Since May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, now is an especially good time to celebrate Charlotte writer Kathleen Burkinshaw and her debut novel, The Last Cherry Blossom. I met Kathleen in October 2016 when she was one of the featured authors at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Foundation’s EpicFest, a children’s literature festival that I helped organize. At the time, The Last Cherry Blossom had just come out. I had a chance to talk with her about her novel when she was taking a little break from signing her book and interacting with the many children who came to see her at this festival.
Kathleen bases this historical novel in part on the childhood experiences of her mother, who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Her mother was just twelve years old when the bomb exploded, and she lost all of the important people in her life. Like Kathleen’s mother, Yuriko (the central character in The Last Cherry Blossom) is horrified at the devastation and loss that she witnesses, but she refuses to give up on life. Yuriko’s resilient determination to build a new future for herself provides readers with a sense of hope as they close the final page on this moving novel.
Fans of The Last Cherry Blossom will be pleased to know that Kathleen is currently working on a sequel, which takes place four years after the close of The Last Cherry Blossom. In the sequel, Yuriko is living in Tokyo with new family members while also dealing with PTSD symptoms (not named PTSD then), survivor guilt, US Occupation forces, and atomic bomb censorship.
The recent increase in crimes and prejudicial behavior directed at Asian Americans caused me to think about my conversation with Kathleen at EpicFest. As she made clear during our conversation, it is easy to demonize people from other backgrounds or countries if we don’t make the effort to recognize our commonalities with these people. It seems to me that this message also relates to our current situation. I recently contacted Kathleen and asked her about her experiences as an Asian American author living in Charlotte. Here is what she sent to me:
In 1959, my parents married at the US embassy in Tokyo Japan. He was a white American in the Air Force and my mom was from Hiroshima, Japan. I was born ten years later and grew up in Rhode Island. My husband, daughter, and I moved to Charlotte 14 years ago due to my health issues. In 2001 I became very ill and diagnosed with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, a neurological, progressive, chronic pain disease affecting the sympathetic nervous and immune systems. Doctors have attributed it partly to the deficiency in my immune system from my mother’s exposure to the atomic bombing. My career negotiating hospital and health insurance contracts ended with this diagnosis. The cold New England winters exacerbated my pain and had kept me in a wheelchair that last year in RI. Charlotte seemed to be a good fit with milder weather and not too far from family.
Within 6 months of moving here I went to my very first Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Carolinas’ conference in Durham (the conference has been in Charlotte for many years now). I have met and continue to meet supportive and encouraging writers through SCBWI.
I began speaking about my mother’s experience in Hiroshima when my daughter was in 7th grade (about 10 years ago). She was upset when she overheard kids talking about ‘that cool mushroom cloud’ picture in their textbook. She asked if I would talk to them about the people under that mushroom cloud-like her grandmother. After speaking at her school that year and other local schools the following year, teachers asked for a book they could use in their curriculum. It validated my goal of writing about a 12-year-old girl in Hiroshima during WWII.
A few years later, I won an SCBWI Carolinas writing contest and found my literary agent. My middle-grade (MG) historical fiction The Last Cherry Blossom(TLCB), was published in 2016, and it became a finalist for SCBWI Crystal Kite Award (Southeast region) that same year. In 2019, TLCB became a United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs Education Resource for Teachers and Students. I’ve had the privilege of speaking to thousands of students all over the world about my mother, TLCB, and the need for empathy.
This past year of anti-AAPI hate attacks/vandalism (including recent ones in Charlotte), had me cycling through emotions of stunned, shocked, grief, heartache, anger, and helplessness. I realized that as much as I speak about how much my mother’s story/voice mattered back then (directly after atomic bombing) and matters now; it’s not as easy for me to feel that my story also matters. I have a harder time discussing my Asian American experience as a mixed Asian. However, after these events, I’m determined to use my voice even when it feels scary being so vulnerable.
As a mother and a MG/YA author, I can’t help but think of the children that are too young to understand why or to know the long history of anti-AAPI racism (probably because it wasn’t taught in school), yet they are old enough to sense the fear, sadness, or anger of their parents or other loved ones. And tragically, some are dealing with the loss of their loved ones to senseless violence solely for the fact that they were born Asian. My heart breaks for them. I want them to have a safe space to discuss their emotions that are cycling through them. I want them to know that their emotions, their(our) voices, and stories matter.
I hope to tell my readers/students that even if we think others are not listening or haven’t listened to us in the past-we still have the right to tell our story, and for others to understand our hurt is valid. Fear and ignorance can be deafening, so we have to work even harder to have our stories, our messages heard. I’m holding on to my hope that through prayer and in solidarity we can cut through that noise.
I’m so grateful to the wonderful teachers, librarians, students, and readers in the Charlotte Mecklenburg School System as well as throughout all of North Carolina who have been so compassionate toward my mother’s story and welcoming me into their classrooms.
It is my belief that books can open readers hearts as well as their minds. So, if we keep telling the stories of our AAPI heritage and teaching the history of Asian Americans, people will no longer see a ‘foreigner’, but the eyes of a mother, a child, or a grandmother, or father; they will see the common bond that we all have as human beings living in America.
For readers who want to know more about Kathleen and her writings, I recommend that they visit her website: www.kathleenburkinshaw.com As one of Storied Charlotte’s leading Asian American authors, Kathleen enriches our understanding of history through her historical fiction, but she also serves as a powerful spokesperson against racial prejudice and xenophobia.