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Author Susan Southard

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AARON CAIN: Welcome to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. On Profiles, we talk to notable artists scholars and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is Susan Southard.


She's the author of Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War. It's an account of the bombing of the Japanese city and its aftermath as told through the stories of five survivors who were all teens on August 9th 1945. The book has received the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in nonfiction and the J. Anthony Lucas Book Prize and was also named a best book of the Year by The Washington Post, the Economist and the American Library Association. Southard holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and was a non-fiction fellow at the Norman Mailer Center in Provincetown Massachusetts. Recently Susan Southard was on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington where she gave a lecture entitled Beneath the Mushroom Cloud: the Aftermath of Nuclear War. It was part of IU’s 11th annual Themester, this time exploring the theme Remembering and Forgetting. While she was here she joined me for a conversation in the WFIU Studios. Susan Southard, welcome to Profiles.

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Thank you so much, Aaron.

AARON CAIN: You hold an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University in L.A., and you were also a nonfiction fellow at Norman Mailer Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. But that's already a little ways into your life as a writer. So, if we could, let's go back to the beginning. What first drew you into writing?

SUSAN SOUTHARD: This book, the idea of this book drew me into writing. After I started the book that became Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, I had gone to Nagasaki for my first research trip. I had begun translating my interviews into English. I had begun all the vast research that it required ultimately over 12 years but a year or two when I was starting to draft my – early, early drafts, just trying to figure stuff out and realized that I didn't have the writing skill that I wanted. So I went back for my MFA in the middle of working on this book.

AARON CAIN: Wow, so you had the thing you wanted to accomplish. And you realized halfway through accomplishing it that you might not quite have the tools.

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Yeah. Not quite halfway. Early on. Because the book took 12 years and it was, like, two years in that I started my MFA.

AARON CAIN: So MFA in hand as the book is ongoing, at what point did you start teaching graduate level non-fiction seminars?

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Most of those have come after the book has been published because the book gives me a credential that's different than being an MFA Holder without a published - not only a published book but since it was received very well - opened doors for that kind of thing. Because I don't teach them at one single university. I'm invited by different universities to come in and do a guest seminar and a reading and things like that.

AARON CAIN: One of the other places where you have directed creative writing programs was for incarcerated youth at federal prisons for women. How'd you get involved in that?

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Actually, it was two. One was incarcerated youth at a juvenile state prison and one was for incarcerated women at a federal prison. Well, I am the founder and artistic director of a professional theatre company in Arizona called Essential Theater. And we are in the field of theatre and social change, so that means all of our work is for and about the audiences, that we serve who are the marginalized communities across our region. Homeless adults and children, youth and adults in prison, men and women, well mostly women in this case, domestic violence shelters, many, many, many communities that have changed over the years. We used to work with refugees. We've worked with, in the 90s, men and women with HIV and AIDS. So many, many communities. We're in our 30th season now. So once I had the MFA, it was a natural extension for me to - in addition to doing performances and workshops with those communities to extend that into creative writing workshops. And I also worked with homeless adults for two or three years. The program for the Federal Prison for Women was likely my favorite project of hundreds and hundreds of projects that our company has done over the last 30 years because the women were so hungry to learn. They were falling out of their chairs, eager to learn and to work at their writing, and the progress they made and the beauty of their work was stunning. It was so fun and so rich and so fulfilling. Most of the time they did not write about their arrests or their prison life. One woman had gone to Ghana and gone through - I'm afraid I don't remember the name of the site, but it was the site on the coast, I think it was Ghana and if I'm wrong I'll stand corrected - where slaves were held until the ships came to load them on to come across the ocean. And she wrote this powerful, stunning piece about this place and the shadows and the memories that it held. Others wrote really comedic pieces and the readings that we had at the end of each 12-week program had audiences of about 70 or 80 other inmates. And it was one of their best experiences too. It was fantastic.

AARON CAIN: So, I'm trying to kind of put the timeline of you together a little bit, how the work with the essential theatre company in Arizona - did it pre-date the work that you did on Nagasaki?

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Yes. Long predated. So, I founded the theater in 1990. And I started the book in 2003.

AARON CAIN: So what interests me about the sequence of events is that there seems to be a commonality between writing the book about Nagasaki and this work. And that's the championing, the facilitating of stories that have not necessarily been told.


AARON CAIN: And I'm just wondering if you consider there to be something in your psychological makeup that predates any of this that accounts for that?

