Reading “Hiroshima”: Inferno lingers in our days.

Book cover Hiroshima

The following note appeared in the NEW YORKER of 31 August, 1946, as an introduction to John Hersey’s article “Hiroshima”.

The NEW YORKER this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implication of its use.


 

John Hersey’s reputation precedes him. Born in China in 1914 to missionary parents, attended Yale College and later became a fellow at Cambridge, he inherited the privilege of high education and broad culture. His two masterpieces, a Pulitzer-prize winning novel “A Bell for Adano”, and “Hiroshima” – the article laying the foundation for New Journalism, eternally rank him among the finest American writers. Both works concern with World War II.

John Hersey covered the Second World War in Europe for the TIME (1937 – 1944), following the Allies’ soldiers who were liberating Italy. After the War ended, he wrote for the New Yorker, and once again was sent to an equally brutal battleground: post-nuclear-bomb Hiroshima. In May 1946, he was among the first western journalists to investigate the city of Hiroshima after the American nuclear bombing on August 6, 1945.

The author interviewed many witnesses and survivors, focusing mainly on six people: a German priest and five Japanese citizens (a Red-cross doctor, a private doctor, a female clerk, a Protestant pastor, and a tailor’s widow.) The six people were doing their daily rituals when a noiseless blinding flash in the sky wiped out their families, their peaceful neighborhood.

Each of these witnesses, with his or her geographical surroundings and distance from the ground zero, is described in details, from action to mental state. Surprisingly, everybody was calm on that morning. There had been warnings that Hiroshima, an important seaport and industrial powerhouse, would come next in the American bombing list, and that it would receive a “special treatment” from the Americans. The city had preparations such as trenches, shelters, and public radio speakers; however, the alerts repeated daily just reacting to American weather jets.

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, knocking out the city dwellers among them six witnesses. The survivors didn’t remember what exactly happened next, except that they were thrown far hundreds of yards, crushed by the collapsed buildings, or cut by the sharp debris. Chapter 2 (The Fire) dedicated to describing how the people of Hiroshima struggled for life in ceaseless hell fire, their insufferable pains and torment as the walking zombies crowding the streets, the riversides, the hospitals. Some descriptions are striking:

“The asphalt of the streets was still so soft and hot from the fires that walking was uncomfortable”, “In the garden, on the way to the shelter, he noticed a pumpkin roasted on the vine. He and Father Cieslik tasted it and it was good. They were surprised at their hunger, and they are quite a bit. They got out several bags of rice and gathered up several other cooked pumpkins and dug up some potatoes that were nicely baked under the ground, and started back.” “When Mr. Tanimoto, with his basin still in his hand, reached the park, it was very crowded, and to distinguish the living from the dead was not easy, for most of the people lay still, with their eyes open.”

The next two chapters concentrate on the health consequences caused by extreme nuclear exposure, accompanied by speculations, investigations, and statistics coming from the scientists. Japanese scientists stated that the denotation released a 6000-Celsius-degree heat and nuclear residue that only a 50-inch concrete shelter could save a human being from harm. Elsewhere in the city, some people caught a radio wave broadcasting the American president’s announcement: “That bomb had more power than twenty thousand tons of T.N.T. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British Grand Slam, which is the largest bomb ever used in the history of warfare.”

With only 30,000 words, a calm voice, and matter-of-fact descriptions, John Hersey reported the wrestling survival of the six witnesses hours and days after the disaster, the city in a literal inferno, and the responses of the Japanese government.

The second nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki (August 9, 1945) forced the Japanese to surrender the Allies without condition, on August 15, 1945, officially ending the war on the Pacific front. For the first time, the Emperor “broadcasted his own voice through radio directly to us, common people of Japan.”

[…] Many civilians, all of them were in bandage, some being helped by shoulder of their daughters, some sustaining their injured feet by sticks, they listened to the broadcast and when they came to realize the fact that it was the Emperor, they cried with full tears in their eyes. […] When they came to know the war was ended – that is, Japan was defeated, they, of course, were deeply disappointed, but followed after their Emperor’s commandment in calm spirit, making wholehearted sacrifice for the everlasting peace of the world – and Japan started her new way.”

