During the recent Christmas season, I had the fortunate occasion to get together with some old friends from high school. We’re a pretty eclectic bunch. I’m the lone Catholic, while two of them are Protestants (non-practicing), one is Russian Orthodox (non-practicing), and the other an atheist (practicing). Though our lives have taken quite different paths since our formative teen years, we always enjoy those rare times when we can all convene. I suppose shared history can be the stuff of strong and lasting bonds.
David (one of the Protestants) offered the use of his parents’ place, located on a sizable property that serves as a llama farm, with scenic views of the rolling hills of northwest New Jersey, and the twinkling lights of a ski resort in the distance. The five of us sat around the dining room table, sharing our latest tales and a bottle of Chartreuse. (For those who have never heard of Chartreuse, I recommend looking up its history. I daresay it could be considered a Catholic beverage.)
At one point, my friends congratulated me on the recent publication of my first novel. Masaru, a Japanese word meaning “victory,” is a work of historical fiction based on the events of the Shimabara Rebellion, an uprising of persecuted Christians in 17th century Japan. For four years, I had lived in rural southern Japan, very close to the site where the events of the book take place. During my time there, I had been inspired by the history of the Church in Japan, and even more so by the small but devout Catholic community I encountered.
Richard (the other Protestant) asked why I had chosen to write a work of historical fiction, as opposed to, say, a straightforward non-fictional account. Indeed, when I first sat down to start writing, just around the time the pandemic “officially” kicked in, I had considered taking that route. But I quickly realized that I wanted to do more than report facts. I wanted to tell a story. There is something about storytelling that is innate to our human nature. As the five of us sat around that table sharing stories we’d all heard a hundred times before, still we told them with fervor and listened with childlike anticipation, as though relating events of only the day before.
Masaru’s main character is one Shiro Nakagawa, based upon the real-life person of Shiro Amakusa, the 16-year-old Catholic samurai who helped lead the resistance of Christians being brutalized by the Tokugawa Shogunate. When I began my research, I discovered that, while there is a fair amount known about the real Shiro, much of his life is shrouded by the veils of mystery and mythology. Even a pilgrimage to the Amakusa Christian Museum during my most recent trip to Japan yielded accounts that were often incomplete and occasionally conflicting. Changing the main character’s last name to Nakagawa, the maiden name of my own Japanese grandmother, was one of the things that granted me some creative license with the presentation of the book’s hero.
For me, the path of historical fiction was really something of a no-brainer. For one thing, it’s always been my favorite literary genre. In my youth, an uncle had once given me a novel called The Silver Pigs, a mystery crime thriller set in the Roman Empire of 70 AD. (That’s AD, as in Anno Domini, the year of Our Lord – none of this CE nonsense.) That book really engaged the reader on two levels. As the author took me on a guided tour of ancient Rome, pointing out the nuances of everyday life at that time, she also told a compelling story that thrilled and entertained. Some years later, I had a similar experience with The Alienist, a tale of an attempt to stop a serial killer in the New York City of 1896. The history lesson aspect of the book was every bit as fascinating and memorable as the action of the plot.
Back at the dining room table, Tom (the atheist) made a rather interesting point. (Atheists as intelligent as he is can be very frustrating, but I pray daily for his conversion.) “You know,” he said, “it’s often through fiction that we come to better understand history.” As an example, he reminisced about our study of the Vietnam War in high school U.S. History class. “We didn’t care much about what was in the textbook, but seeing films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon piqued our interest and desire to learn more about the real events.” I certainly had to agree.
There is something about the art of storytelling that touches and connects us. While the study of history informs about the particulars of people and events, it’s through stories that universal truths about the human condition are revealed and explored. The most excellent example of this is arguably the plays of Shakespeare. We continue to read (and hopefully see) these plays, some four centuries later, not because of some perception that it’s what educated people do, but because they reveal truths about the nature of man – and even the nature of God. After seeing many of the plays at the annual Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, I am convinced that The Bard of Avon was secretly a Catholic. In any case, the study of Shakespeare should hold a much higher place of primacy in the world of Catholic education.
Much of the fourteen years I taught Theology at a Catholic high school included the study of sacred scripture. Particularly when reading, say, the book of Genesis, students would often ask, “Are these stories or are they true?” My reply: “Yes!” And hopefully our subsequent discussions led to some understanding that biblical passages the Church teaches to be allegorical are no less true than those which are literal. Our Blessed Lord himself taught in parables, and we know that these stories, grounded in the things of the natural world, reveal truths about the things of the supernatural order.
Once my book was finally complete, I then faced the daunting task of trying to figure out what to do with it. Reaching out to the larger Catholic publishers, I soon discovered that most of them do not deal with works of fiction, historical or otherwise. This, in my estimation, is a shame because there really is a trove of great Catholic fiction out there in search of loving homes. I was about to shelf the project when I connected with Arx Publishing, a smaller Catholic publisher in my home state of New Jersey. (An article about Arx was printed in the Register back on 9/14/2003). I thank the folks at Arx for believing in Masaru and for helping to bring the text to life.
Moreover, I’d like to encourage readers to check out the many titles available through Arx – works that combine the captivating examination of history with solid apologetics and timeless teachings of the faith. I’d also like to plead the case for other publishers to do more to support authors of Catholic fiction. After all, great stories can lead us to the destination of truth, all the while inviting us to enjoy the journey.