Interview with Jean Kanokogi, Author of Get Up & Fight

22 Sep 2021

If you were in an elevator with a stranger and had one minute or less to describe Get Up & Fight before the doors opened, what description would you give?

One minute simply wouldn’t do this story justice. Get Up & Fight is way too many things to be condensed into an elevator pitch—it’s a true story about one woman’s courageous fight for equality in judo, but it’s not just a sports story. It’s a story of womanhood, of equality, of standing up for yourself and others like you when the world doesn’t give you a fair shake. It’s a story of determination, discipline, tenacity, and perseverance; of getting up when the system knocks you down, over and over again, and fighting not only for yourself but for what’s right. It’s a story of inspiration, and it transcends any box someone might try to put it in—just like my mother and co-author, who shared her raw, real, unfiltered experience in the hopes that the tale of her fifty-year fight for equality in sports and in life would inspire others to keep on fighting the good fight—to believe in themselves, do the work, and know they have power.

More practically, if I were in an elevator and struck up a conversation with a stranger and I felt Rusty’s story would speak to them, I would give them a teaser of just exactly why they needed a little Rusty in their lives, based entirely on our unique personal interaction, and would hand them my business card and tell them to reach out to me to keep the conversation going. Rusty was at the forefront of her fight, but much of her success was also due to the loyal community of friends and supporters who she enlisted to fight side by side with her. Relationships are everything, and I will never stop recruiting people to join up and help me ensure Rusty’s hard-fought legacy lives on, continuing to improve the lives and world for everyone.

What part of Get Up & Fight was the hardest to write? What part was the easiest?

The hardest part of Get Up & Fight for me to write were the passages dealing with her tumultuous childhood. As her daughter, it is always hard to learn of any wrongdoing done upon her. But also because I am her daughter—and a product of two professional judokas and teachers forever committed to fighting for justice, I am a natural protector. Writing and editing those passages, I wanted so badly to reach back through time to shield her, then just a child, and obviously I couldn’t. As an adult, my mom became more than just my mother; she was my mentor and my best friend. The idea that anyone would dare try to hurt her when she was just a kid and couldn’t protect herself, brings my blood to a boil to this day. Of course, Rusty was a spitfire even then, and she may not have been able to fight back at first, but she did learn and taught the rest of us how to do the same.

The easiest passages were those surrounding the founding of the First Women’s World Judo Championships in 1980. This was a monumental and historical accomplishment in my mom’s decades long battle to get women not only recognized on the international judo scene, but into and accepted as athletes at the Olympic Games. It was a pivotal win on that path, something she had been working toward since before I was born and I had both the obligation and the distinct pleasure of participating in it, helping her make it happen, and witnessing her sweet success. In writing and editing the book, I got to relive being part of the fight for equality—so much nostalgia. Those were the good old glory days. I think about them often, and now I can revisit them not just in my memory, but in the pages of her book, out at long last.  

What books are on your to-be-read pile right now?

Kintsugi Wellness: The Japanese Art of Nourishing Mind, Body, and Spirit by Candice Kumai. A friend that I work within the mental health and wellness arena and whose opinion I greatly respect recommended it, and so far it has not disappointed me.

The Good One Rises by Mynet Velez. This one isn’t out yet—it’s written by a strong female law enforcement colleague of mine who is now retired and has taken up writing. It comes out next month, and I thoroughly recommend it. 

All In by Billie Jean King, who you may recognize for her epic win in the Battle of the Sexes match between her and Bobby Riggs in 1973. (If you don’t know it, spoiler alert: she won!). You may also recognize her as from the foreword to Get Up & Fight. She and Rusty were great friends, and I grew up watching them team up on incredible initiatives like Title IX in 1972, prohibiting sex-based discriminiation in schools nationwide. All In is her incredible journey, in her own words. It just came out last month and it too is well, well worth it.

What’s your favorite genre to read? Is it the same as your favorite genre to write?

