resources for students

After Darkness is one of the novels on the 2019 VCE English text list (Year 12). I've received a few inquiries from those studying my text, and thought the resources below might prove helpful. Good luck!

INTERVIEW WITH YEAR 12 STUDENT about After darkness

Q: There has been much speculation about the significance and symbolism of the title. Why did you choose it? What does the "darkness" represent?

Christine: It’s funny to hear that your class has been speculating on the meaning of the title. The working title of my novel was actually “Undertow” – I liked it because it linked to the water theme and also the fact that an undertow is a current that’s far beneath the surface and works against the greater movement. But the publishers (and Vogel’s Award judges) didn’t think that titled fitted, plus there was already a novel published with the title “Undertow”, so they asked me to think of another one. The designer wanted to depict floating lanterns on the cover of my book (that scene jumped out at her as a visually good one), so the publishers asked me to think of a title that would suit that cover. I chose “After Darkness” as the “darkness” hints at the doctor’s involvement in Unit 731, and also the breakdown of his relationship with his wife. It alludes to the conundrum that Dr Ibaraki faces: whether he should uphold his duty or do what’s morally right. The title “After Darkness” also hints at the wider issue of how we atone for the sins of the past, on an individual and also a societal level.

I noticed Ibaraki’s use of phrases such as "I wish I had known at the time...", which struck me as unnatural, until I reached the last chapter. Then I realised the entire book is written from the point of view of Ibaraki looking back on his life decades earlier. What were your reasons for doing this?

The first two drafts of the novel began with the scene set in 1980s Tokyo (when Dr Ibaraki is an old man), then halfway through the scene the narrative cut to the train journey to internment camp, and at the very end of the novel the narrative returned to 1980s Dr Ibaraki in his apartment, reading the newspaper and realising the connection between the unearthed bones and his work with Unit 731. The publisher thought I should start with the scene set on the train to the internment camp and end the novel with the full scene set in 1980s Tokyo – she didn’t think the 1980s scene was a good one to start with as it didn’t pull the reader in. So basically I wrote the entire novel in the voice is of Doctor Ibaraki as an old man in the 1980s, looking back on his life. He doesn’t fully own up to the mistakes he made until he reads that article about the unearthed bones. So his reflection on his past prompts his realisation that he could have done something to help the victims.

Is there any particular reason why you decided to adopt a non-chronological structure in writing the novel?

Earlier drafts of the novel had larger “chunks” in the three settings of Broome, Tokyo and the internment camp – e.g. I had about 10 scenes all set in Broome lumped together. An editor advised me to break up the chunks and weave between the three settings. This not only adds interest, but it is also a literary technique that allows readers to join the pieces of the puzzle together; they have to do a bit of mental guesswork themselves. The nonlinear structure also echoes the way that memory is fragmentary and nonlinear, and also the way that the doctor dodges culpability for his past actions; he doesn’t look clearly at his past until the final chapter of the novel.  

How would you describe Ibaraki’s personality? I found personally him very frustrating.

Some of the negative criticism of the novel pertained to the fact that Doctor Ibaraki was difficult to connect with. But I wrote him that way on purpose. I wanted him to have an epiphany at the very end of the novel, so up till that point he needed to be wilfully obtuse about his past culpability – someone who refuses to analyse the role he played in creating victims of the war. But he’s also a victim himself (although he doesn’t see himself this way) as someone who was interned in Australia as an enemy alien. So I wanted him to comprise those dual roles of both victim and perpetrator, which echoes wartime Japan’s position as both a victim (of atomic bombs) and perpetrator (wartime aggressor and perpetrator of atrocities in Asia). Dr Ibaraki is not in touch with emotions, which is perhaps typical of a Japanese man, but exacerbated because of the trauma he experienced in his past.

