Categories
Editorial

Towards a Brave New World

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

With Christmas at our heels and the world waking up slowly from a pandemic that will hopefully become an endemic as the Omicron seems to fizzle towards a common cold, we look forward to a new year and a new world. Perhaps, our society will evolve to become one where differences are accepted as variety just as we are fine with the fact that December can be warm or cold depending on the geography of the place. People will be welcomed even if of different colours and creed. The commonality of belonging to the same species will override all other disparities…

While we have had exciting developments this year and civilians have moved beyond the Earth — we do have a piece on that by Candice Louisa Daquin — within the planet, we have become more aware of the inequalities that exist. We are aware of the politics that seems to surround even a simple thing like a vaccine for the pandemic. However, these two years dominated by the virus has shown us one thing — if we do not rise above petty greed and create a world where healthcare and basic needs are met for all, we will suffer. As my nearly eighty-year-old aunt confided, even if one person has Covid in a remote corner of the world, it will spread to all of us. The virus sees no boundaries. This pandemic was just a start. There might be more outbreaks like this in the future as the rapacious continue to exploit deeper into the wilderness to accommodate our growing greed, not need. With the onset of warmer climates — global warming and climate change are realities — what can we look forward to as our future?

Que sera sera — what will be, will be. Though a bit of that attitude is necessary, we have become more aware and connected. We can at least visualise changes towards a more egalitarian and just world, to prevent what happened in the past. It would be wonderful if we could act based on the truth learnt from history rather than to overlook or rewrite it from the perspective of the victor and use that experience to benefit our homes, planet and all living things, great and small.  In tune with our quest towards a better world, we have an interview with an academic, Sanjay Kumar, founder of a group called Pandies, who use theatre to connect the world of haves with have-nots. What impressed me most was that they have actually put refugees and migrant workers on stage with their stories. They even managed to land in Kashmir and work with children from war-torn zones. They have travelled and travelled into different dimensions in quest of a better world. Travelling is what our other interviewee did too — with a cat who holds three passports. CJ Fentiman, author of The Cat with Three Passports, has been interviewed by Keith Lyons, who has reviewed her book too.

This time we have the eminent Aruna Chakravarti review Devika Khanna Narula’s Beyond the Veils, a retelling of the author’s family history. Perhaps, history has been the common thread in our reviews this time. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Anirudh Kala’s Two and a Half Rivers, a fiction that focusses on the Sikh issues in 1980s India from a Dalit perspective. It brought to my mind a family saga I had been recently re-reading, Alex Haley’s Roots, which showcased the whole American Revolution from the perspective of slaves brought over from Africa. Did the new laws change the fates of the slaves or Dalits? To an extent, it did but the rest as fact and fiction showcase were in the hands that belonged to the newly freed people. To enable people to step out of the cycle of poverty, the right attitudes towards growth and the ability to accept the subsequent changes is a felt need. That is perhaps where organisations like Pandies step in.  Another non-fiction which highlights history around the same period and place as Kala’s novel is BP Pande’s In the Service of Free India –Memoirs of a Civil Servant. Reviewed by Bhaskar Parichha, the book explores the darker nuances of human history filled with violence and intolerance.

That violence is intricately linked to power politics has been showcased often. But, what would be really amazing to see would be how we could get out of the cycle as a society. With gun violence being an accepted norm in one of the largest democracies of the world, perhaps we need to listen to the voice of wisdom found in the fiction by Steve Davidson who meets perhaps a ghost in Hong Kong. Musing over the ghost’s words, the past catches up in Sunil Sharma’s story, ‘Walls’. Sharma has also given us a slice from his life in Canada with its colours, vibrancy and photographs of the fall. As he emigrated to Canada, we read of immigrants in Marzia Rahman’s touching narrative. She has opted to go with the less privileged just as Lakshmi Kannan has opted to go with the privileged in her story.

Sharma observes, while we find the opulence of nature thrive in places people inhabit in  Canada, it is not so in Asia. I wonder why? Why are Asian cities crowded and polluted? There was a time when Los Angeles and London suffered smogs. Has that shifted now as factories relocated to Asia, generating wealth in currency but taking away from nature’s opulence of fresh, clean air as more flock into crowded cities looking for sustenance?

Humour is introduced into the short story section with Sohana Manzoor’s hilarious rendering of her driving lessons in America, lessons given to foreigners by migrants. Rhys Hughes makes for  more humour with a really hilarious rendition of men in tea cosies missing their…I  think ‘Trouser Hermit’ will tell you the rest. He has perhaps more sober poetry which though imaginative does not make you laugh as much as his prose. Michael Burch has shared some beautiful poetry perpetuating the calmer nuances of a deeply felt love and affection. George Freek, Anasuya Bhar, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Dibyajyoti Sarma have all given us wonderful poetry along with many others. One could write an essay on each poem – but as we are short shrift for time, we move on to travel sagas from hiking in Australia and hobnobbing with kangaroos to renovated palaces in Bengal.

We have also travelled with our book excerpts this time. Suzanne Kamata’s The Baseball Widow shuttles between US and Japan and Somdatta Mandal’s translation of  A Bengali lady in England by Krishnabhabi Das, actually has the lady relocate to nineteenth century England and assume the dress and mannerisms of the West to write an eye-opener for her compatriots about the customs of the colonials in their own country.

While mostly we hear of sad stories related to marriages, we have a sunny one in which Alpana finds much in a marriage that runs well with wisdom learnt from Kung Fu Panda.  Devraj Singh Kalsi has given us a philosophical piece with his characteristic touch of irony laced with humour on statues. If you are wondering what he could have to say, have a read.

In Nature’s Musings, Penny Wilkes has offered us prose and wonderful photographs of the last vestiges of autumn. As the season hovers between summer and winter, geographical boundaries too can get blurred at times. A nostalgic recap given by Ratnottama Sengupta along the borders of Bengal, which though still crossed by elephants freely in jungles (wild elephants do not need visas, I guess), gained an independence from the harshness of cultural hegemony on December 16th, 1971. Candice Louisa Daquin has also looked at grey zones that lie between sanity and insanity in her column. An essay which links East and West has been given to us by Rakibul Hasan about a poet who mingles the two in his poetry. A Bengali song by Tagore, Purano shei diner kotha,  that is almost a perfect trans creation of Robert Burn’s Scottish Auld Lang Syne in the spirit of welcoming the New Year, has been transcreated to English. The similarity in the content of the two greats’ lyrics showcase the commonalities of love, friendship and warmth that unite all cultures into one humanity.

Our first translation from Uzbekistan – a story by Sherzod Artikov, translated from Uzbeki by Nigora Mukhammad — gives a glimpse of a culture that might be new to many of us. Akbar Barakzai’s shorter poems, translated by Fazal Baloch from Balochi and Ratnottama Sengupta’s transcreation of a Tagore song, Rangiye Die Jao, have added richness to our oeuvre along with  one from Korean by Ihlwha Choi. Professor Fakrul Alam, who is well-known for his translation of poetry by Jibonanda Das, has started sharing his work on the Bengali poet with us. Pause by and take a look.

There is much more than what I can put down here as we have a bumper end of the year issue this December. There is a bit of something for all times, tastes and seasons.

I would like to thank my wonderful team for helping put together this issue. Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious need double thanks for their lovely artwork that is showcased in our magazine. We are privileged to have committed readers, some of who have started contributing to our content too. A huge thanks to all our contributors and readers for being with us through our journey.

I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful transition into the New Year! May we open up to a fantastic brave, new world!

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Slices from Life Travel

How I Transitioned from a Desk Worker to a Rugged Trail Hiker at Age Sixty

Meredith Stephens shares how the pandemic impacted her life choices, with photographs and narration of her adventures

When I worked in Japan I prided myself on my routine of only exercising when incorporating physical movement into my daily routine. I would cycle to and from work, and between buildings on the university campus. This was easy unless there was a storm. Then I would cycle attempting to hold my umbrella, but to no avail. It wasn’t just that cycling with an umbrella was illegal. It was also that my umbrella would turn inside out in the gale and the spokes would break.

When there was a typhoon we were forbidden to go to campus, but I took no notice. Rather than cycling to work I walked. I would run between each building block hoping not to be swept into the air, and when I left the campus to walk home along the riverbank, I would hope that the wind would not pick me up and fling me into the river.

Every day at work I would walk up and down the stairs instead of taking the lift. This was natural given that university policy frowned upon using the lift unless you had to go beyond the third floor. I developed strong calf muscles from climbing the stairs, and strong biceps from carrying books up and down the stairs. I secretly looked down on those who drove to work and then spent their evenings at the gym.

I returned to Australia to visit family just before the pandemic started. Soon after my arrival the Australian government warned its citizens, ‘Do not travel’. I followed this advice and continued working remotely. My return coincided with that of my friend Alex who resided as an expat in the UK. He too decided to follow the advice of the government travel ban. Every now and then Alex invited me to go hiking with him and his daughter Verity. I keenly accepted, since I was so proud of my fitness and strength.

Alex and I began with regular seven kilometre beach walks. The terrain was flat, and I proudly maintained the same pace as him. Then Alex invited me to hike with him in the Innes National Park on the tip of the boot-shaped Yorke Peninsula in South Australia.

I had as much stamina as Alex and I was determined not to lag behind, but there were numerous distractions. We were walking along rugged coastline on the south of the peninsula overlooking Wedge Island when a pair of roos caught my attention. The buck was overlooking the cliff, and the doe, who was beneath, was bathing herself in the warm sand, with her joey’s legs poking out of her pouch. In the glare, I fumbled to see the image on my phone’s camera in order to snap a photograph.

Next the bright yellow wildflowers rising from the succulents demanded my attention as I gazed at the grainy sand and rocks before me.

When I looked up I noticed a gap widening between Alex, Verity, and me.

“Why are you so far behind? Goodness Gracious!” Alex exclaimed.

I tried to explain myself but my voice was carried away in the wind.

I hastily caught up with Alex and Verity, and we completed the walk. Alex announced that our next walk would be along a trail of ruins in the deserted township of Inneston, a few kilometres inland. Now part of a National Park, Inneston had formerly been a gypsum mining town. The township featured a long-abandoned cricket ground, restored houses, and ruins of houses and a bakery. Abandoned farm machinery and mining equipment, long since left to rust, dotted the trail.

