In the preface to her book, Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story, Minneapolis writer Caren Stelson relates an event in a Minneapolis park on August 26, 2005 that changed her life. It was a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II and the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A Japanese woman who had survived the bombing of Nagasaki spoke that day, and five years later, Stelson tracked Sachiko Yasui down to ask her if Stelson could share her story with young readers. Sachiko has just been longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature.
What inspired you to write Sachiko?
The first time I met Sachiko Yasui, I was inspired by her strength, courage, resilience, and hope for peace. How does a six-year-old child survive nuclear war? How does a child heal from such an apocalyptic experience and find a pathway peace as an adult? I wanted to understand Sachiko’s life’s journey. In times such as ours, I believe Sachiko’s story is important for all of us to contemplate.
The U.S. bombed Nagasaki in 1945. Why is Sachiko’s story still relevant to young people so many years later?
Although the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki took place over 70 years ago, the world continues to live with the unthinkable possibility of another nuclear war. Sachiko’s story is a reminder of what ordinary civilians had to endure long after August 9, 1945. Yet Sachiko’s story also offers young people hope that they too have the resilience and courage to overcome whatever losses and hardships they may face in their own lives.
Why did you decide to write Sachiko as a children’s book rather than for adults?
Young people have always been my audience, whether as a teacher or a freelance writer. Sachiko is passionate about reaching out to children too. At the beginning of our work together, Sachiko and I agreed our audience would be young people. They are the future of the world.
You interviewed Sachiko Yasui for this book. Did you speak to any other Nagasaki survivors?
Yes, I interviewed hibakusha [atomic bomb survivors] in both Nagasaki and Hiroshima – even in Minnesota. I also read many translated testimonials written by atomic bomb survivors. The Japanese were not the only people exposed to dangerous levels of radiation as a result of the bombings. I interviewed a WWII veteran from Minnesota who had fought in the Pacific and was part of the occupation of Nagasaki after Japan’s surrender when radiation levels were still quite high. I also listened to oral histories of other American soldiers who were stationed in Japan after the war.
What other kind of research did you do and what kind of sources did you use in your writing?
Beyond the history books, the interviews, and the oral histories, I was determined to learn as much as I could about Sachiko’s world. I toured the atomic bomb museums in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki and attended Hiroshima City University’s weeklong Peace Symposium to gain a wider historical perspective. I had Nagasaki newspaper articles translated into English so I could better understand the American occupation through Japanese eyes. I made a point to visit Pearl Harbor and stood on the deck of the USS Missouri, where Japan officially surrendered to the Allies. In New York City, I visited the American Foundation for the Blind and Helen Keller’s archives, searching for original documents about Keller’s 1948 trip to Japan. Over 5,000 people met Helen Keller at the Nagasaki train station, and among them was nine-year-old Sachiko Yasui. I spent six years immersed in researching the wider history in which Sachiko’s story takes place.
You ended Sachiko’s story in August 1995, the 50th anniversary of the bombing. What has Sachiko’s life been like since?
On the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Sachiko found her courage to tell her story in public. She gave lectures at universities, toured Japan on speaking tours, and in 2005 became president of the Keisho-bu Branch of the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace, an organization that supports the public sharing of the experiences of atomic bomb survivors. Sachiko held that post until November 2013, when she had a stroke, effectively ending her public speaking career. With the help of our translator Keiko Kawakami, Sachiko and I continue to talk by phone. In January, I will travel to Nagasaki to give Sachiko her personal copy of the published book.
What was your reaction to hearing that the book has been longlisted for a National Book Award?
What kind of impact did researching and writing Sachiko have on you as a writer and as a person?
I am a different person having written Sachiko’s story. I have a greater sense of strength and determination to work for peace and justice in my community. As a writer, I learned how much courage it takes to write a powerful story. At times, I wondered if I had enough. I kept saying to myself, if Sachiko had the courage to live her life, I could find the courage to listen to her story and write it down.
Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren Stelson. Lerner/Carolrhoda, $19.99 Oct. 1 ISBN 978-1-4677-8903-5