It’s worthwhile noting that the process of writing the novel actually began with the voice of Dr Ibaraki: I knew I wanted to write a novel about Japanese interned in Australia, and one day a voice came to me: it was a voice of man looking back on his life, and it was a voice of regret. From there, the story grew. The Unit 731 storyline didn’t come to me until quite late in the process; I was about halfway through the first draft of my novel when I read an article about the bones discovered in Tokyo in the 1980s, and I finally realized that that could be the source of Ibaraki’s guilt, the reason why he found it so difficult to reflect on his past.  

Why did you choose to write the book?

I started writing the book because I wanted to shed light on Japanese civilians who were interned in Australia – I felt it was an important slice of Australian history that nobody really knew about. The Unit 731 stuff came later, but once I discovered it, it also became an issue I wanted to highlight. In exposing both issues, I wanted to demonstrate the fact that “victims” could also be “perpetrators” – they are rarely clear cut. I wanted to show that ordinary people (such as Ibaraki) could unwittingly become perpetrators due to their failure to take a stand. This happened during Nazi Germany – a lot of passive German citizens stood by while the Jews were persecuted; although they didn’t agree with it, they weren’t strong enough to take a stand against it. In this way, atrocities became widespread because of the passivity of ordinary “good” citizens. Doing nothing is as good as partaking in persecution. So I wanted to highlight the importance of taking direct action to stop atrocities. But these goals (the complexities surrounding victims and perpetrators, etc) came to me towards the end of writing the first draft, and were not what I initially set out to do.


Check out this free study guide online:

Also check out this Insight Text Guide to my book ($17.95):

Questions about the creation OF AFTER DARKNESS

In 2014, I answered the questions below to help the publicity team at Allen & Unwin promote After Darkness.

Please tell us about your book.
After Darkness is a historical fiction novel set during World War II and narrated by Dr Tomokazu Ibaraki. While working at a Japanese hospital in the pearling port of Broome, he is arrested and sent to Loveday internment camp in a remote region of South Australia. He learns to live among a disparate group of men, many of whom were captured while working in Allied-controlled Dutch East Indies and French New Caledonia. Others, such as Australian-born Johnny Chang, resent their internment and their treatment by the imperialist Japanese camp leaders.

As the narrative weaves between scenes set at camp, Broome and Tokyo, details about the doctor’s past emerge: his deep connection with Sister Bernice, the nun he trained as a nurse in Broome, and a trauma in Japan that triggered the breakdown of his marriage.

At camp, when half-Japanese internee Stan Suzuki seeks medical treatment after he was attacked in the mess hall, the doctor refuses to believe that the leader of his hut, Yamada, was involved. Stan’s subsequent suicide attempt and the escalating tension among the internees forces Dr Ibaraki to question his loyalty and confront his dark past: his involvement in biological warfare experimentation while working at the Army Medical College in Tokyo. His promise to remain silent about the army’s human testing in China led to his estrangement from his wife, Kayoko.

The narrative finally shifts to 1989 when retired Dr Ibaraki reads a report about human bones discovered at the former site of the Army Medical College. He realises he can no longer ignore the victims, and resolves to break his fifty-year silence.

A meditation on loss, identity and belonging, After Darkness explores how we face the traumas of our past and find the courage to speak out.

How did the idea originate?
For my first novel, I wanted to write a snappy 60,000-word story that unfolded in chronological order. What I created was very different. After Darkness is by no means long (85,000 words), but it has a fairly complex, braided narrative structure that weaves between three settings and spans 55 years. So often what we set out to achieve is completely different to what we end up with; the creative process is impossible to predict. Below, I have outlined the origins of various aspects of my novel.

Japanese connection: As the daughter of a Japanese immigrant (my mother grew up in outer Tokyo), I have long been drawn to stories about Japan. For my doctoral project at UTS, I wanted to write about the Japanese immigrant experience in Australia. I began researching Japanese pearl divers in Broome, many of whom were interned in Australia during the war. But as there have been quite a few books written about the Japanese pearl diving community in Broome, I instead decided to focus on Japanese who were interned. Although there are no former internees in my family, the subject appealed to me as it is entwined with ideas of identity, belonging and patriotism—issues that I had grappled with in the past. In some ways, After Darkness represents my own oblique approach to writing about my Japanese heritage—an attempt to narrate it through the fictional exploration of a collective trauma. Narrating the story through the eyes of a Japanese man was an effort to understand the culture from within.

