Reviews / February 2011 (Issue 13)

Stop and think: Rahna Reiko Rizzuto's Hiroshima in the Morning

by Michael Tsang


Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, Hiroshima in the Morning, Feminist Press at CUNY, 2010. 333 pgs.

Some books should, after reading, make you stop and reflect for quite a while before you move onto the next one. Beautifully and movingly blending the personal and the historical, Rahana Reiko Rizzuto's Hiroshima in the Morning is a masterpiece that will make you do exactly that.

In the summer of 2001, Rizzuto left her husband and two children in the United States to go to Hiroshima, Japan, to undertake a six-month fellowship to conduct interviews with the survivors of the atomic bomb, known as the hibakusha. At first the survivors gave formulaic accounts of their experiences, but when the September 11 attacks happened, the shock peeled away their rehearsed lines, and they began to give Rizzuto more honest and direct descriptions of that fateful day, filled with horrific sights and agonizing sounds. Such stories, plus the fact that she had never traveled alone before, let alone been away from her young sons, prompted Rizzuto to reflect on her life and motherhood. At the end of her six-month journey, she emerged a noticeably changed person.

If language is sufficient to reveal one's inner-self, Rizzuto is certainly a master; she is capable of weaving the most exquisite prose to express her thoughts and character with affecting honesty and succinctness:

I...became the kind of person who always took the same route because that was what I knew, what worked, and there was a comfort in knowing it intimately...In that way, I survived.

But her talent for expression goes beyond self-representation. Rizzuto seamlessly blends her story with those of her interview subjects. In this task, she is aided by the unique arrangement of the book—short, reflective and diary-like episodes interwoven with moving excerpts from the interviews with the atomic bomb survivors.

Many reviewers have praised Rizzuto for her bravery in searching for her own identity as a woman and a mother, as well as for acknowledging her newfound individuality. Rizzuto's personal awakening deserves praise, no doubt, but let's not forget that this book is about memory and narratives as much as it is about personal epiphany. Her self-realization cannot be fully understood without understanding the experiences and memories of the hibakusha. What sets this book apart from many other books about self-discovery is Rizzuto's interaction with the hibakusha—it is through their stories that she learns about herself.

Rizzuto's journey was not straight-forward, and she experienced a number of challenges in her early attempts to understand the hibakusha. When she first started the interviews, she discovered a kind of collective emptiness in their accounts. Their stories were all strangely alike, and appeared to lack the depth of unique, individual experience. At one point in the book, Rizzuto describes the challenges she faced when asking questions of her subjects:

The questions will not let me rest. Are we calling the souls to us, or tucking them back into bed? Is the ceremony for them, or is it for us?

This being Japan, of course, there is never an answer. What do the cellophane ties stand for? What's going on on stage? What was your mother like? No matter how simple the information I am asking for is, or how I phrase any question; whether I give a slew of choices to select from or offer none at all, the response is invariably: "I don't know."

Tonight, I must ask: What if there is no answer? What if there is no lapse between cultures or problem with translation, but simply no key that unlocks the meaning behind all these "I don't knows"?

I came to Japan to ask questions, but the longer I stay, the more inappropriate that feels. It's not that my friends don't want to answer, it's more that it's never occurred to them to break an idea of an object down.

Fortunately, one of Rizzuto's great strengths is the sensitivity she is able to show towards her subjects, and she clearly has a gift of detecting and bringing out true, inner emotions. Rizzuto soon realized that the hibakusha were not able, or willing, to fully describe what had happened to them; that their rote collective memories were designed to keep every discussion on the outside, never on the inside. Yet she knew that she had to work with the hibakusha to break down ideas and to bring out their real stories. Rizzuto understood that it is only in penetrating these narratives that we become aware of the real, trembling emotions on the inside.

Last July I joined an exchange program organized by a non-political organization in Japan, and went among other cities to Nagasaki, another city suffering from the aftermath of the atomic bomb. One of the main events was a sharing session by a hibakusha, an old man in his eighties. He gave a detailed account of what happened that day, how the city was incinerated and how he had survived. One of the program participants asked him if he had ever hated the US, to which he replied no. It did not occur to me at that time that this and other answers might have been if not exactly rehearsed, at least well-practiced. It was not until I later read Rizzuto's book that I thought about how repetitive this man must have found it to talk about his experiences to a bunch of foreign young adults in this annual exchange program. Even while educating us about that day, in some sense each repetition would, I think, also draw us away from the magnitude of that nightmare. Rizzuto's book gave me a slap in the face. She taught me the significance of speaking from the heart.

Something about the attacks of September 11 reminded the hibakusha of their own experiences, made them more willing to speak from the heart. After the attacks, some of her subjects started to recall scrutinizing details of the burning debris of the atomic bomb and of the other horrors of that day. As Rizzuto points out, the words of some of the survivors were "eaten by anger," and their speech "full of rage." The hibakusha's anger inspired in Rizzuto a similar feeling and a desire to challenge something that very few of us care to ask about, definitely not me: how individuality can be masked by a collective memory.

And in her questioning the hibakusha's narrative and memory, Rizzuto was also compelled to question herself. While she had hoped to know more about the inner lives of the survivors, their experiences also led her to look into her own feelings as a woman, a wife and a mother. Just as the hibakusha opened up because of the September 11 attacks, her time in Japan launched her into soulful and emotional self-exploration.

This is why I refrain from calling this book a "memoir," particularly when so many other reviews have labeled it so. The term "memoir" does not do this book enough justice. For one thing, the word "memoir" always suggests a kind of finality to me, but Rizzuto's work avoids neat endings by looking as much to the future as it does to the past. The book's greatest strength, however, is its illustration of the importance of appreciating one's true self and of the power of the emotions that we show not only to ourselves, but to the people around us, the people we love and care about the most. Hiroshima in the Morning is an inexhaustible book. If you believe in emotional courage, if you believe in the importance of honest self-expression, this book will thrill you. It certainly did me.

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