Stars and slights: An interview with HIROSHIMA BOY author Naomi Hirahara

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Naomi Hirahara is the author of the mystery series that stars A-bomb survivor, L.A. gardener and underestimated amateur sleuth Mas Arai. Patrick Sherriff took the opportunity of the publication of the seventh and final mystery, HIROSHIMA BOY, to ask the Edgar Award-winning author and former newspaper journalist about the series and her role in exploring the Japanese-American experience

PATRICK SHERRIFF: I was really quite moved after finishing HIROSHIMA BOY that this would be the last Mas Arai mystery. I’ve come to know and respect him and felt something close to loss realising that his time is up. How did you manage to make him so real? How much of him is based on your own father?

Naomi Hirahara: I’ve said this before in other places, but I’ve mined my father’s early life in Hiroshima as a guide for Mas Arai’s own life. But that’s more for historic plot points (just so people couldn’t say to me–“that couldn’t have happened”). Mas’s personality is very different than my father’s. It’s more reflective of perhaps the Kibei Nisei generation in general. The inability to express oneself completely in either Japanese or English–I completely empathize with this predicament. There are cultural components to this as well, but more than anything, I think it’s part of the immigrant and working class experience in America. Since I was the first-born child of a Kibei Nisei man and an immigrant Japanese woman, I had to observe and negotiate the outside world for my parents. I had to figure out what was part of my “inside” world as well as the “outside” one. Books played such an important role in trying to learn what was American. It’s no wonder that among my favorite childhood books were Lois Lenski’s migrant farming books set in the South and Sydney Taylor’s series about a Jewish family living in the tenements of the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Their underclass lives found joy in small things and that resonated with me. One of the crucial qualities to create three dimesional characters is to be quiet and observe. And I spent a big chunk of my early life doing just that.

How would Mas Arai react to the rise of Trump? How do you, as a writer?

Mas wouldn’t have much of a reaction to Trump, other than he would be totally unimpressed. Mas has seen it all. I think, however, that he would be concerned with the hatred that Trump stokes. That would seem very familiar to him and dangerous.

I myself was so thankful that I had two meaningful book projects to work on in 2017–the final Mas Arai mystery, HIROSHIMA BOY, set on a fictional island based on Ninoshima, and a non-fiction book that I co-authored with my friend, Heather Lindquist, LIFE AFTER MANZANAR. I felt these projects sustained me during the first year of Trump’s presidency. Yes, I marched in the streets but I’m not a political activist. My personality is not quite wired that way. So I poured my angst and concern into those books, which deal with the dangers of nuclear proliferation and reactionary and racist governmental actions. That was my way that I could protest. Of course, HIROSHIMA BOY is a fictional mystery and can be read as just that, an entertaining diversion.

Part of the charm of the Mas Arai mysteries for me was the way you blended Japanese and English to give Mas a way of speaking unique to him. Did that pose any problems for you in writing the book (or editing it) for English speakers? And I wonder how you could ever go about translating the novels into Japanese. Does Mas’s story resonate with Japanese readers?

To capture Mas’s speech patterns was very important to me. In that way, I am recreating the way my father spoke. Of course, I’ve stayed away from the belittling way westerners have sometimes characterized Japanese accents–confusing the Englsh “r” with the “l” sound, etc. (As you know, the “ra ri ru re ro” sounds in Japanese is distinct, requiring the speaker to touch their tongue to the roof of their mouth.)

In an essence, I’m creating my own unique representation of Kibei Nisei speech. I’ve done it instinctively and I’ve had one Japanese linguist identify Japanese sounds in the way I’ve chosen to Romanize Mas’s speech. Some readers–all non-Japanese–have critiqued the representation, saying that it is somehow disrespectful that my lead character, inspired by my father, is not speaking standard English. Others, especially Japanese Americans, have said that they love it. You can’t make everyone happy. The best compliment I’ve received is from Nisei readers who knew my late father and say that they can hear him. You can’t beat that.

In terms of Japanese translation, GASA-GASA GIRL and SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN were both published in Japanese by Shogakukan. They are both out of print, but curiously enough, they were recorded in Japanese for Audible last year (click on the titles above to find them).

The translator, of course, removed all the dialect, because how can you represent that in Japanese? Those Japanese editions both included “atogaki” or afterwords that touched upon the nostalgic elements of the books. That the Japan that they reflected no longer existed. Really interesting. They didn’t take Japan by storm, but my relatives enjoyed reading them.

Another delight of the series was your depiction of the hero as an old man. You made Mas believably heroic without pushing the series into “cozy” territory. How did you manage that?

