Q&A With Sarah Bird About Her Novel 'Above the East China Sea'

Sarah Bird's ninth novel, Above the East China Sea (Knopf) is alternately narrated by Luz James, an American teenage "military brat" living on a U.S. military base in Okinawa; and a 15-year old Okinawan girl named Tamiko who committed suicide in 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa. From the place of limbo she occupies in the afterlife, Tamiko narrates the story of her life from just before the onset of the 82-day invasion that decimated her country to the moment she chooses to jump from the cliffs above the East China Sea rather than be killed by American or Japanese forces.

The Washington Times calls Above the East China Sea an "extraordinary effort of the imagination and a major display of literary talent -- an absolutely don't-miss novel that should become a classic contribution to the fiction of our era."

I spoke with Sarah Bird about the novel.

Mary Pauline Lowry (MPL): Can you tell me a little bit about how you settled on this structure for the novel? It's a really unusual structure, and it seems inherently respectful of Okinawan spiritual beliefs.

Sarah Bird (SB): The novel takes place during the holiest time of the Okinawan calendar, the three days of Obōn, when the dead are welcomed home to feast and celebrate with their loved ones before being chased back to their world.

I felt a sometimes crushing obligation to be respectful of Okinawans and to portray their beliefs, their history, and their culture as accurately as I possibly could. I'd been waiting for decades for someone, preferably an Okinawan, to tell the mind-blowing story of what they endured during the 82 days of the Invasion of Okinawa and in all the years since. When I turned sixty and that novel was nowhere on the horizon, I began to accept that, perhaps, I was intended to write it. So, from the beginning there was a great sense of responsibility to get it right and to honor the sublime people of the Ryukyu Islands as they deserve to be. (One of whom you can meet in this op-ed I recently wrote for the NY Times.)

MPL: Your novel The Yokota Officers Club was partially set in Okinawa. What made you want to return to Okinawa as a setting and more deeply explore the history and culture of the island?

SB: Beside the reasons I've mentioned, I've been haunted by the story of the Princess Lily Girls, the 222 students, some as young as 12, who were plucked out of their extremely sheltered, elite girls high school by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, and forced to serve under sub-human conditions in their horrific cave hospitals. It's a story that I believe should be better known in the West.

The other obligation I felt in writing this novel was to illustrate how the ruinous price of imperial ambition is inevitably borne most heavily by the young. Historic parallels are never exact, and there are as many differences as there are similarities between WWII-era Japan and America now, but it is worth looking at how a cultured civilization was brought to ruin when, first its military, and then its entire government was co-opted by industrialists and weapons manufacturers bent upon pillaging the natural resources of weaker countries. These considerations are especially important now that the Pentagon is "pivoting into Asia," and Japan and China are, once again, disputing territory in the East China Sea. This time, rather than trade routes and land, the prize is the undersea oil reserves which have been found around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands just beyond the southernmost tip of the Ryukyu Islands.

Okinawa is a particularly revealing lens through which to look at the empire of bases our military has established around the globe. We're no longer building the permanent, family-friendly, colossally expensive mega-bases of my childhood. Though economic reality is forcing us to replace those perfect recreations of idyllic, small American towns with stripped-down, utilitarian facilities, there has been no decrease in the defense budget. Instead, a profusion of "lily pads," small, secretive, temporary facilities are springing up in remote locations like the deserts of Mauritania, the jungles of Honduras, and the small Australian Coco Islands. Altogether, we support at least 700, and as many as 900, overseas military facilities. I'd be pleased if readers would start asking what our global military presence is truly costing us, and why we're in those places, or even in Okinawa for that matter, seventy years after a war that the "Land of Constant Courtesy," as early visitors called Okinawa for her warm, hospitable, peaceful natives, had no part in starting.

There's a basic rule of journalism: Follow the money. My wish is that the military-industrial-Congressional-intelligence industry would be stripped of its "dark budgets" and tricky account practices and forced to give an accurate accounting of the colossal sums it is spending. If there ever were a time when America could afford such extravagance, it is long past. Our Constitution demands that citizens be given a full accounting of where our taxes go. We need this basic information to see that, as a nation, we can no longer afford to write blank checks to a military controlled by those whose jobs, whose corporate bonuses, whose congressional seats depend on our country being, forever, at war.
Sarah Bird
MPL: In the novel, you did an amazing job both writing scenes in which rebellious modern day military teenagers party and joke with each other, and--in contrast--writing in great detail about the daily life and attitudes of Okinawan teenagers struggling with their sense of identity during WWII. Could you tell me a little bit about how you researched these two very different parts of your book?

SB: Thank God for the Internet and that I live in a town with a world-class university library system! The bulk of my research had to do with getting Okinawa's side of the story of the invasion and immersing myself in the history and the culture of the Ryukyu Islands. Particularly useful were the first-person narratives, diaries, and on-line accounts written by survivors of the Invasion of Okinawa.

I was very fortunate early on to find the work of Steve Rabson, professor emeritus at Brown and the pre-eminent expert in the field, particularly his indispensable collections of Okinawan literature. Steve is so respected that I kept finding myself wondering if what I'd just written would pass muster with him. Which is why, when he contacted me out of the blue to tell me that his book club of other fellow Vietnam enlistees had read and approved of Yokota Officers Club, I felt I'd been touched by the finger of God. Steve became a great source and sounding board. I was tremendously reassured when he read my final draft and gave the novel his imprimatur.

