I didn’t truly understand the founding of the United States until my nerdy, New York City political friends dragged me to see an off-Broadway production of the play 1776 a few months ago. I’ve written papers about Thomas Jefferson and answered quiz questions about constitutional conventions, but it wasn’t until I saw an actor playing a sassy John Adams that I realized these men weren’t just coconspirators delivering simple political justice. All of them had agendas, attitudes, and personalities. I thought I had a solid grasp on American history. I have taken all sorts of iterations of American Political Thought, but it took a narrative rendering to make me realize the complexity of what was really happening.
Hersey’s Hiroshima does to Americans the same thing 1776 did to me, and the same thing good fiction can do to its readers: it illuminates. On a base level, Hersey does this by using specific details. It’s Fiction 101 (and 201, and 301, and so on). I took a graduate workshop with Ellen Gilchrist, a National Book Award winner, and she would solemnly repeat, every class, that short stories were told through characters! moreso than plot or any other device. Have characters that do something, feel something. Hersey does this over and over as he shows how survivors count “small items of chance or volition” as what keeps them alive (2), like how Father Cieslik is “pleased with himself” for “div[ing] into a doorway . . . when the blast came,” which saves his life (21). A rusty sewing machine, “undressed bodies” where “burns had made patterns . . . on the skin of some women . . . [in] the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos” (29), a green Cadillac—Hersey reports on a world with specific images and stakes, characters who are real people who face consequences. A place where people drink whiskey like Americans, worship God like Americans, try to make end’s meet like Americans. His details show us that Japanese people are individuals just like us.
He does this intentionally, which is worth mentioning. In the years leading up to the bombing of Hiroshima, Americans wrote fiction that portrayed Japanese people negatively. As Patrick Sharp writes, these “future-war stories meditated on the dangers of allowing your enemy to become more developed than you technologically,” and many of them were “narrated from the point of view of an ‘everyman.’” This created the idea of the Japanese as an Other, an entity with no voice and only a reputation “in media as an obedient, cruel, efficient, and homogenous ‘herd’ that single-mindedly carried out Japanese leaders’ dreams of global domination” (438). Because the Japanese for so long had no control over the rhetoric Americans used to vilify them in fiction, they lost their individual voices to the fear that these novels and stories had been instilling in Americans. However, Hersey “intervene[s] to undermine the official narrative of the Hiroshima bombing,” (444) in effect thwarting the propaganda and fear-mongering coming from both fiction pre-bombing, and the US Government’s own attempts at controlling the dissemination of information post-bombing.
Hersey knows exactly what he is doing, and, again, like the best fiction writers (see: Jonathan Franzen), he is criticized for it. In the same way moving fiction is often both acclaimed and debated, Hiroshima is also both lauded as the most important journalistic work of its century, but condemned as “fundamentally sensational” by critics like Frus (Hartsock). Frus argues that, “despite Hersey’s obvious desire to avoid sensationalizing his subject, Hiroshima fits John Berger’s definition of sensationalism as ‘the reducing of the experience of the other into a pure framed spectacle from which the viewer, as a safe and separate spectator, obtains a thrill or a shock.’” The tension surrounding Frus’s interpretation, though, is that she is ignoring Hersey’s intention. Hersey is trying to shock us, and though he is doing it at the expense of survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima, his intentions are not to objectify the Japanese but to give them the voice that America had been tailoring and then censoring in previous years.
More than just in literary journalism, it’s easy to extrapolate these ideas to literature as a whole. Is it exploitative to write about a marginalized group if we aren’t a part of it? Is it fine if we do it gingerly? Does authorial intention matter if what we write ends up offending, marginalizing, and sensationalizing a group of people for the sake of some greater good? And is it only a big deal if the group who is sensationalized is a group that is in some way Other? For instance, I write about housewives and young women who struggle with decisions about what to make for dinner, how to decorate a bedroom, how to respond to a passive aggressive email from a PTA member—am I sensationalizing these groups when I write by simply framing their actions as a “spectacle” intended to “thrill” or “shock?” Or does this only become relevant, as Berger implies with his definition, when the group being represented is unable to share its own voice (unlike my characters, who can)? And then, too, how is it possible to not be sensational when sharing the narrative of an Other? Is it better to simply stay quiet?
I worry this response has become more a generative exercise in creating questions than one producing answers to them, but that, too, seems like the result of a complex piece of literature. Hiroshima is anything but reductive. The setting Hersey uses and the way he takes us into specific moments by offering tiny details shows that he not only cares about portraying the nuance of the situation, but also about rendering a scene that is true to both history and first-hand experience. We see the skin fall off of men and women who had survived the blast, see doctors and tradespeople thrown out of their daily routines, see Father Kleinsorge fashion “a large piece of grass… so as to make it a straw” for wounded men with swollen mouths because they cannot drink otherwise (Hersey 52). These are delicate details, placed intentionally, to clue in an audience that was unable to see events firsthand. Frus argues this kind of writing is sensational, and it might be, but I can also argue that all writing has the potential to be sensational in that it’s written with an intention to entertain at the expense of someone or something. So even if it is sensational, I wonder if that in itself is bad? Or if it is bad, if it is unavoidable? Before Hersey, no one had shared the horror of the situation in Hiroshima with Americans in an honest way. If it took sensationalizing the scene, then Hersey was certainly justified in doing so, and maybe other authors are, too.