There was a collection of short stories published in 2006 called Damn Near Dead: An Anthology of Geezer Noir. (Unfortunately I wasn’t invited to contribute, but I loved the material.) Related to that book, one of my colleagues commented something like, “There’s nothing more noir than getting old.” Totally true. We infantalize old people–well, in some ways we are indeed circling back to being newborns. But it’s tough being stripped away from your vitality, health, respect, attractiveness, earning power and so on. And dealing with our eventual mortality. Since I’ve always been into history and content-driven thinking, I’m a bit of an old soul. I also interviewed many seniors of the World War II generation while I worked at The Rafu Shimpo newspaper and also on nonfiction history projects. So it wasn’t difficult to get into an old man’s mind. Plus I was very tight with my father, who was a bit of a philosopher. One of my fondest experiences with him was sitting around our kitchen table with him and doing “talk story.” He was a man of limited words but he thought very deeply about people and the world. I soaked all that in. Perhaps in a way I funneled some of that into the Mas Arai mysteries so at least some of that sensibility was on paper.

It feels an apt time to say goodbye to Mas, as there can’t be many of his generation left. Have subsequent generations of Japanese Americans integrated into the US mainstream? Is there new vitality in the Japanese community, if so, or a sense of decline?

Oh, Japanese Americans have definitely integrated into the mainstream. What’s interesting is the large number of mixed race families and individuals. Japanese Americans “outmarry” more than any other Asian ethnicity here. In the past, some individuals have decried this phenomenon (most evident in Japanese American beauty pageants in the 1970s) but now it is completely “atarimae,” expected. Ever since I served as editor of The Rafu Shimpo, the largest bilingual Japanese American publication in the U.S., I contended that those non-Japanese spouses and mixed-race children just expanded our community. So, yes, there is new vitality in terms of interest in our roots and experiences in this country. I think in other areas other Asian immigrant communities and Asian Americans are really grabbing hold of new opportunities and expressions. We are really seeing that in the arts–books, movies and streaming shows–as well as in electoral politics. I don’t see the same level of activity among Japanese Americans. It may be because we are smaller in number or don’t share the same recent immigration history. Or it may be deeper–the legacy of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II may have had a subconscious effect on subsequent generations to take fewer risks.

Which do you prefer, journalism or writing fiction?

Writing fiction but journalism comes in a very close second 🙂

Who else is writing good stuff, fact or fiction, about the Japanese-American experience?

USC Professor Duncan Williams just released a fascinating book on Buddhism in America’s World War II concentration camps. There was material in that book, AMERICAN SUTRA, that I never fully reflected on, such as the U.S. government dishonoring the Buddhist beliefs of Nisei soldiers.

Frank Abe recently published a collection of essays about John Okada, a pioneering novelist who broke new ground with NO-NO BOY. (Stanford University even has a dormitory named after him.)

UC Berkeley Professor Andrew Leong produced a magnificent translation of serial writer and novelist Shōson Nagahara, a Japanese itinerant worker in Los Angeles who wrote for various Nikkei publications in the 1920s.

And there are the very committed documentarians: Greg Robinson, Arthur Hansen and Eric Muller. You can’t go wrong with picking up their books or reading their papers.

Karen Tei Yamashita always has a fresh take of Japanese America in her literary fiction. And Cynthia Kadohata gets to the heart of the matter in her books for younger readers. Pick up her Newbery Award-winning KIRA-KIRA. Lois-Ann Yamanaka captures the sound of the Japanese American experience in Hawai’i.

What projects are you working on now?

I have a new mystery series set in Hawai’i which will be launched in September with ICED IN PARADISE. It will be a fun, breezy series with a Filipino/Japanese/white young female protagonist. It will eventually be connected to my Ellie Rush bicycle cop mysteries.

I’m currently working on a historical thriller set in Chicago in 1943-44. After I complete that, I hope to write more historicals–one set in my hometown of Pasadena and another in Washington, DC. And there are exciting things to come with HIROSHIMA BOY coming to Japan… watch this space.

Naomi Hirahara is the Edgar Award-winning author of two mystery series set in Los Angeles. Her Mas Arai series, which features a Hiroshima survivor and gardener, has been translated into Japanese, Korean and French. A former editor of The Rafu Shimpo newspaper and curator of historical exhibitions, she has also published noir short stories, middle-grade fiction and nonfiction books, including TERMINAL ISLAND: LOST COMMUNITIES OF LOS ANGELES HARBOR. Co-written with Heather Lindquist, a book on the struggles of Japanese Americans after being released from Manzanar concentration camp (LIFE AFTER MANZANAR) was published by Heyday Books in 2018. That publication was immediately followed by her seventh and final Mas Arai mystery, HIROSHIMA BOY, which was nominated for an Edgar Award. Set to be launched in September 2019, her new mystery, ICED IN PARADISE, will follow the adventures of Leilani Santiago, who operates her family’s shave ice business in Kaua’i. She received her bachelor’s degree in international relations from Stanford University.

Where to buy her books.

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Patrick Sherriff publishes a monthly newsletter highlighting good fiction published in English about Japan. He lives in Abiko, Japan, with his wife and two daughters.