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.

 

My Life in Vogue

On a lighter note, my essay “My Life in Vogue” was recently published in The Mid. You can read it here.

"Inspired by Vogue, I whipped up jodhpurs in the softest baby corduroy, a zip-up lilac jumpsuit with epaulets, perfect with silver ballet slippers, and a plaid, ruffled, flannel mini-dress, which I wore with tights and cowboy boots. "

“Inspired by Vogue, I whipped up jodhpurs in the softest baby corduroy, a zip-up lilac jumpsuit with epaulets, perfect with silver ballet slippers, and a plaid, ruffled, flannel mini-dress, which I wore with tights and cowboy boots. “

The Writing Life Blog Hop

Fellow writer and expat Rachel Piehl Jones invited me to participate in this blog hop on the writing life. Be sure to check out her post and her excellent blog on living in Djbouti. Below, I will introduce more writers and books for you to discover.

 

Here are my replies:

 

1) What am I writing or working on now?

I am in various stages of three different projects including a young adult novel about a Japanese boy who returns to Japan after having lived abroad for three years, only to find that he no longer fits in; a follow-up to Gadget Girl in which Aiko visits post-disaster Japan and finally gets to know her father; and a mother-daughter travel memoir. I also occasionally write short pieces such as this newspaper article on writer Mariko Nagai, and a column for All Nippon Airway’s inflight magazine.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I often write from the experience of being an expat American in a conservative part of Japan where there are few foreigners. There are many expats writing about being a gaijin in Tokyo, for example, but not so many writing about what it’s like to raise a child with disabilities in the sticks.

3) Why do I write what I do?

Like many people, I write the kind of books that I want to read, and that I think my kids would like to read. The YA mentioned above was intially written for my son. The main character plays baseball here in Japan, as does my son. I read the whole book to him at bedtime. The books about Aiko are written for my daughter, although she doesn’t read English. Hopefully someone will translate them into Japanese one day! (Hint hint!)

Basically, I’m very interested in people of other cultures and experiences. I love doing the research (like traveling to Paris and drinking hot chocolate at Angelina’s with my daughter, or listening to grrl bands while I was writing my new novel Screaming Divas).

4) How does my writing process work?

When writing a first draft, I usually have an idea of the arc of the story and how it will end, but I don’t outline. I tend to write out of sequence and then piece everything together later. I don’t usually show my work-in-progress to anyone until I have a full draft, but last fall I enrolled in the MFA Program at the University of British Columbia, and I have been sharing chapters of my new novel with my classmates. It’s a delicate process.

After I’ve finished a draft, I usually senin to a few trusted beta readers and then revise. Rinse. Repeat. It seems to take me about four years to finish a book.

 

Check next week for posts from:

Helene Dunbar, author of the intensely beautiful new novel These Gentle Wounds

Fellow expat blogger and writer Melissa Uchiyama whose writing appeared recently in Literary Mama

and Christine Kohler, author of No Surrender Soldier, a fantastic novel set in Guam.

 

 

 

Talking Rock, Writing & Darius Rucker with Author Suzanne Kamata

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So one of the best things about being part of the ‘Dragonfruit’ anthology is getting to know the work of other expatriate women writers. Women such as award-winning author, Suzanne Kamata, who lives in Japan. Her anthology essay, ‘Love and Polka Dots’, tells of a museum trip with her daughter, who is a budding artist herself but disabled, much like the artist they’ve come to see – Yayoi Kusama.

Writer, teacher, rock neighbor Writer, teacher, rock neighbor

Suzanne’s interested in strength through self-expression and how creativity can be an empowering force, especially for young people. Two of her YA novels – Screaming Divas and Gadget Girl: the art of being invisible – deal directly with this idea. And since the protagonists of Screaming Divas start an all-girl rock band (heck yeah!), I thought it’d be fun to query Suzanne about her musical tastes and influences, and whether or not they intersect with what her kids – two teenagers –…

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Blog Tour: Screaming Divas by Suzanne Kamata – YA Reads Blog Tours

Happening now! The blog tour for my next novel, Screaming Divas, is now underway. Click on the link below for the full schedule of guest posts, excerpts, giveaways, and interviews:

Blog Tour: Screaming Divas by Suzanne Kamata – YA Reads Blog Tours.

 

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Kirkus Reviews on Screaming Divas: “Kamata’s (Gadget Girl, 2013) sensitive, restrained prose shines during small character moments—like Cassie’s fierce recitation of Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” during English class”

A poem for March

Because March mornings

were so blustery

I felt I had to hold on

to everything

with both hands

and all of my strength

or I would lose

the world.

In my black rubber boots

with my mittens on a string

I wanted to walk up the hill

become taller

larger

big and broad enough to

block the wind.

I wanted to part the clouds

with a swish of my arms

to be

the king – or queen

of the universe.

Gourmet Girls in YA Fiction

I’m sharing a post that originally appeared on Christine Kohler’s blog:

ANYONE BUT YOU is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet in Chicago Italian restaurants. Mmm…pizza, anyone? To get a taste of how cleverly creative Kamata plays with food and cooking utensils, here’s a quote from GADGET GIRL: “Luckily, Gadget Girl has brought along her crème brȗlée torch. She’s been planning on using it to make a surprise dessert for Chaz’s victory dinner, but she whips it out early to melt the golem.”

