[Featured image credit: Still from film Hiroshima mon amour; Dir. Alain Resnais, Screenplay by Marguerite Duras, 1959]
The following is talk that was originally given on Monday, August 3, 2020, at the Pacific Northwest College of Art Low-Residency MFA Program’s Summer Residency.
And what do stories afford anyway? A way of living in the world in the aftermath of catastrophe and devastation? A home in the world for the mutilated and violated self? For whom—for us or for them?
– Saidiya Hartman, Venus in Two Acts
What is the first thing that comes to mind when I say—and when you hear: Hiroshima.
At 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945 (Japan time), the United States attacked the civilian population of Hiroshima with an atomic bomb, killing, in less than a second, approximately 80,000 people, injuring 80,000 others, and killing an additional 150,000 people in the following months. At 11:01 on the morning of August 9, 1945 (Japan time), the United States attacked the civilian population of Nagasaki with an atomic bomb, killing, in less than a second, approximately 70,000 people, injuring 60,000 others, and killing an additional 80,000 people in the following months. 1945 is not long ago. And yet, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are as much the invocations of a seemingly inaccessible past as they are specters of an ongoing present.
I am going to talk today about two literary works that address the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, in particular, especially the aftermath of the bombing: John Hersey’s Hiroshima and Marguerite Duras’s Hiroshima mon amour. I have chosen these for a few reasons: (1) they are two of the most well-known and often-cited works, in the west, about Hiroshima, which is largely and unfortunately because (2) they were both written by white western writers (one American, one French), therefore (3) they are works that, in my opinion, contribute to a firewall against a genuine understanding of the bombing, therefore (4) they are—or could be—instructive in the ways that the bombing—and disaster and atrocity, in general—are transformed in memory and imagination, by writing, and (5) they are exemplary of the idea that the main subject of writing about Hiroshima, but especially western writing about Hiroshima, is, essentially, the subject of writing about Hiroshima, as opposed to Hiroshima itself. And though it is possible that I—a Japanese American whose grandfather and great-grandmother and great-great-grandfather were all born in Hiroshima—though it is possible that I detest these works, I also feel the need to address them, in order to address the ways that I, as a western writer, also contribute to the firewall against understanding.
I want to start by sharing a story about a young woman named Toshiko Sasaki. Sasaki is one of the six hibakusha—or survivors of the atomic bomb—that John Hersey writes about in Hiroshima. Hersey’s book originally appeared, in its entirety, in the August 31, 1946 edition of The New Yorker. It is the only time in the magazine’s nearly 100 years that an entire issue has been devoted to a single piece of writing. That piece of writing was a portrait of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath. It was the first time the story of what happened in Hiroshima was shared widely with a western audience. I say story because it is a narrative, or six dovetailing narratives, that, though overwhelmed by horror, makes the horror accessible; and I say story because it reads like a novel, the function of which, as James Baldwin tells us, is the power of revelation, a journey toward a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims; and I say story because stories are the modes of expression that are the easiest for western audiences to digest and—most importantly—disregard.
Toshiko Sasaki was 20 when Hiroshima became the world’s first target of an atomic bomb. Sasaki worked in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, one mile from what became ground zero. On the morning of August 6, 1945, Sasaki was at work, sitting at her desk—she was putting something into her desk drawer—when her office was filled, as if inflated, with blinding light, then with the sound of a massive explosion. The East Asia Tin Works collapsed; a bookshelf fell on Toshiko’s leg, the roof fell on the bookshelf, Toshiko’s leg was crushed. She was buried, with all of her coworkers. Sasaki was eventually discovered, pulled out of the rubble, and taken to an elementary school in Hatsukaichi, several miles southwest of Hiroshima, where she spent a few weeks, before being transferred to the Red Cross Hospital in Hiroshima. She was transferred by car. Here is a passage from Hersey’s book about Sasaki re-entering Hiroshima:
This was the first chance she had had to look at the ruins of Hiroshima; that last time she had been carried through the city’s streets, she had been hovering on the edge of unconsciousness. Even though the wreckage had been described to her, and though she was still in pain, the sight horrified and amazed her, and there was something she noticed about it that particularly gave her the creeps. Over everything—up through the wreckage of the city, in gutters, along the riverbanks, tangled among tiles and tin roofing, climbing on charred tree trunks—was a blanket of fresh, vivid, lush, optimistic green; the verdancy rose even from the foundations of ruined houses. Weeds already hid the ashes, and wildflowers were in bloom among the city’s bones. The bomb had not only left the underground organs of plants intact; it had stimulated them. Everywhere were bluets and Spanish bayonets, goosefoot, morning glories and day lilies, the hairy-fruited bean, purslane and clotbur and sesame and panic grass and feverfew. Especially in a circle at the center, sickle senna grew in extraordinary regeneration, not only standing among the charred remnants of the same plant but pushing up in new places, among bricks and through cracks in the asphalt. It actually seemed as if a load of sickle-senna seed had been dropped along with the bomb.
