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Talking Location With .. Venetia Welby – OKINAWA

21st October 2021

#TalkingLocationWith… Venetia Welby, author of Dreamtime set in OKINAWA.

Dreamtime tells the story of a young American woman, Sol, who travels to Japan to find her GI father in the near future – a time of deepening climate crisis in which flying is about to be banned. As by far the largest concentration of GIs is on the tropical island of Okinawa – 70% of all troops in Japan despite its tiny size – this was where I went, stopping briefly in Tokyo to be overwhelmed by light, sound and futuristic splendour. I flew to Naha, the capital of Okinawa, where the culture clash of the island became immediately apparent: ‘military personnel welcome’ signs in bar windows, Spam in the most delicious of indigenous dishes, goya champuru, and highways built over the gorgeous coral beach of the city, jostling for space with an ancient Ryukyuan shrine.

People are friendly and generous, particularly if you say you’re not American, and I learned that Okinawa, one of 160 Venetia Welbyislands that were the former Ryukyu Kingdom, had a fine prosperous history and culture before Japan colonised the archipelago in 1879, threw its people onto the front line in World War 2 – in which a third of the civilian population perished – and allowed the US bases to stay on stolen land to the present day. Abundant violent, sexual, environmental, chemical, cultural and mechanical crimes and accidents against the Ryukyuan population persist. I explored the island, travelling up Route 58 to the American Village, a kind of pleasure dome where the bases are densest and up to the northern rainforest where there’s a military jungle training camp and Ogimi village, where the oldest people in the world live. Then I set about seeing how far I could travel through the Ryukyu Islands, many of which are uninhabited, wanting my story to present itself.Venetia Welby

Ishigaki, as Okinawa, is stunningly beautiful and full of terrifying creatures: habu snakes on land, everything deadly you can imagine in the sea, including rips. Safe beaches have giant nets in the sea to swim in. Though free from US bases, the allied Japan Self-Defense Forces are expanding here, since Ishigaki is close to the disputed Senkaku Islands. Ishigaki City, a tiny municipality, has a bridge leading to a disused manmade island that cats have made their own. I loved this place. Onwards towards Taiwan to Iriomote, altogether wilder, where the Iriomote lynx cat hides out in dense jungle, waterfalls and mangrove swamps.

When I came back, the following year, I had a first draft and more specific mission. There were various logistical issues to solve and gaps in description, where too much exact detail had obscured the spirit of the place. I stayed solely on Okinawa, again in Naha, initially – in the red light district, perfectly placed between the built-up sea and touristified Kokusai Dori, the main drag. Then I stayed a few days in the American Village. I had a meeting with a lieutenant in neighbouring Camp Lester lined up which was mysteriously cancelled at the last minute so I hung out with the off-duty marines of Camp Foster – and learned a lot. Then on to rural Yomitan, for an idea of more traditional Okinawan life. Lots of sugar cane and purple sweet potato fields, swarms of giant insects, wild sea and many graves – in the only space there is around the bases, of which there are also plenty here. With several tombs outside one window, and eerie green-lit night fishing through another, the creatures of Ryukyuan folklore suddenly felt very real.

Yomitan Sea

For the end of my trip I had a wonderful treat lined up – a night in Senagajima onsen. This island off Naha is a sacred power spot, sadly beset by v-22 Ospreys, fighter jets and a JSDF base. Still, the onsen is miraculous. It was at this point that Super Typhoon Trami started to look flight-preventingly serious. I had to extend my stay in Naha through a five day room-incarcerated power cut as the eye passed directly over us, frenzied the sea, tore up trees and scattered stray kittens. Good writing time.

Tips:

Drive! I can’t – but recommend you do. Many highways, few trains.

Don’t pick up any snails. Seriously. Particularly the ‘cigarette snail’ which lurks inside a beautiful cone shell. If the little beast bites you, you have time to smoke precisely one cigarette – and then you die.

Venetia Welby

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Comments

  1. What an amazing author Guest Post. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, before this interview was published, but this is just the ‘icing on the cake’ and adds so much more insightful depth to the storyline. Thank you!! 🙂

    Except for the bit about the island full of cats, as I have an intense fear of them!

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