When Susan Southard was a high school student in the early 1970s, a study abroad trip to Japan brought her to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. There, looking at photographs of the city’s atomic bomb victims along with her fellow Japanese classmates, a “visceral understanding of war” awakened in her, as she explains. It would take Southard several decades to find language, imagery, and characters to map the horror of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki that she first saw in those photographs.
This path culminated in her new work of narrative journalism, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, which traces the lives of five victims of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki from their childhood when the event occurred to their adult life coping with the social isolation that comes with being hibakusha, or “bomb-affected people,” to their old age.
While compassion is a substantial component of Southard’s storytelling, another equally impressive component in Nagasaki is the author’s thoroughness. An early chapter describing the day of the bombing opens with the instant the bomb exploded; Southard’s description of the moment, which spans two pages, takes no shortcuts: “The five-ton plutonium bomb plunged toward the city at 614 miles per hour...” it begins and moves through describing the bomb’s flash of light, its burst point—“the center of the explosion reached temperatures higher than at the center of the sun”—the “blazing fireball” that it created, the infrared heat rays “traveling at the speed of light,” the atomic cloud, the horizontal blast, and of course the “larger doses of radiation than any human had ever received [that] penetrated deeply into the bodies of people and animals.”
Hundreds of sources—scientific, medical, and individual stories—make up this chapter, which made it incredibly time-consuming and complicated to organize, according to Southard. She used the story of each survivor as a point of search for other stories and contextual information, so that as a whole she could, as she explains, “capture concentric circles of impact from the hypocenter of the bomb out.”
One of Southard’s points, subtly expressed throughout the book, is that the lives of the hibakusha didn’t end with the bomb, so why should their stories? One of her favorite subjects is a survivor named Yoshida Katsuji. A young child when the bombing occurred, he was standing in a field with his friends, looked up towards the sky, where he saw two parachutes that the planes carrying the atomic bomb had dropped to measure blast and radiation. He was facing the bomb when it exploded; because of this his face was very badly burned. “When he started telling me this story—I met him I believe when he was in his mid-70s—he got so animated and so alive and intense about it,” Susan recounts. But his post-bombing story was just as inspiring for Southard. She marveled at how kind and funny he was, considering he had lived through nuclear war. “It was a conscious decision on his part,” she explains. “Eventually he decided that he was going to be happy.”
In the wake of the atomic bombings, no one in either Japan or the United States wanted to hear stories like Katsuji’s. On the one hand, as Southard lays out in the book, the American and Japanese censorship around the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima constituted a substantial force against both journalism of the events at the time and the formation of historical records. On the other hand, most survivors themselves did not want to make their experiences public for many reasons, including avoiding the discrimination that comes with being hibakusha.
But at least some of those who wanted their voices heard found a sympathetic and responsible witness in Southard—a first step in building an informed history of the bombings. “Whether or not a reader agrees with the use of the bombs or disagrees with the use of the bombs, I think that it’s important for us to know the impact of our decisions,” Southard says. “These survivors are unique in all of human history.”
Alexia Nader is a writer living in San Francisco and a senior editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly.