Teenage Author an Inspiration to Peers
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
And finally, many people have less-than-happy memories of high school being threatened by bullies, demeaned by teachers, or ignored by classmates. And most of them would probably just scribble their thoughts in a journal or even save them for a few years for their screenwriting class, but not Isamu Fukui. He turned his high school angst into a science fiction novel. The book is called "Truancy" and he wrote it in a month when he was just 15 years old. It was published earlier this year to some very respectful reviews. Isamu Fukui is now a senior at Stuyvesant High School in New York. He's with us now. Welcome.
Mr. ISAMU FUKUI (Author, "Truancy"): Hey.
Mr. FUKUI: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: So for people who haven't read it, can you just give us a brief synopsis of the plot?
Mr. FUKUI: It's set in a nameless dystopian city dominated by its educational system. There's a group of former students calling themselves the Truancy, and they're waging a guerrilla war against the oppressive mayor and his educators.
MARTIN: And when you say a guerrilla war, you're not kidding.
Mr. FUKUI: No.
MARTIN: Yeah. This is not like, they're not sending him like, mean cartoons.
Mr. FUKUI: No. They're not throwing spitballs, they're throwing bombs.
MARTIN: What gave you the idea for this?
Mr. FUKUI: Well, when I was in the seventh and eighth grade in middle school I was having a particularly difficult time in school, and what I used to do is I used to jot down notes on the back of my homework or on my hand or whatever I had about what was ticking me off. And when I got into high school in ninth grade I realized that it wasn't a problem with any individual school that I had, but rather with the system as a whole and that drove me to write a book about it because at that point I felt that I would never escape it.
MARTIN: Can you just give people a flavor of the system as the hero of your book - all the students experience it. Just give people some idea of what it is that is so oppressive about the system?
Mr. FUKUI: The educational system in "Truancy" is all about control. The entire point is to produce very obedient adults and the educators do this through any means necessary. They restrict talking only to classes, later on when they're trying to crack down on the Truancy, expulsion starts to become death. So every action that the educators take is geared towards controlling the students rather than enlightening them.
MARTIN: Now you went to, you're at Stuyvesant now, where my sister went by the way, have to give her a shout out there, and you - before that you went to Hunter College High School, and I think a lot of people who are familiar with the New York system would consider those two are the best schools in the whole system. So there's just - I guess what I'm saying it's a pretty rugged vision of what people experience in school. Is there something you think about your experience that kind of led you to that very dark place?
Mr. FUKUI: Well, I wouldn't necessarily blame the schools in particular. Like I said, it was more a conflict between me and the system at its core. That's not to say that the administration at Stuyvesant hasn't been growing more repressive lately, but I think that specific complaints are petty in light of the problems that affect all schools in our system.
MARTIN: Well, like what, give me an example.
Mr. FUKUI: I think that our schools are way too dependent on standardized testing and they rely way too much on averages. I think that this stifles creativity, it rewards uniformity, it punishes independent thought, and replaces it with a need for instruction.
MARTIN: here are other places to go though. I mean there are places that specialize in performing arts, in business, independent study.
Mr. FUKUI: Well, I think there are remarkably few choices offered to students in this country. Really the choices you have are either public education, private education, or for a lucky few, home schooling, which is lately the government's been cracking down on that, too. There was a recent ruling in California where the government had to authorize anyone who wants to home school their child.
MARTIN: Who did you write this story for, and what reaction were you hoping for?
Mr. FUKUI: Originally I was really just writing it for myself. It was sort of the expression of all my frustrations and also the means of proving that I could write a book, but I suppose by extension I was also writing for other frustrating students, even though I wasn't really aware of it at the time.
MARTIN: What kind of reaction are you getting? I should mention that you have gotten some very nice reviews, I think.
Mr. FUKUI: Yeah. I've gotten some pretty good reviews, especially from teen reviewers and also from teen readers, because I think that's, like I said, my target audience.
MARTIN: OK. What about teachers, classmates?
Mr. FUKUI: Well, I think as you might imagine I don't routinely share the book with my teachers. No. No. I think that might cause some problems.
MARTIN: Well, your secrets out so, unless this is a pseudonym, and I don't know about it.
Mr. FUKUI: No, well, I've shown it to a few of my English teachers and I think that they appreciate it from a literary perspective, perhaps not from a professional one, but I think they recognize the artistic merit.
MARTIN: Yeah. It's kind of a "Clockwork Orange" feel going on there, right?
Mr. FUKUI: Yeah. A little bit.
MARTIN: I have to say that a lot of schools are concerned about student violence, and violence is a theme in the book. And there have been instances where teachers have brought kids to the attention of administrators solely on the basis of the violent content of the creative writing. And I wondered, were you at all concerned about this when you were writing the book? And are you at all concerned that people will take the wrong message from what you're trying to impart, because I think that there is a moral underpinning to what you are writing about there, but are you worried that some kids will take the wrong message?
