Non-Fiction by Non-Men: Susan Southard

Susan Southard

Susan Southard’s first book, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, was a New York Times editors’ choice and named a best book of the year by the Washington Post, the Economist, and Kirkus. Nagasaki was also a finalist for the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award, sponsored by Harvard’s Niemen Foundation and the Columbia University School of Journalism. Southard was a nonfiction fellow at the Norman Mailer Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and she holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, and Lapham’s Quarterly. She has taught nonfiction classes at Arizona State University’s Piper Writers Studio and has directed creative writing programs for incarcerated youth and at a federal prison for women outside Phoenix. She lives in Tempe, Arizona, where she is the founder and artistic director of Essential Theatre.

EB: What drew you to writing nonfiction?

SS: Telling true stories from others’ lives has been part of my artistic life for more than 25 years. I have written four plays based on the lives of struggling adolescents, homeless adults, domestic violence survivors, and the citizens of a small town in rural Arizona with a rich and controversial cultural history. I am also the founder and artistic director of Essential Theatre, a professional ensemble working in the field of theatre and social change—which for us means working with marginalized audiences and bringing their stories to the stage. For these projects, I have listened to, conceptualized, written, and performed thousands of true stories of people in the above communities, as well as incarcerated adults and youth, developmentally disabled adults, refugees, and veterans, among many others. Nonfiction writing was a natural next step. I was drawn into this genre by the desire to tell the stories of the survivors of the 1945 Nagasaki atomic bombing to a larger audience in the United States and across the world.

EB: What was it like to transition from writing nonfiction plays to writing nonfiction prose?

SS: This transition for me had an intermediary step. I went from writing nonfiction plays in the early 1990s to 10 years of performing others’ stories on stage before I began writing Nagasaki. Our theatre’s primary art form is Playback Theatre, an interactive, improvised performance format, created by Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas, which is now presented all over the world. In Playback, members of the audience tell stories from their lives, and the ensemble of actors and musicians collaboratively and spontaneously create works of art to honor each story. This experience of taking other people’s stories—people of different nationalities and of nearly every age, gender identity, racial background, and political perspective—into my imagination and embodying them in performance played a huge part in my artistic development as I moved into writing nonfiction.

EB: What do you think you personally bring to your nonfiction writing?

NagasakiSS: A drive to tell the survivors’ profound and yet untold stories of post-nuclear survival and a passionate desire to untangle the denial and misconceptions about the bombing and its aftermath put forth by our government in the post-war years. I listen well—for what’s said and not said—and I am doggedly persistent in trying to understand the truth of those whose voices have been silenced. These qualities are not certainly exclusive to me, though as with every author, I’m sure they color my writing in unique ways.

EB: That’s such a good point. Listening is a huge part of writing nonfiction. You can’t tell someone else’s story faithfully unless you are actually hearing what she is saying. Did you find while working on Nagasaki that listening changed any ideas you had going into writing the book?

SS: Yes. I learned, over time, to understand and untangle my own biases and search beyond them. For example, at the beginning of my research and interviews, my feelings about the United States’ use of nuclear weapons on Nagasaki and Hiroshima skewed my questions—and my listening. If left unchecked, my bias would have resulted in sentimental writing about the survivors’ suffering that did not capture the complexity of their characters or fully acknowledge some of Japanese and U.S. wartime and post-war actions—both heroic and cruel—that countered my own limited perspectives. I also learned to “listen” and untangle the biases of historians writing about the bombings, their aftermath, and justifications or opposition to their use, which changed not only how I wrote the book but how I think about and question every story I now read or hear.

EB: How does writing nonfiction affect your life?

SS: One of the most thrilling aspects of writing nonfiction is that it constantly changes me both as a writer and as a woman. In the long view, the desire to write nonfiction in order to tell the Nagasaki survivors’ stories led me to a new art form and a new profession. Then, in the process of researching and writing the book, I became—and remain—far more skeptical about everything I hear or read in the media, especially from government officials and others in positions of authority who so often spin a story so hard that the truth of people’s on-the-ground experiences is no longer visible. I am far more curious than before about what lies beneath the spin. Writing Nagasaki transformed me as a person—the lives of the survivors and the geography and landscape of the city are a part of me now.

EB: That’s incredible. What has been challenging about writing nonfiction?

SS: Everything about writing Nagasaki was both challenging and thrilling. Because I am not a scholar or journalist connected with a professional media organization, working on such an enormous project while raising my daughter and working fulltime was extremely hard on my time and energy—though I wouldn’t have done it differently. Also, I was personally responsible for all travel, research, and translation costs, which, over 12 years, constantly stretched my financial sanity and could have funded much of my retirement!

Even more challenging were aspects of my research and writing, not the least of which was trying to write about nuclear annihilation and terror at a scale that defies imagination. My approach was to stay with the survivors’ individual experiences and perspectives as much as possible to keep the story real and imaginable, while offering context for clarification and understanding of larger social, political, and medical issues. In any historical account that incorporates personal narrative, there are complications due to the inherent limitations and unreliability of memory, especially traumatic memory. I countered this by crosschecking survivors’ accounts against support documentation to verify or expand on their memories of events, places, and people. I am an American, of another culture and generation than the subjects of this book, and I wanted to prevent potential manipulation or appropriation of the survivors’ stories, even more so because they were people who, no matter what the rationale, had already been violated by my country. My answer to this challenge was to use the survivors’ own words and images to relay their experiences as accurately as possible, and to draw on the clearest scientific, medical, political, military, and historical analyses I could find to place the survivors’ experiences into the larger framework of the various histories in which they played a part.

EB: What is it like to write about real people who are still alive?

SS: It’s both a huge responsibility and an enormous joy. Writing across cultures and generations, I was responsible not only for the truth of each individual survivor’s life, but also for the overall post-bomb realities across the entire city and beyond—including whole fields of study, such as the medical effects of radiation on their bodies over the past 70 years, the immense social and psychological impacts of the bombing, U.S. policies of censorship and denial, and the remarkable efforts by some survivors to speak out about their experiences. At the same time, knowing the survivors, their families, and many others in Nagasaki brought immeasurable depth and beauty into my life.

EB: How has being a woman affected your experience as a writer?

SS: I am unsure that on its own, being a woman has affected my experience as a writer, except that I lived in constant awareness that the field of narrative history and journalism is dominated by men. Also, I started writing nonfiction in my late forties and without a Ph.D. in a related field. Before my book was published I briefly experienced subtle but visceral moments of invisibility and dismissal by a few scholars and writers who didn’t know me or the quality of my work. On the surface I understand this, but I also sensed that their response was in part due to both my gender and my age. I am hopeful this will change now that Nagasaki has received both critical and scholarly acclaim.

EB: Finally, what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?

SS: From Terry Tempest Williams’ Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert: “The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time.”

E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.

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