Above the East China Sea

Above the East China Sea

by Sarah Bird
Above the East China Sea

Above the East China Sea

by Sarah Bird


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A Seattle Times Best Book of the Year

Okinawa, present day: Luz, a teenage military brat, has moved to the island’s U.S. Air Force base with her mother, a no-nonsense sergeant. Luz’s mother hopes that the move will reconnect them with the Okinawan branch of their family—and help them heal from the death of Luz’s beloved older sister.
        This is an island where departed spirits mingle with the living, and interwoven with Luz’s narrative is the story of an Okinawan girl, Tamiko Kokuba, who in 1945 was plucked from her high school and trained to work in the Imperial Army’s horrific cave hospitals. Both of these extraordinary young women are seeking peace, and as Luz digs deeper and deeper into her past, their quests will intersect. Above the East China Sea tells the entwined stories of two lives connected across time by the shared experience of loss, the strength of an ancient culture, and the power of family love.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101873861
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/28/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 1,034,329
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

About The Author
Sarah Bird, winner of the 2014 Texas Writer Award and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great Writers pick, is the author of The Yokota Officers Club and eight other novels. She grew up on air force bases around the world and now makes her home in Austin, Texas. She is a columnist for Texas Monthly and has contributed to other magazines, including O, The Oprah Magazine; The New York Times Magazine; Salon; and Real Simple.

Read an Excerpt

Part I

Unkeh The First Day

Welcoming the Dead Home

• One •

The choking black smoke from the fires raging below rises up, trying to claim me and my child. I climb higher. I must hurry. I must do what has to be done before the sun rises. The black stone tears at my skin. I ignore the cuts and drag us up and onto the top of the cliff.

At the summit, I rise on trembling legs. The hundred thousand spirits who’ve gone before greet us with cries of joy, happy as a flock of crows at sunset hailing the returned. I see them floating all around us. I see the women, the young girls, their kimonos fluttering above their heads like tattered banners as they plummet through the air. I see the emperor’s soldiers, emaciated young men, caps flying straight up off their heads as they hurtle down, toward the sea.

They had no choice but to jump. And, now, we have none. The soldiers, either Japanese or American, will kill us as soon as the sun rises. If I were to allow that to happen our death would be a violent one. We cannot die a violent death. If we do, we will be condemned to haunt this place forever and never be reunited with our clan. I won’t permit my child to endure such a cruel fate.

Though night still covers the carnage, I don’t need to see the black of charred ruins or the dun of mud mixed with corpses, which is all that remains of my mutilated island. A breeze from the East China Sea lifts sweat-dampened hair from the back of my neck. It carries with it the stench that is a constant reminder that not a single leaf of green hope has survived.

I close my eyes and remember Okinawa as it was on the day before everything changed. I see the colors of paradise. The pink of the baby piglets. The gold of the trunks of our bamboo grove. The purple of my mother’s sweet potatoes. The yellow of the flowers on the sea hibiscus hedge that lined the path leading to our house. The red of the blossoms on the deigo tree, blazing as though the side of the mountain were on fire. The colors sparkle against a background of infinite green. Leaf, vine, grass. Above and below are blue. The ocean is the blue of jewels. The sky is the blue of softness. All I can give my unborn child now is the blue of sky, the blue of a water death. I hope that my child is a son. Life is too hard for a daughter. A sister. A mother. Death will be even harder.

The stones I fill the leather satchel strapped across my chest with are so heavy I can barely stagger forward to the edge of the cliff. But they have to weigh enough to pull us down under the sea and to keep us there. We can’t join the hundreds of other suicides who have washed ashore, their corpses swelling even now on the beach far below. My child and I must remain beneath the waves until the moment chosen by the kami arrives. That is the obligation I must fulfill.

My toes, the soles of my broad, sturdy Okinawan feet, grip the black rock. They cling like dumb animals to life even when only death remains. They beg, saying, “Tamiko, please, Tamiko, our fifteen short years on this earth have not been enough.” My feet want to run again through the grass. They want to dance with such grace that I win the love of a handsome boy. They want to carry me home to my mother. To my sister, my Hatsuko.

