The Deeper Inspiration of Catastrophe

By Denis Hartnett, Jonah Goldstein, Patrick Alexander, Michee Jacobs, Lizzie Gellman, Heather McFarlane, and AJ Jurado

The 2011 earthquake in Tohoku, Japan was a disaster on a scale to which the modern world is unaccustomed. The tsunami following the earthquake caused a number of nuclear power plants in to shut down and deplete. The earthquake rendered a great deal of land uninhabitable in an already limited living space. The after-effects of the tsunami and earthquake affected all aspects of environmental life and caused a tremendous upset of the ecosystem. The 9.1 magnitude earthquake originated a short distance from the coast of Japan, generating a gigantic tsunami wave that collectively caused 15,890 deaths and $235 billion in damages, making it the most costly natural disaster in history. The Earthquake’s preliminary quake went on for 6 minutes, followed by aftershocks that destroyed many buildings and a great deal of infrastructure. This earthquake gave way to a massive tsunami which caused the majority of the near 16,000 deaths. This was not the end of the event however, as the forced shutdown of nuclear reactors in the affected area which led to the meltdown of these reactors and the contamination of those areas by nuclear byproducts.

We found a compilation of some amateur footage of the devastation that the event caused. It was hard not to find some of it interesting to watch: there is something innate in us that enjoys watching other people’s things be destroyed. However, there are also many parts later on in the footage that are genuinely upsetting to watch. You see the reactions of the people that are just watching their homes and entire lives be destroyed; you can’t help but feel helpless yourself. This is similar to the feeling we get while reading Jemisin’s trilogy: even the orogenes, who have powers to suppress seismic events, are powerless in the face of the Rifting. Essun explains the immense impact to which the Stillness will be impacted by the catastrophe. She says it will take ten thousand years for the Season to end, and that the ash will have dangerous effects that could lead to a permanent end to human life. “Enough ash covering the warm surface of the sea, and the ice might grow at the poles. That means saltier seas. Drier climates. Permafrost. Glaciers marching, spreading. And the most habitable part of the world should that happen, the Equatorials will still be hot and toxic… Even after the skies clear, though, the Rift could cause an age of winter that lasts millions of years. None of which matters, because humanity will have gone extinct long before” (The Stone Sky, 68). The destruction caused by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan in 2011 is similar to the destruction depicted in The Stone Sky.

Some of the most poignant art which has resulted from the tragedy comes from University of Nebraska at Omaha professor Jave Yoshimoto, still a grad student when the tsunami hit. Deeply affected by the scale of human suffering which ensued, Yoshimoto took it upon himself to ensure the event remained in the global dialogue. “We live in a digital age where we are constantly bombarded with imagery and news, and yesterday’s tragedy is quickly forgotten like it was a distant memory,” Yoshimoto said. “My hope is to leave an impression with my audience, make them think, and hopefully inspire them to help those in need today” (Art Exhibit Commemorates 2011 Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami). The purpose of Yoshimoto’s task is to document, to encourage reflection, and ultimately, to change the behavior of a society. The importance of this sustained attention throughout the aftermath is evident when one considers that, “In the decade before the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, a handful of Japanese geologists had begun to recognize that a large earthquake and tsunami had struck” nearby in the past, and the region was due for another. Yet “their warnings went unheeded by officials responsible for the country’s earthquake hazard assessments” (Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011). This is particularly resonant with reference to the work of Yaetr Innovator Dibars, revealed in excerpts throughout The Stone Sky. When Yaetr attempts to alert Seventh University to the fact that “popular conception of the frequency of Season-level events is completely wrong,” her colleague Alma informs her she has been defunded (The Stone Sky, 216-286). An archive, whether in the form of a 30-foot wood carving or a carefully compiled scientific journal, helps steady institutions against the sway of politics.

An important question to consider, although mildly cliche, is “does life imitate art or does art imitate life?” Yoshimoto has taken the initiative to create art that commemorates the victims and survivors of the earthquake and speaks avidly about how the event affected his life. “We live in a digital age where we are constantly bombarded with imagery and news, and yesterday’s tragedy is quickly forgotten like it was a distant memory,” Yoshimoto said. “My hope is to leave an impression with my audience, make them think, and hopefully inspire them to help those in need today.” “Disaster”, although a commemoration the event, serves more as a social statement on the brutality of the event on the earth. Yoshimoto has explained that “each tragedy in the news cycle is swept away by the wave of information that floods the media”  creating a “social amnesia” amongst the public. In Jemisin’s work, yesterday’s tragedy is not particularly quickly forgotten but rather quickly adapted to. We see a parallel in the familiarity of tragedy and adaptation in Jemisin’s work when Essun is traveling with the band of Castrimians after being displaced. She thinks about her feelings on losing her runny-sack, “There wasn’t much in it that still mattered to you, but the bag itself holds a certain sentimental value, at this point. Well. Everyone’s lost something” (The Stone Sky, 24). Essun has been through so many disasters at this point in the series that she cannot harp on the instability of her life because she is constantly forced to adjust to new circumstances. She initially laments over the fact that she lost her runny sack following the attack on Castrima-Under, but ultimately accepts that everyone loses something in the tragedies that one faces.

This project examines not only a highly damaging calamity, but also the reverberations of that event through both the environment and humanity. These reverberations can be observed through the art that people have produced in response to the earthquake as well as the long-term effects that the disaster has had on Tohoku. The importance of these lasting impressions left on both people and place is in our ability to understand how to cope with this and possible future situations, in other words to help prepare us for similar events in the future. The art that Yoshimoto created in response to the earthquake and tsunami is symbolic of the way that life, through tragedy and survival, ultimately affects the way that art is created. While we still may not know which imitates which, it is safe to say that natural disaster is a great inspiration for the art that follows. In Jemisin’s works, natural disaster is used as a premise to talk about the relationship between modern society and the environment.

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