What sparked your interest in a story set in Nagasaki? Of the two cities targeted by the atomic bombs, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, why did you choose Nagasaki?
I’m going to have to take you back to 1993. I was 21 years old. I’d graduated from university with a degree in English and had no idea about what I wanted to do in terms of a career. As I trawled job advertisements at my parents’ home, a friend who was working at a school in Japan wrote out of the blue: “Come here. You’d love it. You can teach.”
In that weird synchronicity of life, an advert appeared in a newspaper looking for graduates to apply to GEOS, at that time one of the world’s biggest English language schools. I got the job and was allocated, at random, to the city where I’d be teaching: Nagasaki. Fate, I guess, or luck, led me there. I loved my own small piece of Nagasaki: the curious ramshackle home I rented with the hole in the floor in lieu of a flushing toilet, the tatami mats and paper sliding doors in the bedroom, the tailless cats that loitered on my doorstep, the lack of street names that le me lost on my rst night, the temples and shrines and foreigner cemeteries, the food, and the sheer adventure of being dropped into a world so alien I had my own “alien registration” card.
I knew I wanted to set my first book in Nagasaki but I was wary about tackling the atomic bomb. It was too big a topic, the devastation real and not imagined, the aftermath still felt by generations of families. However, every time I wrote about the city, the plot—or rather the characters—took me back to the Second World War. And so reluctantly, and cautiously, I began to feel my way towards a story about an elderly woman called Amaterasu Takahashi who had lost her daughter and grandson when Bockscar dropped Fat Man over Nagasaki—and who had lived with that loss for forty years.
During my two years living in Nagasaki, I attended the 50th anniversary of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki Peace Park, alongside 30,000 more people who gathered together in the stifling heat to remember the dead. I watched a small boy eat ice cream by a fountain built to commemorate the fatally injured who had cried out for water. I stored the memory of that boy away and later he turned into Hideo Watanabe, the seven-year-old child seemingly killed on August 9, 1945.
Decades pass in the book, and a man going by the same name arrives on the doorstep of Amaterasu’s home in the US to declare he is the grandson she thought dead. e adult Hideo has a type of retrograde amnesia and I wanted his condition to reflect a certain historical amnesia that we have in the West with regards to the atomic bombs. Nagasaki was the second city hit. When we talk about nuclear war Hiroshima is more often cited. at’s quite a thing, to have second billing but to have shared the same horror.
Beyond inspiring my first novel, Nagasaki has had a huge impact on my life. It gave me my first job as a teacher, later my profession as a journalist—and wonderful memories.
On my first night in the city, a sushi restaurant owner, who also happened to be a former boxer, declared: “For as long as you live in Nagasaki I will protect you.” I feel the book is my way of repaying my debt to all the kind people who looked after me when I lived there. They protected me when I was young and a long way from home.
Family and relationships are central to this novel, especially the secrets we keep and the question of how well we can ever know those closest to us. Why did you choose to explore the history of Nagasaki’s bombing through the lens of family?
The statistics are hard to verify, people were on the move, the war was chaotic, so we will never know how many people in total died in Nagasaki because of the bomb, but one estimate is 75,000, with half of that number killed that day. How can one person, one reader, one writer assimilate, comprehend and articulate that loss? e number is too big. So step back, and take another step back and another until you are le with just one family and one single perspective: Ama, a survivor, a hibakusha.
I wanted to imagine what happens when personal and public history collide. Ama’s relationship with the bomb is more complicated than just being a victim. She believes herself responsible for her daughter and grandson’s deaths. She feels her actions, her aws, her determination to try to control the world around her—and those she loves— is the reason they are killed. She drove them to Urakami, the epicenter. When we meet Ama, in her early 80s, she is still carrying this guilt. Why should she get to live when those closest to her die? is is her torment.
