The media are reporting on how Muslim Americans are braced for attacks this weekend, because of the 9/11 anniversary. I know what that's like, unfortunately, though not on the scale of violence and hatred Muslims are facing today.
It's a sad commentary on the state of American "patriotism" that Japanese Americans still get nervous every December 7 because we grew up with racial slurs of "go home, Japs" and "Remember Pearl Harbor!"
Such are the deep emotional scars that form after a national trauma, and ethnicity and religion add layers of fear and complexity. It's understandable in a way, but also unjust -- Japanese Americans had nothing to do with Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor any more than German Americans had to do with the blitzkrieg of London. And Muslim Americans certainly had nothing to do with the awful attacks of 9/11. It's too bad that so many Americans can't understand such a basic fact and separate nationality from ethnicity, faith from fanaticism.
These schisms are bouncing around my head along with the powerful writing of author Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, whose terrific second book, "Hiroshima in the Morning" has just been published by the Feminist Press.
The book on its surface is a simple idea: A memoir of Rizzuto's 2001 trip to Japan, paid for by a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts to research the stories of Hiroshima bomb survivors, a group that shrinks each year as the generation passes away, in the city where her own family roots are planted. Rizzuto lived there for eight months to find people to interview, so she could write her second novel.
Instead, she came out of the experience with her life changed profoundly, and this memoir came first before the novel, which is finished but incubating a bit before she sends it to editors under the name "Shadow Child."
Until the novel comes out, readers can devour "Hiroshima in the Morning" and marvel at Rizzuto's craft and literary approach to telling non-fiction stories, as well as her brave willingness to expose the emotional evolution she undertakes by the end of her fellowship.
Her ability to write literature as if it were non-fiction is what set Rizzuto's first novel, "Why She Left Us," which won the American Book Award upon its release in 2001, apart from other books based on the Japanese American internment.
Rizzuto, who is half-Japanese, based that first book in part on her mother's experience of being interned at Camp Amache in Colorado during World War II. But she interviewed many former internees to collect observations, details, relationships, experiences and story lines that she wove together into fiction that rang with the power of truth.
She wrote the novel in the different perspectives and voices of its main characters, and jumped through time and space in ways that masterfully held the reader on track, following the devastating legacy of internment on generations of one family. It was unorthodox, artsy and literary, and a riveting read.
I look forward to seeing how she uses the research in Hiroshima as fuel for her fiction, especially after reading "Hiroshima in the Morning."
Mention August 6 to most Americans, young or old, and my guess is you'll get a blank stare. "What about August 6?" Mention Hiroshima and you might get a second blank stare. Most Americans can't name the date that the first atomic bomb was dropped, Aug. 6 1945 on the city of Hiroshima. Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped, on the southern port city of Nagasaki. Today is the 65th anniversary of that bombing, August 9.
Tens of thousands of civilians were killed instantly in both bombings, some leaving just shadows like stationary, permanent ghosts on walls next to where they had been standing. But because of the raging fires caused in the blasts' aftermath, and the deadly radiation poisoning from the black rain fallout that followed, up to 166,000 people in Hiroshima, and 80,000 in Nagasaki were killed within a few months. People who survived the blast suffered injuries, burns and deformities; some are still dying today from cancers that lay dormant for decades.
In Japan, the atomic bombings are national tragedies that are commemorated to this day, much like we probably will commemorate 9/11, fifty years from now.
But here in the United States, Hiroshima and Nagasaki have over the years become historical factoids, questions on tests, for most people. Sure, there are recent Japanese immigrants and U.S. anti-war activists who remember and mark the anniversaries, but for most Americans -- even, I'm afraid, most Japanese Americans -- there isn't much thought given to the devastation suffered by either of those cities so long ago and far away.
Last night I attended the tail end of an all-day event in Manhattan, and was glad I did. The event was a cross-denominational commemoration of Universal Peace Day, to mark the Aug. 6 anniversay of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 with an atomic bomb, and Nagasaki three days later with a second atomic bomb. The event started early in the day with speeches and music (Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary was the most notable performer) at Riverside Park, but it went well into the night, so I didn't feel I missed anything.
Besides, I got to the New York Buddhist Church on 105th and Riverside Drive in time for the Candlelight March to Riverside Church, where the event finished up, and that was the highlight for me.
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