Though I thought my heart had hardened to a rock, it aches now with missing my family, Hatsuko most of all. I shake away such weakness. Fifteen years are enough to know that a mother does what she must for her child in this life and, more important, in the next. I pray to our ancestors, to all the kami-sama. To the ones who’ve gone before, to the gods of hearth and field, altar and forest, to all the spirits who control our destinies. I beg them to help us, to let my child and me enter the next world and be reunited with my family. With our family.

I wrap my arms tight around my belly and step off the cliff. It is easy. The easiest thing I’ve had to do since the Americans invaded. The kami cradle us, just as I cradle my child. Still, when we land, the sea is hard as concrete. The salt water floods my mouth, throat, lungs. There is a moment of pain, of clawing struggle when I am certain I’ve made a terrible mistake. Then it vanishes and I let the stones drag us down, farther and farther under the waves, until the new-risen sun far overhead shrinks away to a pearl that shimmers briefly before it is lost forever in darkness.

Our wait begins.

• Two •

Jump? Or don’t jump?

The question rattles around inside my head like a handful of BBs in a metal coffee can. Versions of it have been clanging around in there for the past three months, ever since I found out about Codie: Take the pills? Don’t take the pills? Run the exhaust hose in through the car window? Kick back with a bottle of Percocet, a few beers, and watch as many episodes of True Blood as it takes?

I go back and forth. Good days. Bad days. The past week, since my mom’s been gone on TDY, has been good. It’s always easier when she’s not around. Actually, they say that most suicides happen when the person is feeling better. I believe it. When you can’t drag yourself out of bed, it’s hard to get up the energy to even stick a fork in a wall socket. Mom’s temporary duty assignment is over in two days. That gives me forty-eight hours to make up my mind.

A hundred and fifty feet straight down, at the base of the cliffs I’m standing on top of, the waves churn white against some spiked rocks stabbing up above the water. That’s where I’d land. Death would be instantaneous. That’s a plus. Put that one in the “pro” column.

I hold my arms out and a muggy breeze off the East China Sea lofts the hair up off the back of my sweaty neck. In spite of the steam-bath humidity, I still feel like a dried-up leaf, all withered and brown from not being attached to anything, anywhere, in such a long time. It seems like the slightest gust of wind should be enough to blow me off this cliff and out of this life. I wish it would.

I’m terminally sick of not being able to decide. Of being trapped in this cycle of what my mom would call “fiddle-fucking around.” Indecision is something they cut out of her in NCO Leadership School. They recently changed the name to the Warrior Leader Course. My mom, though, she never needed a title to tell her what to become. “Shit or get off the pot” has always been her mantra. That and “Get ’er done.” She regularly surprises people because she sounds so country but looks so Asian, since she’s half Okinawan. Which is why I stupidly thought that transferring here would be like returning to some magical ancestral homeland where we would instantly be treated like family. Didn’t quite turn out that way. To say the least.

I experiment with tipping forward. My weight shifts onto the balls of my feet, and my stomach drops worse than if I’d already taken the leap and landed hard. That’s part of the test. Maybe if I push myself this close to the edge, I’ll smoke out a deeply hidden reason for going on living. And maybe psychedelic rainbows and sparkling unicorns will fly out of my ass and I’ll love life again. I’d be open to that.

I take it up a notch. I close my eyes, raise my arms higher, and sag into the wind. The instant I do, I am filled with a weird sense of being watched. But not by a bunch of pervs egging someone perched at the edge of a high-rise to do it, to jump. It’s more like someone, a lot of someones, are out there, waiting, inviting me to join them. And Codie is with them. I feel her presence. She is waiting for us to be together again. And all I have to do is let go.

I am tilting forward, about to let go, when two ropy arms clamp onto me from behind.

“Hey, Luz.” Kirby Kernshaw’s greeting is an air-rifle puff of beer breath against my neck. “Whatcha doin’, Tiger Woods?”

I open my eyes. Clouds again cover the moon. I inhale once, twice, and shift from being a body on the spiked rocks far below back to being Luz James, new girl at a new base, hanging out with her latest group of Quasis, the semistranger, friendesque beings that I meet at a new assignment, then just about, almost, but not quite, get to know right before we’re transferred again.

“Tiger Woods, where you been, girl?”

“Hey, Lucky Charms.”

