Today we have the pleasure of interviewing Natalie Dias Lorenzi, author of Flying the Dragon. Flying the Dragon tells the story of two cousins, Japanese-American Skye and Japanese native Hiroshi, as they and their previously estranged families get to know each other. While the two cousins initially get off to a rocky start, their mutual love for their grandfather and the sport of kite-fighting bring them together. The notoriously tough Kirkus Reviews awarded Flying the Dragon a coveted starred review, calling the book, “A quiet, beautifully moving portrayal of a multicultural family.”
In your jacket flap bio, the first word you use to describe yourself is traveler. When did you know this about yourself? What are the favorite places you’ve been, and what’s on your list of must-see places?
I grew up in an Air Force family, so moving and traveling were an integral part of my childhood. I attended five elementary schools, including one in Bitburg, Germany, and those moves felt adventurous and fun. It wasn’t until 5th grade, when we moved from Germany to Texas, that moving became…not so fun. I had never heard the term “Third Culture Kid” at the time, but that’s what I was; I was an American who felt out of place in her own country. Although I spoke the same language as my new classmates, the culture was completely different than it was on the base. In Germany, I spent most of my free time playing outside—building forts and climbing trees and turning cartwheels in the grass. In Texas, my peers were all up on the latest music, TV shows and movies—all of which I’d never heard of. But eventually, I learned to navigate my new world, and just when I felt like I had it all down, my dad was transferred to the Pentagon and we moved to Virginia the summer before I started high school. I eventually adjusted there, too, but vowed that I wouldn’t move again except to go to college.
When I graduated from the University of Virginia, I returned to northern Virginia and I thought I’d stay there always and forever. In the summers between teaching, I backpacked through Europe and took a 7-week trip across the United States. During one spring break, I visited my sister in Colombia and we traveled to Ecuador. And I realized that I didn’t want to travel only during school breaks; I wanted to live in places where it felt like I was traveling every day. So I got a job teaching at an international school in Trieste, Italy, and later in Yokohama, Japan. Some of the most interesting places I’ve visited include the pyramids in Cairo, an artists’ colony in Ubud, Indonesia, and Hong Kong in 1997, ten days after it returned to Chinese rule. Favorite places to relax include Salzburg, Austria, Interlakken, Switzerland, and a small village in the Italian Dolomites called San Candido. Venice is still one of my favorite places to wander around with no plan for the day. I would love to visit Australia one day.
Another hat that you wear is that of an ESL teacher, at a school where 85% of the students are immigrants. How did you become an ESL teacher? How has that experience informed your writing?
I started as an elementary classroom teacher and taught grades 6,4,3,1 and Kindergarten. In almost all of these schools, I had many ESL kids in my classes, and I absolutely loved working with them—they’re so grateful for any help that they receive, and they grow so quickly academically and socially. Working with them is truly a privilege for me, and over the years, I’ve certainly learned more about life from these kids than they ever learned in class with me.
When my Italian husband and I went to the US from Japan, we wanted to start a family and raise our kids bilingually and with an appreciation for both Italian and American cultures. At the same time, I was teaching 4th grade in a lovely school with nice kids and wonderful teachers, but there were almost no ESL kids at all in the school. Having just lived four years as a foreigner, I had even more empathy towards ESL kids, but there were none to teach! That’s when I decided to start taking courses towards my ESL endorsement.
My experiences teaching ESL have definitely fueled my writing. As an ESL teacher, I’m privy to what ESL kids are thinking and feeling as they move through the various stages of adjusting to a new culture and language. In the general classroom, ESL students are often quiet, taking everything in. But when I work with them in small groups of other ESL students, they open up and share things that they might not yet feel confident in sharing in their regular classrooms. They connect with each other because, although they’re from different parts of the world, they all know what it’s like to be the new kid in a new culture.
Hiroshi and Skye, the main characters in Flying the Dragon, are definitely composites of various students I’ve taught over the years—the newly arrived students who are confused and overwhelmed, like Hiroshi, and those who have assimilated into American culture and are no longer comfortable speaking their home language, much like Skye. Although I thank family, friends, and colleagues in the acknowledgements section at the back of the book, Flying the Dragon’s dedication is to my students. Without them, this book never would have been written.
Your book is compromised of alternating viewpoints between cousins Skye and Hiroshi. Did you always know that your book would be alternating point-of-view? Did one point of view come to you more easily than the other?
Originally, this story was Hiroshi’s alone. Skye was a girl named Susan in Hiroshi’s class—still Japanese American—but not very nice to Hiroshi at all. She was, in effect, the antagonist in the story who comes around in the end to embrace her Japanese heritage. When the manuscript didn’t sell, my agent, Erin Murhpy, and I brainstormed ways to strengthen the story. I had mentioned before that, if this manuscript sold, I’d love to write a companion novel from Susan’s point of view, much like Lisa Yee did with Millicent Min, Girl Genius; Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time; and So Totally Emily Ebers. In the Revision Conversation, Erin brought this idea up again, but this time she said, “I think Susan is dying to tell her story…right now.” Since Hiroshi’s story hadn’t sold yet, we decided on a dual point-of-view story. Susan the classmate became Skye, Hiroshi’s cousin, and she added much-needed levity to the story.