The voice: For months, I struggled with the opening of my novel. I attempted to write it in various ways, but nothing seemed right. One day, however, a voice arrived in my imagination, like a gift from above. It was the voice of my novel’s narrator. In an instant, I had a strong sense of his character: wise and erudite, yet suffused with regret. I sensed it was a voice that concealed. He was a man who harboured a secret from his past—a secret so dark that even decades later he found difficult to face. Seemingly in minutes, I knew this man as well as I knew an old friend, but what I didn’t know was why—why he was so full of regret. What happened in his past to make him feel that way? From there, I began a process to excavate the secrets of his past.

History vs fiction: Although the character of Dr Ibaraki is a work of my imagination, many of the Australian-born and half-Japanese internee characters are loosely based on real people (see profiles of Joseph Suzuki and Jimmy Chi attached). I hadn’t meant for this to happen, but when I read through the military files held by National Archives of Australia, I was moved by the reports. Perhaps because I am half-Japanese, I deeply empathised with them: caught between two cultures, they were welcomed by neither. Despite being proudly Australian, loyal and, in some cases, eager to risk their lives to fight for their country, they were arrested and interned on suspicion of their Japanese sympathies. At camp, they were further alienated by the nationalist outlook and propaganda espoused by some of the internees. Despite their efforts, most were unable to convince the authorities of their loyalty and secure their release. Nearly all were interned for the duration of the war. All I could think was: What if that had been me? I also found contradictions in the research material: some military reports painted the half-Japanese as troublemakers at camp, while others depicted them as victims of circumstance. This disjuncture in the historical records captivated me and I began imagining why it would be so.
         I originally envisaged the conflict in the camp narrative stemming from relations with the Australian guards and harsh living conditions. However, I soon discovered such a depiction would be historically inaccurate: Japanese civilian internees were treated quite well and were given shelter, clothing, the same food and blanket rations as Australian troops and could not be forced to work. As my interest in the experience of Australian-born Japanese internees grew, I decided to make their clashes with the nationalistic Japanese at camp the central conflict. This presented an ethical quandary: I worried the story could be interpreted as anti-Japanese, which was not my intention at all. But after canvassing the opinions of those who read my first draft, I felt confident the manuscript would not be misconstrued as a slur against Japanese character.

Dark past: The Epidemic Prevention Laboratory storyline came quite late in the process. I always had a gut feeling that a personal tragedy had struck Dr Ibaraki in Japan, altering the course of his life. But for a long time, I couldn’t settle upon the nature of the tragedy. None of the ideas I came up with felt right. In mid-2011 I attended a three-week fiction workshop at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The teacher, Samantha Chang, suggested that the doctor’s internal conflict should be related to the war. This got me thinking, but it was another seven months before I hit upon the idea that was to become the axis of my novel. While at a writing retreat in the Blue Mountains, I remembered reading about Japan’s human experimentation during the war. A Google search delivered the name the program is now known by, Unit 731, then I stumbled on an article about the unearthed bones in Tokyo. As I read, a chill coursed through me. The bones were linked to a secret Unit 731-related laboratory within the Army Medical College. The head of the unit, Shiro Ishii, frequently lectured at medical colleges and universities to attract potential recruits, and one-tenth of the unit’s employees were doctors. Something lit up inside me.

