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Prize-Winning 'Passover' Is Testament to Writer's Work

April 30, 1986|GARY LIBMAN

First her writer-husband, Josh Greenfeld, noticed a pain in his neck and a doctor diagnosed a blocked heart artery.

Then her autistic son Noah, the subject of Greenfeld's moving books, "A Child Called Noah" and "A Place for Noah," returned to their Pacific Palisades home from an unsuccessful attempt at living in a group home. He hurled a plate at the wall and threw spaghetti at her.

The attack angered her husband, who takes medication for his circulatory ailment, and Foumiko Kometani realized that her husband and son "couldn't live together. It was very dangerous."

"It was just like working in an insane asylum," she said. "It was very difficult." In that situation, the 5-foot, 1-inch writer said, you might "walk out or you commit suicide." Kometani, chose neither following that incident in 1980. Instead, while she waited to find a better living arrangement for her son, she vented her frustration by writing short stories in her native language of Japanese.

The results were spectacular. Her story, "The Passover," only the second she had published, won Japan's most prestigious literary prize, the 1985 Akutagawa award. Kometani, 55, accepted the honor in Tokyo at a ceremony in February.

Kazumitsu Kato, director of the Japanese Studies Center at California State University, Los Angeles, said the award honors a serious writer, and the winner becomes important in Japan overnight.

Kato, who is not involved with the award, said the prize is named after Akutagawa Ryunosuke, one of the most widely translated of all Japanese writers and a prolific producer of stories, plays and poetry. The 1951 film "Rashomon" was based on his work.

Literary success failed to satisfy the author, however, and he committed suicide in 1927 at the age of 35.

Kometani's Passover story is more hopeful. In the work, a Japanese woman and her husband arrive in New York after putting their brain-damaged son in a residence for the first time.

The husband insists that his wife attend a Seder, the Passover ceremony celebrating the liberation of the Jews from Egypt. It is his last chance to see an old uncle, the family patriarch.

sh Message of Freedom

The woman goes to the Seder against her will. As the evening progresses and she recalls her struggle with her marriage and her son, the Passover message of freedom and liberation flashes before her.

Visiting the bathroom, she looks at herself, takes stock of her life and decides she doesn't need the marriage. She returns to the party and walks out.

The dark-haired Kometani wrote the story in the three-bedroom, hillside home where she asks visitors to remove their shoes before entering.

She writes in longhand seated on the floor at a low table in one of the bedrooms. A heater attached to the underside of the table warms her feet.

Seated near a ceramic Oriental doll in her white living room recently, Kometani said she began writing fiction in 1975, a decade after she left Japan.

She said her grammar and use of incorrect Japanese characters made her first sentences "a mess" and she felt afraid.

"I thought I was going to forget my language," she said. "My English was not perfect. If I lose my mother tongue, what do I have that's perfect?"

sh Not Available in English

Kometani said her Japanese improved rapidly and each of her first two short stories won awards from Japanese magazines before she earned the Akutagawa. She has also written a soon-to-be-published novel in Japanese, but none of her work has been translated into English.

Literary success was far from her mind when she began her artistic career in Japan as a painter.

She met her husband in 1960 when she was painting and he was writing at the nonprofit MacDowell Colony for artists in Peterborough, N.H. They were married the same year.

The birth of their first son Karl, now 21, did not halt her painting. But shortly after her son Noah, 19, was born in 1966, she had to quit.

"Noah was running around the house all the time, so I couldn't spread the oil paints," she said. "If you leave the paint there, he'll eat it.

"The paint doesn't dry immediately. I can't cook with a wet hand. I can't touch him. Paper and pencil is much easier."

Her modernistic work still hangs in her living room, and the decision to stop painting disappointed her.

"If I didn't have the kids I could paint much better than Picasso," she said. "Oh, yes. Picasso's nothing."

Kometani began writing essays for Japanese newspapers in 1970 and tried fiction for the first time in 1975, working several years on a novel before turning to short stories.

At one time she and her husband hired caretakers for their son at home for three months and moved to another residence.

It was not until 1984, after she had been writing for almost a decade, that her son moved to a group residence to stay.

Today, Kometani works in comparative peace. Her older son, Karl, is a senior at Sarah Lawrence University and her bearded, slender, cap-wearing husband, 58, writes books and scripts in a rented Pacific Palisades office.

Kometani says that she lost 19 years of work on her art when she raised her son and could write only an hour a day. She and her husband have eliminated entertaining at home so they can concentrate on their writing.

"Years ago when we had Noah, we couldn't entertain," Kometani said. "We got into the habit. Now I want to spend my time doing the arts. I mean I'm 55. I don't live so long."

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