Erin had recommended I start from scratch, but I hated to scrap all of the Hiroshi chapters, so I kept those, initially, and sandwiched Skye’s chapters in between, or replaced events that happened from Hiroshi’s point of view and let Skye tell them. But the more I got to know and love Skye, the more I realized that putting her viewpoint in the story was changing Hiroshi for the better. He became a little less serious, which was just what he, and the story, needed. Several reviews have mentioned the story’s “gentle humor,” and I have Skye to thank for that!
I loved your vivid descriptions of rokkaku kite battles – the kites themselves and the tactics. Tell us a little bit about how you researched this fascinating sport.
Until reading Khaled Housseini’s The Kite Runner, I had never heard of kite-fighting before, not even when I lived in Japan. After Housseini’s book, I found it fascinating that kite-flying—a pastime that I’d always considered relaxing and fun—was actually a cut-throat (er…cut-line) sport in many countries. Living near Washington DC, I’d heard of the famous Smithsonian Kite Festival (now called the Cherry Blossom Kite Festival), but never knew that the last event of the weekend was a rokkaku kite battle held just down the hill from the Washington Monument.
I researched and wrote an article on the history of kite-fighting for a children’s magazine called Learning Through History. I also read Linda Sue Park’s middle grade historical novel The Kite Fighters, and in her acknowledgements, she thanked a man named David Gomberg, then president of the American Kitefliers Association. I sent him an email and explained the story I was working on, and he graciously agreed to read over the kite flying and kite battle scenes in the story. Not only that, but he put me in contact with Harold Ames, who has won the Cherry Blossom rokkaku battle several times. Since this is the setting for the kite battle in my book, his input made those scenes much more authentic than they would have been otherwise.
So much of your book is about appreciating subtle differences in language- as a second-language learner, I could definitely appreciate the frustrations and embarrassing moments experienced by Skye, as she learned Japanese, and Hiroshi, as he learned English. As an ESL teacher, what advice do you have for someone learning a new language?
Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself! I have made a fool of myself in several languages, if that makes anyone feel any better. Young children tend to have no inhibitions when they’re learning another language—their goal is to communicate, and if their verbs aren’t conjugated correctly, well so be it. I see this in my 6-year-old son when we go to Italy for the summers. My in-laws and most of our friends there don’t speak English, so my son has to communicate with them in Italian. The first week or two that we’re there, he inevitably throws in English words when he doesn’t know the Italian equivalent. But if the listener can figure out what my son is saying, that’s good enough for him. (A little arm-waving doesn’t hurt, either!)
But I would tell people who are new language learners to concentrate on making yourself understood and understanding others—making connections with people is what counts. If you wait to open your mouth until you’re sure the words will come out perfectly, you may never do it, and you’ll miss out on knowing new people and learning something about their culture.
On a related note, your book also had the challenge of writing about two cultures – Japanese and American (and arguably a third – Japanese-American) with respect and understanding. Multi-cultural novels are a hot topic in children’s literature, yet many authors feel nervous writing about characters whose cultures they are not personally related to. As a writer who is not Japanese, how did you get comfortable with Japanese and Japanese-American characters? Do you have any thoughts to share with writers?
Although living in Japan afforded me a brief glimpse into the language and culture, I knew that I was nowhere near an expert on Japanese society, especially the day-today home life of a typical Japanese family. The fact that I am not of Japanese descent did give me pause, and I did worry that people would say, “Who does she think she is writing a story about characters from a culture that is not her own?”
The district where I teach in Virginia has Japanese language immersion programs in two elementary schools. I was fortunate to find two Japanese teachers from these schools who were willing to look over my manuscript to make sure that Japanese words and phrases were correct, as well as cultural nuances. It was important to me to make the story feel as authentic as possible; I’d hate for anyone familiar with Japan to be taken out of the story because of a detail that didn’t ring true, and I wanted readers who aren’t familiar Japanese language and culture to get an accurate picture of the Japanese people.
Aside from the Japanese components in the story, the immigrant/foreigner experience, finding one’s place in an unfamiliar setting, the value of family—all of those themes were already very familiar to me. And as a part-time ESL teacher/part-time librarian, I see that although more multicultural titles have been published in recent years, there still are not enough. My students come from all over the world and collectively speak 39 languages. I believe that they need to see themselves in books, just like every child does. And those who did not grow up in a foreign culture need those books, too, to understand the root of our differences, and, more importantly, to see how our differences are overshadowed by our similarities as human beings.
What is your next project?
As a teacher, summer is the time when I have the longest chunks of writing time. I’m working on another middle grade story and have a few picture book manuscripts that I’d like to tweak.
Arigato gozaimasu—thank you very much—for hosting me on The Mixed-Up Files!
You’re welcome, Natalie! And now, as a special bonus for our Mixed-Up Files audience, we are offering a free copy of Natalie’s book to one lucky reader. Please respond in the comments with your favorite place to travel!