Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Alum book “The Woman with a Purple Heart” gives an unsung hero her own novel

Rachel Choi

When we read about history, who gets remembered? In historical fiction, who gets to be a protagonist? Emerson alum Diane Hanks ‘91 wrote her latest novel “The Woman with a Purple Heart” to tell the untold story of Lieutenant Annie Fox—the first woman to receive a Purple Heart award—someone who would have otherwise stayed a footnote in U.S. history.

Most American schools teach the attack on Pearl Harbor, but less known is the adjacent Hickam Field, which was targeted in the same attack—where many nurses, predominantly women, were stationed. Among them was Lieutenant Fox, the station’s head nurse who provided pivotal care and guided civilian nurses to help soldiers wounded in the Pearl Harbor attack. For this, she was awarded a Purple Heart.

Little is known about Fox besides her support during the day of the attack. Still, Hanks found something resonant in the limited anecdotes and second-hand evidence available—she immediately set out to tell Fox’s story.

“It was probably minutes after I started digging into it that I knew I wanted to write about her,” Hanks said in an interview with the Beacon. “The only frustrating thing was that there was no information other than the basics. You have to glean from what other people said about her and how the citation was worded—that was pretty much all I had to go on.”

From a lack of evidence, Hanks had to take creative liberties to write a full work of historical fiction about Annie Fox. Most records of her are from the day of the Pearl Harbor attack—Hanks had to adapt her actions into attributes to create a fully realized character.

“I based as much as I could on the facts, which was easier to do on the day’s events,” Hanks said. “Then you have to use your imagination as a writer—put yourself in that situation, feel what they might have felt, do what they might have done.”

Hanks deals in telling the stories of unsung heroes, who are historically women. For example, her next book “Randomized” dramatizes the story of two women who developed the first effective vaccine for whooping cough amid the Great Depression.

Aside from shining a light on its historical protagonist, “The Woman with a Purple Heart” exposes some aspects of the war less frequently taught in history classes. The book also focuses on how fear of a Japanese attack affected the treatment of Japanese Americans in Hawaii, where the stations were located.

“I like to showcase situations that may have been forgotten or that no one wants to talk about at the moment,” Hanks said. “That’s why I brought up the Japanese internment and the arrests of those they believed were Japanese spies. One of the reasons we weren’t prepared on that day was that they had focused all of their energy on sabotage—they had their eye on the wrong ball.”

To write the book, Hanks underwent an extensive research process. However, she believes her 25-year career as a medical writer for the VA Boston Healthcare System enhances her ability to synthesize historical documents and first-hand evidence.

“What it’s given me over these many years is the ability to do research,” Hanks said. “I can look at a paper that’s many, many pages long and summarize well enough—I can know what’s important to take with me from pages of material.”

Hanks thinks of her two jobs as symbiotic. While the money she makes doing medical writing allows her to write novels and screenplays, she truly loves both crafts: her medical writing supplements her creative writing, and her knowledge of psychology and physiology seeps into her characters.

Hanks recommends writers to not stake their lives on their creative output, and to find a balance between their passion and their source of income while taking both seriously.

“I always thought of my creative writing as a second job, not a hobby,” Hanks said. “It’s not a hobby, especially when you get your master’s degree. Think of it as a necessary secondary job—any kind of artistic endeavor is good for your mental health, and nowadays, who doesn’t need that?”

Having two jobs allows writers to hold on to their creativity without compromising their work. And just as having a creative outlet is necessary for self-care, any form of stability is essential to staying creative.

“It’s tough to be creative in this world right now,” Hanks said. “Even going to Emerson is not cheap. It’s important to have a backup so you can pay your rent, mortgage, and car payments while you write at night and on the weekends. It’s hard, especially if you have children, but if you love it enough you find the time.”

What makes writers stand out in an oversaturated market is passion. Writers should write the stories they want to read. For Hanks, it was the story of a little-known lieutenant that she felt needed to be put out there, for herself before anyone else.

“Especially if you’re going to write a novel, really care about what you’re writing about,” Hanks said. “Just write about what is important to you, and it might be important to someone else.”

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About the Contributor
Ryan Yau
Ryan Yau, Living Arts Co-Editor
Ryan Yau (he/him) is a first-year journalism major from Hong Kong. He writes and edits for the Living Arts section, normally feature stories on artists and arts events in Boston, usually film-related. Occasionally he has an opinion. He recreationally play saxophone.

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