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 The prestigious international award recognizes unpublished work that reflects the complexity of women’s lives, and has at their heart a central female protagonist.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.

A Review of THE EXPATRIATES and PEANUT BUTTER AND NAAN

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I’ve long been fascinated by the many subcultures that exist among expatriates. There are, for example, those, like me, who married natives and settled in for the long haul. Itinerant teachers who travel the world through one international school gig after another form another group. And let’s not forget the aid workers, who might start out in the Peace Corps and later make their careers in NPOs in Third World countries. However, the label “expatriate” most often conjures up images of multinational families living in isolated communities with locals doing their cooking and laundry.

The prologue of Janice Y. K. Lee’s new novel The Expatriates catalogues various types of expats who regularly arrive in Hong Kong:

 

They are fresh-faced; they are mid-career, hoping for that crucial boost up the ladder; they are here for their last job, the final rung before they’re put out to pasture. They work at banks; they work at law firms. They make buttons, clothing, hard drives, toys. They run restaurants; they are bartenders; they are yoga teachers; they are designers; they are architects. They don’t work. They are hoping to work. They are done, done, done with work. They arrive in January, after Christmas; they arrive in June, after the kids get out from school; they arrive in August, when school is about to start; they arrive whenever the company books their ticket. They come with their families or with their wives or their boyfriends, or resolutely single, or hoping to meet someone. They are Chinese, Irish, French, Korean, American – a veritable UN of fortune-seekers, willing sheep, life-changers, come to find their future selves.

 

Two of the three women whose narratives comprise this novel are wives. Margaret is the one-quarter Korean wife of Clarke, whose corporate salary insures that she doesn’t have to work. Her role is to plan menus and dinner parties and find help to look after their three beautiful children. Another wife, the independently wealthy Hilary, is married to David, a lawyer, and trying desperately to get pregnant. The third main character, Mercy, is a socially-awkward twenty-something Korean-American who graduated from Columbia University yet can’t quite seem to find her footing in real life. She goes from under-demanding job to job until Margaret hires her as a nanny. On a family trip to Korea, however, something horrible happens to one of the children under her watch and all three lives are irrevocably altered.

 

Born and raised in Hong Kong herself, and educated at international schools and Harvard, she is highly familiar with moneyed expats and the minutiae of Hong Kong culture, such as the enduring mania for disinfection post-SARS (ultra-violet toothbrush sterilizers!) and the disdain for the mainland Chinese who flood into the city and “buy up baby formula and Ferrero Rocher in enormous quantities.”

 

In addition to her eye for detail, Lee does a terrific job of bringing the lives of the three women together and increasing the tension; the last half of the book flies by to its satisfying, if not happily-ever-after conclusion.

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In a much lighter vein, the memoir Peanut Butter and Naan by Jennifer Hillman-Magnuson introduces an expatriate family in India.

 

Hillmann-Magnuson grew up on Bend, Oregon, and later became a social worker. She had a “liberal outlook bordering on what some people call ‘woo-woo.’” However, after her husband Bob’s “career flourished in ways we never expected,” and she found herself living a life of leisure with her five kids in Nashville, across the street from Dolly Parton’s sprawling estate, she quit working. She and her husband ate at the country club while a nanny watched their brood. She shopped for clothes and had her wrinkles Botoxed. They took all of their kids to Disney World where hot dogs cost ten dollars. But gradually, she noticed a “growing sadness blooming inside that no cute outfit or wrinkle-free face or charitable donation was going to fix.”

She goes to church and prays to God: “I need you to set me and my family on a path that will shake things up for us. I want us to do something really good and meaningful with our lives, and not just end up lazy and bored and pampered like so many people I’ve seen in my neighborhood…How about you send a pink car my way to show me you’ve heard me and are processing my request?

Lo and behold, the following Tuesday Bob asks her how she would feel about him accepting a temporary posting in India, and then later that afternoon, she spots a pink Mustang convertible.

Hillmann-Magnuson writes amusingly of going to yoga and managing her servants and volunteering at a nearby orphanage. Some of the most entertaining passages entail her escapades with her landlord, the haughty and beautiful Shemain.

Early on, Shemain tells her, “You Americans never touch the earth. You travel from your car to your homes to your malls with their linoleum floors. You fly against the ayurvedic principle that we all come from our planet’s soil, and it shows in your sickness and disconnect.” Hillmann-Magnuson sees her guide, at first, as a necessary evil, but gradually she becomes a mentor and friend.

At times while reading this, I thought, I should be so unlucky! And talk about First World problems! But maybe resenting wealth is another kind of prejudice. In any case, I mostly enjoyed the author’s lively writing and her journey through India.

