Rupi Kaur and Me at The Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet

IMG_2160Earlier this year I was invited to participate in the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet to help launch The Best Asian Short Stories 2017 anthology published by Kitaab International in Singapore. I would be appearing along with the publisher, Zafar Anjum; the editor, Monideepa Sahu, who lives in India; and Wan Phing Lim, a young writer from Malaysia who had contributed “Snake Bridge Temple,” a lively, humorous story about a tough motorcycle racer whose bike seat is decorated with Hello Kitty. One of my stories, “Mon-chan,” about a Japanese woman dealing with her mother’s senility, was selected for this anthology as well.

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Before the festival, I read every story in the anthology. Some of my favorites were “Jelly Beans” by Soniah Kamal, about a Pakistani man in Atlanta whose parents are shocked when he marries a white woman (who turns out to be a divorcee with a child!); “Girls’ House” by Clara Chow, which concerns the marriage between a rich pampered Hong Kong girl and her devoted, yet poor and proud husband – with a big surprise at the end of the story; and Geeta Kothari’s “The Spaces Between Stars,” featuring an Indian expat in America. It was also interesting to read stories concerning Japan from a non-Western perspective, such as “March, Ma and Sakura” by Geetanjali Shree, who is from India and writes in Hindi. I enjoyed many others as well. For the record, this book is not available from Amazon, but it can be ordered directly from the publisher’s website . They will send it anywhere in the world.

Before I departed for India, I got lots of advice: “You should get shots for typhoid and dengue fever!” “Brush your teeth with bottled water!” “Don’t eat the street food!” “Wear a mask!” I packed some masks, but I had no idea what I should wear. When I checked out the website, most of the female presenters were resplendent in colorful saris and salwar kameez suits. Apparently, women were not supposed to show any skin above the ankle.

In any case, I packed some clothes and books and set out for the airport. The festival organizers had booked me on a Cathay Pacific flight, with a layover in Hong Kong. I arrived in Kolkata at about eleven p.m. A festival volunteer was waiting for me at the airport. He hustled me into a car, and I had my first taste of Indian traffic – a symphony of horns, cars and trucks veering within inches of each other. I was amazed that the streets were so lively at nearly midnight. I saw a woman in a bright clothes and a veil smoothing asphalt with a rake, Santa Claus decorations (though it was late January), light-striped poles, and the Test Tube Baby Center.

Once we arrived at the hotel, armed guards checked the hood and trunk of the car. I was also mildly surprised that I had to go through a metal detector to get into the hotel.  I checked into my gorgeous room, overlooking the pool,  took a shower, then happily tucked myself into the crisp, white sheets.

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The next morning, I went down to the lavish breakfast buffet. Geek that I am, I was thrilled to recognize famous writers at the nearby tables. The handsome, slim, white-haired guy dining off to my left was Manu Joseph, whose novel Serious Men had been published with a lot of fanfare a few years back in the United States. (I later bought, read, and enjoyed his newest book, Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, which I thought would be a fun, mad-cap thriller, but turned out to be a more serious novel with political undertones; the title refers to a certain tendency to assume that Muslims are terrorists.) Having studied the program. I also recognized shiny-pated Booker Prize short-listed author Jeet Thayil whose new novel The Book of Chocolate Saints is on my TBR list, and Ruskin Bond, an elderly British Indian, one of India’s most beloved writers, who drew huge crowds every time he presented on stage. Bond published his first book at the age of 17, and has written over 500 short stories, essays, and novellas, and more than 50 books for children. Although I have yet to read his work, I later picked up a copy of his novel A Flight of Pigeons, which was the basis for a film.

books from Kolkata

After breakfast, I met up with my fellow presenters, and Sri Lankan-based author Chhimi Tenduf-La, who is half-Tibetan, half English. I was going to ask Chhimi if he happened to know the Tokyo-based half-Tibetan, half-American writer Ann Tashi Slater, with whom I presented at the last Japan Writers Conference in Tokyo, but Chhimi pre-empted me. “Ann is my cousin,” he said. Small world. Chhimi was charming and funny, and I made it a point to pick up a copy of his new novel-in-stories, Loyal Stalkers.

The festival organizers had set up a desk in the hotel lobby. We asked them to arrange a car for us, and we went to the venue, in front of the historic Victoria Memorial Hall. Throughout the six days of the festival, sessions were held at two locations outdoors. One was under a tent, and another in a little courtyard adjacent to the museum.

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The festival itself was exciting and smoothly run. I was humbled to be on the program along with a Nobel Prize winner, Bollywood stars, cricket heroes, and well-known writers. Our panel, on the sixth day went well, and was mentioned the next day in The Telegraph, Kolkata’s largest English-language newspaper.

Every evening, we writers were invited to a reception. The first one I went to was at the Calcutta Turf Club, which was an old colonial spot for horse-racing. That evening, I had the pleasure of meeting novelist and hematologist Vikram Paralkar who was born in Mumbai, but is now an American citizen living in Philadelphia. His latest book, The Wounds of the Dead, is an eerie, unclassifiable novel about a doctor at an ill-equipped clinic in rural India tasked with stitching up slaughtered ghosts. In this book, he proves that that one doesn’t need an MFA in order to craft beautiful sentences, but it helps to have an M.D. to get medical details correct.

The second day, TBASS editor Monideepa, who’s spent some time in Kolkata, showed Wan Phing and I around a bit. We walked along a riverside promenade and checked out an open-air market. I bought some souvenirs for my family. Then I caught a couple of sessions at the festival, including one with esteemed writer Perumal Murugan, whose latest book is from the point of view of a goat. He had just returned to writing and publishing after a controversy surrounding his last book, which had led to death threats.

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That evening, we attended a reception in the former Russian consulate, which is now a private residence. We were greeted at the door by the rich, young host. It was very posh, with a string quartet, and a chef preparing food on the patio next to the swimming pool. I met two more Booker Prize short-listers – Canadian-born David Szalay, who was one of Granta’s “Best Twenty British Novelists Under Forty,” and currently supports himself from his writing while living in Budapest, and the erudite and elegant Irwin Allan Sealy, whose books include a memoir, The Small Wild Goose Pagoda, and a novel-in-poems, Zelaldinus: A Masque.

party at former Russian consulate

 

Needless to say, with a wallet full of rupees, and no other expenses (well, except for omiyage), I wound up buying a lot of books. In addition to those mentioned already, I snapped up copies of Murugan’s short story collection, The Goat Thief; Never Gone, a young adult novel about a group of high school friends by literary wunderkind Anusha Subramanian, who published her first novel at the age of twelve; Mrs C Remembers by Himanjali Sankar, which begins with the memorable line “ It is not that I have never imagined my mother-in-law’s death,”; and Milk and Honey, the bestselling debut poetry collection by headliner Rupi Kaur, who’d flown over with her entourage from Toronto for a spoken-word tour of India.IMG_2198

I was happy to be able to catch Kaur’s performance before setting out for the airport for my flight home. The audience was filled with teenaged girls, many in headscarves, many clutching copies of Kaur’s books. When she read a particularly resonant line, the girls raised their hands and snapped their fingers. Between recitations, I noticed that a few older men got up and left, perhaps confused by her mention of “boobs.” These guys were not her target audience. Although I’d always found her poems quite simple, when she read them aloud, I understood the allure. She had incredible presence and she connected with most of her listeners, including me. Her asides about her Indian mother in Canada made me reflect upon my own experiences as an American mom in Japan. My final impression of India was that of a country full of smart, literate, empowered young women. It was a magical ending to a storybook week.

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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.

Squeaky Wheels is on the Shortlist! Please vote!

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!

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.

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.