When I was in college, my Japanese American culture club wrote and performed skits based on the narratives of the hibakusha, the survivors of the atomic bombings in Japan. These skits asked us to inhabit — even perfunctorily, even tangentially — the bodies and the experiences of the hibakusha. Images of black rain, of bodies emblazoned with kimono patterns from the radiation, haunted me thereafter. Learning more about the hibakusha was an example of painful knowledge, and yet was essential to my pacifist values and my understanding of humanity. And I wanted to work for a future where we wanted to know each other’s stories, where we would refuse to inflict such harm.

Anshu-by-Juliet-S.-Kono As a social justice educator, I believe that everyone should have such a learning experience. Juliet Kono’s novel, “Anshu (Dark Sorrow),” may well be a place for people to learn similar lessons about what African American author Toni Morrison calls “unspeakable things unspoken.” Like Morrison’s wrenching novel “Beloved,” Anshu is based on actual historical events of World War II, including the fire bombing of Tokyo and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Anshu takes its title from an ancient Japanese word, first defined by a Buddhist minister in the book as “dark sorrow.” “Anshu “first refers to the sorrows of war, and, by the end, the sorrows amplified by the circumstances of its characters’ lives.

The story of the narrator Himiko (“child of fire”) begins in the cane fields of Hilo. Kono foreshadows Himiko’s fate at the end of the lyrical first chapter, which describes Himiko’s penchant for setting fires, and ends defiantly: “Everything I wasn’t supposed to do or touch, I did, I touched.” Kono deftly establishes a strong-willed voice for Himiko as narrator, one which is well-equipped to survive everything that fate deals her. Kono’s protagonist, Himiko is no passive victim, and all too human; in some cases, she inflicts harm as much as she receives it. Following Himiko’s first teenage love affair, she becomes pregnant, and is sent to Japan to live with relatives. As a mainland Sansei, I was fascinated with the way that Kono must have researched these “hush-hush” cases of unwanted pregnancies and with the ways that these Japanese American girls might have struggled with adjustment to Japanese cultural norms. Himiko eventually becomes trapped in Japan, unable to contact her family in Hawai’I, and must learn to find family, community, love, and self under some of the worst circumstances possible.

Fans of Juliet Kono’s poetry (“Hilo Rains” and “Tsunami Years”) will recognize the poet’s attention to the body, confrontations with stark emotions, and her ear for pidgin. The book is strongest in these lyrical moments; capturing the emotional power of an image with just a few words. When Himiko’s mother douses her own hair and spins it to put out a porch fire, she “unleashes a silver net.” It takes a poet to reach these nearly-unspeakable places and find spaces for breath and even beauty.

Given the subject matter, Anshu is, to be honest, a difficult book to review. My one note of critique is based on genre. Since this is Kono’s first novel, I wondered to what extent she considered the cumulative psychological impact of a novel on her readers. No matter how intensely a poem’s image may burn in the reader’s imagination, no matter how stark the intimacy with the poem’s speaker, a poet allows us to breathe, and breathe again. Yet understandably, Anshu as a novel offers readers very little levity or space to breathe. Chapter after brutal chapter, image after searing image, can take their toll on the reader. As novel readers, rather than as poetry readers, we may expect a balancing out by the novel’s end: a larger sense of redemption, or healing, or even humor which the author has woven throughout its structure. While the final chapters do provide a smaller amount of catharsis and resolution, these moments may still leave some readers unsatisfied.

Nevertheless, Kono’s stunning accomplishments reside in her ability both to research and to imagine herself so deeply into these situations of historical and psychological anguish. Himiko endures intimacy and estrangement, fire and famine, birth and death, love and heartbreak, and almost everything in between. Her story is not for the faint of heart — but, for those brave enough to follow her example, is essential reading for those who want to reach the light by traveling through darkness: those crucial lessons of empathy, compassion, survival, and peace.

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