Contemporary Histories Blog – Dr Alyson Miller & Dr Cassandra Atherton: ‘Pika-Don: Re-Imagining Hiroshima’

The Contemporary Histories Research Group is pleased to share our new series; a blog dedicated to exploring contemporary histories and history-making. Today’s entry is written by Dr Alyson Miller and Dr Cassandra Atherton:

Pika-Don: Re-Imagining Hiroshima

19 April 2017

There must never be a word for what was heard that day. To give it a name means it could happen again.

The historian’s instinct is to explain the past.  This urge to domesticate the strangeness of the past comes with inherent dangers.  People in the past were not just like us in strange clothes.  They thought differently, and had different values to ours.  Even if we could put ourselves in their shoes, it takes a leap of faith to think that we know how it must have felt the first time a person experienced electric light, something we take for granted, or the fear of getting a toothache, something that we can fix with a visit to the dentist.  Knowing the dangers and their own limitations, historians still write intelligently about these things, but something like the day in 1945 when an atomic bomb savaged the city of Hiroshima is so different and terrible that it simply defies their best efforts.

Indeed, even the people who experienced the bomb could barely describe the devastation, let alone explain its impact.  Yoshiko Yanagawa, who was 1,500 meters from the hypocenter when the bomb detonated, said: ‘I saw a living hell that went beyond description.’  Bomb survivors—hibakusha—turned to poetry and art to express what they were feeling to themselves and to the wider world. 

Our project was conceived in the same spirit as hibakusha poetry and art.  That is, an event that is so horrible—so ineffable—that it defies description and understanding can only be captured in verse and art. Indeed, we will bring these two mediums together in the form of a graphic verse novel, combining the talents of Deakin-based poets Cassandra Atherton and Alyson Miller, and artist Phil Day.

Entitled Pika-don: Post-Atomic Alice, the book was inspired by two overlapping anniversaries:  the 70th anniversary of the bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, and the 150th anniversary of the Publication of Alice in Wonderland.  (The latter being of special significance in Japan, where Lewis Carroll is the bestselling English language author of all time.)

Cherry Blossom – Phil Day


The word Pika-don came into the Japanese vocabulary in the aftermath of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Translated, “pika” means brilliant light and “don” means boom.  Alice is the quintessential child, naïve and often unable to grasp the adult world.  By taking her innocence and placing her at the centre of one of the world’s great tragedies she comes to represent the loss of innocence and the potential for corruption and destruction triggered by the atom bomb in a post-atomic world.  Alice will go down the rabbit-hole and find herself in the wasteland of Hiroshima.  She will be forced to re-negotiate the world in which little makes sense, and nuclear warfare is the new force with which to be reckoned.  As one of the poems in the book put it:

The flash of detonation has seared every nearby surface; the inverted shadows are all that remain of the people.  On the Yorozuyo Bridge, they begin to tile over the silhouettes that still bear witness.

This graphic verse novel will combine the fragmented genre of prose poetry with noir artwork in the tradition of the graphic novel, placing two artforms in dialogue with one another. In this way, the text crosses the boundaries of text with image, as well as traditional graphic novel and manga or anime forms. Phil Day’s creative process in producing the images tries to capture the idea of Alice as present during the bombing of Hiroshima. As Phil notes, he works ‘laterally from Alyson’s and Cassandra’s poems, in order to offer comparable aspects of both. In doing so, my hope is the poems and pictures, when read together, will make clearer the nature of how all three of us—Alyson, Cassandra, and myself— have tried to empathize with something as unimaginable as the bombing of Hiroshima by engaging with it through the innocent eyes of Alice.  

It is important to note, however, that atomic bomb literature can be contentious when someone other than hibakusha attempts to co-opt the experience. Therefore, Alice will function as the outsider, trying to convey the horror of the situation:

Ground zero.  Genbaku sabaku.  The ghosts of the charred and melting, forever running into the river.  She stands on Aioi bridge and imagines the black rain. She’s seen Sadako’s paper cranes. But it’s Shigeru Orimen’s burnt lunchbox that she remembers most.  The carefully prepared bento.  Soybeans, barley and stir-fried vegetables.  Reduced to coal.  It’s the story of his mother finding him in a foetal position.  Recognizing him only from the name inscribed on that lunchbox.

When the book is published (in Australia and Japan) it will be launched at Collected Works in Melbourne and Junkudo in Hiroshima.  We are hoping that the book will help build cross-cultural connections with the Hiroshima community.  Indeed, this has already happened, with art and literature students at Hiroshima City University giving us feedback and suggestions.  There is a rich tradition of performance poetry in Japan, and to honor this tradition we intend to deliver readings in Victoria (at the Monash University Japanese Studies Centre) and Hiroshima (at the Thousand Sunny Bar in downtown Hiroshima.)


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