Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Japanese Philosophy of "Gaman"

The blossoms have fallen,
I stare blankly at a world
Bereft of color;
In the wide vacant sky
The spring rains are falling.
                  ----Princess Shikushi (died 1201)
Gaman: Patience, endurance, perseverance.

My mother is Japanese, so the philosophy of gaman is not new to me. As a child, I watched gaman in my Japanese relatives; their stoic, proud way of dealing with not only hardship, but life.

Though I admire and respect this philosphy, I will admit there were times in my upbringing that I battled between gaman and my internal child emotions. I didn't understand why I couldn't show my sadness or anger. Even today, my adult self has two sides - the honorable gaman side, and the emotional side. Sometimes gaman wins, sometimes emotions.

In the last week, as I've watched the coverage of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I am in awe of the Japanese ability to practice gaman. In interview after interview with people who have lost everything, the Japanese people have spoken with amazing composure. Any hint of emotion is soon masked, and the interviewee appears almost embarrassed. But I know - the pain and emotion are there, pressed deep inside.

My grandfather immigrated from Sendai, Japan, and my grandmother, from Fukushima. I never knew my grandfather, oji-san. He was killed by some boys before I was born. And sadly, my grandmother, oba-san, died before I was two. I wish I could have known them, and I've often wondered about the relatives in Japan I may never know.

As I watch the people affected by the disaster, I feel related to them, if not by blood, by culture. Then I realize at times like this, we all are related.

Excerpt from Broken Dolls:

Mama held her, and Sachi breathed in the scent of cedar in her mother’s clothes, tasted salt in the tears still on her cheek. Mama pulled her closer—so close Sachi could hear the rapid flutter of Mama's heart begin to calm.
Then Sachi felt it, too. Gaman. Endurance. Resolve. No matter what the future held, everything was going to be okay.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Stop the Bullying

This morning I learned that tomorrow, March 10, 2011, President and Mrs. Obama will be hosting a White House Conference on Bullying Prevention.

I've wondered if incidences of bullying are occuring more frequently, or if it is simply because they are being reported more often by news media. Then I realize it doesn't matter - one bullying incident is too many. It is cruel and often leads to very severe consequences, like the victim's suicide.

Sadly, bullying has always taken place in one form or another. Many of the news stories today are about bullying directed toward gays, but it can be directed toward anyone perceived as being "different" from the bully. My book, Broken Dolls, deals with bullying toward Japanese-Americans during World War II. Here is an excerpt:

     On the way to school, Sachi sat in the front seat next to Papa, pouting over the way the morning had gone. Sometimes Mama really made her mad, always making her practice, practice, practice.
     Finally, she had to ask Papa, “Why does Mama make me do my Japanese dance and music lessons? All of my friends get to play whenever they want to.”
     He looked at her with an eyebrow raised. “All of your friends? But what is your name?”
     “Sachiko,” she whispered. Not even Papa was on her side.
     “This is your mother’s way of teaching you to remember your Japanese heritage. You must be patient. You may not understand until you are older.” He pulled into the school parking lot.
     The front lawn was crowded with kids hanging around, waiting for the bell to ring.
     She crossed her arms. Great. They will all stare at me.
     There were things she hated about third grade. Like having homework. And mean old Mrs. Nelson. Worst of all were the kids who called her slant-eyes. One day at lunch, a boy in her class had moved to another table, all because she sat next to him. Snickers and whispers had surrounded her like moths around a porch light. She left her tray on the table and ran out of the cafeteria. But those moths flitted and batted around her all the way out.
     She opened the car door.
     “Are you not forgetting something?” Papa leaned his cheek toward her.
     Hoping nobody was looking, she gave him a quick peck on the cheek — even if he was on Mama’s side. “Bye, Papa.”
     “Bye-bye. Have a good day.”
     She shrugged her shoulders. How good a day could it be with all the kids teasing her about being Japanese?
     Eyes focused on the sidewalk, she hurried toward the red brick building and wished she were anywhere but there, walking past those kids. Adrenaline shot through her legs as she ran through the crowd of stares and whispers. Running to class had nothing to do with being late and everything to do with being Japanese.
     The day had been long, but finally, the bell for the last class rang. She hurried out the door and found Papa waiting in the car – her safe zone. Seeing him lifted her spirits a bit, and she ran to the car. More whispers and giggles buzzed around her, but she ignored them. She had quit counting how many times someone called her Jap that day.

I hope the Obama's conference will open discussion about the cruelty and damage bullying can cause. If you would like more information, links follow:

White House Conference on Bullying Prevention


Monday, March 7, 2011

An Interview with Caron Guillo - Author (and International Tour Manager!)

Caron Guillo
I have enjoyed getting to know Caron Guillo through emails, Facebook, Twitter and her website. When I learned she is not only an author, but also a speaker and Certified International Tour Manager, I couldn't wait to get to know her better. I am reading her book, An Uncommon Crusade, and look forward to meeting her outside of the "virtual world." One day, maybe I'll even be a lucky traveler on one of her tours!

Having just finished writing my first novel, Broken Dolls, I am trying to rev up to start my second, But the "engine" is slow to turn over. So, I especially appreciated her answer to the last question!

Thank you, Caron, for graciously accepting my invitation for a blog interview.

JAN: Your book, An Uncommon Crusade, (released on January 4, 2011) is the story of Elisabeth, Simon, and Hugo, who join an ill-fated commoner's crusade to Jerusalem in search of wealth, glory, and redemption. As a writer, I'm always watching for the “seeds” to stories. What was the seed, or inspiration for this book? Were your characters based on real people?

CARON: Several years ago I read an intriguing novel about the crusades which sent me to the encyclopedia in search of more information on the topic. At the end of the World Book article, I came across a few lines about a children’s crusade that ended in tragedy, most of the participants either dying prematurely in the Alps or being betrayed and sold into slavery in Africa.

I actually gasped and re-read the paragraph three or four times. What in the world would possess children to set off on such a misadventure or their parents to allow it?

Sometime later when I had the tools and time to research the subject properly, I discovered that at the forefront of the so-called children’s crusade was a charismatic and egotistical young commoner named Nicholas, that most of the “crusaders” were young adults, and that parents were generally terrified of the movement, seeking to protect their children from a disastrous end.

I couldn’t let the story go. Why would unarmed, untrained, unfinanced peasants think they could accomplish what professional armies had not? How desperate or deluded must an individual be to join such an ill-fated mission? And what about all those young people sold into slavery? How did they live with the consequences of their mistakes?

I began to envision a young woman who would do anything to win freedom from her past. A young man who dreams of rising above his lowly status to change the world. A would-be warrior looking for a fight, and perhaps a bit of fortune.

And so began my exploration into the lives of three young commoners who thought they had nothing left to lose.
JAN: You've traveled to sixteen countries on four continents and are now a Certified International Tour Manager. What effect has this had on your writing? Do your stories usually take place in exotic locales?

I have an insatiable curiosity and love exploring, tasting, and feeling different locales, so, yes, my travels do impact my writing. Over the years, and as a tour manager, I've had the wonderful opportunity to meet fascinating people from around the globe. I listen and learn from them. While I've written (or have in progress) novels set in the USA, my current project is a novel-length work titled Great Zimbabwe.

The plot is based in large part on my experiences in Zimbabwe in recent years, continued involvement in humanitarian efforts there, and time spent at Imire Safari Ranch—a black rhino breeding station and game park.

In Great Zimbabwe, American Sara Jenkins travels to Zimbabwe to meet the father she’s never known and perhaps scrape together enough courage to deal with the challenges she faces in her life and relationships. Instead, she must solve the mystery of his disappearance more than two decades ago.

In this story, I explore the tempestuous sea of political, economic, cultural, and racial tension in Zimbabwe today while simultaneously honoring the great beauty, courage, dignity, and strength of the Zimbabwean people. With a bit of humor thrown into the mix. I can't help it.

JAN: As writers, we often find certain characteristics in books that make them particularly memorable or enjoyable. What have you found in your reading that you’ve incorporated into your writing?

CARON: I think a memorable book is a mix of great plot, lively, believable characters, and vivid, but concise, descriptions, and that's what I try to write. In historical novels, I love to get that sense of the time and setting, but I don't want so much historical detail that the story bogs down or the characters get lost.

I sometimes say I write "history lite." For instance, the historical detail in An Uncommon Crusade is well-researched and solid, but I wanted readers to be able to see themselves in the characters, and so I tried not to belabor the historical setting to the point that I failed in that goal.

I was very pleased that Publishers Weekly nailed it when they wrote, "Although this novel uses the Children's Crusade of 1212 as its background, it is not a historical chronicle, but a very personal story . . ."

JAN:  Do you have a favorite piece of advice for writers?

CARON: Listen and learn. Some years ago a successful novelist agreed to critique one of my manuscripts. He wasn't impressed, but did me the courtesy of offering specific feedback.

I thanked him for his time and expressed my deep appreciation. For what, I had no idea. Privately, I railed against him. Didn’t he know genius when he saw it? Thing is, I’d heard the same feedback from editors and agents alike. Blah, blah, blah. It had grown tiresome.

Just when I’d settled comfortably into my superiority over the collective expertise of the entire publishing industry, I came across two Proverbs: “He who hates correction is stupid” and “Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise.”

I swallowed my pride, took my mentor’s advice, learned a lot, and in the end he wrote a glowing endorsement of my novel.

JAN: Any motivational tips for writers – particularly those who have finished a project and are trying to "rev up" for another?

CARON: Move on! You are creative and productive and have more to offer. That finished manuscript belongs in front of editors or on the shelf, but you? You belong in the middle of your next story.

An author friend of mine--a New York Times bestselling novelist--once told me you have to pen a thousand pages before you're ready to write a truly publishable novel. So keep writing, learning, growing, and moving on. I can't wait to see what you come up with next!

Leave a comment to be entered in a drawing for an autographed copy of An Uncommon Crusade. Drawing will be held on Monday, March 21, and will be announced on this blog and on Facebook. Good luck!