When Gretel Ehrlich learned of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March of 2011, she was “overwhelmed with the desire” to go there, to see if she could somehow help. Ehrlich’s deep connections to Japan extend back to her first visit in 1968, and she found herself offering assistance by listening to the stories of the survivors she met as she traveled along the devastated Tohoku coast.
Though it was months after the event, part of what the survivors still needed was “to tell their story, to talk about what had happened to them and what they would do next,” Ehrlich recalls. “They needed to work out how they were going to move forward, in a practical, emotional and spiritual way.”
Ehrlich had not intended to write Facing the Wave, but she says she soon felt “possessed” by this project, in which she weaves together survivors’ eyewitness accounts with scientific observations, Buddhist philosophy and poetry (translations from Matsuo Basho and her own work). “Near the end of writing the book, I often got up at one in the morning and wrote until four, five or six,” she says. “It just took me over.”
Not that writing this book was ever easy. In fact, “it was…overwhelming every day, every minute,” she says. “But that’s how I write: I dive in.” In this way, Ehrlich says, she was like Kikuchi-san, the first person whose story she tells, who “dives off the sea wall and is in the water for five hours…with houses and cars and dead bodies floating by him. That’s pretty much how it felt to write this…because there were so many stories and so much going on, on so many different levels.”
Ehrlich’s account washes over readers in waves, with three sections that record her visits in March, September and December; she bears witness over time to this unparalleled tragedy that, she notes, was always offset by a heightened sense of life, what she calls “survivor’s euphoria.” People who have come “nose to nose with death—they can laugh!” she explains. “When that fear is gone, something else happens. Laughter and tears are both possible. It’s a more open space.”
Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop.