Interview with Kathleen Kern, Author of Because the Angels

Kathleen Kern is a part of Christian Peacemaker Teams, an organization which seeks to transform areas under occupation or war through non-violent methods.  She is also an anime fan, and brought this interest together with a passion for her work in Because the Angels, a novel featuring a protagonist who is Blood+ obsessed.  She was gracious enough to answer a few questions for us.

TWWK: Kathleen, your main character is a woman who is obsessed with anime, particularly Blood+.  What compelled you to create such a character and to use anime as such an important part of the novel?

Kathleen:  I had insomnia one night and was looking through the channels.  The name “Samurai Champloo” just struck me as funny for reason, and when I tuned in–somewhere in the middle of the series, I thought it was funny and liked the fluid drawing.  I liked the way that Mugen and Jin kind of looked semi-realistic, but Fuu looked like big-eyed anime characters.  I’ve always been a sucker for stories that mix humor with pathos (I pretty much learned to read, by reading Heidi over and over again), which Samurai Champloo does.  I think Blood+ was playing after Samurai Champloo, which has more pathos than humor, but the story line and the music drew me in.  In hindsight, I realize that I started on shows with a more artistic bent than most anime series.  If I had started on Inuyasha, for example, I don’t think I would have gotten sucked in (but I actually ended up watching the whole Inuyasha series, as well as some other “lessers.”)

I bought both series on DVD, and, and watched them several times.  I then began spinning stories in my head that involved the series’ characters. I had done similar story-making as a child— taking the characters from books, movies and television shows to use in my own plots—the ability got me through many long sermons. But I became alarmed that I was expending so much mental energy on these anime characters as a woman in my forties. When I met with my prayer group, I confessed my concern regarding this absorption, and one my friends asked, “Have you offered it before Jesus in prayer?” So for the next week or so, during my daily prayer times, I, feeling extremely foolish, asked Jesus why my mind was so invested in these characters.

Years earlier, I had completed a farcical novel about a group of Christian human rights activists working within the Israeli-Palestinian context. I started a second farcical novel, about a young woman named Spike who worked in a group home for developmentally disabled adults. It was never compelling enough for me to finish, but Spike stayed with me.

One day, as I was praying about my anime problem, I had an epiphany. The deal with Spike was not that she worked at a group home. The deal with Spike was that her sister Margie had been kidnapped while working for a human rights organization in Iraq, and because Spike had more of an affinity for certain Japanese anime characters than she did for most human beings, she did not have the resources she needed to get through the crisis.

I was finishing up a 620-page history of my organization, Christian Peacemaker Teams, at the time. I felt I could not ethically start the novel while I was still working on the history. Then the pressure of not writing it became too great, so I rationed myself to working on it twenty minutes a day, sitting beside my husband while he watched the news. In two weeks, I had 10,000 words. During a nine-day retreat with my spiritual director, I finished it. The first draft came out with so little effort, I almost functioned as a printer. It was perhaps the most extended inflowing of the Spirit that I have ever experienced.

TWWK: Some Christians who are anime fans have difficulties relating their love of the medium to other followers of Christ.  As a Christian working for a Christian peacekeeping organization, have you had similar difficulties?

Kathleen:  I’m not sure I’d say difficulties.  I have asked  CPTers who are into the whole Monty Python/Hitchhiker’s Guide/Dr. Who scene whether they are aware of anime.  I only met one who was really conversant in it.  I lent Samurai Champloo to my friend who suggested I bring my fantasies before Jesus in prayer and she didn’t like it at all.

TWWK: Events in the novel are inspired by your own experiences with your organization, which underwent an ordeal in which several of your colleagues were taken hostage.  Could you tell us a little bit about what happened?

Kathleen: In November 2005, two CPTers, James Loney and Tom Fox, and two CPT delegation members, Norman Kember and Harmeet Singh Sooden were kidnapped by a militia calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigade.  They eventually murdered Tom in March 2006 (his body was found on the 9th) and ten days later, the kidnappers fled and British soldiers freed the remaining three men.

How the kidnapping affected teams in Palestine, Iraq, Colombia and other people close to the four CPTers was collected and put in to the book 118 Days, which is available as an ebook now from Google.

TWWK: How did you deal with those circumstances, both at work and personally?

Kathleen: I think I am still finding out how it affected me.  During the four months of the crisis, we were just so focused on how we could keep our people alive we didn’t really have time to do self-analysis. (Although the last conversation I had had with Jim Loney had been an argument, and I was sort of haunted by that for those months.)

I was sort of a third-tier respondent.  Our co-directors and other CPTers were focused on providing support for the team remaining in Baghdad, and the families of the hostages, and my job was to provide support for those CPTers, emotionally and otherwise.  It was also my job, as a member of a special communications team,  to respond to false information circulating in the media and among pundits.

I think the writing of Because the Angels helped me come to terms with the fact that 90% of what we did had no impact on the situation.  There was probably nothing we could have done to save Tom’s life.  Instead, we experienced the grace of “a great hand of solidarity” as Jim later called it.  Thousands of Arabs and Muslims all over the world immediately went to work through their own media channels, held demonstrations, and even traveled to Iraq, at great personal risk, to try to free our guys. (One of our friends in Hebron, West Bank, was told he would be fired if he held a press conference in a mosque in which all the Palestinian political parties called for the release of the CPTers.  He did it anyway and was fired.) Thousands of people, people whom we had never met, held prayer vigils all over the world.  We didn’t ask for any of that.  People just did it.

TWWK: That’s an amazing response!  On a little bit of a tangent,  is there any piece of advice you could give about the process of writing and getting a book published for aspiring writers?

Kathleen: Well, I suppose I would advocate having an interesting life.  Before I joined CPT I wrote bible curriculum for the Mennonite Church and was wrote a couple books—one about how Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees applies to the North American Church and Biblical devotions for people dealing with clinical depression.  After I joined CPT, I sort of became to the go-to person when various media sources wanted pieces about the situation in Haiti, Israel/Palestine and other places I’ve worked, and of course, that got me more assignments.  I’m still waiting to sell a novel, though.  I have a small, but dedicated readership among Mennonites and in the human rights community, so when I published the novel via CreateSpace, I knew that I would turn a profit.

I get cranky when I don’t write, and fiction does something for me that nonfiction doesn’t.  It’s almost like falling in love—that’s what the energy feels like when I’m working on a novel.  So I guess my advice is, write if you have to write—even if it’s just for your own mental health, but don’t expect to get paid for it.

TWWK: And to end on a fun note.  What is your favorite anime?  I have a good idea which one you’ll pick…

Kathleen: It would be hard to choose between Blood+ and Samurai Champloo. Winter before last, when I was on assignment in Hebron, I suddenly felt a deep desire to watch the whole Blood+ series all over again on the internet.  I was trying to figure out why, and then I realized it was because even a happy ending for Saya and her comrades was a sad one.  Even though they had triumphed over evil, she was going to go to sleep and basically lose them.   I saw that my desire to watch the series was speaking to the fact that even if the Israeli military Occupation ended tomorrow, it was still going to be sad.  All the vineyards and olive groves that have been paved over for settlements will never grow again; traumatized people are not going to become untraumatized.  Most of the relationships between Palestinians and Israelis that have become broken will not heal.  And knowing all that, we and all the other Israelis, Palestinians and internationals that are doing human rights work just have to keep doing it.

But right now, I think I’m in more of a Samurai Champloo mood.

Because the Angels can be purchased at Amazon or through other retailers.  Please return to the blog on Friday, when I’ll be reviewing the book.

One thought on “Interview with Kathleen Kern, Author of Because the Angels

Leave a Reply