Warriors in the Crossfire-- how to maintain cultural accuracy in a novel
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Apr. 14th, 2010 | 11:48 am
It is a privilege to host Nancy Bo Flood on her blog tour. She is an award winning author of Navajo Year, Walk Through Many Seasons, and Sand to Stone, the Life Cycle of Sandstone. Nancy is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her newest book, Warriors in the Crossfire is a wonderful historical novel which allows the reader to enter a story about another culture and time.
(All photos courtesy of Nancy Bo Flood.)
Kathi Appelt said, "Nancy Bo Flood's novel casts a bright light on one of the forgotten shadows of World War II, the near total devastation of Saipan and the native people who lived there. Joseph's story forces us to pay attention, to see war itself as an event that affects more than the opposing forces and illuminates its darkest corners.
I'll be telling everyone I know about it . . .”
I asked Nancy several questions related to writing about a different culture. She also shares a couple photos of her favorite places on Saipan.
A: Research begins with books and libraries but it is more than reading. You need to experience the culture. Listen, observe, feel the pace and rhythm of the culture…taste their foods, and when appropriate, ask questions.
We lived on Saipan for many years. I swam with the turtles – and the sharks. I paddled out across the reef, got scared to death as sharks circled our kayak. I slipped out of my kayak in the deep sea beyond the reef and was terrified. That’s what Kento felt and it was no fun. Having the shadow of a shark slide over you is terrifying. It was also part of my research, though not one I had planned.
I sat with people on the beach, watched the waves as we talked, watched people catch octopus and bite off their sharp beaks and share the fresh delicacy. We sat, shared food and shared stories. They told me about surviving the war, about their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers who did not survive. They told me about the terrible thirst, the confusion, the smells – the horrid stink of war.
I helped Filipe and Joe Ruak with the dance group, which often mean driving around in a bumpy old jeep or pick-up truck and picking up dancers from school sports. I watched as young boys put down their cell phones and i-pods and transformed from contemporary to traditional as they picked up their warrior sticks and began to chant, faster and faster, hitting their sticks, twirling and leaping, with the skill, strength and dexterity of a fine athlete. I hiked with kids up the rugged volcanic slopes, bloodied my knees, walked into sticky spider webs, and paused to watch a kingfisher snatch a gecko and swallow it whole. That was research too.
I spent hours in the archives of the Saipan library, read books written about their island, their people, their culture. I watched archived footage of the invasion, talked with veterans, both Japanese and American. I learned every time I helped at the Senior Citizen Center. I spent time sitting with women as they cooked, watched children, or studied for a chemistry test. We spent even more hours at the archives and museums on Guam and the Bishop Museum in Hawaii. The old manuscripts of the Germans and Spanish were very helpful.
Read it, live it, ask it. Then listen, listen, listen. Keep collecting images, sounds, smells, ideas, information.
Q: At the end of the book in the historical note you include both a quote from a memorial at the Suicide Cliffs: “May we live together in peace” and one of your poems, titled, “To See, Peace.” Your story deals with two cultures which are at odds with each other during a time of war and occupation: the island natives and the Japanese. Did writing about two foreign cultures create additional challenges with either your research or writing?
A: As a college student I had lived and studied in Japan, first becoming somewhat fluent in the language. I am an admirer of Japanese art, visual and literary. On Saipan I enjoyed a renewal of hearing the Japanese language for many of my students were Japanese as well as local Chamorro and Carolinian. I tried to show in Warriors that there are no good guys or bad guys, but people doing what they need to do, or are ordered to do, to survive. I tried to show the contrast in cultural values that became a threat to the boys’ friendship. In our multicultural world we live with a plethora of cultural values and it is our challenge to respect and to learn from differences, not hang on to what we know and understand.
Q: Saipan is a place that many readers will not have heard of before reading your book. The setting is vivid and specific with details including descriptions of many landscapes, in particular the lagoon, the caves and the cliffs. How long did you live in Saipan? Which settings in the book have you visited? Were any of the places in the book favorite places of yours to visit?
A: Our family first traveled to Saipan to work for one year but stayed for ten. I loved the ocean. We swam and kayaked and scuba-dove in the lagoon, we climbed the cliffs and looked for “war stuff.” Evidence of the War is everywhere -- rusting tanks, canteens, sake bottles. We explored dark and smelly caves. I guess we experienced everything we could, even the sharks.
My favorites?? A small island in the lagoon, Managaha Island - the kind of island kids imagine - tiny, surrounded by beach, full of coconut palms. And also full of old bunkers and a very large destroyed Japanese gun. This island is special to the Carolinian people as the traditional burial site of their first great chief. When canoes from those islands visit Saipan, they stop on Managaha first to pay respect.
Another favorite was Forbidden Island, a place…forbidden to the faint of heart….a hard to find place on the rugged coast where a small hidden cave gave us a secret view of the ocean.
Q: The story includes a scene where characters are forced to dance for the Japanese, which brings up the importance of showing respect for cultural traditions. What aspects of the culture in this story are still alive and can be seen today?
A: Most of the cultural traditions described still exist. The families living on Satawal (one of the outer islands of Yap) and Polowat (one of the outer islands of Chuuk) are the close relatives of those living on Saipan today. Frequent traditional canoe voyages bring clan members the 500+ miles from these islands to Saipan and back. Stick dance, language, clothes, clan traditions, foods -- all are still similar to what you read in the story. The Carolinian cultures, both Rafalawasch ( “inside the reef”, those from the main islands of Yap) and Rapaganoor (from the outer islands, literally “beyond the reef”) are still intact and thriving. While those living on Saipan appear more “Westernized”, they are still very proud of their culture.
Q: A fun question. Food shows up at various times in the story: coconuts, breadfruit, bananas, boiled rice inside banana leaves, crab, octopus and more. I miss food from each country I’ve lived in. What food do you miss from Saipan?
Mangoes! Sweet, ripe mangoes. We would bring an armful of mangoes to the beach, peel and eat. Nothing like sitting in the sand, listening to the surf, licking my lips and then diving head first into a wave.
Finger bananas or we called them juicy-lucy bananas. They are the size of fat fingers and taste s like a tangy mix of peach and tangerine.
Soft young coconut. What is that? We think of coconut as dry and flaky but the hard white meat is only one stage in the maturing of the meat inside a coconut. In a green coconut the layer of “meat” is soft white “jelly” that is sweet and slimey. This is a good food for young infants. In a mature old coconut this meat has dried up and look like an “egg.” This egg is the seed and food for a new coconut to grow. It is also a delicious treat, something like a salad.
Q: Why did you write this story?
A: Sarah, this question has continued to haunt me. A tough question, it has been an important one for me to think, think, think about.
First there is the joy of discovery. Yes, like a kid finding a special rock, I want to share my delight. Writing my earlier book, Sand to Stone, was an expression of this delight. Look world, rocks are amazing! I have learned so much from rocks.
Perhaps the deeper reason I write, especially why I wrote this book, is the sorrow and sadness I saw. From loss. From war. Often those who are in the middle of loss have also lost “their voice of protest.”
My own loss began when I was a child. My younger sister died when I was seven. I lost my family to grief for a long time, but then we returned. How does a person return from sorrow to healing and hope?
When I arrived on Saipan I saw this beautiful island and I also saw the tanks rusting in the lagoon. As part of my work there, I assisted in developing resources for families whose children had disabilities. One cause was from the continued contamination of chemicals left over from the war. Our war. We did not even clean up our mess.
War destroys. Many stories tell of the heroism and courage, and yes, the compassion and kindness, that soldiers and citizens show during times of war. But war destroys – it takes families, childhoods, communities and even futures. I did not describe the fire-bombing or the flame-throwing, the caves where school girls hid, were afraid to come out, and were burned. I did not describe the mothers who hung themselves in despair because all their children had died.
I also wanted to express how people continue to survive, continue to forgive and to heal, to rebuild. What I think I learned was that for the soul to survive loss, the traditions of family, community and all that is part of culture – food, art, weaving, dance, singing, and a connection with our past, our ancestors - is essential. In this story, Joseph survives war because of what his father has given him. One gift was the gift of dance, and through dance a connection to his history.
We learn through story. With accuracy and respect, sensitivity and compassion, I hope to share stories that open windows and hearts. I love that quote that is inscribed on a memorial at Saipan’s Suicide Cliff: “Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” Books can light that candle.
Other stops on Nancy's blog tour include interviews with the editor, publisher, cover designer, and a Saipan stick dancer, in addition to more interviews with Nancy Bo Flood.
I’ll add the direct links each day when they are posted.
April 14 This interview on Explorations
April 15 Jacket Knack and their interview with the cover designer.