Interviewer’s note: On September 24, 2009, in Columbia, South Carolina, I sat down with Isamu Fukui and talked about his writing, his motivations, and his perspective on YA lit.
TAR: This summer you completed the manuscript for the final volume of the Truancy series. Can you tell me about Truancy City?
IF: Truancy City takes place a year after Truancy. Although the Educators still control a sizeable chunk in the center, the Truancy controls most of the City. Tack is now, obviously, the leader of the Truancy. We’re not seeing things from his perspective anymore, though; we see things through the eyes of his enemy. What I really love about Truancy City is the perspective shift. Truancy was written from a Truant’s perspective. Truancy Origins was written from a neutral perspective. Truancy City is written from the perspective of the Student Militia. A good chunk of the book covers the war between the Militia and the Truancy from the perspective of Edward’s successor, the new captain of the Student Militia.
TAR: Do you think your readers are ready for that switch? Many of your high school fans are attracted to the Truancy’s rebellion against school, right?
IF: Umasi, who is a familiar character, is a kind of bridge [for readers] because he is struggling against both sides. Something very interesting happens to Umasi in Truancy City. . . . And not everyone in the Student Militia is fighting to save school. The protagonist, Cross, Edward’s successor and the leader of the Militia, is not one of what I call the True Believers. I always thought of Cross as the ultimate, or rather, model student because he’s so tractable. He was Edward’s second-in-command because he was so good at following orders. He didn’t come to that post by demonstrating ingenuity. Thanks not just to the Educators’ education, but also to Edward’s, he doesn’t think for himself. So [in Truancy City], you’re not really seeing the story through the eyes of someone who thinks school is wonderful, but more from the perspective of someone who doesn’t think for himself.
TAR: What do the True Believers stand for? Are they capable of independent critical thought?
IF: The Student Militia is not as ideological as the Truancy. Some [members] are just horrified by the violence and want to protect their families and friends. Others are in it for themselves; they want the instant graduation that comes with [joining the Militia]. But you also have the True Believers, who genuinely want to prove that they’re not Truants and that the Truants don’t speak for them. I felt that one of the weak parts of Truancy was that I didn’t explore the Student Militia—you never get to see what’s going on in their heads, you just see them as sell-outs. Truancy City addresses this.
TAR: It seems that you are interested in exploring your fictional creations in very three-dimensional ways.
IF: Yes, especially in a book like Truancy, where conflict is the central theme. If you ground [the narrative] in one perspective permanently, I don’t think you do justice to either the characters or the story. I’m very mindful of the fact that in every conflict, there’s always two sides. Each side will always believe that they are correct. I find that fascinating.
TAR: You’ve made clear in previous interviews that you identify strongly with the Truants’ frustrations with school and with their desire to rebel against “the system.” How have you approached the process of understanding how the Student Militia thinks?
IF: During my senior year at Stuyvesant, there was a sort of rogue student organization called “Stuy-watch.” They wanted some freedoms returned [to them] that the students had lost, so they worked to organize and rally the students. Something I found really interesting and fascinating is that an alternative group, “watch-Stuy” popped up. “Watch-Stuy” was infuriated that this group [“Stuy-watch”] presumed to talk for all students. I expanded from there to create the perspective of the Student Militia.
TAR: Both of the published Truancy books offer a strong critique of the way schools as an institution infantilize teenagers. Throughout the novels, though, the narrator refers to teenage characters as “children.” Obviously, this creates reader sympathy for teenagers’ plight at the hands of Educators and Enforcers. But the language choice doesn’t always sit well with the books’ larger critique. Can you explain your thinking behind referring to the characters as “children”?
IF: Other people have asked me that, too. I wanted to redefine the word, to shatter expectations of what you think of as a “child.” When you think of “child,” you think of something immature. But you could show a world where in fact the opposite is true, where children are the only ones who understand.