I wanted to explore what happens when our own “small” lives—the secrets we keep, the harm we try not to do but do, the compromises we cannot bear to make—are overshadowed by one bigger moment that de nes us for the rest of our lives. e bomb is the physical force that destroys Ama’s family, but she is also an emotional force that causes untold damage, she thinks. People feel sorry for her because of the former and she hates herself for the latter.
Ama lives with her failings every day until a man who claims to be her grandson begins to suggest she can forgive herself, that regret and guilt are not necessarily the end of her own story. at maybe she can allow herself a happier ending.
How did you research this novel? Were there any organizations or resources in particular you accessed?
I was lucky to meet people involved in peace organizations based in Nagasaki, whose message was a simple one: “Never again.” I also read a lot of memoirs from people living in the city when the bomb dropped. Perhaps one of the best known is the Bells of Nagasaki by Takashi Nagai, a doctor who movingly recounts his experience as a survivor. He also collated other memoirs, the most a ecting being, for me, the accounts from children.
Another extraordinary resource was Japan at War: An Oral History by Haruko Taya Cook and eodore F. Cook. is is a stunning compilation of recollections by ordinary Japanese. I used my own knowledge of Nagasaki, my memories of living there twenty years ago: the Dutch Slope, Glover Gardens, the bath houses, the diving platform at Iojima, my own home, they are all places I visited and loved. I also read other novels based in the city: Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of the Hills and Eric Faye’s Nagasaki are wonderful. David Mitchell’s e ousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is another book inspired by the city’s rich history.
I did background reading on the medical e ects of the bomb: the di erent kinds of burns, the signs of radiation sickness, how the doctors attempted to help so many wounded with limited resources. I was speci cally interested in how fetuses were a ected. Many miscarriages occurred in the a ermath of the bombing, and in babies who were born live there were reported cases of microcephaly, a developmental brain disorder. I wanted to think about the damage done not just on the day of August 9, but the legacy the bomb le in the bones and blood and organs of the children. I was also in uenced by one Japanese doctor who I used to teach who was studying gigantism in children. In the book, Jomei Sato is a doctor working at an orphanage and we follow his research into the medical impact the radiation may have had on some of the children he meets there.
What was most surprising to you from your research?
I guess for any writer, one of the joys, but dangers, is how seductive research is. Every book, or journal, or photograph or rst-hand account begs to be included. You want the story to be an honest re ection, right? e result is an ever-expanding jigsaw puzzle that just keeps growing until the point where you have to give yourself a strict talking to and say, “Enough, just write!”
The next tough task is the great cull: what stays and what goes? What would the characters know, what would be hidden from them, what do you have to le away if you want your story to ring true? What details of nuclear injury are too distressing to include? When Ama and her husband Kenzo leave Japan, he ends up unwittingly working for an American shipyard that helped develop the bomb. I didn’t realize that at rst until I was fact-checking. I remember sitting back shocked, on his behalf.
The question then becomes: would he have known this, and if he did, what would he have done?
I also didn’t realize how emotionally exhausting the work would be. I wouldn’t recommend spending years reading about violent and mass death. It took me to some dark places, something I just hadn’t prepared for. Reading about other people’s grief is humbling. I hope I have treated their memories with care and respect.
A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is set both in more recent history in the United States and, through ashbacks, Japan in the first half of the 20th century. How did you decide to structure the novel this way
Memory isn’t linear so why does story-telling need to be? Our past, present and future are all gloriously, irrevocably, and sometimes terribly linked.
My own family history probably also played a part in the structure of the novel. My maternal granddad was killed in Normandy, France on August 5, 1944 and my paternal grandfather fought against the Japanese in Burma, but died before I was born. ese men are strangers and yet their legacy lives on through their o spring. My mother will never stop mourning a father she never knew. Two slices of history collide and run parallel: the living cohabit with the dead. How are our lives shaped, or lessened, by such loss and how can we understand our selves fully if there are these missing chunks in our past?
