by Suzanne Kamata
Leap Frog Press
Suzanne Kamata touches a nerve, something that may be too painful for some to read. In Losing Kei, she tells the tale of a young mother far from home fighting to regain a son lost permanently due to divorce.
In Japan, divorce represents the severing of two “ie,” or households. If there are children, they almost always are awarded to the mother. The children will henceforth have nothing to do with their father; he is literally “dead” to them. (A very public example is the case of former Prime Minster Junichiro Koizumi, whose now grown children did not see him for more than a decade following his divorce.) In the case in which the mother is foreign, however, custody is nearly always awarded to the father—and the mother is now the one who no longer exists.
Shared custody or visitation rights remain unheard of.
Jill Parker is a painter living in rural Japan, an American woman far from home. To support her art she works as a bar hostess. It is in this seedy setting in which she meets Yusuke, an art gallery owner. This leads to marriage, which in this world—Yusuke is the eldest son—is fraught with duty and guilt and submission for the erstwhile artist Jill. Yusuke must uphold the “ie,” and the roles assigned to all within are clearly and rigidly defined. Jill is placed below and at the mercy of Yusuke’s mother.
In spite of the birth of a son, the greatest prize, the marriage cannot succeed. Jill ultimately must choose between abandoning her son and life, freedom.
The first ten pages are painful to read. Jill is waiting in a park for a glimpse of her son on his way home from school. Even this small act of defiance—and tenderness—is utterly crushed. She is supposed to be “dead,” and is failing to uphold that illusion.
Nothing is lost in translation in Losing Kei. Kamata knows whereof she writes. A very impressive work.
Reviewed by C. Ogawa
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