Talking Location With .. Venetia Welby – OKINAWA
An interview with Julian Sedgwick – author of Tsunami Girl
12th March 2021
An interview with Julian Sedgwick – author of Tsunami Girl
Tsunami Girl is Julian Sedgwick’s latest book. It is a very personal one… He has spent much time in Japan over the years, and has many Japanese friends. He diligently researched the events surrounding the 2011 tsunami and earthquake – and visited the area and went right into the radiation evacuation zone to meet the survivors. The story is a poignant and important one. Fern, TripFiction’s Kid’s Writer in Residence caught up with him recently and asked him some questions about writing the book.
TF: Tsunami Girl is set during the March 2011 Great Eastern Japan earthquake, tsunami and radiation Disaster, what made you want to tell this story, and why was writing this book important to you?
JS: A great question – and a huge one! I’ve had a lifelong (from the age of 10 or 11) interest in the culture and history of Japan, and for the last twenty years have spent a lot of time travelling there, making some very important and close friends along the way. For ten years I worked with a Japanese professor/writer as his unofficial assistant and was lucky to have many unforgettable and moving experiences in Tokyo and further afield. Ultimately, we became something more like father and son, and Yoshio moved to the UK and became a kind of grandfather to my young boys. Sadly, he died suddenly on a trip home – and was gone from our lives. That unexpected loss was still affecting my family when the tsunami hit North East Japan, and the shock of those news images and our grief started working together in my mind.
As time passed, I knew I had to tell a story that involved my deep interest in the country, the loss of my friend, the trauma of the disaster – but also the extraordinary spirit of resilience and strength that emerged as the process of grieving and recovery emerged. I had talked many times with Yoshio about his memories of Tokyo’s recovery from the firebombing of 1945, and the desperate times that followed, and as both a writer and therapist I wanted to see for myself how the affected communities were starting to rebuild. Tentatively I made my first trip to the Fukushima radiation recovery towns – and from the first moment I arrived in Odaka Town, I knew I had to go ahead with the story that was forming in my mind.
TF: Alongside your work as a writer and a therapist you also met with survivors and local residents in Fukushima, can you tell us a little bit more about the research you underwent when writing Tsunami Girl?
JS: As usual I did a lot of reading around the subject – I’m lucky to have access to the enormous Cambridge University Library, as well as the internet of course and YouTube videos. (I watched scores of eyewitness videos of the disaster: each was a different story, and each shocking to see.) But I knew for this book I had to travel to the affected towns and get to know people – not just to feel their emotion as they recounted what happened to them, but also to find out how they felt about me writing this story. The Japanese tend to avoid openly criticising or disagreeing, but the response I got was overwhelming positive, along the lines of: ‘please help keep our stories alive’. I came away with many new friends and renewed determination.
Even though the book is now finished, I’ll be going back to Odaka, Namie and the other radiation recovery towns as soon as I can. It was also important to travel inside the actual radiation evacuation zone – the so-called ‘Difficult to Return Zone’. To do that we had to get special permission to go with a guide through the checkpoints, and drive and walk in the deserted and damaged villages and towns near Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. It felt very real – and very surreal – at the same time. Like walking on the set of a disaster movie, but the Geiger counter in our hands reminding us all the time that the radiation was very present.
TF: Did you face any particular challenges when writing about this heart-wrenching catastrophe?
JS: Writing about a real disaster – and one in recent memory – requires real caution and sensitivity. This wasn’t ‘my’ story in that I wasn’t directly affected by the tsunami and radiation. But long-term friends of mine in Fukushima City, who were there on 3.11 and afterwards, emailed me every day after the initial disaster, and I had a good idea of the emotions and trauma that people were dealing with. I also met ‘listening volunteers’ who had travelled to the area shortly after the disaster to witness people’s stories and help ease their burdens just a bit. After visiting the area, and meeting local residents, I had so much material that I felt overwhelmed by the scale of the story, and worried that I couldn’t do it all justice. Slowly though I realised that by telling the story from the perspective of an outsider – as long as I kept in mind the reality of so much suffering – I could find my way. The hardest thing sometimes was to spend so much time reading and watching and listening to people’s accounts of what happened to them on March 11th and afterwards. As a writer you’re trying to inhabit those stories, but without the professional ‘safe distance’ I use as a therapist.
