As I mentioned in my post about sources of inspiration, it’s been almost five years since I began reading Suzanne Kamata’s writing. Her short work has appeared in over 100 publications. She is the author of a novel, Losing Kei, and a picture book, Playing for Papa, both of which concern bicultural families. She is also the editor of two previous anthologies – The Broken Bridge: Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan and Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs, and is currently fiction editor of “Literary Mama”.
I recently interviewed Suzanne about her experiences with her most recent book, Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering. Suzanne selected the work of twenty writers to include in this thoughtful and touching collection which considers questions such as: What happens when your child doesn’t speak your native language? How do you maintain cultural traditions while living outside your native country? And how can you raise a child with two cultures without fracturing his/her identity? These writers ponder the unique joys and challenges of raising children across two or more cultures.
As the mother of bi-cultural twins, you have first-hand experience in the adventures of multicultural mothering. You’ve shared some of these experiences in your own essays and, to some extent, in your fiction. What was it that made you decide to compile and edit this collection of essays about multicultural mothering by other writer mothers?
Suzanne: I’m a compulsive anthologist. I’m always coming up with ideas for collections and it’s easier to get other people to write than to write a book myself. But I’m also very curious about how other mothers raise their kids, and I’m interested in other cultures. I actually came up with the idea for this collection shortly after my children were born. I wrote up a one-page proposal for an anthology on mothering across cultures, but then I found out that my daughter was deaf and I decided that I wanted to put together a collection of literature on raising children with special needs. Then, a magazine editor asked me to write a round-up review of books on mothers abroad. Although I had read lots of novels and memoirs about women abroad, most of them ended before the women became mothers. I couldn’t come up with any books on the topic, so I figured there was a niche to be filled.
Part of what I found so wonderful about the collection is that the list of twenty contributors literally spans the globe — from Israel to France to Australia. How did you go about requesting submissions? Were there any surprises in the submissions that you received (e.g., an issue about multicultural mothering that you hadn’t previously considered)?
Suzanne: I started out by directly soliciting essays from writers with whom I was familiar, such as Kate MacVean, who wrote a column on Mothering Abroad for literarymama.com a few years ago, and Marie Lamba, a young adult author who is the mother of bicultural daughters. I’d read an essay by Xujun Eberlein in MotherVerse, and I asked if she had anything else. She did. Thanks to the Internet, I “know” a lot of writers in different countries. Not everyone was able to contribute, of course. I also posted a call for manuscripts on a few mother-related sites. I was surprised by Katherine Barrett’s essay. She went beyond her home, into the lives of other foreign mothers in South Africa. Her essay is more about her identity as an expatriate mother than her children’s identities. I thought hers was an interesting take on the topic. I was also pleasantly surprised by Susannah Pabot’s approach. It’s rather experimental, but it’s beautifully written. [Pabot’s essay, Eleven Snapshots for Your Baby Book, Reconstructed in Blues, is comprised of eleven “entries” that alternate between present, past and future to provide a snapshot of the baby’s family of origin.]
While the essays in Call Me Okaasan are specific to the joys, challenges and adventures of multicultural mothering, as a mother raising two sons in my native country and speaking in my native tongue, I still found the essays to be universal and relevant in many ways. There is something powerful in the shared experience of motherhood, regardless of the situation or circumstances. That being said, what particular advice do you have for mothers of multicultural children that you wish you would have learned earlier in your journey as a mother?
Suzanne: Hmm. I feel like I’m still on the early part of the journey, but I was reassured to read essays by mothers who seem to be just as confused as I am, and who seem to be making it up as they go along. I was also comforted by the essays from mothers of grown, or nearly grown children. They make it clear that no matter what we do, we can’t engineer every aspect of our children’s lives, and that our kids have to figure out some things by themselves. It’s hard to remember that, at times.
As a writer who writes about mothering your children, how do you determine what you should or shouldn’t share about your family’s personal experiences? Was this “line” something you had to consider when selecting which essays to include in your collection?
Suzanne: I didn’t make any judgments about what other mothers were writing about their kids. One contributor chose to use a pseudonym to protect her families’ privacy, and I respect that. But if someone is writing about their kids, I’m assuming that they feel comfortable doing so. This has become more of an issue for me as my children have gotten older. When I was younger, I felt that I had artistic license to write about whatever and whomever I wanted. But these days, I’m more inclined to ask my son’s permission before I write about him. And although I’ve been thinking of writing an essay about my daughter’s body issues, I’m wondering if I really have the right. It was one thing to write about my daughter’s vulva when she was a scrawny one-pound baby in a Plexiglas isolette, but writing about her body when she is feeling self-conscious about it seems like something of a violation. So maybe I won’t ever write that essay. I might add that I live in Japan and I write in English, and the people around me, including the parents at my kids’s schools, the neighbors, my husband’s relatives, don’t read what I write. They may not even by aware that I’m a writer. I think I would be even more hesitant to write about my family if I knew that the people I encountered on a daily basis were going to read it. Also, I’m working on a novel right now. It may seem as if I am dodging the issue by turning to fiction, but I’ve always preferred writing fiction.
I’m curious about how one pitches the concept of a collection of essays to an agent or publisher. Did you provide a few sample essays that you planned to include, or did you have all of the essays gathered prior to submission?
Suzanne: Normally, one would submit a proposal including an introduction and a few sample essays. My first two anthologies began with a query letter. In both cases, publishers asked to see the entire manuscript, so I wound up collecting stories and poems and submitting a book-length collection. In the case of my second anthology, Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs, the publisher in question, a mslal university press, wound up passing on the manuscript. Fortunately, I found another, larger publisher with more resources who was enthusiastic about the book. I’d actually conceived of Call Me Okaasan years ago, when my kids were small, and I’d already drafted a proposal. After Love You to Pieces came out, I was ready for another project so I somewhat impulsively sent my proposal (a one-page query letter with some marketing ideas) to Nancy Cleary at Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing, and she responded right away. Since I’d already proven myself as an anthologist, that letter was enough. I thought Wyatt-Mackenzie would be perfect because they specialize in books related to mothering, and they’d already published two nonfiction books by expatriate parents.
Finally, for those of us who are writers seeking places to publish our words, what advice do you have for finding editors who are collecting essays on a specific topic?
Suzanne: I always check out the calls for manuscripts in the back of Poets & Writers Magazine (or on the website) and also Newpages.com and the literarymama.com blog. As an anthologist, I often read other journals, both online and print, to try to find work that might fit my topic. For example, I came across Stacy Lewis’ essay “Ghost Stories” in Brain, Child. I thought it was perfect for Call Me Okaasan, so I tracked her down via the Internet and asked if I could include the essay. When I was putting together Love You to Pieces, I read every available back issue of Kaleidoscope: Exploring The Experience of Disability Through Literature and the Fine Arts. If your work is out there in print, you’re opening yourself to other opportunities.
Many thanks to Suzanne for sharing her insights, experience and inspiration here at Motherlogue.
Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Michigan and is most recently from South Carolina. She now lives in rural Japan with her Japanese husband and bicultural twins. She blogs at Gaijin Mama.