Alex informed me that the Inneston hike was seven kilometres and I bravely assured him that I could take it in my stride. The former railway track where gypsum had been transported had been transformed into a hiking trail.

Because I had lagged so far behind on the coastline walk, Alex now insisted I walk in front. I continued to stride confidently, safe in my position as trail leader. Alex monitored the number of kilometres we had covered on My Tracks on his phone. I felt like we had covered five kilometres but when I asked him he said that we had only covered three. Then when I felt we had covered ten kilometres we had only covered seven. On the return journey I could sense Alex’s strides growing closer behind me, and then Verity’s strides growing closer behind him.

“Hurry up!” insisted Alex.

I couldn’t reply. I was so proud of my stamina and endurance. Alex sensed my silence,

“Are you okay? I guess if you combine all of today’s walks we would have walked seventeen kilometres in total.”

I could feel my face burning and eyes swelling. I took a deep breath to calm myself, but couldn’t help blurting out.

“You go ahead. I don’t mind taking the rear.”

As we covered the remaining few kilometres to the carpark I started lagging further and further behind. I took less interest in the ruins and restored houses. When we arrived back at the car I gratefully heaved myself into the passenger seat and let Alex drive us back to our lodgings. On the way Alex stopped to look at the historic jetty in Stenhouse Bay but I did not budge from the passenger seat when invited to join him.

The next morning we resumed our hiking, and I was back in form, climbing up and down sandy dunes to the beach. It’s not so much that I was shorter than Alex or Verity, or even slower, but rather that I got distracted by the purple, yellow and white wildflowers, and the families of roos. Admittedly, I did start to lose stamina after hiking the first few kilometres while trying to hide from the intense Australian sunshine and stopping the legions of flies from entering my mouth.

After the Yorke Peninsula trip, Alex announced that our next hike would be on Kangaroo Island, which lies between the South Australian mainland and the Southern Ocean. No doubt, I will continue to be mesmerised by nature, not least because the kangaroos are smaller over there and have thick chocolate fur, with darker colouring on the tips of their ears, limbs and tails. I might even spot an endangered glossy-black cockatoo, or a seal. Despite these distractions, I am confident that I will keep up. Unless, of course, I stop to take some photographs along the way.

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist in Japan. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Blue Nib, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ MagazineReading in a Foreign Languageand in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Excerpt

The Baseball Widow

Title: The Baseball Widow

Author: Suzanne Kamata

Publisher: Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing (2021)

Christine loved Trina’s oak table. She loved this kitchen with its American-sized refrigerator decorated with animal magnets and children’s art, its scent of baked bread, and the cross-stitch samplers on the wall. She loved Trina’s dishes, painted with blue Chinese landscapes, like the ones that she ate from at her grandmother’s house when she was a child. She remembered that once her oyster casserole or Thanksgiving sweet potatoes were cleared away, she’d wondered about the pagoda on her plate, wondered what it would be like to visit such a place. And then finally she had. She’d been to China, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and of course, Japan, where she now lived. Ironically, although Christine had fled America in search of the exotic and adventurous, Trina’s Blue Willow patterned dishes, this room itself, now filled her with yearning for all that she had left behind.

“How was the send-off?” Elizabeth asked from across the table, snapping Christine out of her daydream. Elizabeth looked great, as usual. Even though she’d given birth just a little over a month ago, she managed to keep her bottle-blonde hair touched up, and her poplin blouses ironed and unstained. Right now the baby slept nestled in her arms.

Christine smiled. “It was fine. Nobody cried. Not even me.” She’d thought that sending her son off on his first day of elementary school – on foot no less, since the children were required to walk to school in groups — would have been more wrenching, but what she’d felt was mostly relief. For the first four years of her life, her daughter Emma had been in and out of hospitals, and then there was that one terrifying week when both kids were in the ICU at the same time with pneumonia. But now they were healthy and sturdy and ready to be out in the world. Plus, it was nice to finally have some time for herself.

Trina gently tapped a spoon against her “Support Our Troops” mug. “I hereby call this meeting of the American Wives’ Club to order,” she said.

Christine raised her coffee cup to Trina in a toast. “The American Wives’ Club” — AWC for short — wasn’t an official organization. There was no club secretary, no president. They got enough of protocol with the Japanese P.T.A. and Kodomo Kai and other Japanese mothers’ groups. In reality, the AWC was composed of the three of them – Christine, Elizabeth, and Trina, wife of a Japanese professor, whose two chestnut-haired children, not yet school-aged, were now under the table clawing at knees. Elizabeth’s eldest child, a daughter, was in the second grade at a private academy with an English immersion program.

Although coffee was enough of an excuse for a gathering, on this morning they’d gotten together to give Elizabeth a baby shower. According to Miss Manners, a baby shower was supposed to be held in the eighth month of pregnancy, but etiquette be damned; the members of the AWC put enough time and energy into keeping track of and adhering to Japanese customs (exactly how much to spend on a summer gift for one’s boss, where to stand in an elevator, which days were inauspicious for hospital visits, etc.). Sometimes a little anarchy was just the right thing. The belated celebration was also out of deference to Christine, whose daughter had been fourteen weeks ahead of schedule, during Christine’s seventh month of pregnancy. For days, weeks, months, Emma had struggled in an incubator at the university hospital, and they had all learned not to take a baby’s easy delivery and good health for granted.

The doorbell rang then, and Trina jumped up. “Oh, I forgot to tell you all. I met a woman at the library the other day. I thought she might like to join us. She’s Canadian, but I think we can make an exception. We can be the North American Wives.”

“Yes, of course,” Elizabeth said. “The more, the merrier.”

Trina went to open the door, and the others moved their chairs to make room for another guest. Their heads turned when a slender, pale woman with strawberry blonde hair stepped into the room. She held a little boy of about three by the hand. Christine could tell by his eyes and brownish hair that he was biracial (“hafu” as the Japanese said) just as all of their children were.

“Hi, I’m Sophia Lang,” she said. She extended her hand to Christine, and then to Elizabeth.

“Sophia has just signed on as an adjunct at Tokushima University,” Trina said. “Her husband is a scientist at Otsuka.” Christine nodded. They were all familiar with the pharmaceutical company, one of the area’s largest employers, and maker of that ubiquitous, ridiculously named sports drink, Pocari Sweat. Elizabeth’s husband worked there, too. “They just moved here from – where was it?”

“Maryland,” Sophia said. “My husband is originally from Tokushima. We thought it’d be nice for Kai, here, to get to know his father’s family better. And also, work on his Japanese language skills. My husband asked for a transfer, and here we are!”

She had that fresh-off-the-plane look about her. Christine had read somewhere about the stages of culture shock – she’d experienced them herself. First, was the euphoric falling-in-love stage, where everything was new and exciting. Pretty soon the shine would wear off, and irritation would set in. She’d get sick of having little kids point at her hair, and of people asking if she could use chopsticks. She’d discover that the bank machines closed early, at nine p.m., and that if she didn’t have her laundry out by eight in the morning (so late!), the neighbours would chat about her.

“Have a seat,” Trina said, ushering Sophia into a chair. “And Kai, maybe you’d like to go play with Misa and Kenta. Kids! Out from under the table! Show this nice little boy your toys!”

Trina’s two and three-year olds emerged, giggling and ran out of the room. Kai looked up at his mother for confirmation, before scrambling after them.

“Ah, peace at last,” Trina said, pouring coffee for Sophia into a University of Virginia mug.

They went around the table and introduced themselves.

“I’m Elizabeth Tanigawa, from Kentucky. I’m doing some research about expatriates in Tokushima,” she drawled. “I’m planning on writing a book or an essay or something.” She was always immersed in some project. For awhile, it had been indigo dyeing, and before that pottery, and even longer ago, she’d been obsessed with local folklore. During the latter phase, she’d compiled dozens of stories about trickster raccoon dogs, but she’d never tried to publish them. It was just something to keep her busy.

“Well, that sounds interesting,” Sophia said politely. “I didn’t know there were enough expats here for a book.”

It’s true that there were hardly any foreigners in Tokushima Prefecture. Christine had gone days without seeing another non-Japanese in the capital city, weeks, even. Although bridges now linked the island of Shikoku via sparsely populated Awaji Island with Honshu, there were no high speed bullet trains zipping across the island. There were few jobs for foreign women outside of teaching English or pouring drinks in hostess bars, and tourists from abroad rarely added the island to their agenda.

“Oh, but there have been lots,” Elizabeth said, and here, she nodded at Christine, “missionaries from South Carolina, an entire camp of German Prisoners of War, and there was also a Portuguese sailor who settled here and married the little Japanese girl that was his housemaid. Kinda like Madame Butterfly. There’s a museum about his life up on top of Mount Bizan.”

“A girl?”

“She was quite a bit younger,” Christine put in. “But she was an adult. I’m sure she knew what she was doing.” In truth, Christine thought the sailor, who appeared in photos with a long white beard, was way too old for his bride, but she suddenly felt perversely defensive of all things Tokushima. It was her home now, after all.

When it was her turn, she said, “I’m originally from Michigan, most recently from South Carolina. I’ve been living here for ten years. My husband is a high school baseball coach.”

“We call him the ‘imaginary husband,’” Trina said, “because no one has ever seen them together.”

Christine forced herself to join in the laughter, even though she was the one who’d first come up with the moniker. 

“She’s a baseball widow,” Elizabeth explained to the bemused Sophia, who hadn’t been in Japan long enough to understand how demanding high school sports could be. There was no such thing as a baseball season. Once students joined the club, they were busy practicing and playing all year round. The only days off were during the ten days of winter vacation. The rest of the time, even during the “off-season,” from the end of October till about the beginning of February, they had training sessions every day after school and on weekends. Hideki was almost never home.

“I saw your husband on television,” Elizabeth said. “Just a couple of weeks ago. His team made it to the quarter-finals, didn’t it?”

Christine nodded. “Yeah, I was there. Up in the bleachers.” Before the kids had come along, she’d gone to all of his games, but they were too young to enjoy baseball. The one time she’d brought Emma to the stadium, she was dismayed to find that there was no wheelchair access, even though the arena was relatively new. She’d had to ask a couple of high school boys to help carry Emma and her wheels up the concrete steps, into the stands. And then of course, after glimpsing Daddy at the sidelines and waving furiously with no response, both Emma and Koji had grown quickly bored. Now Christine mostly watched the games on TV. Once the number of teams was whittled down to eight, the games were broadcast on the local NHK station, or at least public access TV. It was hard to concentrate, though, when Koji and Emma were grabbing at the remote control, pushing for cartoons. The other day, Christine had asked her mother-in-law to babysit so that she could watch Hideki’s team live. Even though they’d lost, she’d felt emotionally involved in the game. Being there made her feel closer to Hideki, almost as if they were in it together.