As for research into the life of a contemporary military teen on Okinawa, the intimate side of that world certainly would have been closed to me had I shown up in all my old lady glory. But it was wide open and completely accessible on YouTube. There I discovered an entire channel, Planet Oki, devoted to the hip hop scene on the island. I also gathered tremendous insights from the many video diaries of young air force recruits going through basic and specialized training. Facebook was a wonderful source for teens and enlisted members currently stationed on Kadena Air Base as well.

But, my aces in the hole, were having grown up in the military and, later, having a son whose teen years are only recently behind him. For the three years that I volunteered at the Attendance Office of his giant high school I was privy to endless exchanges between kids who carried on exactly as if I were invisible. Which, to them, I was! Secret Mom Power.

Thus far all my sources have confirmed that I got it right, which is a gigantic relief as that was crucially important to me. I'm glad I was able to penetrate all these hidden worlds without having to visit Okinawa. And not just because Okinawa is a very long, very expensive flight away, but because my time in the late sixties on Okinawa with my family was magical in so many ways. My parents were young and healthy, my three brothers and two sisters and I were this one, tight unit having an enchanted adventure. Though I now understand the dark side of that magic time, I still want my own private Okinawa to remain preserved in amber with its golden glow intact. I don't think those memories could have survived a trip to the island.

I was also fortunate that Texas has a very active circuit of Okinawan Associations. Through them I've been able to meet Okinawans, attend Okinawan cultural events, and even have a shot of the island's gift to the world, awamori, a sort of rice brandy. My sample was from a bottle with the requisite habu snake coiled at the bottom. I can't compare it to viper-less awamori, but the stuff I had tasted like very strong sake and brought back unpleasant memories of high school biology and frogs in formaldehyde. But it did increase my virility tremendously!

MPL: In Above the East China Sea, a modern day Okinawan teenaged boy named Jake says that more people were killed in the Battle of Okinawa than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. He goes on to say that in school, students always learn about the atomic bomb, and he wonders, "Why would no one have ever mentioned Okinawa?" Is this a question you have asked yourself? And do you think of Above the East China Sea as a means of educating Americans about both Okinawan culture, and Okinawa's role in WWII?

SB: That figure continues to flabbergast me. Not to minimize the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or, certainly, the Jewish Holocaust, but why do we know virtually nothing about the Okinawan Holocaust when one-third of the native population--a population that is culturally and physically distinct from mainland Japanese--and the entire material culture, all their historical documents, property records, and the major artifacts of the islands was destroyed? Yes, given the fact that the Pentagon has controlled Okinawa's fate ever since the end of World War II when Tokyo gave the islands to the U.S. military as a party favor, and the fact that they are strategically crucial to us, we should know much more about the Ryukyu Islands.

MPL: The same character, Jake, says,

"...Americans believe that they can choose their family and relatives and leave them behind whenever they want and that they don't owe anything to the ones who went before. And they're the loneliest, most unhealthy rich people on the planet. And Okinawans believe that once you are part of a family, you are part of it forever, and they are part of you forever, and you owe everything to the ones who went before. And we're the least lonely, longest-lived, not-rich people on the planet."

It's true that Okinawans are the longest-lived people on earth, with the highest percentage of people living to be over 100 years old. They also are reported to have low levels of depression. Do you agree with Jake that this can be attributed to their relationships with their ancestors? Do you see other reasons?

SB: That's a very good and very complicated question that I probably can't answer. I will say that in both Yokota Officers Club and in Above, I spend a lot of time looking at connection and "rootedness." I gave the military family in Yokota the last name of Root because that is what service members and their dependents don't have. In Above I gave Jake the last name of "Furusato" because it means "homesick" in Japanese. This is quite a powerful word with lots of connotations in mainland culture mostly having to do with the old mountain village. On Okinawa it has the especially poignant, added meaning of missing a place, being homesick for a village you can see but never return to. This refers to the villages seized by the military for bases after the war and to the particular pain of being able to see, through the miles of barbed wire surrounding our bases, the spot where an ancestral village once stood and where the ancestors are still buried but never to be able to step again upon its soil. Though the prefecture of Okinawa occupies less than one percent of the total Japanese land mass, she was forced to surrender one-fifth of her precious 460 square miles to host 32 U.S. military facilities.

I can't say exactly what accounts for Okinawans longevity--a healthy diet, an active lifestyle, a serene and joyful outlook on life. But one of the major indicators for anyone living long and prospering is connections. And Okinawans are an exceptionally connected people. To their families, their communities, and to their rapturously lovely island.

MPL: Above the East China Sea contains elements of magical realism. Did you choose to incorporate those elements because such elements exist in Okinawan fiction, or in the Okinawan culture in general? Or for other reasons?

SB: Might "magical realism" just be what we call beliefs not our own? Could saying the rosary or buying a lottery ticket be considered magical realism?

I did like how [Gabriel] Garcia-Marquez treated the otherworldly aspects in his novels so matter-of-factly. I also admire the novels of John Burdett and how they pivot in an unspoken, effortless way around the Buddhist beliefs of his protagonist detective. Other inspirations were my former journalism professor at the University of New Mexico, the great Tony Hillerman, and the novel Famine Road by the acclaimed African writer Ben Okri.

Mostly, I really did not want to write a ghost story or to treat Okinawan beliefs as either spooky or cutesy, folkloric.

Nifee deebiiru for the thoughtful questions!!