows and stayed above 50 points. We realized it was a good exercise in reading and in voice control. My husband sang some Japanese songs that I didn’t know, and I tried “Rill Rill” by Sleigh Bells  “Come See About Me,” by the Supremes, for which I got one of the highest scores of the night.

Two hours and about 8,000 yen (approx. $80) later, our time was up. As we got ready to leave, I thought about how I would practice my Beyonce for the next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 Songs that I’ve Attempted During Karaoke

Back when I worked for the Board of Ed, singing in front of my coworkers during office parties was more or less obligatory. I never really got over my extreme embarrassment, but I did come up with a few stand-by songs. Here are some that I sang with varying degrees of success:

1. You Are My Sunshine

This one shows up in just about every karaoke song book in Japan. This was my go-to number.

2.Top of the World

This was a close second. I sang this many times, while channeling Karen Carpenter.

3. Yellow Submarine

The Beatles remain very popular in Japan, even among young people, so even in the most remote corners of Japan in the late 1980s, this song was an option.

4. Hey, Jude

See above.

5. Stop! In the Name of Love

Being a big Supremes fan, I was always happy to find this one in the songbooks.

6. You Oughta Know

This was really difficult to sing, especially since I’m not one of those hardcore karaoke fans who practices beforehand. #karaokefail

7. Baby Love

See number #5 above.

8. Koibito ga Santa Claus

A popular Christmas standard in Japan, I sang this at least once.

9. Please Mr. Postman

Another Carpenters’ tune that I seemed to be able to manage.

10. Love Me Tender

A little bit too low for my vocal range, but I tried.

 

So what do you like to sing during karaoke?

 

 

Fred is Dead

Fred, our pet goldfish, has died.

He first came to us about three years ago. We agreed to adopt him from family friends who were moving to Australia. They’d already had him for a few (several?) years. On a recent visit back to Japan, we were proud to show them that he was still alive, still healthy. We calculated that he was about 12 years old, which I believe is quite elderly for a goldfish.

The other day I was thinking that he’d gotten too big for his aquarium and didn’t have much space to swim around. And then a couple mornings ago, I woke to find him belly-up.

My husband had been the one to feed him every morning. He was also the one who cleaned the aquarium, sometimes with the grudging help of our children. He was perhaps the saddest.

Mornings are busy around here, so I suggested  putting the dead goldfish in the refrigerator until he could be given a proper burial. When I was a kid, my parents flushed dead goldfish down the toilet. At about 6-inches, Fred was too big to make it through the pipes. Another thought, which I did not express was: “Today is garbage day.”

My husband was appalled. “That’s so rude,” he said. “Putting him with the food.” I wasn’t sure if he meant rude for us, as a human family, or rude for poor Fred.

In any case, I dropped my suggestion.

My husband sent our fourteen-year-old son into the yard with a shovel to search for a burial site. He dug a hole. Fred was interred. We all put our hands together and said a sutra, showing proper respect for the end of a life.

My husband said, “I was going to clean his aquarium yesterday, but I didn’t.” He’s not a sentimental kind of guy, but his voice was choked with regret. And grief.

 

A Few Thoughts About Aprons

Souvenir stalls around the world tend to offer more or less the same things – T-shirts, mugs, keychains, and snow globes. But on my recent visits to Paris, I noticed something new – just about every vendor offered a selection of aprons embellished with Parisian motifs. No doubt these aprons are a nod to France’s world class cuisine, but I have another theory of how they came to be so widely sold.

Paris is full of Japanese tourists. Japanese visitors, as everyone in the tourist trade must know by now, are more or less obligated to buy gifts for all of their friends, family, and colleagues back home. (For the record, I gave all of my neighbors packages of French cookies. I brought my sister-in-law macarons the first time, and chocolates from Aoki Sadaharu’s shop the second.) And Japanese women wear aprons.

As far as I can tell, Japanese housewives wear aprons all day long. In movies and picture books, they are always wearing aprons. I imagine they don one as soon as they get up in the morning. And at the grocery store, there is often a woman shopping in her apron. As an American brought up to be a career woman, one who would split housework with her husband, I associate aprons with 1950s-style submissiveness. I occasionally put one on when I’m baking, because I have a tendency to wipe my hands on my clothes, but I would never wear one in public.

Years ago, when I was about to get married, some of my adult English language conversation students threw a bridal shower for me. I was appalled to find that many of them had given me aprons.

Nevertheless, they have been out to use. They actually come in quite handy. Every time there is a school event, it seems mothers are required to wear aprons. My kids do a lot of cooking at school, too, and these occasions require aprons.

I actually bought an apron at a tourist stall near Notre Dame…for my sister-in-law. I thought about getting one for my husband, too, since he is now our chief breakfast-maker and does most of the cooking on the weekends. And maybe I could have gotten one for my son, who is a grill-meister in training. But I only had so much space in my suitcase.

I’m planning on looking for a manly apron at the shopping mall near my house. What do you think the odds are of finding an apron for a guy in the most conservative corner of Japan?

