March 11 this year will mark the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. Thus far, English-language literature has been slow to tackle the disaster. “Up From the Sea” by Tokyo-based Californian writer Leza Lowitz is, therefore, a welcome arrival.
Random House, Poetry.
Kai is a junior high school student in Japan’s Tohoku region, awkward around girls, bullied for being a hafu (half-Japanese) but with a passionate love of soccer. The story opens with the earthquake and the following tsunami. The children evacuate but it’s too late; the wave comes and Kai loses everything.
As the community attempts to comprehend what has happened, Kai retreats into his own mind, and then runs away. His friends bring him back and the healing can begin.
By making Kai’s estranged father American, Lowitz is able to draw parallels between 3/11 and 9/11. Kai joins a group that travels to New York to meet children who lost parents there — a clever plot device that draws the local into the universal. While in New York Kai tries to find his father.
Writing the novel in verse form for young adult readers allows for an honesty and directness of voice. Kai is a likable, believable character.
For a tale of absence, poetry, with its inherent emptiness, is apt, but I couldn’t help wishing for the more in-depth psychological examination the prose-novel can provide. The events of 9/11 and 3/11 aren’t entirely analogous and the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, unrolling in parallel with Kai’s own meltdown, goes unmentioned.
Ultimately, however, this is a powerful, deeply moving book and is hopefully a sign that more writers are engaging with the stories of Tohoku.