“Do you have any children?” Sophia asked, bringing her cup to her lips. Christine saw that her fingernails had been manicured. A diamond glinted off her ring finger. In a couple of months, she won’t be wearing that, Christine thought. She’d figure out that it was way too gaudy for rural Japan.

“Yes, two. A boy and a girl.”

“Do they go to school?” Sophia asked.

“Koji’s at Aizumi West. He just started first grade today.”

“And your daughter? You said you have a little girl?”

Christine nodded. “Her name is Emma, after Queen Emma of Hawaii.” Christine and Hideki had gotten married at a plantation on Oahu. Afterwards, they’d done some sightseeing around the islands, and Christine had become captivated by the biography of Queen Emma, who was both Anglo and Hawaiian – a multicultural woman who did good deeds, a mixed race royal. The perfect role model and namesake, Christine thought. “My daughter goes to the kindergarten at the School for the Deaf.”

“Oh!” Surprise and pity flashed across Sophia’s face. By now, Christine was used to apologies and embarrassment at the revelation of her daughter’s disabilities. She forced a smile to show that it was no big deal, that there was no need to feel sorry for them. Everything was fine!

“Have you thought about taking her to the States?” Sophia asked. “My husband and I had a little scare after an ultrasound, and we decided that if our child had any handicap, we would stay in the U.S. Japan is a couple decades behind in that area, isn’t it?”

Christine felt the blood rush to her face. “We’re keeping our options open,” she murmured, though that wasn’t exactly true. Hideki was passionate about his job and she would never ask him to quit. He had become something of a local celebrity. People respected him, just as they seemed to respect her for being married to him. Whenever she dropped by the baseball field, say, to bring Hideki his forgotten cell phone, or drop off Koji to “help out” with Saturday afternoon practice sessions, the players doffed their caps and bowed to her, the coach’s wife. It made her feel like a First Lady. More importantly, as a public school teacher, Hideki was assured lifetime employment, and he also had good health insurance. With a kid like Emma, you had to have ample coverage. Christine suspected that with all of her pre-existing conditions, Emma was uninsurable in the States. And last, but not least, as the only and eldest son of his widowed mother, Hideki was expected to look after her and act, when necessary, as head of the family, representing the Yamada clan at weddings and funerals that his mother didn’t want to attend. He had responsibilities.

Not every family had the resources – or desire – to up and move across the world every time circumstances changed. And yet, Christine had often wondered if Japan was the best place for their daughter. Or for their son, for that matter. At times, she thought they’d be better off in Sweden, where parents were required by law to teach their deaf children sign language. (Here in Japan, Hideki was too busy to study anything but baseball stats, and Christine often had to interpret between father and daughter.) Other times she fantasized about moving to Hawaii, where multicultural was the norm.

 “Well, then, ladies,” Trina said, clapping her hands together. “I think it’s time for some games.”

About the book:

When Christine, an idealistic young American teacher, meets and marries Hideki Yamada, an aspiring Japanese high school baseball coach, she believes that their love with be enough to sustain them as they deal with cultural differences. However, Hideki’s duties, and the team of fit, obedient boys whom he begins to think of as a surrogate family, take up more and more of his time, just as Christine is struggling to manage the needs of their multiply-disabled daughter and their sensitive son. Things come to a head when their son is the victim of bullies. Christine begins to think that she and her children would be safer – and happier – in her native country. On a trip back to the States, she reconnects with a dangerously attractive friend from high school who, after serving and becoming wounded in Afghanistan, seems to understand her like no one else.

Meanwhile, Daisuke Uchida, a slugger with pro potential who has returned to Japan after living abroad, may be able to help propel Hideki’s team to the national baseball tournament at Koshien. Not only would this be a dream come true for Hideki, but also it would secure the futures of his players, some of whom come from precarious homes. While Daisuke looks to Hideki for guidance, he is also distracted by Nana, a talented but troubled girl, whom he is trying to rescue from a life as a bar hostess (or worse). Hideki must ultimately choose between his team and his family.

The Baseball Widow explores issues of duty, disability, discrimination, violence, and forgiveness through a cross-cultural lens. Although flawed, these characters strive to advocate for fairness, goodness, and safety, while considering how their decisions have been shaped by their backgrounds.

About the author:

American Suzanne Kamata has lived in Japan for over thirty years. She first arrived in Tokushima Prefecture as an Assistant Language Teacher in public schools. In her second year in Japan, she met her husband, a Japanese high school teacher (and later, high school baseball coach). While raising twins, she wrote and published Losing Kei (Leapfrog Press, 2008), her first novel for adults. Since then, she has published several more award-winning books including the novel Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible (GemmaMedia, 2013) which was awarded an Asian Pacific American Librarians Association  Honor Award for Young Adult Fiction; Indigo Girl (GemmaMedia, 2019), winner of a Gold Nautilus Award and an SCBWI Crystal Kite Award; and Squeaky Wheels: Travels with My Daughter by Train, Plane, Metro, Tuk-tuk and Wheelchair (Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing, 2019) winner of a CIBA Hearten Award and a Next Generation Book Award.  She is an associate professor at Naruto University of Education.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Review

From Japan to Australia with a Cat

Book Review by Keith Lyons

Title: The Cat with Three Passports

Author: CJ Fentiman

Going to Japan to teach English seemed like a good way to earn money, but animal lover CJ Fentiman came away from living and working in Japan with more than she expected as chronicled by her in The Cat with Three Passports: What a Japanese cat taught me about an old culture and new beginnings.

A book  that could be  considered a travel memoir, but it stretches beyond the normal scope of a travelogue, due partly to the introverted author’s inner reflection and personal transformation, but mainly due to the courageous actions of the writer in turning a soft spot for a cat into an international animal relocation mission. Sorry to spoil the ending of the book, but in most cases, foreigners going to a strange and different country take a “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” approach. So when they leave, it is with fond memories, tales of culture shock and culinary misadventures, and bulging suitcases.

Not so with Fentiman and her partner, Ryan, who faced new challenges while taking a homeless cat with them to Australia, some 8,000 kilometres away. So why would you rescue from the streets a bedraggled silver tabby and then contemplate taking it with you across the oceans? If you are a cat lover, you already know the answer.

Let’s back up. One of the reasons The Cat with Three Passports is such a good read is that from the outset, the reader is invited in to experience Japan as seen through the eyes of someone right off the plane after a long flight. Throughout the book, there are vivid descriptions of landscapes, encounters and events, including weird festivals (naked men) which give an insight into an unfamiliar culture.

If the anticipation isn’t enough, the author exposes her vulnerability by sharing her anxieties and self-doubts, along with her past patterns of escaping situations and places, and how she has been distant from her estranged family.

Cats feature literally and figuratively throughout the book, and the author has blended in feline-related sayings and some of Japan’s cat wisdom. In a way, the cats make CJ and Ryan more “at home” in Japan among the cherry blossoms, bullet trains and vending machines. Essentially, the cats they encounter are the facilitators of the adaption and softening, helping them discover their purpose and giving them fulfilment.

Things take a turn for the surreal when they transfer to a job at a school set in a British theme park high in the mountains. Their time in Japan is not complete without a visit to the famed Cat Island, where cats outnumber humans perhaps thirty five to one. In the same way that cats love warmth and sun, humans are also attracted to cats because they bestow blessings on homo sapiens. One study found that cat owners have better psychological health than people without pets. Cat feeders claim to feel happier, more confident, less nervous and to sleep, focus and face problems better in their lives.

The Cat with Three Passports will appeal to anyone who has or wants to visit Japan, any animal lover or ailurophile along with readers who enjoy travel memoirs. It is a heart-warming and touching tale of outer and inner discovery.

If you’ve already encountered some travel classics on Japan, such as Lost Japan by Alex Kerr, Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson, or Pico Iyer’s recent A Beginners Guide to Japan, consider reading The Cat with Three Passports even if you aren’t a pet lover or Japan fan.

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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Click here to read the book excerpt.

Click here to read CJ Fentiman’s interview.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Interview

Lessons old and new from a stray Japanese cat

CJ Fentiman in conversation with Keith Lyons

CJ Fentiman & the much travelled cat. Courtesy: CJ Fentiman

CJ Fentiman is a writer, an entrepreneur, and an animal lover, originally from the UK, but currently living in Australia with her partner and two cats. She runs the Australian website, Pet Friendly Accommodation, and published a handy guidebook Travelling with Pets on Australia’s East Coast now in its fifth edition. Regarded as an expert on pet travel, CJ’s memoir The Cat with Three Passports: What a Japanese cat taught me about a old culture and new beginnings tells the story of her adventures as an English teacher in Japan, a fateful encounter with a homeless cat, and her own personal journey of growth and discovery, Fentiman and her partner, Ryan, lived in Japan from 2004 to 2007, but as we’ll learn, some of the biggest challenges came from CJ’s past and their future after working in Japan.

What attracted you to live and work in a place which is very foreign?

When a teaching opportunity came up in Japan, complete with two cats in the work apartment, I jumped at the chance. At first, Japan offered a way to travel and make money, I never thought I’d fall in love with the culture as much as I did, and that I’d learn so much from living there.

Do you think living in a strange and foreign place, and living as a couple, focused more on you, how you are in the world, and past patterns?

It can be quite a culture shock with regard to the work ethic and way of doing things in Japan, but the longer I was there I developed a real appreciation for the attention to detail to things, the politeness, respect, and courtesy. It also made me appreciate how fortunate I am to have the opportunities I have as an English speaker to work and study abroad without too many visa restrictions. I love the anonymity that Japan provided me. There I was just another ‘foreigner’.

Living as a couple in Japan was attractive to many employers, as I guess they saw you as more stable than a single person, so it actually helped when applying for jobs.

One of the themes is about your running away from things in the past. What do you think was behind this flight/escape urge?

That’s a good question. Three generations of women in my family have all emigrated internationally for one reason or another, so I guess I was following in their footsteps. The main temptation in living away from home offers you the opportunity to reinvent yourself and start afresh.