Then go on beautiful passages about the Japanese character that I think can only be felt by reading the text on one’s own.

When the world was still astonished and baffled at this tremendous event, Hersey’s article helped clear the mist surrounding the bomb’s destructive power and Hiroshima’s suffering. Together with the American lukewarm response to the Holocaust, Hiroshima added a new question without a satisfying answer: Was the decision to drop the bomb justifiable and necessary.

Under the journalist’s perspective, impartial and respectful, the author presented the religious, political, and military views of the people involved in this unprecedented issue. Nonetheless, the readers can feel the author’s deep sympathy towards the suffering of Hiroshima.

Hiroshima was published in its entirety in the NEW YORKER on August 31, 1946. Quickly many major magazines and broadcast television firms in America and around the world purchased the copyright. The New York University’s Department of Journalism ranked it #1 on Top 100 works of American journalism. Up to this day, the article has not lost its intensity and relevance, and remains a landmark of adapting fiction story-telling to journalistic reportage.

As a young Vietnamese reader, I feel an immense respect for the Japanese people who against all odds recovered their country to this day. But I couldn’t help thinking about the American war in Vietnam (called the Vietnam war by Americans). How might history have changed if the Americans used atomic bombs in the Vietnam battlefield? Hiroshima was just the opening of an atomic age. In 1961, the Soviet Union successfully experimented the nuclear bomb Tsar Bomba, which was 3,800 as destructive as the first atomic bomb. Is the world safer now? The common answer to that question is, “The world has never been the same ever since Hiroshima.”


John Hersey’s entire article on the NEW YORKER is Here.

Bridging Cultures through Film Noir and Short Narrative

From January to May 2016, teachers and graduate students at the University of Languages and International Studies converged in an American Studies class held by the Faculty of Linguistics and Cultures of English Speaking Countries.

Through this course, we have improved our understanding of two forms of American Arts, coming closer to the American culture. I relished being able to return to my school, seeing my former teachers, and seriously engaging in the United States Studies, which I had been doing individually since 2012. It was wonderful to study alongside my teachers and other professionals with much experience in the field.

Our course instructor, Professor Jack Yeager from Louisiana State University, is a Fulbright scholar and expert in Francophone literature. His Fulbright fellowship offered him the second chance to be in Vietnam; this time at my university for six months.

with prof Yeager and English Falcuty
With Professor Jack Yeager of Louisiana State University and English Faculty teachers of the University of Languages and International Studies. (photo by Ms. Hai Ha)

Professor Yeager delivered the course in two parts. Part One focused on American short narrative; the other on Film noir.

The first part commenced with two chapters of Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” (1883). Reading “Castles and Culture” and “The Metropolis of the South”, we journeyed back to the late 19th century Louisiana, particularly to two major cities – Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Twain’s vigorous language pioneered the “narrative journalism” and “travel writing”, transforming the Mississippi river from a transportation corridor into a “personality” and a quintessentially American soul.

The discussion locomotive marched on with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” (1843) and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart” (1845) – two works of early American Romanticism. By the 1830s, European countries had been transitioning into literary Realism. Although flowering 30 years later than its European counterpart, American Romanticism shared the movement’s essential themes of human isolation, discontent with urbanism, and the fascination with the supernatural. Though regarded as masterworks, these narratives received critical questions about their limited white-male perspectives, their historical and socioeconomic context in which they were composed.

Afterwards, we studied the Naturalistic school exemplified with Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel” (1899), Willa Cather’s “Two Friends” (1931), Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” (1908). These short stories explored the harsh nature of the Midwest (Nebraska, Kansas) and Yukon. Crane examined the immigration mindset and fatal miscommunication among people. Cather, infusing the Panic of 1893, the Gold Standard crisis and the 1896 Presidential election in her story, proved that the political atmosphere in America at the time was far-reaching and potentially divisive. Jack London vividly portrayed man’s futile conquest against nature and the unknown.

