A Book Review
Devil’s Tango: How I learned the Fukushima Step by Step
By Cecile Pineda
2012 Wings Press (Second Edition, 2013)
News Item: Aug. 28 (Bloomberg) Japan’s government will lead “emergency measures” to tackle radioactive water spills at the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant, wresting control of the disaster recovery from the plant’s heavily criticized operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co.
“We’ve allowed Tokyo Electric to deal with the contaminated water situation on its own and they’ve essentially turned it into a game of ‘Whack-a-Mole,’” Trade Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters today atFukushima. “From now on, the government will move to the forefront.”
To this, Cecile Pineda, author of Devil’s Tango: How I learned the Fukushima Step by Step, would probably say, “Well, it’s about time, but it may be too late!” And she would not allow anyone listening to her to relax their vigilance toward Japanese or US government pronouncements on what she calls the planetary disaster at Fukushima Daiichi. If there is one message a reader should get from Devil’s Tango, it’s the one about representatives of government and the nuclear industry alternating between remaining silent instead of informing the people about the true scope of the catastrophe, and lying every time their lips are moving.
Pineda, a theatrical director and writer known for six published novels and a play, changed course to write a book aboutFukushima– a second edition came out in 2013—that marked her first foray into writing book-length non-fiction. This is an unusual book about the disaster as it combines her personal reactions to it with reportage about it. In a May 2013 interview, Pineda told me that she was at sea through the first 31 sections of the book. She was trying to make sense of the magnitude of the disaster and could not totally wrap her mind around it.
The sections refer to the divisions she used for the book instead of conventional chapters. Devil’s Tango is constructed as a personal journal with 131 sections that cover 571 days after the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. The sections run anywhere from several paragraphs to several pages.
These sections contain a wealth of context, something that is often missing in our sound byte world. Devil’s Tango places the disaster into personal contexts. The death of a close friend 13 days before the catastrophe, her car accident shortly afterward, her times helping the homeless pay their bus fares, and her homage to high school classmate George Carlin are some of the personal moments Pineda shares with readers of Devil’s Tango. (Pineda has Carlin’s style down so well that I could hear his voice in my head as I read that section.)
In these sections, Pineda is describing her attempt to continue living everyday life as if nothing happened. But of course, something did happen, she tells us. Something absolutely horrific has happened and although we all go on riding buses and remembering the people in our pasts, nothing will ever be the same again, at least not for politically conscious artists. Devil’s Tango works both as therapy for her and as a tool to awaken those of us not yet aware of the devastation cause for decades by the nuclear power industry.
There is also personal/political context, as Pineda clearly tells us in this book that the time for signing petitions and liking Facebook pages as forms of political activism are over. She reserves her admiration for the Occupy movement and anti-nuclear activists such as Bonnie Urfer, who was sentenced as a “prolific criminal” for her most recent direct action at a uranium facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Sister Megan Rice, an 83 year old Catholic nun and Pineda classmate who is scheduled to be sentenced in late September 2013 for her part in a different direct action at the same facility.
Pineda makes the case that there is no difference in the potential for harm between civilian uses of nuclear power, such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island andFukushima, and military uses such as Depleted Uranium (DU). She is so cognizant of the racial and even religious politics of the nuclear industry, as she summarizes radiation exposures to peoples as diverse as the Navajo nation in New Mexico, the Muslim Bashkir and Tatar people of the formerUSSR, and the Yanomami of the Brazilian Amazon.
Although Pineda provides a lot of straight reporting of the aftermath of the disaster, it is always with the understanding that the Japanese or US governments, TEPCO, the utility company that runs the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and the mainstream media are telling us half truths, outright lies or nothing at all, in the attempt to prevent panic and worldwide demands to halt the use of nuclear power. But she makes it clear that the cost of saving the nuclear industry could well be the death of the planet.
Throughout Devil’s Tango, Pineda does not mince words. In discussing Greg Palast’s recently published book, she writes: “There’s grief in it for every taste, but I zero in on what he has to say about the nuclear industry, the daisy chain of utility CEOs, the NRC, and the sorry politicians caught with their pants down, all playing nuclear roulette with our lives, our landscape, and entire territories the planet over, in a devil’s tango of greed unmatched in human history, unmatched simply because, until George Herbert Walker Bush trumpeted the New World Order, nothing on this globalized economic scale had ever been imagined.”
Pineda’s powerful use of language, even in discussing as prosaic a matter as an investigative reporter’s book, demonstrates that Devil’s Tango was written by an artist who did not abandon her artistic voice to report facts. Her artistic sensibilities are interwoven with her straight reporting and her righteous indignation at the hubris and greed that inspired the creation of an industry that has created much ruin over its relatively short history, and which may have gone a step too far atFukushima.
One particularly thought-provoking passage occurs in section 91, which she titled “Meditation on the 273rd Day Following the Planetary Disaster at Fukushima Daiichi”. It ends thusly:
I am trying to understand being born to the urge to destroy, to rip mountains apart, to pour thousand-year poison into the seas, to belch soot into the sky, to kill everything that lives. Where does it start, this impulse? In what mind? Where is the axel that turns this wheel?
Devil’s Tango may be confusing to some readers because of its combination of non-fiction and artistic eloquence arranged in the unconventional “sections rather than chapters” style. But this is also refreshing because maybe what we need to ameliorate the great political ills of the world is an end to so-called journalistic objectivity that pretends not to have an agenda while promoting the agenda of the status quo.
Several days before I wrote this review, I received a newsletter from Pineda. She wrote:
On a personal note, having had to cancel all but two of the stops on my mid-California tour because I came down with pneumonia, which probably had its start immediately following my return from my Great Lakes speaking tour, at last I am finding renewed energy to shift my focus to my own work in progress. And no sooner had the great weight of my self-appointed role as the John Baptista of the Fukushima watchdog movement been lifted, my symptoms began dramatically to lift. Fukushima had begun killing me, and my body had sense enough to make sure it wouldn’t get away with it.
Pineda will be 81 on September 24, 2013. If talking about Fukushimais impairing her health, she is better off leaving the subject. We have Devil’s Tango: How I learned the Fukushima Step by Step, as a record of what this disaster has done to one person’s life and to the world in general. Fortunately, Pineda will not retire completely. In addition to resuming her fiction work, she maintains a blog at http://devilstangobook.blogspot.com on which she shares her political opinions on everything from the Manning court martial, to the hubris of the NSA to, of course, nuclear power.
Pineda herself engages in direct action. The day before I interviewed her in May, she had chained herself to a highway overpass in sympathy with the hunger strikers atGuantanamo, during which time she meditated. She was absolutely delighted with the experience. In light of what she learned about military and civilian nuclear power in producing her two editions of Devil’s Tango, Pineda’s willingness to engage in direct action demonstrates supreme optimism for the future.
About the author: Kellia Ramares-Watson is an independent journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of the e-book Eating Poison: Food, Drugs and Health. Her next major project will be an e-book called Demonetization: Ending the Cult of Commodity. She can be reached at theendofmoney[at]gmail.com.