with Lensey Namioka
By Naomi Wakan*
Posted: July 2003
Lensey Namioka wrote her very first book, Princess
with a Bamboo Sword, the story of a woman warrior, when
she was only 8 years old. She wrote it on scrap paper and sewed it together
with thread - a promising beginning to a wonderful writing career that
has now spanned more than 30 years.
She was born in Beijing in June 1929, lived in the US
for a year when very young, then returned to China to live in Nanking.
With her parents, she returned to the US - this time permanently - in
1938. Her mother was a surgeon and her father a specialist in Chinese
dialects. He had previously spent 8 years studying in America, which
helped ease the family into the dual cultures of their immigrant lives.
China, the US and Japan
Lensey's marriage to Isaac Namioka, a teaching assistant
in one of her classes, and later for many years a math professor at
the University of Washington, introduced her to Japan and its culture.
So, in addition to a number of excellent books on the Chinese-immigrant
experience in the US, she has also written a wonderful series of adventure/detection
stories set in 16th century Japan (Sherlock Holmes was her favorite
reading as a child).
Isaac's birthplace, Tono, in the north of Honshu, is
not too far from Namioka, an old castle town where his family had roots.
His family moved to Himeji, the famous castle town in Honshu, when he
was a baby. These two towns provided background for the book Lensey
first wrote as an adult, White Serpent Castle (although Samurai
and the Long-Nosed Devils was actually published first). It was
to be the first of seven adventure stories about the two ronin
(unemployed samurai), Konishi Zenta and Ishihara Matsuzo. These stories
are strong in style, pace and plot and are filled with excellent details
of life in Japan during the 16th century. One of the most fascinating,
The Coming of the Bear, is set in Hokkaido.
Being Chinese in the US
The books set in the United States (her Yang family
series and April and the Dragon Lady) bring sharply into focus
the concepts that different cultures invent about each other that impede
ordinary, caring relationships. As a member of a visible minority, Lensey
writes of misunderstandings between the two cultures with wit, honesty
and a childlike innocence.
Her series of stories on the musical Yang family have received rave
reviews from Horn Book, Publisher's Weekly, School
Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews and The New York
Times Book Review. April and the Dragon Lady concerns
itself with both intercultural and intergenerational problems in the
Chinese immigrant community - the formidable grandmother battles both
her son and granddaughter over acceptance of the North American lifestyle.
Writing for Young People
Lensey didn't intend to write for young people,
she says, she just wrote the kind of books she enjoyed reading herself.
Maybe, she suggests, I write these books because I
never really grew up.
Well, Lensey did grow up. She went to Radcliffe (1947-49), and the University
of California, got a master's degree in mathematics, lectured at Wells
and Cornell, married and had a family (Aki and Michi). Her adult self
comes through clearly in her perceptive book about her visit to the
land of her birth, China - a Traveller's Companion, but throughout
all her books - the samurai stories, the retelling of folktales (The
Loyal Cat, The Laziest Boy in the World), the heart-warming
books about the Yang family and in April and the Dragon Lady,
a childlike freshness, questioning, innocence, and optimism ring through.
All her books, however, feature very real protagonists
that readers can sympathize with, including some wonderful rascals -
from the loyal cat who is a little greedier than his master, to the
iron-fisted grandmother in April and the Dragon Lady.
Many of Lensey Namiokas books, particularly
the historical stories, are researched from family archives, relatives
memories and her own investigations from visits to both Japan and China.
Her painstaking and detailed research makes her stories so credible
and well worth reading. Her two recent books, Ties that Bend, Ties
That Break and An Ocean Apart, A World Away,
set both in China and in the US, show meticulous research and a sensitivity
to both cultures.
When I queried her about her work patterns I was
delighted to find Lensey digging up dandelions and washing windows while
she works out plot and characters. As most writers do, she finds the
first draft the most difficult, and so restricts her writing to two
or three very intense hours in the morning when she is most alert. Editing
and revising she leaves to afternoon or evening.
Lensey Namioka has been an access student at the
University of Washington for many years now. She doesn't study to graduate,
but to explore a wide variety of subjects. This lifetime exploration
in many fields keeps her books fresh and interesting.
Future plans include a third in the series which began
with Ties That Bind, Ties That Break and continued
with its sequel, An Ocean Apart, A World Away, and a book of
fun for young children entitled Half and Half, which is due
out this month.
Lensey has won many awards including Parent's Choice,
Washington State Governor's Writer's Award (at least 3 times), ALA best
list, and the Edgar Alan Poe Award for Village of the Vampire Cat.
That her papers are already with the University of Minnesota Children's
Library Research Collection shows how highly she is regarded in the
academic world of Children's Literature.
In spite of her fame and success, there is a lot
in Lensey of the gentle priest who appears in The Loyal Cat
who didn't care about sounding important and was a
gentle person with a soft voice... he enjoyed simple things.
Wakan is a Canadian author
and regular contributor to PaperTigers.
back to top