I often return to this passage. I return to it for a few reasons. For one, it bothers me. I also return to it—or am led back to it—because this passage appears in Hiroshima mon amour, a film written by Marguerite Duras and directed by Alain Resnais. Duras makes use of this passage to illustrate a point, or a perspective. I will get back to that later. I want to attempt, first, to talk through what bothers me about this passage, because what bothers me about it, is, I think, what bothers me about writing, especially writing that attempts to confront and address disaster and atrocity.
The first thing I want to point out is the curiousness of the inventory of weeds and wildflowers—the curiousness, more specifically, of its precision. Is the inventory Toshiko Sasaki’s? Would Sasaki have been capable of identifying—from the window of a moving car, with such precision, and while in pain—bluets and Spanish bayonets, morning glories and day lilies, purslane and clotbur and sesame, etc.? Maybe. It would be nice to think so. Is the inventory Hersey’s? Was it that Sasaki shared with Hersey her memory of re-entering Hiroshima, and how the sight of weeds and wildflowers gave her the creeps, and that Hersey took what Sasaki remembered, and turned it into a story—turned it, that is, into literature—by putting precise names to the weeds and wildflowers, and, in the case of the sickle-senna, by infusing and conflating the weeds and wildflowers with the might, if not the DNA, of the bomb itself. It actually seemed as if a load of sickle-senna seed had been dropped along with the bomb, Hersey writes, which is not what Sasaki said, but what the writer said, because that is what a writer does: takes fragments of memories and completes them. By completing her memory with a precise inventory of weeds and wildflowers, Hersey buried Sasaki’s memory beneath the inventory, and beneath his nomination, therefore valorization, of the weeds and wildflowers. The weeds and wildflowers were her observation, her vision, and also—and most importantly—her disquiet. Hiroshima was her city. The experience of witnessing the annihilation of her city was her experience, as was the experience of seeing weeds and wildflowers growing in the ruins of that annihilation. Hersey was, as every writer should be, a consummate listener; he made himself available for those moments of unexpected illumination. And yet Hersey retells Sasaki’s experience with the disquiet removed. Because the thing about being a writer who makes themselves available for those moments of unexpected illumination: the writer begins to expect the unexpected illumination, sometimes even inventing it, and in an effort to present a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims (Baldwin again), including the claim—sometimes subtle, sometimes uneven, sometimes unintelligible, sometimes silent—of the disaster itself.
Does all terror become literary? Dionne Brand asks, on the second to last page of A Map to the Door of No Return.
It is important to remember—because it is easy to forget—that the memory that Hersey is completing here and throughout his book, is the memory of an experience that rendered the continuity and veracity of memory itself—against the sheer and unrelenting force, and the unfathomable effects, of the atomic bomb’s violence—impossible. And yet Hersey completes Sasaki’s memory in a (perhaps unconscious) attempt to transform what is often only half-remembered into something that transcends memory—even usurps and displaces memory—by being made permanent.
Let me say this more clearly: the writer takes what is forgotten—including what cannot be remembered—and transforms it not only into what is remembered, but into what cannot be forgotten.
What would it look like if we, as writers, were to refuse completion, especially when addressing and attempting to write through an event or an experience that is defined, in part, by violence committed not only against human life, but against the ability to perceive and remember? What would it look like if we were to establish, in our writing, a fidelity and a form of respect for what cannot be perceived, named, understood, remembered, recuperated, translated, and/or shared?
It is important to reiterate that the United States, under the direction of President Harry S. Truman, attacked Hiroshima with an atomic bomb, and then, three days later—and with a precise understanding of what it would do—attacked Nagasaki with a second atomic bomb; and it is important to reiterate that the atomic bomb was a collaboration between scientists and engineers and politicians from across the spectrum of the white western world. It is important to reiterate these facts because John Hersey is not inseparable from them. He was a descendant of the original settlers of Massachusetts. He was also a member of Skull and Bones, a secret society at Yale, that also included George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and innumerable other white men named George, John, William, Charles, Thomas, and so on. Skull and Bones is also known as The Brotherhood of Death.
