Monday, 26 January 2009

Diversity makes us more curious.

My children are my greatest muses .What a lovely celebration of motherhood! This week author Suzanne Kamata introduces us to her writing career and her motherhood which is not just a living status, a category in which to feel enclosed, but more, a deep in progress experience that allows to see things from a wider perspective. Motherhood for Suzanne, gains value if her identity of woman can be respected and filled with creativity, "...I need to have some sort of identity in addition to Mother. I owe it to my children, as well as to myself." And we definetly believe in this vision of a woman free from fixed roles.

Born and raised in Grand Haven (Michigan- USA), Suzanne now lives in Japan (Tokushima 

Prefecture) with her husband and twins. Here she arrived in 1988 to participate in the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, which places native speakers into English classrooms in Japanese public schools.

Her bibliography is remarkable with over 100 publications appeard in New York Stories, Calyx, Crab Orchard Review, Pleiades, Kyoto Journal, The Utne Reader, The Japan Times, Brain, Child, Skirt!, Ladybug and Cicada. Among her recent works we 'd like to remember her first novel Losing Kei (Leapfrogpress 2008), The Broken Bridge:
Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan (Stone Bridge Press, 1997); Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising Children with Special Needs, (Beacon Press) and the new coming Call me Okaasan available from May. Five times nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and two time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, Suzanne is also a very active blogger. Through her Gaijin Mama, she shares her writing and human world giving the reader the feeling of being in touch with a sensitive woman who loves her work and consider motherhood as a source of inspiration. I'm sure you'll love, as I did, her resolution in achieving her beloved goals in writing, struggling against prejudices and misunderstandings. She is also a strong comforting voice for all those women-mothers who find difficult to conciliate creative work and family and who feel scared and unprepared about rising children with special needs.

KABILIANA - Suzanne, can you tell us something about your childhood and your relationship with books? Were you a good reader?
SUZANNE - As a child, I loved reading. I read all the time. I remember reading at family gatherings, which was probably considered rude and antisocial, but no one stopped me. I lived in a small, conservative town in Michigan, yet because of books, my world was large.

KABILIANA - There were somebody in your family who was telling you tales?
SUZANNE - No one in my family told tales much, but my mother took my brother and me to the library from a very young age. Also, my mother always read to me before I went to bed. I believe that I owe my love of books to her.

KABILIANA - You are a very eclectic author, you write novels, short stories, children's and essays. What is the literary expression among these which better represents you?
SUZANNE - I like to think of myself as a novelist. I'm most passionate about writing fiction for young adults and adults, but I do enjoy other forms. I think that writing for children is very difficult.

KABILIANA - Suzanne you are an American living in Japan with your multicultural family. What did you find difficult in living in Japan and what you enjoy most?
SUZANNE - In Japan, conformity is valued. I've heard over and over that Japan is a homogenous country, and it seems to me that the needs of minorities are often ignored. This can make things difficult for us, because our family is quite diverse. My son, especially, sometimes feels that he doesn't fit in, although he was born and is being raised in Japan, and has never lived anywhere else. I don't fit in either, but for me, my outsider status gives me a certain amount of freedom, which I like. No one expects me to fit in, so why bother trying?

KABILIANA - Playing for papa published in a bilingual edition (English-Spanish) by Topka Books and illustrated by Yuka Hamano, is your first illustrated book featuring a bicultural family in Japan. What inspired this story?
SUZANNE -Like the father in the story, my husband is a very busy high school baseball coach. My son asked me to write a story about playing baseball with his father, and Playing for Papa was the result. He wasn't overly thrilled with it at first, because it's mostly about a boy wanting to play baseball with his absent father, not about actually playing. Also, I was driven to write about a bicultural family much like my own so that my kids could find themselves in a book. There are very few books in Japanese about non-Japanese people in Japan. The United States is very diverse, but most picture books published in Japan seem to presuppose that everyone is the same, everyone has the same experiences and abilities. I can't think of a single Japanese picture book that features a child with a disability, or a child from another culture. And yet I know many children in Japan who have disabilties, and I know many children who have at least one foreign parent. At first, I thought a family like mine was too marginal, or too unusual to appeal to readers from different kinds of families, but then I started to read Allen Say's books. His family was also quite multicultural, and quite unusual, and yet his stories touch many people.Finally, the Japanese have a reputation for being xenophobic, yet imagine if they were exposed to diversity from a young age - if only in picture books.


