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 Castner’s ALL THE WAYS WE KILL AND DIE

Reading War: Brian Castner’s ALL THE WAYS WE KILL AND DIE

Note: I published a lengthy review of the book on The Millions, which you can find here.

Early on in the MFA program, I decided my goal was to write a war memoir. It was actually  was less evident to than you might guess — my original plan was an essay collection, but evidently those are difficult to get published as a first time author — but it also made a lot of sense. Technically, the very first thing I ever published was, after all, technically memoir. And by “memoir,” I mean it was an examination of something from my personal history.

The next logical step was to read as much war memoir as possible, which was how I became familiar with Brian Castner. An Air Force EOD veteran of Iraq, he wrote a memoir called The Long Walk (which has since been adapted as an opera) that stuck with me because of its fragmentary nature. It was willfully disorienting, the fragmentation a clear representation of a mind at search for a thread while weaving in and out of traumatic experiences. It reminded me, and quite a few others, of Michael Herr’s Dispatches.

Castner’s second book, All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade and the Hunt for His Killer, is much different. Brian is also a freelance journalist with a fistful of longform/narrative nonfiction pieces, and the book is much more in the vein of reportage. By design, he’s told me, although I argued in my review that he as narrator is central enough to earn a “memoir” as a label as well.

In an MFA program like mine, you read a lot of nonfiction that weaves reportage and essay. Leslie Jameson, Eula Biss, John McPhee: these are just a tiny few who build narratives from both in-depth research and thoughtful reflection. In fact, modern creative nonfiction owes much to The New Journalism that erupted in the 60s from writers like Didion, Wolfe, and Gay. But once you narrow the lens to something like the idea of reading things written by veterans, well the list gets short. Really short. So while Castner’s second book was certainly beautifully written, it was also helpful and inspiring to see a fellow vet out there working the creative side and the journalism side.

Memoir, of course, requires a certain amount of research, even if it only consists of reaching into the depths of our memories to recall the who and where. But there’s something to the idea of dipping in and out, as the narrator in All the Ways does. One minute, we’re in his head, at his friend’s funeral. The next, we’re inside the head of a drone pilot. It taught me the value of the reporter’s skill of information gathering – of noticing in that particular habit of picking up stones to see what lies underneath. It’s a skill   foreign to me that, thankfully, Castner nails in the book.

Note: If you’re reading this in Anchorage or Juneau, you have the opportunity to interact with Brian Castner at one of several events next week. On Friday, 10 Mar at the Juneau Public Library, he will give a talk before leading a writing workshop the next day, again in Juneau. On Sunday, 12 Mar, I will moderate a discussion between Brian and and Alaska author Don Rearden at 49th State Brewery at 7pm. I hope to see you there.