Kirby is Lucky Charms for his red hair. A tall, lanky, demented leprechaun of a lad who’s been held back at school a few times, Kirby Kernshaw is one of those gingers whose freckles blend into his lips. I’m Tiger Woods, since it’s easy shorthand for “part Okinawan–part Filipina–part Missouri redneck–part miscellaneous.” You know, your basic caramel person. “Uh, Kirby, you want to stop grinding your stiffy into my butt?”

He laughs, but doesn’t turn me loose.

“Kirbs, for serious, get your hand off my boob.” He removes it. “And the one on my crotch?”

Lucky Charms isn’t so much saving as humping me. He lets go and lurches away, muttering, “Girl, how can someone so hot be so cold.”

Kirby must have been dispatched on a beer run for our nightly party going on right now so far down the long trail winding along the side of the cliff that the bonfire on the beach looks like the glowing ember of a match tip.

Kirby grabs the handles of the red-and-white Igloo cooler beside him, hoists it up, then leans back with the weight braced against his thighs. “A little help, girlfriend.”


I grip the rear handle of the heavy cooler with both hands, and Kirby leads me down the series of switchbacks zigzagging across the steep face of the cliffs that ring the shore. Bottles and ice clank from side to side as we inch our way along the ant trail. I’ve still got two days left. That’s plenty of time to “get ’er done” before Mom gets back. Okinawa, with its riptides and venomous habu vipers, unexploded ordnance left over from World War II and pill-happy base doctors, is one giant suicide op waiting to happen.

No doubt after I do it, they’ll assign someone from Family Advocacy to investigate, to determine my “state of mind” at the time of my death, since suicide is such a high-priority thing now because more soldiers are killing themselves than are dying in combat. They already did a study and found out that almost none of the soldiers who killed themselves had an “intact family” to go home to. Also, they practically never seemed suicidal. Those facts haunt me; they pertain.

It’s important to me not to seem suicidal. When Family Advocacy investigates after I do it and they ask the Quasis, “How did Luz James seem to you?” I can’t have any of them talking about what a droopy-assed loser I was. I want them to say, “Luz? Luz James? No, she seemed perfectly fine.” Maybe add, “She was always so full of life,” and pretend to be all broken up. The girls especially, even the ones who didn’t know me at all, since that will give them a good reason to cry and show how sensitive they are.

I’m concentrating so hard on making myself full of life and the opposite of suicidal that when Kirby sways, it knocks me off balance, and I bump into the cliff. The razor-sharp black rock scrapes my ankle. The cut will get infected, since every cut gets infected on Okinawa. The island is encircled by one of the world’s great coral reefs. I watched a YouTube video that showed how coral is composed of billions of tiny polyps that form themselves into fantastical shapes—antlers, fans, brains—in these amazing purples and yellows and reds. When the polyps die, they leave their skeletons and the tiny limestone tombs they’ve built around themselves behind. So, dead polyp skeletons, that’s what’s in the cut.

“Hey, Tiger Woods?” Kirby grunts back at me. “Why are you so late? It’s after twenty hundred hours.”

“If you mean eight o’clock, Kirby, say eight o’clock.”

“You’re such a civilian, Luz.”

“Only a Gung Ho would even think that that’s an insult.”

“You callin’ me a gun ho?”

I start to tell him about how Codie called the freaks who were genetically engineered to be military brats Gung Hos. I see her doing her imitation of a typical Gung Ho, jumping around all excited, going, “I love moving! It gives me a chance to reinvent myself!” like they’re Lady Gaga with the whole world just waiting to see the latest incarnation. After a lifetime of our mom and the U.S. Air Force uprooting us every other year or so, Codie and I were so anti–Gung Ho that we even developed mental blocks about decoding the twenty-four-hour clock. It meant that we occasionally committed the worst brat sin of all: being late. But to us, being late was a lot better than being a Gung Ho.

I’m doing it again. I’m relating everything back to Codie.

“Loozer,” Kirby repeats, “why’d you call me a gun ho?”

“Never mind, Kirb. It’s nothing.” I dump my end of the cooler down onto the trail.

“Brew thirty,” I say, popping the cooler open. I ice-fish for a beer, hook a tall silver one, and reel it in. The cold feels good against my hot hand, lips, going down my throat. My thirst leaves, but not what I didn’t want to think about: Codie was not a Gung Ho. She wasn’t. That’s why it doesn’t make sense. Why what happened could never have happened.

Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Above the East China Sea, Sarah Bird’s poignant and affecting novel about two teenage girls living decades apart who share a profound and unexpected bond.