Here is another piece of revealing trivia. Six years after publishing Hiroshima in The New Yorker, John Hersey published another piece in The New Yorker: a profile of President Harry S. Truman. For the piece, Hersey spent several days with Truman. Not once, during those several days, did Hersey ask Truman a single question about either the atomic bomb or Hiroshima, almost as if the subject which made both John Hersey and Harry S. Truman famous, and by which they were bound together in The Brotherhood of Death, did not exist.
The novelist Mary McCarthy wrote a letter to The New Yorker commenting on John Hersey’s Hiroshima. It is worth reading the entire letter, but for the purposes of this talk, I will just read a part:
What it did was to minimize the atom bomb by treating it as though it belonged to the familiar order of catastrophes—fires, floods, earthquakes—which we have always had with us and which offer to the journalist … an unparalleled wealth of human interest stories. The grandness of the disaster and the smallness of the victims are ideally suited to the methods of journalism, which exaggerates and foreshortens simultaneously. The interview with the survivors is the classic technique for reporting such events—it serves well enough to give some sense, slightly absurd but nonetheless correct, of the continuity of life. But with Hiroshima, where the continuity of life was, for the first time, put into question, and by man, the existence of any survivors is an irrelevancy, and the interview with the survivors is an insipid falsification of the truth of atomic warfare. To have done the atom bomb justice, Mr. Hersey would have had to interview the dead …
What does—or would or could—it mean to interview the dead? McCarthy’s injunction inflames the heart of any serious consideration of whether or not—and how—to write about disaster and atrocity, because it forces the question: if we focus on the living, i.e. those who survived, are we not reinforcing the idea that the atrocity was ultimately survivable?
How does—or can—one interview the dead?
In Hiroshima mon amour, a French woman (played by Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese man (played by Eiji Okada) meet in Hiroshima, and have an affair. The affair takes the form of a long conversation about Hiroshima. The woman, a tourist, tells the man, who is from Hiroshima, what she has seen in Hiroshima. I saw everything, she says. Everything. To which the man responds, You saw nothing. Nothing. This becomes the refrain, set against the images of the man and the woman making love, and against documentary footage of Hiroshima. Hiroshima mon amour is one of the only movies about the atomic bombing that not only takes seriously the impossibility of expressing what happened in Hiroshima, but enacts what seems to be the terminal condition of all writing about Hiroshima, which is: it erases it, it makes it disappear.
Let me say this even more clearly: to write about Hiroshima, is to make Hiroshima disappear.
Early in Hiroshima mon amour, the woman is telling the man about her visit to the Memorial Museum. She recounts what she saw in the museum: the photographs, the objects, the people. I saw the newsreels, she says. On the second day, History tells, I’m not making it up, on the second day certain species of animals rose again from the depths of the earth and from the ashes. The man interrupts her, You saw nothing, he says. Nothing. But the woman keeps going: … on the fifteenth day too. Hiroshima was blanketed with flowers. There were cornflowers and gladiolas everywhere, and morning glories and day lilies that rose again from the ashes with an extraordinary vigor, quite unheard of for flowers till then.
Then she says: I didn’t make anything up.
To which he says: You made it all up.
To which she says: Nothing.
At this point in the script—after the woman’s lines about the flowers—Marguerite Duras inserts a note that says: This sentence is taken almost verbatim from John Hersey’s admirable report on Hiroshima. First, because we have Hersey’s text, we know that Duras’s dialogue, even though it is here in English translation, is not almost verbatim; the gist is similar, but only morning glories and day lilies is identical. What is interesting is how Duras makes use of Hersey’s text, which is, of course, Toshiko Sasaki’s experience. In the mouth of the French woman, the revelation of flowers rising again from the ashes becomes several things: (1) a documentary retelling of what she learned in the museum, (2) an expression of astonishment, (3) a fascination with—and therefore a prioritization of—resurrection and rebirth, or the possibility of resurrection and rebirth, a prioritization which is also a form of self-acquittal, and finally (4) a further co-optation and perversion of Toshiko Sasaki’s experience. Marguerite Duras enfolds all of these things into the French woman, and into the flowers, and in the process adds another voice to what feels like a game of telephone: Toshiko Sasaki to John Hersey to Marguerite Duras to the French woman to Emmanuelle Riva, and now to me, and now to you.
The Japanese man, however, is not impressed; he is, in fact, indignant. You made it all up, he says. Later in the scene, the woman goes even further than saying I saw everything, to say I know everything. To which the man responds. You know nothing.
The woman’s perspective is that of a particular kind of tourist: the tourist who visits a place, sees a small and somewhat arbitrary number of things in that place, forces upon those things the burden of representing the truth of that place, and then proclaims, without irony, a knowledge of the truth of that place. This perspective overlaps, in many ways, with the perspective of the writer who tours the ruins of disaster and atrocity, and who imposes their subjectivity onto what they see, or half-see, or do not see at all; imposes and transposes, so that what endures, and under the mandate of literature, is the reflection of the writer’s foreshortening gaze.
