Natalie Lorenzi weaves two cultures together beautifully in this novel of a Japanese boy and his American cousin learning to overcome their cultural, language, family and even gender differences (how embarrassing in 5th grade for classmates to call your Japanese cousin your boyfriend!). Skye and Hiroshi are also battling over their grandfather’s attention — who himself is battling cancer. They both learn much in the course of the novel, as I did, and it left me wanting to learn more Japanese words (some are sprinkled throughout the story), how to fly a kite–I mean in a real kite battle, a Rokkaku–and eat mochi, Japanese candy. I did buy three boxes of mochi (it’s gluten free!) and I think it’ll be our new holiday tradition. Arigato, Natalie!
We’ll get to the interview in just a moment but I want to point out Natalie’s blogs — one from while she was living in Italy, Italian Moments, (from which I’m borrowing my new phrase for 2013, Speriamo bene, Let’s hope for the best) and one in which she reviews books, Biblio Links. In Biblio Links, you can donate non-English books (authors, maybe you can donate some of your foreign language copies?) to libraries here in the U.S. where kids who speak other languages, or would like to learn them, can read books in their native language. Just click on “Donate Books in Foreign Languages” at the top of the page. Now, on to Natalie!
You must speak Japanese since you lived in Japan and taught. Are you fluent? Did you feel like Skye when you were learning?
I speak very little Japanese, unfortunately—I probably peaked at around 30 words total when I lived in Japan. When I moved to Yokohama to teach first grade at the international school there, I signed up for Japanese lessons right away, eager to learn the language. I had just moved from Italy, where I did learn Italian, so I knew firsthand that language is a significant piece to understanding a foreign culture.
Unlike Italian, I couldn’t look up Japanese words in my pocket dictionary as I wandered the shops and explored the city. I could look up words in English that I wanted to say in Japanese, but if I saw a sign written in Japanese kanji, I was stuck. Also, in the city where I’d lived in Italy, most people did not speak English. In Japan, however, most people I met knew some English and were eager to practice their language skills with me, so I didn’t always need to muddle my way through my broken Japanese. But I finally stopped going to my Japanese lessons when I learned, like Skye, that Japanese has different sets of numbers for different objects. As a teacher, I’m ashamed to say this, but I gave up because it was too darned hard. (Don’t tell my students I said that.)
Did you have students like Hiroshi?
I’ve had many, many students like Hiroshi over my 19-year teaching career as both a classroom teacher and ESOL specialist (English for Speakers of Other Languages). I have learned as much from my students as they ever learned from me; they taught me about their cultures, languages, holidays, and customs. They taught me about resilience and determination. Growing up in a military family, I attended five elementary schools, so I know what it’s like to be the new kid. Each time we moved, I had to adjust to a different school and new classmates, but I got to do all of that in English. My immigrant students have much larger hurdles to clear than I ever did, and they do so with grace and courage. Flying the Dragon is dedicated to them.
How much “cultural” translation did you have to do in Japan? I love how you incorporated that into the ESL class and throughout the book.
Thank you—I’m glad you enjoyed those bits in the story! There are lots of little things I learned in Japan that are woven into the pages of Flying the Dragon, such as the way Grandfather taps the sides of his hands together in an “X” to indicate “no.” I learned that the Japanese consider a direct “no” to be rude, so they’ll often nod and tap their hands like Grandfather does instead of shaking their heads or uttering the word “no.”
I first learned this when I had been in Japan only a few days and asked a shopkeeper if her store sold laundry baskets. I’d rehearsed what to say, and even though I didn’t understand her answer, she nodded and smiled and half-bowed, which I took as a “yes,” so I went traipsing off down the aisles in search of my new laundry basket. When I couldn’t find any, I went back and repeated my question, and the shopkeeper responded in exactly the same way. After wandering the store for half an hour, I realized that my quest for a laundry basket would not end in that store, and I went home empty-handed.
Have you always been interested in kite flying and is that something you learned over there (I saw in your acknowledgements that you had mentors here, too)? Have you tried it yourself? You gave a great feel for what it must be like.
I’ve attended the rokkaku kite battle competition at the Cherry Blossom Festival in nearby Washington DC, but only as a spectator, not a participant! Although I’ve flown kites as a kid, and more recently as a mom, it was never a hobby that I pursued. Even while I was living in Japan, I had no idea that kite fighting was a sport.
Years later, I read Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and Linda Sue Park’s The Kite Fighters, both of which piqued my interest in the cultures behind the sport. I saw that Linda Sue Park had thanked a kite expert named David Gomberg in her acknowledgements, so I emailed him to explain that I was working on a children’s novel and asked if he’d be willing to help with the kite fighting scenes. He said yes, and even referred me to Harold Ames, who has won the Cherry Blossom Rokkaku competition, the same one that my main characters enter at the end of the book. If readers come away with a good feel for the sport, it’s entirely due to the good advice I received from these two experts!
Getting to know you . . . .
Tea or coffee? Flavor? Milk or sugar?
I used to be a morning tea drinker with milk and sugar, but living in Italy made me a coffee convert. Now back in the U.S., the barista in Starbucks doesn’t even need to take my order—he just makes me a venti skinny vanilla latte on sight.
What’s always in your fridge?
Lots of space, actually. My Italian husband does the grocery shopping and cooking, and since Europeans tend to buy their groceries day-by-day, he doesn’t stock up like we Americans love to do.
Favorite comfort food?
Dark chocolate. And lots of it, please.
Cat or dog?
We just got a rescue cat—our first pet ever (fish and hamsters don’t count). We love her!
Flats or heels?
What most surprises you about our current culture?
Sometimes we need to step away from something in order to see it clearly. Living overseas gave me the distance I needed to see my own culture through a different lens. I learned to appreciate the way Americans value efficiency, innovation, and independence. But I also found it fascinating that other cultures don’t necessarily view these same values as 100% positive. Yes, I can run out to Target on a Sunday and buy a garden hose at two in the afternoon, and even be assured that I’ll get a parking place. In Italy, this would never happen; most shops are closed on Sundays and, parking? Good luck. But instead of running Sunday errands, Italians hang out with their families and friends and linger three hours over lunch. In our family, we try to adopt what we love most from both worlds—my American culture and my husband’s Italian culture—and make those things our own.
One of the things I love most about books is that they allow us all to travel the globe within their pages, where we get to know each other (and ourselves) better.
Thank you so much for hosting me on your blog, Kathy!
My pleasure, Natalie! We look forward to your next book…. Visit Natalie at her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter (@NatalieLorenzi)!