We asked author John Heffernan to tell us about researching his newest book, Hotaka, the first in a new series about Natural Disasters from Allen & Unwin. Hotaka will be released February 22nd.
My latest YA novel deals with the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami as seen through the eyes of a teenage boy. Hotaka is the first book in Lyn White’s new Through My Eyes Series from Allen & Unwin. In researching the book, I went to Japan, to the disaster zone itself. In March 2015 I toured the length of the devastated Tohoku coast, visiting towns, capturing images, talking to victims.
I was helped in this journey by a Japanese man, Yoh Naramatsu. A truly generous person, Yoh gave up his time and helped me in many ways – interpreter, translator – but especially by actually arranging for me to meet a number of high school students who had gone through the tsunami in primary school. Their stories, in particular, were invaluable material.
Yoh also arranged for me and my wife to attend a special memorial ceremony in Minamisanriku on March 11 that year, the date of the tsunami. Memorialising the dead is an extremely important aspect of Buddhism that has helped the Tohoku people cope with their immense loss and grief from the tsunami. A big event – the biggest in the region, I believe – this ceremony was packed with important politicians, officials, diplomats etc .The Emperor and Empress were beamed in to talk, followed by a collection of dignitaries. I was lucky enough to be seated almost next to a reporter who was translating the Japanese speeches onto her phone in English as they happened. (I’m utterly astonished by people with that sort of ability!)
The whole event was heart rending, but one speech in particular stood out. The bulk of the speakers were male, and all bar one were adults. That one young speaker was a girl, 14 or 15. She stood, and with dignified humility spoke of the Wave that washed her world away. Her speech was extremely powerful. I’m sure I’m right in saying that it reduced virtually everyone in that huge hall to tears. The English reporter’s voice wavered at several points, and twice she actually had to stop.
That trip – visiting the devastated communities, speaking with those young people, hearing their stories, and being part of that deeply moving Memorial Ceremony – had a profound effect on me. I actually couldn’t write for almost a month after I returned to Australia. But I knew that somewhere in my head lay story I had to tell.
Thank you John Heffernan for these words, and Jess from Allen & Unwin for organising this post. Hotaka is a moving and inspiring tribute to survivors of this disaster.