The three above stories are coated with regional dialects, historical allusions, and unusual punctuation. Thus, often we must read their dialogues aloud to understand the mood and to process comprehension. The class encountered this similar issue with O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” (1905), a parable rich in comic irony, slang, and rhythm.

In addition, we studied a young voice from the Vietnamese American community, with Monique Truong’s comic tale named “Skin and Bones” (2014).  Written about a Vietnamese American woman’ journey to Vietnam to learn about her origin, its fantastical nature resembles that in Maxine Hong Kingston’s novel “The Woman Warrior” (1976) which concerns majorly about the Asian American experience.

Also interested in gender studies, professor Yeager brought to class early American stories that reflect gender attitude across the centuries. For instance, Kate Chopin’s “Desireé Baby” (1893) and William Faulkner’s “Dry September” (1931) – two stories that raised debates about feminism, class, and race (especially in the American South). “Brokeback Mountain” (1997) by Annie Proulx explores the taboo subject of homosexuality in the unforgiving landscape of Wyoming, western America.

The question of racism and justice was put into perspective at our screening of “To Kill a Mocking Bird” (Universal Pictures, 1962), an Oscar-winning film based on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of the same name. Often invigorated with professor Yeager’s American experience and perspective, the Q&A sessions gave us a more wholesome picture of the United States history, landscape, and people.

There are legitimate questions to ponder, moreover. The purpose of this introductory course was to provide an overview and the techniques to integrate some of the course materials into the faculty’s literature syllabus and teaching methodology. “Should and how do we insert a particular narrative into the class discussion?” “Is it too long or too short for the task at hand?”, “How can we make it attractive to the students?”, “What background information do the students need?”, “Should films be a medium for teaching in a literature classroom?” So on.

Taking the opportunity to prepare and present the assigned stories, we marched into the rigorous classroom discussion. But for the limited time budget, I wish there were Mid-term/Final essays or Reaction papers as in the intended syllabus. Plus, it is fun to do a reading collage, a writing portfolio, or short “report” videos for the future workshops.

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The second half of the course focused on American Film Noir – a famous Hollywood film genre/style.

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Film Noir is different from Black-and-white films, which I had not known before the course

Influenced by German Expressionist cinema and film directors who fled Germany during World War II, Film noir borrowed many German aesthetic devices, plot conventions, and stereotypical characters, to evolve into a wholly American film style.

Detective fiction of the early 20th century inspired Film noir, whose plots frequently concern crime, deadly violence, daring “mind game” between ambitious criminals and clever detectives. The setting is usually the city at night with criminal activities and gunfights.

It is difficult to define Film noir, however. Not every film noir has a private detective and a killer dame (“femme fatale”) set in an urban landscape. One film can be more brutal, explicit, or romantic than the other. There is so much to learn that a few class sessions (despite extensive discussion) seemed to scratch merely on the surface.

The chosen classic films were The Maltese Falcon (Warner Brothers, 1941), M (Nero-film A.G., 1931), The Big Sleep (Warner Brothers, 1946), The Big Heat (Columbia, 1953). During the screenings, we paused at key scenes to discuss the technical innovations, i.e. the high-speed lenses, the angled shots and close-up shots, dark/light contrast, the classic three-point lighting, etc.

There were difficulties since the characters spoke in the old vernacular (although the films did have subtitles). Certain scenes carry symbolic meaning or reference to contemporary people’s attitudes. For example, the dark streets, the shadows, the stairs, the bridges. That is not to mention the symbolic costume, makeup, and hairstyles.

For me, the course has been highly educational, although film noir is not my favorite film genre. The wonderful part is to be able to recognize the “noir” techniques and motifs that are still widely employed in modern films. It’s amazing how those little things can create such nuanced psychological effects in film viewers.

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Thank you the Faculty of Linguistics and Cultures of English Speaking Countries for successfully holding this course, for sharing your concerns about the school, the curriculum, the students, and most of all, your life as a teacher. We express our special thanks to professor Yeager, for his commitment, his knowledge and witty sense of humor. Thanks for making this learning experience much more fruitful than it would have been had we done it alone. We hope to meet again in the future!