 

(A bit of trivia: cover designer Anne Weinstock also designed the cover of my first novel, Losing Kei!)

We Need to Talk About Dylann

I brought up the subject of the Confederate flag with my son at dinner the other night.  I could have avoided it. We live in Japan, after all, and my son hasn’t been to the States in about four years. As a sophomore at a public high school in Japan, he is absorbed with his friends, and studies, and baseball. But I teach at a Japanese university where a lot of students have no interest in what goes on abroad. They chose to attend the local university because it’s close to home, and when I ask them what country they’d like to visit, they say, “Nowhere. Japan is best.” I want my son to be engaged in the world.

To be fair, he is more interested than most. His favorite subject is Social Studies. He reads the newspaper and watches the TV news. So he probably heard about the massacre of nine African Americans at the AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, before I brought up the issue of the flag.

I didn’t really want to bring his attention to the fact that this horrible tragedy had occurred in South Carolina, the state where his grandparents and uncle and aunt and cousins live. I didn’t mention that the killer, Dylann Roof, attended the high school down the road from my parents’ house for a time. I would rather that my son have a postive image of South Carolina, that when he thinks of his visits to the state he remembers playing in the surf at Myrtle Beach, or the carriage tour that we took on our visit to Charleston, or making a snowman with his cousins. But in two years my son will be elgible to vote in both the United States and Japan. He needs to have an awareness of current events and their significance so that he can vote for the change that he wants to see.

Thinking about the Confederate flag, and how it represents racial prejudice and hate, is a way to prepare my son to think about issues in Japan, such as the Prime Minister’s insistence on visiting the Shrine at Yasukuni in commemoration of Japanese soldiers who died in World War II. Just as many Americans, both black and white, see the Confederate flag as a symbol of the brutal enslavement of human beings, many see the Shrine at Yasukuni as a symbol of atrocities committed by Japanese troops in Asia during World War II. Just as a minority in South Carolina defend slavery and white supremacy, the current administration in Japan defends the enslavement of women — the so-called “Comfort Women” — as a business deal.  Just as taking the flag down from the pole outside the South Carolina state house would be a welcome step toward healing festering wounds, I think that the Japanese government would be wise to avoid re-opening wounds by retracting apologies and denying the past. (And by not making official visits to Yasukuni.)

In Japan, teachers are not allowed to be “political” and there is some handwringing among educators as to how to prepare young Japanese to become part of the electorate (the current voting age is 20). Personally, I don’t think it’s the school’s responsibility to teach kids how to vote. I think the conversation can begin at home.

 

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.

 

Teaching Compassion in a Time of Crisis

Yesterday, the first day back at school after the week-end’s disaster, the third graders at my daughter’s school decided to gather pencils and notebooks and things for the children who had to evacuate their homes in northern Japan. The teachers discussed the earthquake with the kids, and they are making further plans to help out on a wider scale. My daughter brought a box of pencils to school today to donate.

My husband, who is a high school teacher at a school for the disabled, led his students in a moment of silence to honor the thousands of victims of the tsunami.

I asked my son what he did at school in relation to the quake.

“My teacher talked about it a little,” he said, “but we had to practice for graduation.”

According to my son, there was no further initiative to help the students deal with whatever anxiety or concerns they may have regarding the quake. Nor did I hear of any efforts to comfort or help the survivors, or remember the lives that were washed away. I found this incredible, especially since at every event open to parents, the principal talks about how the school is helping the students to develop kind, caring hearts. Can they really be so busy practicing for graduation, that they can’t spare an hour, or even fifteen minutes, or even a moment of silence?

Again today, nothing.

But then I was thinking about how, after school on Friday, I turned on the news and watched the approaching wave over and over – the houses washing away, the people scrambling desperately up the hills, the cars swirling in the water.  I could hardly tear my eyes away. I wanted my daughter to bear witness because these are her people. This is her country. And at almost twelve, having toured the Peace Museum in Hiroshima and the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., having been deeply moved by these horrible events, I felt she was old enough to deal with tsunami footage.

Maybe I was wrong to make her watch it for so long. To make her wallow in tragedy.

At seven o’clock, she tried to find her favorite cartoon, “Doraemon,” on television, but every station was broadcasting tsunami and earthquake updates. She was disappointed, and I became irritated with her.  Was she really so spoiled and lacking in feeling?

She didn’t see any disaster scenes all day Saturday or Sunday. We made crepes together. It was a normal and fun activity. Usually, her weekend diary is about baking or cooking or maybe shopping. When I asked to check her homework, she showed me what she’d written Saturday evening.

She’d written about watching the news with me. She wrote about the earthquake and the big wave and the fires and houses that floated away. She wrote about how scared it made her feel. 

Maybe she’d had enough.