By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
PASADENA — The atmosphere in front of Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena last Saturday afternoon was reminiscent of a Hollywood paparazzi fest.
With dozens of well-wishers taking photos and videos, local mystery author Naomi Hirahara placed her hands in cement and signed her name to become a part of Vroman’s Walk of Fame.
Inspired by Grauman’s Chinese Theatre’s Hollywood Walk of Fame, Vroman’s Walk of Fame was established in 2014 in commemoration of the bookstore’s 120th anniversary. Hirahara joins fellow authors Lisa See, Michael Connelly and Luis Rodriguez in being selected for this honor.
Gilbert Ybarra-Martinez, Vroman’s assistant promotional director, said of Hirahara, “She creates from the heart, and that heart is anchored in the foothills of Altadena, the streets of Pasadena and the shadow of Hiroshima. Like any great author, she bonds her own history with the life of her characters, which in turn speaks to all her readers.”
Before the ceremony, Hirahara admitted, “I’ve done so many talks over the years, talking to a hundred people, 200, 300, no problem. But somehow for this, I felt sick to my stomach … I am really emotional, I’m just so touched. Thank you so much, Vroman’s, for honoring me, and I see this not only for me, my books, but actually this whole community that’s here represented …
“That our stories are seen and read just gives me such joy, and there’s this tangible representation here on this block. This makes me so happy.”
Hirahara recently completed her seven-book Mas Arai mystery series, which began with “Summer of the Big Bachi” and ended with “Hiroshima Boy” (Prospect Park Books). She has also authored another mystery series featuring Officer Ellie Rush, an L.A. bicycle cop, as well as several books on Japanese American history, including “Life After Manzanar” and “Terminal Island: Lost Communities of Los Angeles Harbor.”
After the ceremony, Hirahara was interviewed on-stage by journalist Nancie Clare in the bookstore’s courtyard. The author was asked how she balances her fiction and non-fiction writing.
Hirahara said that her years as English editor at The Rafu Shimpo taught her how to multi-task. “We had to cover our news for the whole week. We published six days a week and we were small newspaper … so I had to make sure we had enough stories to fill the newspaper of that day, the next day perhaps prep our Holiday Issue as well as field complaints from readers as well as managing a staff of writers and photographers … I think that was a good training ground for me to be able to work on many things at one time.”
She acknowledged the presence of long-time Rafu photographer Mario Reyes and noted that he was a character in two Mas Arai mysteries, “Snakeshin Shamisen” and “Sayonara Slam.”
Hirahara said her approach to writing is driven by the characters. “When I see a person, I like to know where are they from, where have they moved, where is their family, kind of understand who they are holistically … Even my own characters’ names are so crucial … Occasionally I’ll just use X-X-X [in the first draft], but then it’s like, no, this person needs a name. That name came from a place and those are the kind of things that I start with.”
In all of her works, Hirahara is committed to telling the Japanese American story. “I think a lot of our community’s history was erased … People weren’t encouraged to tell their stories, so it’s been hard to process it. So I feel like I had to bring Mas in, the gardener.
“I did a project for the Southern California Gardeners Federation. That was even before I was published in terms of fiction, and the gardeners told me, ‘In terms of history, even in our community, they laud the rich farmer or the big manufacturer, but what about us? What about us who are tilling the soil? And also [the community is]using the money that we made to make community centers, make Japanese language schools, all of that.’”
As the daughter of a gardener, she reflected, “That’s how people sustain the community and I don’t want that to be forgotten, even within our ethnic community. I think future generations kind of forget about what sort of things were sacrificed, what things people struggled with. And I do think that those stories do transfer over … whether as cautionary tales or individual stories of inspiration.”
Giving kudos to her late father for being her inspiration, she remembered promoting her first mystery. “I had these business cards, ‘Meet Mas Arai, Japanese American gardener, atomic bomb survivor, amateur sleuth.’ And he looked at it and said, ‘Hey, this is me!’”
Writing books like “Life After Manzanar” was “the tonic I needed to keep going in these turbulent times,” Hirahara said. “These people, their homes were taken away from them, and somehow for the good of the community and the families they were able to pull together and even do some amazing things like the redress and reparations movement. It’s like I can’t get discouraged no matter what happens to me personally … We have to keep persevering. So in a sense these people from the past kind of helped me be in the present.”
