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Mystery Author Naomi Hirahara Looks to Her Community for Inspiration

Pacific Citizen, News Feature, Caroline Aoyagi Posted: May 14, 2005

When author Naomi Hirahara began her career as a mystery writer, several people gave her the same advice: write about white people because thats what sells.
Hiraharas currently working on her third installment in the acclaimed Mas Arai mystery series and has yet to take up the advice, preferring to write about the Japanese American (JA) community a group rich with stories but whose voice is still largely unheard today.

Were kind of invisible as JAs were not represented and it makes me sad, she said. But to intentionally avoid JA characters because youre JA, you have to take a second look.

We all have different stories to tell, added Hirahara. Part of my intention is to introduce readers to JA characters. If people are interested, they will pick it up.

Hiraharas first mystery, Summer of the Big Bachi, introduced her readers to the character of Mas Arai, a reluctant Kibei Hibakusha (Atomic bomb survivor) sleuth in Altadena, California who somehow manages to solve mind-boggling mysteries with the help of his Kibei and Nisei friends. The book received a number of positive reviews and is in its third printing by Bantam Dell.

Hirahara, who lives in Pasadena, California with her husband, recently launched a tour for her second book in the series titled, Gasa-gasa Girl, which takes Mas to New York City to help his estranged daughter Mari solve a mysterious death. The book has also received positive reviews, including Publishers Weekly, and a second printing of the novel has been ordered.

In addition to various JA characters, Hirahara uses JA cultural and historic references throughout her books to educate readers about the JA community, but more importantly, she also manages to entertain. Hiraharas style is deceptively understated, slowly taking hold of you, but readers soon find themselves propelled forward as Mas and his band of JA characters struggle to solve the various mysteries.

I feel so fortunate to be a writer, said Hirahara. Its a privilege.

Like Mas character, Hiraharas father is a Kibei, born in the United States but raised in Japan, and also a Hibakusha survivor. But the author is quick to point out that besides this similarity, her novels are largely fiction. Nevertheless, she felt it was important to include the stories of the Kibei and Hibakusha in her novels since both communities have long been silent about their experiences.

"Its an untold story, she said.

As a JA writer who writes about the JA community, there is always the fear of being pigeonholed, but Hirahara doesnt plan to stop writing stories about her community.

Some people dont want to be pigeon-holed but [publishers] will do that to you, said Hirahara. People should be able to write what they want.

She added, Its a challenge to be an Asian American writer period, no matter what you write about. But we still need more voices. There are not too many Asian American writers, especially JAs.

Hirahara makes it a point of distinguishing between the JA and Japanese cultures in her books because she still sees a lack of understanding in the mainstream about the differences.

There are still a lot of misconceptions about JAs, said Hirahara, noting her own experiences. At a mystery writers convention she was greeted at the registration desk with a hearty, Konnichiwa! Another time she was welcomed with, Are you from Japan?

Hirahara is now a full-time novelist but the road to her current career was not a short one. A graduate of Stanford University with a degree in international relations, she spent nine years at the Los Angeles JA Daily Rafu Shimpo where she worked as a reporter and eventual editor of the newspaper.

Her first novel, Summer of the Big Bachi, took more than 15 years from conception to publication and went through about five overhauls. In fact, the book wasnt even a mystery when she started writing it and she never envisioned her debut novel being turned into a series.

Hirahara easily admits the difficulties of a career as a full-time writer, advising first-time writers to keep their day job to pay the bills. Its a hard profession, she said. Youre only as good as your next book. But Im happy.

Although Hiraharas greatest inspirations have been JA writers, including Hisaye Yamamoto and Wakako Yamauchi, she has also found inspiration in various African American writers like Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress) and Chester Himes (A Rage in Harlem).

African American writers are a model for me, said Hirahara. Their journey has been a strong model.

Hirahara is currently working on her third Mas Arai story tentatively titled Snakeskin Shamisen. The book is set in the Okinawan community of South Bay, California and is scheduled for release this September.

Hirahara plans to continue writing in the mystery genre but is open to exploring other writing types including a more literary work in the future. She would also like to write a novel from a womans perspective about JA women and their friendships with other JA women.

Writing is the best part for me, she said. It is the greatest joy.

Available at Amazon

Gasa-Gasa Girl
By Naomi Hirahara
A Delta Trade Paperback Original
304 Pages

Also by Hirahara: Summer of the Big Bachi

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