1. Luz and Tamiko have a shared experience of loss that binds their lives together. Explore the sisterly bond in each relationship. Are there any similarities between Luz and Codie’s relationship, and Tamiko and Hatsuko’s? Describe how Luz and Tamiko eachdeals with the loss of herolder sister, and how eachcopes with those feelings.   

2. How do the themes of duty and honor manifest throughout Above the East China Sea? Are there any similarities in how Codie and Hatsuko approach their service to their country? How do Luz and Tamiko express disapproval toward their sisters’ loyalty?

3. The military brat experience is explored very openly throughout Above the East China Sea. What unique aspects of the experience are revealed in the novel? How does the shared experience of being a brat connect Luz to her friends? Why does Luz regard the Gung Hos with such disdain? 

4. How much did you know about Okinawa before reading the novel? After learning the highly significant role that Okinawa has played in our country’s defense strategy ever since World War II, were you surprised at how little we know about the island? Do you understand better now why the current dispute between China and Japan over a group of uninhabited, oil-rich islands just south of Okinawa is so fraught that Slate magazine  has said that “if World War III takes place anytime soon, this is where it will start”? 

5. Describe the role of kami throughout the novel. How do the kami act as a catalyst for discovery? Was it hard to make the leap of imagination required to accept a world ruled by the spirits of the dead?

6. Throughout the novel, language barriers appear—between Luz and those who speak military jargon, between the Okinawans and the Japanese, between Luz and the Okinawans. How do these barriers hinder relationships from developing?   

7. The relationship between the Japanese and the Okinawans is complex and fraught with tension. How does Japanese culture influence the Okinawans? How does the relationship between the two cultures change over the course of the novel? 

8. Discuss the scene at Murder House and the meaning of Luz’s vision. How does this experience propel her to search for answers?

9. Luz has a difficult relationship with her mother, and itonly intensifies after the death of Codie. Discuss why mother and daughterclash sooften. By the end of the novel, how does Luz’s perception of her mother change? Why do you think Luzasks her mother to go to the funeral?

10. On page 91, Tamiko’s mother tells her, “From now on your life doesn’tbelong to you. It belongs to me and to your father and our mothers and fathers.” How is this statement proven throughout the novel? How does this emphasis on family legacy create huge differences between their society and our own? 

11. Luz expresses that she never really knew her grandmother, but she had very specific sensory memories attached to her presence. After she meets Vaughn and finds out more about Setsuko’s life, does Luz’sperception of her grandmother change? 

12. How do Okinawans define themselves as a people? Compare the ways in which Tamiko’s family members describe themselves and their heritage as opposed to how Jake’s family does several decades later. What traits carry over? What has changed in the way they have defined themselves since World War II?

13. Describe the change in Luz as she transitions from a skeptic to one who has felt her life moved by forces beyond her intellectual understanding. How does Jake help her get to that point? Have you ever had a mystical experience?

14. In the beginning of the novel, Luz refuses to make any more new friends. How does her stance change over the course of the novel? Explore her relationship with Jacey. How does this “normal” female friendship help to restore her faith in herself and in others? 

15. How do the Okinawans perceive the Americans in present-day Okinawa? Reflect on the scene in which Luz and Jake go to the A&W to meet the yuta. How has Americanization affected the island nation?

16. On page 296, Luz asserts that “Runway lights are home.” What does she mean by this statement? How is the concept of home explored and destabilized throughout this novel? Where do you think Tamiko’s true home is? 

17. The last few pages of the novel reveal the circumstances in which Tamiko conceived her child. How does her relationship with her unborn child buoy her, despite the environment of violence surrounding them? Explore the change of narrative perspective that occurs in the last chapter of the novel. Why do you think the author chose to have the last chapter come from the perspective of Tamiko’s child? 

18. How familiar with Okinawan culture were you before reading this novel? Were you aware of the statistics about the widespread killing and destruction of Okinawa that occurred during World War II as described on page 238?

19. Compare the imperial aspirations of Japan in World War II with those of our own country after that war. How does the patriotic propaganda differ between the two? How does Japan’s history illustrate the tragic consequences of allowing a government to fall into the hands of militaristic industrialists? How are those dangers heightened when knowledge of the actions and budget of a country’s military isshielded from the people by a screen of security concerns?

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