Feature:

Inspired by courageous women

Jackie Copleton’s A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding has as its heroine Amaterasu, a Japanese widow who lost her daughter and son when the atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki. Jackie reveals the inspirations behind her main character.

Amaterasu Takahashi is an amalgamation of many courageous, complex women I have met in my life but three in particular: my grandmother, my Nagasaki landlady and an Iranian woman I met at my local sauna.

My gran Nancy had married, seen a newborn twin boy die, given birth to two daughters and lost a husband in France during the Second World War before she had even turned 20. She remarried five years later to the only man I’ve called grandad – or rather papa – and raised two stepdaughters as well as her own. She worked in a factory and she looked like a movie star. She is the closest person to me to have died. She had a quiet stoicism, never complained, got on with her life. My brother and I once took her to visit the war cemetery in Normandy where my grandad is buried. She was 70 or so – and it was an act I repeated with my mum last year when she turned 70. Nancy Moran/Brooks/McKellar stood there, still so elegant and radiant, put her hand on her first husband’s grave and said: ‘Robert, I never thought I’d see you again.’ He was 25 when he died. I don’t know how the women of that generation did it. But they did. And I am in awe of them.

Jackie and her grandmother

Jackie and her grandmother

When living in my first ramshackle apartment in Nagasaki I would go through the monthly ritual of climbing the stone steps next to my home to pay my rent. I would be greeted by an elderly woman with a mischievous smile and a sprightly step. We would bow to one another and she would lead me into her living room, where her husband would be sitting on the floor by a coffee table, his crippled legs covered by a blanket. We would drink tea and eat mochi cakes and chat away to one another even though neither of us could speak the other’s language. We laughed a lot, at jokes we could not understand. I realised, given their age, they possibly lived through the bombing. If I could speak Japanese would I have asked them about that day? I don’t know. Perhaps not, out of politeness. But I remember their kindness and humour and hospitality… and that twinkle in her eye.

Tara is a refugee from Iran who fled the country during the time of the revolution. For the past few years we have met regularly at our local sauna and tried our best to communicate. My Persian is non-existent, her English is shaky. Sometimes she talks about her daughter who was killed during the Khomeini regime. She was a recent graduate, 25, and beautiful in the faded photograph Tara keeps with her. She was hanged for refusing to convert from her Bahai faith to Islam. Tara came to Britain with a suitcase full of money and has lived here for more than 30 years. She’s never been back to Iran but sometimes she talks fondly of her home city Shiraz, of the lemon and orange groves, of the business her family abandoned when they left. She is 79 and has lived with bereavement and exile for many years. But she always smiles, offers her home-made avocado and honey face mask, tells me to lie down and rest. I’m moving cities soon and last week we said how much we will miss each other. It was a lovely moment with a woman I admire.

In the earliest drafts of the book (there have been many!) Amaterasu dies during the dropping of the atomic bomb and her daughter survives. But even in death she was still so vivid in my mind. I decided to resurrect her and a difficult, creaking plot began to fall into place. A writing tutor once said: the narrator is key. Once you’ve figured that out, you’ll be fine. He was right. Amaterasu is the heart of the book. I can’t imagine its existence without her. As with many challenging people in our lives sometimes she raises more questions than answers them. But I like that about her. I hope you do too.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is the Radio 2 Book Club’s featured read on 24th August and is available now.

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