Ninja Meets Navajo Code Talker
The YA collisions of Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani
I think maybe Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani have the coolest marriage ever. The pair not only travels back and forth between homes in Tokyo and Santa Fe, but they’re both writers and translators with a host of titles under their respective belts. I recently had the chance to chat with Leza via email about a new young adult novel she and her husband worked on together, Jet Black and the Ninja Wind (Tuttle, $17.99). The first in a planned trilogy, it’s both a balls-out adventure tale and an intriguing portrait of multiple cultures. It’s also the recent winner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Young Adult Literature, putting it in company with folks like Ruth Ozeki, whose A Tale for the Time Being won for Adult Fiction.
Basically, Jet Black is a ninja. There's only one problem—she doesn't know it. Everyone else does, and they all want to capture her and uncover her secret—a secret she doesn't even know she has. When her mother dies, half-Japanese Jet must go to Japan to protect a hidden family treasure in her ancestral land. Stalked by bounty hunters and desperately in love with the one man sent to kill her, Jet’s powers must be strong enough to protect the treasure, preserve the ancient culture and save a sacred mountain from destruction. Can she emerge triumphant as the last living female ninja in the world? And is her one true love going to join forces with her, or continue to fight against her?
Jet Black and The Ninja Wind is set in the American Southwest and the Japanese north country of Aomori. It weaves culture, history and adventure with martial arts against a backdrop of environmental concerns and a teenager’s quest for identity and belonging. The ninja were indigenous people fighting for the homeland, much like Native American history. These eco-warrior kids want to reveal the truth about their history and proudly go into the future.
You wrote this novel with your husband Shogo Oketani. What was that like, and what did each of you bring to the work?
After Memoirs of a Geisha [by Arthur Golden] came out, we had a conversation about how few strong Japanese heroines there were in popular fiction, and how we'd like to create one. Shogo told me about female ninja, and then he set out to write a novel about one. Shogo was also really into Native American culture, and wanted to include that element in the novel. I had no idea how he was going to manage that connection, but I remembered the Navajo Code Talkers and suggested that he work them into the plot.
A year later, on New Year's day, Shogo walked into the kitchen and announced that the novel was finished. I’d actually forgotten all about that conversation! Shogo then spent another year translating the novel into English. I spent the next few years editing it, adding and taking out characters, refining the plot and language. Several editors and writer friends have also read it and helped us shape it. Over the years, the novel has evolved into a much different book than either of us envisioned on our own. It was also a great test of our marriage and patience. We work together a lot on various books, translation projects and creative endeavors, and this novel has been our toughest collaboration yet. But we both feel it's so much more rewarding to face challenges; you learn so much more. After all, "smooth seas don't make skillful sailors." He is the behind-the-scenes genius and does all the hard work—writing, research, translating. I am the public face—editing and shaping it for a Western audience, getting an agent, publisher, setting up readings, promotion.
Jet, the main character, really straddles multiple worlds, including the American Southwest where she grew up, and Japan, which she has learned about through stories her entire life. At one point, she thinks of herself as "a tough res girl." What led you and Shogo to the unusual collision of cultures in the novel?
Yes, we wanted to write about a multicultural world—almost all the characters in this book straddle worlds, as we do in our lives. There are many bridges. In our novel, the action is set in the present in the American Southwest and the Japanese north country, with urban scenes in Tokyo and San Francisco too. The main characters are Jet—a half-Japanese ninja—her hunter/ninja grandfather, a Navajo Code Talker, a Buddhist priest and Hiro, Jet’s twelve-year old whiz-kid cousin. Then we have shamans, archeologists, mercenaries, the legend of King Solomon, a ninja dog and a panther. These diverse elements are linked across time and history, and the reader uncovers the buried connections as Jet’s adventure unfolds.
Blending historical and cultural elements with fiction is hard work, and writing the book was quite an adventure for us. We spend a lot of time in New Mexico travelling, and we also travel throughout Japan. In addition to living in Tokyo, we visited Osore-zan (Mt. Fear) in Aomori, Japan. We had our fortune read by shamans and survived clandestine meetings with ninja, but we can’t tell you about those, because they’re, well, secret. In addition, Shogo read over 50 books in Japanese and English for research.
The other thing we wanted to do in this novel was to bust the stereotype of the ninja as B-grade assassins, and to debunk the myth of the female ninja as just a seductress. Kunoichi [female ninja] were an important part of ninja history, known for their skills in espionage and spying. They were highly trained in the art of henge (disguise) as well as in psychological warfare and manipulation so they could infiltrate enemy territory. Kunoichi were skilled in using weapons that were smaller than that of their male counterparts, such as blinding powders, poisons, darts, daggers, ropes, neko-te (cat’s claws) and metal fans. All of these tools were easy to carry and to conceal. Kunoichi used their feminine charms to gain access into enemy clans and build trust, then they used the close-range weapons to subdue their victims, without ever leaving a trace.
Kunoichi are usually shown in manga and anime as seductresses, but we wanted to create a deeper character with very human concerns and conflicts. Though our novel is contemporary, we used the actual history of Japan’s indigenous Emishi tribe and their fight to save their history and land as Jet’s family saga. The natural landscape of the American Southwest desert and the sacred mountain of Osore-zan also play important roles in the novel. Dogs were also used in ninja warfare, and our novel introduces Aska, a powerful ninja dog.
An interesting thing about the word kunoichi is that the 'ku' is written in hirigana, the 'no' in katakana and 'ichi' in kanji.
The three strokes together comprise the kanji for woman or onna:
Japanese women were strong, mysterious, and not the shrinking violets they are often portrayed to be.
Something I noticed is how much action there is in this book—from the get-go, Jet's doing ninja moves and honing her craft. But you also spend a lot of time on world-building; we get all these rich smells, tastes and sights. As Jet learns more about her family and the danger at hand, history and myth play an important role. And then it's also obvious how much you must love language—not only do you include all kinds of Japanese terms, there's even a glossary at the back of the book. So, with all the layers of detail you crammed into this novel, what was your favorite part to work on?
Shogo is a martial artist, so he really got into choreographing and writing the fight scenes down to the last detail, almost like storyboarding, so those would probably be his favorite scenes. World-building was really fun, too, but perhaps my favorite part are the food scenes. Shogo is a foodie and a wonderful chef, and I like to eat. He loves putting in all sorts of sensory elements. And of course, what writer doesn't like the end? It is so satisfying working on something for decades and then being able to write those final words. THE END.
And then you take a deep breath and begin again—get set for the sequel, which will be out in 2016. The third book in the trilogy will be out in 2017. The next two books are even more subversive.
Thank you for talking to us. We look forward to seeing everyone at Garcia Street Books on Sunday, Aug. 3.
Sunday, Aug. 3, 2pm
Garcia Street Books
376 Garcia Street, Santa Fe