Warning: You might want to wear a bib in case you drool while reading.

ANYONE BUT YOU by Kim Askew & Amy Helmes

The inspiration for Askew and Helmes’ third Twisted Lit novel, ANYONE BUT YOU, was the Montague and Capulet animosity in Romeo and Juliet. Why did the families despise each other in the first place? The authors’ re-imagined saga revolves around a bitter rivalry between two family-owned Italian restaurants in Chicago, and the mystery of how their feud began. Naturally, Askew and Helmes were influenced by the ongoing debate over who makes the best Chicago deep-dish pies: Gino’s East? Giordano’s? Lou Malnati’s? Pizzeria Uno? (Uh…they’re opting not to weigh in with a verdict on that, lest any diehards out there come after them with pizza-cutters!) The star-crossed lovers, Roman and Gigi, find forbidden love against the backdrop of homemade pasta and pizza dough. Going back in time—1933, to be exact—to explore the imagined history of their families’ epic impasse gave the authors an opportunity to tell the fascinating history of pizza in America. The dish wasn’t always standard fare in the States, but like the works of Shakespeare, it’s become a classic readers would be quite reluctant to live without.

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GADGET GIRL by Suzanne Kamata.

For me, food is an integral part of culture. When reading a book set in a foreign country, I’m always interested to know what people eat. I’m sometimes even inspired to cook food mentioned in the book in order to add to my reading experience. I recently read a book set in Japan, which is one of the most food-obsessed cultures on earth, in which there were virtually no references to food. It made me distrust the author of that book a bit. How much did the author really know about Japan? I wondered.

In GADGET GIRL, my heroine, Aiko, visits France, another food-obsessed culture, so there are many references to cooking and various types of cuisine reflecting Paris’s multi-culturalism.

Food is also associated with love and affection…and motherhood. The mother in this book is not terribly interested in cooking. She is raising her daughter, who has cerebral palsy, single-handedly while pursuing her art. She doesn’t like cooking. My intention was not to write a bad mother, but to show that there are different ways of being a good mother. I think it’s important to teach kids the value of art, of having a consuming passion, of pursuing one’s art. Aiko and her mother take turns cooking (which allows the reader to see that even a person with “challenges” can put dinner on the table and be independent).

I also wanted to play a bit with expectations about gender. In my house, my Japanese husband makes breakfast every morning, cooks most meals on weekends, and packs our son’s lunch. Although this is atypical in Japan, I don’t think it should be. Aiko’s mom’s boyfriend, Raoul, is a big foodie. He loves cooking and produces fabulous meals for Aiko and her mother. And why not?

What other food-related YA novels can you recommend?

An Open Letter to the Parent Action League of Anoka-Hennepin County

Dear would-be book banners:

I understand how you feel. Sort of. When my babies were born, fourteen weeks premature, no less, I was working on a novel about an all-girl punk rock band in 1980s Columbia, South Carolina. The girls in my book did not always make the right choices. They got mixed up with bad boys. They did drugs. They stole things and used fake I.D.s and disobeyed their parents. And there were consequences – occasionally very severe ones, as there are in real life. The girls in my book were like so many girls that I knew (like me) – smart, middle-class girls from good families who were curious and adventurous and who sometimes made the wrong choice.

Although these girls were not evil, I didn’t want my innocent, vulnerable babies anywhere near them. When it didn’t sell right away, I stuck the novel in a drawer. I hid it. I didn’t let my babies watch any TV for the first two years of their lives or look at newspaper photos.  I did my best to shield them from any news of war, crime, and 9/11. I wanted them to be safe, happy, secure.

I wrote stories about children going to the zoo, or playing baseball in the backyard, or meeting mermaids underwater. I read stories to my children, including stories from the Bible (except for the one about Abraham intending to sacrifice his son). But as my children got older, they wanted to know things. How are babies made? Why do people do drugs? Why did the Americans drop an atomic bomb on Japan?

Of course I tried to talk to my children about all of these things. I still do. But after a certain age, kids begin to ask their friends about what they want to know instead of their parents. Or they search for the answers online. Or maybe, they read books.

Nothing makes me quite so happy as seeing a kid with a book. What better way for a kid to explore the world, to try out new identities, to travel, have adventures, than to dive into a well-written novel in the safety of home? Fiction gives readers a means of exploring possibilities. A book can give a kid hope. Some books inspire others to take action.

I think that the average kid who reads about teens involved in risky behavior in a realistic, contemporary novel would come to understand that there is fall-out. A novel might help a reader make  go down another, better path if faced with similar (bad) choices.

My kids are now fourteen and they have read books banned in both the United States and Japan, and that’s fine with me. They’re learning about the hazards of world in the safest way possible.

I recently dug my girl band novel, Screaming Divas, out of a drawer. It’ll be published in late 2014. You’ll probably want to ban it, but believe me, dear reader, nothing is quite so dangerous as ignorance.

Yours sincerely,

Suzanne Kamata