KABILIANA - The story celebrates the love for what really matters for each child:sharing with parents, their time for playing, talking and listening ... How would you describe japaneese childhood in "your" Japan? And which differencies do you recognise from children rising in the US (also how differently spend their free time)?
SUZANNE - Japanese fathers tend to be very busy, which puts a lot of pressure on mothers. My own husband works seven days a week, sometimes twelve hours a day. Sometimes Japanese men live apart from their families, because it's too much of a hassle to move kids from school to school after a job transfer. I spent a lot of time with my father, and I think most American kids spend more time with their fathers than Japanese kids do. I think that a lot of Japanese men become estranged from their children, because they never see them. That's a huge difference. Japanese kids also spend a lot more time studying than American kids do. Academics are very important from a young age. I feel kind of sorry for them. I think it was Rudolf Steiner who said that play is children's work, and I agree. I'm always very happy when my children play imaginatively, or when they are outside in the fresh air using their bodies, but my Japanese husband frets that they aren't studying enough.
KABILIANA - The story is also on losing and I loved it. In modern societies children get easily the message that to be somebody they have to be the first, they have to win. Your story focuses on how losing sometimes can be worthy because it shows you the value of other things even more important. Did you want to convey also this message?
SUZANNE -Yes. In the United States, there is a saying: "It's not whether you win or lose that matters, but how well you play the game." I think that good sportmanship is more important than winning. And I think that the love and support of a family can always make us feel better at the worst of times.

KABILIANA - How are japaneese children related to reading books? Do they like reading? Do they have easy access to books?
SUZANNE - Japan is one of the most literate countries in the world, if not the most literate. Kids love to read here. There are lots of libraries and bookstores. Manga (Japanese comics) are very popular, but kids also read a lot of novels in original Japanese and in translation. Americans are notorious for not publishing and/or reading books in translation, but Japanese adults have access to many books from around the world. So although Japanese books tend not to show diversity, translations often provide a window to other cultures.

KABILIANA - Playing for Papa also feature on disability, children literature seems not very much interested in stories that focuses on this theme. What are the main reasons according to you?
SUZANNE - There seem to be quite a few young adult books featuring disabled characters these days, which is heartening. And there are also some books "explaining" disablities, but there are very few children's books featuring kids with disabilies in more or less normal situations. I think many people don't like to think about disability because it seems depressing, or because they are afraid of disablity. But ignorance breeds contempt.
KABILIANA - Still today diversity, either we are talking about foreigners or disable or disadvanatged people, are seen as class B people. How is it possible to struggle prejudices and share the value of diversity?
SUZANNE- I think that if children - and adults - are regularly exposed to people with disabilties in books, movies, TV shows and real life, they will be more accepting and tolerant of those who are different. But I think they need to be exposed to people with diverse backgrounds engaged in ordinary activities. These days, there are a lot of Middle Eastern terrorists in American movies and on TV. Americans need to see more movies about ordinary Middle Easterners doing ordinary things.

KABILIANA - Suzanne you are mother of two children one with special needs. Special children need special parents, do you think that being creative and in your case, being a writer helped you in rising your children ?
SUZANNE - I think that writing about my feelings and experiences raising a child with special needs has helped me to make sense of them. From reading novels, we can develop empathy for people who are different from us. Writing from the point of view of a disabled character or a bicultural character, also helps me to empathize with my children. I think it's also good for them to see me writing. My daughter is just learning to write, but she often draws picture stories, where she is the heroine in a wheelchair. By example, I think I have taught them a way to express themselves.