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2015 – the year of magical Reading & Healing

Reading is a lonesome business, but for me it’s never lonely. Another stormy year has passed, but with books it left fertile ground for my friendships to grow most deeply. Thank you my friends, wherever you are, I am thinking of our walk-talks, our laughter, our time contemplating together.

2015 was a humble year for reading. I intended to read at least 30 books cover-to-cover, but eventually left several books unfinished. I tried hard to have difficult conversations with some authors who passed away decades ago. Following are some books that I have read, minus the “periodically re-read”, such as Emerson, Jonathan Edwards, and the Bible.

2015 goals
A few books that I read in 2015

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  1. Just Kids_ by Patti Smith

The single most important book in my 2015. Detailed review here.

  1. The Elements of Style_ William Strunk, Jr. and E.B White:

Timeless, classic must-read for anyone who wants to advance writing, or communicate most effectively. Just don’t forget to practice after reading.

+ Print out the eBook 

+ Check out a Podcast about English Grammar

  1. Giovanni’s room_ by James Baldwin

[American fiction/ Europe/ Gay/ Gender equality/ Law & Conscience]

Banned, explicit about Homosexuality, by a black writer, so what? I had never thought that Gay relationship could be so complex until I read Giovanni’s Room. Reading something so honest, so introspective, so contrast to my pre-conceived notions, was like a punch in the gut. James Baldwin is eloquent and passionate, perhaps in the league of Tennessee Williams. More importantly, the book is not political; it’s about human beings contemplating, treating one another, receiving consequences for their own actions. A classic.

  1. The Fire Next Time_ James Baldwin

If you are a Christian, this book will provoke you. But it will make you think very deeply about the Church’s conduct, about yours as well. Be prepared.

  1. Sons and Lovers_by D.H. Lawerence

[Parental love/ Coming-of-age/ Family dysfunction/ Freudian psychology/ English Modernism/ Pre-WWI England]

My introduction to D.H. Lawrence couldn’t be more complex. Not so much a love story than a story about love. I see myself in Paul, in William, in Walter Morel, in Mrs. Morel, in Miriam, in Clara. Like Gustave Flaubert, Lawrence constructs his literary world like a mirror of ours; but unlike Flaubert, Lawrence doesn’t use satire, but delves deeply into his psychological characterization. “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, his later work set Lawrence on the world stage, but to me, “Sons and Lovers” is his masterpiece.

I wanted to write a review for this book, but it is so massive to me that I never feel competent enough to write. There even is a literary branch studying D.H. Lawrence at Oxford. This book ranks 9th on Modern Library’s Top 100 best novels in English of the 20th century.

Check out Free Oxford podcast studying D.H.Lawrence

  1. Lady Chatterley’s Lover_ by D.H. Lawrence

[CLASS (ARISTOCRACY)/ PSYCHOLOGICAL FICTION/ ENGLISH MODERNISM]

Most notorious of the banned books. Pornographic or sexually explicit – up to you to decide. But truly, it is a superb work of art, a serious reflection on humanity in a turbulent time of English history, but also very applicable to today’s world.

  1. L’Étranger (The Stranger)/ 8. La Chute (The Fall)_ by Albert Camus

These two philosophical novels are among the most difficult (and absurd) novels that I have ever read. Camus talks about Paris, Amsterdam, French Algeria, about emotional isolation, depression, friendship, and so much more. These two novels are haunting and leaving me little to say about.  I must reread them before claiming anything.

  1. Trois contes (Three Tales)_ by Gustave Flaubert [FRENCH LITERATURE]

Short, readable classic text. This book made my prerequisite read before a seminar on the subject.

  1. Fahrenheit 451_ Ray Bradbury [AMERICAN LITERATURE]

This Book brought back my painful childhood memory, where I was a proud Guy Montag. Nothing particular in style, but its discussion on books is powerful. Books are so central to human meaning and existence; you are so lucky to be able to read and given a chance to read. Don’t blow it.

