Thirty years ago Susan Southard heard Taniguchi Sumiteru, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, give a talk in Washington, D.C. The next day, as chance would have it, she was asked to be his interpreter.
Southard spent the next two days with Sumiteru, who wore the scars of the bomb on his back and in his psyche, listening to his story, asking him questions and learning more about the effects of the U.S. bomb than she had ever learned in school. That meeting became the foundation of “Nagasaki, Life After Nuclear War,” which tells the stories of five teenagers, hibakusha (as those affected by the bomb are called) from the hours immediately before the explosion on Aug. 9, 1945, to present day. Published last year to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the bombing, the book is now out in paperback and was recently named the 2016 nonfiction winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Southard will be at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Monday reading from the book.
Southard, who recently moved to Southern Pines to be near her parents, says that when she decided to write the book she was shocked to learn that, while there were books about the decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and books that looked at the immediate aftermath of the bombs, there were none that looked at the long-term impact of nuclear war.
It’s an omission that goes hand in hand with how many Americans have long dealt with the bombings. At the time, the U.S. government censored news accounts, photographs and scientific research, she writes, adding that the common response from many Americans to the bombing was that “the Japanese deserved what they got.”
Even today, in schools and in the public discourse, she says, “There is rarely any discussion of what happened beneath the atomic clouds. And almost never ... is there any discussion of what’s happened in the 70 years since.”
Her book was 12 years in the making, requiring numerous trips to Nagasaki for research.
All the interviews were done in Japanese, a language she learned while spending 13 months in the country in a student abroad program. But she didn’t rely on her own language skills exclusively.
“I worked with a team of seven translators,” Southard explains. “I wrote my foundation questions for my interviews in English and asked one of the translators to translate them into really good Japanese because I wanted to make sure I didn’t make an error in asking a question.”
She was able to handle the give-and-take conversation of the interviews but then brought her tapes home to her team for translation and transcription.
Southard’s career – she is the founder and director of Essential Theatre in Phoenix – was good preparation for the listening. “My whole professional life has been dedicated to listening to the stories of people who have been marginalized. Our theater company brings those stories to artistic life,” she says.
But the narrative structure was new to her. And Southard knew that the story she was telling – the descriptions of the death and destruction, the pain of the survivors and their families – would be emotionally difficult for people and that it required a strong narrative to keep people reading. To be able to tell the story well, she went back to school and received a masters in creative writing.
“I really grew to love the survivors whose stories I was telling, and getting their stories told accurately and ideally with a narrative structure and a narrative voice that would allow people to continue reading, even when it was hard, was so important to me,” she says. “It took a lot of focus for me to do that. I wanted people to ultimately feel and know the survivors in the way that I did.”
The survivors were in their 70s and 80s when she met them – “idiosyncratic, sweet and sad and funny and angry.” Some had been disfigured by the bomb’s searing heat; others were able to hide the scars under clothing. All suffered pain and illness caused by injuries received from the blast or radiation poisoning. During the course of her work on the book, two died from cancer.
In addition to the five whose stories are the focus of the book, Southard met with many other survivors, some who had never spoken about their experiences publicly – not even to their families. The desire to keep their status as hibakusha secret was strong, she says, because of the discrimination many faced after the war. Employers didn’t want to hire those exposed to the bomb because they were more likely to suffer from everyday ailments such as cold as well as suffer from debilitating illnesses – and finding a marriage partner was hard for the same reason, and over fear that a child born of one or two survivors would have genetic defects.
Southard says she has kept in touch with her subjects and their families.
Taniguchi Sumiteru, who started Southard on her journey, is now 87. “He lives in extreme pain every day,” she says. “The last time I saw him it was very evident that it was wearing on him beyond anything I had ever seen before. ... The strength and the courage that it takes to live every day is beyond my full ability to understand.”
In November, after “Nagasaki” was published, she returned to Nagasaki to say thank you. Because the book is in English it has not been widely read in Japan, but she said word had gotten out that she had honored their stories and they were appreciative.
“Not because of their personal stories,” she says. “But because they feel that nuclear weapons are not understood and they want to ensure that Nagasaki is the last bombed city in history.”
Southard says the experience, though arduous, was also wonderful: “It changed me as a human being, and I’m eager to do another project.”
As for what that might be? “I think it will most likely be in the same vein of really important stories that haven’t been told yet and that matter to our nation’s history.”
Meet the author
Susan Southard speaks at 7 p.m., Monday at Quail Ridge Books, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Rd., Raleigh