When the publishing world's latest scandal chugged into view last month, the problems with The Last Train from Hiroshima were quickly dismissed as minor: The author had been duped! With photos no less! It was the witness who had lied. James Cameron (Avatar, Titanic, etc. for those who have recently been trapped in a bunker in Antarctica) would be going ahead with a film treatment, and Henry Holt would continue to sell their 18,000 printed copies -- indeed there were Internet reports of brisker sales as people bought the fake story before it was expunged -- promising a more factual version later.
Now, Holt has pulled the book, citing a lack of confidence in the "accuracy" of the work and "reliability" of the sources. Don't get me wrong, I don't believe an author should be able to lie and claim it's the truth. But, how sad and ironic! Because, if oral histories and interviews were the author's main sources as the subtitle "The Survivors Look Back" suggests (I have not read it), the likelihood is, there was very little "fact" in it.
I have some small experience with interviews. I interviewed many former internees from the U.S. Japanese-American internment camps for my first novel. Then, in 2001, I lived in Hiroshima for six months, interviewing the survivors of the first atomic bombing for a novel. The truth is, no one ever told me the "truth." I got anecdotes, nightmares, epiphanies: I got life.
I am not saying anyone lied to me. They opened their hearts and shared a truly nightmarish experience. They gave me exactly what I needed -- a glimpse into a world and an experience I had no other way of understanding. Almost no one suggested that theirs was a definitive version of history either. They just told me what happened to them.
In my first three months in Hiroshima, I spoke with a number of generous, honest people who told me their stories. These were stories they had told before, as many peace pilgrims flow through that city every year wanting to know what really happened. In several cases, I could read printed accounts of a person's story that were almost identical to what she told me.
There were things they could remember, and things they couldn't. There was very little emotion in their stories. Instead, they had messages they wanted to convey. Principally: Never repeat the evil. No nuclear weapons. Peace.
On September 11th, 2001, however, my keitai denwa (my little Japanese cellphone) rang, and a friend told me that a plane had just smashed into the World Trade Center. In the aftermath of those terrorist attacks, the survivors' stories changed radically. The shock of war, hostility, lives lost so tragically, opened them up. Their stories no longer began with the time (8:15 am), the blue sky, the faraway dot of the B-29 bomber. They told me about cremating their children, scraping maggots out of the raw swathes of skin on their spouses' bodies. How a child's lips came off on the spout of the water container when he tried to drink.
None of the stories were lies, but they were entirely different. The books I could have written only based on the first set of narratives, or only based on the second, would have been poles apart. The story I did write, which includes the voices of the survivors before and after, is a meditation on memory: it's about how we write and rewrite our lives.
We humans are mythmakers. We create narratives. We use narratives -- fairy tales, fables -- to teach our children right and wrong and to school them in how to succeed in our cultures. And we call on our memories -- our versions of the truth -- to figure out who we are.
The Last Train from Hiroshima takes me back to Hiroshima, to the brave (and perhaps only personally accurate) memories of what happened there. I hope the questions of what this particular author did or did not make up does not lead to a wholesale rejection of the survivors' memories. Their experiences -- whether anecdote, nightmare, epiphany or life -- maybe not always be verifiable. But they are essential voices in the chorus of truth.