How did Japan, travel and cats (and Ryan) help you deal with this instinctive response?

Being able to just be the gaijin (foreigner) was really liberating for me, I was able to shed a lifetime of labels and reboot myself in a very positive way. Having a cat also meant a commitment, so I couldn’t just flit off when I chose. It gave me a reason to stay in one place and put down some roots and by doing so, connected with local people on a much deeper level, and was warmly welcomed as part of their community.

What do you think makes your book a little different from the standard foreigner goes to Japan travel memoir?

I like to think that it has a message of hope that no matter how bad things get, there is a way out. Changing your location and your surroundings can have a huge impact on how you see the world, and for me travel has been the greatest teacher.

How did your experiences in Japan and then moving Gershwin develop into articles and then your book and website?

It happened very naturally.  Seeing people take their pets on holiday in Japan, was the inspiration for my first book, which is about ‘Travelling with Pets’. I remember seeing a couple at Lake Inawashiro in Fukushima Prefecture with a cat and dog, thinking that’s exactly what I want to do! The inspiration for my second book, The Cat with Three Passports, was the experience of relocating internationally with a pet, and all the amazing people I met along the way.

How was the process of writing The Cat with Three Passports, given that it was your first book of that kind?

It was a challenge because I had so many positive experiences while living in Japan that I felt would be good material, I almost had too much, so I had to spend a lot of time editing. My first book pretty much wrote itself, but as a travel memoir is much more personal, I had to dig a lot deeper, which wasn’t always easy!

Who do you think your book will appeal to?

It will definitely appeal to people interested in going to Japan, cat lovers, and even Japanese people themselves. Recently, I received a lovely message from a Japanese lady, who said how much she enjoyed the book because she was living in New Zealand during the lockdown and couldn’t return home to Japan, she said my book helped her with homesickness. It was a very special moment for me.

How are sales of your book going, and in what countries is it selling? 

It seems to be hugely popular in the USA at the moment, and it even won an award there at the International Book Awards for American Book Fest in the narrative non-fiction category for animals.

What have been the highlights and lasting experiences of having your book appear in print and in bookshops?

I would say the biggest highlight has been the people that I have met, to hear that people have felt connected to the story is amazing. It’s nice to know that there are others out there that have had similar experiences in life.

The comments I get from different people around the world about how much people related to my story are beyond rewarding and make it all worthwhile.

You’ve lived away from the UK for quite some time — where are you now, and what are your plans for future, such as going back to the UK?

Never say never – but the older I get, the more I realise how lucky I am to have lived in many countries. I love the UK and will always consider it home, it’s just there are so many other places I’d love to visit and live in. We currently live in Australia, and although I do have a romantic idea of living back in the UK, I’m unsure when that will happen at the moment.

Click here to read an excerpt of The Cat with Three Passports.

Click here to read the review of the book.

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Excerpt

The Cat with Three Passports

Title: The Cat with Three Passports
Author: CJ Fentiman

Chapter 7: Better To Enclose A Cat Than to Scold It

Clothes shops kept irregular hours in Takayama. Three different days, at three different hours, we tried to visit a local vintage store, and each time we found it closed.

It was refreshing to see that a country that had appeared, at first, such a stickler for rules, actually had a whole community that seemed to do the opposite of what was expected.

‘It is ikigai,’ explained James, the bald Kiwi ALT whom we had called Jēmusu (the Japanese word for James) as a joke.

‘What is ikigai?’ I asked. ‘A fish?’

‘No,’ he said with a grin. ‘Ikigai means finding your purpose, your meaning in life, and combining it with your profession, your work. It is the balance of doing what you love while making a living and letting neither path control your life.’

I didn’t really understand ikigai until one spring day I actually found the vintage clothing shop open and went inside to explore as I’d longed to do for over a month. The owner, G-Kun, a snowboarder in his early thirties who wore his long black hair tied back in a ponytail, was busy checking orders on his computer.

Ryan was looking at skateboard tee shirts while I browsed some different-coloured beanies made from hemp that I loved and would probably never wear.

‘I’m so glad I finally got to come in,’ I said to G-Kun.

‘Why has your store been closed so often? Were you ill?’

‘Not at all,’ he replied with a friendly smile. ‘I have just been concentrating on something else.’

‘Like what?’

‘My music career.’

I stared at him.

‘I travelled in Europe some years back and became friendly with some European DJs,’ he continued. ‘I ended up co-producing some dance tracks with them.’

He had my rapt attention. To my very British mind, this was an entirely new concept. I had been told as a child to forget working with horses and get a job in a bank, because in England I was supposed to be a responsible adult with a steady good-paying job doing something I loathed rather than something I loved.

But in Takayama . . . Was what G-Kun telling me real? Could an avocation and a job actually be combined? And if they could, did I have my own ikigai, something that would bring deep satisfaction to my life?

Once I understood ikigai, I saw it all around me. In Takayama, many people had turned their passions into businesses from which they earned an actual living wage. Of course, that’s not to say all Japanese follow ikigai but it seemed widely practiced here.  And then there was Keisuke, who worked in a brewery and wanted to start his own saké company someday.

Twenty-something Keisuke was not particularly well educated or rich, but he seemed more contented than anyone I’d met in a long time. In fact, he was so happy and so passionate about his job that I never saw him in anything other than his cream-coloured brewery overalls.

One night in Keisuke ’s apartment, he proudly poured me his employer’s clear rice wine into a tiny white and blue ceramic cup, beaming with something more than pride.

Ryan took the first sip and beamed back at him. ‘This is good stuff! You’ve got the saké magic, Keisuke-san. Like Harry Potter.’

‘So, so, so,’ Keisuke said and paused for a moment to think. ‘You know what, I am not Harry Potter. But I am . . . the Saké Potter.’

And from that day on, that’s exactly what we called him.

A few nights later, while out for dinner with some friends, we came across a stray cat that was to begin my search for ikigai.

‘Kawaisō, it’s such a shame,’ Sayuri said. ‘There’s so many noranekos [stray cats] in Takayama. It’s sad.’

I leaned down to pat the bedraggled kitten and he tapped me with his paw, as if begging for more. ‘Poor baby,’ I said. ‘He must hang around the restaurant in the hope of getting food scraps,’ I said.

‘The staff probably feed him,’ Ryan said as he joined us, the kitten instantly turning to him for attention.

‘What should I do?’ I asked.

‘Why do you have do anything?’ Mike said, joining us.

Takako, our friendly waitress was standing at the door and confirmed our suspicions about the kitten. ‘Hai. Nora-neko desu.’ (Yes. It is a stray.)

‘Come on, you can’t save them all,’ said Dominic as he marched off down the pavement.

Reluctantly, I followed him, along with the others. But, as we wandered tipsily back to our apartment, the kitten tried to follow us. He looked unwell. Snot was dribbling down his scrawny face. Everyone picked up their pace.

I forced myself not to turn around as we walked back home. If I had, I’d have scooped that kitten up and to hell with the consequences. Actually, that would have saved me time and trouble, because when we got back to the apartment, all I could think about was the abandoned kitten with the big affectionate personality struggling to survive outside all by himself.

Our friends stood in the kitchen noisily making plans about how to get to the next party, oblivious to the kitten’s plight. I was unable to even smile, let alone participate. ‘I’m sorry. I’m not going to make it to any more parties or bars tonight. I’ve got a headache, so I’m going to stay here,’ I said.

After the noisy crowd, including Ryan, had left, I tried going to bed, but I couldn’t sleep. I was unable to purge the image of the friendly little feline from my mind. Finally, fuelled by Chu-Hai and cheese sticks, I got dressed, crept outside, grabbed my bike, and cycled along the fluorescent-lit pathway armed with dry cat biscuits and a cat carrier.

Sure enough, with no other place to go, the kitten was still at Murasaki begging for food and attention. He didn’t struggle one bit as I lifted him into the cat carrier and set it in the front basket of my bicycle. Apparently, taking his chances with the kindly stranger and her weird contraption was better than spending another dangerous night on the street.

I knew that Ryan would not be impressed with my philanthropy, and less than thrilled about this new addition to our household, but I also knew that this little boy didn’t stand much chance of survival if we left him on the streets. I also felt I could relate to the kitten’s predicament of abandonment. After all, I’d faced similar emotions myself as a child. Displeased boyfriend versus dead kitten? It was no contest.

Still, when I carried the cat carrier into the apartment, the enormity of what I had done hit me. Just as a matter of practicality, we couldn’t take on another kitten. We already had three cats we would have to re-home before we returned to England in December. Plus, this little guy was clearly sick. His eyes looked rheumy and painful. His nose was dripping. He might infect Iko, Niko, and Gershwin. I’d have to keep them apart. Into the laundry room he went with food, water, a litter box, and bedding. Fortunately, he had no interest in hiding under the washing machine.

Ryan got back the next morning looking a bit worse for wear, possibly hungover, and definitely sleep-deprived. Perfect. This was the right time to tell him what I’d done, while he was in a weakened state.

‘Don’t get angry,’ I said. ‘But there’s someone you might want to meet in the laundry room.’

Ryan looked at me with bloodshot green eyes. ‘Oh no! You didn’t. Did you?’

‘I couldn’t leave him there. Anyway, you’ve been gone nearly all night,’ I said, trying to shift the focus onto his fictional misdeeds.

‘Have you introduced him to the other cats yet?’

‘No, I’m waiting until I’ve taken him to the vet.’

‘Good idea,’ Ryan said wearily. He gave me a kiss and crawled into bed, leaving me to keep the cats separate as best I could, which was difficult, because Gershwin was eager to meet our houseguest.

It was at this moment that I realised I had found the start of my own ikigai. I wanted to incorporate my love of animals into my life’s work, but in order to do that, in the future I would need to find a healthier way to do so. So, my other cats didn’t get hurt.

I went to the vets that morning, surprising Dr. Iguchi when a bedraggled tabby kitten strode confidently out of the carrier, rather than Gershwin. Surprise turned immediately to concern as the kitten sat on the exam table, smiled at both of us, then sneezed violently, sending lots of yellow discharge all over the vet’s pristine white smock.

The prognosis was not good. ‘He could have feline flu,’ Dr. Iguchi announced. ‘Very contagious. Very bad. It could be much worse. He might have FIV virus.’

My stomach clenched. The dreaded and deadly cat AIDS.