SUSAN SOUTHARD: I would say yes, although I'm not sure I would love to reveal all of that on public radio. But yes. I think so. And before I lived in Arizona I was living in Washington D.C. And I had the opportunity to study for seven or eight years with this magnificent theater and social change company, one of the first ones and probably the best ever, I think. It's the most powerful beautiful work I've ever seen called Living Stage. It was an outreach theater company of the regional theatre company called Arena Stage out of D.C. And they did workshops and performances for inner city communities. I studied with them. And then I got to observe their work. I asked if I could because the minute I walked in from my very first workshop with some of the ensemble, I was like, “I think I want to do this work.” It was so powerful and so beautiful and so empowering. That was the start. It was - I think that was ‘84 when I started the workshops with them. I did it as an actor to become more flexible, to become more connected to my emotional life and to be able to use that in my work as a scripted actor. But this company was classical improvisation not comedic, classical improvisational work and very, very physical and connected to the social issues of the time. And I did benefit greatly as an actor. But it opened my eyes to a way of using my work in theater in a completely different way. And I wanted to do it and I studied with them for so long because I needed to understand what they were doing kind of from the inside out.

AARON CAIN: It does seem that improvisation is often thought of in terms of either, say, jazz music on the one hand, or comedy on the other, and instead of being a larger part of the skill of storytelling. So looking back on the role that improv has played in your life, how do you think that's affected your ability to tell stories as a writer to champion stories of people who don't often tell them?

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Well I can tell you that our theatre company, Essential Theatre in Arizona, does improvised performance, different from what I learned at Living Stage. But it's an art form called playback theatre, which is not something we invented. It was created by Jonathan Fox and Joe Salas in upstate New York, some - I don't know maybe - 45 years ago something like that. They were trying to find a way to make the “fourth wall” - they call it - of theater disappear, and to have more of a direct relationship of what was happening onstage to the audience, and for the audience to have a more direct relationship to what was happening on stage. And they developed this form of theater called “playback,” where members of the audience tell stories from their lives and then the ensemble of actors and musicians bring that story to life using music, movement, improvised scenes to create a work of art that honors the story that's just been told. It's done all over the world, this playback theatre, at all different levels, at a community level all the way up to a professional level. And our company has now done that for almost three decades. And we've done tens of thousands of performances. And to answer your question - having listened to that many stories - so, within a single performance there may be six to eight stories we hear. Some are shorter, and we do short pieces. And some are longer. Or we do more full, almost like short plays. You know of the story having listened to so many and learning the skill and becoming more masterful at listening and imagining and putting ourselves into the story and what images and what sounds and what colors and metaphors come to us, because everyone in the audience has just heard the story. So we don't have to be completely literal. We can take it into metaphor and imagery and support it with music. Or a song may come and be the overarching holder of the piece. So having done so many stories over so many years, I think that was a huge part of what supported me, particularly in two ways, in writing Nagasaki. One was in listening to the survivor stories when I was interviewing them. I already had that skill of imagining it. And if there's something missing in my imagination, I could identify it and say, “could you tell me this?”

AARON CAIN: Is it almost like you're a physicalizing it or putting it on its feet as you were listening?

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Yes, yes. I mean, not on purpose. But it's already in me. So I mean I wasn't consciously doing that but that's just how I listen to any story now, even if I'm talking to a friend. So that made a big difference I think in my being able to really find the details that moved me that I knew that then I wanted to be able to include in the writing. And the second part is the actual writing process. I felt grateful for all of my experience in playback theatre and the listening to stories in the imagining and the telling in theatrical way. But in writing it's very different. But still, I had to find a way to create scenes ideally that would from the page enter the reader's imagination and become real. So what are the visceral details? What are the sensorious details that the reader needs to see or smell or hear or feel in order to step into the story more than just a straight narrative telling?


AARON CAIN: Susan Southard, author of Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War. You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Susan Southard was recently in Bloomington as part of Indiana University's Themester:  Remembering and Forgetting. Please note that portions of this conversation contain material that some might find disturbing.

AARON CAIN: It might be safe to say that for many people at least here in the states the awareness of Nagasaki is limited to it being the second part of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the two Japanese cities that were targets of the first atomic bombs in a pair of attacks that led quickly to the Japanese surrender that ended World War 2. It was a city that was bombed that ended the war. And that's kind of the end of it, I think, in many people's consciousness. But there's so much more to the story of this city and its people. And you've devoted 12 years to researching and telling the story. So can you talk about the very first time you visited Nagasaki?