KABILIANA - In which terms would you say diversity is a value?
SUZANNE - I didn't realize the importance of diversity quite so much before I came to Japan. Here, where everyone is taught to think and act alike, I can see that lack of diversity leads to narrow mindedness and a lack of imagination. We have learned many things from my daughter Lilia. My son is a kind, sensitive person, perhaps because he has been brought up with a deaf sister who uses a wheelchair. He is interested in other cultures. I think that diversity makes us more curious.

KABILIANA - I liked when you said that motherhood, which supposed to be a very busy role, has increased your creative work and the more you became busy rising two children the more you're committed in writing. How would you explain this to those worried mums aspiring writers who thinks that they cannot make it?
SUZANNE - I think that if a person really wants to write, she will find the time. You can write anywhere. There's a lot of waiting time in motherhood - waiting for kids to finish soccer practice, waiting for dance lessons to be over, waiting for the pot to boil - and you can use those ten or fifteen minutes to dash off a page. The other great thing about motherhood is that it provides a lot of material. My children are my greatest muses.

KABILIANA - Can you tell us three children books you enjoyed in the last 12 months?

KABILIANA - Will you continue writing for children?
SUZANNE - Yes, definitely! I've got some stories cooking.

KABILIANA - Next May your new anthology Call me Okaasan will be issued. It is a collection of stories written by authors on their experience as expat parents. Without anticipating much of the book (I'll interview later on this) can you use 5 adjectives to describe how is rising children between cultures as an expat with a multicultural family?
SUZANNE - Interesting, surprising, challenging, perplexing, fun.

In occasion of the release of Suzanne's Call me Okaasan, we'll be interviewing Suzanne and other expat authors on how is rising children oversease.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

The colors of us - In conversation with Karen Katz

Once upon a time a teeny tiny baby was born.
I held the photograph in my hands.
We looked at this tiny baby, in yellow pajamas, laying on a mattress with no sheet.
She looked very fragile, yet strong.
"You need to decide right this minute if you want to adopt her"".
We had the photo for five minutes.
My husband and I went into another room and sat together.
We looked at her and at each other.
"Yes, this is our child. We love her already. Yes, we want to adopt her".

And that was the beginning of our adoption story...
... a story one filled with tears and anxiety but also passion and spirituality.

These are the emotions author and illustrator Karen Katz shares about her adoption story which is also in her illustrated book Over the Moon. Karen is Kabiliana's first guest of 2009. What a lovely way to start the new year than going through her interesting human and professional experience on writing about diversity ? Somehow is a way to wish a world with no more racial barriers and no more intolerance.
How would it be the world without colors? Black is just black and white is just white or behind these two colors there is more? Karen Katz really guide us in a "delicious" (read the book to know why) journey of tastes where brown is not really brown, it can be: "butterschocth", " and white is not really white, it's "french toast"or "peach" . This and more you'll find in The Colors of Us. This book that explores the various hues of us, in its simplicity conveys a very important message: there's not only one way to see things, to define who we are. And the more creative way we choose to describe the world around us, more is the capacity to live in harmony and understanding.

KABILIANA - Karen you started your career as a costume deisgner, a graphic designer and a quilt maker, how did it end up you became a children's author and author?
KAREN- I have always been interested in folk art from around the world: Indian miniatures, Mexican cermaics, fabrics, Chagall, Matisse, Children'a art and primtive paintings. The careers I have hadve taken all these interests into account. ooking back I can see that these passions and career choices have played a large part in influencing me to become a children's book author and illustrator. But, most importantly was when my husband and I adopted our daughter from Guatemala I decided I wanted to illustrate children's books. For nine months I painted pictures of kids and anything that looked like it could be in a children's book. My first book Over The Moon was the story of that magical experience of welcoming our daughter Lena into our lives. Twentytwo books later my daughter - now 14 years old - still is an inspiration for me.

KABILIANA - Lena is originally from Guatemala, when she became part of your life did you ever thought that onde day you would be asked about your different skin color and diversity?
KAREN - Yes, I knew one day that question would come. I thought I was ready when she asked but still it was a touching conversation. Over the years she never asks anymore because she understands and is proud of her color.

