21 Mar Intersections | Lora Nakamura
The Bonsai Babes: A Love Story novel, written and illustrated by Los Angeles-based Lora Nakamura follows a cross-cultural friendship about fate and following your heart. The story centers around two 7-year-old girls, Luna a Mexican American girl from Downtown Los Angeles, and Nana, a Japanese American girl from the San Gabriel Valley. Although worlds and cultures apart, they find a space of intersection at a playground in Los Angeles, forming a friendship that changes the course of their lives.
EH: Please start off by giving us a little more background about yourself.
LN: I’m a fourth generation Japanese American, born and raised in L.A. County. I love L.A. for its culture, diversity, food, and history. So I naturally wanted my book to highlight L.A. and its neighboring San Gabriel Valley, which is where I grew up, in the city of Alhambra. When my parents moved there in the 70’s they were the only Asians on their block, but as time passed, there was a huge influx of ethnic minorities, predominantly Asian and Latino. In school, I did have awareness that racial tension existed because I would hear stories about the various Latino and Asian gangs. But in class, for the most part, our diversity was embraced and accepted. Even today, when we have informal school reunions, I notice how Asian culture has affected the Latinos in our group, and how the Latino culture has affected the Asians in our group. It’s actually really beautiful to observe that overlap. So it was also fitting for me to have main characters that represented this diversity (Nana, who is Japanese American, and Luna, who is Mexican American).
EH: When did you first realize you wanted to pursue writing?
LN: Actually, my education and training have been in human services. I am a former teacher, and also have a Masters in Social Work. It was during a recent break from social work that the idea for the book came to me. So it was probably only a few years ago that I ever thought of writing a book.
EH: What books were among your favorite childhood favorites and why?
LN: Ma Liang and His Magic Brush was my absolute favorite book as a child. I still have the copy of it with its worn out cover. It was gifted to me by my paternal grandmother, my bachan, who signed and dated it on January 17, 1982 when I was five years old. She loved giving me anything that highlighted Asian culture because it was so rarely seen in books and toys. It’s a Chinese folktale with many different translations, but the version I had was so colorfully illustrated. I think that is what drew me to the book, along with the fact that Ma Liang was Asian like me and that he could use his magic paintbrush to create anything his heart desired. I’ve always been a dreamer and this book was very hopeful to me. I embraced the concept of being able to create without limits.
THE BONSAI BABES
EH: What message did you want to get across in writing your book”
LN: Initially, I started writing because it was a way for me to process my own experience with love. It was completely exploratory. I didn’t start off with a specific message in mind, but I discovered several along the way. The idea started to come for the story when I was dating my ex-boyfriend, Jose. Prior to Jose, I had experienced so many ups and downs with love. I had ended a relationship that was bound for marriage and a family life, only to experience an abusive relationship with someone who ended up stalking me a year after that. It was during that time, that I really questioned love. I did a student documentary with the DISKovery Center in Little Tokyo, which screened at the Asian Pacific Film Fest called “The People We Love.” I asked people in the video what love meant to them in the hopes that their answers would provide me with clarity.
And then a few months later I met Jose. It was this unlikely relationship that taught me so much about unconditional love. We were from completely different worlds. He grew up in L.A., but moved to Jalisco, Mexico as a child and spent most of his adolescence there. His family was poor and he started working hard in various jobs by the age of 13. I grew up in the suburbs, and while the previous generations of my family struggled in the sewing factories and in the strawberry fields, enduring the internment camps during WWII, by the time I was born, my parents were the first generation to have completed college. They had secure jobs and provided a comfortable life where I was able to get a higher education. So I didn’t have to worry about survival in the way that Jose did. But what I realize now is that we all have our survival stories whether obvious or not. We all have experiences that beat us down, make us question who we are, and test our faith. And those survival stories became the story of Luna and Nana, the Bonsai Babes. So although there are several throughout the book, one of the main messages is one of encouragement to move from victim to survivor, from fear to bravery, and from self-doubt to self-acceptance by following our heart, which can be increasingly difficult in a mind-driven society.
EH: What research was required for the book? Any challenges?
LN: I researched the art and history of the bonsai tree, which is how I decided on the final “hair” design of each girl. There is definitely symbolism there. And also, since I didn’t have much background in illustration, I studied Adobe Illustrator through YouTube videos and online tutorials. I also studied a lot of kawaii type characters to see what made them cute. I kept playing around with shapes, colors, etc. until I finally was happy with the end result. I didn’t initially plan to illustrate my own book, but circumstances led to that, which was definitely the biggest challenge. The good thing is that it enabled me to push my own boundaries to do something I didn’t think was possible.
EH: How did you come up with the title?
