Women and War

Fatigue shirt

My father served on Okinawa in World War II. That 21-year-old Army lieutenant from Chicago probably could not have imagined that 70 years later the U.S. military would still be a dominant force on Okinawa, setting the rules and occupying twenty percent of the land on that tiny, crowded island.

Above the East China Sea

Of course, you don’t need to wear a uniform to be transformed by war. Just ask the two teenaged girls at the heart of Sarah Bird’s luminous and compelling novel, Above the East China Sea.

Okinawan daughter Tamiko Kokuba has eagerly embraced the Japanese propaganda about the crudeness of her own culture and the superiority of the “true Japanese spirit.” She only learns the truth in 1945, when she and hundreds of other Okinawan girls are pressed into service in the nightmarish cave hospitals of the Japanese army.

In 2014, Luz James has just moved to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, yet another leap in the endless hopscotch of her life as the daughter of a single mom who’s a gung-ho U.S. Air Force sergeant. But this new assignment is different, because Luz’s beloved older sister has just been killed in Afghanistan, and Luz isn’t sure she wants to keep on living.

The two girls, separated by generations and cultures, are connected in ways Luz only begins to discover as she learns how to reckon with her family’s history and the long shadow of empire.

As a reader and a writer

As a reader, I was enthralled by Above the East China Sea, and felt bereft when I finished the book and was forced to leave its fictional world. As a writer, I was deeply impressed.

An immense amount of research must have gone into the writing, yet it never seems didactic. I learned a good deal about the history and culture of Okinawa, and fascinating details about the lives of today’s “base kids,” bouncing around the world from one U.S. military post to another, perpetually unable to claim a hometown. Sarah Bird also does something interesting and unexpected with the narrative point of view toward the end of the novel.

Beyond women and war

It’s no mystery that the concept of women and war intrigues me, since I wrote a novel about a woman who served in Vietnam and the impact that experience had on her and her family. So I was surprised to discover that I had only read 10 of the 50 novels described in this excellent article by Soniah Kamal.

Kamal defines her list, quite rightly, not as women writing about war, but as women writing about “conflict, displacement and resilience.” Her list includes some books I’ve loved: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver; American Woman by Susan Choi; Small Island by Andrea Levy; The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat; The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing; Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.

Given the spaciousness of Kamal’s definition, we can all probably think of other novels that might have been included. For me the best – or, depending on your point of view, worst – thing about Kamal’s article is that I now have 40 more novels to add to my to-be-read list.

A quote to savor


For some reason I’m often inclined to contemplate quotations on Sunday afternoon. This one is from Laura McBride’s wonderful novel, We Are Called to Rise.

We are inside the point of view of one of the characters. She grew up in deep poverty and managed to eke out a happy, middle-class life for herself. Now, in middle age, she sees it all beginning to disintegrate:

It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, makes the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing.

Words to savor.

Update from Book World

This book is purr-fect.

This book is just purr-fect.

Meet Viviane, the editorial assistant at Shade Mountain Press. She loves Her Own Vietnam. Let’s hope readers and reviewers demonstrate the same exquisite literary taste.

Here’s a quick update on where things stand in the publication process.

Her Own Vietnam is going to print!

I’ve made all my final changes to the book and sent them to the publisher, Rosalie Morales Kearns. She added her own corrections and sent the manuscript to the designer, who produced a final version ready for printing. After a few more tweaks to the back cover design, Rosalie will send my book to the printer.

From a writing point of view, the book is finished – out of my hands, and on to become a real, physical object that cats can walk upon.

As the printer churns out copies of the book, Rosalie and the designer will be hard at work creating the ebook version of Her Own Vietnam.

My first public reading

I’ll be reading from and discussing Her Own Vietnam at Chicago’s venerable feminist bookstore, Women and Children First, on Friday, November 14th. If you’re in Chicago, please come!

November 1 is approaching fast

My book will be published on November 1. That date, which once seemed so far in the future, is zooming toward me, and I have so much to do before then. Line up more readings. Set up author pages on Goodreads and Amazon. Find ways to get the word out to potential readers. Brace myself for reviews from journals and readers.

And mostly, get accustomed to the fact that my brainchild will soon be out in the world.

Okay, I lied

Viviane doesn’t actually work for Shade Mountain Press. It would be more accurate to say that Rosalie, the cat’s ostensible owner, works for Viviane.