Mr. FUKUI: I didn't really worry too much about what my teachers will think, mainly because I never intended to show it to them in the first place. Really when I was writing "Truancy" all I was thinking about was writing for myself, and I didn't want to censor myself and that's why "Truancy" ended up being a very blunt piece of writing. But as far as people taking the wrong message from it, I think that's very, very different.
The violence in "Truancy" is very different from the violence we see for instance at Virginia Tech. School shootings are really senseless killings with no real goal or logical purpose, and they're almost always involving the slaughter of innocents. But in "Truancy" it's really two sides lining up on a battlefield and fighting over an ideal. The rebels are not rewarded for their violence, and killing is never glorified. And in fact I think that the story can be taken as a cautionary tale against violence as a means to an end.
MARTIN: Well, it certainly does take a very strong stance against mindless violence as you say, that one of the key turning points in the novel is that when a person close to the protagonist is - I hope you don't mind my - I don't want to give too much away, but when a person close to the protagonist is killed, in the course of this war between the educators and the Truancy, and the effect that this has on young Tack and how it shapes sort of the next course of his life. So I do sort of take your point on that.
Now I don't want to be a hater. I especially don't want to be like an old head hater, but in the course of, you know, just while you and I have been talking there have been a couple of stories. One is that to your point, a state appeals court has upheld New York City's ban on cell phones in public schools. This is something that a lot of the students, and also parents, have really objected to saying that, you know, a cell phone is really an important tool in today's world and it's unfair to sort of say to kids that you can't have one.
On the other hand the city's department of education passed this ban in September saying that this is disruptive, and this is something that I think a lot of kids see as a sign of the unnecessary restrictions on students in schools. OK. So I get your point on that. On the other hand, you know, we're doing stories about food riots in Haiti, doing stories about, you know, terrorism in Baghdad and, you know, innocent people dying all over the world and so it's - do you see where I'm going with this?
Mr. FUKUI: Yeah.
MARTIN: I mean we've had kids on this program from Kosovo, you know, who couldn't go to school because they were in the middle of a shooting war who lost, you know, friends, kids their age, watched them shot down by snipers in front of them while they were just trying to go about their business. So do you see where it might be hard for some people to say come on, is your life really that bad because you can't take a cell phone and an iPod to school?
Mr. FUKUI: Well, I've never really specifically complained about not being able to take a cell phone and an iPod to school. If I may address that particular issue, what's disturbed me about that issue is the justification they presented to students. When they sent out that notice they said that cell phones, iPods, et cetera, were a threat to students' safety, and they didn't provide any more explanation after that. And no matter how hard I try, I can't logically see how these items are a threat to students' safety. I understand that they might be disruptive, and I think that might be a legitimate reason to ban them, but I think that they need to be more forthcoming with students instead of frankly insulting their intelligence.
MARTIN: Well, maybe perhaps had the process been more democratic where there's some student input as to how the disruption could be managed.
Mr. FUKUI: Right. There needs to be a dialogue.
MARTIN: OK. But what about my bigger point that, you know, compared to a lot of situations that kids your age face around the world that this is not the occasion for an armed uprising?
Mr. FUKUI: First and foremost, "Truancy" is fiction, and it's also meant for entertainment. But I absolutely understand that there is a bigger picture, and that a lot of people have it a lot worse. I just think that there are flaws in the educational system and they should be addressed because we have the power to address this.
MARTIN: Now you are a senior.
Mr. FUKUI: Yes.
MARTIN: Congratulations, the light at the end of the tunnel.
Mr. FUKUI: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: And I assume you're going to graduate unless you just decided to take another year just for the heck of it right?
Mr. FUKUI: No. No. I'm eager to get out.
MARTIN: Figured that. So as much as you disliked your high school experience, it has been your inspiration for this achievement. Are you worried that once high school is over you won't have anything to write about?
Mr. FUKUI: Well, "Truancy" really is very deeply connected to my high school experience, so one of the goals that I set for myself was to try to finish "Truancy" before I entered college, and I recently finished the manuscript for my second book, which is a prequel to "Truancy." And then I'll hopefully be finishing the third and final book during the summer.
MARTIN: And what's the third?
Mr. FUKUI: The third will be a sequel.
MARTIN: OK. Isamu Fukui is the author of "Truancy." He's a senior at Stuyvesant High School in New York and he joined us from NPR's New York bureau. Thank you so much for speaking with us and congratulations again.
Mr. FUKUI: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure.
MARTIN: Isamu Fukui graduates from New York's Stuyvesant High School later this month and plans to continue his education and his writing career at New York University in the fall.
And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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