The Strong Waves of Empathy: In Conversation with Julian Sedgwick

For Julian Sedgwick, Tsunami Girl is the product of his lifelong immersion in Japanese culture, history, and beliefs, alongside his friendships rooted in the nation. It is a dedication to the communities who were affected by the 2011 Great Tōhoku Earthquake. During the NLF Reading Challenge, he spoke in detail about his experience of writing the book which was shortlisted for the 2022 Yoto Carnegie Medal. It’s a part-manga, part-prose, coming-of-age story of 15-year-old Yuki Hara Jones who gets caught up in a catastrophe that altered the lives of many. 

Julian has worked as an academic bookseller, painter, researcher, and script developer for film and TV. A certified Zen Shiatsu therapist, he credits the accurate representation of empathy in his book to the experience he’s gained over the years. 

“I’ve been a therapist for 25 years and I must have heard about almost every facet of the human condition but people always find a way, a sense of hope, something to keep going for. I didn’t want to be simplistic with my approach like here’s a problem and this is the solution; I wanted Yuki to represent the struggle and what she was dealing with. This was in my mind while writing the book.”

While talking about the writing process, Julian revealed how the conceptualization of his book started pretty early and took five years to shape up completely. One of the many things that sets apart Tsunami Girl is the usage of both manga and prose to narrate what Yuki and her community experienced. While there’s a multiplicity to the narrative, it’s still a seamless transition from one part of the story to the other. Chie Kutsuwada, a Japanese manga artist, brings the vital visual voice of the book powerfully to life. Julian adds: I wanted to try and do this combined storytelling, but it took me so long to come up with the mechanism that would work. Often when I start writing a book, it feels a bit clunky and arbitrary because you’re constantly trying to find how the story is going to work.”

There’s a significant amount of research that goes into writing about a true event. Julian spoke to a lot of survivors, listening to the stories of the aftermath firsthand so as to be able to comprehend the loss and rootlessness people experienced post the disaster. 

“I employed a sensitivity reader, a young Japanese female academician who has had experience with therapeutic listening in the disaster zone”, said Julian when asked about the accuracy of representation in the book. 

Many writers’ creative process entails a careful selection of their own memories and past experiences that seep into the stories they spin. Julian also opened up about the same: I was a very anxious child and struggled with school phobia. I had a terrifying school experience.” 

On a more cheerful note, he instilled a sense of optimism and motivation in the audience as the session was winding up by emphasising the importance of practising empathy and of course, reading! 

About the Author

Julian Sedgwick is the author of six children’s books and the co-author of the graphic novel Dark Satanic Mills and the illustrated novel Voyages in the Underworld of Orpheus Black. Julian studied Chinese Studies and Philosophy at Cambridge before going on to work as a bookseller, painter, researcher, screenplay writer for cinema and television, and shiatsu therapist. 

About the Book

Tsunami Girl is the compelling coming-of-age tale of Yuki Hara Jones, a 15-year-old girl caught up in the March 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. It’s the story of a teenager attempting to figure out who she is and where she belongs, while suffering the agony of an unfathomable calamity, recounted in both text and manga.

About the NLF Reading Challenge

The NLF Reading Challenge is a four-month-long reading event from March to June 2022, involving students between 10 to 13 years of age. It runs for participants across India on the competitive and non-competitive tracks. In addition to fun book-based activities and regular author interactions, the challenge will conclude with a quiz competition that will see the three best teams win gold, silver, and bronze engraved trophies respectively, certificates of achievement, and a great set of books! 



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