November 20, 2017

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Our Voices Matter: SLJ Chats with Valynne Maetani About “Ink and Ashes” | Up Close

SLJ1505-Upclose_Valynne-MaetaniValynne Maetani’s Ink and Ashes, releasing in June from Lee & Low’s Tu Books imprint, is not only the author’s first book, it’s also the first Tu Books New Visions Award winner. Established in 2012 as an opportunity for diverse unpublished and unagented writers of middle grade and YA fiction to submit their work, the New Visions Award was given to Maetani in 2013 for her mystery thriller. With a fast-paced plot and threads of Japanese culture, this debut adeptly heeds the call for diverse genre fiction for teens.

What first motivated you to submit your manuscript to the contest?

When I heard about the New Visions Award, it was three weeks before the submission deadline. With a manuscript in dire need of revisions, I realized I couldn’t make it. But then someone replied to the announcement for the award ask[ing] why it mattered if the writer was “white,” suggest[ing] Tu Books get rid of the term “of color” from their website.

I have read many wonderful books with diverse characters written by authors who are not “of color”—books that were meaningful and shed light on different cultures. But underrepresented voices are equally as important. This award matters. I am a Japanese American writer who grew up in Utah, surrounded by and reading books about people who looked nothing like me. I am an author of color. Our voices matter.

The dynamic among the siblings is just so spot-on. Were you inspired by your own family history while writing this book?

I am the oldest of five children (two brothers and two sisters). Because my brothers and I are very close in age, we were in high school at the same time, so I got to experience them in a way my younger sisters never did. The siblings in the book are based on my brothers, although I actually toned down the personalities of the characters. In real life, they are so over-the-top that I didn’t think it would be believable.

SLJ1505-Upclose_CV-InkandAshesThe themes in Ink and Ashes include everything from bullying to adoption to first love. How did you map out the plotting and pacing while still maintaining these real-teen details?

This was definitely my greatest challenge. I really struggled with the pacing. In the final draft, I analyzed all the themes and aspects of Claire’s life and examined how they could affect her both positively and negatively and then tried to sequence the events according to the degree she might be affected.

There’s a lot of Japanese culture interwoven into the narrative, but it’s not the entire focus of Claire’s tale. Why was it important for you to write the story this way?

I have a [younger] sister, and I wrote Ink and Ashes for her 18th birthday. Because I never got to see myself in books other than [those with] settings involving war, an internment camp, or high fantasy, I wanted her to have a contemporary [title] with a Japanese American protagonist. I was tired of reading about people like me who were hated just because of the way they look; thus, I thought the greatest gift I could give her was a book I never got to read.

What kind of research did you do for this book?

My paternal grandparents were very superstitious. While they taught me things I shouldn’t do or say, I never knew why, and I never thought to question my elders. Writing this story allowed me to learn the meaning behind various Japanese rituals and traditions that I grew up practicing.

What are you working on next?

My current project is a collaboration with Courtney Alameda, author of Shutter (Holt, 2015), on a young adult Japanese horror/thriller, [which is] a retelling of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Our main characters will be plagued by Japanese monsters and ghosts and require the help of shinigami (death gods) for protection. After that, I hope to be working on the sequel to Ink and Ashes.

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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