A Conversation with Suzanne Kamata
Suzanne Kamata, Literary Mama’s Fiction Co-Editor, resides and writes in Japan. She is the author of a new novel, Gadget Girl, among many other notable works, including Losing Kei, the forthcoming Screaming Divas, and anthologies focused on raising multicultural children and children with special needs. Kamata’s prolific, diverse writing has garnered many accolades, including several nominations for the Pushcart Prize. Gadget Girl was named the YA winner at the 2013 Paris Book Festival.
A mother-daughter relationship is at the heart of Gadget Girl. Artist-mother Laina takes her daughter, Aiko, to Paris with her when she goes to exhibit her work, much of which focuses on Aiko’s cerebral palsy. Aiko, a closet manga writer, would rather be in Japan to reconnect with her estranged father. Mother and daughter navigate their relationship with trepidation and bravery, as Laina longs to help Aiko feel greater freedom. Throughout the novel, each explores the complexities of belonging, while owning their artistic and personal strengths.
Melissa Uchiyama (and her baby) sat down with Suzanne Kamata to celebrate Kamata’s first YA novel. In a lush flower shop/café in Tokyo, they talked about Paris, their shared home of Japan, and writing while mothering.
Melissa Uchiyama: For starters, Suzanne, how did you so perfectly capture YA language? The wit was there, the terse phrases, and the often self-deprecating comments. How intentional was this YA voice?
Suzanne Kamata: I think it’s partially because my English development stalled at about 22, which is how old I was when I first came to Japan. After that, the Japanese language surrounded me, so I never learned to speak English like an adult. Also, I read a lot of YA books before I attempted one on my own, and I suppose I may have been influenced by the teenspeak on the Disney Channel. A few years ago, my kids were really into “Hannah Montana.”
One of the key points about writing for young adults (or adults who read YA) is that the reader doesn’t have a lot of tolerance for long digressions or descriptions. The story generally has to move along fairly quickly. Writing for young adults has taught me to be a better writer for adults.
MU: Aiko, the main character, is often embarrassed at her own predicament—that discomfort in one’s teenage skin. She is also horrified by her mother, as many young women are at times. Is there anything you recall that your parents did that embarrassed you as a young adult, or anything you do that now embarrasses your children?
SK: Well…my daughter knew that I had been to Paris before, so at first, she was telling all her friends, “Oh, my mom speaks French.” During our first morning in Paris, in the hotel breakfast room, there was a huge bowl of eggs. In Japan, there are often hardboiled eggs. If you saw a basket of eggs, you would think they were hardboiled. I brought an egg back to the table. It broke…and I could tell she was thinking, “My mother is so embarrassing!” Her attitude was like, “You said you were, you know, Parisian or whatever!”
MU: I know you also have a teenage son. Are there any awkward/funny YA parenting moments with him?
SK: There was an incident where I showed up at his school to pick him from his late-night study session…in my robot pjs. I thought I’d be able to stay in my car, but then I had to get out of my car, find him, and say goodbye to his teacher. I thought it was funny, but he was so embarrassed. He doesn’t allow me to write about him anymore.
MU: Oh, no! That’s terrible! Maybe that’s just part of growing up, though. Your parents embarrass you. You both have a good story to tell! I know that before Gadget Girl was a novel, it was first an acclaimed novella, published in Cicada. Where did the story of Gadget Girl first come from? How long has it been with you, wanting to be written?
SK: When my daughter was nine, I wanted stories for her, for when she was older, so I was thinking ahead.
MU: Your own daughter, like Aiko, has cerebral palsy. Did you play with the idea of Aiko having other disabilities, or did you know all along it would be CP?
SK: I am happy now because my daughter, now 14, is expressing herself artistically. I’m ready to step aside and let her be, let her have her own voice. When she was smaller, I thought, “She is really interesting and funny and she has the same sort of interests as other kids. She’s complicated and I wanted people to see that, so I thought to put that in literature. If kids read that about cerebral palsy….”
MU: Wow, so you imagined her as a teen and created something for her in the future, is that right?
SK: Many of my stories are published in magazines. I wanted to create something not so ephemeral. You wouldn’t throw the book out, would you? A magazine, a newspaper, or journal, sure. But not a book. You wouldn’t recycle a book, would you? Well, I couldn’t!
MU: Do you see yourself in Aiko’s mom?
SK: Maybe Aiko’s mom (who is a sculptor, not a writer) is my alter ego—but that’s an extreme version, extreme, of how I see myself.
MU: I can see that it may be a balancing act between writing to share your daughter’s story and exploring your craft. Short of sculpting your daughter, what is one very real way you relate to Aiko’s mother, Laina?
SK: I wanted to write an essay about her growing, changing body.
MU: Ooh, I get nervous over the very idea. I know how I was as a teen, growing into my skin, the awkward insecurity. Your daughter’s okay with you writing about her?
SK: Well, that’s always an issue with mother writers. Up to what point is it okay to write about your kids? A lot of writers of kids my age kind of taper off…they don’t want to write about their kids anymore. At this age (pointing to my then-seven-month-old), it’s more about you, but as they get older, it’s kind of like…sometimes I want to write about my son’s crush on Facebook. Wait wait wait. Wait a minute—I shouldn’t do that. I wanted to write an essay about when my daughter’s body started changing. I had this whole theme about the body and body issues, but then I thought, maybe I shouldn’t write about that—her body, her naked body. She would say yes, because she’s kind of oblivious; she doesn’t understand exactly what I’m doing. She’s very innocent, but if she were aware, she would absolutely not want me to write about her naked body.
MU: That is so right and it reminds me of Aiko’s discomfort with the idea that people would be looking at her as they look at her mom’s statues—a mirror of her body.
SK: Right—that’s from wanting to write about her body. People say that writing about writers is boring…so it was kind of a way to write about someone who is a creator, using their daughter to explore that. I didn’t intend for her to be evil in any way or to be a bad mom…people criticized, “She didn’t make the dinner….” Earlier in my process she was less sympathetic: I didn’t want her to be potentially exploiting her daughter, I wanted her to be trying to help people see beyond her (daughter’s) disability.
MU: Was there anything during the process of writing Gadget Girl that surprised you? Perhaps something you gained that you were not counting on?
SK: In the first draft, there was no Raoul and he is a favorite character to so many. One thing I’ve learned is how writing many, many, many drafts can make a better book. With Losing Kei,I only did one or two drafts. But because I was trying to please people, like my agent, I would have other people, editors, read it and give me advice. I really wanted to publish this as a book, so I tried to take a lot of professional advice, but it wasn’t working. In the end, I sort of went back to my initial, original vision. I did keep some of it, so it did get better. I also learned the importance of listening to myself and trusting myself as a writer.
MU: How did you grow as a writer through this process of writing and publishing Gadget Girl.
SK: I learned not to give up. I’ve always known that the writers who succeed are the ones who don’t give up. I gained a lot of stamina in the four years of revisions and writing that led up to publishing Gadget Girl.
MU: With all that momentum, what new projects do you have up your sleeve?
SK: I’m working on a couple of YA novels—one about a Japanese high school baseball player, and a sequel to Gadget Girl—and also a mother-daughter travel memoir.