  1. Night_ by Elie Wiesel

[Holocaust Memoir/Life and Death/Theological Questions]

I cried – reading this Holocaust memoir. One of the most moving and emotional reading experiences in 2015.  I think that EVERYONE should read this book, especially if you haven’t known what the Holocaust is.

–> The eBook is available here.

  1. Tortured for Christ_ by Pastor Richard Wurmbrand

[MEMOIR/ HISTORY/ UNDERGROUND CHURCH/ COMMUNIST PRISON]

Pastor Richard Wurmbrand takes a clear, head-to-head stance against the communists who imprisoned him 14 years for his faith. Disgusting torture and brainwashing are some hideous examples of life in the communist prison.

Interestingly, Wurmbrand openly denounces hypocrisy in today’s western churches. He added that underground churches in restricted countries are relentlessly performing the wish of Christ, in the face of adversity and repression. I used to think Church and State are antagonistic rivals – not completely so in the Soviet Russia and contemporary socialist nations.

  1. Between Shades of Gray_ by Ruta Sepetys

[SOVIET LABOR CAMP/ HISTORICAL FICTION/FRIENDSHIP/ LOVE/ARTS]

This book is comparable to the classics of Holocaust literature, except it is about a larger-scale genocide under the Soviet Union. In the worst conditions of the Soviet Labor camps, love and hope still shined. I doubt if this book will be translated into Vietnamese or be circulated here in Vietnam.

  1. Shades of Gray_ by Carolyn Reeder

[American Civil War/ the American South/ Coming-of-age/ Courage]. See my book review here.

  1. O’Henry Short Stories Collection.

This book is required in my American Literature class. O’Henry, a talented story-teller, brings to his short stories the aspects of his own life (travel, disgrace, obscurity, fame, honor, and then neglect). My favorite stories are “The Last Leaf”, “The Gift of the Magi”, “One Thousand Dollars”, “Conscience in Art.”

O’Henry’s stories are historically significant since they talk about common people in New York City in late 19th-early 20th-century years, though they are criticized for being sentimental. I find his very honest and humane, in contrary. Three example stories are here.

  1. Red: My autobiography_ by Gary Neville

[AUTOBIOGRAPHY/ PROFESSIONAL SOCCER]

A soccer superstar offering his refreshing “career look-back”. Read my book review here.

  1. The Mekong: Turbulent past, uncertain future_ by Milton Osborne

[SOUTHEAST ASIAN HISTORY/ INDOCHINA]

A very good introduction to Indochina (Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam) studies. Milton Osborn is a historian, a Southeast Asia expert with significant experience in his field. Not only do you read about the river’s history, you will also know about the civilizations along its shore, the religions, ethnicities, the fish harvest crises, the current dams controversy, the China-ASEAN relation regarding the exploitation of the Mekong river.

  1. Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers rise to global dominance and why they fall_ by Amy Chua (Yale Law School)

This book couldn’t be more relevant for the current immigration issue in America. The United States is globally dominant; but how long can it maintain its position when other superpowers, i.e. China, India, the EU, are rising? Professor Chua argues that, for all the stains in American history, the United States has been relatively tolerant of ethnic divisions and assimilation. However, its growing multicultural society is inherently volatile. Could it repeat the mistakes by the Ottoman Empire, the Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire? What are the implications for the U.S. immigration laws? This is a good book to read before the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.

  1. The Defining Decade _ by Meg Jay, Ph.D

If you are seeking life purposes, this study-motivational book will provide you the know-hows. The author has expertise in her psychology field, coining the term “Identity Capital” – the intangible, personal assets that you accumulate over time. I highly support her point that young people in their twenties should work and learn as much as they can to secure this “identity capital”. The rest of the book is not ground-breaking to me.

–> Check out her TED talk, Why 30 is not the new 20.