No, actually. I love to read crime stories, and though I write a lot of articles and non-fiction narratives almost exclusively—motivational pieces geared toward helping others, and much of it anchored in my work on mental health advocacy for people in law enforcement (look for something more in this vein for a future release)—I soak up a lot of true crime and crime fiction. This may also be an occupational hazard and a result of being one of the lucky ones who loves what I do. I particularly enjoy James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell, Catherine Coulter, and Harlan Coben. While these guys write mostly fiction, I have to say they really do their research. I work in law enforcement, and I consult on film and TV sets to help ensure representation of these stories is as realistic as possible. A lot can be lost by cutting corners and not doing the research to strive towards accuracy. At least for me as a reader, I really appreciate it, and these writers are my favorites because they hit the nail on the head. Very, very well researched and real.

Do you have any quirky writing habits? Where did you write Get Up & Fight?

I have a pretty solid writing routine and spend most of my writing time at my desk at home. This is where I did much of the in-the-trenches editing of the manuscript my mom and I wrote together so many years ago. We wrote the first incarnation of what would become a rough first draft of Get Up & Fight largely between the years of 2004 and 2006, me sitting on the floor of my mom’s office while she sat in a chair, talking through her many, many stories while I started compiling the bones of the book. That’s how I spent my childhood, actually, watching television sitting on the floor in her room. Some things went in order. Others dropped in and out. Sometimes I’d leave and she’d think of something she wanted to add and would send me a long note in an email and then, as soon as it was sent, pick up the phone and call me to tell me about it. That was Rusty—endless enthusiasm for the cause. 

Then this draft sat for a while. Life happened. I went back to school. My mom got sick, and fought hard—as she always did—and eventually passed away in 2009. Right before she died I made her three promises, and one was that I would finish what we started. Another was that I would finish my PhD, and that, as you can imagine, took me another few years. 

When I did get back into crafting the book, I spent long nights doing speed rounds of edits and rewriting, expanding and fact-checking at my desk, bouncing edits back and forth between myself and my editor in track changes. I’m not particularly OCD about my habits—I don’t have a special mug or talisman I need to write, but I do have my quirks. My desk has to be neat. I have to know I have a certain amount of time to dive into the task—because once I get going, the flow comes and it has to be captured. 

Sometimes before I put pen to paper I’ll listen to some music—jazz or Jesse Cook, this Canadian guitarist that I enjoy—his sound is just so beautiful, almost like flamenco—it’s like taking a ride. I also really enjoy the sound of a good trumpet. Trumpet is my favorite.   

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

This is a hard one because there are so many, and they’re all in Rusty’s voice—have I mentioned yet that she is still the voice inside my head? “Get Up and Fight!” “In life, either you’re the hammer or the nail—be the hammer.” “Shit or get off the pot.” These were all amazing Rusty-isms that I call back to constantly in so many aspects of my life, and when you read them I hope you hear Rusty in your head, talking directly to you, just like I do. And I’m not the only one either. The book is written in Rusty’s voice, so it’ll be like Rusty is talking to you. I ran into one of Rusty’s tribe recently, who’d just bought a copy of the book and we talked about how I hear these bits of advice in Rusty’s voice all the time, and he said, “Oh shit! The best advice Rusty ever gave me was, ‘Shut up and listen to me!’” 

But if I had to pick just one, I’d say it’s this: “Don’t settle for the morsels handed to you—go get what you want and make sure it’s fair.” And yes, that was another Rusty original.  

If you could choose one thing for readers to remember after reading Get Up & Fight what would it be?

How the book makes them feel. Because when people read this book, it’s not just about it being a good story—overwhelmingly the feedback I get and what people always tell me is how the book made them feel. This happens a lot, and it always reminds me of that quote attributed to Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Now there’s some debate over whether or not Angelou actually said that, but possible mis-attribution aside, it’s true. Rusty made you feel like you could do anything—that’s what she did for me. She was my mother, but she was also the mother of women’s judo. It’s not just for people in judo and in sports and in life. Anyone who cares about fairness and justice and wants to fight for it and win, deserves a mother like Rusty in their corner—and they can find one in the memoir and lessons she leaves behind in Get Up & Fight. Lots has been written about Rusty over the decades of her life and career, but this is the only book where she set the record straight, as she saw it, in her own words. And trust me, there’s something in there for everyone. The proof is in all the stories, and comments and reviews and posts I get from people every day, around the world, talking about how Rusty’s words made them feel. That alone brings me so much joy.  

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