We were immediately intrigued when the publicist for A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding emailed us about this book from debut author Jackie Copleton. Jackie took some time to answer a few questions about her book, and we’ve got what she had to say right here:
I was lucky to meet people involved in peace organizations based in Nagasaki, whose message was a simple one: “Never again.” I also read a lot of memoirs from people living in the city when the bomb dropped. Perhaps one of the best known is The Bells of Nagasaki by Takashi Nagai, a doctor who movingly recounts his experience as a survivor. He also collated other memoirs, the most affecting being, for me, the accounts from children.
Another extraordinary resource was Japan at War: An Oral History by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook. This is a stunning compilation of recollections by ordinary Japanese. I used my own knowledge of Nagasaki, my memories of living there twenty years ago: the Dutch Slope, Glover Gardens, the bath houses, the diving platform at Iojima, my own home, they are all places I visited and loved. I also read other novels based in the city: Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of the Hills and Eric Faye’s Nagasaki are wonderful. David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is another book inspired by the city’s rich history.
I did background reading on the medical effects of the bomb: the different kinds of burns, the signs of radiation sickness, how the doctors attempted to help so many wounded with limited resources. I was specifically interested in how fetuses were affected. Many miscarriages occurred in the aftermath of the bombing, and in babies who were born live there were reported cases of microcephaly, a developmental brain disorder. I wanted to think about the damage done not just on the day of August 9, but the legacy the bomb left in the bones and blood and organs of the children. I was also influenced by one Japanese doctor who I used to teach who was studying gigantism in children. In the book, Jomei Sato is a doctor working at an orphanage and we follow his research into the medical impact the radiation may have had on some of the children he meets there.
I guess for any writer, one of the joys, but dangers, is how seductive research is. Every book, or journal, or photograph or first-hand account begs to be included. You want the story to be an honest reflection, right? The result is an ever-expanding jigsaw puzzle that just keeps growing until the point where you have to give yourself a strict talking to and say, “Enough, just write!”
The next tough task is the great cull: what stays and what goes? What would the characters know, what would be hidden from them, what do you have to file away if you want your story to ring true? What details of nuclear injury are too distressing to include? When Ama and her husband Kenzo leave Japan, he ends up unwittingly working for an American shipyard that helped develop the bomb. I didn’t realize that at first until I was fact-checking. I remember sitting back shocked, on his behalf. The question then becomes: would he have known this, and if he did, what would he have done?
I also didn’t realize how emotionally exhausting the work would be. I wouldn’t recommend spending years reading about violent and mass death. It took me to some dark places, something I just hadn’t prepared for. Reading about other people’s grief is humbling. I hope I have treated their memories with care and respect.
Memory isn’t linear so why does story-telling need to be? Our past, present and future are all gloriously, irrevocably, and sometimes terribly linked.
My own family history probably also played a part in the structure of the novel. My maternal granddad was killed in Normandy, France on August 5, 1944 and my paternal grandfather fought against the Japanese in Burma, but died before I was born. These men are strangers and yet their legacy lives on through their offspring. My mother will never stop mourning a father she never knew. Two slices of history collide and run parallel: the living cohabit with the dead. How are our lives shaped, or lessened, by such loss and how can we understand our selves fully if there are these missing chunks in our past?
I will confess I didn’t appreciate how tricky the split-time narrative would be. I had endless notes to check that the births, deaths, and marriages aligned. Chapters were shuffled back and forward, others were erased, historical dates had to be slotted in and then worried over. Despite the challenge of weaving the two timeframes, I loved how it helped drive the plot forward, showing why Ama’s present is a product of her past but also how she might carve out a different future.
Yes. In fact for a long time I wanted my main character to be a Western woman, so that I had a point of reference: me. But I wasn’t hugely interested in writing my story! And the joy of writing is the freedom it allows you to inhabit other lives, cultures, and genders. Luckily I also had three women who inspired Amaterasu.
When I lived in Nagasaki, my landlord was an elderly lady, elegant and sprightly despite her age, who lived in the house next to mine with her disabled husband. We would take tea together whenever I paid the rent and amiably sit together and laugh away at conversations neither of us understood as my Japanese was poor and her English non-existent. Despite our inability to communicate her personality shone through. The twinkle in her eyes suggested a rich life lived beyond her final role as a carer for her husband.
A few years ago I was also privileged to meet a woman of the Baha’i faith who had fled Iran 35 years ago when the Khomeini regime came to power. Her daughter, a young beautiful university graduate, stayed behind and was killed in the repressive wake of the revolution. We met weekly at a sauna with two other women in their late seventies. Her English wasn’t fluent but somehow we would find a way to talk, tell our stories and laugh. The loss of her daughter raised one of the main questions in the book: how do we carry on when we lose those closest to us? How do we learn to smile again? Are we ever free from grief?
The last woman is my own grandmother, who became a widow at 19 years of age during the Second World War. She already had one baby girl and my mother, Roberta, was born a month after my granddad, Robert, died. My gran, Nancy, left school at 14, worked in factories most of her life, raised two children and two stepchildren, married a much older man. Gran was my heroine. Ama would have been a little older than Nancy but I think they share a certain stoicism—even if I suspect both would have hated that description. One of the women in the book says: “Women make do.” I don’t want that to sound depressing! It’s a compliment to women of that generation. They got on with life. Gran never left the house without her make-up on. We present our best face to the world. What else can we do?
As for Ama’s background, well, without giving the plot away, I’d gained a small insight into her earlier life through contacts in Nagasaki. Her splendid house in the city is a composite of some of the lovely homes some students lived in. But in the end Ama is her own being and I didn’t want her solely defined by how her Japanese culture would have crafted her. I had a strong visual sense of what she looked like, how she moved and spoke but mostly I felt her pain, her anger, her quiet, determined removal from the world. Ama’s flaws are the flesh on her bones, I hope.
I hope you’ll be moved and uplifted by Ama’s story but I’m not sure she’d want you to feel sorry for her. I’d hope people might better appreciate the cost of war from all sides of a conflict. I’d hope people would think about the simple questions that tend to get lost among the big political arguments about nuclear arms. Why do we still have these weapons? Can we not imagine a world free of them?
Away from war, I guess the book is also about how we love people. Can we love too much, and can that be as damaging as loving too little? Do our regrets grow or diminish as we age? Can we forgive others for their trespasses upon us? More importantly, can we forgive ourselves? Is that not what we all want in the final moments of life? Peace.
***About Jackie Copleton***
***About the Book***
A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton
Published by Penguin Books on December 1, 2015
Genres: Literary Fiction
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In the tradition of Memoirs of a Geisha and The Piano Teacher, a heart-wrenching debut novel of family, forgiveness, and the exquisite pain of love...
When Amaterasu Takahashi opens the door of her Philadelphia home to a badly scarred man claiming to be her grandson, she doesn’t believe him. Her grandson and her daughter, Yuko, perished nearly forty years ago during the bombing of Nagasaki. But the man carries with him a collection of sealed private letters that open a Pandora’s Box of family secrets Ama had sworn to leave behind when she fled Japan. She is forced to confront her memories of the years before the war: of the daughter she tried too hard to protect and the love affair that would drive them apart, and even further back, to the long, sake-pouring nights at a hostess bar where Ama first learned that a soft heart was a dangerous thing. Will Ama allow herself to believe in a miracle?