A while back someone forwarded me an article from the Japan Times about a mother traveling in Japan with her daughter who has a disability. After reading it, I looked up the author, Suzanne Kamata, and found she lives in Japan and had written several Pushcart Price-nominated novels as well. While thoroughly enjoying her book Losing Kei, I decided to reach out to Mrs. Kamata and she graciously agreed to an interview.
Suzanne, tell us a bit about yourself! Where are you from originally?
I was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. My family moved to South Carolina the summer before my last year of high school, so that’s where I go back to now.
How did you end up coming to Japan?
In college I went to France for a semester for foreign study. I knew that I wanted to travel more, and hopefully teach English around the world, so I applied to the JET Program, which is a program sponsored by the Japanese government. Participants are brought over to work as teaching assistants in Japanese schools. I was accepted and assigned to junior and senior high schools in Tokushima on the island of Shikoku.
What do you do for work?
I currently teach English as a Foreign Language at a Japanese university.
In your book Gadget Girl, the main character has a disability and is half-Japanese, what inspired you to create such a character?
My daughter, who is half-Japanese, has cerebral palsy and is deaf. When she was very young I realized that there were few fun books with main characters who had disabilities. I wanted to write books that might empower and entertain her, and books that would help others to understand that people with disabilities are more than their disabilities. They have hopes, fears, dreams, etc. like everybody else. They fall in love, they get mad, they travel.
Tell us a bit more about your family.
My husband is a Japanese high school teacher. At the moment he is teaching at a “special support school,” or a school for kids with special needs. When I first met him, he was teaching physical education. We have twins — a boy and a girl — who are now in high school. They were born 14 weeks premature. My daughter has special needs.
Raising a child with a disability has many unique challenges, did being in Japan add to that?
For sure. A lot of buildings are inaccessible. In my daughter’s former school, a school for the deaf, there was no elevator. She uses a wheelchair, so it was difficult for her to get to the third floor where many classes were held. A couple of years ago, a new school for the deaf and blind was built, but just a couple of days ago we went to a restaurant that didn’t have a ramp. My husband and I had to lift her wheelchair over the curb.
Learning Japanese Sign Language has also been difficult for me because I’ve had to learn it through a second language (Japanese) in which I am not entirely proficient.
What are a few negatives and positives of being disabled in Japan vs, say, America?
Health care is very cheap here. Kids and people with disabilities receive free health care. Although my daughter spent a lot of time in the hospital when she was little, we didn’t have to pay for it. That’s a positive, obviously.
Japan is a “grin and bear it” culture, where people don’t want to make trouble for others, while in America we say “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” I think if people were more vocal about their difficulties, things might change faster here. Until very recently there was a sense that people with disabilties shoudn’t go out in public because they would inconvenience others. I think this way of thinking still exists to some degree.
I understand you are starting on a project about traveling with your daughter, can you tell us a bit about it?
I have actually completed a draft of a memoir about traveling with my daughter to places in the States, France, and Japan. It all started when my daughter declared that she wanted to go to Paris. I decided to figure out a way to get her there. I decided I’d write a book about our travels. It was a way of motivating myself, as well. I sometimes think it’s too much trouble to go to unfamiliar places where there may or may not be ramps, or where I will have to push my daughter’s manual wheelchair up steep inclines. Now the problem is that my daughter would often rather go to the mall with her friends than take trips with her mother. But we’ve had some interesting adventures.
(Editor’s note: A Girls’ Guide to the Islands is out now!)
Where can people buy your previous works, and can they follow you on Twitter etc?
My books are available from all the usual places such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, etc. You can special order most of them from independent bookstores as well.