I rarely worry about the possible outcomes of a divorce for my family, but whenever my thoughts do drift that way, the fact that I live in a foreign country — my husband’s country — and that our daughter holds his nationality rather than mine makes the prospect more complicated, and much more terrifying.
In those moments, I remember the young American woman I met soon after I followed my husband to his hometown, Paris. A journalist, she too had been married to a Frenchman, but since her recent divorce she was trying to make ends meet and stay sane as a single parent alone in a foreign culture. When I asked why she didn’t move back to the U.S., closer to the support of her family and friends, she explained that when she tried to leave France and return home with her baby daughter, she was charged with international kidnapping. “How can that be?” I protested. “You’re her mother and you were just trying to return to your country!” My friend’s answer was as simple as it was devastating: a French court had decreed that her child must live in France to remain close to her father; if she wanted to share custody, she too was forced to stay.
In this poignant debut novel, established expatriate writer Suzanne Kamata dares to take a close look at what happens to a young mother when the worst that can go wrong in a cross-cultural marriage actually does.
Losing Kei is set in Japan, where divorce law most often awards sole custody to one parent, usually the mother. From then onward, the other parent is “as dead” to the children, so much so that they may really be told that this parent has died. A famous example is the divorce of former Prime Minister Koizumi, after which his wife was declared “dead” to their young son. Years later this mother may now finally see her adult son — when he, an actor, appears on TV. If the wife and mother in a Japanese divorce is a foreigner, however, custody is almost always awarded to the Japanese father, leaving the mother with no rights at all.
Reading Losing Kei, I was surprised by how effortlessly I was introduced to Japanese culture. Kamata, who lives in Japan with her Japanese husband and their two bi-cultural children, knows her terrain. In a tone that, despite her subject matter, remains full of respect, and using often beautifully sparse and emotionally resonant language, Kamata describes the culture and country she has set her novel in:
The city outside my window was clean. Pure. Whitewashed buildings, devoid of graffiti. . . . The inside of the taxi smelled of pomade and faded tobacco. . . . I spent a moment concentrating on these smells, wanting to save them. I tried to memorize the buildings. . . the billboards pushing Coca-Cola and some other drink called Pocari Sweet. The sight of Mt. Fuji, hazy in the distance.
Losing Kei‘s protagonist and first person narrator, Jill Parker, is an American painter who travels to Japan to forget a man who broke her heart and settles there. A sensitive, free-spirited young woman with a hunger for the country she has decided to live in, Jill has the courage to take up opportunities that come her way. One of these is a “night-job” as a bar-hostess in the shabby yet friendly Cha Cha Club.
When Jill meets Yusuke, a cultured and open-minded gallery owner who has lived in the U.S., she begins to feel at home in her new world, both as an artist and a woman. Yusuke shows interest in Jill’s painting and offers to host her first show. Soon they fall in love, and when the time comes for Jill to return to the U.S., Yusuke asks her to stay and marry him.
Jill realizes only after their wedding that because Yusuke is a chonan, an eldest son, he regards it as his duty to care for his extended family and uphold family tradition. Yusuke takes Jill home to live with his elderly parents, where Jill learns she is expected to fulfill the role of a traditional Japanese okusan, a wife. When Yusuke’s father dies, Yusuke gives up his gallery to take over the family’s business; the world she thought they shared begins to crumble.
At first Jill tries to rescue her ideal of a blended American-Japanese wife. But six years into their marriage and despite the birth of a beautiful son, Kei, Jill is miserable. She can scarcely recognize the man she has married, or the woman she has become. When she realizes she has to leave Yusuke to stay true to herself, Jill doesn’t understand that this will mean losing her child.
