As diligently as I try, it seems like my work here at The Digitorian is always taking a back seat to more pressing projects or the myriad other demands of everyday life. Like anyone else, a variety of commitments require my perpetual attention and, in attempting to balance all these things, it seems that time has once again managed to evade me. That said, please allow me to preface this blog post with a humble apology for not providing more substantive updates over the past few months. Confessions and contrition aside, let us turn our attention to the present feature.
A few fleeting months ago, I was approached by the nonprofit organization Pacific Atrocities Education. For those of you unfamiliar with their work, PAE is a San Francisco-based 501 (c)(3) charity that educates others about horrible war crimes perpetrated by Imperial Japanese forces during the Asia-Pacific War and World War II. In addition to a substantive blog, the dedicated professionals over at PAE offer a variety of other material, including several digital and print publications, four audiobooks, and extensive resources about two specific aspects of Japanese atrocities committed during twentieth-century Pacific conflicts.
I was intrigued by this group’s work from the start because I’ve always held historians that deal with the more unsavory aspects of the past in high regard. It is, for example, rather easy to perform a bit of rudimentary research on the invention of the automobile or, for instance, write an entertaining article about the evolution of the internal combustion engine. It takes a bit more tenacity and gusto, however, to uncover and share more uncomfortable aspects of the past. Imagine, rather than writing a polished biography of Henry Ford, pursuing a study about the cutthroat tactics of early automobile manufacturers or the socioeconomic repercussions of rampant automotive industrialization during the early 1900s.
Without going off on too distant a tangent, I suppose the argument I’m attempting to make here is that it’s relatively easy to research and write about celebrated moments in history. It’s an entirely different pursuit, however, when dealing with darker or more nefarious material. To that end, I can think of very few things more uncomfortable to come to grips with than war atrocities committed during the last century. On the one hand, they offer a macabre glimpse into the seemingly distant past, while on the other, are still fresh enough in our collective memories to stir serious emotions and incite very visceral reactions.
It’s for all the above reasons that I eagerly accepted PAE’s generous invitation to get involved with their cause. I’d already written several articles about similar subjects but, over the course of a week or so, I resolved to try something different. What if, instead of contributing original content, I conducted a brief interview with one of their authors? Fortunately, PAE was receptive to the idea. Thus, what follows is the culmination of some on-again, off-again correspondence with one of their contributing writers that started nearly four months ago.
Sophie Hammond is a rising academic talent at the University of Southern California where, as an undergrad student, she studies History and English. The sophomore is also a Stamps Scholar, a member of the Secular Student Fellowship, and a volunteer with USC’s Vision and Voices. The latter program is a “university-wide arts and humanities initiative” that promotes cultural development, both on campus and within the surrounding community, through interactions with guest lecturers and collaborative workshops.
Sophie recently completed an internship with PAE, which is where I caught up with her this past summer. As is detailed in the Q&A below, Sophie’s already an established author with a few works to her name. So, without further ado, here’s what Sophie and I discussed over a short break in her otherwise busy schedule.
Q: Who or what initially sparked your interest in researching and writing history?
A: I first became interested in history in fourth grade. I’m not sure if this is still the case, but in the Bay Area in 2008, fourth grade was the first year we actually had real history classes. I had a really great teacher that year—only two years into teaching and full of enthusiasm—and she had shelves upon shelves of historical fiction books in the classroom library for us to “check out”. My Heart is On the Ground was one of them. It’s one of those Dear America “diaries” of girls from the past, with gilded pages and tattered ribbon bookmarks, and the story is just as happy as the title makes it sound. The book was ostensibly narrated by Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux girl at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1880. God, it made me cry.
And so, it was through historical fiction that I came to love history. Before that, I’d thought of history as a grand, unchangeable edifice—fascinating, certainly, but also little more than a neat timeline—every event feeding logically into the next. It took fiction to show me that history, too, was fiction; stories we told about ourselves. And I like history for most of the same reasons I like literature. I like reading about people. I enjoy trying to figure out why they’ve done what they’ve done. I like that history as a discipline thinks critically about the ways people present themselves and delude themselves. I’m really interested in who gets to tell the story and how stories get told, who gets silenced and why, how people construct and view the world around them. History keeps me aware of how many seemingly banal details go into building our realities, how complicated those realities are, and how hard someone else’s reality is to reconstruct.
Q: I understand you’re presently studying History and English at USC. To date, what do you consider your greatest academic achievement?
A: In high school, I designed a game to teach fourth graders about racial power dynamics in Californian history, which the Education for Social Justice Foundation recently used as a model to create their own game. And this past summer I interned at Pacific Atrocities Education, a non-profit that tries to raise awareness of wartime atrocities in the Asia-Pacific War through education.
