Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Suzanne Kamata

Posted on: March 4, 2015

BEYOND Understanding: Beyond FINESSE:

BEYOND Understanding:

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 anthologies focused on raising multicultural children and children with special needs. Her writing has garnered many accolades, including several nominations for the Pushcart Prize, and YA winner at the 2013 Paris Book Festival for Gadget Girl.

After graduating from the University of South Carolina in 1988, Southern Authors reports, Kamata was eager to leave the country, to “experience a non-Western culture.” She applied to the Peace Corps and was assigned to Cameroon, but then decided to head to Japan after being offered a one-year assistant teaching position with Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET). “I figure I’d spend a year in Japan and then go to Africa. But one year in Japan didn’t seem like enough–there was still so much to see and do and learn.” Kamata decided to renew her contract for one more year. She’s been there ever since.

Kamata embarked on her writing career for young people by submitting children’s stories to magazines. Before Gadget Girl was a novel, it was first an acclaimed novella, published in Cicada. When Kamata’s daughter was smaller, according to Literary Mama, Kamata found her interesting and funny, with 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….” She also 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.”

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. Throughout the novel, each explores the complexities of belonging, while owning their artistic and personal strengths.


ALLISON: Did you come from a big or small family? How has that impacted who you are today?

SUZANNE: There were four people in my family–my parents, my brother, who was a year and a half older, and me. It’d hard for me to say how the size of my family has impacted me since I’ve never known any differently, but I do think that being one of only two children, and the only daughter, I got plenty of attention and encouragement. My parents were– and still are–happily married. I had a very stable upbringing.

ALLISON: What interests did you have growing up besides reading and writing?

SUZANNE:Those were my main interests, but I was also interested in travel. From an early age, I had fantasies about visiting New York City, which seemed to be the center of all things cultural, and also foreign countries such as France and Australia.

I took piano lessons and learned to play the string bass, but I wasn’t all that passionate about performing. I played softball for a year in junior high and ran cross-country for a year in high school, but I was never good at sports.

ALLISON: How did your parents mentor you as an adolescent?

SUZANNE: My parents encouraged me in everything I did. When I said that I wanted to be a writer, they never suggested that it would be hard to make a living so I should come up with a fall-back career. Maybe they were naive, but they never tried to dissuade me. In fact, my father used to ask me to write letters for him whenever he needed to write something official. My mom was always a big reader, and she took me and my brother to the library from when we were small. I’m sure that had a huge influence as well. And my parents always rewarded my brother and I for good grades. We were good students anyway, but if we got on the Honor Roll, we got a bonus in our allowances.

ALLISON: How did they embarrass you?

SUZANNE: The usual ways, I guess. By buying us clothes at K-Mart instead of letting us shop at upscale boutiques. I sometimes wished that my mom had a job. I was embarrassed that she was “just a housewife” while other moms had careers, though since I’ve become a mother myself I realize what a gift it was for me to have her there all the time.

ALLISON: If you were to introduce outsiders to Japan, what would you show them?

SUZANNE: Japan is rich in natural beauty, so I would want to show them the cherry blossoms in spring and the sea. If they were to come to the town in Shikoku where I live, I’d want to take them someplace where they could try their hand at local crafts such as indigo-dyeing and paper-making, and I’d like for them to enjoy Awa Odori, a huge summer festival which rivals Mardi Gras. Tokushima also has an annual anime event, where young people participate in cosplay and get to meet their favorite anime and manga artists.

ALLISON: What makes you most nostalgic about the United States?

SUZANNE: The list is long. Food often makes me feel nostalgic. Recently, my family visited Okinawa and I insisted upon going to the A & W (which is only in Okinawa!) because drinking root beer reminded me of my childhood. I miss the diversity of the States, and the wide open spaces, and radio stations.


ALLISON: You’ve drawn on your children’s experiences to write your novels. Have you drawn on those of your own childhood too? For example?

SUZANNE: Yes, of course. Gadget Girl is set in the town on Lake Michigan where I grew up. Though it’s not explicitly named in the book, the setting is Grand Haven, Coast Guard City U.S.A., once home to the World’s Largest Musical Fountain.

I also went through a period when I didn’t get along with my mother, which I think is pretty common. My own daughter was much younger than Aiko, the main character of Gadget Girl, when I was writing the book so I relied partly on memories of my own experiences when I was writing about the relationship between Aiko and her mother.

ALLISON: How did Raoul end up in your book?

SUZANNE: The story was originally much shorter, around 14,000 words. When I decided to turn it into a full-fledged novel, I had to add more characters and more subplots. I’m not sure where specifically Raoul came from, but he was one of those new characters. These days I’m very interested in diversity, and I wanted to include a variety of people in my book. My hometown wasn’t very diverse–it was very white, but there were a few Hispanic students in my high school, and migrant workers from Mexico often came to Michigan to pick blueberries.

ALLISON: Are there characters or scenes that you hated to drop?

SUZANNE: Oddly enough, I don’t think I dropped any characters or scenes from this book. My main challenge was to make it much longer and more developed.

ALLISON: What were the challenges in raising a child with cerebral palsy? How did you handle them?

SUZANNE: Some have been emotional–learning to accept that there are things that my daughter may never be able to do, such as walk. I try to focus upon the things that she can do, such as bathe and dress herself, read and write, and draw. Some challenges have been logistical. We renovated our house so that it would be more accessible for her. We installed a wheelchair ramp and bars on the walls, for example. Another challenge is mobility. She is dependent on others (me, mostly) for going places so it’s not easy for her to meet up with friends. Hopefully in the future she will be able to go places by herself.

ALLISON: How would you explain cerebral palsy to a stranger?

SUZANNE: It’s a non-progressive condition caused by a brain injury at birth. It affects people in different ways, and to different degrees depending on which part of the brain was injured. Many people with cerebral palsy are highly intelligent. It’s not a disease.

I’ll be back later in March with a review of Gadget Girl. Because I have spring break, March will be a little different for my posts. The first week I’ll post daily teasers and the second week I’ll post daily reviews. Save the date for my review of Kamata’s book: March 11!


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I am focusing this year on other commitments. Once a month, I’ll post reviews of Advanced Reader Copies. Titles will include: Freddy Frogcaster and the Flash Flood by Janice Dean, One Two by Igor Eliseev, Incredible Magic of Being by Kathyrn Erskine, Dragon Grammar Book by Diane Robinson, and Wide as the Wind by Edward Stanton.



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