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Sachiko Yasui was six years old on August 9, 1945, when “Fat Man” exploded over her city, Nagasaki, just over half a mile from where Sachiko was playing house with a few other neighborhood children. Fifty years would pass before she decided to share her story, and with Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story, Minneapolis writer Caren Stelson brings it to American young people.
Roger Sutton: You say in the preface: “[Sachiko] would accept my proposal with one condition: she would tell her story only if she could look into my eyes.” Tell me about that. What did she mean?
Caren Stelson: She meant that she was not going to tell her story in a superficial way, without the details, the emotional impact. I think she needed to look into my eyes to know if I could comprehend what she was saying about her experience. She wanted to make that connection through the heart, not just the words. She’s a very deep, wise woman, and she was sharing her story in a very intimate way. I was honored.
RS: I wonder about this — if you experience something as a child, it’s just your own experience, right? But then as you grow older, you might realize the greater import of that personal experience. Do you have any sense of how that awareness grew for her?
CS: There was so much loss on all levels, of her family, her home, her world. She almost died from radiation sickness and thyroid cancer. There was so much struggle. If you are just trying to survive, there isn’t space to reflect on the deeper meaning or wider sense of what’s going on.
RS: You’re a part of it.
CS: You’re so much a part of it, you can’t even assess it. She and many of the hibakusha, which is the Japanese word for atomic bomb survivors, were in survival mode for so long. Maybe they still are, because that bomb is still ticking within them. They realize that they are among the very few in all of humanity who have survived nuclear war, something we are all terrified of. Because there are so few survivors left who can speak to that actual experience, we need to heed their words. I read a lot of hibakusha translated stories, eyewitness accounts. They’re all so poignant. They describe vividly what happened in August 1945 and the deep, horrible struggle. And they emphasize “Never again.” For Sachiko, what I heard about was her inner struggle for peace in order to heal from war. What struck me was not only the fact that she was one of a few children who survived that close to Ground Zero — half a mile; there were only a handful because it was almost impossible to survive that, so close. What struck me were the influences on her life of Helen Keller, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. When I heard those names, I thought, we all know those names. We have a chance to open ourselves up to her story.
RS: We don’t really connect those names with what happened in Japan at the end of World War II. Particularly Helen Keller — she was a great social crusader, but still not many people know about that part of her life.
CS: She’s like a rock star in Japan, even today. I was stunned by that. She gave the Japanese people such hope and courage after the war, through her own resilience and humanity. When I was in Tokyo I went to the national library, where I was able to track her whole tour through Japan in 1948. There were five thousand people at the Nagasaki train station waiting to see her. That happened all the way through Japan. There were huge crowds, songs being written about her. She made a big impression on everyone, including Sachiko.
RS: What kind of a message do you think your book will bring to kids in the U.S.? Do you know when schoolchildren learn about the nuclear bombing of Japan?
CS: It definitely comes up in high school when they’re studying World War II, when they’re reading Anne Frank or Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes — that might be earlier, in middle school. We’re recommending Sachiko for ages twelve and up, but I underline up. I think we all need it. I worried about this a lot, and I know Sachiko also worried about it when she spoke to kids in schools. She always said she didn’t want to present an apocalyptic story to children, even though she lived through an apocalyptic event.
RS: That is the operative word here.
CS: What she wanted was to give kids hope. She wanted to present herself as a resilient, strong person who reached for peace, who studied peace. Our small choices toward peace make a big difference — we don’t even know their ripple effect. The words we say to people — Sachiko says, “Every word is precious.” I think she wants to help children know that they have the inner strength to meet whatever hurdles they are going to find in their life, or if they’re already facing them, that they have the courage to find their way out. And she’s proof. If she can face what she had to, so can they. She’s got great empathy for children who are struggling. And aren’t we all struggling in some way?
RS: Did you find a particular challenge in framing her story for children?
