Thursday, November 04, 2021

Interview with Michael T. Cibenko, the author of Masaru — a new novel for young Catholics

Getting young readers interested in the grand sweep of history is one of my callings in life. So when an outstanding new Catholic historical novel emerges that focuses on some obscure but momentous event that few people know about, I'm all over it. 

Fitting that bill perfectly is Masaru, the tale of a young Catholic samurai in mid-17th century Japan.

Written by New Jersey author Michael T. Cibenko, Masaru tells the story of Shiro Nakagawa, a 17 year-old convert to Catholicism fighting a desperate battle to maintain the faith during the aggressively anti-Catholic Tokugawa Shogunate. Prior to reading this book, I knew very little about the history of Catholicism in Japan, let alone the Shimabara Rebellion in Kyushu which pitted an armed band of Catholic ronin and villagers against the Shogun's army of samurai. Masaru does exactly what a good historical novel is meant to do—it immerses the reader into the historical events, creating realistic, sympathetic and complex characters acting within an enjoyable, fast-moving plot. At the same time, the story kindles a strong desire to know more about the events described. What was the Shimabara Rebellion? Why did it happen? Which episodes in the novel are based on actual historical events? 

Mr. Cibenko has an intriguing story of his own. Upon graduating from college, he worked as an English teacher in Japan, tramping the very ground where the events described in Masaru take place. It was there that he came to know the small but devout community of Japanese Catholics and to study their storied history. It was there also that Michael met his wife.

I had the opportunity to ask Michael a few questions about Masaru and his motivations for writing this exceptional novel, perfect for Catholics young and old. I hope you enjoy the following interview, and will be inspired to pick up a copy of his book!

Masaru places the reader into a fascinating historical period that is very different from life as we experience it today. What aspects of the novel do you hope will speak to young Catholics today most strongly?

MTC: All historical periods are fascinating in their own particular ways. Even though this story takes place long ago in a faraway land, I believe readers will be able to connect with its characters. Regardless of the era into which we’re born, we all experience those universal aspects of the human condition: joy and fear, hope and doubt, love and loneliness. I hope that young Catholics might come away with a deeper appreciation for the faith, and understand there have always been those throughout history who have been persecuted for professing and practicing what we so often take for granted.

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I loved the quotes and proverbs at the beginning of each chapter. What was your motive for incorporating those particular quotes in the text?

MTC: I have a faint childhood memory of reading a book that utilized interesting quotes (I believe they’re called “epigraphs”) at the beginning of each chapter, and I just thought that was a really neat device for setting a tone. Even when I kept a journal, I always liked to include lines from movies, or lyrics from songs, that reflected what I was experiencing at any given time. For this book, which on some level is about the marriage of Christian and Japanese culture, I wanted to include one quote from “the West” (primarily from Scripture), and one quote from “the East” (primarily Japanese proverbs).  The idea was to have the two quotes in some way reflect or complement one another.  For several of the chapters, it was a fair bit of work finding the right ones!

A manuscript like Masaru can take considerable time, effort, and inspiration to create. Did any surprising or unexpected things happen during the writing of the book? 

MTC: I was certainly surprised by how much research was required. On average, for every page of writing, I probably had to do about ten pages of reading! At first I thought I could mainly rely on my own experiences living in Japan. But when writing about life in the 17th century, I had to consider so many small details. Beyond that, I was continually struck by how so many of the faithful were willing to risk torture and death, rather than renounce the faith. I often found myself asking, "Would I have been able to do that?"

Shiro’s story in Masaru is inspiring. I know he is based on a real person in history—Shiro Amakusa. How does the fictional Shiro compare to the historical figure?

MTC: The decision about what to name the book’s main character was one I considered for quite a while. Though the events of the Shimabara Rebellion are fairly well documented, the real Shiro Amakusa is a person about whom not as much is known. Giving the book’s character the last name of Nakagawa, the family name of my Japanese grandmother, allowed me some freedom to take more creative license. “Masaru” was actually a nickname my grandmother had given me, which reflects the connection of the book’s title to its main character. Though there are surely differences, the real Shiro provided all the inspiration for the one in Masaru.

The events in Masaru are reminiscent of the recent film, Silence by Martin Scorsese—though while the film follows a protagonist who eventually denies his Catholic faith to survive, the characters in Masaru heroically risk all in defense of the faith. Was this film on your mind at all when you wrote Masaru?

MTC: Though I had seen Silence, I was more influenced by a 1962 Japanese movie called The Revolutionary, which tells the tale of the Christian uprising from the perspective of the peasants who were being persecuted. Certain details in Masaru, such as “the raincoat dance,” were depicted in that film. Though it was well made, the actor who played Shiro was, I felt, a bit too old for the role. I'd love to see a film version of the story starring a young unknown actor. 

Michael T. Cibenko
author of Masaru.
How close to the history of the Shimabara Uprising is Masaru? Is there a particular source that you would recommend for readers who want to know more about this time period?

MTC: As much as possible, I tried to stay true to the timeline of historical events. The main liberty I took was in shifting the location of those events from the Shimabara Peninsula to Kumamoto Prefecture, about fifty miles to the southeast.  I had lived in a rural village situated between the towns of Yatsushiro and Hitoyoshi, and I wanted to use that more intimately familiar setting. Much of what I learned about the events of the uprising was during my visit to the Amakusa Christian Museum and many of the historical sites in the region. I realize a trip to Japan is not an easy thing, especially nowadays, but I’d still encourage readers to check out those things online. I’d also recommend Christ’s Samurai by Jonathan Clements, a solid historical account of The Shimabara Rebellion.


Thanks, Michael, for relaying your thoughts. Here's hoping that many young Catholics will read and appreciate the outstanding novel you have written! 

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