TF: What do you hope readers take away from Yūki’s story?
JS: That the world is always changing around us – sometimes slowly, sometimes dramatically, occasionally catastrophically. But – beyond their trauma – the people I met in the Fukushima recovery towns had such a spirit of resilience, determination, invention to re-make their communities that it left me inspired, and I took my whole family there to see and feel that atmosphere. The returning residents knew they couldn’t make their lives like the ‘old normal’ from before March 2011, but wanted to make stronger and more interesting ways of life, that accepted what had happened, and worked towards a new way of life. Yūki is struggling in her life when she meets the tsunami, but I hope her story shows how imagination, creativity and community can be incredibly powerful forces. As we make our way through our unforeseen crisis – of COVID – I hope it’s a useful and uplifting story to read.
TF: Tsunami Girl is powerfully told through both prose and manga – the prose which reflects the reality and the manga story which graphically reveals a between world of imagination. Why did you decide to tell Yūki’s story through these two forms?
JS: Right from the start I knew I wanted a manga section to this book. So much Japanese publishing is in manga form – from the cheap and tacky, to incredibly moving and sophisticated subjects, almost anything can be tackled in this way. And also from early on I knew I wanted to tell a grandchild-grandparent relationship, probably inspired by my friend Yoshio plying my younger son Japanese folding drawing books when he was small and encouraging him to draw and draw. (He’s now studying Comic Art at university!) I wanted two threads of the storytelling, and it seemed clear that the ‘between worlds’ story would be told more easily through words and images combined. It was hard to find the way to weave the two stories together, and I used up dozens of plot charts trying to make it work. But I think – hope – it succeeds!
TF: The manga story is beautifully illustrated by Chie Kutsuwada. How closely did you work with Chie during the illustrative process?
JS: Thanks to lockdowns Chie and I had to chat mostly on Zoom or the phone and only got to meet once! I had already written most of the manga sections when I got in touch with her and asked her to be my manga artist. The first and most important discussion we had was about who I was and why I was writing the book! Chie had been somewhat traumatised by the disaster and wanted to check I knew what I was talking about and had the right intentions. Quickly we established trust, and a working method – I wanted Chie to feel she could change stuff, question stuff, bring her own vision to the characters and story. After that we discussed the topography of the Zone and the surrounding towns, character design and so on. And very quickly I knew I’d found the right artist and let her get on with it!
TF: Can you recommend any graphic novels or manga for young people?
JS: Most of the manga I’ve been reading lately are what are called gekiga – a kind of adult-orientated, hard hitting genre that arose in the 1960s and 1970s. This is the work that Yūki’s grandfather was doing. There’s some amazing stuff by people like Tatsumi and Shirato Sanpei translated into English, beautiful and hard-hitting, but a lot of it is very adult! Something to mature into maybe, after reading Bleach, One Punch, Dragon Ball etc! I grew up on the British Comic tradition of 2000 AD etc, and I still recommend Judge Dredd and Future Shocks as great examples of comic storytelling that can be both futuristically thrilling and saying things about our own society at the same time. To see how the heaviest of subjects can be tackled by graphic storytelling, it’s still hard to beat the ground-breaking Maus by Art Spiegelman. If you can tell the story of the Holocaust through simplistically drawn mice and cats so sensitively, then anything is possible in the form. And for a fun recommendation with a Japanese setting and tons of Japanese monsters, how about: Onibi: Diary of a ghost hunter by “Atelier Sentō”. (Tuttle Publishing). A one volume romp through rural Japan tracking down all kinds of yōkai!
TF: As an award-winning author of six brilliant children’s books, plus your co-authored graphic novels with your brother, Marcus Sedgwick, do you have any tips or advice for aspiring children’s writers?
JS: Don’t do what I did at first! I would start loads of different things, never finish one completely, and hardly ever showed those beginnings to anyone. This is not a good strategy! So: keep a notebook, write down everything that strikes you as interesting about the world, and when an idea grips you, get through a complete version of that story, poem, novel. Then you can rewrite it and rewrite it, and make it better and better. Then show it to someone! Then do it again with another idea. And try and enjoy the process even when you think it’s not going well. (Are you listening, 12 year old me?!)