‘There is a vaccine for your other cats,’ he continued. ‘For now, you must quarantine this kitten until we get his test results back.’

‘I think Gershwin has had the vaccination already,’ I said hopefully, ‘but I’m not sure about Iko and Niko.’

‘So, so, so. Gershkun had the vaccinations before, not the sisters. But you must keep all the cats away from the kitten for now.’

There was no alternative. If I didn’t want a house full of sick cats, and I didn’t, this was the only way. I just had to pray that the others hadn’t already been infected. I told myself they were strong, genki [healthy] animals and I was blithely certain they could fight off any infection, not realising in my ignorance how contagious and potentially deadly feline flu really was.

I drove home and put the kitten back in the laundry room, praying that he didn’t have anything that could kill him, or the other cats.

It wasn’t long before Gershwin wanted to go in and carouse with the kitten. He knew something was wrong straight away. He was always good at reading situations. So, he sat by the door and started meowing to be let in. When I came to see what was bothering him, he stared at me with every ounce of his feline superiority and demanded to see his potential Best Friend Forever. He uttered a particularly piercing nyan [meow] in protest at my having exiled the kitten to the laundry room.

‘You mustn’t go near him for a while,’ I said.

Gershwin rubbed his soft furry body against my even furrier legs and looked me straight in the eyes as if to say ‘Think again.’

When I wouldn’t give in to his demands, he started playing angrily, jumping onto the bookshelf, hurling himself off the top, somersaulting in mid-air, and landing unceremoniously a few centimetres from my feet.

‘Right, that’s it,’ I said as I picked him up, carried him to the bedroom, and shut the door.

It was always the same with Gershwin. Despite being a Ninja Attack Kitten, he had a delicate soul. Whenever he was reprimanded, he would become so hurt by the scolding that he’d disappear for hours (and once, for days) at the shock of being chastised. Then, it could be days before he would actually forgive us. He could out-sit our most ardent lures to be returned to his good graces. If I tried to tempt him with his favourite treats, he would sniff them with disdain, turn his back, and walk off scornfully. I was always the first to give in and let him have his way.

This time, Gershwin didn’t know best. He was banned from the laundry room. Iko and Niko took one look at the closed laundry room door, sniffed the scent of an unfamiliar feline, and avoided that part of the apartment just as they tried to avoid Gershwin when he came over all Ninja Kitten.

That night, I lay awake in bed worrying about what the test results would be. What if, in bringing this stray kitten home, I had inadvertently infected the other cats with the FIV virus? I felt deeply guilty at potentially jeopardising their wellbeing, even their lives. In trying to do the right thing by the sick kitten, I may have done an incredibly wrong thing by Iko, Niko, and Gershwin. If anything happened to them, it would be entirely my fault.

For the next week, while we waited for the test results, the poor kitten, whom I named Takashi after a jovial Bagus bartender, suffered from inflamed and discharging eyes and a badly running nose. I had never seen a cat in this condition before. His tatty coat needed some love and his sore eyes needed constant care. The vet had told me to wash them twice daily with saltwater, which helped them tremendously. He had also given me a medicinal orange powder that I was supposed to mix into his food. Cats being cats, he could smell the concoction a mile off and he was having none of it. I ended up mixing the powder with butter and rubbing it around his face, so he was forced to lick it off.

I agonised all that week. Ryan was equally concerned for the poor little guy. ‘When are you going back to the vets?’ he asked me daily. ‘You’re sure the other cats won’t get it?’ I dared not answer.

Finally, the dreaded, long anticipated morning arrived. A week after I had confined Takashi to the laundry room, I plopped him back into a cat carrier and drove off to see the vet and get the test results.

By now, I had become a regular and familiar face at the animal hospital. I was the only pet-owning gaijin in the vicinity, as far as I was aware, which meant I was a bit of a novelty in the waiting room. People stared at me and some smiled, a few of the braver ones even made conversation, which helped distract me from the potentially dreadful news I might be getting today.

Finally, Takashi’s name was called and, cat carrier in hand, I was ushered into an exam room. I waited nervously as the vet found the kitten’s file.

‘No Katto Eizu,’ he said.

Oh, thank God. Takashi didn’t have the FIV virus!

Before I could celebrate, he continued. ‘But Takashi-kun is very sick,’ Dr. Iguchi said in a somber tone. ‘He has cat flu.’

The tone of his voice was my first clue that feline flu was a far more serious disease than I had believed.

‘Very contagious,’ he continued. ‘Other cats should be immunised against the virus immediately, and Takashi-kun should be isolated from them for another week, maybe more. Keep giving him the medicine and bathing his eyes.’

My enormous relief that Takashi didn’t have a death sentence, and my fears for Iko, Niko, and Gershwin, warred within me all the way home.

CJ Fentiman with her cat

About the book: A girl struggling to fit in. A homeless kitten. An unexpected job offer in an unfamiliar country that changes everything. CJ had a long history of escaping places and people she wasn’t fond of. But for the sake of a silver tabby, she decided to stay in Japan for a while. This decision helped her open her heart and mind, revisit her way of thinking, and reconnect with her estranged family. Let this heartwarming memoir take you to the land of cats and cherry trees as you read about CJ’s adventures — from the craziness of Furukawa’s naked men festival, the experience of forest bathing and the significance of finding a life purpose or ikigai, to the temples of Takayama, and wonders of Cat Island — you’ll see what a homeless kitten found outside a temple in Japan taught her about an old culture and new beginnings.

About the author: CJ Fentiman is a British writer whose work has appeared in a wide range of the publications, from the Japan Times and Caravan World to Horses & People and Pets Bar. An expert on pet travel, she has featured in media in the UK and Australia including Readers Digest, SBS radio, Books on Asia, The Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun, the Courier Mail, and one of the biggest blog platforms on cats, Katzenworld. Her memoir, The Cat with Three Passports, received the award in animal narrative in the 2021 International Book Awards.

Categories
Review

Crossing Borders with The Baseball Widow

Book review by Gracy Samjetsabam

Title: The Baseball Widow

Author: Suzanne Kamata

Publisher: Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing (2021)

Suzanne Kamata is an American writer, academic, and a fiction editor, who resides in the Tokushima Prefecture, Japan. She has authored or edited 14 books including, memoirs and award-winning books. Her anthology The Broken Bridge: Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan (1997) was nominated for the Kiriyama Prize. She is a winner in the best novel category of the Half the World Global Literati Award. The Baseball Widow (2021) is her latest book.  

The Baseball Widow (2021) is the tale of the life and aspirations of a passionate young American teacher Christine as she juggles through encounters in a multi-cultural setting and with having a child with special needs. Christine falls in love and marries Hideki Yamada, an aspiring Japanese high school baseball coach despite the complicacies that may arise due to cultural differences. She settles down with Hideki in Japan with dreams of teaching English and travelling to lower income Asian and African countries to help the underprivileged with English language skills.

Their daughter Emma has cerebral palsy. She is wheelchair bound and communicates through sign language. Emma is named with love after Queen Emma of Hawaii (1836-1885), who promoted a multicultural outlook. Their younger son Koji is sensitive and undergoes bullying in school because of having a specially abled sister. Stereotypes and societal judgments over their cross-cultural marriage, having a child that needs frequent hospital visits and extra care, and the other child getting harassed in school are a constant sources of anxiety for Christine and Hideki. Moreover, Hideki’s wholehearted dedication as a coach, who considers his baseball team as his first “family” and as someone who takes the demands of his job seriously, heightens Christine’s responsibility as a wife and a mother in the family.            

The story has a lot to offer for cross-cultural enthusiasts. Through a host of characters, one gets to look closely into some aspects of life in Japan and into a mish mash of cultures. Interestingly, Kamata also manages to juxtapose the perspectives of Japanese and Americans on baseball as a sport, schooling, varying rituals of birthday celebrations, ways of coping with old age, accent issues, food culture, mannerism, a father-daughter relationship that Kamata calls “skinship” and so on. The story takes a larger overtone as it gives a glimpse of experiences on the notion of the term “Hafu”, which means a Japanese biracial. Half-Japanese or half-American, both in Japan or in America, such persons seem to face more societal hurdles than advantages. Additionally, the main plot along with the other sub-plots has a lot more to speak about relatable experiences of cross-cultural encounters in terms of love, education, health, travel, companionship, and the expectations and realities of life and relationships in general.

Kamata gives a unique take on disabilities and disparities of life experiences through Christine and her family’s experience with their own family and society. As parents, Christine and Hideki tried to cater to the needs of both the children and stay strong. Even though, their family was often subjected to gossip and rumours born of Emma’s condition, they reconciled to her disability. As Koji was victimised, they struggled to change him to a private school. They struggled to make life better for their children and family.

The story runs in two parts. In the first part, Kamata takes the reader back and forth from present day to a flashback as she introduces us to the story and the myriad themes of the novel. The story starts with Christine and her views on Japan and her life in Japan. She sets off to Thailand on a mission to help Cambodian refugees. She walks through her dream of helping needy and disenfranchised kids exploring the bigger questions of dreams and reality, love and longing, and the purpose of life. Experiencing a sort of “compassion fatigue” and looking at the brighter side of life, she returns to Hideki and Japan with hopes for a better future. Hideki coaching the baseball team at the Tokushima Kita High School dreams big and works hard to secure a place for his team to the prestigious national baseball tournament at Koshien. Kamata beautifully portrays how life is complicated with love, dreams and responsibilities through the shorter stories within the framework of the main narrative.

Part two of the novel takes a new turn as Christine comes to her mother’s place in South Carolina for a vacation and she meets her old school friend Andrew, an American Iraq War vet, whom she got to reconnect through the Internet. A fatal attraction and an affair ensued to bring out the raw side of reality. Hideki speculates saying, “… there was no such thing as pure joy, that even the greatest happiness was tarnished somehow, temporary, but worth striving for all the same”. Christine motionlessly undergoes strong emotions as she sees Hideki in the hospital. He too reminisces over lost time with Christine that he over dedicated to his career and reaches out to Christine to start all over again saying, “… Please come home”.     

The Baseball Widow is a gripping novel that powerfully explores issues of responsibility, disability, discrimination, violence, dreams, love, longing, health, career, parenting, youth and old age through a cross-cultural spectacle. Hope and forgiveness overrule the human flaws in the story. Christine positively declares “everything is fine!” about Emma’s disabilities to rise about the surprise, pity, apologies and embarrassment of daily encounters. Beautifully embellished with an exquisite watercolour artwork cover by Giorgio Gosti, dark yet shaded in harmony, humour and positivity, The Baseball Widow will touch lives across ages, genders and cultures.  

