They say ‘write what you know’ and that’s just what author Kathleen Burkinshaw has done with her first novel, The Last Cherry Blossom in which she fictionalizes her mother’s account of surviving the bombing of Hiroshima during WWII. I’m fortunate to be able to share with you a very open and personal interview that reveals the complexities of writing this novel and the important reasons why middle schoolers should read it.
What are you currently reading?
Thank you so much Edi, for having me on your blog!
I read a lot of ARCS and books for review and/or research (which tend to be serious subjects). So, in my down time I like to read something completely different. Right now, I’m listening to an audio (easier at end of day when my pain level is higher) THIRD GRAVE DEAD AHEAD by Darynda Jones. It’s a humorous, paranormal mystery.
When you’re writing are you most likely to be munching, drinking or listening to music?
That depends. I do a lot of my draft writing in the morning so it would be coffee. However, when I’m revising I tend to go for crispy rice treats or chocolate. When I’m opening an email with revisions from an editor, it could be something stronger than coffee 😊
When did you know you wanted to write you mom’s story?
My mom was a very private person. But sixteen years ago, I had been diagnosed with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy(RSD), after a month-long hospitalization. When I went home my mom came every day because I needed someone to take care of my daughter (she was 4 at the time) and myself while my husband was at work. That was when I learned more about her childhood and that fateful August day. But I didn’t get serious about it until my daughter was in 7th grade. She came home upset because she overheard some kids talking about seeing the “cool mushroom cloud picture”. She asked if I would speak to her class about the people under that cloud, like her Grandma-and my journey began!
Kathleen, I’m not familiar with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy. Can you tell me about that and how it affects your writing??
RSD is a chronic, progressive neuro-inflammatory disorder. The nervous system and the immune system malfunction. Basically the neurotransmitters that send the pain signal to the brain continue to fire long after the initiating injury/event has healed/passed. RSD can affect any area that is part of the sympathetic nervous system. It also affects the limbic system which can affect emotions and short term memory. Sixteen years ago I had been hospitalized,,,,just kidding😊
The RSD started in my lower left leg and foot, within 6 months it spread to my right foot, and about 1 year or so later started in my hands. However, it wasn’t until the last 3 years the hands have been worse. We actually moved to NC from RI because the cold exacerbates the pain and I was in a wheelchair that last winter before we moved.
NC had a milder climate and wasn’t too far from family. I now use a cane. However, when I have a pain flare I sometimes need the walker. If there is a lot of walking like a museum or a mall, I use a wheelchair.
Eight years ago I had a spinal cord stimulator implanted in my back and spine, to block about 20% of the pain. It allows me to do two things in a day like laundry and cook dinner. I really have to plan how I use my energy. But a pain flare can be caused by change in weather, overdoing it, or for no reason at all. Pain flares will force me to stay in bed. Writing is a challenge. I have used Dragonspeak. But my creativity really flows when I use a pen and paper (I’m old school). Some days I can do it and some days I can’t.
Thank you for opening up and sharing that! So, let’s talk about the fruits of your writing. (No pun intended!)The Last Cherry Blossom is a historical fiction. What did you find most challenging about this genre?
It’s funny because the thing that is most challenging is also something I love to do-research! I wanted to be sure that I’m historically accurate for that time period. It was especially difficult when I was trying to find information about daily life in Japan during WWII AND written in English!
What was it like to research the dropping of the bomb while in Japan?
Standing in the same spot where she may have stood, seeing the wax figures in the Hiroshima Peace Museum, and thinking of the horror she witnessed, truly broke my heart. It is one thing to have heard her talk about it, but being there -it still gives me goose bumps to think about it. But, I learned that there was beauty in Hiroshima as well. I had always been so focused on the horror and destruction she experienced that day. But being there in person, l could see the beauty of Hiroshima that she always emphasized. There were blue seas, mountains, and even palm trees! This was especially helpful when it was time to do revisions for my editor. I could describe Hiroshima as my mother saw it before the bomb took it all away.
When you told me this was based on your mom’s experience, I knew it was a personal book, but hearing you describe your experience while there really underscores what this story means to you. Were there many documents available in English, or do you speak Japanese?
The Last Cherry Blossom tells the story from a perspective most Americans wouldn’t expect. There are issues of power, loss, valor and hope from a different cultural perspective. How did you take readers to this other perspective, and why?
Can literature serve as a vehicle for social change?
Wow! These are great questions. I hope I do them justice with my answers. One of the ways I tried to show readers the different cultural perspective was by starting my book 11 months before the bombing. I did that so I could show what Yuriko valued in her life, the people important to her, and the celebrations. Also, I could discuss the propaganda by using the newspaper headlines, posters, and radio show slogans. I wanted to give readers a glimpse of the mindset of Japan at that time-which was very different from ours. This is something not done before in a book about Hiroshima. I wanted to show that Yuriko had the same love of family and friends, the fear of something happening to them, and the wish for peace. These were all emotions that the Allied children experienced.
I truly believe that literature can be a vehicle for social change. It’s not going to happen overnight, but for each person that reads The Last Cherry Blossom and books like it, can realize that the people under those now famous mushroom clouds were someone’s mother, father, brother, sister or child. Hopefully, bringing us one step closer to peace. We need to remember these events, not for blame but so they NEVER happen again.
Do you have any recommendations for middle graders who want to read more about Hiroshima, Japan or WWII?
Yes. Some possible books:
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr
Hiroshima by Laurence Yep
Barefoot Gen (Graphic novel/manga about Hiroshima) by Keiji Nakazawa
Hiroshima by John Hersey
Warriors in Crossfire by Nancy Bo Flood (Japan during WWII)
The Hiroshima National Peace Museum has some great information and a virtual tour (will translate to English)
If interested in seeing the damage that could be done if a nuclear bomb was used today and how it would affect the United States, Nuclear Darkness
If interested on ways to be involved in nuclear disarmament, I discuss these sites with middle school and high school students:
Kathleen, it’s been a pleasure getting to know you. Thank you!