Born in Canada and raised in Japan, author Amanda Sun bridges the gap between East and West in her new mythology-infused YA novel Ink.
Zola: You spent time living in Osaka and traveling Japan. What inspired you to move there? Why did you eventually return to your native Canada?
Amanda Sun: When I was little, my mother gave me a book of myths, where I got my first taste of Japanese mythology. I loved how different it was, how original and exciting the stories were. I had a Hello Kitty doll and started into anime in elementary school. I’ve always loved different cultures and languages, but Japanese especially held a pull for me. I started teaching myself Japanese, and before long I knew I had to live there.
I went on exchange in high school and had such an incredible experience. I kept a daily journal of my time in Osaka, from the food to the culture shock, and everything in between. My host family was great and we traveled to Kyoto, Nara, Tokyo, and Hiroshima. When I returned home, I was changed. I knew I wanted to write about my experience, and started with short stories set in Japan. But it wasn’t until the ideas for Ink started forming that I really understood how best to translate my love of the culture to others and to make Japan accessible through the written page.
After that I hosted exchange students from Japan, and I try to visit Japan as often as I can to have new experiences and keep current with what life is like there.
Zola: There is a fair amount of Japanese dialogue and phrases in Ink—enough to require a glossary at the end of the book. Are you fluent in Japanese? Were you concerned that too much Japanese would make the book too challenging for readers? Are there any other novels that incorporate a foreign dialect that you used as a model or that you admire?
AS: Well, I can talk quite easily with my friends and host family in casual Japanese, but I still find watching the news difficult—it’s too fast, and the vocabulary can be quite formal and specialized. And I still study kanji because I can’t quite read without looking things up. Haha.
There are a few reasons I decided to use Japanese phrases in Ink. One is because Katie herself is stumbling over the language, and so these are reminders of the communication barrier she faces. Secondly, Japanese has a very distinct sound, and sometimes I wanted to convey the richness of the phonetics to complete the immersive culture of the scene. Sometimes the word used doesn’t translate well into English. And finally, I chose to use Japanese because as Katie learns the words, so does the reader, and my hope is that it really makes the reader feels as though he or she is growing accustomed to Japan in the way Katie is.
I love books that use foreign languages in a context where I can understand them without explanation or translation, and that’s what I’ve tried to do with Ink. Each use is phrased in a way that the meaning is hopefully conveyed, although there is a glossary in the back for readers who would like to know more. Another wonderful debut that uses foreign language in this way is Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross.
Zola: When teen protagonist Katie is orphaned, she has to move to Japan to stay with her aunt who is living in Shizuoka. Why Japan? Did you consider setting the novel in any other country?
AS: I think Japan itself is really the core of Ink. I wanted to have a protagonist that was an outsider to make Japan accessible to the reader who may not be familiar with the culture. In this way, we explore and experience alongside Katie. I wanted to draw on Japanese mythology and history and incorporate it into YA. I love how dangerous and unusual Japanese mythology can be and wanted to bring it to life in the context of modern Japan, to share the country and culture I love with others.
I’m also on a personal mission, because I don’t feel there are enough Asian main characters in YA! And particularly Asian love interests! I wanted to write a diverse cast of Japanese teens, who may not think or act in the same way western teens might. I wanted to show those differences but ultimately what we have in common and what unites us.
Zola: Traditional myths, such as the supernatural beings called Kami that exist in the novel, seem much more prevalent in Japanese culture than in American culture. Any insight on why that is?
AS: Well, I think any culture that goes back to ancient times has a great deal of fascinating stories about the supernatural realm. But what’s really interesting about Japanese mythology is that it’s so unknown to those outside of the culture. Ancient myths are often unpredictable, and the moral judgments may seem off to modern readers because society has changed. I love how the old stories aren’t safe—and neither is the ink. It’s that grey area that I really wanted to play with in The Paper Gods [the planned series of which Ink is the first book].
In contrast, American culture is much younger and born out of a society that had already changed from polytheistic to monotheistic and moved on to scientific explanation, which rather takes the fun out of things, doesn’t it? So you don’t get the same kind of whimsical stories as the old legends from ancient culture.
The First Nations in America, though, have fascinating and wonderful ancient stories, and so do all the different cultures represented across the depth of the American demographic.
I should mention my background is a B.A. in Archaeology, so I love to delve into these kinds of topics.
Zola: As an archaeologist by training, what influenced your decision to start writing novels? Are there any similarities between writing a novel and searching for artifacts?
AS: Well, I have to admit a secret here: I studied archaeology with the intention to become a writer. I wanted a solid background in understanding how cultures developed so that I could build accurate worlds of my own. How geography affects language and evolution of society. How interaction between cultures, war and peace, and all those things influence history and humans. I wanted to understand so I could build fantasy novels that had believable and fully-developed worlds.
It’s a good thing the writing life worked out, because I’d make a very poor archaeologist; I’m terribly afraid of spiders.
Stephen King in On Writing actually drew a comparison between writing and archaeology. At first you start with broad strokes, getting the general form of the buried artifact, and then you go in with finer tools and really discover its exact shape and how it all connects. I think he’s completely right, which is why archaeology and writing go so well together: it’s all about finding meaning in life and understanding our world through different eyes.
I hope that you’ll find you see the world through a new lens in Ink and that you enjoy experiencing a mini-vacation in a paranormally charged Japan.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.