Q: What’s your researching and writing methodology and from where do you typically gather your sources?
A: I think the fact that historical fiction was my entryway into history has shaped my sense that history is a story we tell, not an objective reality we unearth. Of course, I think historians have a responsibility to try to sort through all the available evidence and piece together, as much as possible, what the situation really was at the time they’re studying, but I’m also very aware that there is no “one true narrative” to discover. However, there are certain narratives that are more accurate than others, and I wanted to make sure that my work was as accurate as I knew how to make it.
I mainly worked with secondary sources when I was writing my half of the PAE book, Rising Sun: The Innocent Fascist Symbol, because I don’t speak or read Japanese or Chinese. Relying too heavily on the secondary accounts of others in interpreting the past is an approach rife with its own special dangers. So, I approached the project differently than I might have approached a project where I was more easily able to explore a wide variety of sources. But I did manage to access many primary sources—transcribed (and often translated) oral histories, memoirs, newspaper interviews. When I was researching the Manila massacre (1945), for example, the website maintained by the Malacañan Palace Presidential Museum & Library was extraordinarily useful for helping me find first-person accounts. And the University of Southern California Libraries managed to get me an invaluable scan of an October 1935 article from an English-language expatriate newspaper based in Shanghai.
Once I’d gathered as many sources as I could, I looked for patterns in the material—what are the common narratives, and why? Which sources are used by more than one historian? What does the consensus in the field seem to be? Where do details support each other, and where do they contradict each other? Much of the history I was dealing with was extremely political, and therefore extra murky to wade into, and facts to back up even commonly-held positions were just…missing. Was Zhang Zuolin assassinated on the orders of the Japanese government? Who bombed the Japanese railway tracks in Mukden? Who fired the first shot at the Marco Polo Bridge? When I couldn’t see my way to a definite answer, I made sure not to water down that historical mess for the reader. In cases like that, I used general language (e.g., “it seems” or “many thought”) because I didn’t want to make a narrative definitive when it would be downright deceitful for me to pretend certainty.
Q: How and why did you get involved with Pacific Atrocities Education?
A: I wanted to intern for the summer at an organization which worked to promote education and human rights, and I hoped to find a position that involved doing a lot of research. PAE fit the bill perfectly. Jenny Chan, the non-profit’s co-founder, directly oversaw my work and gave me a lot of responsibility and freedom. It was a really great learning experience to explore the ways that academic and popular history overlap, and sometimes the places where they’re in conflict.
Q: Overall, what do you feel is your best work and why?
A: Writing my half of a book on the Rising Sun Flag for PAE, out of any project I’ve done, has made me think the most about why I make the choices I do when writing history. I wrote three short essays, two on Unit 731—the administrative center of the top-secret biological warfare project of the Imperial Japanese Army—which were incorporated into the book, and also a few chapters about Japanese history from the landing of Commodore Perry to involvement in World War II.
Most of what I was working with was painful, painful material, and what made the material even more sensitive to handle was that reactions to what happened in the Pacific Theater of World War II remain deeply mired in racism. PAE as an organization answers a lot of questions on Quora as a way to bring history directly to those who are looking for it, and I was always horrified whenever someone commented to tell me that the information I’d given them—usually about Unit 731—had reinforced their belief that Japanese people are inherently cruel.
Because the issues at stake are so huge and so charged, it sometimes made it even harder for me to get at the information I needed. When I was writing about the Nanjing Massacre, for instance, it was really difficult to find sources which explored how the Japanese soldiers entering Nanjing felt or even why exactly the massacre happened in the first place. The few sources I found that delved into these issues were oral histories and Iris Chang’s phenomenal The Rape of Nanking. They showed men shaped by a militaristic culture which taught them to value the good of Japan over their own lives, men who slowly grew hardened to committing murder—and even a few men who saved Chinese women from rape or smuggled a Chinese family food. I didn’t want to ignore the humanity of these soldiers, even as I didn’t want to in any way diminish the horror of what they did in Nanjing.
I was also aware that because I was writing a short textbook-style view of history, there wasn’t much space to dwell on each incident. Past PAE books have been used in San Francisco public school classrooms, so I additionally felt a responsibility not to mislead readers—any readers, but especially young readers. When dealing with a high school curriculum, which has historically relied upon privileged European narratives, I wanted to make sure that my book wouldn’t simplify or villainize East Asian history. Whether I succeeded is for individual readers to decide for themselves.
I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to Pacific Atrocities Education and Sophie Hammond for facilitating and contributing to the above interview. For more information on either, please visit Pacific Atrocities Education at http://www.pacificatrocities.org/ or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pacificatrociti. View Sophie’s background and accomplishments on LinkedIn or contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.