So It Goes

My third and final story from my Pulitzer Center-supported trip to Japan last year published on Monday. It was the eight-year anniversary of 3/11 and the death of my Japanese grandmother as a result of the tsunami. And I have to say that “After the Tsunami,” the essay title my editor and I settled on, was in the works for the duration of those eight years.

Those of you who’ve hung around this humble blog for a while know that I started writing about the tsunami in 2012 in a series of posts called “Tsunami Debris.” It was winter here in AK, and it had been a year since I’d deployed to Japan. I recall reading about the arrival of tsunami debris on Alaska shores, and making the mistake of reading the comments on one story in particular about the cost of removing the detritus arriving on Alaska’s remote shores. The comment was something to the effect of “make Japan pay for it.”

I was pissed. I’d lost my grandmother, seen the devastation for myself, and still left Japan without a sense of having really participated from and confused about who I was as someone of Japanese descent. So I started writing.

I never finished the posts, by which I meant that I never completely documented my deployment. But when, a year later and facing a requirement to produce several essay manuscripts for my first MFA workshop, I went back to the blog posts. There was some good stuff in there. So, I grabbed it all, mashed it up with a bunch of other fragments pulled from memory and research, and called it good. Over the course of the MFA program (three years) I resurrected the essay every year, worked on it, and then ultimately put it away in favor of other projects. Every year, I pored back over it, trying to figure out what was at its core even as I poured more material into it.

It was good. But something was missing. For all the research, all the memories, I felt I still didn’t understand the nature of what happened in 2011. I lacked basic facts. Like exactly what happened to my grandmother. And how the people of Tōhoku had recovered since then. I needed texture.

Landing a Pulitzer Center grant, and a pitch to re-shape “Tsunami Debris” into something that wasn’t just memories and things I found on the internet meant that I’d have the chance to go and see for myself. And that’s exactly what I did last summer.

“How was Japan?” friends asked when I got back. Never a particularly eloquent conversationalist, I instead poured the experience into the three stories I wrote. Hopefully, you see that.

Happily, “After the Tsunami” has made it out into the world enough for me to receive very kind notes from strangers, a handful of whom have encouraged me to continue to look at the 2011 Japan tsunami. So while I feel like publishing the essay put a coda on one chapter, there are more stories I want to tell. Hopefully I get a chance to do that. Thank you to everyone who’s been a part of the journey so far. Stick around.

Reading War: Brian Turner’s MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY


It’s weird, but for a guy who read nothing but chronological nonfiction for decades, you’d think my writing style would be more linear. It’s as if all that reading was mere foundation, but what I exposed myself to during my MFA has turned into the real reading that has whittled my writing style into some kind of form.

I was pretty happy when the news of this book hit the wire, especially after having read Turner’s book of poetry, Here, BulletAnd not because I enjoyed Here, Bullet so much (I did) as much as the advanced reviews were already talking about the radical fragmentation of My Life. Imagine me: looking for fragmented narratives and finding not just a fragmented memoir, but one written by a fellow veteran.

[insert sound of blown mind]

The book began as an essay of the same name for Virginia Quarterly Review (I know that thanks to an awesome Dinty Moore interview with Turner on the Brevity blog.) If you haven’t read the book, but want to take it for a spin first, read the essay. It’ll have you running for the “buy this book” link below.

The idea of breaking apart a narrative in memoir is a relatively recent phenomenon, especially in war memoir. Only Herr’s Dispatches fits the mold; the riskiest form anyone else reaches would be memoir-in-essay (Wolff, and he didn’t do it until the 90s.) The Forever War has produced far more traditional memoir structures than it has open forms. So, it’s hard to overstate the importance of an example of something you’re trying to do, by a writer who kind of looks like you, related to an experience you both share to a certain degree. Which isn’t to say that I want to write books that look just like Busch’s, Castner’s, or Turner’s. I don’t, but it’s also helpful to see what works/what doesn’t.

