Chinese Eyes, Unbound Feet: Author Lensey Namioka

Phyl CampbellStarred Page By Phyl Campbell, 23rd Jan 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/b23d3eo0/
Posted in Wikinut>Reviews>Books>Children's Books

Lensey Namioka is a Chinese-American author of books for children and young adults. Her stories shed light on living with one unbound foot on two cultural shores. This article reviews two of her books, Ties That Bind, Ties That Break and April and the Dragon Lady.

Spring Cleaning Started a Little Early

I often buy bags of books at re-sale shops and I don't read them all right away. As a result, I have thousands of books that I've accumulated over 30 years. Works of fiction are alphabetized on the shelves by author. Books I have not yet read are in order on the shelf, but instead of the spine facing out, I have turned the spine facing up. I had the books packed away for several months, thinking I was going to move. Last week, with the bitter cold temperatures outside and the need to occupy myself while my son was doing his lessons, I spent some time returning those books to shelves. This week, I was able to return some book spines to side out -- my reading uncovering some literary treasures as I seek to leave no page unturned, no plot unexplored. With Chinese New Year coming up, I decided to explore the work of Lensey Namioka.

In honor of Chinese New Year... Lensey Namioka

Lensey Namioka is Chinese American. Since that means different things to different people, I will explain further: Namioka was born in China in 1929 and moved as a child to the western US. She married a man with a Japanese last name, and writes about people of Chinese-, Japanese-, and Asian-American cultures and how each struggles to find his or her place. I picked up two of her books when I was working with Japanese children and one American child who wanted to learn Japanese -- because of the (Japanese) last name of the author. But realizing that foot binding was a Chinese tradition, NOT a Japanese one, I never shared these with my students and they sat on the shelf – an impulse-purchase-from-the-library-discard-pile-mistake. Until two days ago. (Yes, these books make very quick reads at 154 and 212 pages. But they pop.)

Ties That Bind, Ties That Break

"To the memory of my mother,
whose name, Buwei,
means "Giant Step,"
because she was one of
the earliest to have unbound feet."
-- Namioka's dedication, Ties That Bind, Ties That Break

This story concerns the life of a young Chinese girl in a changing China. In the story Tao Ailin / Eileen describes herself as a wild child who ran from governesses, loved her family, and was terrified of her uncle. When she was four, she met the six-year-old boy who was entered into a marriage agreement with her. Her future spouse was from a well-to-do family, and was attending a school run by Christian missionaries. He seemed to embrace the idea of modern Chinese life. Her father decided she could attend a similar school. When the time came for her feet to be bound, she ran away. Her father did not make her bind her feet. He said China was changing. However, not everyone agreed with the breaking of tradition. The marriage agreement was broken by the boy's family. The girl's father died, and her uncle would not allow their meager budget to afford education for a female child. He presented her with three options: life as a nun, marriage to a farmer, or life as another man's concubine. She devised another way, and became a governess to some Christian missionaries. She left her family.

Now, I won't spoil the next adventures for you, but I'll point out that this is one of those stories that begins AFTER all the action that makes up the meat of the novel (and ends there, too). In the prologue, a grown woman of 19 is seen dressing (in tight-fitting Chinese attire and high heels) for her work. She is hosting in an Asian restaurant where her husband is the owner. From the novel:

"I found it hard to manage my high-heeled shoes without tripping or twisting my ankle. Wearing them was almost as bad as having bound feet. No, that wasn't true. Nothing could be as bad as having bound feet."

What sets this night apart from an ordinary one is that her former fiancé walks through the door and recognizes her, though it is clear they have not met or spoken in years. He tells her that his family is accepting of many more modern things, and asks her why she didn't just wait. Then, chapters one through eleven explain how her life changed because of their break-up. Why couldn't SHE wait, indeed?

One Goodreads review pointed out that a book does not have to be LONG to be well developed and detailed. This book covers a lot of ground, both in the 15-year span from Tao Ailin's life as a little girl to life as a 19 year old married woman AND in the voyage this book takes from San Francisco to China and back to San Francisco with a long boat trip across the entire Pacific Ocean. Tao Ailin/Eileen is a very well developed character, and any self-respecting feminist (male or female) will root for her success in a changing world.

April and the Dragon Lady

With thoughts of Tao Ailin still fresh in my mind, I reached for the other Namioka title I'd purchased -- who knows how many years ago. This one looked more modern, and set totally in the Western US. There is a reference in the book the young people going to the theater to see The Last Emperor, which came out in 1987, so the book, published in 1994, IS modern compared to the earlier book but dated compared to 2014.

In April and the Dragon Lady, April Chen is a Chinese-American teenager who finds herself straddling her two worlds. Her Chinese grandmother, who lives with April, her brother, and her father, says she is willful, disobedient, and badly influenced by her American upbringing. Her Caucasian boyfriend says she is too Chinese in her thinking, and that she should make her brother help more. Her brother is happy with his status and freedom and doesn't want things to change. Her mother is dead, and her father is dating again. He wants to help April, but because his mother does not approve of his new girlfriend, he stays away as often as he can.

To make matters worse, April's grandmother has been behaving quite oddly, and the family fears her health may be failing. Their worst fears are confirmed when the doctor delivers the news that she is diabetic, and must be made to eat more regularly. Unable to get help from the men in her life, April drops out of orchestra and her favorite hiking and geology club, Rock Hounds. She resents her family, but does not want the guilt of her grandmother's death on her head. With the help of her boyfriend, she finds ways to study for her entrance exams, determined to attend college in another state.

