“At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck Japan’s northeastern coast, resulting in a major tsunami, massive fires and a nuclear accident. Communities were devastated and many thousands of lives lost.”
People often ask why I wrote THE WATER CHILD, a novel set during the 2011 Great East Japan Quake. But the questions from American readers and Japanese readers are often different.
In America, many wonder “How can you write this as a white woman?”
In Japan, many ask, “What made you care?”
My answer often varies. In reply to the first question: You can write any story, regardless of skin color or experience as long as it’s done with respect and care. Thank goodness Tolkien didn’t stop writing because he wasn’t a hobbit and had never been to Mt. Doom.
The second answer is much more complicated. And seldom do I tell the whole story – a story I’ve been frightened to tell. But here it goes…
I worked in an office calculating concrete and wastewater. Everyone’s dream job, right? And throw a crown in there, I was a newlywed, too. Wahoo.
I lost a baby. The miscarriage was extremely painful (as all are). Severe postpartum depression hit – with psychotic symptoms – and it took me YEARS to get over. It was hard to cope or perform daily functions. I’ll have to write more on this later – misunderstanding of depression and psychosis is rampant!
MARCH 11th, 2011
I woke from a dream (I know, never start a story this way – but it’s true!). A little girl and her mother walked through an old shrine on the mountainside. Water trickled in, tugging at their ankles. But the mother didn’t notice. As the water rose, the girl cried out for her mother to lift her from the water and save her. But the mother waded to the shrine altar, deaf to the daughter’s cries. The little girl refused to give up and swam after her mother until she drowned. I had no idea the tsunami had occurred until I trudged into the office that morning.
My in-laws lived in Japan and I immediately had flashbacks to 9/11 when my father was in the Pentagon and I didn’t know if he was dead or alive. Phones stopped working. We waited, not knowing. To this day, I can still taste the dust in the air from the plane crash. It looked like snow. Were my in-laws alive? What could I do?
THE REST OF 2011
I was desperate to do something. My in-laws moved to the disaster zone, to Miyako, where they built a community center in the recovery effort. They had more volunteers and teams than they could handle. So what could I do? Medically I couldn’t leave the country and financially I was supporting my husband through college. I didn’t even think to write a book about it at this point. I was writing other books, other stories, and this journey was as of yet still too personal.
My critique group challenged me to write a new story. And I started with a train suicide I had witnessed in 2010 in Tokyo. As I kept writing, the main character turned into the girl from my dream searching for her mother. And the mother searching for a child she had lost – unable to see the daughter right before her. And so, began a very personal journey as Tora (the main character) fought to find purpose in life in the midst of crisis. And not only in her own personal crisis – but in a literal tsunami.
2014 – 2015
RESEARCH. I had closely followed my in-laws work in Miyako and now sought other stories and testimonials from those who had survived the tsunami or volunteered to help in the aftermath. Japanese friends combed through my manuscript and related stories of not only the tsunami but also of losing children and the little mentioned cultural tradition of mizuko kuyo. I began to see healing in myself as well as the women who spoke through their experiences after reading my book. A kind of community formed, mothers and daughters who wanted to know that depression was not their fault. That life – their life – is priceless.
It was something I had in common with the tsunami survivors, living with loss. It’s something humanity has in common. No matter how it happens. It’s a universal experience. And a place that needs healing in every heart.
MOVED TO JAPAN
In many ways, though I deeply miss family in America, it feels like a welcome home. I’m writing more books set in Japan, and some that are not. But every book tells a story. And I hope those stories will not only entertain – but heal hearts and inspire old dreams to live again.
Keep Writing – and Living Fully!