Book Review by Gracy Samjetsabam, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the 2011 tsunami in Japan. Resilience and recovery can be learnt from a survivor of the Tohoku earthquake as the protagonist learns.
Title: Indigo Girl
Author: Suzanne Kamata
Suzanne Kamata is an American writer, academician and fiction editor based in Tokushima Prefecture, Japan. She has authored or edited 14 books including, award-winners Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible (GemmaMedia, 2013), Squeaky Wheels: Travels with My Daughter by Train, Plane, Metro, Tuk-tuk and Wheelchair (Wyatt-Mackenzie, 2019), Pop Flies, Robo-pets and Other Disasters (One Elm Books, 2020), Indigo Girl (GemmaMedia, 2019); and other novels, travel writings and short stories. Her next novel The Baseball Widow (Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing) will be published in October 2021.
Indigo Girl is a story of Aiko Cassidy, an aspiring manga artist and a confident and sensitive 15-year-old bicultural teenager with cerebral Palsy. She is raised in Michigan by a single mother who is a sculptor and for whom, Cassidy is her muse. When her mother marries Raoul, her Hispanic step-father and he moves in with them, there was hope for her adoption and completion of a dream for a perfect family. But when a baby step-sister arrives, she starts feeling tugged at the margins.
In the meantime, she gets invited to spend three months in rural Japan in Tokushima in her biological father’s home, who is an indigo farmer. She sees it as an occasion to explore the hitherto unknown link of her life and root her belonging. She planned well in advance and looked forward to experiencing and fitting in into her role as a half-Japanese. However, her vacation in Japan is filled with shocks and surprises in contrast to her initial excitement and imaginings. She had conjured up images of her stay and even thought of the summer-break in Japan as a means to provide inspiration for her manga story, Gadget Girl, if not anything else.
The meeting of cultures and the clash of expectations and reality sets in, as she travels deeper into lives of people in Japan. Cassidy has her many complaints and concerns as a differently-abled teen stuck in-between the construct of family and relationships. In the conditions rendered by marriage, or in coping with grief and loss of a young one, or in turning homeless, or in living the life of a refugee, she comes across the many complicated truths and realities of people.
She meets Junpei, her Japanese half-brother, who dreams of getting out into the world as a young boy but for his predicament in being the sole heir to the 200-year-old family farm and the indigo farming legacy. Obashan, her grandmother obsessed with the love and loss of Kana, her younger Japanese step-sister to leukaemia, ignored the existence of Cassidy, her other granddaughter. Mariko, her Japanese step-mother, whose silence spoke louder than her words was more like a friend to her. In her Otosan’s (father’s) house, she figured out a lot was left unsaid but decided to speak out her heart and build bridges on the rift between her father, her father’s family and her.
Cassidy confronts her father by juxtaposing their places as characters in fiction and in reality. While they discuss the Italian opera, Madame Butterfly, her father gives his own point of view and she does hers to realise how complicated life’s choices and what we become are. Every small experience through participation in the family trips, visiting people, stories, visits to parks, temples and shrines made her culturally and personally wiser. She realises that “Change is inevitable” and that “life goes on”,
Cassidy’s story is a stand-alone sequel to Kamata’s book Gadget Girl, as it uniquely represents the story of a differently-abled child’s quest for greater clarity on her desires and the reality.
In her brief stay, having come from the West and with cerebral palsy, she attends a bilingual school and is introduced to all as Junpei’s cousin. She falls for Taiga, an upcoming figure skater. He respects her feelings for him, becomes a good friend. From his dedication to his profession, she learns the art of persistence against self-doubt. She tells Taiga that she is not Junpei’s cousin and Taiga says it is not a secret to many at school. She gets conscious of being called “disabled”, “bastard”, and “unwanted”. She draws inspiration from the resilience and learns to hope to “begin again” from Kotara, a refugee of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster which killed 15,500 people, caused a nuclear power plant meltdown and damaged the economy, making many homeless to this date. Kotara was one of them. Taiga’s understanding, Junpei’s sibling bonding and her friendship with Sora and other manga enthusiast members in the club at school, make her feel as one with them.
Today’s continuously growing multicultural world needs more diverse stories. Kamata does her share of diversity writing by touching on issues such as biracial upbringing, single motherhood, divorce, re-marriage, step-children relationship, sibling rivalry, sibling bonding, trust, jealousy, parenting, love, death, disaster, refugees, stereotyping, stigmatisation, differently-abled children and inclusion. Kamata beautifully brings up the unconventional and often untouched areas in fiction with warmth and understanding. Family secrets, rituals, traditions, and what is spoken and what is left unspoken, speaks in volumes about the lives of people. The characters voice relevant issues with ease and confirm the importance of writing and speaking out on the many challenges and realities of life.
Kamata’s love for writing blends with the love of a mother in her works to reflect experiences of a multicultural, multilingual, multiracial and multi-abled world.
In the beginning of the story, Cassidy talks about her present self and her trip to her real father’s home in Japan and puts her condition as: “I’m in the sky. Here above the clouds, I’m in limbo: between America and Japan, between the past and the future. It’s weird, but for once I feel as if I’m where I belong.” In the concluding chapter, she again says, “And then I’m in the sky again, above the clouds. Between Japan and America, the past and the future.” The experiences in between, though happy and sad, come as a treat to the reader.
I would call Indigo Girl a heart-warming and compelling coming-of-age novel, a must read.
Gracy Samjetsabam teaches English Literature and Communication Skills at Manipal Institute of Technology, MAHE, Manipal. She is also a freelance writer and copy editor. Her interest is in Indian English Writings, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, Culture Studies, and World Literature.
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