Takiyasha-hime, the sorceress, is shown carrying a sword in one hand, a bell in the other, and a torch in her mouth; the toad, her familiar, is shown in the inset with her father, Taira no Masakado. Ukiyo-e woodblock print by Yōshū Chikanobu, 1884 (via Wikipedia)
Interview by K. Bird Lincoln
Both Laura VanArendonk Baugh and I (K. Bird Lincoln) write Japanese historical fantasy featuring kitsune, trickster fox spirits—we both happen to be Caucasian females. I was thrilled she agreed to answer some writing-the-other questions I often get myself.
1. So….why Japan? Why kitsune? What about them speaks to your myth loving heart?
LVB: It actually wasn’t kitsune specifically. I liked the idea of writing in a wholly different setting and approach from typical Western fantasy, and onmyoudou is a significantly different take than most Western-based magical systems in fiction. I liked the idea of a natural structure behind the magic, and the power and limitations that would bring. I’ve always had a thing for foxes—some of my earliest fiction was about foxes, kind of a vulpine Watership Down—and the popularity of kitsune meant western audiences might feel more confident about approaching the book, more so than if I started with a makura-gaeshi or a suzuri-no-tamashi.
Also, kitsune are really cool.
KBL: Yes, it’s true. Cool and beautiful while Western were-wolves are more terrifying. I love the cerebral aspect of the kitsune trickster—the riddles and such.
2. Is it harder to write male characters than Japanese characters in general?
LVB: Ooh, great question! And yes, all characters who aren’t me are different than me, to a greater or lesser degree. I don’t think we can ever say we can totally grasp another personality or that we cannot possibly grasp another personality. The first is hubris, the second is our job.
I work pretty hard on my male characters, as I often tend toward too chatty and emotive. But that’s why we call it fantasy, right?
KBL: I think this is why I tend to focus my writing on female characters—Japanese or North American.
3. Nisi Shawl writes in “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation” about Diantha Day Sprouse’s categorizing those who borrow others’ cultural tropes as “Invaders,” “Tourists,” and “Guests.” Invaders arrive without warning, take whatever they want for use in whatever way they see fit. Tourists are expected. They’re generally a nuisance, but at least they pay their way. Tourists may be ignorant, but they can be intelligent as well, and are therefore educable. Guests are invited. Their relationships with their hosts can become long-term commitments and are often reciprocal.”
KBL: I hope I write the Tiger Lily series like a Guest: I have had a long relationship with Japan, and Japanese culture, and my life is now intricately bound to that country through family ties. But sometimes I think the characters in Tiger Lily are a bit stereotyped…or not Japanese enough. What do you feel about your role as cultural mediator of Japanese culture for North Americans for the Kitsune series?
LVB: This is something I’ve put a lot of thought into, especially in today’s politico-literary climate. But I draw hope from feedback I’ve received. I do presentations on Japanese folklore and mythology, specifically to educate people to better understand manga, anime, or films they pick up, and after one I received an email from a Japanese grad student visiting the US to complete some sociology work, who had wandered into my class. He complimented me on the presentation and said I’d given him some good ideas for cross-cultural education and communication, and that was a huge compliment.
A couple of months ago I was at a business conference. There a Japanese colleague turned to her Japanese friends and excitedly explained that I wrote books set in old Japan. What affirmation, knowing she could promote me to her friends! So I think my efforts toward interpretation rather than exploitation are holding steady.
“Twisty! Turny! Magical! Wonderful!”
“…I figured I knew exactly how it was going to end. I was completely wrong.”
How does one find a shapeshifter who may not even exist?
“A beautifully-written genderbending tale of rebellious girls, shifting disguises, and forbidden magic, set against the vivid backdrop of ancient Japan.”
Lily isn’t supposed to hunt game in the Daimyo’s woods. She’s just the cook’s daughter. It isn’t her place to talk to nobility. And she definitely isn’t supposed to sing the forbidden old, Jindo religion songs. But Lily was born in the year of the Tiger, and can’t ever be like other village girls.