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Gracy Samjetsabam is a research scholar at the Manipal Institute of Communication (MIC), 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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Essay

A Life Well-Lived

By Candice Louisa Daquin

A life well-lived tends to be interpreted by cultural needs. In China, maybe it is portrayed as the accumulation of wealth and taking care of ones’ family; in Africa it may be about survival, integrity, and hard work; in Italy, possibly about how many friends you have, how often you laugh, if you feed stray animals.  No one country shares a defined concept of what a well-lived life looks like, but as we are more homogenized than ever before we’re all cross-influenced by other cultures.

The other day I was watching a travel documentary about The Silk Road. The idea of so many foreign countries we’ve never visited, nor know very much about, can be incredibly humbling. We talk in international terms; we talk as if we alone have the right to proclaim for the rest of the world. Even the most avid traveler hasn’t been steeped in a culture long enough to make those assumptions, nor have they visited every shore, every mountain, every tribe. As that is impossible, no one culture or group should claim to speak for what is a universal truth, there is no such thing. How can meaning being separated from being human, thus subjective?

Growing up I was deeply influenced by my mother. She didn’t live with me, but she wrote me letters from all parts of the globe she visited with amazing letterheads and stamps. Eventually this became more than an expensive hobby, she opened a travel company that published newsletters and books on high end travel. In my teen years, I might not have appreciated what she did from afar because I felt ‘high end’ was exclusionary, and it is. But despite this, I have grown to respect what my mom did, because it wasn’t for a living, it was for passion, and in this, I felt she has always lived her life to the full.

True, who wouldn’t like traveling for a living? In high end hotels? Isn’t she just another example of privilege? But she wasn’t. She created this from scratch, having left a highly successful career in media that she attained on her own merit. I think if it were not for my mom, I would not understand how far people can go if they are determined and hard working. It’s definitely why I work hard. However, my own journey has been vastly different. I found it challenging enough at times, to get through life, let alone to thrive. I recall my mom saying love what you do, feel passion in what you do! I felt I was missing a magical ingredient.

Eventually, health issues seemed to close that door to a passion-driven dimension, and I began to be more pragmatic. My thoughts were more along the lines of: how can I support myself and ensure I will have enough to survive? What can I do to overcome or compensate for my shortcomings in health? I lost the advantage of just being able to dream, because I had to survive, and sometimes for many of us, we simply don’t have the luxury to dream. That led me to understand, a life worth living is necessarily subjective. Unequal life chances versus individual effort play a bigger role in the outcome.

Even so, the question of what a well lived life looks like, is one worthy of examination. In the world there are women who are essentially still indentured to their husbands. There are castes and groups who will never be able to rise above other castes and groups because of their birth. There are those so poor they couldn’t attend school if they wanted to. I think of how the girls of Afghanistan will fare with the UK and US leaving and the Taliban gaining their former foothold. Will girls be safe? It doesn’t seem likely nor permitted their former right to education. I envision a similar outcome to what happened to women in Iran. And then there are the fabulously wealthy and the comfortable middle class. We simply don’t all have the same access to a well-lived life to begin with!

Within all these groups lie many variables, not least, our physical and mental state, our chosen career(s), where we live and how expensive it is to survive there. Then there’s just the fickleness of luck, who gets to live, who does not. To boldly state a life worth living is any one of these options, belies the truth of our differences. A child born with HIV may have a different life than one born healthy; a child born blind might have different outcomes than a child born with athletic prowess. Even then, one advantage may be nothing, we may need more advantages. To proclaim as self-help books and life coaches do, that there is one way, seems redundant and missing out on the diversity of our experiences. You can do everything right and still not succeed.

We get older and we think back and wonder, did I make the right choices, was this the direction I intended? Am I satisfied or disappointed? When we’re very young, these considerations are rarely as important, as such we simply experience. Maybe in youthful hedonism, we miss the very moment we should be thinking of the future. Some cultures do a better job of forcing their young to consider the future, such as Germany, who asks the very young to pick a career before they are even in their teens, to help mold an often vocational direction rather than leaving them to decide many years later when it could be too late?

For example, if you had a child, would you wish for the child to take philosophy or neuroscience in university? Which would be more likely to land them a secure job? This surely is part of our role as parents, to ensure our children will be financially safe when growing up. At the same time, we know the potential value of philosophy, but how translatable is that value in today’s world?

I grew up very aspirant-minded because my mom was very successful. Even as I didn’t live with her, I saw her as a role model and believed naively I could follow in her footsteps. There were many reasons I did not. The locations and cultures had changed. The times had changed as in her day it was easier to walk into jobs. By the time I was looking for work, there were thousands clamouring for fewer positions. Often people cannot understand this change because they only have their experience to refer to, but things change a lot, including what was possible and what is no longer possible. 

One might argue, then you just must be better, to do better. This is true in India, China (a Confucian principle) and many other Asian countries, where an excellent and high achieving work ethic coupled with a huge population, causes young people to be under more pressure than ever to attain those coveted positions. This causes one of the following two things as en masse more people do excellently, the bar gets pushed higher, and people from such countries can often cherry pick jobs in other countries because they excel; or a greater division between those who succeed (the minority) and those who traditionally speaking do not (the majority). It’s about sorting out the reality from the stereotype.

America, a country long thought to possess no caste or class system, perpetuates other countries’ histories by having a quiet class system that is denied by the mainstream but very alive. For many families with money, sending their kids to schools that will guarantee the best universities and thus, the best networking and jobs, there is an obvious bias. We talk of ‘The American Dream’, but for the majority, the advantages they are born into, play an equal if not larger role in determining their outcome.

This is partly why discussions about reparation exist, because if families that were traditionally exploited are now generationally paying the price by not having generational wealth and influence to hand down to their children, they come from a position of inequality and inequity even as the American dream continues to be touted. And if those families are mostly families of colour, even more so, as you must consider the racial injustice of the past, which has been carried into the future by this ongoing inequity. The same is true in other countries, the idea we’re born equal and thus, we all have the same chance at a dream is naïve at best.

But how much does this play into a life well-lived? Is it essential to be conventionally successful to achieve such a goal? I would argue it is not. Whilst there are basic essentials coined by Psychologist Abraham Maslow (Hierarchy of Needs) that must be met to even be in the running. In other words, if you cannot afford the basics such as healthcare, economic security, education etc, you’re still stuck on trying to survive. In that sense, it’s a luxury for most to even consider a life well lived, because they are too busy surviving.

Let’s assume however, some of us reach that position of being economically sound enough to consider beyond the mechanisms of survival. Then let us ask ourselves what is a life well lived? Should it be like that of my mother? Being somewhat hedonistic but, true to myself, by doing exactly what she wanted and traveling the world where she could expand. When she passes, will she have felt her life was well lived? I’m guessing she will.

That’s because of a process called reconciliation. One must reconcile one’s regrets or things we were judged for, and if we are able to do this (many of us fail), then we find inner peace. With peace comes a sense of no matter what, we did the best we could, we gave it all we could, we’re glad for the life we lived. In a sense, this summation of a life well lived, is rooted in our self-perception and then that perception projected into a larger context. It takes a lot to consider more than our immediate circle. Perhaps if we could, we would be less fractured as a planet. Less liable to turn the other cheek when atrocities occur,  or put our head in the sand and not think of future generations.

By coming together, universally, thinking in terms of all of us, not just as an individual, as touted so long by the West, we consider wholeness. Can we be whole if others are not? Should we be? And at the same time, not going so far as to lose a sense of ourselves or be merged into a homogenised, possibly too socialised loss of self? In other words, balance.

As you age you realise what mattered then doesn’t matter as much now. Or maybe, you come to realise that what you have always cared about, still matters. For myself, I am very different from my 15-year-old self, where I lived relatively hedonistically, caring about animals and injustice, but not doing enough about it. I see that at 15 , I thought mostly of having fun and generally being a little unrealistic about life. Some 15-year-olds aren’t that way. Why do some children grow up responsible and mature before their time, whilst others can be 30 and still fail to launch?

We can blame parenting, modern society, all sorts of things, but it’s probably more complicated than that. In Japan, many young people are literally shut-ins, (known as hikikomori) living on the cud of their parents income, rarely leaving their room, immersed in an unrealistic life, mostly online. Why do so few Japanese marry or have relationships comparatively speaking? Did the parents mess up? Or is this a symptom of a bigger sense of futility and despair felt by the young because some do think of the future?

I recall as a child I was unrealistic in my expectations, I truly thought I could do anything, be anything and this just wasn’t an honest evaluation of my situation. For some children, they knew they would be dentists at fifteen. For others, they did drugs and lived lost lives, before reinventing themselves. That’s the luxury of youth. But it’s not a permanent state. When you are older you realise, there isn’t as much time to ‘do anything / be anything’ and maybe that’s why I find some self-help/life coaches a little jarring. How long can we ‘do anything’ for realistically? Especially now, where different types of jobs are less than ever before, we’re being asked to homogenise into ever decreasing employment options. Many graduate law schools, formerly considered the pinnacles for employment, find no openings in an already saturated market, but should we doom a child’s dream if that’s what they want to do? The labour market doesn’t have a skills gap, it has an opportunity gap.

Many young people want to be famous, emulate some truly scary people, be unrealistically rich and have celebrity status. Less people want to heal, they want to make big bucks. Maybe they have it right. After all, when we do altruistic things but remain poor, how good does that feel when we can’t afford a car? With price hikes, standard of living seems to be improving because people have technology, but actually, we’re more in debt, without savings and living on a razor’s edge. Which might work at 25, but at 45 with children ready for college?

Again, I hark back to ‘balance’ and the need to live within one’s means, to have dreams that are capable of being pursued, and to help our kids dream up realistic jobs. The younger generations do not have the inherited wealth of the older, and immigrants often come with nothing to a country, depending upon the charity of that country, which is shrinking as our social services are overwhelmed and underfunded, even as immigration is on the rise.

