Andrew Kumasaka is the author of "All Gone Awry."
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Wallace Baine

An exploration of heritage: Author links Santa Cruz, Japan through art, catastrophe in new novel

Local writer Andrew Kumasaka is a third-generation Japanese American who used the events of the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan, which even affected Santa Cruz, as a key part of his plot line in “All Gone Awry.”

This year marked the 10th anniversary of one of the deadliest natural disasters of the 21st century, often referred to as “3/11,” when a massive undersea earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, triggering a nuclear meltdown crisis and an enormous tsunami that brought more death and destruction than the quake itself.

Those living in Santa Cruz County at the time might remember that the tsunami was large enough to reach the West Coast of the United States, and its surge, even after traveling 5,000 miles, caused more than $20 million in damages at the Santa Cruz Harbor on March 11, 2011.

The 3/11 tragedy is a compelling literal illustration of the metaphor at the heart of environmentalism, that a disruption anywhere globally can cause ripples locally. It’s also the inspiration and jumping-off point of a new novel by Santa Cruz writer Andrew Kumasaka, titled “All Gone Awry.”

The novel is steeped in Santa Cruz names and places — its cover illustration is the work of famed local muralist Taylor Reinhold, the driving force behind the ambitious “Sea Walls” mural project in September. But its themes are universal and globally conscious.

“Awry” is the story of Dr. Alex Arai, a Japanese American art history professor at UC Santa Cruz whose primary interest is in how art memorializes experience. But suddenly he becomes obsessed with a kind of art that stands as the opposite of carving eternal figures in granite: graffiti. Kumasaka will be on hand to read from his novel on Saturday, Nov. 13, at Jade Street Park in Capitola.

The book’s story begins with the catastrophic Japanese earthquake, and serves as the novel’s catalyzing event. “It provided me the image of sudden, drastic, sometimes tragic change,” said Kumasaka, who is retired after a 30-year career as a psychiatrist. Propelled by the sense of fragility that the big quake brought into high relief, Kumasaka’s protagonist becomes a graffiti artist.

Andrew Kumasaka poses with his book sticker amid one of Santa Cruz's favorite forms of street graffiti art.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The idea of the novel is also linked to the 2011 Japan earthquake/tsunami. At the time, Kumasaka was struggling with another novel and was contemplating embarking on something new. He arrived at his office one day shortly before the quake and found his signage had been vandalized with graffiti.

“Right away, there was a kind of dual reaction,” he said. “No. 1, I was annoyed that I was gonna have to get this cleaned up, but I was also struck by the beauty of the script. It was done in pink and had these beautiful embellishments. I thought, wow, this is really artful. And then I thought, what if I made my art professor become a graffiti vandal?”

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From there, he turned his literary efforts to making the psychology of a tenured professor become a graffiti artist, which is, in some contexts, a criminal offense.

“And then,” he said, “in March of that year, that’s when Japan was hit by the triple disaster of earthquake and tsunami and nuclear meltdown. And that presented itself as the heralding event for me to portend the massive changes in the art history professor.”

Through its main character and its catalyzing event that originated in Japan, “Awry” was also a way for Kumasaka to explore his own relationship with his Japanese background, and the themes in traditional Japanese spirituality.

Andrew Kumasaka.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I’m a third-generation (American),” he said. “My parents were Presbyterian. I was never schooled in Buddhist principles or anything. But there’s some sense of the transient nature of things that just kind of makes me sad sometimes. You know, I told myself, you’re not going to write a scene about cherry blossoms. It’s just too cliche, but for heaven’s sake, you know, I got to a point where I was up on the UCSC campus, and they have some Japanese cherry trees up there, and you wouldn’t believe it, but I ended up writing the scene about cherry blossoms.

“I just think there’s some sort of inborn thing about our response to transient evanescence that I couldn’t help it. So I think the thing that surprised me most about this story about a Japanese American is how Japanese I still was.”

Andrew Kumasaka, author of “All Gone Awry,” will appear at a book signing Saturday, Nov. 13, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Capitola Community Center at Jade Street Park, 4400 Jade St. The event is free. Masks and proof of vaccination required.