- An Interview with Lensey Namioka
Lensey Namioka is best known for a series of exciting historical mystery-adventure novels for young people set in sixteenth-century Japan. The heroes of The Samurai and the Long-Nosed Devils (McKay, 1976), White Serpent Castle (McKay, 1976), Valley of the Broken Cherry Trees (Delacorte, 1980), and Village of the Vampire Cat (Delacorte, 1981) are Zenta and Matsuzo, a pair of ronin—masterless samurai—who wander from place to place with their swords for hire. Another historical novel, The Phantom of Tiger Mountain (Vanguard, 1986), centers around a band of outlaws in twelfth-century China. Lensey Namioka is also the author of the somewhat autobiographical Who's Hu? (Vanguard, 1980), about a Chinese-American girl in the 1950s who can't help being good at math; the real-life woman went on to doctoral work in topology.
In the dining room of her Seattle home, two striking pictures hang side by side. One is a finely-detailed brass rubbing of a knight and lady that she made herself in a Cotswold church, "crouching for hours over a cold stone sarcophagus." The other is a stone rubbing of a Chinese sculpture—two jolly-looking, round-bellied men, chuckling together at some ancient joke; this she bought on a visit to China. As we talked, the two pictures began to reflect in their own way what Lensey Namioka was telling me about a storytelling tradition, both heroic and humorous, that spans time and space, and of which she feels herself a part.
SR: Let me start by asking you why you began writing historical novels.
LN: I write historical novels because I read them. I just love history, and I have an insatiable appetite for historical novels. I think that was about the earliest western book that I can remember reading. Of course, Chinese literature is just full of historical novels. There is a whole genre of Chinese swashbucklers, usually about outlaw bands deep in the mountains battling injustice, and they're usually set back in historical times. I used to read these by the ton. Not only did I read them, my whole family did. My mother, whenever she relaxed, would have a pile of these pop novels. They're universally read in China by intellectuals, by people in the streets, everybody.
SR: I remember in Who's Hu the father is addicted to them. [End Page 74]
LN: Well, that father's addiction reflects my mother's addiction to them. But we all read them. So, I loved this type of thing from as far back as I can remember. When I first came across these translations from the French, The Three Musketeers, oh, that was wonderful. I couldn't stop reading them. And then after I came to this country and started reading in English, I read all of the King Arthur stories, the Song of Roland and all those. So from a very early age I liked the heroic, epic tales—and then the Trojan War in all its various translations. I guess my love for historical fiction goes back to my very earliest childhood.
SR: It encompasses several cultures too.
LN: I think that's one thing about historical fiction; people who like it usually like different periods of history. Any historical far away and long ago thing appeals to me, and that includes things like "Star Wars," the science fiction far away and long ago. All this heroic fiction is really related. It has the larger than life hero, his henchman and fair ladies—and sometimes the ladies get pretty feisty too—and a few grotesque characters for humor.
SR: When you started writing, though, it's a little surprising that instead of using a Chinese setting you went to Japan.
LN: There's a reason for that. When I started writing, it was just at the end of the Cultural Revolution in China, and things went very badly for many of my relatives. So I didn't want to write about China. In fact, my relatives had to play down their connections with people abroad, because anybody who was known to have relatives living in the...