An exclusive interview with Kathleen Burkinshaw, author and the daughter of a survivor of the first nuclear blast that bloodied the history of mankind three quarters of a century ago
The best introduction to Kathleen Burkinshaw is that she a humanitarian. She wrote a novel that has been taken up by the United Nations as a part of its peacekeeping effort. She has been actively participating in efforts to ban nuclear weapons, including presenting with Nobel Laureates. Kathleen Burkinshaw, the author of The Last Cherry Blossom, a book that is in the process of gathering further accolades, is a peace activist who talks of the effects of the nuclear war. She is the daughter of a hibakusha, a survivor of the Hiroshima blast that took place seventy-five years ago. Burkinshaw still suffers the impact of her mother’s exposure to the Hiroshima blast, where the protagonist of The Last Cherry Blossom, based on her own mother, sees her father die of the exposure and loses her best friend in the middle of a conversation. In this exclusive, Burkinshaw talks of the book, why and how it came about and the impact the bomb continues to have in our lives.
Why did you write your book? Tell us your story.
When my daughter was in seventh grade, she came home from school terribly upset. They were wrapping up World War II in their history class, and she had overheard some students talking about the ‘cool’ mushroom cloud picture. She asked me if I could visit her class and talk about the people under those famous mushroom clouds, people like her Grandma.
I had never discussed my mother’s life in Hiroshima during World War II. My mother was a very private person and she also didn’t want attention drawn to herself. But after my daughter’s request she gave me her consent. She bravely shared more memories of the most horrific day of her life. Memories that she had locked away in her heart because they had been too painful to discuss.
The main reason, my mother agreed (aside from the fact her granddaughter asked her), was that she knew students in seventh grade would be around the same age she was when the bomb dropped. She was 12 years old. She hoped that students could relate to her story and by sharing her experience, these future voters would realise that the use of nuclear weapons against any country or people, for any reason, should never be repeated.
I received requests to visit other schools the following year. I began to write about my mom and August 6th after teachers requested a book to complement their curriculum.
I told my mom about this request. Later that week, she sent me a copy of her most treasured photo from her childhood. It is the one of her and her Papa (which is in the back of the book). When I looked at the photo which I remembered from my childhood because it always had a place of honor in our home; I realised there was more to her life than just war and death, she had loving memories as well.
That’s when I knew I needed to start the book months before the bomb. I wanted to show the culture, the mindset, and the daily life in Japan during the war. I intended to give the reader the view of the last year of WWII and the atomic bombing through the eyes of a 12-year-old Japanese girl-something that has not been done before.
Your book explores colours of Japan. How different is it from US?
The Last Cherry Blossom (TLCB) discusses life in Japan during WWII. I wanted to show how the Japanese citizens viewed their political leaders — very different from the US. I also wanted to show that Japan had been at war for 14 years (they invaded Manchuria in 1931) by the time of the atomic bombing — they were out of so many natural resources, as well as the young soldiers. The majority of the Japanese soldiers were fighting out in the Pacific. So even though Hiroshima was once a strong military port, in 1945 it was mostly elderly, women, and children. In addition to that, the firebombs dropped on Tokyo decimated that city and other areas in Japan had endured Allied bombing. The US did have the horrific Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor, bringing the US into the war — but no other US cities with citizens endured bombing after that. However, what I really wanted to emphasise was the similarity between the two countries. The children in Japan like my mom, loved their families, worried might happen to them and wished for peace. Exactly the same as the children in the US.
When and why did your mother move to US? Did your mother find it difficult to adjust?
My mother met my dad (a white American serving in the Air Force at a base close to Tokyo) in Tokyo. They married at the US Embassy in Tokyo in 1959. His time serving ended shortly thereafter and they moved to the United States.
Yes, my mother found it difficult to adjust. My mother didn’t expect the prejudice and racial slurs against her. She figured it was 14 years after the end of the war and she was on the losing side. She didn’t tell them about the atomic bombing-she wanted to have the least amount of attention. She told everyone she was from Tokyo. I didn’t even know she was from Hiroshima until I was 11.
She wasn’t a shy person. She was intelligent and determined. She learned English and became a citizen within 5 years of arriving in the US. She had a job at an electronics company and made circuit boards that were on Apollo 11. Unfortunately, the town we lived in had very few Asian people and none of them were Japanese. When I was born, she “Americanised” (her word) our home. She wanted people to know that I was an American so I would not experience racist actions. However, being one of the few Asians in elementary school, I experienced quite a bit of prejudice and racial slurs, anyway.
My mother was the bravest person I will ever know. She lost so much on August 6th, 1945. Yet, she never lost her ability to love.
The UN has taken up your book as part of its peace process. Tell us a bit about that.
In December of 2018, John Ennis, the Chief of Information and Outreach at the United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) contacted me after reading The Last Cherry Blossom. He felt very strongly that the book should be used in classrooms to future voters. Nothing like it has been written before from this point of view of a 12-year-old girl. He told me that it would be designated a UNODA Education Resource for Students and Teachers. I was beyond happy that a book honoring my mom and what she experienced would be on that list. Later in 2019 UNODA invited me to the United Nations in NYC to discuss my book at the UN Bookshop as well as to participate in a workshop for NYC teachers on how to add nuclear disarmament to their curriculum. It was a surreal honour to be a presenter with Noble Peace Prize winners Dr. Kathleen Sullivan and other members under the International Coalition Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) for the Treaty to Ban Nuclear Weapons!
What exactly do you do to create an awareness about the nuclear issue?
In addition to interviews like yours I have spoken at teacher conferences, school librarian conferences throughout the United States. In addition to that TLCB has been on many school lists so I have had opportunity to speak with students, future voters all over the world! For example, I have had the joy to speak with students in Hiroshima who have chosen TLCB to be their 6th grade read for 4 years in a row. The students also made my first book trailer. The latest group of students I had the joy to speak with were in India!
I feel that the more I can discuss my mother’s experience so that students can relate and connect to the devastation, horror, and loss my mother and her family endured — they leave that classroom as future voters knowing that nuclear weapons should never be used again.
Do you think after the holocaust another nuclear war is likely? How do you see the role of your book propounding peace?
People have asked me 75 years later — why should these stories still be told? Well time passes, and technology changes but the need for human connection through emotions is timeless. So, I feel that while statistics and treaties are very important — if we can’t get people to understand/relate to the humanity under those now famous mushroom clouds, then none of the numbers or science is going to matter. And if it doesn’t matter because there is no connection, then yes, we are at risk of repeating the same deadly mistakes again.
I hope that TLCB relays the message and an emotional impact that two paragraphs in a textbook could never do. I want readers to understand that NO family should ever have to endure the hellish, horrific deadly destruction that MY family has.
I lived with the scars of the atomic bombing during my childhood watching/reacting to the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) effects on my Mom and I still live with it each day with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (chronic, progressive neuro pain disease that affects the sympathetic nervous system). Doctors have said that the damage to my immune system from the radiation my mom was exposed to from the atomic bomb, attributed to this.
This was an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty
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Click here to read the review of The Last Cherry Blossom.