Kamata tells Jill’s story using an intricate temporal structure that interweaves past and present to give deeper meaning to both. In Losing Kei‘s moving opening chapter, we are taken straight to what may be the novel’s most painful moment: Jill waits alone in an empty playground to catch a glimpse of her son, Kei, walking by on his way home from school:
From this close I can see the lush fringe of his lashes, the dimples in his cheeks. In his eyes, I detect yearning. Just for a moment. Because then, out of nowhere, his grandmother appears. She must have seen me. She must have noticed me even as I stood entranced by this boy. She runs to him and the others fall away.
“Kei!” I shout again, but she won’t let him look at me. She holds his head firmly against her side and rushes him off down the street and I can do nothing but watch.
The novel then moves between this period after the divorce — when Jill has lost Kei and is desperately trying to find a way to reclaim him — and the time when Jill first arrives in Japan and meets Kei’s father. Kamata also integrates flashbacks into Jill’s past as a younger woman in the U.S.; in doing so, she shows the reader why Jill comes to be in the places she inhabits, both geographically and emotionally.
With its hauntingly beautiful cover image, Losing Kei promises not to shy away from the pain of a broken marriage that separates a parent from her child. Kamata fulfills this promise gracefully and — almost miraculously — without dwelling on the tragic or losing her sense of humor.
Kamata achieves this considerable feat chiefly because her protagonist is a woman who — despite living in circumstances foreign to most readers — remains in her emotions and actions profoundly authentic and knowable. As a new wife, Jill wakes up early to learn to make a traditional Japanese breakfast for her husband, yet at the same time longs for the toast and coffee she knows best:
The next morning I managed to rise at six and my new mother-in-law, who was already awake, showed me how to make miso soup. The trick is to stir in the thick bean paste just before the water boils. . . . Then you add something that floats, like mushrooms, and something a bit heavier, like carrots.
“The colors are important,” she said, as I watched silently. I was used to jam slapped on toast, a cup of coffee on the side.
In Jill’s candid voice, Kamata reveals her talent for finding the poetic in small, often mundane moments. Indeed, some of her most beautiful writing shows Jill’s evolution as a mother. Shortly after Kei’s birth, Jill discovers that the world around her has taken on new meaning since his existence:
The world looked different since Kei had been born. A dragonfly darted past me and I thought how, in a few months, he would gaze upon the blue-winged thing in wonder. His fingers would stroke the petals of cosmos, blades of grass, puffs of dandelions for the first time ever. I imagined him toddling through this neighborhood, each step an adventure.
Later, after she has been separated from her son, she realizes that she has been losing him all along:
For nine months Kei lived in my body, matching his rhythms to mine. At birth he left it. Everything afterward was a move further away from me . . . .
Kamata’s sensibility for capturing the subtle and often complicated emotions between mother and child is often stunning, such as here, one of the few times Jill is allowed to see Kei after the divorce:
So finally he is there before me. His face is smudged with dirt and chocolate, his hair in disarray. He has learned to shield his soul and I cannot see into his eyes. More than anything I want to pull him into my arms, but he stands so stiffly. He needs time to melt.
If I missed anything in this novel, it was gaining a deeper insight into Yusuke’s character and the couple’s relationship after the marriage. However, it is intrinsic to the premise of this story that Yusuke remains profoundly and frustratingly unknowable — first and foremost to Jill herself.
When I fell in love with my French husband, well-meaning people sometimes warned me that cross-cultural relationships could be “complicated.” At the time, I translated “complicated” into “stimulating,” “fascinating,” “a challenge” — an element that makes life more invigorating.
Years down the line, I have come to realize that, even in the happiest of circumstances, cross-cultural marriages are undeniably more complex. In addition to two unique individuals with separate family and personal histories, two cultures with often very diverse expectations of marital roles, parenting, and family life converge. We often take our own cultural expectations for granted, and this is something an international relationship will never let you do. The beauty in this, though, is that getting to know what is “other” inevitably teaches us to know ourselves better.
Almost as much as Losing Kei is about a mother fighting for her child, this complex novel is about a woman’s journey of growth and self-knowledge. In the midst of “otherness,” Jill struggles to find a way to reclaim not only her son, but also herself.