KABILIANA- Let's talk about The Colors of Us. When did you have the idea to write this story?
KAREN- When my daughter was five years old in kindergarten she asked why she was a different color than my husband and me. We talked about it. The next day I was at her shcool looking at all the beautiful kids in her class and I thought:" These kids are brown and tan and peachy they aren't just black or white. It was then I decided to do this book as a celebration of the beautiful colors of kids.
KABILIANA- The Colors of Us is a lovely journey through the world of diversity starting from skin colors and its many shades and nuances. Choosing food metaphors meant children easy, close to their world and fun to identify the different colors of the skin ?
KARFEN - Yes, and I didn't plan in that way. It has just happened as the book took place shape.

KABILIANA - How did Lena's coming in your family changed your life as a person and as an artist? Did you ever-faced racist behaviors from outside?
KAREN - Lena coming into my life changed it because now I was a mother and I had the greatest gift to love in my life. we have always thought our daughter is the most beautiful girl in the world. As an artist I've always admired the beauty of diverse peoples around the world so having Lena, as a daughter was just an extension of those feelings. Of course now we have a special place in our heart for Guatemalans! We never experienced any racism towards our daughter but we do live in NYC and it is a multicultural and sophisticated city.

KABILIANA - What a kid should know to struggle against intolerance?
KAREN- I'm not an expert on intolerance but I can give you my opinion as a mother and person. I would say there is no recipe but to teach your child that there is intolerance in the world and remember it is only other people's ignorance. It does hurt and kids will be hurt by prejudice but if you have a strong sense of self that will carry you thorugh. Children learn by your example so make sure you are aware of your own feelings.

KABILIANA - How did you and your husband valorize Lena's diversity? Does she has any relationship with her country of origin?
KAREN - We have always talked about Guatemala to her and showed photos. Last year we made bulenos, Christmas cookies from Guatemala. This winter we are taking a trip there. She is very proud of her heritage. It's just a natural part of who she is.

KABILIANA - Can you tell us something about your creative process?
KAREN- (here a selection ) Have an idea- Write it down - Write it in a lot of different ways, think about it , picture the art in my mind and skeep on it - Research the idea to see who else has done it, and then make sure I do it my way with my voice - Do little thumbnails sketches in color - Take manuscript and thumbnails to your editor and hope she likes it - Make a lot of mistakes and have some bad days - Make a lot of great art and have some good days - Finish art and spend a few days gluing papers down and cleaning up mistakes - send your work out - go to school and read your book to some kids and remember why you love making books.

KABILIANA -Do you have any advice for who'd love to start writing for children?
KAREN- Get the seat of your pants into the seat of your chair and make time to do teh work. It will never be the perfect time and you will never have enough to do everything. But do it. Read Read Read amd look at great children's book writers and illustrators. Love what you're doing. Send your stuff out. Keep at it.

KABILIANA - What kind of reader you were as a child? What were your favorite books?
KAREN- When I was ten I actually didn 't read much. I played with a lot of paper dolls. I do remember at the paintings in an edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales. The paintings of Snow White and Red Rose, Rumpelstiltskin and Thumbenila were very scary, but I loved them. They were mysterious and ornate and fed my imagination. I think that is what a good illustration or story does. What strikes me is that now I am an avid reader and I adore children's books... so its never too late to learn to love books.

KABILIANA- Does your daughter Lena love reading?
KAREN- Actually my daughter is dyslexic and does not really enjoy reading. she is an excellent athlete and a great student. But she does love my books!

KABILIANA - Can you tell us at least three titles of children's books you recently enjoyed as a reader?
KAREN- Mama do You love me? by Joosse; Abiyoyo by Pete Seeger; Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold; The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy;Isla by Arthur Dorros and Elisa Kleven; Diego by Jeannette Winter; Why The Sky is far Away by Mary Joan Gerson; Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis.