Writing Somewhere Among

When we first read the query letter for the novel-in-verse that would become Somewhere Among, we were struck by the manuscript’s lyrical language and evocative feeling…and also with the author’s unique perspective. As a white American married to a Japanese man, raising their children in Tokyo, Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu drew heavily on her family’s own experiences to tell Ema’s story—being “in two worlds,” sharing a small space with generations of family, and a national tragedy that tied her even more closely to her adopted home.


I didn’t set out to write about 9/11.

At the time of the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, Japan’s 9/11, I was working on a middle grade prose novel set in Texas, my home state. The earth rocked our Tokyo house for months afterwards. The damaged nuclear plant threatened our air, food, and water.

Leaving Japan was not an option. We were living with in-laws, one child was in university, and the other was about to start Japanese high school. Who could leave and come back? Health issues, an aging mother-in-law, and pets made it impossible to go to the area to volunteer. I tried working on the Texas novel and sent out a lifeline by paying for a critique for it. Survival mode took its toll and I eventually had to put it aside.

I needed to ground myself in Japan.

I wasn’t able to write about the aftershocks, the fleeing foreign residents, and the radiation crisis of the nuclear plants. I couldn’t bear reading, hearing or seeing anything more about it. I had to disengage to lighten my heart.


In troubled times, we turn to family and relationships and, sometimes, to the past for comfort. I started writing tidbits, the observations and connections I had made over the years here, things that rooted me here, things about living here within a Japanese family for over twenty years: 
the old wooden house Great-grandfather built after World War II that leaned in typhoons, jerked in earthquakes, but stood its ground; 

the one-room lifestyle we had upstairs in the old house before we built a new house in its place; 

the palm tree that soared above its rooftop but now watches over us from outside the dining room window; 

the loving relationships my children had with all their family; 

the experiences my children had in Japanese public school, and 

the ease my children had in moving from one language and one culture to another (despite their limited English exposure.) 

A dozen or more short pieces, poems and images quickly evolved into a fictional story from a child’s point of view. The first draft came fast, but I had to set it aside.

I was still dealing with the grief of the earthquake and tsunami. I kept thinking how glad I was that it hadn’t happened when our children were small. How were parents coping? Especially up north at the epicenter.

It was hard to trust the earth beneath our feet.
Hard to trust the roof over our heads.
Hard to trust the air we breathed. 
Even down in Tokyo.                           
The story did not turn out to be about any of that.
But it didn’t turn out light-hearted.


It had become Somewhere Among, a middle grade novel set in another difficult time, 2001. I shielded our children, then 9 and 5, from the TV coverage of the attacks, but the TV was always on downstairs at their grandparents. The nine-year-old actually created a tower made of yogurt bottles and bandages for the school’s November 2001 art exhibition.


Somewhere Among highlights the history, anniversaries, and tragedies my two families’ countries have shared before and during 2001. It is about reconciliation. About going on. About finding peace within.

It is built from research of events, weather, and NASA. 

The Japanese grandmother is not my children’s grandmother. And my children never fell behind in their studies.

But we do appreciate sky watching. We’ve met more friends than bullies, and once, while exiting a train, a woman, seeing I was having a bad day, placed a peace doll in my hand.

It still brightens our hearts.


Annie’s debut novel Somewhere Among comes out on April 26, 2016. Find research for the book at anniedonwerth-chikamatsu.com, and read more about her life in Japan at Here and There Japan
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