Is the answer to print money? As has been discussed among Democrats? Or tax the rich and risk them leaving? Or is that a myth? With Covid 19 recently closing everything down, many formerly low wage workers were given monetary Covid compensations due to extended unemployment, which ended up being more than they were making as a badly paid waitress or shop worker. With some of those jobs vanishing forever, those that do return, see no employees willing to work for those wages again, and rightly so. But can we sustain a country if we pay what economists would consider a living wage? When $15 is already too little for someone to live on once tax and benefits are removed.

Increasingly we’re seeing a rise in people who fall through the cracks, they are the invisible workers whom we don’t know about, the underemployed, the fragile self-employed. That micro economy might not even show up on official statistics but look around, it exists. How likely can those people consider retiring in 30 years’ time? Can we blame those generations who are trapped by a system that doesn’t make it very likely to find an American Dream and what of the rest of the world, where survival comes long before the luxury of dreaming?

Where in this do we find concepts of lives well-lived? I think no such thing exists fundamentally but individually as we age, we should consider are we congruent to our concept of what a life well-lived means to us? Can we do anything to get closer to it? If so, what?

Recently I thought about this a lot and realised struggling with my health was my tipping point. For some that’s not their tipping point. A friend of mine said hers was losing her home. For me it was being told I was developing premature Macular Degeneration and with no treatment for Dry MD would lose my sight whilst still young. Facing those kinds of things forces us to consider what matters, what does not, and really think about how we value existence.

When I talk to people today, I recognise the value of clarity of purpose. When we know how best to direct our lives, we can spend more time on being the kind of person we want to be, rather than picking up the pieces from a series of failed impulses. If we remember how lucky we are to even have choices, when so many do not, even reading this on a computer puts us in a position of privilege, so rather than lamenting about what you do not have, consider what you need to live a life worth living and then do your best. Even half-way there might be enough to one day say, I have lived a life well-lived.

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Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

Categories
Slices from Life

Serve the People

By Danielle Legault Kurihara

My father-in-law’s passing, when I was pregnant with his grandson, served as a sort of personal consecration. The Japanese family entrusted me with tasks and responsibilities from the moment of his death to the moment, three days later, when we picked his bones out of the ashes. All differences of nationality and religion flew out of the window.

Being married to the third son of a Japanese family, you could say I’m very low on the totem pole. When my mother-in-law married the eldest son of this clan in 1947, she had prestige but she lived to serve. She gained some measure of glory by giving birth to all those boys in the tatami room, but she was still the last one to use the bath water after her parents-in-law, her husband and her three young sons had soaked in it. She laughs about it now but when I asked her about Great-Grandma’s antique hand-painted silk kimonos, she said she made a big bonfire in the garden after her death and burned them all.

We got the call in the middle of the night. Otoosan had passed. As soon as my mother-in-law stepped into her husband’s room at the Veterans Hospital, or Veteru as it is called in Japan, she put everybody to work. His body had to be washed and his face shaved. My husband took me to the other side of the curtain and offered a chair. “You don’t have to do this”, he said. I could hear my mother-in-law instructing her sons. They worked in silence. I sat in the dark.

Otoosan, an architect, a father of three sons and a former soldier and prisoner of war, lived the final years of his long life in the Veteran Hospital. I had only met him once before in his home where he was spending the day as an outpatient. This man, whose powerful physique held memories of a four dan black belt judoka, was strapped in a chair, being fed by his wife. My husband said in a loud voice: “Otoosan, this is my wife. She’s Canadian”. He looked up, showed no reaction on seeing my Caucasian face and the family giggled: all in a day’s work. His son, a three dan black belt himself like a chip off the old block, took over feeding his Otoosan spoonfuls of lukewarm miso soup, their knees touching, their eyes meeting.

First Task

For my first task, after the family finished taking care of Otoosan, I was asked to sit at his bedside and wait with him while the family filled out paperwork in the office. Before leaving, my mother-in-law turned to me and said gently, “He should not be alone, you understand”. They left in the wake of two black clad white-gloved funeral employees who had appeared on cue from the shadows. There we were together, and it seemed like a moment to reacquaint myself with Otoosan, now wrapped in a pristine white sheet, only his tranquil face showing. I stared at him for a long time and finally whispered domo. It can mean hello or thank you or a mix of both. I read once that this greeting was used during the Edo Period to express a feeling of confusion or unsureness about the person one was addressing.

Second Task

For my second task, to my great surprise, my mother-in-law asked me to accompany Otoosan in the van transporting him to the family home while the others went to the funeral support company. Why me, the foreign wife married to the third son?  But everybody had a part to play in this family event and at that moment, the responsibility fell to me. I climbed into the white van to do my job.

My father-in-law and I could never have imagined making this trip together. Not in our wildest dreams. Not only were we practically strangers to each other, but we came from vastly different worlds, him an elderly Japanese man and me, a thirty-something pregnant French-Canadian. Together we crisscrossed the empty streets in the cold white van, side-by-side, his body wrapped in a shroud on a futon near me. In winter, three am is a dark and deep hour but I was told Otoosan was still here among us, in the realm between two worlds. He had just begun his last pilgrimage. Knowing this, I somewhat felt less forlorn traveling through the winter night, so far away from my country and my own cultural bearings. But that’s beside the point. I had a responsibility to fulfill.

Third Task

The porch light was on, the house already wrapped in black and white stripped cloth swaying in the dark as Otoosan was carried inside his home through the front door. He was laid to rest on a futon in the tatami room, two decorative lanterns like fancy bookends framing his bed. A black-and-white photo of Otoosan looking strong and serious sat in the middle of an altar among candles, chrysanthemums and fruit. In the pale yellow light of the lanterns, we dressed him in his white pilgrim garb for his 49-day journey to the Pure Land, following a hierarchical order. His wife put a white cap on his head and rice in the small pouch hanging from his neck, his sons smoothed out the white coat folded in reverse, and I slid, as best as I could while kneeling on the tatami, white cloth slippers over his feet. This was my third and last task of the night. The wake would start tomorrow. My husband, looking sad and exhausted, said, “We will sleep here next to him. Go home to get some rest.”

Fourth Task

The next day I stepped over the rows of slippers now crowding the spotless entrance step of the family home like a military parade. My mother-in-law, in her formal black silk kimono stamped with the family crest on the back collar, glided between the tatami room and the adjoining kitchen on her blinding white tabi socks. A diminutive powerhouse, married to an eldest son. I looked down at my rather homely nondescript black maternity dress.

For my fourth task, she directed me to take down from the cupboards the fancy sets of dessert dishes and tea cups, wash them thoroughly, dry them rigorously and set them out on the table. “Don’t break anything!” she chided with a smile in her eyes. I also had to wipe clean the large decades-old bone china serving platters and stack them with oranges, the locally-grown fruit. I took a certain pleasure in displaying them in a Jackson Pollock style. One way or the other, I knew they would be rearranged.

Early evening, relatives and acquaintances arrived in black suits and dresses to whisper condolences to my mother-in-law who bowed deeply to each guest. The mourners filled the tatami room, all sitting seiza before Otoosan. Leaning in, they greeted each other quietly.

Suddenly there was a commotion. The priest strode in like the phantom of the opera, his magnificent black kimono robes and glitteringvestment swooshing around him. We snapped to attention, backs straight, holding our Buddhist rosaries between clasped hands.  He greeted us, kneeled in front of Otoosan and started chanting in a loud sonorous voice. I was sitting on a stool in the back. I could never sit seiza and being pregnant did not help my cause.

It seemed like the chanting lasted forever. Just as I started dozing off in the stuffy incense-filled tatami room, my husband began to heave. I realized with horror that he was trying to suppress what looked like a maniacal laugh. Eyes staring ahead, his mouth half-closed, he repeated several times in a strained voice, “Snoopy, look, Snoopy!”. From the ceiling lamp a small plastic Snoopy wearing a red fireman hat was dangling from a string just above the bald head of an old uncle. My husband left the room to bawl in the bathroom. I sat on my stool thinking about the Japanese character in the movie Snow Falling on Cedars, how his stereotyped stoic face had changed his fate.

Fifth Task

After the service I strolled into the kitchen to get a drink. There stood one of the elder female relatives, erect in her black kimono. She had now officially taken over duties while my mother-in-law was busy chatting with the guests. I had met her only once and this time she looked at me with what seemed like shiny panther eyes, ready to pounce. In a flash I was thrown into the deepest end of the hierarchical senior-junior relationship: Cinderella, the wife of the youngest son. Serve more tea! Boil more water! Offer sweets! Wash these dirty cups! I was learning humility on the spot, my only stunned response being a weak Hai! I began shuffling around in my black stockings, looking busy and alarmed, set on doing my duty.   A Mao slogan popped into my head: Serve the People, for I was living a cultural revolution of my own. I just could not imagine this scenario happening in my country.

The wake lasted two more days. People came and went, and we ate our meals together just two meters away from Otoosan. We re-arranged flowers, sat near him and chatted. He was never alone. Some family members talked to him. On the morning of the fourth day, the family lined up from the house to the hearse. Otoosan exited his home feet last to the mournful sound of the car horn. No birds, no wind.

For the ceremony at the large funeral hall, the priest recited the sutras in front of Otoosan’s photo and a magnificent flower display. So many mourners, in slippers, paid their respect with incense and prayers at Otoosan’s casket. Each person brought incense grains three times to their forehead before finally depositing them in the incense burner. After the eldest son gave the customary speech, we lined up in order of importance to receive condolences. I was last of course but wholeheartedly included. “You must be Yoshiro’s wife,” some of Otoosan’s elderly friends exclaimed, naturally mistaking me for the second son’s spouse, the one working abroad. 

We followed the hearse to the crematorium and, huddled together in front of Otoosan, we said goodbye to his earthly envelope before he was sent off for cremation. In the meantime, we all gratefully sat down to a feast of large bento lunchboxes filled with rice balls, potato salad, fried chicken and pickles. Relatives from far and near sat close to my mother-in-law, some lay back on the tatami, some loosened their ties and belts and others had loud conversations over the long low tables. I sat on a stool devouring my food. Pregnancy made me hungry.

Sixth Task

Finally, we were called in to pick Otoosan’s bones from the ashes and transfer them to an urn. As he handed me a pair of large chopsticks, my husband said, “You don’t have to do this”. But I wanted to do it. By that time, I had had four days to acquaint myself with Otoosan and with death while going about my tasks in the living family home. The family put Otoosan’s bones in his urn in a matter-of-fact way. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

On the 7th day of his passing, a sunny winter day, we stood in front of the imposing family grave while the eldest son placed Otoosan’s urn alongside those of his forefathers, under the heavy slab of rock at the foot of the stone monument. Only first sons and their wives are included. It looks like my husband and I will have to find our own resting place in Japan. 