I will confess I didn’t appreciate how tricky the split-time narrative would be. I had endless notes to check that the births, deaths, and marriages aligned. Chapters were shunted back and forward, others were erased, historical dates had to be slotted in and then worried over. Despite the challenge of weaving the two timeframes, I loved how it helped drive the plot forward, showing why Ama’s present is a product of her past but also how she might carve out a different future.
You bring Amaterasu to life so vividly on the page. Was it challenging to inhabit a character whose time and culture are so different from your own?
Yes. In fact for a long time I wanted my main character to be a Western woman, so that I had a point of reference: me. But I wasn’t hugely interested in writing my story! And the joy of writing is the freedom it allows you to inhabit other lives, cultures, and genders. Luckily I also had three women who inspired Amaterasu.
When I lived in Nagasaki, my landlord was an elderly lady, elegant and sprightly despite her age, who lived in the house next to mine with her disabled husband. We would take tea together whenever I paid the rent and amiably sit together and laugh away at conversations neither of us understood as my Japanese was poor and her English non-existent. Despite our inability to communicate her personality shone through. The twinkle in her eyes suggested a rich life lived beyond her final role as a carer for her husband.
A few years ago I was also privileged to meet a woman of the Baha’i faith who had ed Iran 35 years ago when the Khomeini regime came to power. Her daughter, a young beautiful university graduate, stayed behind and was killed in the repressive wake of the revolution. We met weekly at a sauna with two other women in their late seventies. Her English wasn’t uent but somehow we would nd a way to talk, tell our stories and laugh. e loss of her daughter raised one of the main questions in the book: how do we carry on when we lose those closest to us? How do we learn to smile again? Are we ever free from grief?
The last woman is my own grandmother, who became a widow at 19 years of age during the Second World War. She already had one baby girl and my mother, Roberta, was born a month a er my granddad, Robert, died. My gran, Nancy, left school at 14, worked in factories most of her life, raised two children and two stepchildren, married a much older man. Gran was my heroine. Ama would have been a little older than Nancy but I think they share a certain stoicism—even if I suspect both would have hated that description. One of the women in the book says: “Women make do.” I don’t want that to sound depressing! It’s a compliment to women of that generation. ey got on with life. Gran never le the house without her make-up on. We present our best face to the world. What else can we do?
As for Ama’s background, well, without giving the plot away, I’d gained a small insight into her earlier life through contacts in Nagasaki. Her splendid house in the city is a composite of some of the lovely homes some students lived in. But in the end Ama is her own being and I didn’t want her solely de ned by how her Japanese culture would have cra ed her. I had a strong visual sense of what she looked like, how she moved
and spoke but mostly I felt her pain, her anger, her quiet, determined removal from the world. Ama’s flaws are the flesh on her bones, I hope.
You include Japanese words and their de nitions at the start of each chapter. Where are they from? Why did you decide to use them, and how do they relate to the title of the book? What does the book’s title mean to you?
When I moved into my first apt in Nagasaki I found two books left behind by the departing teacher I was replacing. The first one was called An English Dictionary of Japanese Culture by Bates Hoffer and Nobuyuki Honna (1986). Each definition appears in Japanese with an English translation and is sometimes accompanied by fairly crude but delightful drawings. I picked defnitions from the book to form most of the chapter headings. For example the book begins with a definition of yasegaman (endurance). It means the combination of yaseru (to become skinny) and gaman-suru (to endure), or to endure until one becomes emaciated. e language seemed exhilarating di erent, so vivid and visual.
But beyond the delight of the language itself, I wanted the chapter headings to provide a layer of understanding about some of the cultural mores the characters might be in uenced by. I aimed to give readers who were not Japanese a shortcut into that world, a code of sorts since many of the tensions experienced by the characters might be internal ones not expressed verbally. For example, take another de nition, sasshi. is can be translated as “understanding” or “conjecture” and refers to the idea that direct self-expression is frowned upon, people are expected to guess what others intend to say. By including sasshi, I hoped readers would understand that what is being said might not be what is being felt. The silences may be where the story lies.
