Katsuren, the Okinawa novel: A Word from the Characters (3)


In this excerpt from my novel Katsuren, Yu Ganaha’s idol Kichiro appears. Kichiro is a charter boat captain from Yonaguni Island. He’s just taken Yu out on the boat to take a look at the submerged rock formation that Yonaguni is famous for.

“Kichiro,” I asked as we were wiping down the deck. “What’s your best guess? Are those walls from an ancient shrine or from a castle like the gusuku at Katsuren? Or are they just an accident of nature that happens to look man-made?”

“You’ll have to ask someone smarter than me. Maybe that Tomori fellow from the research outfit. He’s got ideas and the know-how to check them out.”

There was something about the way he said Tomori. Did Kichiro smell a rival there?

“I met him the other day. He showed me some photos he had. Pretty convincing, I thought.”

“A man’s only as good as his information.” Kichiro gave me a smug grin.

I wondered if I could goad him into saying any more.

“But if you had to guess…” I pressed, certain he was holding back some important piece of information, either about Tomori or about the site.

“I think,” said Kichiro, “that a thousand or so years ago, some guy just like me looked at what nature handed him and said to himself, ‘I can make it better’. I think he hacked out some steps to make it easier to get down to his boat. Probably sea level was different then. I think he hauled buckets of dirt from the wet side of the hills and packed it in the chuckholes so his wife could plant a tree to shade their front door and maybe a few tomatoes.”

Kichiro wasn’t done. “And I think he was smart enough to remember his roots as a creature who lives on the land but was born from the sea.”

I saw Kichiro reach behind him for the daypack with my camera safely stowed inside.

“Check it out. I think I got a good one of that ancient guy’s idol.” Kichiro handed the camera back to me.

“You mean the turtle statue that was on TV with you?” I asked while I clicked the digital display button.

“Yep. Plus one more.” Kichiro grinned like a cat with canary feathers in his teeth. “What’s a turtle without his mate?”

I whistled. I hadn’t heard even a whisper about a pair of statues down there. Seeing them recorded in my camera, I knew I was one up, even on the great Dr. Tomori. Next story I filed, I was going to call the site Kichiro’s Rock. A man is only as good as his information, and it seemed to me Kichiro was the heart and soul of the Yonaguni story. In my book, he’d earned naming rights.



The Real Yonaguni

A few scenes from my novel, Katsuren, are set on the island of Yonaguni. Yonaguni is part of Okinawa Prefecture, an island in the Ryukyu island chain, and the westernmost point in Japan. It has several other claims to fame.

For starters, there are the wild horses indigenous to Yonaguni. They are tiny. One theory is that their small size is ecology in action. There isn’t a lot for them to eat, and there’s no reason why they have to be big in order to survive.

Next, Yonaguni does not have poisonous snakes, as do the rest of the Okinawa islands. The lack of deadly habu is, as far as I am concerned, a charm point for Yonaguni. The other thing Yonaguni does not have is pretty lagoons such as the one I called Sanzan Beach in my Katsuren novel.

These are three reasons to believe that Yonaguni’s geological history is also different from the rest of Okinawa’s. The differences raise many questions. Did Yonaguni become an island during a different time period, when sea temperature did not favor the formation of coral reefs? Was it originally attached to another part of the world where poisonous snakes were not part of the environmental package? Did it once have habu and then drown them by submerging when the sea level changed?

For interesting speculations about Yonaguni’s past, be sure to check out the article on Yonaguni’s submerged ruins in National Geographic online. (link in previous entry)


We're in National Geographic Magazine online!

Okinawa's history goes back so far, the beginnings are lost in the mists of legend. If you are ever in the capital city Naha, check out the museum across the street from the lovely Shuri Castle Park. You will see a stone tablet just inside the entrance with mysterious symbols inscribed on it. The symbols are in a language that no one alive today reads or speaks.

One interpretation is that the symbols are telling of a disaster that caused a beloved homeland to sink beneath the sea.

A team of explorers from The University of the Ryukyus, led by Dr. Masaaki Kimura, has been surveying an underwater site that may be the remains of that sunken homeland. The NPO that supports their research is my pride and joy.

Now, National Geographic Magazine (online news, dateline September 19) reports on what they have found.

You can see the article by following this link:



Who am I? (2) The Tree Analogy

If I were a tree, no question about it, I'd want to be an adan tree.

Look where they get to stand--right at the fringe of the beach! Imagine the spectacular sunsets or sunrises they witness every single day of their lives! Their Okinawa beach location alone is a reason to want to be an adan tree.

They are short and squat compared to palm trees. So am I. That's one more reason to identify with adan trees.

Their profiles are spectacular. They have an abundance of uplifted branches, twisty and curvy. A profusion of floaty and slightly frowzy leaves sprouts from the tips of their branches. Silhouetted against an Okinawa sunset, they are so dramatic they take your breath away. One popular Okinawa song has a line it, "How beautiful the adan, welcoming the fisherman home from the sea."

Living on beaches, flouting a frowzy but dramatic appearance--does that make the adan the beach bum of trees? I don't think so.

They have a history of usefulness. Also known (in English) as breadfruit trees, their pineapple-look-alike fruit is the source of a fiber (sennit) that once was a major construction material. Sennit is what holds a little grass shack together. Sennit is what holds traditional Polynesian double-hulled canoes together. The adan has a romantic history.

Right! Sign me up as an adan if I have to be reincarnated as a tree.

However, since I am a writer in real life and not a tree, let me at least take a page from the adan's book. Let me write stories with twisty, dramatic plots that hold together as if they were tied with sennit and characters with fascinating profiles. And if I'm allowed a second page, may I ask for another chance to visit my favorite adan tree beside the sea at Onna-son, Okinawa.


