Jackie Copleton, author of A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, reveals why she chose the setting of Nagasaki for her debut novel, together with the inspirations behind some of its characters.
The book wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t worked in Nagasaki in the 1990s as a teacher. I knew I wanted to set my first novel there. A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding follows Amaterasu Takahashi, an elderly widow living in the US, who fled the city after the atomic bombing on August 9, 1945. However, Nagasaki is more than that one terrible day in history. It was the second oldest port in Japan open to foreign trade and the influences of the nationalities drawn there for commerce can be seen in its architecture, landmarks and food.
So many memories of the place are re-imagined on the page: the diving platform on Iojima, the mining colony of Gunkanjima, Glover Gardens, the foreigner cemeteries, the trams, shipyards, shrines and the festivals.
The setting drives the plot with the entertainment district of Shian-bashi, China town and the Dutch Slope all places where key events in the characters’ lives take place.
Even my first home makes an appearance. The ramshackle two-storey house was located up a maze of stone steps where tailless stray cats would loiter. Inside there was no flushing toilet, a paraffin heater for warmth and a tatami room with paper sliding doors. Slugs made their way across the kitchen floor in summer and outside a waterfall raged during the monsoon season. I later moved to a new apartment on a hill looking down to the city. Here I had air-conditioning to cool the humid air and a fancy heated toilet to fire up in winter. The throbbing cicadas, a praying mantis I spotted outside my door, the black kites that steal food from barbecues, the yellow and black Joro spiders down by the harbour, they all find their way into the book.
And I’ve only just realised the little boy in the novel is probably a buried memory of the time I attended the 50th anniversary of the atomic bomb at the Peace Park. Recently I found an article I wrote about the day when I mention a schoolboy eating ice cream by a fountain built to commemorate the dying victims who cried out for water. I know this is Hideo Watanabe, the ghost from the past who knocks on Amaterasu’s door to remind her of the bomb and all it cost her family, yes, but also the other Nagasaki of life, industry and adventure.