West Meets East
Sarah Bird's stunning new novel leaves her usual Texas locales to draw on her earlier life as an AirForce brat in Japan.
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As the crow flies, it’s 6,500 miles from central Texas to Japan. Which is to say that the typical setting of a typical Sarah Bird book is half a world removed from the Far East home of Air Force major Mason Patrick “Wild” Root, his wife, Moe, and their brood of six, who populate Austinite Bird’s latest effort, The Yokota Officers Club (Alfred A. Knopf). But even that is just a stone’s throw compared with the stylistic and emotional distance that separates this wry and poignant novel cum memoir from its predecessors. Without sacrificing her waggish perspective, Bird has built a serious book exploring all manner of human bonds—sibling, marital, international, and more. Told from the viewpoint of Air Force daughter Bernie Root, peace-marching coed in the era of Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam, it is a tale of family alliances and rebellions that sidesteps cliché and embraces bittersweet reality.Bird’s previous novels have rightfully enjoyed a measure of good notices and loyal readers. The Boyfriend School is archly entertaining, though maybe too anxious in its pursuit of comic setups and witty knockdowns. The Mommy Club is a brash and quirky litcom—likely the world’s introduction to surrogate motherhood as a comic device. And Virgin of the Rodeo explored road-novel territory by dragging its patently asocial heroine out of the house on a bawdy Southwestern romp. But The Yokota Officers Club is a stunning leap from even the best of those. It’s a thoroughly engrossing reinvention of Bird’s own Air Force-brat background in the Far East, including an irony-free take on her go-go-dancing “tour” of Japan at age eighteen, when she played nightclub shows with a bargain-basement stand-up comic.
After I failed to lure Bird away from her computer for a friendly interrogation over coffee (the threat of a screenwriters strike had her feverishly scripting for Lynda Obst and Paramount), we settled for an e-mail pas de deux.
In Yokota Officers Club, Bernie Root (rebellious teenage daughter) finds herself stranded in alien surroundings (as do Gretchen Griner from The Boyfriend School and Trudy Herring from The Mommy Club). It seems social ineptness is your major recurring theme. Do you embrace outsiderhood? And what about military brats—different from civilian kids?
Just shoved my family out the door for Crouching Tiger. I’m going to take a grateful break from the screenplay and have a party with your questions.
I’d have to say that outsiderhood embraced me. So, yes, as a pathologically shy child born into a military family, “alien” was my most familiar motif. I aspired to be socially inept but never really made it up to that level.
The happiest years of my childhood—both of them—were spent in San Antonio, where I went to seventh and eighth grade at Holy Name School and came to adore Mexican American culture. No one was an outsider there. There was a place for everyone, even a bird as odd as Sarah Bird. (And trust me, Mike, being almost five foot ten by the age of eleven and virtually catatonic, I was quite the looming oddity.)
Then, of course, my family was transferred. We were ripped out of our little paradise and put into a new public school. With civilians, Protestant civilians. PE was the worst shock. Since good Catholic girls didn’t have bodies, my physical education up to that point had consisted entirely of genuflecting.
I distinctly remember the moment in tenth grade when I knew I had to do something or be forever lost to human society. I made a pact with myself to talk to one person a day I was not related to by blood. One person. I built up gradually from there. My finishing school was a trip I took with two girlfriends, a daypack, and a copy of Siddhartha, hitchhiking and taking the train from Albuquerque to El Rosario in Baja, Mexico.
Military kids are like perpetual strangers who remain, for the most part, unknown and unassimilated by the communities they happen to pass through. I accepted the notion that I had sprung from a rootless cultural void. It was only in researching and writing this book that I realized that, far from a void, the military drenches a child in a powerful tribal identity complete with an intense sense of purpose and a whole array of artifacts. (Try to find a military household without at least one of these: the giant fork and spoon from the Philippines, a camel saddle, geisha dolls in a glass case, or German beer mugs.)
Hasta mañana, Sarah
Yokota Officers Club is thoroughly steeped in military culture—from the rules and regulations of base life to the pilots’ testosterone-fueled big-boys-with-big-toys club. But the most unforgettable moments are occupied by two fabulously rich characters—Moe Root [a once-resourceful Uber-mom who is now an emotionally drained Air Force wife] and Fumiko [the Root family’s maid]. They are vastly different from each other but move in emotional lockstep. Where did they come from?
One of the reasons I wrote this book was to send a gigantic valentine to all the women who support and surround the military—but mostly to my own mother, Colista McCabe Bird, who is Moe without the warts. My mother was an Army nurse; she double-dated with Audie Murphy, sang in a band, raised six children, is beautiful, bawdy, funny, loves most in life to laugh and hang out with her children, and remains someone people fall in love with on sight.
My family was stationed in Japan at roughly the same time as the family in the book. We had a maid much like Fumiko who would make us candied tangerines and tell us stories. She told us about her family having to live in a cave and watching the sky above Tokyo turn pink as it was bombed. She told us about eating soup made out of grass and grubbing for roots and people fighting over a handful of rice. These stories were utterly riveting. It wasn’t until years after we’d left Japan that I realized my country, my Air Force, had been responsible for those pink skies.
Since I don’t know Fumiko’s story, one of the powerful impetuses to write this book was to tell myself a story that might have been Fumiko’s story and certainly was the story of many women in Occupation Japan.
Now we have gotten to the heart of a book I care enormously about. I have to say that leaving behind the shield of irony has been quite scary. But so far, so good.
I was fascinated by the time and place you capture—Japan after the war is so foreign, literally and figuratively, to so many—and your dead-on observations bring it all, highbrow and lowbrow and American and Japanese, to life. Yokota Officers Club is marvelous. It has the whole package: spiky wit, clever plotting, and wrenching story turns. But most impressive, there is a palpable ache of affection for your characters, flaws and all. And I laughed out loud.
I put so much on the line with this one that it scares me. I honestly felt compelled to write it but also assumed that it would meet with mostly puzzlement and disappointment from fans of my earlier, easier books. But I’ve been flabbergasted, thus far, by the degree of acceptance it’s getting. I had all family members who had even a remote counterpart in the novel read it from the first drafts, and I wouldn’t have proceeded if they’d had any objections. So my greatest relief is that, apparently, their faith and generosity will pay off.
Calling your earlier books “easier” implies that Yokota is somehow harder. It’s more complex, certainly, but that gives it a page-turning urgency that frankly didn’t exist in, let’s say, Virgin of the Rodeo. There’s a richness throughout and a payoff that resonates.
So, one last question: Suppose Yokota Officers Club is an Oprah-size blockbuster. Are you prepared for fame and fortune?
This is getting dangerous. It’s so much more fun to talk about my book than stare my deadline in the eye.
Am I prepared? Yes, just as much as every writer who got good early notices and went on to sell five, six thousand copies. The reality is that there are so few books each year where Something Happens. So, there have to be other reasons for us to write—clearly, I had my own compelling reasons. At this point, because of my family’s reaction, particularly my father’s, which has been very supportive, and because of the reactions of a few other extremely significant readers, this book has more than fulfilled any expectations I had for it.
Well, Mike, got to write a movie and pay the rent.
Hasta loo, Sarah