By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
PASADENA — Naomi Hirahara chatted about the inspiration for her mysteries during an appearance on March 7 at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena.
“Strawberry Yellow” is the fifth in her series featuring Mas Arai, a gardener-turned-sleuth who solves murders. He made his debut in 1999 in “Summer of the Big Bachi,” which was followed by “Gasa-Gasa Girl,” “Snakeskin Shamisen” and “Blood Hina.”
Like Hirahara’s late father, Isamu, Mas is a Kibei — a Nisei educated in Japan — who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and became a gardener in Southern California. The new novel takes Mas to his birthplace, the “strawberry capital of the world,” where Hirahara’s father was born.
After the war, Mas returned to Watsonville to start over, finding shelter with cousins and working in the strawberry fields. Decades later, Mas goes to Watsonville once again to attend the funeral of his cousin Shug, a major strawberry grower, and ends up investigating a murder that is connected to a new blight-resistant strawberry varietal.
Hirahara remembers visiting relatives on a farm in Watsonville as a child, and also did research for a biography of Nisei philanthropist Manabi Hirasaki, who began farming strawberries in Monterey County after the internment. To celebrate the launch of the new novel, she brought fresh strawberries from the South Pasadena Farmer’s Market.
She was joined at Vroman’s by her new publisher, Pasadena-based Prospect Park Books, her mother, and some old friends, including Martie Quan Kawahara, her former Rafu Shimpo co-worker.
One thing that sets this latest adventure apart from the other books is that Hirahara tells the story not only from Mas’ viewpoint but also from that of one of his enemies, Jabami. Yes, that’s a Japanese name.
“I collect names,” said Hirahara, who met a volunteer named Jabami at the Japanese American National Museum. “I’d never heard that before … I gave him a heads-up (about the character’s name) and sent him a book, but I haven’t heard back.”
“Don’t get to know me too much, because I’ll probably steal from you,” she joked, noting that the details of a friend’s car accident found their way into one of the novels.
Asked why she chose a male protagonist for her series, Hirahara answered, “I have an alter ego, and it’s a cranky old guy.” She explained that when she first started working at The Rafu, “I was one of the few women in the newsroom.” She also did a lot of oral histories of Nisei men and “I was very close to my father.”
“I love writing an old character because you have all those layers of history,” she said, “and I think too with men of a certain generation … they can wander out in society more than a woman of a certain age can … I wanted to do a gardener too because that was my father’s profession and it’s actually great for an amateur sleuth because they’re their own boss.”
She announced, “I have a new mystery series coming out next year, and it’s a woman and she’s 22 years old. It took me a while to feel comfortable writing from a woman’s voice, which is really strange.”
Mas’ love interest, Genessee, appears in “Strawberry Yellow,” but is not the main focus of the story. Hirahara promised, “In the next one … there’s going to be a love triangle.”
“I incorporate a lot of truth” in the novels, she said, recalling that when she was checking over “Blood Hina” for its release in paperback in September, “some parts of it I was going, ‘Oh my God, that really happened,’ but I had forgotten it. I guess it’s self-indulgent in that all of these books are slightly autobiographical.”
“Strawberry Yellow” is the first in the series without a Japanese word in the title, but as usual there are plenty of Japanese words in the text. Asked if she had thought about including a glossary, Hirahara said she tries to show the meaning through context or examples. “If you don’t understand it, it’s okay, not that big of a deal, but if you know it, it’s really enjoyable.” She added that her current editors “strongly believed that there was no glossary necessary.”
One relative who is not of Japanese ancestry learned about the words from her Japanese American father-in-law. “That’s part of the book experience for me too, that people will start talking with other people,” Hirahara said.
Although her website includes a glossary, she continued, “the problem … is certain words, a person from Japan will say, ‘This means this,’ a person here who’s from L.A. will say, ‘No, it means this.’”
Noting that many Yiddish words have become part of the American lexicon, Hirahara said, “In my small way I want to preserve Japanese American words like bachi. It’s not that big of a deal in Japan anymore … but for certain segments of Japanese Americans here, it’s a word that resonates because we’re frozen in time [culturally] … We’re kind of old school here.”
Hirahara recently visited the Tohoku area, which was devastated by the 2011 tsunami, as a volunteer doing relief work. “It was just incredible for us to witness it … more than a year later … the destruction, people in temporary housing,” she said.
Although she was not doing research for a book, in the back of her mind she wondered what Mas Arai would make of all this. “The last book will be in Hiroshima,” she said. “I thought maybe I could weave Tohoku in there. I’m not sure if I will or not.”
Naomi Hirahara will speak on Saturday, March 30, at 2 p.m. at the Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Ave. in Little Tokyo. “Strawberry Yellow” is available for purchase at the Museum Store. For more information, call (213) 625-0414 or visit www.janm.org. Visit the author’s website at www.naomihirahara.com.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo