Over the last couple of weeks, I spent some time reading about nuclear warfare – the escalation of tensions with North Korea first gave me anxiety and then an idea about a short story. I needed to know what happens in the first few minutes after the detonation of an A bomb.
Michie Hattori’s first-person account of the bombing of Nagasaki is as harrowing as one would expect but it’s not the descriptions of death and suffering that struck me the most. After the war ended, Michie studies English and ends up marrying an American attorney. Here is what she says about her relationship:
“ […] His work took him all over Texas and to surrounding states. I found myself more and more left at home when he traveled. His circle of American friends seldom included me.
One day, after seven years of matrimony, he presented me with divorce papers, saying our marriage had been a mistake. […] ”
Our marriage had been a mistake. After plucking out the girl from Japan and bringing her over to the U.S., half a world away from everything she knows, this guy decides it isn’t going to work out after all. To me, this passage means that Michie’s husband never took the time to understand who Michie was. It’s deeply disturbing how commonplace this is – it is as if we collectively don’t care to get to know each other well enough to see the complexity of each other’s lives.
As writers, we don’t get to say that men are ultimately unknowable and leave it at that. We try to get better at reading people so that we can create engaging, persuasive literature, fiction or non-fiction.
In 2012 Andrew Solomon released Far From The Tree, a book remarkable for its candor. He wrote about children who are different from their parents: some were gay, others disabled, yet others prodigies and so on. I was surprised that Solomon managed to get to the essence of these relationships – the gifted children who resented their parents for their explicitly conditional love; the parents of severely disabled children who resented the kids for changing their lives forever.
Solomon took the time to listen to the stories that these people told. All of the narratives included in the book are multi-dimensional – not one descends into sentimentality and platitudes about overcoming challenges in the face of adversity. There is no “putting on a happy face” here: people tell Solomon what they think and feel and it is often not pretty.
I can’t think of another way to learn to see people for who they are except to talk to them. To talk to them about the stuff that matters: the fear of death or poverty, the loneliness of parenting, the unhappy marriages, the disappointing adult children. The effort we make in reaching out and understanding someone is bound to pay off not just in better writing but in being better humans.