TAR: That’s interesting! Beverly Lyon Clark (Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) discusses the notion of children (and hence their literature) being associated with “immaturity” during the course of the twentieth century. Your books are published by Tor Teen and marketed as children’s, or rather Young Adult, literature. What do you think of that?
IF: I’ve had a lot of arguments about labels. There’s no science in my fiction, so why call it “science fiction”? All these labels are ultimately for marketing purposes.
TAR: Do you think there’s an advantage to having a book for teens actually authored by a teen?
IF: Well, people can’t accuse you of being out of touch, even though people have, anyway. I believe that what age you are doesn’t matter one way or another. Some people are really good at writing from perspectives other than their own (straight to gay, women to men, etc.). I don’t think who you are in reality says anything about your ability to write anything. Really, if you’re approaching a book [based on] the author first, I think you’re doing wrong.
TAR: Did you read YA literature in high school?
IF: I just read books that I thought were interesting: the Artemis Fowl series, Anamorphs series, and when I was younger, the Redwall Series—that was the first novel I read, actually, in kindergarten.
TAR: Your books are also very cinematic . . .
IF: Yes, nothing has happened on that front yet. I would love to see it [adapted into a movie]!
TAR: Were video games also an influence for you? Are you a gamer?
IF: I’m an avid gamer. You name it, I’ve probably heard of it if I haven’t played it. I think videogames are a very interesting storytelling medium. Some people knock it because it’s interactive, but that has strengths. The choices you make it the game really affect your entire experience. One of the important themes I like to explore is the idea that your enemy might view you completely differently than you expect. That realization I actually got from a videogame (“Tales of Phantasia”) when I was very young.
TAR: Have you tried writing video games?
IF: That’s how I started writing—fanfiction. It levels the playing field because no one knows how old you are. So if they tell you something is good, you know it’s good.
TAR: One of the really exciting aspects of Truancy is its critique of No Child Left Behind, Zero Tolerance, and the culture of bullying (both among students and between teachers and students) in high schools. If you had the power to reform the American school system, where would you start?
IF: First of all, I can imagine a system that works. I think our colleges work very well. Our higher education institutions are the best in the world. But American high schools are really a joke. My experience in college has been so much, much better than high school. Some of it is actually very simple. In college, you’re treated as an adult, a young adult, but an adult. People treat you with respect. There’s mutual respect going on. In high school, teachers don’t respect students and students don’t respect teachers. Maybe it’s cultural, or societal. Kids are treated as if it’s natural that they are miscreants, so of course, they’re going to behave that way.
TAR: You’re now a sophomore at NYU, double majoring in English and Political Science. How do you think your studies and experience in college will affect the issues you want to explore in your writing?
IF: I set a goal for myself to finish the Truancy series while still a teenager. If I had waited until I was out [of high school], I would have never been able to do it. The urgency isn’t there anymore. Even after spending a year or two out of high school, you forget the bad things. I did sort of forget how I was treated, but [my high school English teacher invited me back to Stuyvesant to speak]. The security guards didn’t realize I wasn’t a student. I had my headphones on when I walked in and the woman at the front [desk] was screeching at me, “Take your headphones off!” That was really shocking because no one is that rude to you out in the real world. She was screeching!
TAR: Truancy City is now with your editor. What’s next?
IF: I’m tossing around several ideas. [One] is a sort of ghost story but with a twist that the ghosts can’t survive without taking over a host; they have to possess someone. Either they have to stick in the darkness or inhabit a human body. My idea is that the main character would be a woman who would not really be possessed, but who would have a symbiotic relationship with a ghost; they share control, and they hunt bad ghosts.
Sara L. Schwebel is an assistant professor of English at the University of South Carolina, where she teaches courses in Children’s, Adolescent, and American Literature. A former middle school teacher (American history and English), she is coauthor of The Student Teacher’s Handbook, 4th edition. Sara is currently completing a book manuscript that examines the most widely taught historical novels in today’s middle schools.