For author Shaw Kuzki, who was born in 1957 and grewup in Hiroshima, one of the two Japanese cities devastated by the atomic bombings in August 1945, the importance of preserving and honoring stories from a harrowing past has been a driving force.

“Most of my classmates (growing up) were second-generation survivors,” Kuzki says. “Some of them grew up hearing lots of stories about the bombing, while others heard almost none because the memories were too painful. … But when you left the city or the prefecture, you could really sense that the memories of the tragedy were something only we had in common. After I moved to Tokyo for university, I started feeling that I needed to convey these memories to others somehow.”

Soul Lanterns, by Shaw Kuzki
Translated by Emily Balistrieri
176 pages

The author writes for both children and adults across multiple genres, but it is her stories about her hometown that have resonated with readers the most. “Soul Lanterns,” Kuzki’s 2013 middle grade novel, won multiple awards in Japan and was included in the White Ravens catalog, an annual list of recommended children’s literature from the International Youth Library in Germany. Beautifully translated by Emily Balistrieri and released in English this past spring from Delacorte Press, “Soul Lanterns” takes place 25 years after the historic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with middle schoolers seeking out stories of World War II from their teachers, neighbors and family members to better understand the survivors and reclaim their history.

By framing the novel from the perspective of the second generation, Kuzki invites readers to approach the tragedy as the schoolchildren do, with earnest curiosity and compassion.

“It’s such a well-structured novel — you learn a lot of historical details by reading it, but it’s also very emotional with the different families and their stories,” Balistrieri says. “The perspective of a 12-year-old living many years after the bombing and trying to wrap her head around its enormity is comparable to how many people feel today. The atomic bombings happened so long ago, it’s almost hard to believe. But looking into the details and hearing stories of people who were there makes the tragedy sink in.”

At the center of “Soul Lanterns” is Nozomi Ota, who realizes that one of the paper lanterns her mother releases into the river each year during the summer Bon festival — ​​which welcomes the spirits of the dead back to the world of the living — has no name written on it. Nozomi’s awakened curiosity about her mother’s untold story deepens as she enters middle school. After realizing that their art teacher lost his fiancee during the Hiroshima bombing, Nozomi and her friends wonder about the past and how it connects to the present. On a quest to rediscover their history, the children suggest making “Hiroshima: Then and Now” the theme for the school’s annual cultural festival, and begin to seek out stories from members of their community. This simple plot structure cleverly allows Kuzki to weave multiple personal stories from the bombing and its aftermath into the main narrative.

Despite the serious subject matter, the tone of the novel remains light. Kuzki sprinkles everyday aspects of Japanese culture throughout the text, in addition to historically accurate details and references to contemporary figures, such as French Japanese painter Leonard Tsuguharu Foujita (1886-1968). “I wanted to portray the quiet yet irreplaceable thoughts and daily lives so that readers would see the issues of Hiroshima as their own and not something from the distant past,” Kuzki says. It is in the simple details of daily life and loss where we can best connect with a tragedy of such horrific proportions.

Kuzki says she always “writes with the hope of being translated,” as passing on the memories of Hiroshima became especially important to her after she moved to Tokyo to attend Sophia University and realized the extent of the discrimination against hibakusha (atomic bombing survivors) and their descendants. To Kuzki, storytelling is a powerful way to spread awareness and dispel misconceptions.

“I always think that the truly important things should be said in a quiet voice frequently, without ever giving up. So rather than shouting about the damage to Hiroshima and about being anti-nuke, I hope I can continue to quietly, but insistently, raise these issues in my stories,” she says.

There are many such moments of muted insistence in the novel: the gorgeous descriptions of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, which was once a symbol of cultural refinement for the city, but is now the distinctive, skeletal dome that serves as a stark memorial to the tragedy; or the matter-of-fact acknowledgement by Nozomi’s mother that “there are still so many people looking for someone in Hiroshima.” The simplicity of Kuzki’s prose illuminates her theme — “tracing the light” of those lost.

In Japan, “Soul Lanterns” and several of Kuzki’s other stories about Hiroshima have been recognized as a child welfare cultural asset. With the novel’s translation into English, Kuzki hopes to keep the memory of those lost alive and change the perspectives of readers beyond Japan.

“When I read comments such as, ‘We never learned about this at school’ or ‘This is the first time it hit me how much the people of Hiroshima suffered during the bombing and long after,’ I’m so glad we could release the book in English,” Kuzki says. “To English readers, nothing makes me happier as an author than if you read with that kind of compassion.

“The act of passing on negative memories means refusing to repeat the same mistakes in the future. We remember what happened to Hiroshima in order to carry out our duty of vigilance so we never create the same tragedy again. Reflecting on the tragedy of Hiroshima is also an act of keeping the victims — some who became only numbers, whose names we don’t even know — in our hearts and therefore truly grieving for them.”

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