 

 

 

 

Seeing the “Monet” at the Otsuka Museum of Art

Last weekend my daughter and I ventured to the nearby Otsuka Museum of Art in Naruto. My husband read somewhere that this museum, which houses ceramic reproductions of many of the world’s famous paintings, was voted “the most satisfying art museum in Japan” by Japanese visitors.

A ceramic reproduction of "La Japonaise" by Claude Monet - one of my favorite paintings and the cover of my most recent book!

A ceramic reproduction of “La Japonaise” by Claude Monet – one of my favorite paintings and the cover of my most recent book!

I’d been there once before, when it first opened. Everything smelled new, like chemicals, so it was difficult to suspend disbelief and pretend that I was looking at the real thing. I thought the whole place was kind of cheesy, to be frank. Plus, the entrance fee (3,000 yen for adults, or about US$45 at today’s exchange rates) was prohibitively  expensive. However, I thought it might be a good way for my daughter to get some exposure to great art, and I thought she was finally old enough to enjoy such as outing.

Since its opening, many fun new features have been added, such as the robot tour guide.

The Sistine Hall with robot.

The Sistine Hall with robot.

The museum covers four floors, and we arrived quite late, so we didn’t make it through all of the exhibits. I thought it was best not to hurry my daughter past the things that interested her. We spent about an hour just on antiquities!

A dragon from antiquity.

A dragon from antiquity.

We did manage to view the ceramic reproduction of Monet’s Water Lilies. Hopefully, on our next art outing she’ll have a chance to see the real thing!

Me and the "Monet."

Me and the “Monet.”

I am AI, We are AI (and other thoughts about indigo)

I have been thinking about indigo a lot lately.

My forthcoming novel, Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible, is about a biracial girl whose father is an indigo farmer and dyer in Tokushima. The inspiration for this is rooted in an interview I did about ten years ago with indigo farmer/textile artist Rowland Ricketts III, an American who apprenticed with dyers and farmers in Tokushima. At the time of our interview, he was living in Shimane Prefecture, where his Japanese wife, Chinami, studied weaving, and where he continued to grow and dye indigo.

Here is the end of my published article:

Eventually, he hopes to collaborate  with Chinami, dyeing fabrics that she has woven herself.

“We want to start with  a handful of cotton seeds and indigo seeds and, with the help of nature, transform them into textiles.

Ricketts also has large-scale plans, and is trying to organize an exhibition of indigo in the United States. “I want to explain to Americans what Japanese indigo is, from sukumo, starting with the seeds.” 

It’s still in the planning stages,” he says of the exhibition. “Nothing happens quickly – I learned that from farming.”

Now, Ricketts is growing and dyeing and teaching in Indiana. His full scale exhibition has been achieved. Today, my daughter and I took in his indigo installation, the final event in a multi-faceted program – I am Ai, We are Ai. It’s always good to know that with hard work and dedication, dreams do indeed come true.

Teen Otaku Association

With the Teen Otaku Association at RCPLMy daughter Lilia and I just returned from our first international mother-daughter trip ever! The two of us went back to the States, leaving her brother and father behind. Although we missed them, we had a great time.

A highlight of our visit (aside from hanging out with the relatives, of course) was attending the Anime Festival at Richland County Public Library in Columbia, South Carolina. In the morning and afternoon, we watched a variety of anime with the Teen Otaku Association, a bunch of smart, savvy young adults and college students who love manga, anime, and Japanese culture in general. One thirteen-year-old girl even brought onigiri (rice balls wrapped with nori) that she’d made herself! Another girl came wearing a fluffy tail (part of her Cosplay costume).

During a lunch of delivered pizza, I gave a little chat about Japan, writing, and the anthology Tomo, to which I contributed a story, “Peace on Earth.” Afterward, we took a photo together.

My New Book is Now Available for Pre-order!

 

 A  little bit of happy news…

My short story collection, The Beautiful One Has Come is now available for pre-order. You can reserve your copy here.

Early reviews:

The Beautiful One Has Come poignantly shows the pains and the pleasures of living in a culture that is not your own.  Kamata also illuminates the modern struggles of everyday people, showing us that perhaps foreigners are not the only ones searching for belonging in this traditional society.  An insightful exploration of what it means to straddle two worlds, of embracing the old ways while being open to new. — Margaret Dilloway, Author of How to be an American Housewife

Kamata’s stories reverberate like a Japanese Noh opera: They portray the “agony of love” in all its forms, acted out by sympathetic characters in various stages of external flight and internal change. The stories are artfully plotted, and tiny details–spots on photos, bean-filled cakes, sewing stitches, insects–take on the heavier weight of symbolism under her observant, empathic eye. Kamata will make you look at the world, and the culture you take for granted, in enhanced and profound ways.–Tara L. Masih, Author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows
With evocative grace, and the authority of real experience, the Kamata takes us on a tour through a garden of lives which touch Japan. Each story wanders as delicately as a small stream, with jewel-like descriptions and plot points waiting to be discovered around every corner.-Rebecca Otowa, Author of At Home in Japan: A Foreign Woman’s Journey of Discovery