“Children, I’m singing you the story of Miyako
The beautiful, the blue, the deepening indigo,
And the red soil made from crushed bodies
That lay down their genealogy of bones.
The Spirits are whispering to you: all of this is what is.”
~from The Ocean of the Dead, by Yonaha Mikio
Above the East China Sea is one of the few books – in English – that takes place on Okinawa and doesn’t directly involve the “Typhoon of Steel” which struck that island paradise in 1945. Yes, war flows throughout the book, and at first glance it could be branded as yet another attempt at telling the dramatically sad tale of the Princess Lilly Corps and other such sufferings of the Okinawan people. Alternatively, the work could also over-simplistically be viewed as a “coming of age story” as its central characters are both teenaged girls.
But it is so much more…than either. Intertwining dual storylines of two troubled teenaged girls, one modern American and the other an Okinawan teenager of 1945, the book cleverly makes a spiritual connection between these lives which, at first, seem rather incongruous, both in focus and in time.
The real star of this book, however, is the Okinawan culture, and how it bonds lives across seventy years and offers healing to those which have suffered profound loss through its enduring strength of ancient tradition combined with the redeeming power of family love.
Describing the main characters or the horrors of war that serve as the backdrop for half the story is really not necessary here. Read the book! Needless to say, I have visited and blogged, first-hand, about exactly the things the author, Sarah Bird, does so well in describing through her written words. See my blogs about the Typhoon of Steel, Haebaru Tunnel Hospital and the Princess Lilly Corps for photo essays that may help illuminate some of the harsher aspects of Above the East China Sea which may be hard for a reader to wrap their minds around.
Having spent now three tours with the US Military on Okinawa, and well into my 7th year living on this island that my kids and I call our “second home,” I feel that I’m pretty well-versed on Okinawan culture because I chose to be by taking a very active role in trying to experience and understand it. The vast number of Americans that pass through Okinawa though, have not. It’s all too easy for ego-centric Americans to assume it’s just another part of Japan, and that somehow we have the right to do what we will since America did, after all, win a war “they” started.
But Sarah offers some great insights to Okinawa and its wonderful cultural heritage. Okinawans are not Japanese, no more than Hawaiians are descended from North America; they offered no violence and took part in no aggression outside of their historical kingdom’s boundaries until invaded and subdued by the Japanese. And they remain caught in the middle between American and Japan, just like they were back in WWII.
Sure, the characters may be a bit overdone and over-the-top in personality and deed. Yes, there are some incongruities with time and place. Some elements of the culture are somewhat artificially combined. And certainly there is little comment on the ultra-slow moving traffic! But all these minor transgressions are rather easily forgotten. Besides, one really has to know the geography of the island and the scheduling of festivals to truly appreciate these small nuances.
Above the East China Sea is a remarkable tale of not just how war, loss and suffering shapes lives, but its central themes of family, friendship, and love all transcend time. When placed within the rich tapestry of the Okinawa culture and heritage, Sarah does a rather clever melding of stories from East and West concurrently and rather obliquely from both spiritual and human planes. And even though I have a solid working knowledge of the cultural aspects of the book’s storyline from my knowledge and experience with the Okinawans, Sarah’s chronicle remained suspenseful until the very end of the novel. My only issue? Perhaps the story came together, finally, just a little too cleanly and too easily…. But most importantly, Sarah shows great deference to what I believe she feels as an obligation to be respectful to Okinawans. She is hugely successful in portraying their beliefs, their history, and their culture as accurately as possibly. And therein lies the genius of this book!
Sarah is the author of eight novels. The ninth, Above the East China Sea, was published in 2014. Sarah has been selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great Writers series; a Dobie-Paisano Fellowship; New York Public Library’s 25 Books to Remember list; Elle Magazine Reader’s Prize; People Magazine’s Page Turners; Library Journal’s Best Novels; and a National Magazine Silver Award for her columns in Texas Monthly. In 2012 Sarah was voted Best Austin Author for the fourth time by the readers of the Austin Chronicle; was inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame; and received the Illumine Award for Excellence in Fiction from the Austin Library Foundation. In 2013 she was selected to be The University of Texas’ Libraries Distinguished Author speaker, and was featured on NPR’s The Moth Radio Hour.
She has written screenplays for Paramount, CBS, Warner Bros, National Geographic, ABC, TNT, Hemdale Studio, and several independent producers. Sarah’s screen adaptation of her sixth novel, The Flamenco Academy, is currently in development as well as two original screenplays. She has contributed articles to The New York Times, Salon, O Magazine, and is a columnist for Texas Monthly. Sarah, who moved all over the world growing up with her air force family, lives in Austin, Texas.