Leza Lowitz’s Up From The Sea is the first artistic response I’ve seen to the Fukushima Tsunami/Nuclear disaster of 2013, and it’s a powerful, unique work. Unique, first of all, in that novels in verse are virtually unheard of, let alone carried off successfully. But unique, mostly, in that Lowitz makes this tale of a teen-ager, Kai, whose world is torn to bits by the horrendous event, serve as a metaphor for the trials of an entire society subjected to such cataclysmic devastation.
Just an ordinary spring morning,
ordinary fight with Mom.
Maybe she spoke to me in English
and I answered in Japanese–
don’t even remember now. . . .
Whatever it was seems so stupid
at 2:46 p.m., when I’m sitting in math
waiting for the bell to ring
and the earth starts to shake.
That moment launches the story, of course, and you’d expect to encounter lives and buildings rent asunder. Death and horror. There is all of that here, but it’s not the center of the novel. More important even than the story people trying to recover and rebuild from such a catastrophe is a story that began long before the sea washed his village away–the search for his father.
Allow me a short personal detour. A couple of decades back, a fire swept our neighborhood. Flames took three thousand homes in twelve hours. Landmarks disappeared. People died. Families lost touch. Even with modern communication devices–not so modern, actually, cell phones were rare–it was difficult for a while for people to get back in touch. The devastation didn’t approach Fukushima’s, but there is a parallel. A mile or so away from our house (which the fire spared) there is a crossroads dominated by a huge eucalyptus tree. People took to posting notices. Found a dog. Lost a cat. Tell my parents I’m okay. Has anyone seen Jane?
Kai has already lost touch with his father, has yearned every day to somehow reestablish the connection. Now, with everything else seemingly destroyed, finding his lost father seems the only way to make his life whole again.
Talking too much, singing to himself
as he walked along the pier,
things a Japanese dad would never do.
He embarrassed me so bad,
sometimes I wished
he’d go away.
By making Kai’s dilemma the core of this story, Up From the Sea, evokes an emotional response that the ugly pictures and statistics can’t match. And we realize that it’s the personal relationships that have priority even over the reconstruction of hearth and home. The book doesn’t need Fukushima for Kai’s search to draw us into Kai’s heart and mind. However, the way that Lowitz has joined the two is a stunning literary achievement.