Moral conflict: As I slowly shaped the character of Dr Ibaraki, filling in the missing pieces of his past, I wanted to create someone who embodied as many contradictions as possible: a man who, on the one hand, was selfless and committed to helping others, but who had also done something very morally wrong and continued to maintain his silence. My reason for doing this was, firstly, because inner conflict makes good fiction, but also because I wanted to demonstrate that anyone is capable of good and evil – there is a thin line between the two that governs our behaviour. Author Anna Funder believes in the power of ordinary people to combat institutional brutality. ‘I do think it is the courage and decency of ordinary people that is a bulwark against really bad government,’ she has said. This belief inspired All That I Am. ‘It is this kind of courage that fascinated me, along with the moral compass that underlies it.’ Dr Ibaraki’s actions probe the flip side of this belief: the way that ordinary people perpetuate systemic evil. Like Funder, I was fascinated by my character’s moral compass – how an essentially good person such as Doctor Ibaraki had the capacity to facilitate acts of evil at odds with his personal conscience.

How long have you been at work on this book? Did the book involve any special research?

Time: After Darkness took me five years to complete, from vague conception to final PDF. It took about four years to research and write the first draft, five months to write the second draft and two-and-a-half months to write the third (the other months were spent writing the theoretical component of my thesis). I recently estimated the total time I spent researching and writing this book, and settled on a figure of between 6500 and 7000 hours.

Research: In order to write a convincing story from the point of view of a Japanese internee, I needed to know the camps inside out. I sourced archives, books, films and oral history transcripts, and conducted interviews and field trips. My research was broad and multi-pronged, as I considered the historical, political, social and emotional aspects of internee life. I spent several weeks researching at the National Archives of Australia branches in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth, and the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, reading thousands of military files. As I’d never done archival research before, it was a steep learning curve. Historical details such as daily life at camp provided the necessary background for my novel—the wallpaper of the world I would construct—but my primary interest was uncovering the psychological experience of Japanese civilian internees, as understanding their inner lives was invaluable to create a convincing first-person narrative. The military security dossiers on individual internees were particularly useful, as they detailed the internee’s personality, outlook, conversations they’d had, and often included letters written by the internee and photos. But what I really wanted was material written by internees about their time at camp. Unfortunately, there were only a handful of texts written by, or featuring interviews by, former internees. Internees weren’t supposed to keep diaries for security reasons, and nearly all were repatriated to Japan at the end of the war, diminishing their ability to speak out about their experience. I had even more trouble locating former internees to interview. I placed notices in newspapers and genealogy sites asking for anyone connected to Japanese internees to contact me. I launched the website to help in this regard. I eventually interviewed three former internees (see profiles attached, or go to, all of whom had been interned at Tatura camp in Victoria as children or teenagers. I couldn’t find any former Loveday internees to interview – probably because Loveday internees were older and few would be still alive – but I did find a five-chapter memoir by a former Loveday internee that was published in Japanese in an academic journal in 1995-96. While on a six-month language course for researchers in Japan, I translated it with the help of my teachers. UQ academic Yuriko Nagata also gave me a copy of an unpublished diary written by a former Loveday internee, which my mother spent weeks translating for me. Both these texts were extremely useful in my depiction of daily life at camp.

My approach to researching the Epidemic Prevention Laboratory storyline in Tokyo was a little different. Fortunately, there have been plenty of books written about Japan’s biological warfare program during World War II. But only a few of these mentioned the laboratory, and they didn’t offer much information about it. The laboratory is still shrouded in secrecy and there are few people willing to confirm its existence. A 1982 book by former employee of the Army Medical College (parts of which my mother translated for me) describes the location of the laboratory within the College, but not its inner workings. Newspaper articles speculating about the 1989 discovery of the bones provided some clues as to what went on inside the laboratory, but I still had to do some guesswork to write those scenes. During two trips to Japan in 2013, I interviewed four civilian activists involved in the movement to investigate the human remains and recognise the victims of Japan’s wartime aggression. I interviewed them for the theoretical component of my thesis (the essay that won the Calibre Prize), and also gleaned new information regarding the layout of the laboratory and how specimens were shipped from China from them.