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Oh, well, the very first time I visited Nagasaki was as a teenager oh so long ago. When I was 16, I lived in Japan as an exchange student for 13 months. I was a junior in high school. I went to a girls’ high school, really strict high school with my host sister. I was a junior. But the senior class every year goes on a weeklong field trip - this is traditional in most Japanese high schools. They go on a weeklong field trip somewhere in Japan. And in our school or at least that year the senior class went to Kyushu which is of the four main islands of Japan. It's the southernmost. And they very kindly invited me to go as part of their field trip because I didn't have a chance to travel around Japan as much as I might have liked to because I was a student in school. So I went with 350 girls, 50 girls per bus, on this caravan down to southern Japan. And we spent a week circling this smaller island of Kyushu and stopping at all these historic sites. So, one day, we were in Nagasaki. And it was really a life changing event for me, not something that I fully realized at the time but I think I felt it at the time. The museum didn't exist as it is now. It's a beautiful architectural piece now, the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. It was a ten-story brick building. And it was only the fifth floor had display cases. It was a cultural building that served many purposes. But the fifth floor was related to the bombing. And I stood there in front of glass cases. And in Japan at the time, the girls walked arm in arm or they held hands, which took a long time for me to get used to being always in physical contact with someone. But I eventually did. And by this time in my stay I was very comfortable with it. So we were always walking arm in arm linked or holding hands. And there I was with my friends standing in front of these cases. I had only very vague understanding that there had been an atomic bombing of Japan. I had moved around a lot as a kid and missed American history. You know, I always missed it by changing schools somehow. Although I wouldn't have learned much, but still I hadn't really learned much at all, even about when it happened or anything. And so I stood there, and these artifacts and photographs were so gripping and so grim and so intense that it stopped me in my tracks. And I was overwhelmed that my country had done this to Japan, which is a new country that I loved so much. Of course I had no context at that point yet about the Pacific War, about Japan's role in the war. I mean I knew Japan and started the war but that probably was all I knew at 16. That was my very first time. We were not there for too long, probably an hour or two. And then about 12 years later I was living in DC in 1986. And I went to hear a Nagasaki survivor speak I must have read about it in the paper. I'm not sure. And I went to hear him speak. And I found his story just mesmerizing. He was 16 at the time of the bomb. And he was 57 by then. His name is Taniguchi Sumiteru. And he had been riding his bicycle delivering mail. He was a postal delivery boy in the northwestern hills of Nagasaki when the bomb detonated and the blast winds and heat. He was over a mile away. And the blast went and he…it surged up behind him, knocked him off his bike. And he lay on the ground as the earth shook beneath him. He had no idea what had happened. And eventually he discovered that his entire back had been burned off. And so here was this man, now 57, standing before me in this - I think was in a church hall telling his story in this very quiet almost mumbling voice but very powerful. You couldn't see any of his injuries. But he had photographs of his back that were so unbelievable that he even survived. So that was the real first direct exposure I had to a survivor of either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. And strangely the next day I got a call. So, I had gone up afterwards after his talk and thanked him. I speak Japanese medium-OK and thanked him. And I must have given him my business card. I don't know. Somebody called me and said his translator couldn't fulfill the last two days of his time in D.C., could I step in to help? I jumped at the chance because I found him so interesting. And I wanted to know more about his life. But I was not equipped. I didn't even know how to say “atomic bomb” or “radiation” in Japanese. So I muddled my way through my time with him luckily most of his things were already written out. He spoke in Japanese. And I knew enough of Japanese to listen and know when he was pausing to read the English versions. However, I got to spend almost 20 hours when we were not at a presentation or at a meeting talking to him. I escorted him everywhere and we sat and talked over meals and back at the home where he was staying. We sat out and talked for hours each night and he allowed me to ask anything I wanted. And I did. That was the real seed of the book for me.

AARON CAIN: Nagasaki itself as a city, can you introduce us to the city and its interesting history before August 9th, 1945?

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Yes. It's a really fabulous history. So, it is on the western coast of Kyushu. So, it's on the side of Japan that faces China 500 miles across the East China Sea. And it's less than 200 miles from the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. So, it's a port city built around a really long narrow bay that juts into the coast. And at the head of the bay, the city is built all around. And then down by the side of the bay and beautiful lush green hills surround the city on three sides. It's a really beautiful city. In 1945 it was used for shipbuilding during the war. And there were also some weapons factories in Nagasaki. There's no military base. But the history of Nagasaki - what's one of the most interesting things is in the late 50s hundreds European ships trading with China discovered this little tiny agricultural village of Nagasaki and began trading with Japan for the first time. And there was some Christian proselytizing that started to happen within Japan. And it spread really fast. And the Japanese Shogunate at the time did not want that to happen. And there were mass killings. There was a suppression of Christianity, mass killings of Christians, both Japanese and European. And ultimately starting in the mid sixteen-hundreds, the Japanese Shogunate closed Japan's borders to the rest of the world for 200 years except for Nagasaki. They allowed Nagasaki to continue trading with the Dutch and the Chinese only as long as the Dutch agreed not to do any Christian proselytizing, which they did. So Nagasaki has this really rich international history of having people in their city from other nations when the rest of the country was closed off. The first Western medical school was established in Nagasaki in the late eighteen-hundreds. Now many cities in Japan are internationalized, and certainly very westernized, so it doesn't have quite the difference that it did back even in 1945. In 1945 all the Europeans were expelled. Anyone from another country, from an enemy nation, was expelled from the country. But before that, one of the survivors remembers having friends from a number of different countries and watching a Russian baseball player on the Nagasaki team who was a really great pitcher and helped Nagasaki's team rise to acclaim across the country. So there was this whole international aspect of the country that other cities at that time didn't have.

AARON CAIN: Through the 19th century into the 20th, even up to 1945, it also had a pretty large Catholic population didn't it?

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Yes. Thank you for saying that. Nagasaki had the largest Catholic church in the Far East. The Urakami church. It's now called the Urakami cathedral. Twenty thousand Nagasaki citizens were Catholic at the time. And almost all of them lived in the northern part of the city where that church was located and is - it's been rebuilt - and is located and that's where the bomb was dropped. And so eight to ten thousand Catholics were killed among the 74,000.

AARON CAIN: Also in the events leading up to the bombing, didn't Nagasaki host a lot of prisoners of war?

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Nagasaki had two major POW camps. And there were a number of POWs killed in the bombing. No Americans in Nagasaki. I believe there were some American POWs killed in Hiroshima. But you know the POWs helped in some of the initial rescue and recovery efforts, right in the area of their prison camps.


AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles. From WFIU, I'm Aaron Cain. Our guest today is Susan Southard, author of Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, and portions of my conversation with Susan Southard contain material that some might find disturbing. So, listener discretion is advised.

In your book, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, you focus on five survivors of the Nagasaki bombing. And in Japanese, a term was coined for them that didn't previously exist of course, survivors of an atomic attack: hibakusha. And one of these indeed was Taniguchi who you met in DC, became one of the five people whose stories you told. Can you take us through some of what some of those five people experienced on August 9th 1945?

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Sure. In Japan, by 1944, all students who were 14 or over were mandated by Japanese law to leave school and work for the war effort because they had lost all the men either in service in the war or they were already dead. So, they needed just to do everyday tasks. So, all of the five survivors whose stories I tell in the book were teenagers at the time of the bombing. The oldest was a Wada Koichi. He was a street car driver. And the morning of the bomb, he was driving his street car. And just by the most amazing fortune for him there had been a street car accident in the coming Valley where he was driving his street car. That's the northern part of the city where the bomb was dropped. So, he had to reroute and go back to the main terminal which was about two miles from where the atomic blast was. If that had not happened, he would have been right near the hypocenter and wouldn't have lived. But he was two miles away. And from two miles away, the terminal shook. Parts of the ceiling came down on top of him. And one of his most vivid memories at the moment of the explosion is that the lights flashed like a million light bulbs. He just - he gets really animated when he talks about this flash of light that was so, so bright. And he was one of the more fortunate ones also because of his distance from the hypocenter. He was injured but not dramatically. And he worked in the rescue and recovery efforts for weeks in the hypocenter area. But he was mostly focusing on trying to find all the other employees, especially the student workers at the street car company who were lost. He was trying to identify exactly where their train would have been at the time of the bombing; try to go find that train and see if he could find the body for the families. He was very dedicated all his life to trying to understand what happened to his peers. And then ultimately, he built a street car memorial that's in the hypocenter park that he got funded and used the wheels from a 1945 street car in it. And he was really dedicated to that. Taniguchi, I told you a little bit about, Taniguchi Sumiteru. He was blown off his bicycle. And his back was burned off. He was not found for three days. He lay on the ground face down, unable to move. He was carried to an air raid shelter and treated with a mixture of machine oil and newspaper ash that they put on his back because there was no medicine available. Most all had been destroyed. There was a little bit of mercurochrome somewhere in the city, but it wasn't where he was. And he stumbled out and then fell down on the ground. And that was the same day. And he stayed on the ground for three days before his grandfather, who had been searching for him, finally found him. His father was working in Japanese-held Manchuria, and his mother had died. His story is so dramatic because he received no medical treatment for three months. Unbelievable that he survived. And then once he got to a hospital, way, like, maybe 20 miles north of the city, he lay face down for almost four years. And the bed sores that he got were almost as bad as his injuries. They were so deep and so penetrating that the doctors could see his beating heart. And photographs of him as an older adult still show this completely bent and disfigured chest, as well as the rubbery scar-tissued back that he has. Then there is Nagano Etsuko. She was also 16 at the time of the bomb, like Taniguchi. And she was over the hills. She was working in a makeshift airplane parts factory alongside other men when the bomb exploded. And she thought a bomb had hit her building. That's how loud it was even though she was quite a ways away. And she fell to the ground. And her mouth was filled with choking dust and glass shards. But eventually she was able to stand up. And someone screamed at her that - this might have been a while later that she was able to stand up because they wouldn't have known right away - that the Urakami Valley had been hit. Of course nobody knew anything of what an atomic bomb was. So they only thought it was conventional bombing, possibly firebombing. And she raced out of the factory and all the way around the hills to the front of Nagasaki station where the hills open up and you can see the entire valley. She searched and searched and searched. There was nothing there. It was flattened and it was beginning to catch on fire. It was an area packed with houses and hospitals and schools and factories and shops. There was nothing there. And she couldn't even find a landmark to try to figure out where her house had been.

AARON CAIN: And then there was Do-oh.

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Then there was Do-oh. Do-oh Mineko, who was 15 at the time of the bomb. She was working in a Mitsubishi weapons factory, a torpedo factory alongside thousands of other students and adult workers pretty close to the bomb. But she was, to some degree, protected from the walls. Anything that was between a person and the detonation helped some. But in this case the entire factory of steel and concrete imploded on everyone, on the thousands of workers. And in the area, she was working on, the factory came down crashing on top of her and others. And she sustained a huge gash at the back of her neck that stretched from one ear to the other. And she was covered in glass shards. And she was one of the lucky ones - or the fortunate ones, if you're going to say that about anybody who survived nuclear war - in that she didn't die, number one. And number two, she was able to regain consciousness. I'm not sure she ever lost it. But she was disoriented for a while and she was able to stand up and see someone, see an older man way across through the dust and debris and the smoke. And she managed to stumble her way across the area, later realizing that she had walked on the dead bodies of her friends to get there. And she collapsed outside. And her father found her later that day and carried her home. And she had a really, really dramatic story of getting the radiation illnesses - the symptoms and the illness that so many got in the weeks and months and ultimately years after the bombing - and nearly died. And her hair fell out and didn't come back for 10 years. So, she stayed in hiding for almost a decade.

AARON CAIN: And then there was the youngest.

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Sweet, sweet Yoshida Katsuji, who was 13 at the time of the bomb. So, he was still in school. There had been an air raid siren earlier that morning in Nagasaki. Nagasaki was a city that allied bombers were flying over to get to other cities to fulfill their missions to attack other cities. So, the air raid sirens went off all day and all night by that time in Nagasaki. And it drove everybody crazy. But that warning sirens had gone off throughout the city. And Yoshida and six of his friends had gone to the school air raid shelters. But they were already packed. They had left school to go into the hills to try to protect themselves. And the air raid sirens lifted. And the all clear sounded. And so they were walking back toward their school and they stopped at a roadside well to get some water. It was a hot morning in August. And he looked up and he saw…so, when the bomb was released, three metallic cylinders were released that had radiosondes in them to measure the blast, the heat and the radiation, and send messages back to the B-29s. And he saw one of them coming down attached to a parachute. And he looked up. So, he's looking right at where the detonation is about to happen. He didn't know that. And he said, “look, look,” to all of his friends, “parachutes!” He thought it might be a soldier, you know, somehow parachuting down. And so his face and body was completely exposed, nothing between him and the bomb. And it was only a half a mile away, which sounds far but anything between the bomb and him, most everyone died. So he was just in the first periphery of potential survival. And so, he was thrown back one hundred and thirty feet over a road in a canal. And he landed in a rice paddy filled with water which was probably what saved him. And his entire face was scorched. And his neck and his body were also burned. His mother and father found him the next day and got him home over the mountains to where they lived. They lived over the hills which were somewhat protected from the damages because the hills kind of contained the damage, unlike Hiroshima which was really flat. So, the damages were much greater even though the Nagasaki bomb was far more powerful, almost double in its power. And Yoshida, also, his mother cared for him day and night for months before, in December of 1945, he was taken to the same hospital as Taniguchi. In fact, they ended up lying in a bed next to one another where he had skin graft surgeries to his face, the first of two which were not successful and the third one was marginally successful. So, he remained really severely disfigured the rest of his life.


AARON CAIN: Susan Southard, author of Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War. You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Susan Southard was recently in Bloomington as part of Indiana University's Themester: Remembering and Forgetting. And just a note that portions of this conversation contain material that some might find disturbing.

It seems to me that, as a writer, you face several daunting challenges in piecing together these events. And one of them is simply the scale, the almost unbelievable extremes of destruction and desolation and anguish. How did you approach that? How did you get your mind around these events so that you could help readers get their minds around it?

SUSAN SOUTHARD: It was really a challenge. It was very hard to do. Like you said, I had to get my mind around it first. For example, chapter two of the book takes place from the moment the bomb is released from the B-29 - six miles overhead, and then detonates 43 seconds later - to the end of that day. And the destruction and the fires and the devastation is so great and so vast, both geographically and each individual story. So, I read hundreds of survivors’ testimonies. There are scientific books that were originally written in Japan, some have been translated into English, by physicians and scientists who analyzed by a certain number of meters what happened in the destruction and the fires. I had to analyze all of that, figure out where these survivors were, figure out where every other survivor whose story I was reading was. So basically it took me years to understand just for that chapter what was going on in every part of the city and the timeline of it so I could figure out what to say and how and whose stories to tell that are related to fire, or whose stories are related to seeing the dead bodies floating in the river or - you know I can't even - my book is a small tiny portion of the horror. And it's in writing so there's already a distance. And it's 70 years later. But it took a great deal of time. And that's one reason it took 12 years is that not only that chapter but all the chapters to come. You know, the war didn't end on August 15th when Japan's surrender was officially accepted. And for many it didn't ever end. So, to try to understand the vastness of not only the bombing itself, but of survival after surviving.

AARON CAIN: The events of that day, August 9th, 1945. How were they first made known to the rest of Japan?

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Well, first the Soviet Union invaded Japanese held Manchuria eleven hours before the Nagasaki bombing. So, members of the Japanese cabinet were already in an emergency meeting in Tokyo, heatedly debating terms of surrender without being able to come to an agreement, before the Nagasaki bomb was dropped. So, from a government perspective, they received news some 30 minutes after the bomb was dropped. The bomb detonated at 11:02 a.m. that morning. And the rest of Japan, I don't know if they heard that day or not. I don't remember seeing any headlines about it. But the Hiroshima bomb, which was three days before the Nagasaki bomb only had headlines something along the lines of, “Attack with New Bomb, Much Damage Done.” They didn't - you know, the Japanese media was all under the control of the government. And they weren't allowed to put forth the suffering that was happening anywhere in Japan, which almost all the cities in the entire country had already been bombed out. And they didn't know what it was yet. In Hiroshima, they didn't know it was an atomic bomb for another week. And in Nagasaki they were kind of guessing. But it wasn't verified for another week after they sent physicists down from Tokyo to analyze what had happened. So, I'm not exactly sure how the rest of the country initially found out. But after Japan surrendered, between the time of Japan's surrender and August 15th and the time occupation forces arrived in early September, there was this strange short period of time where the Japanese media had freedom. Once the occupation came and they had censorship on the Japanese media and there was censorship and tight control during the war. But they had this moment of freedom. And they published what was going on in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So reports of the damages and reports of the radiation related symptoms and illnesses that were quickly coming up, the really dire horrific ones that were starting to happen within a week or two of the bombing, started being put out into Japanese media and reached also the United States at that point, those reports.

AARON CAIN: The five survivors whose stories you tell in Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War all dealt with social hardships in addition to the profound physical hardships they endured. Indeed there was severe discrimination in Japan against all survivors of the attacks, the Hibakusha. And, at the risk of sounding naive, why?

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Well, that's a good question. I had the same question. I was shocked when I found that out. Well it's certainly unjust and unexpected. However, at the time, the discrimination was most prominent as it related to jobs and marriage. Jobs because Hibakusha - no one knew if they were going to have health issues, if they were going to survive long term. And in Japan long-term employment at the time was a high priority. And marriages for the same reason. Health issues - no one knew whether there would be genetic effects of radiation exposure to children of survivors. So there was a lot of discrimination. And consequently, most Hibakusha kept their identities secret. If they were not visibly disfigured, when, then they can't keep it secret. Otherwise, they tried to keep their identities secret, even from their potential marriage partners. Their marriages were arranged at that time. And of course, I've heard from many, many people here in the United States that veterans of World War II didn't talk much to their children about their experiences during the war. And that was the same in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, that many children grew up knowing vaguely that their parents were Hibakusha but really not knowing what they had gone through.

AARON CAIN: I might be overstepping by zooming out to matters of human nature here. But what you're saying, that Hibakusha were discriminated against based on employability and whether or not they were suitable choices for mates for procreation, suggests that there was, or is, something pragmatic about discrimination.

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Yeah, it's a terrible thing isn't it? And it's true. It was a pragmatic discrimination. I think there was also discrimination toward those who had visible injuries and disfigurement. They were called names and as Mr. Yoshida's face was scorched and Mrs. Do-oh who lost her hair. They didn't - she stayed in her home for almost 10 years. She started to venture out eight years after, and finally by ten years was really out, and about when her hair had started to grow back - because they felt ashamed of their looks. And they felt scared of people's grimaces and little children would stare and make faces and not understand. And it was too painful for them.

AARON CAIN: You mention that one person had a child cry when they looked at them.

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Yes, yes. Mr. Yoshida, even as an adult. And that's not just him. I imagine that that would be almost in any culture until children are taught otherwise.

AARON CAIN: In spite of the discrimination the five survivors whose stories you tell are - eventually did come forward to tell their stories and each had their own reasons. What were some of those reasons? Because even dealing with the terrifying power of their own memories, let alone that social discrimination, it couldn't have been easy. What did they tell you eventually proved so important to them that they needed to tell their stories and it outweighed all of that pain?

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Yes, it's really true what you said about the courage that it took to do this. And it was against social norms. There was no Oprah. It was not an Oprah culture in Japan, you know, of talking about one's personal stories and one's personal suffering at all. It was just the opposite of that. You'd never speak about that stuff. So each one had, as you said, her or his own reasons. The earliest one of the five to start speaking out was Mr. Taniguchi, the man whose back was burned off. He became an anti-nuclear activist ten years after the bombing. And I think a year later, or a few years later, he was working for the post office. And he went on a company picnic to the seaside. And his friends encouraged him. He never took off his shirt ever. And his friends encouraged him to take off his shirt. And - and he decided that he wanted people to understand the potency of the bomb and of war. And so he finally did. And it was this huge act of courage and a statement to the world that he wasn't going to hide anymore. He became an activist worldwide. He remained an activist his entire life, despite always being in constant pain. Mr. Wada, the street car driver, his reason for speaking out was when he held his first grandchild, and he looked at this beautiful baby and he had a flashback of, it's so hard to say this - so sorry - but of a charred baby that he had seen in the ruins when he was on his rescue and recovery missions. And he had this moment that he realized; he awakened to the understanding that he had to do something himself to ensure that future generations wouldn't experience what he had and what this little baby had. Mrs. Do-oh, who was the one in the Torpedo Factory, she had a very unusual life that I don't want to give too much away. Magnificent, courageous, strong woman who was way ahead of her time in her vision of feminism and the strength and leadership that she could exhibit and show in her work. And it wasn't until she retired - she had been living in Tokyo - that she came back and was shocked to see - she had kept her identity secret her entire professional life in Tokyo - and she was shocked when she came back to Nagasaki to see that people were now talking about…some survivors were, most didn't but some survivors were talking and…that there was a museum. I mean, she had been back to visit her family, but she hadn’t really fully taken in…there's a museum now, and there were courses you could take at universities about survival after nuclear war and what the survivors' experiences were. And she was very inspired by that. And she thought that she had played a major role in Japanese corporate life in Tokyo and she was not one to sit around in retirement. So she decided to start telling her story.


AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest today is Susan Southard, author of Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War.

Your book has now been published in Japanese.


AARON CAIN: Any word yet on how it's being received there? Is it still too early to tell?

SUSAN SOUTHARD: They're already - they were published in July. They're already on their third printing.

AARON CAIN: Oh, wow.


AARON CAIN: That's a response.

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Yes. It's really terrific. And there have been, from what I hear, really amazing, powerful reviews in all the Japanese major newspapers and across the country. So that's been really thrilling. And I'm very fortunate. I'm going back to - Nagasaki has invited me to come back to do some kind of, I don't know if the word is commemorative events around my book in November for the public, and for the very small Hibakusha community of those survivors in my book who are still alive and their families and all the other survivors who I interviewed and who helped me with the book and all of the people across…so it'll only be a gathering of, like, 20, but we're going to do some short readings. And it's like a moment that I can thank everyone in a more - it's informal, but it's a little bit formal that I can collectively thank them for what they allowed me to do.

AARON CAIN: Of the survivors whom you featured in your book who are still with us and those who close to them, who helped you in your research, have you received any reaction since it's been published in Japanese that you didn't receive beforehand?

SUSAN SOUTHARD: No. You know, well, the survivors themselves won't read it. They're all too old now. And their health is not as strong. But two of them have sons whose English is stunningly beautiful. And they had read the book in English and told their parents about it. I don't know yet. I'll know more when I get to Nagasaki about others who hopefully have read it. I imagine by the time I get there many will have read it.

AARON CAIN: You wrote your book to raise awareness of what happened during a brief but real example of nuclear war, something that is powerful enough as an existential threat that we contemplate. But one of the points that I think that you make is that nuclear war is a thing that has happened. It's not just something that might happen. It's not just something we dread in our imaginations. So I'm wondering how you think our culture of contemplation of nuclear war has changed over the years and where do you think it is now as your book is released into that culture over the last few years.

SUSAN SOUTHARD: I love that term, a culture of contemplation. I don't think that that's where we're at as a nation, at least. I mean, it's a beautiful term, and it's what I would want. But I don't think it exists that much. And one of the reasons is that nuclear weapons are invisible to us. Now they're all over this planet, you know, almost 14,000 nuclear weapons that are stockpiled and, you know, are actively deployed ready to use. They're invisible to us. We don't see them, and it's hard to keep that reality in our everyday thoughts. And I still think that very few Americans know the other side of the story of what really happened beneath those two mushroom clouds. So I'm hoping that my book will be a part of continuing to expand that culture of contemplation, so that people cannot see nuclear war as either an abstract event of the past or a abstract potential in the future, but something that is really with us. The risk is so high right now for either an intentional military use or an accidental use or an act of terrorism. The risks are higher almost than they ever have been since the bombs were used on Japan in 1945. And I think the survivors' stories serve a really valuable and meaningful role in helping people grasp what these weapons really do.

AARON CAIN: I'm going to have to rely on your expertise to check me on something because when I contemplate the culture of contemplation, I think of my own upbringing. At the risk of dating myself, I think of the 1980s when, during the Cold War, the existential dread, the fear of nuclear war seemed to carry with it a sort of fatalistic resignation, where given that any of these weapons dwarfs the weapons used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in destructive power that if it comes to that, everything's gone. No one lives. And one of the things I was most moved by in reading your book was the notion of an aftermath that I didn't think was possible that you talk about, the lives after August 9, 1945 and all the years afterward and all that it took from radiation to re-building an entire city to just trying to figure out what happened. That wasn't part of my consciousness growing up, anyway. That there wouldn't be such a thing. And here I was all the time living on the planet where it already had been a thing. Twice.

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Yes. And I think the culture was different during the Cold War. I was fairly oblivious back during those days, so I wasn't too tuned in to that aspect of our lives. But having read and talked with many people who were much more aware of the tensions between particularly the United States and the Soviet Union and the high risk of a use of a nuclear weapon there was much more awareness, to a certain degree. They might not have known about survival after nuclear war. But they definitely could feel the risks. And I don't think - I think the risks are as great now as they were then, or more. I don't know the statistics on that, but our awareness of the risks is far less because the Cold War is, quote, unquote, "over," where indeed I believe that behind the scenes we're in another Cold War with Russia right now. And, of course, the people of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and frankly most people in Japan, including those from Fukushima where the nuclear accident was, they don't take any mention of the use of a nuclear weapon, especially a couple of years ago when President Trump and Kim Jong-un were throwing barbs back and forth about attacking each other with nuclear weapons was really very terrifying for those who had known nuclear war and then those in Fukushima, I believe, too, who had known the potential and the real dangers of radiation.

AARON CAIN: You lecture and give keynote addresses at international disarmament conferences, universities, public forums across the United States and around the world. You even spoke before the United Nations on behalf of the International Campaign to abolish nuclear weapons in 2016. As you zoom out from the specific events of Nagasaki to the general issue of living in a world with nuclear weapons, what are some of the things that you want people to understand and to think about?

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Well, I think the main thing is that I have learned from ICAN, the international coalition of organizations across the world that are working toward a nuclear free world. And they won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, I think. And I think what I have learned from them is how fiercely they envision a world without nuclear weapons and don't allow those nations that are the nuclear weapons states to be the sole holders of the narrative of what happens with nuclear weapons. And they, ICAN, along with many people in the U.N. led by international leaders, have forged a nuclear weapons ban treaty that many nations have signed on to. It's been ratified, and now they're trying to get nations final signatories on it. I think 50 nations or more have already given their final signatory. And they have inspired me far more than I ever could have imagined because they didn't allow the predominant - yes we all need nuclear weapons for the mutually assured destruction, the deterrence aspect of nuclear weapons policy that we have in the United States, and that other nations have to be the only way of proceeding. And they have forged something that still has a long way to go. Certainly none of the nuclear weapons states are signed onto this thing at all. But they eventually think they're going to chip away and get one of the nations that's under the nuclear weapon states umbrella to sign on. First, to get the non-nuclear weapon states and then get one that's under a nuclear umbrella. And I'm thinking they're going to get it. So what I take away from that is the strength of a vision, a true vision that seems impossible and striving against all odds to make that vision possible.


AARON CAIN: Susan Southard, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

SUSAN SOUTHARD: Thank you so much, Aaron.

AARON CAIN: Susan Southard, author of Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War. Susan Southard was recently on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington where she gave a lecture entitled Beneath The Mushroom Cloud. It was part of IU's 11th annual Themester, this time exploring the theme Remembering and Forgetting. I'm Aaron Cain. Thanks for listening.

MARK CHILLA: Copies of this and other programs can be obtained by calling 812-855-1357. Information about Profiles, including archives of past shows can be found at our website, Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Aaron Cain. The studio engineer and radio audio director is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us next week for another edition of Profiles.


Susan Southard

Susan Southard (Aaron Cain, WFIU)

Susan Southard is an author, but she’s been a storyteller longer than she’s been a writer. She had her first experiences bringing untold stories to life when she took part in experimental, improvisatory theatre in Washington, D.C. Southard is also the founder and artistic director of her own professional company, the Phoenix-based Essential Theatre, which serves marginalized communities across the Southwest. She’s also directed creative writing programs for incarcerated youth and at a federal prison for women outside Phoenix.

Susan Southard’s first book, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, is an account of the bombing of the Japanese city, and its aftermath, as told through the stories of 5 survivors who were all teens on August 9, 1945. The book has received the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in Nonfiction and the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, and was also named a best book of the year by The Washington Post, The Economist, and the American Library Association.

Southard holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and was a nonfiction fellow at the Norman Mailer Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Recently, Susan Southard was on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, where she gave a lecture entitled, “Beneath the Mushroom Cloud: The Aftermath of Nuclear War.” It was part of IU’s 11th annual Themester, exploring the theme: "Remembering and Forgetting."

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