Interview with Leza Lowitz
At Home in the World
by Susan Blumberg-Kason
Asian Jewish Life: You have writtenover a dozen books on a wide rangeof topics, from young adult fiction tomemoir to yoga poetry to travel guides,multicultural mothering anthologies, andmany more. Did you always know youwanted to be a writer? And how did youget your start in publishing?
Leza Lowitz: As a child, I loved reading(still do!), and started writing at ageeight. I didn’t publish my first book untilI was thirty, after going to Japan to seekout poets who debunked the myth ofthe “docile” Japanese woman. StoneBridge Press published my anthology ofcontemporary Japanese women’s poetryin 1995.
Asian Jewish Life (AJL): Your forthcoming memoir, HereComes the Sun: A Journey to Adoptionin 8 Chakras (Stone Bridge Press, 2015),is certainly not your first book. Was itmore difficult to write this one than theprevious books because memoir is sopersonal? What was the most difficultpart about writing this book?
Leza Lowitz (LL): I’m interested in ideas of identityand history. How is culture shaped, andhow are we (particularly women) shapedby it? I spent the first part of my writingcareer exploring these issues as theypertain to my adopted home of Japan.When I turned forty, I decided to turn thelens on myself. All of my more personalbooks deal with notions of finding home.We all long to belong somewhere,after all.
Yoga Poems: Lines to Unfold By dealswith finding a home in one’s body. YogaHeart charts the path to finding a homein the spirit. Jet Black is an adventurestory about a biracial girl seeking to findhome in another country, and in herself. Here Comes The Sun is about finding a home in each other and in the world.
Here Comes the Sun charts my quest formotherhood across two continents, twodecades, and two thousand yoga poses.It was definitely the most difficult to write,being so personal. In the memoir (and inmy life), I had to ask myself questionsmany mothers never consider. Why didI want to be a mother? This questionled me on a pilgrimage from the U.S. toJapan and to India. Here Comes the Sun is my meditation on the answer.
AJL: In your memoir, you explain thatit’s unusual to adopt in Japan becauseJapanese culture places such a highimportance on lineage. Have younoticed any changes in attitudes aboutadoption in Japan since you broughtyour son home?
LL: Japan was closed to the world until1868, and considers itself a homogenouscountry, though there are indigenoustribes and races. In Japan, your lineageand bloodline define you. America isstill a young country, and it values theindividual, celebrates one’s ability toinvent or re-invent onself, regardless asto where one “comes from.”
Visiting Amma’s Ashram in India helpedme understand that bonds do not alwayscome from bloodlines. Even though Amma(the “hugging saint”) is not a biologicalmother, she is one of the most maternalpresences I’ve ever met. That experiencetransformed me, as did living abroad.
I realized I would never become Japanese,nor did I want to. So who was I? Away froma familiar language and cultural norms thatmight otherwise define me, I had to definemyself. Every day brought challenges,but hitting walls helped me grow in waysI might not have had I stayed in the U.S. Ieventually realized I didn’t want to have achild so much as to be a mother. And thenmy child came.
In Japan, people historically adopted forfinancial reasons — to have an heir or tocontinue a family line. It is rare to adoptfor love. But we did, and more and moreothers are doing so, too.
When I shared our story, peopleencouraged me to write a book. In acountry with such a prevailing singlenarrative, I wanted to inspire people towrite their own stories. And I hoped thatlove could be the new bloodline.
AJL: Your young adult novel, Jet Blackand the Ninja Wind (Tuttle, 2013) wasco-written with your husband, ShogoOketani. How did you come up with theidea of this story?
LL: Jet Black and the Ninja Wind wasborn from a discussion we had after Memoirs of A Geisha came out. Wewanted to tell a story about a strongAsian woman, not someone shuffling ten steps behind her man in a tight kimono.
So we wrote a novel about the last livingfemale ninja. You might think of ninjaas B-Grade assassins, like I did. ButShogo felt that ninja could have beentribal people who developed secret artsto protect themselves against powerfulinvading forces. Women were skilledfighters, too.
I was interested in that history; Shogoloved Native American culture. Weconnected Japanese indigenous lorewith the story of some modern warriors–the Navajo Code Talkers. The Navajoand Emishi tribes come together tosave an ancient treasure. The legendof King Solomon plays a part in thestory, too.
Shogo did the hard work — conceivingof the book, then writing, researchingand translating his Japanese draft intoEnglish. I did the relatively fun part,editing the book and finding a publisher.
AJL: Do you plan to write more youngadult novels?
LL: I have two solo YA books comingout — Up From the Sea, a novel inverse about a biracial teen who finds anew community after he loses his familyand home to the 2011 tsunami (2016)and Salvage, a love story between aJapanese boy and American girl (2017),both from Crown/Random House.
I never imagined I’d be writing for youngadults, but reading saved my life when Iwas a teenager, and I feel blessed to beable to write for teens.
AJL: How did you first decide to move to Japan? Like many expats who stay, did you go to Japan thinking you would only be there a short time?
LL: I practiced meditation and martialarts as a teenager, and also did myM.A. in Japanese literature. I had alongstanding interest in Japaneseculture, but I never thought I’d livehere forever — I still don’t. I first cameto Tokyo in 1989 to edit the anthologyof contemporary Japanese women’spoetry I mentioned above, on a grantfrom the NEH. In my mid-twenties, Iworked as a journalist and lecturer atTokyo University. After five years, I wasready to leave. One night I went to a jazzclub and saw my future husband acrossthe room. I left anyway; moved back toCalifornia. He followed me. Ten yearslater, he returned to Tokyo. That time, Ifollowed him.
AJL: As a Jewish woman who has livedin Japan for more than 15 years, do youthink you have become more consciousof your Jewish identity because youlive in a country with a relatively smallJewish community? Does Judaismfigure into your everyday life at home?
LL: Living in a foreign country (especiallya notoriously “closed” one like Japan)and adapting to another culture with anentirely different set of rules and beliefs,makes you an outsider. The upside ofbeing on the margins is that you becomeconscious of your own core beliefs andvalues. Judaism had shaped my innerlife in ways I wasn’t even aware of untilI left home.
In Japan, I missed the rituals that hadshaped my childhood — lighting Shabbatcandles, celebrating the High Holidayswith extended family. But it wasn’t until ourson came that I found a wonderful Jewish community in Tokyo. Their values reflectedunderlying beliefs I wanted to pass down— selfless service, interconnectedness,charity. This helped me appreciate and reconnectto my Jewish roots. And when Idid, it felt like home.
AJL: A major part of your work in Japancenters around yoga. Is yoga popular inJapan with locals, or do you see moreexpats than locals in your studio? Yogahas certainly become more popular in theWest over the last decade or two. Haveyou noticed a similar development inJapan?
LL: When I moved back to Japan in 2003,people told me it was crazy to open ayoga studio in the country of Zen, but Ididn’t listen. I wanted to offer California-styleyoga, partner yoga, communityclasses for charity, and restorative yoga.I’d been warned that community classeswouldn’t fly in status-conscious Japan.Again, I didn’t listen.
The yoga boom hadn’t happened hereyet, so my timing was good. Now, yogais as almost as popular here as it is in theWest. We’ve been open for twelve years,and have students from all over Japanand the world.
Yoga, like indigenous teachings, teachesthat we have an innate unity andconnection to nature, to each other, andto the planet. That’s a common threadbetween yoga, ninjutsu, and Judaism,too. All spiritual practices offer a pathto help us move from “me” to “we” sowe can be at home wherever we are inthe world.
For more about Leza, check out her website: www.lezalowitz.com
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