The second book is called Nagasaki Peace Trail, compiled by the organization Mutual Understanding for Peace Nagasaki (MUP). The guidebook provides a history of the city, a walking trail of landmarks a ected by August 9, 1945 and a glossary of terms related to the atomic bomb. Seeing the translations of those terrible words—charred bodies, men literally like rags, ruined city—moved me deeply, not just the words themselves, but also the image of a group of people sitting down and wondering: how do we educate people who are not Japanese about the bomb from a Japanese point of view?
I think that drive for communication, the need to nd common ground, to reach some “mutual understanding” despite differences in language, culture and geography, is a glorious ambition.
I did toy with book titles that were a lot shorter. It is a mouthful! at’s part of the point. Communication isn’t easy, neither is appreciating another point of view so di erent from our own, especially if that point of view comes from a person once labeled an “enemy.”
When we meet Ama she has been living in America for years but her English is still poor. is suits her. She doesn’t want to communicate with neighbors; she wants to be cut o by her lack of vocabulary and grammar. If she can’t speak English, she can’t tell her story. Her journey is about learning to converse with the past rather than rejecting it. Can she reach a mutual understanding with people who are no longer alive?
Japanese people might look at the novel and think: “Hmm, so you’ve decided to write a book set during one of the most painful periods of our history from the point of view of a Japanese woman when you don’t speak the language, have not been brought up in the culture and were not alive at the time? Really?” The title is also meant to acknowledge that I am attempting to cross cultures to reach common ground.
Clearly I am not a man. I am not Asian. I’m not a soldier. But when I read accounts from Japanese soldiers of those nal days of war as they marched, diseased and starving, through stinking jungles and rotting coastlines, I can imagine the su ering. I recall stories of men clinging together in one nal embrace as they detonated a hand grenade between them, or soldiers collecting the ngers of fallen comrades so that some part of the dead could be cremated and returned to their families. ese men fought against my paternal granddad in Burma, but in those moments of death, I don’t see sides taken, I just see young men dying. I guess that is my attempt at mutual understanding.
August 2015 was the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9). How do you think the lessons learned from that time resonate in our current political climate?
Peace organizations continue to work hard for the removal of nuclear weapons, and those two cities remain a compelling incentive. Seventy years have passed with no third bomb detonated. However, Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn’t stop more atomic bombs being built or more nations developing nuclear capability. Despite the sophistication of our conventional weapons, we appear to be determined to retain nuclear arms. Next year the UK will vote on whether to renew its current generation of nuclear weapons, known as Trident. For the moment, the nukes remain.
Recently I saw a photograph taken of a French nuclear test in French Polynesia, in the 70s, I think. If you just look at the image and not what it represents, it’s beautiful, an intense are of orange and red, and in the foreground the outline of palm trees in shadow, black against a mushroom ball of light and heat. Our experience of nuclear war will soon solely be contained to photographs, old images and words on paper, or screen. Flesh-and-blood witnesses, survivors, will die out within a generation. We need to keep listening to what they have to say, document their words and speak up for them when their voices are silenced.
Nuclear weapons represent our capacity for unfathomable cruelty. Maybe we just have to keep asking ourselves these questions: Have those two bombs deterred other con icts? Will Nagasaki and Hiroshima stop further nuclear warfare? Is the horror of an estimated 240,000 being killed by two bombs enough to stop us pushing the red button again? How much faith do you have in the human race?
What do you want people to take away from reading your book?
I hope you’ll be moved and uplifted by Ama’s story but I’m not sure she’d want you to feel sorry for her. I’d hope people might better appreciate the cost of war from all sides of a conflict. I’d hope people would think about the simple questions that tend to get lost among the big political arguments about nuclear arms. Why do we still have these weapons? Can we not imagine a world free of them?
Away from war, I guess the book is also about how we love people. Can we love too much, and can that be as damaging as loving too little? Do our regrets grow or diminish as we age? Can we forgive others for their trespasses upon us? More importantly, can we forgive ourselves? Is that not what we all want in the nal moments of life? Peace.