Saturday, October 26, 2013

In Conversation with Holly Thompson

Holly Thompson
Holly Thompson is the author of two young adult novels in verse: ‘The Language Inside’ and ‘Orchards’ and winner of the APALA Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. She is also author of the adult novel ‘Ash’ and the picture book ‘The Wakame Gatherers’. Raised in the U.S. but a resident of Japan for the past eighteen years, she recently edited ‘Tomo: Friendship through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories’. A graduate of the N.Y.U. Creative Writing Program, she writes poetry and fiction for children, teens and adults, serves as regional advisor for the Japan chapter of SCBWI, and teaches creative writing and literature at Yokohama City University. 

Holly Thompson’s books feature bicultural characters and explore intercultural issues. Honoured to have her here with us for CROCUS.

ST- You moved from the U.S, where there is an intermingling of cultures, to Japan, which is more insular. It is more common to read about people moving to the U.S. rather than from it. Can you tell our readers about it? Any anecdotes you would like to share?
I first lived in Japan in my early twenties, then after three years returned to the U.S. to attend the graduate creative writing program at N.Y.U. In some ways my culture shock was greater moving to New York City than moving to Japan. Later, in 1998, my husband and I moved back to Japan with our two small children. Since we both already spoke Japanese and wanted our children to be bilingual, we plunged them into Japanese preschool and elementary school. This was a challenging adjustment for us all—I think one could argue that through public school systems, one truly encounters the culture of a country. There were many struggles, especially as our son was bullied incessantly, but the immersion has had long-lasting positive effects, and members of our family are all bi- or multilingual now. Many people cross borders and cultures in all different directions in today’s world, and I hope we’ll see more stories reflecting those experiences.

You are bilingual in Japanese and English. Does it help you in your writing? 
Having a second language certainly impacts my first language. I find that having a second language such as Japanese, which is so completely different from English—the writing system, the grammar structure, the concepts—gives my writing far more scope. I have more vocabulary, more ideas, more perspective to draw from, and I’m certain that my English reflects this. Of course, conversely there are times I can’t remember what to say in either language, or I can only remember in one language but not in the language I need at the moment, but that’s a fate common to bilinguals.

You live in Kamakura in Japan. Tell us more about it and how it impacts your writing.
Kamakura is a seaside city surrounded by hills. It was the seat of government in Japan from 1185 to 1333, so besides the hills and beaches, Kamakura is rich in history—the archeological dig at a house lot down the street from us was pulling up pottery from the thirteenth century this summer. Ancient temples and shrines surround us—the morning gongs wake us in the morning. I love this setting—a mix of history, nature, commuter town and quirky surf culture all within easy access to Tokyo. Kamakura has become home and inevitably plays a significant role in my writing.

How does one research when writing a story in an unfamiliar setting?
Any research must be undertaken with deep respect for the subject matter, locale and culture. For an unfamiliar setting, the key is to research far more than you think necessary, from every possible angle, and to gain experience in that setting until the unfamiliar becomes profoundly familiar and understood. There are so many methods and approaches with which to conduct research, but being physically situated in a place, at least for a time, listening in every possible way with all your senses, and interacting with the local culture is critical for me.

You apprenticed at a mikan orange farm in Japan for eighteen months as part of your research for an adult novel. Can you tell us about your experience? 
I began working on a novel set on a mikan orange farm knowing I was handicapped; I lacked the knowledge and experience of mikan cultivation and agricultural community life in Japan. I was lucky to find a farmer in Shizuoka Prefecture who was willing to let me work as a sort of apprentice for a year, which stretched into 18 months. For part of that time I rented a couple rooms in a farmhouse in a neighboring village, and moved there with my young daughter. She attended the local elementary school and I worked in the mikan orchards, conducted interviews with locals, and observed, photographed and recorded every aspect of village life that I could. Midway through that research, I began drafting my YA novel Orchards. The voice of the main character Kana would not leave me alone as I work in those steep hillside groves.

In ‘Orchards’, a Japanese and Jewish/American girl is sent from her home in New York to a village in Japan after the suicide of a classmate. It takes courage to write about difficult subjects like loss, guilt and grief. How do you do it?
I think for me it’s more how on earth do I not write about difficult subjects such as loss, guilt and grief? They are part of the human condition. I had a close friend who lost her thirteen-year-old daughter to suicide, and in addition to mourning the loss of this young girl, I always wondered--how had her death impacted her classmates? Orchards was my fictional way of exploring that question. Setting the story in Japan, over a contemplative summer when Kana stays with relatives in a small agricultural village where she feels like an outsider at first but gradually feels more like an insider, enabled me to follow Kana’s story, and distance myself from any actual events.

Can you tell us how you came up with the story idea for ‘The Language Inside’? 
The Language Inside had a long period of gestation. When I was a graduate student at the NYU Creative Writing Program, I volunteered at Goldwater Hospital helping patients work on writing poems or memoirs for the Goldwater Writing Workshops. One writer I worked with was Julia Tavalaro, whose strokes had left her immobile and unable to speak. But she had eye movement and could look up to indicate yes, so, pointing to a letter board, I helped her spell out her poems, letter by letter. Julia was a formidable force, and I was intrigued by how she was able to totally monopolize our conversations and even insult me. She absolutely intimidated me, and I knew that one day I wanted to write a novel about a girl assisting someone like Julia. I chose to set the story in and around Lowell, Massachusetts, a city with a long history of immigrant populations, and my main character Emma, raised in Japan but suddenly moved to Massachusetts for her mother’s breast cancer treatment, encounters Samnang during her volunteer work, and through him, meets the Cambodian-American community of Lowell. Displacement, loss and language figure large in the story, as does poetry. The Language Inside Guide for Teachers and Readers is full of discussion, Guide is now available and includes discussion questions, essay topics, poetry prompts, extension activities and service project ideas. 

