Return to the Tsunami

Passport: check. Clip-on lenses for iPhone: check. Voice recorder: check. Weather forecast: checked. Hotel and rental car reservations: kinda check. Notebook, ready pen, and open eyes/ears: yep.

If you know me at all, then you know that in 2011, the tsunami in Japan killed my Japanese grandmother, and that I subsequently deployed in support of Operation Tomodachi (friend), the U.S. military relief effort. Since then, I’ve told a highly-condensed version of my tsunami story for Anchorage’s Arctic Entries public storytelling event. I also wrote a short piece about watching Des Linden’s remarkable 2011 Boston Marathon from my hotel room in Japan.

But whether or not you know me a little or a lot, you probably don’t know that in the intervening years, the tsunami has loomed large in my imagination. That every time I run along Anchorage’s Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, I find myself wondering what it would be like to watch the Cook Inlet of the Pacific Ocean rear, then swell with pitiless energy. That when a recent midnight tsunami warning sat me up in bed, despite what I knew about the elevation of my home and the slim likelihood of a tsunami ever affecting Anchorage, I was seconds from bundling my family into the car in order to drive to high ground. That I set “Japan Tsunami” as a Google Alert and every morning wonder if my email will notify me that another tsunami has struck Japan.

But it’s not just about me. In the intervening years, I have discovered remarkable stories of the 2011 tsunami that deserve telling. Of survival and sadness. Of resilience and memory. About a year ago, I decided it was time to tell them. I started the process of researching, then pitching story ideas to editors at a variety of outlets. And after I landed the pitches, I applied for a Pulitzer Center grant to help defray what I knew would be a costly trip, and to my surprise, I was approved.

So. Here I go. I’ll be blogging the experience during my trip, so I hope you’ll consider following along here. If you want condensed versions, you can check out my Twitter and Instagram profiles.

Last thing before I go: a recent Google Alert made me aware of something called an edge wave. An edge wave has to do with the way that waves refract and bounce along shorelines. In the case of a tsunami, depending on how a coastal shelf looks, edge waves can extend the period of time a tsunami can effect a coastline. It seems a fitting metaphor. Eight years after 11 March 2011, I’m still speeding to and from the northeast coast of Japan in my mind, riding the tsunami’s edge waves like a piece of flotsam. But now it’s time to not just imagine it, but do it for real.

SAMSUNG

Sendai Airport, March 2011. Taken from an Air Force Pave Hawk helicopter about to drop me off for what was supposed to be an hour, but turned into two days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Congratulations. Now Get Back to Work.

bye-and-stuff

“Bye and Stuff” by Lydia Komatsu

A few weeks ago, the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation announced they had selected me for a 2017 Alaska Literary Award. It’s a tremendous honor to join the three other recipients. It comes with five grand in cash, and it looks great to have this kind of thing on your resume, especially since I’ll be hoping to land an agent in the near future. Unfortunately, I’m bad at good things.

Ron Carlson came to our MFA summer residency in 2015. The guy is a successful writer, by which I mean to say that as far as I know, it’s how he makes a living (an increasingly rare thing in the business of writing.) And he was just the nicest guy in the world. But he was giving a talk one night or one day and it was about how all writers do the same thing, regardless of what they’ve achieved, or failed at. They write. You won an award? Awesome, you still get to write. You failed to get your book published? Awesome, you still get to write. Your book sold a bajillion copies and now you light cuban cigars with hundred-dollar bills?

Awesome. You still get to write.

Ron’s point was that at the beginning and end of the day, the unpublished writer and Bob Dylan Kazuo Ishiguro are pretty much the same. Nothing is changed by the fact of, or degree regarding, their respective levels of failure and success.

So there you go. Woohoo! I won something. And it’s a big deal that confirms that maybe I’ve got a shred of talent after all. I’m indebted to folks like Sherry Simpson and David Stevenson, my MFA mentors; and Erin Hollowell and Jeremy Pataky, who’ve enabled my literary citizenry.

Now, deep breath. Back at it.

 

The [Living] List of War Lit Think Pieces

bye-and-stuff

“Bye and Stuff” by Lydia Komatsu

Over the past few weeks, Peter Molin and I have been exchanging emails on the topic of essays about war literature. That is, writing that considers war literature–its good, its bad, the past and future. We came up with a pretty solid list that I realized would have been nice to have as an MFA student, and Pete agreed to let me run it, so here you go. There are a couple of caveats: I didn’t include book reviews, mostly because the consideration of war literature as a genre is not the primary concern and as a writer of a few reviews, I can say you might be fortunate to spend, at most, about 10-15% of your piece in such territory. I also have not included literature criticism essays (think of your college English essays, then add a Master’s or PhD) because, well, they’re pretty boring and tend to put the creative process under an analytical microscope that, for me, sucks the joy right out of writing. In other words, interesting, but rarely compelling for the creative act.

Now that the fine print’s out of the way, the standard disclaimer does not apply. I mean for this to be fairly all-inclusive. Hence the whole “Living” bit. But to get there, I’ll need you to let me know what I’ve missed in the comments. I’ll review to see if it passes muster, then I’ll update the post with your recommendation. Peter already had pretty much all of the list on a post on Time Now, but we also came up with a few more.

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1. Matt Gallagher, “Where’s The Great Novel of the War on Terror?”The Atlantic, 2011. So far as I can tell, Gallagher’s was one of the first essays to really focus on contemporary war literature as a genre.

2. Brian Van Reet, “A Problematic Genre: The Kill Memoir,” The New York Times, 2013. This one was important for me, as it was written around the time I started writing.

3. Ryan Bubalo, “Danger Close: The Iraq War in American Fiction,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 2013.

4. Phil Klay, “After War, a Failure of Imagination,” The New York Times, 2014.

5. George Packer, “Home Fires: How Soldiers Write Their Wars,” The New Yorker, 2014. I’ve returned to this time and again over the past few years, and tackled it for my MFA thesis critical essay. It’s a good survey, but a bit wrong in some critical places.

6. Roxana Robinson, “The Right to Write,” The New York Times, 2014.

7. Brian Castner, “Afghanistan: A Stage Without a Play,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 2014. I first read this on deployment, and it’s a lot like Gallagher’s 2011 essay in that it identifies a gap. Three years after the fact, the essay still holds up well, although the premise has been diluted as a result of the publication of several Afghanistan books. Still, his underlying thesis–that there’s something different about Afghanistan that affects the way it’s represented–is as relevant today as it was three years ago.

8. Michiko Kakutani, “Human Costs of the Forever Wars, Enough to Fill a Bookshelf,” The New York Times, 2014. Kakutani is the only major newspaper-related book critic that I am aware who has covered war literature pretty consistently with her thoughtful reviews. I’ve traced her as far back as 1987, when she reviewed Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story. Her survey,  “A Reading List of Modern War Stories,” remains my go-to reference for war lit recommendations.

9. Kayla Williams, “Women Writing War: A List of Contemporary War Literature by Women,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 2014.

10. Roy Scranton, “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to Redeployment and American Sniper,“ Los Angeles Review of Books, 2015. This one ruffled some feathers, my own included. He might be correct in identifying how we’ve turned veterans into victims, but some of his critiques come off harshly.

11. Sam Sacks, “First Person Shooters,” Harper’s, 2015. Between Scranton and Sacks, 2015 was the year of dissent, evidently. Sacks’ basic premise appears to be predictive and countermand Packer: war literature is missing politics, and the genre is made worse for it. This one is behind a paywall, but chances are good a university library has a copy of the issue. Also, friends who are grad students might be willing to sneak you a PDF bootleg.

12. Adin Dobkin, “The Never Ending Book of War,” The Los Angeles Review of Books, 2016.

13. Michael Peterson, “War and Remembrance: Notes Towards a  Taxonomy of Contemporary War Literature,” The Mad Padre, 2016. A Canadian chaplain offers a a more classically-informed take  on war lit taxonomy.

14. Pretty much every post on Time Now has something to say about the state of contemporary war literature, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend it.

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Update, 30 May 17: Thanks to Adrian Bonenberger and Steven Moore for reaching out to request the following additions.

15. Michael Carson, “War Makes Bad Art,” Wrath-Bearing Tree, 2015. A tidy response to Sam Sacks.

16. Michael Carson, “Philosopher Hero: From Socrates to Scranton,” Wrath-Bearing Tree, 2015. And a response to Scranton’s LARB piece.

17. Steven Moore, “Trouble with Ceremony,” The Georgia Review, 2017. Pay attention to the meta-reflective thread within the essay that deals with the modern lineage of the war story.