By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Novelist and magazine writer Sarah Bird’s latest novel, “Above the East China Sea,” is a study of two young girls, separated by 60 years, in Okinawa Province of Japan. Bird will read and sign books on July 2 at Elliott Bay Books. She took some questions over e-mail.
NWAW: Please describe your experience growing up in an Air Force family.
Sarah Bird: In [my novel,] “The Yokota Officers Club,” I tried to portray the world I came from, that of an overseas military dependent in the 1950s and 1960s. (I’m not a fan of the term “military brat,” since, as a group, children raised by soldiers who put the mission above all else — including family — are some of the least bratty America produces). “Above the East China Sea” also tries to capture that world, but with a contemporary setting.
We lived for almost four years at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo. I was 6 when we moved. I was in my late teens when we were stationed at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa for three years. Those were the happiest years of my childhood. That time and those places, Japan and Okinawa, occupy a very powerful, fairy tale place in my memory. I feel as if during my Air Force childhood, particularly the years that my family was stationed in Asia, I was like an unmanned drone gathering intelligence that would take me 40 years and two novels to make sense of.
My father, who retired as a lieutenant colonel, was not a typical military type. He was a hyper-articulate, highly educated, hilarious, idiosyncratic, difficult man driven by a sort of idealistic patriotism that is now all but extinct. In many ways, he laid down the clues, the dots that “Above the East China Sea” tries to connect.
NWAW: Where did you live growing up, and what are your pivotal memories from each place?
Bird: My memories from the seven years we spent in Japan and Okinawa are far and away my strongest and most resonant. While my family was at Kadena in Okinawa, I had all the usual base experiences: I swam in a selection of pools, I rambled a vast and verdant golf course, I shopped at any of the commissaries and exchanges on the island’s dozens of bases, I ate jumbo shrimp at the Officers Club. There were other, off-base moments, such as when I stood at the top of a popular sightseer destination, Suicide Cliff, with a breeze off the East China Sea lifting my hair and the Pacific Ocean 150 feet straight down.
I toured a small section of the vast labyrinth of catacomb-like tunnels chiseled by the Japanese army using native labor into weeping limestone. With my brothers, I hunted for the unexploded bombs and grenades that still peppered the island a quarter of a century after the end of the war. All of this I did without knowing that more lives had been lost during the Battle of Okinawa — the largest land-sea-air battle in history — than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. That over one-quarter of the civilian population and the entire cultural history of the Ryukyu Islands had been lost.
NWAW: How much research did you do for “Above the East China Sea?” Which areas of study were the most difficult and which intrigued you the most?
Bird: A ton! Mostly on the history, culture, and spiritual beliefs of the Ryukyu Islands. Fortunately, I live in a city with a world-class university library system, and I had access to every source that I could have ever wanted. And, honestly, I fell so in love with Okinawa, her sublime people and noble culture, that I could happily spend the rest of my life studying it.
That research was necessary for telling the historical part of my story. For the contemporary military dependent, [the character] Luz, who is stationed on Kadena Air Base just as I was, my greatest source was the Internet. I found an entire YouTube channel, “Planet Oki,” devoted to the Okinawan hip hop scene. It was a godsend, presenting just the young people I needed to know about. I learned how they spoke, dressed, and carried on.
I also learned a great deal from the online video diaries that young soldiers going through basic training posted. But my real secret weapon was my son’s recent teen years. Especially all those mornings I spent volunteering in the attendance office of his high school, where the kids chatted away in front of me as if I were invisible. Which, of course, to them, I was!
NWAW: What were the hardest aspects of writing the new novel, and how did you rise to them?
Bird: Far and away the hardest part was figuring out how the two stories, set 70 years apart, wove together and resonated with each other. For a very long time, I was close to despair thinking that I had constructed a puzzle that I wasn’t smart enough to solve. But I had such deep faith in both stories and a sense of obligation about needing to tell the story of Okinawa, which is so shockingly little known in this country that I persevered — and was finally rewarded. The answer to my puzzle, the key to connecting these two stories, came to me in a dream. I couldn’t wait to leap out of bed that morning and get to work.
NWAW: How did you rewrite the book as you worked through it?
Bird: Once I really knew how to braid the stories together, I rewrote them a bit to shift the emphases, so that each section of a girl’s story, the historical one and the contemporary one, would flow into and amplify each other.
NWAW: What are your plans for the future, after this book tour?
Bird: I currently have three ideas for novels battling it out in my head. I am praying that by the time I am home and settled again, one will have emerged victorious. I don’t know if I will ever be as in love with a setting and a story as I am with “Above the East China Sea,” but I’m looking forward to making the journey I consider the most exciting: entering and inhabiting a fascinating new world! (end)
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.