Kata, Elizabeth

2012
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Kata, Elizabeth Colina

Born Elizabeth 'Betty' Colina McDonald on 9 October, 1912, Kata lived most of her life in northern Sydney. Although she established herself as a writer, her first book, Be Ready with Bells and Drums, written in the Mosman family home, had the greatest impact. However, before literary success, her life would become even more dramatic than her first work of fiction.

Tokyo bound

Kata met concert pianist, Shinshiro Katayama in 1936 while he was studying in Sydney. The two became close and Kata's family encouraged the relationship. By 1937 the couple were living in Tokyo. As Katayama's family were wealthy and of high social standing, Kata experience the best of prewar Japan. However, with the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, her situation changed drastically. The country she was born in and the one where she lived were on opposing sides of a world war.

Of the 41 Australians interned within Japan, it is thought only two were women, a nurse and Kata. [1] Initially she was placed at a high school where she taught English, but as conditions deteriorated and the fear of bombing increased, she and her husband were moved to the village of Karuizawa.

Karuizawa, a popular summer resort, provided a safe distance from the major cities, but was unsuited to the winter climate. As the Japanese war effort began to deteriorate, conditions became worse and the mostly European interns were near starvation by war's end.

Three weeks before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the birth of Kata's first and only child, in the harshest of conditions, added to the struggle she faced living in postwar Japan. As Kata had married a Japanese citizen, there was no help from the Australian government and, as she later told GH Magazine, [2] no help even from the Red Cross. Her son David's health deteriorated and knowing her husband would have to stay in Tokyo, she started a long battle to travel back to Australia with her sick child.

Back to Australia

The level of hatred in Australia of all things Japanese in the immediate postwar period was extreme and difficult to comprehend in this day and age. As her son David noted,

after extraordinary efforts, my mother and I were allowed to come to Australia for a stay of only six months on compassionate grounds. There was a public outcry against my entry to Australia and I was labelled as 'the dirty brat son of that Jap'. [3]

After her return in 1947, Kata waged an even longer campaign to have her son become an Australian citizen.

Ready with bells

Be Ready with Bells and Drums was written in 1959. As Kata told oral historian Hazel de Berg, she had been thinking about intolerance and prejudice for many years and in an inspirational moment decided to tell the story through the mind of a blind person. [4] It was her first manuscript and she was advised to approach overseas publishers. The book was accepted in 1960 by the London publisher Michael Joseph. It was at this point that Kata approached Percy Reginald 'Inky' Stephensen to become her agent.

Inky Stephensen was a colourful character. Born in Queensland in 1901 and later a Rhodes Scholar, PRS managed Endeavour Press, working with the likes of Norman Lindsay. Later, PR Stephensen & Co published authors including Louise Mach, Eleanor Dark and Miles Franklin. Establishing the Australia First Movement, he became one of 15 AFM members interned without trial in Australia during World War II, under the National Security Act.

From 1958 Stephensen worked tirelessly with a handful of clients to secure 'one good success', [5] which he felt would financially establish him as a literary agent. Working with Kata he secured the sale of her second book, Someone Will Conquer Them (1962) and after a false start, the film option for Be Ready with Bells and Drums.

A Patch of Blue

English-born director Guy Green secured an option in 1964 on a film version of Be Ready with Bells and Drums that he would direct. He also wrote the screenplay and the film, A Patch of Blue, was released in 1965. His adaptation of Kata's work was nominated by the Writers Guild of America for Best American Drama. Shelley Winters received the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Elizabeth Hartman received the Most Promising Newcomer Golden Globe. Sidney Poitier received a Best Motion Picture Actor Golden Globe nomination.

Elizabeth Kata was the first Australian writer to have a work adapted into an Academy Award-winning film.

Although successful for both Kata and Stephensen, the film and re-release of the book under the new title reaped them little financial benefit. Stephensen died in 1965, a matter of weeks before Kata's signing of the final MGM contract. Locking in the film sale was his most successful literary deal and perhaps he died thinking he'd finally reached financial security. For Kata, the rest of her life was an ongoing battle to see any significant royalties from her work. [6]

Later life

Following the success of her first book, Kata continued writing for film and television, working both in Australia and overseas. She also completed five more books. Someone Will Conquer Them (1962) and her last novel, Kagami (1989), are both influenced by her experiences in Japan, which instilled a lifelong affection for both its people and its culture. Kata and her husband never reunited but remained close, Kata regularly travelling to Japan. She died at her Sydney home in 1998.

A Patch of Blue was included in the 'school book list' both in Australia and the United States. It was used in senior year classes as part of a curriculum aimed at developing racial tolerance. In 1980 it was said to have never been out of print. [7]

References

Damian Kringas, Mrs Katayama and Her Splash of Blue, Independence Jones, Petersham NSW, 2010

Elizabeth Kata interviewed by Hazel de Berg for the Hazel de Berg collection (sound recording) 1963, 1979, National Library of Australia, 1963 available online at http://nla.gov.au/nla.oh-vn247133

Good Housekeeping Magazine, June 1989

Notes

[1] Damian Kringas, Mrs Katayama and Her Splash of Blue, Independence Jones, Petersham, 2010, p75

[2] Good Housekeeping Magazine, June 1989

[3] David Katayama Carter, as quoted in Damian Kringas, Mrs Katayama and Her Splash of Blue, Independence Jones, Petersham, 2010, p 92

[4] Damian Kringas, Mrs Katayama and Her Splash of Blue, Independence Jones, Petersham NSW, 2010, p 29

[5] Damian Kringas, Mrs Katayama and Her Splash of Blue, Independence Jones, Petersham NSW,.2010, p 32

[6] Damian Kringas, Mrs Katayama and Her Splash of Blue, Independence Jones, Petersham NSW, 2010, p 49

[7] Damian Kringas, Mrs Katayama and Her Splash of Blue, Independence Jones, Petersham NSW, 2010, p 60

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