But Hiroshima mon amour is not about how much the French woman has seen or knows versus what—or how little—she has actually seen or knows, nor is it about how much the man has seen or knows versus how little the woman has seen or knows, and so on, but is about, in part, the impossibility of seeing or knowing anything at all—of seeing or knowing anything at all about an atrocity that was so totalizing that even its victims were removed from the comprehension of what had happened. When the Japanese man says to the French woman, You saw nothing, You know nothing, not only is he saying that her perspective is preventing her from seeing or knowing anything, but that her gaze is turning what she did see, into nothing; that to look at something is transform it into nothing.
To write about Hiroshima, is to make Hiroshima disappear.
As Cathy Caruth writes about Hiroshima mon amour in Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History: The man’s denial suggests that the act of seeing, in the very establishing of a bodily referent, erases, like an empty grammar, the reality of an event.
If the act of seeing erases the reality of an event, how does one preserve and maintain the reality of an event, without seeing?
The Lebanese artist Jalal Toufic writes often about what he refers to as the surpassing disaster, which is a disaster that destroys not only human life, but material works that testify to human life, i.e. literature, art, music, film, i.e. archives, i.e. tradition. In his essay, The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster, he writes, Art acts like the mirror in vampire films; it reveals the withdrawal of what we think is still there. You have seen nothing in Hiroshima, Toufic writes, quoting Marguerite Duras’s Japanese man. And then Toufic asks the question: Does this entail that one should not record? No, he answers. One should record this “nothing,” which only after the resurrection can be available.
What does—or can—it mean to record nothing?
How does—or can—one interview the dead?
In order to consider the question of how to interview the dead, we must ask the question: who are the dead? Who are the people who were deprived of the privilege of being able to tell their own story? And how were they deprived of that privilege? These are a much different kind of the dead than those who survived long enough to claim the perverse privilege of having been a witness, before dying. These are the dead who remained unaware of what happened, or what was about to happen, and unaware that what was about to happen would someday require witnesses. When the United States attacked Hiroshima and Nagasaki, only were many thousands of people killed, but many thousands of people were incinerated. They were, in less than a second, reduced to ash. They were disappeared. And in being so disappeared, they were deprived not only of the privilege of being able to tell the story of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but they were deprived of the privilege of their own death. They were deprived of dying. Because how can you say that someone who was reduced to ash in less than a second, died? There was no transition between life and what the living very narrowly define as death, or being dead.
How does—or can—one interview the dead?
Interview: inter, from the Latin for between, but also from the Old English under, and from the Greek entera, or intestines. And view, from the Latin videre, to see. To interview then is not only to see face-to-face and ask questions, but: to see between, to see under, and to see the intestines.
To end at the beginning, or to begin at the ending: Toshiko Sasaki is enshrined in John Hersey’s Hiroshima, where she has been and is being made to perform, over and over and without end, her role as hibakusha, as survivor, therefore the memory of Hiroshima. And because she has been enshrined in John Hersey’s Hiroshima, she has been enshrined in American literature (and by extension French literature), and because she has been enshrined in American literature, she has been rendered into a literary figure, therefore an allegorical figure, by which I also mean that she has been embalmed. And not only has she been embalmed in American literature, but she has been embalmed in a very specific kind of American literature: the apologia masquerading as moral tale masquerading as cautionary tale masquerading as book of witness masquerading as journalism masquerading as history.
And yet Toshiko Sasaki, the person, moved on. Twelve years after the end of the war, and after twelve years of receiving no government assistance for her injuries, Toshiko Sasaki took vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, became a Catholic nun, entered the French order of the Helper of Souls, and changed her name to Dominique. Sister Dominique was appointed the director of the Garden of St. Joseph, on the island of Kyushu, where she worked for 20 years. The Garden of St. Joseph was a home for the elderly. There are several hundreds of thousands of things to think about when thinking about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One thing I am thinking about is what Sister Dominique might have shared of herself—what she might have shared of her life—with the elderly people whom she cared for in The Garden of St. Joseph. And by that I also mean: what she didn’t.
Alain Resnais, Hiroshima mon amour
Cathy Caruth, Literature and the Enactment of Memory, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History
Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return
Jalal Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster
James Baldwin, Everybody’s Protest Novel, Notes of a Native Son
John Hersey, Hiroshima.
Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima mon amour
Mary McCarthy, The Hiroshima “New Yorker,” The New Yorker
Saidiya Hartman, Venus in Two Acts