I’m rejigging my website in the leadup to the release of Takeshita Demons. I’m deleting some bits and adding others, and one of the things I rediscovered was this interview conducted by children’s book specialist Geraldine Brennan shortly after I won the 2009 Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award with Takeshita Demons. That was nearly a year ago already! I’ve reproduced the interview below:
—> And keep your eyes and ears peeled for the announcement of the winner of the 2010 Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award. The award ceremony is being held June 8 at Seven Stories. I can’t wait to find out more!
Your father is a New Zealander, your mother is Australian and you experienced both cultures growing up. What was that like?
When I was a child we lived on a farm in the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand’s North Island. My father worked in real estate so it was a kind of hobby farm, but my mother grew kiwi fruit and we kept goats and cows. My sisters and I spent most of our time outside climbing trees, catching eels and having adventures. We had two Jersey calves as pets.
I was 13 when we moved to a suburb in Perth. Just living in a suburb was a shock to me, and my new school was much bigger and the kids much more badly behaved. I remember the feeling of being different in a school and trying not to be. The New Zealand and Australian accents are quite different and I remember not always understanding when people said my name, so I wouldn’t answer them, and that would be embarrassing.
In Takeshita Demons, Miku is struggling between being proud of her Japanese culture and not wanting to be singled out for it in Britain. By the end she feels at home in both places and that is certainly how l believe it can and should be. I like to feel part of wherever I am. I feel proud of all the different parts of myself: the Kiwi, the Aussie, my experiences in Japan, in Switzerland, and now in the UK…I often say I am from London but if the All Blacks are winning I’ll happily say I am from New Zealand.
How did your connection with Japan develop?
I had studied Japanese since I was 11 and had always wanted to go there. After university I spent two years in a suburb near Osaka, teaching English communication in a high school through the Japan Exchange and Teaching programme. I soon realised that you can never be Japanese, you are always a gaijan (foreigner), a novelty and a bit exotic. It could be isolating. My students were the exception, they accepted me completely as myself, which I think young people naturally do.
I returned to Japan some years later to work as an editor of translations for a biotechnology company at Tsukuba Science City near Tokyo. My Japanese was better by then but I still can’t handle all the levels of politeness: I can talk to friends or children, but not to a boss or someone’s grandmother. I used to long for people to speak to me in Japanese but I was also a great opportunity for people to practice English.
I made good Japanese friends, including a colleague who was Japanese but had lived in America, so he understood the sorts of things that would seem strange to me. At lunchtime we would chat and he’d tell me things about Japan. It was through him that I began to understand about Japanese people’s relationships with spirits, ghosts and demons. There was no contradiction for him between working for a science company and knowing that there was a ghost in the room.
Tell us more about the demons!
There are dozens of supernatural yokai that most Japanese people will be familiar with. They appear over and over again in all kinds of stories. Some are benign, some are nasty and some you’re just not quite sure. The demons that Miku has to deal with include the nukekubi, a kind of child-eating flying-head demon, and the noppera-bo, a faceless demon that can take on other personae.
Most Western children don’t know about these yokai in the way that they know about vampires and werewolves, but just as vampires fear garlic, the demons often have an Achilles heel or fatal flaw. The nukekubi, for example must leave its body somewhere while its hungry head flies around, and you can destroy the head by destroying the body. I chose the demons I thought would have the most potential for an adventure story, but there are plenty more for future stories. I like to write about children, especially strong girls, having great adventures.
Why do you write for children?
Children who read have a great time and are exposed to lots of different ways of living and being. As a child I loved mystery and adventure stories and often read six or seven books at once. I loved Roald Dahl because of his energy and humour and I loved the Nancy Drew books, although it was annoying that she was always being rescued by her boyfriend.
I have done a lot of work in outreach science education and love to connect with children through new ideas. I also know how short their attention spans can be. I really want to use writing to continue to connect with children and challenge them to think in new ways.
How do you fit writing into your life?
I usually write on evenings and weekends, but when I start I don’t stop. I take over the dining table and leave it to Doug to make sure I get fed. My first manuscript, a 30,000-word adventure for the same age group, won a Young and Emerging Writer’s fellowship (from Varuna House) and the Voices on the Coast writing competition. At the moment I’m editing a third novel for slightly older readers: I’ve decided a certain character needs to go. I love the power you have as a writer in that way.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
In my current day job, I promote the use of grid computing to help the world’s scientists solve global problems, such as air pollution and climate change. These scientists work together, across time zones, cultures and language barriers, in collaborations involving hundreds of countries. This is the world that the children I am writing for will have to work in. It’s all about finding ways to collaborate and that starts with understanding each other.