LN: I really wanted a short title that would highlight the heart of the book, and for the past few years, all my creative projects, including this book, seemed to center on love. So I eventually decided on including “A Love Story” in the title. As for “The Bonsai Babes,” they were characters I created and named about 12 years ago. They were hand drawn back then, and they were three rocker girls with bonsai tree hair. I had printed them on t-shirts and sold them at a little boutique in L.A. I only thought to bring them back to life when I had the idea of writing this story. I wanted the characters to remain girls because they were always “The Bonsai Babes”. As a female, I relate to the female experience. And even though the story was inspired by my relationship with Jose, it wasn’t about the romantic aspect of it. It was about the unconditional love. And at the end of the day, the unconditional love depicted transcends labels. Also, by titling it a love story, it sort of challenges the reader to identify that love. Some people may find one love story, others might find several. It depends on each person’s experience and perspective.
EH: Are the characters Luna and Nana based on anyone you know?
LN: Me (Nana) and Jose (Luna)
EH: What encouragement helped you along the way?
LN: I think the encouragement from both my family, particularly my mom, and Jose helped me the most during the writing process. After I finished the book, I did a Kickstarter campaign, and I received encouragement from my wonderful backers. I’m also received great support from The Rafu Shimpo newspaper and Kinokuniya Bookstore. Sherry, the book buyer of the Little Tokyo L.A. branch, was the first to contact me through my website during my Kickstarter campaign, and has included me in their major book signing events and has really believed in my book, which is so encouraging as a new writer.
EH: You have introduced illustrations into the book. What have illustrations brought to your story?
LN: I feel that the illustrations add humor and a light-heartedness that contrast some of the more serious issues conveyed in the book. The illustrations also highlight the personality traits of each of the characters through the way they are dressed, their hairstyles, and in their body language/facial expressions.
EH: What was one of the most surprising things you learned from writing your book?
LN: I was actually surprised by how quickly the book was labeled in the first article written about it. Maybe I was naïve, but I thought that being a local newspaper, it would highlight that the book referenced and embraced San Gabriel Valley culture, which is not often seen in illustrated fiction books. Instead, The Pasadena Star/San Gabriel Valley Tribune took a more controversial approach and referred to it as a children’s book depicting lesbian love between 7-year-olds. The journalist interviewed a resident off the street to question her about the book, which she described as “inappropriate” despite having not read it. It was really shocking to me at the time, especially when there aren’t any romantic gestures in the story. It was my first experience with the media and I was caught completely off guard.
But in the end, I’m glad the article was written because it gave me a new direction. Although it began as a very personal tale, I realized I could use The Bonsai Babes: A Love Story as a tool to provide education and social advocacy for love equality across the board (in terms of race, sexual orientation, and even platonic love which is so often criticized and labeled).
EH: Anything you would change?
LN: I wouldn’t change anything. The setbacks and the challenges have taught me lessons, and I wouldn’t want to unlearn those.
EH: What are your current/future projects?
LN: I’m going to be leading a workshop at the Mixed Remixed Literary and Film Festival in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles on June 14 titled “Love Stories Told by Kids” (http://www.mixedremixed.org/workshops-2014/). I’ve been a fan of this festival for a while, so I’m really excited to be a part of it. Mine is a storytelling workshop focusing on love without the fear of being ridiculed or judged. It’s a way for community to come together to support love in all forms. Kids especially have a great capacity for love. They don’t feel scared to say “I love you” to their best friend until they start getting teased or labeled. That’s when the layers of protection start to form, and before we know it, we forget how to love. So my goal will be to allow and validate their experiences, while giving them tools to express themselves verbally and through the written word, while providing a safe environment to do so.
I will also be signing books with Kinokuniya Bookstore at the USC Festival of Books on Saturday April 12th, 2014 from 12:00 pm to 1:30 pm at the Kinokuniya booth. I will also be at the Monterey Park Cherry Blossom Festival (schedule pending/end of April). You can follow on Facebook, check my website, or sign up for my newsletter for the exact dates/times as the events approach.
EH: Do you have any advice for beginning writers?
LN: Trust your instincts. Write your truth, even if it makes others uncomfortable.
EH: What do you like to do when you are not writing?
LN: I like to eat! I love trying new food. I guess that would make me a foodie, like my character Nana. I also like to create things. I’m kind of crafty, so I enjoy jewelry-making, mixed media projects, and things that get my creative juices flowing.
EH: How can we contact you or find out more about The Bonsai Babes?
LN: You can follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thebonsaibabes, on twitter @thebonsaibabes or through my website: www.thebonsaibabes.com. I have a blog focusing on love, life, and the people we meet. You can also subscribe to my newsletter where I will be offering promotions on products in the near future.
Purchase Signed Copies of The Bonsai Babes: A Love Story at:
123 Astronaut E S Onizuka St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Nucleus Art Gallery and Store
210 E. Main St.
Alhambra, CA 91801
1818 N. Vermont Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90027