Shelf Life

Shelf Life: Author uses experience and history to put herself in others' shoes

2014-06-08T12:00:00Z Shelf Life: Author uses experience and history to put herself in others' shoesJane Ammeson Times Correspondent
June 08, 2014 12:00 pm  • 

In 1945, defeat is inevitable and imminent, but despite this, two sisters, Tamiko and Hatsuko, are forced to leave the Princess Lily High School to work in the Japanese army’s cave hospitals during the Battle of Okinawa, a fight so desperate that over one-third of Okinawans were killed or committed suicide. Indeed, more lives were lost during the Battle of Okinawa, the largest land-sea-air battle in history, than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

Sixty years later, Luz James, part American and part Okinawan, is living at Kadena Air Base, her military mother away on assignment leaving her alone to grieve the death of her sister who was killed in Afghanistan while serving in the air force. James, somewhat rebellious, begins hanging with the "Smokinawans,” other lost youth who get high every night in a nearby deserted cove.

Even though these teenage girls are separated by decades and cultures, their lives are also entwined as James discovers when at the nadir of her emotions, she struggles to learn about her Okinawan ancestors and heritage.

In her ninth novel, "Above The East China Sea" (Knopf 2014; $25.95), author Sarah Bird tells the story of these girls drawing upon her own experiences as a child of military parents who spent her youth in Japan and Okinawa and what she learned about that country years later.

“The story of the Princess Lily Girls, the sheltered native girls from an elite private school who were conscripted by the Imperial Army to serve in their cave hospitals under the most horrific conditions imaginable, embodied this tragedy,” said Bird about the Battle of Okinawa. “I told the historical half of the novel from the perspective of two sisters who refuse to let anything, not the struggles of nations, not even death, tear them apart.”

Bird, who has written screenplays for Paramount, CBS, Warner Bros, National Geographic, ABC, TNT, and several independent producers, said she also wanted to show the continuing ramifications of America’s presence on tiny Okinawa which continues to this day.

“Having grown up within the barbed wire of the vast stretches of runways, housing areas, parade grounds, swimming pools, golf courses, and so on,” she said. “It was a mind-bending exercise for me to put myself outside of the fence and ask questions like, How would an American would feel if, say, the entire eastern seaboard, were occupied by foreigners.”

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