Q&A with Janice P. Nimura, author of "Daughters of the Samurai"

Check out our Q&A with author Janice P. Nimura, author of Daughters of the Samurai, who will be joining us for an event on May 31st.

1. How did you come to write Daughters of the Samurai?

My Tokyo-born husband and I moved to Japan for three years just after we were married, and when we returned to New York I did a master’s in East Asian studies, focusing on Japanese history. I was fascinated with the turbulent late-nineteenth- century moment known as the Meiji era, when Japan made a sudden lunge toward Western ideas and claimed its place on the global stage. Then I got lucky: I found a dusty memoir in the sub-basement of the New York Society Library on 79th Street. It was the work ofAlice Mabel Bacon, a New Haven spinster who had traveled to Tokyo in 1888 to teach at a school for girls. This was unusual enough, but Alice wrote of living not among foreigners, but with “Japanese friends, known long and intimately in America.” Which didn’t make any sense at all. As far as I knew, there weren’t any Japanese women in New Haven at that time for her to have made friends with. Turns out that in 1872 her family had taken in an 11-year- old Japanese girl, who had grown up for a decade as Alice’s foster sister. Clearly, there was a larger story here, and I found it by following where Alice had led.

2. What are you currently reading?

I’m coming off a serious Hamiltonian high, via Ron Chernow and Hamilton: The Revolution. Also just finished Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, which was astonishingly good.

3. Do you have a personal favorite book of all time? If so, can you share it and tell us why?

Good lord, one? Best I can do is a personal hall of fame: Hilary Mantel, Helen Macdonald, Hanya Yanagihara, Bruce Chatwin, Jeanette Winterson, Philip Pullman, David Mitchell, Robertson Davies, Ruth Ozeki, Sarah Waters, J.K. Rowling…

4. Is there anything you are particularly looking forward to the publication of?

The conclusion of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Trilogy, for pure storytelling pleasure. Ditto the next installment of Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike.

5. What’s next? Any upcoming book projects in the works that you can tell us about?

I’m on the prowl for a new story to tell. I’ve got a particular fondness for boundary-crossing 19th-century women. Stay tuned.

Janice P. Nimura is a book critic, independent scholar, and the American daughter-in-law of a Japanese family. She lives in New York City.

Daughters of the Samurai synopsis: In 1871, five young girls were sent by the Japanese government to the United States. Their mission: learn Western ways and return to help nurture a new generation of enlightened men to lead Japan. Raised in traditional samurai households during the turmoil of civil war, three of these unusual ambassadors Sutematsu Yamakawa, Shige Nagai, and Ume Tsuda grew up as typical American schoolgirls. Upon their arrival in San Francisco they became celebrities, their travels and traditional clothing exclaimed over by newspapers across the nation. As they learned English and Western customs, their American friends grew to love them for their high spirits and intellectual brilliance. The passionate relationships they formed reveal an intimate world of cross-cultural fascination and connection. Ten years later, they returned to Japan a land grown foreign to them determined to revolutionize women's education. Based on in-depth archival research in Japan and in the United States, including decades of letters from between the three women and their American host families, Daughters of the Samurai is beautifully, cinematically written, a fascinating lens through which to view an extraordinary historical moment.

Join us for a reading with the author on May 31st at Book Culture on Columbus.