James Dawes has a reputation. Apart from his outstanding work as an English professor and English department chair, he is well known among the human rights community for his work in the field. He got an opportunity to combine his two passions in the summer and fall of 2008, when photographer Adam Nadel asked Dawes to accompany him while he documented former Japanese soldiers nearing the ends of their lives. Dawes travelled to Japan to interview these men, who had fought in the Second Sino-Japanese war, and were later convicted of war crimes and imprisoned for ten years. He talked to 15 of men in total. These men had murdered, raped, and tortured, and Dawes’ job was to tell their stories.
Dawes was struck by the strange kinship he started to develop with his subjects. “It’s an odd experience, because these old men are really very sweet,” he said. “They’re serving me tea, they’re surrounded by their families, and we’re doing things that friends do, but they’re telling me about murdering children.”
Dawes struggled with this dynamic throughout the project. He had a translator: a young, Japanese woman who accompanied him to all of his interviews. Dawes says that having a translator helped him distance himself from the horror of what he was hearing. But at some points, he became almost too distant. He recalls one of his early interviews, with a man who had committed some of the worst atrocities he had heard of.
“He was talking me through these stories, smiling, laughing, comfortable,” he said. “And you could tell that he had told this story before. A lot. My job is to get the most honest–the most authentic account from people. I wanted this guy to be engaging authentically within the moment, not just to tell me a story he’s already told. So I decided to throw a curveball at him, to ask him a question that might get him to break out of the story he had been telling. I interrupted the flow of conversation to ask him, ‘Have you ever told your mom these things?’ He looked at me and just broke down crying. After that, I decided that I was going to let people tell me their stories the way they wanted.”
After wrapping up his interviews and returning to the States, Dawes wrestled for weeks with what he had heard. “I had all my tapes and recordings sitting in my desk for weeks but I just felt like, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t write this.’” But it was ultimately his own discomfort which shaped the narrative. “When I told my editor at Harvard about the struggle I was having, he said to me: ‘Let that be part of the story.’ And I did.”
Dawes takes an unusual approach in formatting the book. He weaves the men’s stories with his own experience hearing them, with no chapter markers to divide them. His point is not to simply retell the gruesome details of these crimes. Rather, he says, he explores “the vertigo of becoming intimate with evil.” And “evil” is a paradox.
Dawes explains that it is dangerous to demonize evil, because to do so is to paint it as a separate, distant issue– one that happens to “other people.” It is important to him to show that these men were human and that humans are capable of doing evil. At the same time, Dawes also believes that it is necessary to hate evil in order to prevent it. This paradox led him to title the book “Evil Men.” He hopes that, by the end of the book, readers will question that title.
“Evil Men” will be released May 6. Dawes will be doing a reading from it on Apr. 29 at 7:00 p.m. at Common Good Books.