Grandmother has different ideas, and the clash of these two women is played out very well. Like many teenagers, like many people, April feels at a loss and that she has no control over her life. The solution that she finds, with the help of her boyfriend and her father's girlfriend, was not one I saw coming. I read a lot, and write fiction as well, so a surprise ending does not come my way very often. This one – well, you will just have to find out for yourself. I will say that the way April uses Chinese history to solve her problem speaks very highly of the author's ability to create the perfect solution to such a hopelessly delicate situation.

April and the Dragon Lady is well suited to readers who like 80s and 90s era realistic young adult fiction. I enjoyed it and Ties... immensely.

For Further Reading

To my knowledge, Lensey Namioka is still alive and living in Seattle, WA, USA. I used several online sources to help me with her background information. They include:
BookRags
Goodreads
Houghton Mifflin
Encyclopedia.com
PaperTigers
Wikipedia
author image
There is no death date on any of these sites, but if anyone has more current information, I would be glad to know of it and use it to improve this article.

If strong female characters appeal to you, then I recommend:
Magic Wakes
Every Boy's Got One
Her Blood's Warning
Jump, Fall

Girls on their Team
Reverend Joan (4 part series: ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR)

If strong woman in today's world hold your interest, you might like:
Withholding Sex Changed a Nation
Out of That Silence Came Thousands of Voices
Oprah Winfrey
Modesty Training? Or Slut Shaming
Slut Shaming is not Rape Prevention
Separation of Church and State Is a Women's Issue in the US

If you want to write your own article(s) for Wikinut, don't let gender or anything else stop you. Start here.

Tags

April And The Dragon Lady, Asian, Asian-American, Books, Bound Feet, China, Chinese, Chinese American, Cultre, Culture, Foot-Binding, Honor, Japan Japanese American, Lensey Namioka, Obedience, Respect, Ties That Bind, Ties That Break, Writing, Young Adult Literature

Meet the author

author avatar Phyl Campbell
I am "Author, Mother, Dreamer." I am also teacher, friend, Dr. Pepper addict, night-owl. Visit my website -- phylcampbell.com -- or the "Phyl Campbell Author Page" on Facebook.

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Comments

author avatar Phyl Campbell
23rd Jan 2014 (#)

Thanks, Steve!

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author avatar MarilynDavisatTIERS
24th Jan 2014 (#)

Good evening, Phyl, I think I would like either of these; will check my book exchange for them. Good job on the reviews. Irony - your strong women image is the one I selected for the recovery house where I consult. Like minds, yet that picture conveyed so much healing that can occur in families as well. ~Marilyn

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
24th Jan 2014 (#)

Great minds, LOL! I had used that image before for a different article -- one about friendship, if memory serves. I hope MorgueFile appreciates its getting around!

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author avatar Fern Mc Costigan
24th Jan 2014 (#)

Nice suggestions an will check on this book!

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
24th Jan 2014 (#)

Thanks, Fern! Enjoy it!

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author avatar Retired
24th Jan 2014 (#)

Thank you for this very interesting review. I think I may try to get hold of the first book. I did not know about the origin of foot binding either.

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
24th Jan 2014 (#)

My knowledge was quite vague -- as it seems, is the history of the tradition. This seems true of a LOT of women subjugating traditions, something which is running theme in many of my articles (as no doubt you noticed)... Thanks for your comment!

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author avatar Connie McKinney
25th Jan 2014 (#)

Great suggestions These sound like great books. I will add them to my list of books to read.

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
25th Jan 2014 (#)

Cool! Thanks, Connie!

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author avatar Michelle Stanley
26th Jan 2014 (#)

A very nice and interesting review, Phyl. The books seems to ones I'd definitely read. Thank you. Michelle

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
26th Jan 2014 (#)

Thanks, Michelle. I'm glad to know we have similar tastes! ;)

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author avatar cnwriter..carolina
26th Jan 2014 (#)

this is a great review Phyl...but most of all I like that you collect books just as I do...now I have learned a new way to remember which I have read and which not...many thanks for the very good advice...sharing...

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
26th Jan 2014 (#)

Thank you for the great article idea. (I hate the word limit on Twitter!!!) I was trying to say I need to do an article on how I arrange books. I've been experimenting with recycled boxes... The pictures will be fab. Thanks for the idea!!

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author avatar Sivaramakrishnan A
26th Jan 2014 (#)

Good review, Phyl. The Chinese are now embracing western culture like duck to water! Foot binding was a custom to have their feet petite, good that such customs are past. Young Kayan girls, in a part of Myanmar, wear neck rings to get their necks elongated as a sign of beauty though looks torturous - siva

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
26th Jan 2014 (#)

I have seen that tradition!! I wonder if there is an English translation of a book or movie featuring a girl in that tradition. Google search, here I come!! Thanks, Siva!

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author avatar joyalariwo
27th Jan 2014 (#)

Great and interesting review Phyl, I'm already liking the book especially Eileen's story. Why couldn't SHE wait, indeed?!!!

Definitely will look for it, read and give my own opinions, nice one Phyl.

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
28th Jan 2014 (#)

Thanks, joyalariwo! I'm so glad you caught that! It always amazes me when people in the majority ask those who are suffering inequality to WAIT. This is true for feminism, slavery, religious freedoms -- when the oppressed person tells the other "I cannot wait" through words or actions, it is profound truth.

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author avatar Delicia Powers
1st Feb 2014 (#)

Phyl... again outstanding..the insights through your depth of understanding what the author has offered us in this book is phenomenal , I will look for it ...thanks Phyl...

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
2nd Feb 2014 (#)

Thanks, Delicia! Happy Chinese New Year, Groundhog, Day, and Superbowl Sunday (if you're into that)!

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
2nd Feb 2014 (#)

Thanks, Delicia! Happy Chinese New Year, Groundhog Day, and Superbowl Sunday (if you're into that)!
I have no idea where the post-groundhog comma came from. Did I type that? LOL.

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