  1. Hà Nội trong mắt tôi (Hanoi in my eyes: A collection of short stories)_ by Nguyễn Khải

[AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL SHORT STORIES/ FAMILY & TRADITIONAL VALUES]

Don’t be confused by the title. The book is mainly about the humans of Hanoi in the 1970s, late 1980s and early 1990s. Some stories moved me deeply, i.e. those about the mothers, the wives, the disintegrated families in the face of a changing society and market economy.

(This book is currently only in Vietnamese. I am going to translate some of the stories into English.)

21+. “The History of Russian literature” and “European Romanticism and Literary Realism”, two college textbooks written by Vietnamese scholars in the 1980s.

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I did not finish “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, “Demian” by Hermann Hesse, and “Arrowsmith” by Sinclair Lewis. These are all great books which I will finsh and review in 2016.

What did you read in 2015? Please share with me. I will be back with a “2016 to-be-read” list. Cheers!

“Shades of Gray” by Carolyn Reeder: Courage wears many faces

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This book is available at the American Center in Hanoi. The plot is following.

Will Page lived with his well-off family in Winchester, Virginia (a southern state) before the Civil War wiped out his loved ones. Now homeless, grieving and angry with the Union Army, Will has to live with his poor relatives in Piedmont, Virginia. Will’s father fought bravely in the Confederate Army, but Will’s guardian, uncle Jed, refused to take sides in the war. Thus, Will considers uncle Jed a coward and a traitor, a feeling shared by most of Jed’s neighbors.

At his uncle’s farmstead, Will is in the middle of his inner conflicts. Will’s family used to have slaves and didn’t have to do any real physical work. Now he has to share the labor work with his uncle’s family. Working alongside his uncle, Will gradually (and begrudgingly) comes to admire his skill and wisdom. He realizes that his uncle’s family actually have paid a high price for not joining the war. Embraced by his uncle’s family, Will begins to understand how others view the war. He decides to stay with his uncle’s family, despite an offer to live in a better place.

——The American Civil War (1861-1865) and the New South (southern U.S. states after 1865) are popular themes for historical fiction. However, the story tells adolescents’ thoughts and the American character in a vẻy natural and compelling way. Like any education novels, it focuses on many character-building themes.

First, it talks about courage. Will’s journey to find the true meaning of courage is both daunting and relentless. Initially, he thought that fighting valiantly for one side meant courage. However, living with his uncle’s family, Will realizes that courage also means standing up for one’s belief, even if it is radically different from others’. Courage also means treating the neighbors with respect and kindness, despite being misunderstood and criticized by them.

Second, bullying can be overcome with tolerance and grace. As a newcomer, Will has to defend himself and his cousin from the local children’s teasing and bullying. Sometimes it means playing cool and self-deprecating jokes. Sometimes it means sharing fishing skills, laughing off the grudge with a handshake. To any of us who has experienced bullying in childhood, this book is both a flashback and reflection on our own.

Third, it is about empathy and appreciation for hard work. Before, Will family had everything done for them, and especially they had plenty of books. Here in the countryside, everyone is struggling and working hard; Will does not let his ego voice any discomfort. In fact, with eagerness and joy, he grasps the skills of hunting, fishing, fixing the fences. He becomes best friend with his illiterate cousin and teaches her to read.

The novel’s pivotal moment is when Uncle Jed decided to nurse an injured former Union soldier (a Yankee), to Will’s indignation. After defying his uncle strongly, Will learns that not every Yankee was bad; that, during the war, many Yankees secretly defied their burning-barn orders, sparing some portion of the Confederacy crops and barns. Again, not everything is black and white, but has many shades of gray.

Anyone who loves the U.S. southern culture as much as I do will appreciate the cultural attributes in this book. For example, you will see familiar Southern food like beets, beans, and gravy; people will call “dinner” for “lunch”, and so on. The new South countryside is simply idyllic.

Having less than 160 pages and told in the 3rd person omniscient point of view, this coming-of-age novel is approachable to 6-7th graders and young adults alike. I recommend it to anyone with intermediate English proficiency and with an interest in American history and southern culture.