Lois Kim, executive director of the Texas Book Festival, presented the Texas Writer Award to Sarah Bird Saturday afternoon in the House Chamber. The award recognizes writers who are “at the absolute top of their game,” Kim said.
Bird has long been regarded as one of Texas’ finest authors. Her novels include “Alamo House,” “The Boyfriend School,” The Mommy Club,” “Virgin of the Rodeo,” “The Yokota Officers Club,” “The Flamenco Academy,” “How Perfect Is That,” “The Gap Year” and her newest novel, “Above the East China Sea.”
She was delighted with her award: a pair of custom-made cowboy boots emblazoned with the Texas Book Festival logo. Bird donned them immediately and then modeled them as she joked, “They fit perfectly –– does this mean I don’t have to go home and scrub the hearth before my ugly stepsisters get home”
“Boots are so significant to me because I married a handsome Texan gave birth to a handsome Texan. I always felt a bit of a fraud … but now, boy howdy, do I feel Texan!”
She then went on to thank Texas writers Stephen Harrigan, James Magnuson and Lawrence Wright. Then she mentioned Molly Ivins. “If she were here today, I’d give her these for all of the women’s suppression right here in Texas.”
From there, Bird talked about “Above the East China Sea.” “It takes writers a long time to understand why we write a book. I didn’t understand it until last Friday when I attended a funeral and felt this incredible longing for those who are gone and nostalgia for worlds that have been lost. That’s the true origin for where this book came from.”
Bird’s own family had been stationed on an Air Force base in Okinawa while she was growing up. “I had a cohesive family of six children in this tight little unit. They were my security blanket as we moved around again and again. I asked, what would it have been like if I had only one sibling and that sibling was taken from me?”
When the Japanese took over Okinawa, Bird says, they basically obliterated the country’s vibrant culture and social structure. “Above the East China Sea” examines the situation through the lens of Luz, the child of a single mom whose sister has just died. Luz hangs out with a group of kids called the Smokinawans, who proclaim, “We’re not racist, but we’re rankest” –– because everybody knows the rank of their father.
To research Luz and the Smokinawans, Bird initially thought she would have to revisit Okinawa. “Then the reality of that is that if show up in Okinawa in my old lady glory, I’d be about as successful as when I was researching ‘Virgin of the Rodeo,’ thinking I need to touch cowboys.” But it was YouTube to the rescue, when she discovered a channel called Planet Okinawa featuring Smokinawans.
On the other hand, she had to do research to get to the heart of the other story she tells in the novel, of 15-year-old Tamiko, which is set during World War II, right after the Americans have invaded the islands. Even though she didn’t travel to Okinawa again to research the book, she cited UT’s Perry Castaneda Library for helping her understand Tamiko. “I couldn’t unlock that character until I came upon translations of modern Okinawnan literature. That’s how I came to connect with her.”
Bird confessed to feeling an obligation to tell the story about Okinawa because Americans don’t know much about it. “More lives were lost during the invasion of Okinawa than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Why didn’t I know that? Those kind of questions aren’t things that fuel a novel, though. For me, it was the emotional things about family, about loss.”