CS: Yes and no. I knew that this story was going to be for young readers because that is my audience. And Sachiko’s true audience is young people too. So we were in agreement about that. But I was conscious of how much loss was in this book. How could I bring a young reader through such devastation? And I held back, even though what is on the page now is sometimes really tough reading. So how could I bring young people through this story without having them put it down and say, I can’t take anymore? I had to get to the peace. I had to think about how much history to bring to it without bogging down her story.
RS: How do you give readers enough information to understand this one individual? It’s a lot. It’s all of World War II. It’s the Japanese empire-building. It’s world history.
CS: I was very conscious of writing on a world stage, walking in Sachiko’s shoes. It was such a huge experience for me as a writer, to be in a situation that none of us would want to be a part of. To walk in those shoes, and walk in them as authentically as I could. Could I really do that? I felt an obligation to do it. And I just hope I came close.
RS: Did you have any differences with Sachiko about how the book would be shaped?
CS: She was very hands-off in terms of how the story was told. She gave me creative license about that. My translator would translate what I had written for Sachiko to read, and she would either keep nodding or let me know where I’d gone astray. I think she was so grateful that we were reaching out to American kids. She has spoken so much throughout Japan, her story was pretty well known there. But to have it here was something that she was really touched by.
RS: Do you know if there’s a book for young people in Japan? Or will yours become available there?
CS: I sure hope so. I know Lerner Publishing Group is talking with Japanese publishers. As far as I know there’s no book written about Sachiko, and certainly nothing like this. There are articles in the newspapers about her story. She’s been on national TV in Japan. She’s given lectures all over the country. But as far as a story for young people, I don’t think there is one.
RS: What would you say is the most important thing you have learned about what happened to Sachiko in the course of writing this book? What do you know now that you didn’t know when you started?
CS: I could write a book about that. This book is full of surprises for me. I can answer that question on two levels. On a personal level, I think I’m like one of those kids in the audience. She touched me so much with her resilience and her strength and just overcoming so much to become this wise person. She became like a mentor to me. It’s made me really think a lot about peace, reconciliation, forgiveness in my own life. I have taken her story into my own heart, and I know it’s changed me — changed my relationships, what I choose to do in my community. I believe that’s the power of her story. But the history, oh my. The history is so complicated. And we have this national narrative about the atomic bombing here in the U.S. The bomb ended the war, end of story. But really the bomb is a part of that story, and it did not end the war. We are in many ways still fighting that war and all of its ramifications. I was a history major in college, but I never really understood the complexity, particularly of the Pacific War, until I started reading about Sachiko. The impact of the Cold War — that’s my era. I grew up during the Cold War.
RS: Me too.
CS: Realizing that it started even before World War II ended.
RS: Yes, that was something your book reminded me of, that Russia was already moving in. Russia was assuming that the war was ending, and was already making plans in the Far East.
CS: There are a lot of questions. Was the decision to drop the bomb a warning to the Soviets as they were invading Japan, and not necessarily done to end the war in Japan? There’s a bridge between the history and my own personal life. My father was infantry in Europe — fought his way through Berlin — and his company was getting ready to be shipped to Japan. When I initially started researching, I felt such historical dissonance. I had that national narrative so embedded in me. It was so hard for me to shift away and say, Wait a minute, here is all this new information, and even newer information, because the censorship is now being lifted, and there’s new documentation. I had to almost step out of one paradigm into another to understand the history before I could even begin to write this story.
RS: That makes perfect sense. You had this one narrative of how the war went and what it meant, and you had to move outside that narrative before you could tell Sachiko’s story properly. Is that right?
CS: Yes. I don’t think it affected my feeling about the intrinsic heart of the story. But it made a greater impact when I started wrapping the intricacies of the history around Sachiko’s own story and seeing how complicated it all was. And then, fast forward, realizing we, too, are living in a very complicated time, and we need to beware of overly simple descriptions, those generalizations we accept without question. We say there are two sides to every story — but there are many more sides than two. Pay attention to all sides of the story, and hear what people have to say who’ve had very different experiences so we can better understand our world. It’s a very complicated world, and it’s a small world. It can be a very dangerous world. I think Sachiko’s story is as relevant now as it has ever been.