I began reading Suzanne Kamata (Tokushima-ken, 1988-1990)’s new collection of short stories with no idea what to expect and a sense of up-for-anything enthusiasm. Luckily, that feeling stayed with me throughout the collection and renewed itself automatically as I approached each new story.
There’s an enjoyably uncomfortable tension contained within the pages of The Beautiful One Has Come and it’s precisely that tension, paired with Kamata’s ability to glide between narrative points of view, that makes this collection so strong. The characters who inhabit the pages feel so true I could practically hear their pulses.
The physical settings of the stories vary from Cuba to Egypt to France to Japan among other countries, but the characters seem to inhabit spaces all their own: their minds are the true sites of conflict. The stories deal mostly with women in various states of transition; feeling like outsiders while negotiating their own identities, striving for something just out of reach, or trying to come to terms with loss. There is the foreign housewife who longs for the comforts of her native land, the elderly artist whose husband wrongfully gets the credit for the paintings she has created and the Japanese girl who is obsessed with studying abroad in Egypt.
Though these profiles might sound familiar, each story is buoyed by unique and unexpected details which keep the characters from sinking into stereotypes.
As with any collection of short stories, some will inevitably stand out more than others for different readers. For me, the last story “Between” lingered longest in my mind, probably because it reminded me of people I have known personally. Kai is a bicultural child being raised in Japan with an American mother and a Japanese father. In a culture that valorizes group acceptance above all else, his mother fears that he will never completely fit in with his peers. She worries about picking him up from school afraid that one sight of his gaijin mother would cause endless razzing by his classmates.
On a visit to America, Kai is playing with his cousin when his mother is shocked to learn that he doesn’t know who George Washington is. As though a barometer of Americanness, she begins to wonder whether she is properly educating him.
And yet meanwhile, Kai experiences little if any adversity. He is pleasantly unselfconscious about his bicultural status. To him, being “half” is still more or less a neutral experience. It’s the adults around him on the other hand who seem to be projecting their concerns and anxieties, afraid that he will always remain “between” in a sort of cultural limbo, on the cusp of both worlds without fully belonging to either. Ultimately his mother realizes that she must “watch him go, out into the world.”
Like the other stories in the collection, “Between” explores issues of self-sacrifice and alienation, though the more poignant question raised seems to be one of identity. Personal and cultural identity in Kamata’s stories is a slippery concept, rarely inert, always morphing and shape shifting.
The stories in The Beautiful One Has Come have a universal appeal but will strike a familiar note in particular with those who have spent considerable time outside their comfort zones. As many who have lived overseas can attest, it’s often the little things that stand out. The differences and contradictions of daily life that natives may not care about or even notice are usually most salient to expats. What’s fascinating about the book is how the stories bravely tackle the odd paradox of cultural displacement: feeling like you don’t fit in anywhere makes you realize you can actually fit in everywhere.
Visit Suzanne’s homepage at www.suzannekamata.com.