At the same time, she said, “Especially with the mysteries, I want to have fun because I think sometimes that’s going to sustain us. A lot of that is having fun and then the love of our families and finding humor in things because no matter how dire the situation is, there’s something to laugh about. My husband tells me that I’m not funny … although I think the way I do Mas, it’s kind of humorous.”
On the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction: “Our passion for the facts, to get that one name right, to get that date … we could pour that into our nonfiction. Whereas I think with the fiction we need to let go. I mean because I’ve done the research already, I could kind of let some of that go and just get to the characters and the feeling and relationships and the narratives.
“That’s what really pushes fiction, and so much of it’s a reflection of all facets of ourselves, and that’s why the writing, as we get older, has the capacity of even getting better because we have more experiences … That’s why getting out of our offices and our houses and talking to people and listening to them is so crucial because — I’m not saying we’re stealing their stories, or maybe I am — it is informing us and widening our perspectives, and that we could integrate into our fiction.
Reflecting on her literary career, Hirahara said, “My publishing journey has been tumultuous … When you lose your editor, they call that being ‘orphaned.’ And through the course of my 15-year career. I think I’ve been orphaned maybe eight times. And I’m on my fourth agent. It’s not that we had bad breakups; the agents just left agenting or whatever.”
Noting that she has also had to change publishers, she recalled that even after “Snakeskin Shamisen” won the coveted Edgar Award, “I was just kind of unsure of the publisher’s commitment to other books … At that point I go, ‘Well, what do I want for this? I don’t think Mas’ tale is done and I want to have more control over how it ends.’ So I started just thinking three books with this theme, three books with this [other]theme, and then in the last one, because I like the number seven, he has to go back to Hiroshima.”
While working on the series, Hirahara took a brief hiatus. “I’m in the head of this aging old man, and I use a lot of dialect in those books. So I needed a break myself. I needed to clean my palette. So that’s why I wrote like a middle-grade book from a 12-year-old girl’s perspective.” That book was “1001 Cranes.”
Hirahara gave an update on a big-screen Mas Arai adventure. “This is an independent project and there’s a wonderful script that’s been made and the creative team so far, the director and screenwriter, I think they really have a vision for it.
“The thing about it, though, is it’s set in the 1960s and Mas is in his 30s and his wife is alive and pregnant. So for you diehard Mas Arai fans, it might not be quite what you envision and it’s going to be on the darker side. But I really love it …
“The Mas Arai books are going to be there. Nothing is going to change that. But I think I also have a desire to tell our stories to different types of people, and I think film attracts younger, maybe more younger males. So I think that by putting it out there in that fashion, that’ll bring more people to our stories, which I think will be a positive.”
Although there was a danger that some readers might think that her characters represent her real family, Hirahara said it was important to her as a writer of color to have her voice heard. “It can be really invasive … For writers, we have that risk of people being critical of our work and even our own personal lives. So I think that’s one hurdle. But then from the outside point of view, during that particular time there weren’t that many stories, especially mysteries, of people that were Asian American other than Charlie Chan, that type of thing. So I think those were things to break through.
“I think today’s a very different time period, thank God, and I hope it continues and we continue to hear more diverse voices … How do we sell writers of color, how do we develop new ways to reach readers? These are issues that we’ll have to untangle and figure out in the years to come.”
Hirahara’s next mystery takes place in the multicultural setting of Hawaii, specifically Kauai. “The finishing of the [Mas Arai] series was momentous thing and I needed something a little lighter. So that’s why I pitched a new series and it’s the story of Leilani Santiago. She’s Filipina, Japanese and white … Her family owns a shave ice business. She’s young. She’s distantly related to Ellie Rush, so it’s a way of bringing in Ellie, hopefully, in a future installment.
“But I think this book is similar to my other ones in that family is a theme that always seems to come up. So her family’s very important.”
Saturday, Nov. 24, from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Chevalier’s Bookstore, 126 N. Larchmont Blvd., Los Angeles. Honorary bookseller for Indie First/Small Business Saturday.
Sunday, Dec. 16, at 4 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Special Holiday Market produced by the Journal of Alta California.
For more information, visit www.naomihirahara.com.
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo