I am a terrible traveller: I get motion sickness, I’m a germophobe, I always pack too much stuff, I melt down when I can’t get wifi and I lose things at inopportune moments. So, I’ve often asked myself whether I have to travel to a place to be able to write about it convincingly. In the Internet age, getting a feel for a place by looking at images and Google maps might be enough. I can ‘virtually’ walk down streets and boulevards; I can see shop frontages, parks and monuments; I can go down laneways at night that I’d never walk down if I were actually there. Fancying myself a postfeminist flaneur, I can wander around any city from the comfort and safety of my couch – an armchair traveller like Macon in Anne Tyler’s Accidental Tourist. This question – to go to the physical place or not – became really pressing for my current project.
I’m writing the story of a group of twenty-five young Japanese women disfigured by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. They were taken to the United States for plastic surgery and became spokespeople for nuclear disarmament. At first, I wrote a number of scholarly articles about these women, but the more I learnt about Hiroshima and their struggles, the more I felt that a creative response would work better. So, now I am telling my story using prose poetry. This choice reflects the fact that the bomb was so unspeakable that it defies description. The Japanese found that its horrors were best captured by art and poetry, the classic example of the latter being Black Eggs, by Sadako Kurihara.
Prose poetry is the perfect form to explore the atomic bomb as it ruptures formalist poetry in the same way that hibakusha, survivors, poets at the time broke away from haiku and tanka and wrote poems in free verse to respond to the devastation. They broke away from the dominant form of poetry to show that things could never be the same. I am also collaborating with a manga artist. As Keiji Nakazawa demonstrated in Barefoot Gen, manga has the capacity to convey the bomb’s horrors, as well as its discrete, boxed format fits with my intention to tell a fragmented story that moves in fits and starts, rather than a smoothly moving narrative.
I found the right form, but another question remained – should I go and stay in Hiroshima, maybe even write in situ, or could I email people and Google map myself into the Hiroshima Peace Park? My husband, an historian, told me to google genius loci instead of Japan.
According to Phillipe Samyn, this Latin phrase means ‘the special atmosphere of a particular place’. It’s a concept summoned up by Lawrence Durrell when he writes, ‘tasting the wines, cheeses and characters of the different countries, you begin to realize that the important determinant of culture is after all—the spirit of place’.
I was becoming convinced that it’s impossible to glean from conventional research or technology alone the true sense of a place. So, I applied, and received, an Australia Council grant to live in Hiroshima for a few months. Now I am here, I can see every day why I need to go to a place in order to write about it. It’s much more than walking down the streets, or tasting the food, or experiencing the culture of the place; it’s about letting the sense of a place settle into you.
Sitting here in the Hiroshima Peace Museum Library, researching and writing the story of those women, I am struck by the comfortable familiarity I now feel in this place. I have developed a daily routine that begins with a morning ride on the Hiroden tram to the Peace Park where the library is located. I then settle down at my desk—always the same one— where I write, with books and archival material at my fingertips. At lunchtime, I walk to the nearby Tokyu Hands department store for a change of scenery. The Hands Café on the second floor has become a haunt for young people working on creative projects, and I enjoy the chatter and energy before returning to the quiet of library.
Just as I have become familiar with Hiroshima, I have also become familiar with my topic. In fact, I believe that it is only possible for me to write about the women who were injured by the bomb because I have seen how the city responded to and recovered from that bombing. The A-bomb dome, which I saw on my first day in Hiroshima, bears stark witness to the atomic weapons’ destructive power. However, appreciating the city’s resilience and recovery took more time, and was only possible through talking with locals and sifting through the archives in the library.
For instance, I learnt that the trams I ride are themselves powerful symbols of the city’s resilience. Hiroshima has always relied on its trams—the many rivers that flow through it make a subway system impossible— and when the bomb destroyed most of the trams, the city was paralysed. However, young girls who had been pressed into service due to wartime labor shortages stepped up and kept the few surviving trams running. To this day their heroism is remembered every year on the anniversary of the bombing, when one of the survivor trams carries passengers around the city.
I also learnt about the hibaku jumoku, or survivor trees. In the aftermath of the bomb central Hiroshima was left a grey wasteland, and it was feared that nothing would grow in the fried soil for at least seventy years. But then some stubborn trees sprouted leaves, inspiring people to move back and rebuild. Many of these trees still survive, and for locals they have taken on an almost spiritual significance.
The survivors’ experience was woven into the city’s recovery, but my understanding of what they went through was also shaped by conversations with people I could only meet in Hiroshima. First there were the scientists at the Radiation Effects Research Foundation who explained to me the ongoing physical and psychological effects of radiation on survivors. Later, I arrived at a more nuanced understanding of the girls I was writing about by talking directly with hibakusha. One meeting that stands out was with Keiko Ogura. She was just eight years old when the bomb was dropped, and survived only because her father had a premonition of disaster and stopped her from going to school that morning. Her telling of the bomb’s impact was so powerful that it reinforced for me the challenges facing second-hand storytellers. However, her conviction of the importance in keeping the story alive and her belief that this can be achieved through art and literature gave me courage. When the last hibakusha passes away, there needs to be a reminder of the atrocity of atomic warfare.
Lawrence Durrell: Conversations 1998 Edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, London: Associated University Press.
Samyn, Phillipe ‘Dreams, Genius Loci and Structures’, International Journal of Space Structures. Mar 2012, Vol. 27 Issue 1, p23-42.
Cassandra Atherton is a prose poet, scholar and critic, and one of Australia’s leading experts on prose poetry. She was a Visiting Professor at the Institute of Comparative Culture at Sophia University, Tokyo in 2014 and a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University in 2016. She has published eight books and over the last three years has been invited to edit six special editions of leading refereed journals. She was recently awarded an Australia Council Grant to write a book of prose poetry on the Hiroshima Maidens.