I think my mother-in-law worries that her eldest son’s eldest son will not be able to carry on the tradition of caring for the family grave. He doesn’t have a son to continue the lineage, only daughters. But then again, my mother-in-law stoically goes with the flow of life and change. I was part of this flow. Twenty-three years after Otoosan passed on, she apologised for imposing on me the task of riding with him from the hospital to the family home. On the contrary, it was an honour.

I fulfilled my role as the third son’s wife the best I could to assist the Japanese family mourn Otoosan. On my next trip to the home country, it wouldn’t kill me to brush leaves or snow off the headstones of my loved ones, bring flowers or have a look at their urns through the glass. I might linger and tell them about me, my son, the Japanese family. I also need to discuss my resting place among them. Who knows, maybe my husband and my son will come from Japan to help me.

Glossary

Sieza – formal Japanese sitting posture (on your knees)

Hai—Yes in Japanese.

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Danielle Legault Kurihara, a Quebecker, lives in Japan. She writes about her expat life and her bicultural son. She writes for him.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Interview

In Conversation with Suzanne Kamata

Suzanne Kamata is different. She is a mother writing for her children, who are uniquely placed in Japan – products of syncretic lore, an American mother and Japanese father. Recipient of a number of prestigious awards, Kamata represents the best in the mingling of the East and the West. Her writing flows well and is compelling — exploring areas that are often left untouched by more conventional writers.

Kamata has lived in Tokushima Prefecture, Japan, for more than half of her life. She is the author or editor of 14 published books including, most recently, The Spy (Gemma Open Door, 2020), a novella for emerging readers; the middle grade novel Pop Flies, Robo-pets and Other Disasters (One Elm Books, 2020) which won an American Fiction Award and was recently released as an audiobook; and Indigo Girl (GemmaMedia, 2019), winner of an SCBWI Crystal Kite Award and named a Freeman Book Awards Honor Book, as well as one of the Best Children’s Books of 2019 by Bank Street College. Her work also appears in The Best Asian Travel Writing 2020 (Kitaab, 2020),  The APWT Drunken Boat Anthology of New Writing, What We Didn’t Expect: Personal Stories About Premature Birth ( Melville House Publishing, 2020), Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural Japan(Camphor Press, 2020), and The Phantom Games (Excalibur Press, 2020). Her adult novel The Baseball Widow is forthcoming in October 2021 from Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing.

When and why did you move to Japan? What made you start writing? At what age did you start writing?

I came to Japan to work as an assistant English teacher on the JET Program in 1988, shortly after I graduated from college. I’d wanted to experience living abroad for a year or two before I began my “real job,” which was not yet determined. I partly wanted to accumulate material for writing future stories and novels. I started writing as a child and never quit. I think my love for writing developed from my early love for reading.

What was your first book and how did it come about?

The first book that I published was actually The Broken Bridge: Fiction by Expatriates in Literary Japan (Stone Bridge Press, 1997) an anthology of short stories by foreigners who lived or were living in Japan. I’d read an article about editing anthologies, and I read several short stories by expatriates in Japan which I felt deserved a wider audience, so I wrote a letter to a publisher that specialised in books about Japan with the idea of a collection. Little did I know, I wasn’t the first person to come up with such an idea, but I was perhaps the most persistent, so even though I was only in my twenties and had only published a couple of short stories in obscure journals, the publisher was willing to give me a shot at it.

What influenced your writing? Books, authors, music? And how?

My writing style is probably most influenced by reading. Early on, I was strongly attracted to the minimalist style of Ann Beattie and I tried to imitate that. Some other influences would be Marguerite Duras, particularly the collage aspect of The Lover, and Lorrie Moore’s dark humor. As far as subject matter goes, I am influenced by confluences of culture, by travel, by motherhood, by my daily life, and sometimes by quirky facts that I come upon.

You have a book called Losing Kei, in which a child born of a mixed marriage is torn by cultural differences and the parent’s inability to adjust to each other’s heritage. It has been compared to Kramer vs Kramer. Why the comparison and do you think it is justified?

Kramer vs. Kramer is about a custody battle, so I can see why my publisher used that comparison. I don’t know of any other novels about in-court custody battles over children of international marriages published at that time, so I think it’s more or less apt. In Losing Kei, the father is granted full custody of the couple’s son, against the mother’s wishes, but the child, Kei, is mostly taken care of by his grandmother. In the movie, the Kramer father is taking care of his son by himself because his wife has deserted them, but then she tries to get her son back.

Having grown up in America, do you actually think of the Japanese culture as ‘repressive’ or ‘xenophobic’ as says author Ellis Avery, author of The Teahouse fire, while commenting on Losing Kei?

Hmm. Things are changing, a bit, but I think that there is still a lot of resistance to foreigners in Japan. During the pandemic, which is on-going as I write, for a time only Japanese nationals were allowed to leave and re-enter the country. If a permanent resident – even someone with a home, job, and family – were to leave Japan during the early part of the pandemic, they weren’t allowed back into the country. Many foreign residents have seen this as discriminatory. Laws have changed, since I first arrived, allowing more foreign workers to come to Japan, but I think a lot of people worry that an influx of people from other countries will change Japan, and not in a good way.

You often write on or for children. Is there a reason for it?

I started writing for children when my own children were small. Being biracial/bicultural and living in Japan – and disabled, in the case of my daughter — their experiences were quite unique and rarely represented in books, so I tried to write a few stories to help fill that gap.

Squeaky Wheels, your immensely moving novel that won the inaugural Half the Globe Literati award (Best novel) in 2016, explores a mother’s travels with a child on a wheelchair. Can you tell us how this book came about?

Thank you so much for your kind words! Although the book won the award for “novel,’ it is actually a memoir of traveling with my daughter. When she was around twelve, she declared that she wanted to go to Paris. At the time, I was working as an adjunct, and we didn’t have a lot of money. So, I came up with the brilliant (ha ha) idea of writing a proposal for a book on traveling with my daughter, who is deaf and uses a wheelchair. It would be, I proposed, like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, but in different countries – France, not Italy; Japan, not Indonesia – and it would explore issues of accessibility in each country. I knew that Gilbert had gotten a huge advance to write her book. I also knew of a father of a child with autism who had gotten a million dollars to write a book about taking his son to visit a shaman in Tibet to be cured or whatever. So, I thought that I had a shot. No publisher, however, was willing to give me a contract and an advance to fund our trip, but I had a pretty decent book proposal by then, which I used to apply for a grant. I was extremely fortunate to be awarded a generous grant by the Sustainable Arts Foundation. We went to Paris, and I wrote the book.

Your last novel was Indigo Girl. The Kirkus Review said it was “a lovely sequel that focuses on finding strength in one’s self and maintaining hope when all seems lost.” It was a sequel to Gadget Girl. Tell us a bit about the two books.

A lot of people think that Gadget Girl, the story of the fourteen-year-old daughter of an American mother and Japanese father who has cerebral palsy, is based on my daughter’s actual experiences, but that’s not really true. I started writing the book when my daughter was quite small. I wanted to write a book that she might be able to enjoy as a teen. The main character, Aiko, is an aspiring manga artist, who has grown up as her sculptor mother’s muse. I wrote frequently about my children when they were small, so I imagined what my children might feel about those stories once they hit adolescence. In the first book, Gadget Girl, Aiko travels to Paris with her single mother. In the follow-up, Indigo Girl, which is a stand-alone sequel, Aiko visits rural Japan in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown) to finally connect with her biological father, who is an indigo farmer.

How many books have you authored? Are they all centred around young adults or children? Which one did you enjoy writing the most and why?

I have authored 12 including a picture book, a couple of titles for emergent readers, a short story collection, a memoir, three novels for adults (one forthcoming) and four novels for younger readers, the most recent of which is Pop Flies, Robo-pets and Other Disasters (One Elm Books, 2020). The first two novels that I wrote (but not the first two that I published) were The Mermaids of Lake Michigan (Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing, 2017) and Screaming Divas (Simon Pulse, 2014), which were both initially intended to be adult novels, but which concern young adults. When I wrote those books, I was in my late twenties/early thirties, when I felt that I didn’t have enough distance or perspective to write about my adult experiences. And then later, I intentionally wrote for children and young adults. It’s really hard to say which one I enjoyed writing the most, but Squeaky Wheels was fun for me. I loved traveling with my daughter, and I loved reliving those experiences when I was writing and revising the book. And writing nonfiction is a lot easier than writing fiction.

You teach at Naruto University of Education. What is it like to teach students who have been brought up in an entirely different culture from you? How does this experience translate to your own writing?

Japanese students tend to be a bit conservative, so I am always striving to open their minds, and to help them see that being receptive to other cultures and travel can be mind-blowing as it has been for me. I also learn a lot from them, because their upbringing has been so different from mine. One very concrete way in which teaching has affected my writing is that I have started to write stories for emergent readers. I realise that a lot of my books are too difficult for the average Japanese reader of English, but many students are interested in reading my writing. So far, I have written two hi/lo books for the Gemma Open Door series. These books are short, and the level of language is a bit easier.

How has the pandemic affected Japan, you and your work?

Japan hasn’t suffered as greatly as many other nations, perhaps because it is a mask-wearing culture, and also because as soon as news of a break-out aboard the cruise ship the Diamond Princess appeared, people started being cautions. In Tokushima, where I live, there have been fewer than 400 documented cases since the start of the pandemic. Since I haven’t had to travel for conferences, and I have been teaching online, things have been pretty calm and peaceful. Surprisingly, I have written quite a bit. I actually started a new novel!

What are your future plans? Do you have a new novel/books in the offing?

I hope to continue writing and publishing! I have a couple of adult novels – a historical novel, and one set slightly in the future – in progress, as well as a few picture book manuscripts that I have been tinkering with. In October of this year, my adult novel The Baseball Widow, will be published by Wyatt-Mackenzie. I started writing it shortly after I finished Losing Kei, but I abandoned it a few times. Anyway, I am happy to announce that it will finally make it into print! It’s a family drama about an international/interracial marriage in crisis told from multiple points of view. I hope you will enjoy it!

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This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.

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