Carrying on Her Mother’s Story: an interview with Kathleen Burkinshaw, author of The Last Cherry Blossom

Even though it’s already been out for 4 years, I’m sure some people still haven’t read it. Could you tell us what The Last Cherry Blossom is about?

It is about a young girl growing up in Hiroshima during World War Two, and her daily life, as well as a family secret that kind of comes to light right before the atomic bomb is dropped. Then she has to find a way to move forward with her life, and it’s all based on events in my own mother’s life. She was 12 and a half when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

What was the research process like while writing?

It was interesting because some of the parts that I wanted to find to supplement interviewing my mom, and to find out what everyday life was like in Japan during World War Two, was difficult [to find] because I don’t read Japanese. So, I have to look for everything in English; and it was hard to kind of find these in circulation to use. EBay was actually my friend because I was able to find some books that libraries had weeded out, that actually talked about daily life during World War Two in Japan. The events of August 6 itself is taken from what actually happened to [my mother] that day. I then tried to see how other people were affected by the atomic bombing by reading some other sources as well. So I wanted to try to combine as much as I could, in order to give a better idea of what daily life was really like, over there, because I thought we never learned about that here. Basically, it’s just the two paragraphs in a history book that sums it up saying that, you know, they dropped the bomb and the war ended, and [The Last Cherry Blossom] doesn’t tie that nicely in a bowl like that. There’s so much more to it than that. So I was hoping that my book kind of shows that other side of humanity. 

Growing up, was your Japanese heritage a big part of your life and your family?

It was half and half, so to speak. My mom came to the states in 1959, after she had married my dad. She met him in Tokyo. He was serving in the Air Force, they married at the US Embassy in Tokyo; then, he was done with his time there and they came to the states. When she arrived, she was kind of surprised that there was still so much prejudice against the Japanese. Some [people] from even within my dad’s own family were upset that he married someone Japanese. I think that from that, she decided that she was going to learn more English and become a citizen of the US. So she did that within the first five years and tried to set up more of an Americanized, is what she called it, household when I was born. She didn’t want me to go through a lot of what she went through. 

She would tell me Japanese stories, she would sing songs in Japanese to me, but she never taught me the language. She felt it would be easier if I just learned English. She regretted it later, but at the time she hoped that maybe that way it would make me look less Japanese. Unfortunately, well, fortunately I guess, I looked very Asian when I was in school. I was one of the very few Asians in our elementary school. So after all the hard work she thought she did, I still got picked on. 

I still got racial slurs that I didn’t understand, you know, to go back to your own country. I never understood that because I was like, well, this is where I’m from. From that point on it was really difficult. I didn’t really start getting into my Japanese culture until I was probably in high school and then a little bit more in college. Then when I had my own daughter, I wanted to make it so that she would have that Japanese culture with her as well.

Did you find yourself reconnecting to your culture while you were writing your novel?

Very much so. I think my mom didn’t talk about a lot of certain things. So, being able to discuss with her parts of her childhood, parts of the culture that she valued, and parts that she missed, when she came to the states, led me to realize how interesting the Japanese culture was. Part of it too is I had finally come to realize that you can be your Japanese side, you can be your American side, and neither one takes away from the other. You’re able to have both coexist, and that was really an eye opener for me. 

That really didn’t happen until I started writing the book, which was about when my daughter was in seventh grade. So that was probably about 10 years ago now. That’s when everything kind of came up, when I talked to my mom more. Prior to that, my mom never said she was from Hiroshima to people. I think it started because when she came to the states with everything, she just didn’t want to bring any spotlight on her. She always said she was from Tokyo, because that’s where she met my father. So, growing up, she always said she was from Tokyo. I didn’t know she was from Hiroshima until I was about nine. The only reason I think she told me was because at the beginning of August she had these horrible nightmares that she’d wake up screaming from. Then I remembered she had it the year before. I think I pestered her enough, and that’s when she finally told me that she was actually born in Hiroshima. She lost her home in her family on August 6, to the atomic bomb, and she said she couldn’t tell me anything more. It was still very painful for her, and then she would tell me don’t tell anyone. So I didn’t say anything. 

The John Hersey book was the first time that I found out about what she may have been through. I remember going to her. I was crying because I couldn’t believe that, you know, something like this, she must witness somehow. She said “I did, but please don’t tell your teacher. I don’t want to go in and talk about it. I just can’t do it.” So from that point on, it wasn’t until I was around 30 when she really started sharing more of her culture, the happy stories, and what actually happened on August 6. 

The main reason I think this happened was because I had been very ill. I was in the hospital for over a month, and when I came home, I had trouble taking care of myself. My daughter was four then, and my husband was working during the day so my parents would come [to visit]. I think she started telling me more stories because we actually had more quality time together. Because of my illness and the way it came on, so suddenly and what I was losing from that, I was kind of sinking into a depression. She wanted to start telling me these stories of what she went through to show that, you know… she said to me “I thought I couldn’t do anything after that, but I was able to somehow find strength to do so. I’m so glad I fought to survive, because you wouldn’t be here.” She said to me that I had the same Samurai blood in me, and I can fight through the pain of what I’m dealing with. I can fight to find a different way of considering what I was; because I was in the healthcare field as an executive, and I couldn’t do that anymore. So she was trying to give me the strength to know that you can move forward.

It was interesting because when she first was telling me [about her childhood], I was thinking I was giving her an outlet. Little did I know that her reason for doing that was to help me, and I guess that shows the way a mom is. I think that even when she diverts part of her past, she didn’t tell anyone. She was really giving me the gift of knowing what she went through, of knowing how she found strength to keep going, and then the [ability] to use that. I think that is probably why as my daughter grew up, I wanted her to know more about Japan. [My] mom still didn’t teach her very many Japanese words. She never told me why she didn’t do that, but she would tell my daughter a lot of stories about Japan. Later on my daughter actually minor-ed in Japanese, so she’ll be the one that can do that.

It was very hard for her to talk about. She was very private, and it was a very difficult time to hear her be so upset when she described what happened. So, getting to know that piece of her was also very special for me, too. 

Did you ever face any obstacles in getting a story about a culture different from our own, and about a different perspective on World War 2, published?

Yes, I think part of it was difficult. I started submitting before I actually had my agent. Some didn’t want to deal with that aspect of World War Two. I’m guessing that part of it was because the United States was the one that dropped the bomb, but my book wasn’t about who did it. It is about what happened. So when I started to [write] letters to submit [TLCB], I kind of changed how I described what it was because I wanted to take out the [politics] . So when we finally got a contract with the publisher, one of the things that came back was how much I [was] going to tell about what happened that day. At first, there was some pushback because it being middle grade and the descriptions of what my mom saw — and my biggest thing was I wanted to show respect to what they saw and lived through. I didn’t want to water it down. We finally were able to come to a way of how I could say it to keep it true to the story. I think also with some aspects of the Japanese culture, and especially the way that their language is spoken, there’s a lot of formality to it. I also wanted to show some of that because I wanted to show that yes, it was different. Then they were worried that maybe it’ll be too stilted. Maybe if you put in too many Japanese words, it might be too confusing. 

We finally were able to work it out [when] I finally had an editor. She really understood what I was trying to do. That helped a lot because some other publishers wanted me to [start] from the day the bomb dropped, and move it forward. To me, that’s not the story that really needed to be told. I think that it was just very difficult for some editors to look at, and I think part of it was there was nothing really out there like that. Maybe they felt it was too quiet, that it wouldn’t be looked at, or that it might not be a subject of interest, which was kind of sad to hear. But when you found the right one, it was kind of a back and forth. We finally were able to get something where they could embrace the Japanese culture, without being overwhelmed by it. At the same time [doing that in a way to] capture a lot of people’s interest, whether they were Japanese or not Japanese. I’ve been very lucky that I had someone who could work with me for that in the final piece.

If there’s one thing that you want readers to take away from your novel, or one thing that you think is important right now, what do you think that would be?

First, I would hope that they would understand that the children in Japan, like my mom, were very scared of what could happen to their home and their families during the war. They saw people from the neighborhoods that were sent off to war… that didn’t come back. You know, they worried about what would happen to their friends, and they all wished for peace. I really wanted to show that [it] was all the same stuff that the Allied children were going through. Today, I think it’s so important because I feel that unless we humanize people and look at them and realize that we all share a common need for connection [we won’t realize] that the ones that we might think of as our you know “enemy” are not really so different from ourselves. If we don’t take the time to notice that, then we’re in danger of repeating the same deadly mistakes over and over again. 

I think even in today’s environment…It saddens me and angers me to see what’s happening to Asian Americans because of COVID19. So I really feel that my book’s message is that we all share the same heart. I think a lot of the times what I would hear was that the Japanese, you know, they bombed Pearl Harbor so fair is fair. I’m like, that’s not what this is about. I think yes, you can talk about all the lives that were lost on the US side, but they’re separate stories. That doesn’t mean that one [story] negates the other, or that the other person deserved it. 

The book that started when my daughter was in seventh grade, and they were talking about the end of World War Two. They had the mushroom cloud picture, and she remembered some kids talking about how cool that looked. She came home, and she was very, very upset. She said “can you talk to them about who was under those clouds, like grandma?” That’s really what started it all, it was to show them that the people that were under there were all somebody’s parents or someone’s child like my mom. They were all just trying to live their daily life. It happened to people, not just the enemy. It’s still something that’s so needed today, in light of everything, and that’s what I really hope might be something that someone could take away

Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

Sure, right now I am working on the sequel, which takes place about five years later. My mom is now in Tokyo with a new family member and trying to deal with PTSD, which wasn’t named at that time. They didn’t know what that was, but she was going through a lot of that. She was trying to figure out who she accepts or lets into her heart again, because she feared having them leave her again. She also had a lot of guilt for surviving when she lost most of her family members. I’m doing some research into doing a book based on Japanese Peruvians, who were taken from Peru and put on a ship to be an exchange for American citizens in Japan. Then they were later taken to Crystal Lake, the Japanese internment. So, those are a couple of things I’m working on.

Those sound so exciting! Thank you so much Kathleen. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

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