TF: What’s next for your writing journey?
JS: Promoting Tsunami Girl and hopefully getting to do some school visits again! And then I want to complete the adult Japanese-set ghost story I started shortly after my friend died – it has been gathering dust too long, and I think I know what to do with it now. And then I think I can see a YA book/series forming in some notebooks from last year…
TF: This question is about your favourite children’s/YA books. What’s a book you loved as a child, a book you love now, and a book you can’t wait to read?
JS: My sons have both recently been reading the Wizard of Earthsea books by Ursula K LeGuin. I often answer with Tolkien for childhood reading, but I remember now how much those Earthsea books made me want to be a writer. Probably now kind of unfashionable, but a book I recently re-read and loved was Missee Lee by Arthur Ransome, which as a child transported me lock, stock and barrel to 1930s China. (Ransome was a journalist there, and a good model for how to integrate research and adventure.) And I can’t wait to read Anna Goodall’s Maggie Blue and the Dark World. It’s her debut book, and it looks and sounds like a fantastic mid-grade adventure.
TF: If you were stranded on a deserted island and could only bring one thing with you, what would you bring and why?
JS: A deep, large, Japanese cedar wood hotspring bath and a source of hotspring water! If that’s too complicated, a stack of sketchbooks and a supply of pens. For drawing and writing. Or a complete translation of Dogen Zenji’s Shobogenzo. See below!!
TF: If you could invite any five people – past and present, real and fictional – to a dinner party, who would you invite and why?
JS: Right now, in lockdown – any of my wonderful friends! But to play the game: first, I’d love to have dinner with my Dad again. I was still young when he died, and over the last 30 years I’ve thought of so many things I’d love to ask him…
Secondly, an obscure choice: the 13th century Japanese Zen Buddhist master, Dogen Zenji. On and off over all my adult years I’ve been reading and re-reading (and trying to understand) his huge masterwork, the Shobogenzo. It feels like it contains everything you need to know, but the meaning just slips beyond grasp. So, I’d like to ask him a few questions!
I don’t want this to be too one-dimensional, but thirdly I’d invite a current Zen master – Taio Kaneta. We’ve been corresponding on email, and twice I’ve had to delay meeting him. Kaneta-san has been working with tsunami survivors using everything from listening therapy to playful improvisation to jazz to Buddhist ritual to help ease people’s burdens of guilt and grief. And he’s very funny and down to earth with a great laugh.
For number four – self-indulgently! – I’d like to invite Ruby from my trilogy Ghosts of Shanghai. I spent years creating and then writing her, and I’d like to meet the strong and independent woman she became after the main story finishes. When I visited some of her haunts in Shanghai, it felt like she was just around the corner…
Finally, fittingly, Tove Jansson. In an age when female creatives struggled to have their voice heard, she created so many wonderful stories for both adults and children, illustrated, painted – and got her voice heard. The Moomin books are a perfect balance of visual and written storytelling, and can be read meaningfully by young people and adults alike. And her Summer Book is a quiet, background inspiration for Tsunami Girl. I’d really like to chat to her…
A big thank you to Julian for his amazing and heartfelt answers!
Fern, The TripFiction Kid’s Writer in Residence
About Julian Sedgwick:
Julian Sedgwick is the author of six books for children, and co-author of the graphic novel Dark Satanic Mills and illustrated novel Voyages in the Underworld of Orpheus Black. On the way to realising his childhood ambition to write, Julian read Chinese Studies and Philosophy at Cambridge, before working as a bookseller, painter, researcher and script developer for film and TV, and shiatsu therapist. In his spare time he draws as much as possible, juggles torches and knives, tries his best to learn Japanese – and waits for the weather to get cold enough to go fen skating. For more information visit Julian’s website, juliansedgwick.co.uk.
About Chie Kutsuwada:
Chie Kutsuwada is a Japanese manga artist based in Brighton. A graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, she is the creator of King of a Miniature Garden and Moonlight. She also provided the illustrations for The Book of Five Rings by Musashi Miyamoto and Warrior Kids, a children’s book by Mark Robson. Kutsuwada’s books are widely available in English and have been translated into several other languages. Aside from her comics work, she regularly leads manga workshops at institutions across the country, including the British Library, the British Museum and various schools.
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