Criticism & Features

Year 2010: 30 Books

Rigoberto González on Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s “Hiroshima in the Morning”

By Rigoberto Gonzalez

Each day leading up to the March 10 announcement of the 2010 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty-one finalists (to read other entries in the series, click here). Today, NBCC board member Rigoberto González discusses autobiography finalist Rahna Reiko Rizzuto's Hiroshima in the Morning (Feminist Press).

What is more painful: the act of forgetting or the act of remembering? The complexity of memory–what an individual, a community, or even a nation chooses to bury or unearth in service to peace and healing–textures and unsettles the narrative in Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s Hiroshima in the Morning.

Rizzuto, compelled to seek out the fading voices of the hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bomb, journeys from New York City to Japan in June 2001 on a six-month travel grant. She leaves behind her husband and two young children, convinced that her family bond is strong enough to endure her absence and that this sacrifice is also an effort to reconcile with her maternal ancestry, the trauma that courses through its bloodlines–the birthright of her sons.

Her initial encounters with the stories from the past are disappointing. Though the people are real, the tales appear worn and Rizzuto suspects something is lost in translation, or that she’s too much a Westerner to be allowed access to the intimate chambers of memory. Each interview is a confirmation that she has entered “a bizarre world where questions obscure the answers, where they stymie forward motion rather than opening up a path”

Unhindered, she continues collecting information, fueling her mission on the fact that this act of recovery is an act of exploring her mother’s psyche and her own–both of them women whose escapes from personal troubles are mired in denial and repression.

And then suddenly the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Rizzuto is flung into “the hibakusha twilight,” a moment of anxiety and uncertainty, “that moment, then; the last breath of before: when life is about to change, utterly and forever.”

This twist of fate brings fresh relevance to Rizzuto’s conversations with innocent victims caught in the turmoil of political conflicts, and just as suddenly she’s embraced by the Japanese survivors as a woman afflicted by a condition they know all too well: confusion and terror. But the crisis also sheds light on the distance she has deliberately placed between herself and her family; her marital discord rises to the surface.

The many avenues of Hiroshima in the Morning–explorations of history, of culture, of family, of self–ebb and flow to deliver a stunning portrait of survival. Rizzuto’s writing is lyrical and moving, transcendent and beautiful, yet it constructs a robust narrative that does not succumb to the gravity of the world events that inform it.

Above all, Rizzuto’s gorgeous and hard-won memoir is an exploration of story. How we shape it and how it shapes us, how it imprisons us though eventually, mercifully, it liberates us: “How we tell our stories makes all the difference. They are where we store our tears, where the eventual healing lies… What September 11 gave to the hibakushas, and what they gave in turn to me, is a way to re-enter memory.”

Click here to read an excerpt from Hiroshima in the Morning from the Feminist Press website.