Life After Nuclear War



Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War essentially begins where John Hersey’s famous 1946 work Hiroshima ends. Southard benefits from access first and foremost to the survivors she renders with a gentle reverence and sympathy. Americans have largely avoided stories from the point of view of the surviving civilian populations of the only two atomic attacks because of our inward-gazing moral questioning and, redoubling the erasure, because Hiroshima, the first victim, tends to obscure Nagasaki. Southard’s work thus illuminates an absence in our own history. Far beyond a reductionist argument about whether to use nuclear weapons, this is a profound inquiry into the extremes of human violence and what it does to both victim and victimizer. It is essential reading in our hyper-violent time.

The immediate and long-term devastation caused by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is almost too horrific to comprehend. By focusing on the life stories of five hibakusha (survivors), Southard provides a multifold way to enter not just into a historical subject but into their subjectivity. A superb researcher, she meticulously gathers medical, historical, scientific, military, religious, and artistic sources to produce a comprehensive account. The narratives are nightmarish, of course, making this a book you scarcely want to read, yet its mature literary voice makes it impossible for the reader to turn away.

There has long been debate in literary and artistic circles about the dilemmas of representing violence and about the potential for “re-victimizing.” (Among works tackling the subject, there is, famously, Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others.) Southard does not shirk from graphic details but always avoids the modifiers that would turn an image lurid. Her writing is deeply ethical, ever mindful of context, allowing the voice of the “other” to speak directly to us often in dialogue that includes phrases of transliterated Japanese.

Most of the hibakusha Southard profiles wound up devoting their lives to disarmament and peace, and this is an important, vivid document of the ultimate horror of war and the survivors’ dedication to never letting us forget.

- Rubén Martínez
2016 finalist judge

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Excerpts from the book

“Again, Do-oh drifted into unconsciousness. This time she hallucinated, seeing images of herself walking barefoot along an endless path between rice paddies, with vast fields of bright rape blossoms all around. Yellow and white butterflies flew over the meadows. “It was a world where no one goes,” she recalled, “an extremely lonely, isolated world.” In the dream, she sat on a rock. In the distance, an old man in a white kimono beckoned her close to him. As she tried to approach him, another voice awakened her with a small whisper: “Don’t sleep! Don’t sleep!” It was God’s voice, the creator’s voice, Do-oh later believed, calling her back from the edge of death.”

“With few exceptions, [American] news stories out of the atomic-bombed cities were abstract and impersonal, focusing on the rebuilding of the cities, healing and rebirth out of the atomic ashes, and potential reconciliation with the United States that – according to American journalists – many atomic bomb victims desired. Reporters typically referenced the atomic bombings in the context of government calls for heightened civil defense policies, appeals for international control of atomic energy, or praise of U.S. scientific ingenuity and achievement. Photographs of the mushroom clouds become the iconic images of the atomic bombings, with no representation of the hundreds of thousands who died and suffered beneath them.”

“[The hibakusha] chose to relive excruciating memories and exposed themselves to alienation from family members, harsh judgment for publicly airing their anguish, and right-wing Japanese citizens’ untrue labeling of them as liars or communists. Speaking candidly about their personal experiences provided each a unique opportunity to influence a world they saw as both obsessed with nuclear weapons and fundamentally ignorant about their real-life consequences. They were kataribe – storytellers in the centuries-long Japanese tradition by which selected individuals pass on historical information to their fellow citizens and future generations.”

2016 Nonfiction Winner

Susan Southard, photo credit Gina Santi
Click to see acceptance speech video

(Click photo to see acceptance speech at awards dinner.)

Susan Southard
Life After Nuclear War

"I accept this beautiful award in memory of the hundreds of thousands who died 71 years ago and in the years that followed, and the countless more who faced the acute and long-term terrors of post-nuclear survival. Their day-to-day suffering is still obscured by iconic images of atomic clouds rising over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, or diminished by passionate justifications for using the bombs. Peace is an arduous endeavor and impossible to achieve without a commitment to understanding the grievous harm our actions inflict on others. My deepest gratitude to the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, to the survivors who trusted me with their stories, and to all Nagasaki hibakusha, past and present, who have fervently fought to ensure that Nagasaki remains the last nuclear-bombed city in history."

— Susan Southard                        


Susan Southard holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University/Los Angeles and was a nonfiction fellow at the Norman Mailer Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Nagasaki won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, sponsored by the Neiman Foundation at Harvard University and the Columbia School of Journalism. Southard lives in Tempe, Arizona, where she is the founder and artistic director of Essential Theatre.

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Listen to Susan Southard's Two Interviews with Vic Mickunas
on WYSO's "Book Nook."

Interview in November 2016

Interview in August 2015


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