How did the Tomo anthology come about?
After the 3/11/2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, I wanted to create a project that would benefit teens in the quake affected areas of Tohoku for the long term. Stone Bridge Press was immediately supportive of the project, and I put out the call for Japan-connected young adult short fiction. Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories with 36 stories, including ten in translation was published on the one-year anniversary of the quake. All of the proceeds from sales of Tomo continue to go to programs that support educational programs for teens in the areas of northern Japan still struggling to recover from the devastating tsunami. 

‘The Wakame Gatherers’ is a picture book in which a bicultural girl in Japan goes seaweed gathering with her Japanese and American grandmothers. While translating for the two women she comes to understand they were at war when they were her age. Very interesting! We would love to hear the story behind this one.
I grew up in Massachusetts not far from the ocean, and one of my favorite things to do was to
Holly, age 17, tidepooling
explore tidepools, sloshing around and moving seaweeds aside to find molluscs, crabs and anemones. Moving to Japan, to a town on the sea, I quickly became aware of the cultural difference in the approach to seaweed — in New England seaweeds were rarely eaten; in Japan seaweeds are a staple food. Of course I started researching seaweeds, both in New England and in Japan, and learned to gather and dry my own wakame. At the time I wrote the story, I was teaching in a cooperative afterschool program for English-language-speaking children attending Japanese schools. All of the children were bilingual and bicultural, either by experience or heritage, and I wanted to tell the wakame story from the vantage point of a bicultural, biracial child, and this resulted in The Wakame Gatherers.

‘Orchards’ and ‘The Language Inside’ are young adult novels written in verse.  How did you decide the story was suited to the verse novel form? Did you question yourself along the way? Writing in verse is very difficult; but does it help deal with intense emotions? 
Verse does not suit every novel idea, but the verse form was right for both Orchards and The Language Inside. I could not tell those stories in prose, no matter how I tried. For stories dealing with intense emotions, the spare language of a verse novel, the controlled page turns, the white space, all provide breathing room for the reader, which is important when tackling difficult topics. I have now completed a third novel in verse, and probably my language has become tighter and sparer with each verse novel. 

Is there a market for “quiet” novels? How do multi-cultural books fare?
I try not to worry about what the market is looking for while I’m writing, since in the end, it’s all about grabbing and keeping a reader. A quiet novel can do that. A fast-paced thriller can do that. It all depends on the telling and what’s at stake for the main character. A quiet novel will sell if there is enough to keep even an antsy reader turning the page. There is certainly a market for children’s and YA multicultural books, but in the U.S. that market generally consists of multicultural stories set within the U.S. It can be challenging to market multicultural stories set outside the U.S. to editors in the U.S., since publishers tend to feel, rightly or wrongly, that such stories will be difficult to sell (this may also be due in part to the fact that many editors lack international experience). Consequently any children’s or YA story set outside the U.S. must elevate itself through powerful voice, confident and capable writing, and universality even in the local, in order to appeal to editors in the U.S.

You were in Delhi recently for the Jumpstart festival. What was your impression of India? And your experience at Jumpstart? 
I loved my brief visit to India and the Jumpstart festival. For me it was a perfect chance to become better acquainted with the language and class issues that impact the children’s and YA writers in India. I was so impressed by the fiction writing I was seeing in the Jumpstart master class and the SCBWI India workshop, and I feel that we’ll be seeing more and more great children’s and YA literature published in India. I look forward to the many different voices and hope that the English-language kidlit that develops in India will set its own trends and will be boldly diverse and unique. 

We would like to explore children’s literature from Japan, but are limited by our knowledge of the language. Can you point us to Japanese literature that is available in English?
The Japanese children’s book market is wonderfully vibrant, active and healthy, but sadly, very little children’s lit from Japan has been translated into English. On Goodreads I have lists of Japan-related books, both works in translation and works originally in English. And of course Tomo contains 36 Japan stories for young adults. That’s a start—have a look!

[Pictures courtesy Holly Thompson]


Choxbox said...

Wow, thanks for this very refreshing and candid set of Q&As.
A good friend of ours has recently relocated to Tokyo from the UK, I am sending this link to him.
Will look up the books, thanks again!

sandhya said...

Lovely interview, Arundhati. Thanks for the interesting answers, Holly Thompson. Brings to mind my few months in Japan long ago, that has made a strong impression on me - it was an unforgettable experience.

Speaking of languages - when in Japan, I picked up a book called Womansword, that spoke of how differently men and women of Japan used the language.

ranjani.sathish said...

Very interesting interview. Even as I was reading it, felt transported in my mind to Japan !

Arundhati said...

Thanks Chox, Sandhya and Ranjani.
Felt this would be perfect for CROCUS. A big thank you to Holly for doing this interview despite being very ill.

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