July 6: “Havana” by Suzanne Kamata

Greetings from Fayetteville, Story366! I’m on writing retreat today, arriving at my hotel around four p.m., and I have to say, I’ve retreated more than anything. This blog is the first thing I’m actually accomplishing, and it’s coming up on eleven. I got in a nap, some Chinese food, a bit of a tour of Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas campus, and maybe another tiny nap. But since I don’t get started until now, anyway, I’m ready to rock on those goals I set forth in yesterday’s post.

For today, I read from Suzanne Kamata’s collection The Beautiful One Has Come, out from Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing. This collection is about people living abroad in exotic locales, or visiting such places as a guest, immersing themselves in foreign culture, ideas, and philosophies. It’s very similar to the book I wrote about on June 25, Lily Tuck’s collection Limbo and Other Places I Have Lived, which features protagonists of the same ilk, in the same situations. Kamata puts her own spin on that character, though, with a distinctive style and literary ease. I was happy to have read a few stories for today’s post.

Today I’m throwing off my tradition of writing about title stories, though I like “The Beautiful One Has Come,” a first-peripheral story where the protagonist’s sister leaves Japan for college in Egypt and comes back a bit of a Middle Eastphile, which would go against the family’s traditions and peace, making said protagonist question her own beliefs. Interesting story, a lot packed into ten pages.

Instead I’m writing about “Havana,” the lead story, about an American woman, Alicia, who goes to Havana to visit her college roommate, the Japanese wife of a Japanese emissary to Cuba. Alicia is more of your average American, skills that come in handy when rich, fresh-off-the-plane Nagisa shows up in Ann Arbor. Alicia keeps Nagisa from being eaten alive in the dorms, at parties, on the American social scene. While we never find out what Alicia does now, how much money she makes, we know she is not a diplomat’s wife; Nagisa’s American education has turned her into someone to have and raise children and act properly in front of servants and world leaders. It’s not quite a case of slobs vs. snobs, but it’s close. A regular American with American values takes on the cultural norms of not one but two countries, Japan and Cuba. A nice setup for a story.

Kamata starts us in Hemingway’s old house, where he wrote novels and drank a lot, one of the few tourist destinations in the city. This setting shows where Alicia’s interests lie, what Havana, and Nagisa, have to offer her: The bullet points, the touristy stuff. Alicia becomes more interested in Nagisa’s Cuban driver, Javier, who is terrified of Alicia for different reasons. Bored by what Cuba has to offer, and by Nagisa’s choice of life paths, Alicia makes it her mission to seduce Javier, who just wants to not get fired.

“Havana” is told in third person, but it’s a close third person, and Kamata injects an air of unreliability into Alicia. She judges the Cubans for their lack of Americaness, but more so, she judges Nagisa for settling for the societal role that all but negates her rebellious, curious years in Michigan. Alicia is so stereotypically American in that way, assuming that her ways, her desires, are the best ways, the only ways, insulting two different cultures at once. That’s the thing about being abroad, especially if you’re an American, isn’t it? It’s at least what people expect, though I suspect it’s not only Americans who do this. It’s the nature of going somewhere else, being in a strange place, amidst strange customsAs Kamata is an American living in Japan, married to a Japanese national, she probably runs into this a lot, lives the lives of her characters. She captures that naiveté, arrogance, and confusion well in “Havana,” in all her stories.

The Beautiful One Has Come is a nice collection by a writer I haven’t read before today. Suzanne Kamata has a lot of talent, all of it apparent in these tales of ex-pats finding their way, getting some good selfies along the way.

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One thought on “July 6: “Havana” by Suzanne Kamata

  1. Pingback: July 7: “Bugout” by Jon Trobaugh – Story366

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