A Word from the Characters (2)


Our heroine is being driven back to her hotel after her first visit to the archeological site at Katsuren Castle, Okinawa.

We hadn't gone more than a block when my driver broke the cozy silence.

"You couldn't live here."

Like an ice cube dropped down the back of my neck, Mr. Shiroma's sudden remark made me sit up and pay attention. It was from the man who smiled benignly at all my remarks earlier in the day about how I would love to live in whatever picturesque place we had been passing through.

He listened when I raved about cozy neighborhoods a-tumble with houses roofed in red tile. He chuckled over my enthusiasm for hot pink bougainvillea capering over whitewashed walls while the sea glittered in the background. When I rattled on about how, if I lived in Okinawa, I would insist on a vine covered cottage with a red-tiled roof he gave me a thumbs up. If I chattered about wanting hibiscus flowers flanking my doorway and rooms painted in shimmering, silky shades of emerald and amethyst--just like the colors of the lagoon--he beamed a paternal smile at my ramblings.

So, why was he saying I couldn't live here?

I caught his eye in the rear-view mirror and asked him point blank, "Is this about Katsuren or about me?"


Want to Leave a Comment? Here's how.

Thank you for taking the time to comment. Please don't be intimidated by the Japanese script. It's just a sign that I'm writing from Tokyo.

Look for the name Chura at the bottom of the post, and next to it you will see a time (ex. 10:01). To the right of the time is a number and a Japanese word (four letters, don't worry about it) in pale blue letters. That says "comment" in Japanese, and that's where you click to add your comment.

See? Now you, too, can read Japanese.


Bulwer-esque (Practice Makes Perfect)

:) :) :)

All right, I admit that I’m square, maybe even dry, but there I was, expecting a little buttering up when I asked my sweetie what am I to you—and, OK, maybe it was too early in the morning for coy, flirtatious questions—but was that any reason for the only man I’ve ever spent breakfast with to turn my hopes to crumbs by telling me, “You are toast!”

(I'm warming up for next year's Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.)

:) :) :)


Your Kanji Question Answered with an Online Japanese Dictionary Link


Thank you for your question about the name of a character in Katsuren.

Here is an online dictionary you can use to see Yu's name in Japanese kanji.
In the search box, write in the English word "gentle". It will take you to the character "yu".




What Can Fiction Do?

One Japanese writer whom I deeply respect is Ms. Toyoko Yamazaki. When she spoke at Yomiuri Hall in Japan, I was lucky enough to be in the audience.

One of the topics in the news at the time was a tragic plane crash. OK, every plane crash is tragic, but the bizarre aspect of this particular crash of a jumbo jet was that everyone on the plane knew it would crash, as did people watching the news--and that includes those whose loved ones were on that plane. But it took over 30 minutes of emotional agony before the jet slammed into the mountain that ended the flight. There were, as I recall, only two survivors.

This tragedy inspired Ms. Yamazaki to write a doorstopper of a book that hit the bestseller list.

What I remember most from Ms. Yamazaki's lecture was this: official documentation of the crash used enough paper to fill up an entire room from floor to ceiling, wall to wall. Her novel, however, filled a little more than a thousand pages. She asked us which bundle of paper and ink aroused the most passion? Which of them ignited the flames of rage against bureaucratic greed, stupidity and irresponsibility? Which one exposed the truth of the tragedy?


Nothing can reach out and move people's hearts and minds the way the hand of a novelist can.


A Word from the Characters (1)


Katsuren is a novel set in Okinawa, Japan. One of the characters is a man named Yu Ganaha. Here is one of his scenes, in which a young American woman asks him about his name.

"Which Yu are you?" I asked.

"I beg your pardon?" Yu said.

"I mean, how do you write your name in Japanese? Are you the Yu that means friendly, the one that means brave, or the Yu that stands for kind and gentle?"

"All of the above," he answered with a smug grin. "But if you really want to know which character I use to write my name, it's this one."

He took my hand and spelled out the strokes for warm, loving and tender with the tip of his finger. I blushed. And then I remembered. This was Okinawa. A man was expected to show his tender side. Yu wasn't setting me up; what he wrote in the palm of my hand was simply the truth.


Who am I? (1) The Crayon Analogy

If I were a crayon I’d be a sunny yellow one because I see myself as a cheerful optimist, a comedienne, the life of the party. People I’ve worked with, however, have said that in the office, I’m more like a soothing shade of blue. That may be why they pronounce my name “serene” instead of Celine.

Which color is the real me? I want to be both of them, of course.

In real life, my palette may be limited to a couple of crayons, but in writing fiction I get to be every color in the pack. I am the pale white of a character in a walk-on role, the thrilling orange of a crucial scene, passionately purple, cool green or sweet chocolate brown. I could even be a villain in a jet black hat. I love being the hand that writes the characters that paint the story.


Winning: Why it Counts

Winning something--anything--is fun, for a fact. I thoroughly enjoyed the recognition and my moment in the sun, but more than that, I took the Bulwer-Lytton prize as a vote of confidence.

"Celine," it said to me, "you've still got it, after all those years in Japan. You can still make people laugh in your native language."

That's it! That's it exactly. I want my words to touch heads and hearts and get a reaction.

If I can do it with a single sentence, then I can do it with a novel filled with sentences. This bit of encouragement is a vote of confidence that, someday when my novel is finished and read by total strangers, they will be right there on the page with me, not just reading the words but also feeling them.

"They can because they think they can."
Virgil, in the Aeneid

Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest

It's fun time. My silly sentence actually won first place in the fantasy category. Here is the link so you can enjoy all the goodies that were created for the 2007 contest.


Mine is the one about Lady Guinevere and the horse race.