There’s not much of the latter in My Life as a Foreign Country. Perhaps the most postmodern of war memoirs to date, it has, as Charlie Sherpa put it in his review of the book, enough poetry, fiction, and nonfiction within its pages to satisfy a reader of any genre. And it’s that pastiche of genre that I took to be the most important craft takeaway.

I put the technique to work in an essay that I was working on when I read My Life as a Foreign Country. It’s probably not writer-cool to say, but fully half or more of my essay “Calling Jody with the Ghost Brigade” for The Normal School was inspired by Turner’s example of allowing room for imagination within a nonfiction narrative. It’s certainly not for everyone, as evidenced by the twenty-odd rejections I received before The Normal School accepted the essay. But I was happy to get it out into the world, and I think it’s a fine example of being inspired by a technique enough to try it out, and experiencing some success with it.

I have Big Opinions on the unacknowledged link between postmodernism and contemporary memoir that I hope to publish somewhere tweedy in the months to come, but that’s for another today. Today, it’s enough to say that My Life as a Foreign Country is a great book, and genre-challenging example for any writer looking to push the form. Oh, and you should totally buy the book.








Reading War: Colby Buzzell’s MY WAR: KILLING TIME IN IRAQ

51WQ7SS1S9L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_The other night, I had the chance to sit at a bar in Anchorage with Brian Castner and discuss a few things I’d mentioned in my blog post on All the Ways We Kill and Die. One of the things we talked about was the idea of the veteran writer who works both in journalism and the literary world; and how short the list really is. But one of the guys who we agreed could write great essays in addition to reportage was Colby Buzzell.

I’d have to check in with Pete Molin over at Time Now (he shared his far-more-intelligent-thoughts on My War here) but I believe that Buzzell’s My War: Killing Time in Iraq was one of the first, if not THE first, literary memoir to emerge from Iraq. First published in October of 2005, the flash-to-bang  on the memoir’s production was incredibly tight: Buzzell deployed to Iraq in 2003 with the Army, and came home in 2004. Which means what I’d estimate to have been less than a year to write and finish the book. Coincidentally, Buzzell deployed at roughly the same time as Brian Turner (My Life as a Foreign Country), who was also stationed at Ft Lewis, WA. Two remarkable writers in the same neighborhood: I have to wonder if their paths crossed at some point.

It’s hard to remember now, but blogging was kind of a new thing back then. Blogs were springing up all across the web, and being heralded as a kind of democratic approach to journalism. And those deployed to Iraq were taking advantage of the medium for a variety of purposes as well. I can recall coming across one while I was in Iraq, established by a guy I knew deployed at the same time as me, as a way of keeping his family updated. Colby Buzzell, on the other hand, was by all accounts looking for a way to pass the time. So he established an anonymous blog that ended up going viral. He’s still got the original blog posts up at Blogspot if you want to check them out.

I probably read the book within a year of its release and its raw prose blew me away. Unlike the repetitive autobiographies of trigger-pullers and generals, it was clear that Buzzell was grappling with the larger story of what it all meant. That last sentence is important to me in terms of taxonomy: for the most part, I don’t read non-literary war memoirs. If all you’ve got in your story is a bunch of things that happened to you, Godspeed. Those stories are important, and I’m glad they’re available. They are, or can be, art. A literary memoir, however, is at least trying to be Art, and does so by chasing the meaning of an experience.

That right there is the lesson of My War for war memoirists (and maybe even any author in general.) You need to be able to answer the question, “what’s this all about?” And my gut feeling is that answer can’t be, “it’s about me going to war,” unless you’ve got one hell of an exciting or unique perspective. There needs to be some kind of through-line. Slaughterhouse Five is certainly a war novel. But above that, it is about the moral complicity and guilt Vonnegut felt as a result of what he experienced during WWII.

My War answers the question adequately enough — and it didn’t hurt that Buzzell’s voice was fresh and unique. But most importantly, there’s enough connective tissue in there to take it beyond a disparate collection of things that happened and into literary territory.

Buy the book on Amazon.