Who am I?

by Suzanne Kamata

Perhaps I spend too much time on Twitter. 

Maybe this is understandable because I have lived in Tokushima Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku for 33 years, well over half of my life. Social media has given me a way to keep a finger on the pulse of what is happening culturally abroad, especially in my native country, the United States of America. Most of the people I encounter in the part of Japan where I live, including my Japanese university students, do not enjoy reading books in English. Meanwhile, I write and publish short stories – as well as novels, essays, poems, and articles – in English. My book publishers and most of my readers are in other countries. Because I live in Japan, surrounded by Japanese people, I often write stories featuring Japanese characters, both male and female. Because I am the mother of a disabled daughter, and have spent a lot of time with and thinking about disabled people in Japan, some of my characters are disabled. However, I am neither Japanese nor disabled, and it has come to my attention, via Twitter, especially, that some people think that I should not be writing Japanese or disabled characters. I came across a tweet in which someone said that they were going to buy and read my novel Indigo Girl, which is about a biracial girl with cerebral palsy who visits Tokushima, but when they discovered that I was a white woman, they decided not to. Furthermore, partly as a result of online movements launched in 2015 such as #weneeddiversebooks and #own voices, my books are no longer eligible for some of the awards that they were given because I am not of Asian descent.

In addition, in a widely reported incident, also in 2015, a student at Oberlin College in Ohio claimed that the sushi in the college cafeteria was “appropriative.” This led to many discussions in print and online –- and in person – about cultural appropriation, some suggesting that people like me should not even be eating sushi. That same year following an uproar of criticism on social media, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts cancelled “Kimono Wednesdays,” a weekly event in which visitors were encouraged to “channel their inner Camille Monet” by posing in front of Claude Monet’s “La Japonaise” while trying on a replica of the kimono Monet’s wife, Camille, wears in the painting. This very painting, by the way, appears on the cover of my short story collection, but suddenly it seemed problematic. I also came to see that my early ambition to live abroad and gather experiences which I would write about in my short stories was actually a function of white privilege. And that many people with disabilities actually hate the term “special needs,” which is in the subtitle of my second anthology. And that my day job, teaching English as a Foreign Language to Japanese students as a white American, is also a result of white privilege. And then I was dumped by my Asian American literary agent. In recent years I have had something of an identity crisis in my life as a writer.

Am I an American Midwestern writer? A transnational writer? An expat writer? I once referred to myself as a kind of American Japanese writer, and I could feel my audience cringe. Sorry! Besides wondering how to categorize myself, what, I have wondered, is it okay for me to write about? 

There is that old saw, “write what you know.” And there is a Japanese literary form known as the “I-novel,” which is, in Japanese, the Shishōsetsu or the Watakushi Shōsetsu. This genre, which was developed in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), is a kind of naturalistic confessional literature, in which, as Edward Fowler described, “the events in the story correspond to events in the author’s life.” According to Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit, “an I-novel should reflect the actual spiritual condition of the author and should appear natural and unplanned to its readers.” By this definition, I have actually written several i-short stories, without being entirely aware than I was adhering to a Japanese literary tradition. In fact, a couple of stories that I have written have followed my real-life so closely that I have published them as both fiction and creative non-fiction.

So I do write from my own experiences, taking care not to cast my POV character as a “white savior.” But this also raises issues because how can I write about myself without writing about the people around me? I have, for example, attempted to write about what I refer to as my “work trauma,” an incident which involved a non-Japanese colleague. However, when that individual threatened to sue me for libel, I had to abandon that project. Also, my husband hates it when I write about him or our family. At times, my writing has caused marital strife.

For a while, I wrote only about my cats.

Nevertheless, I feel compelled to write.

In Tokushima, where I live, the global pandemic, which began in late 2019, early 2020, was actually a period of calm. Since classes were cancelled, and then later conducted online, and events were cancelled, I suddenly had extra time to write and reflect. Sure, I no longer had an agent shopping my work to New York City publishers, but that also meant that I was no longer getting emails telling me to increase the stakes in my stories. If I wanted to, I could listen to the Japanese student who told me that she preferred quiet books because they helped her to feel calm. 

Reports emerged that while certain hashtags had actually motivated publishers to acquire and publish books by previously underrepresented authors, they were also potentially harmful. The non-profit organization We Need Diverse Books issued a statement saying that they believed “#ownvoices had become a vague marketing term and created potentially unsafe situations for authors and illustrators who chose not to share parts of their identities. There were also suggestions that some marginalized writers were starting to feel boxed in.

I decided to ignore all of the little voices in my head, all of the tweets on Twitter, and follow my obsessions. I would write whatever I wanted, however I wanted, without expectation of publication. It helps that after Elon Musk threatened to buy the platform, many rabblerousers abandoned Twitter and went to other platforms. For better or worse, I have not attempted to follow them. For the record, I totally support the writing and publishing of stories by people of all identities. I suspect that eventually the pendulum will swing back more to the center, and future discourse surrounding fiction will shift to AI versus human writing.

In the meantime, I am still on Twitter. Follow me @shikokusue.