Rafu Staff Report
Naomi Hirahara’s latest novel, “Clark and Division,” takes readers back to 1944 in a Japanese American neighborhood of Chicago. The book tells the story of a young woman searching for the truth about her revered older sister’s death, bringing to focus the struggles of one family released from mass incarceration at Manzanar.
Twenty-year-old Aki Ito and her parents have just been released from Manzanar, where they have been detained by the U.S. government since the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, together with thousands of other Japanese Americans. The life in California the Itos were forced to leave behind is gone; instead, they are being resettled 2,000 miles away in Chicago, where Aki’s older sister, Rose, was sent months earlier and moved to the new Japanese American neighborhood near Clark and Division streets. But on the eve of the Ito family’s reunion, Rose is killed by a subway train.
Aki, who worshipped her sister, is stunned. Officials are ruling Rose’s death a suicide. Aki cannot believe her perfect, polished, and optimistic sister would end her life. Her instinct tells her there is much more to the story, and she knows she is the only person who could ever learn the truth.
Hirahara, former English editor of The Rafu Shimpo, has authored numerous works of nonfiction and fiction, including “Summer of the Big Bachi,” “Gasa-Gasa Girl,” and “Snakeskin Shamisen” and the middle-grade novel “1001 Cranes.”
Taking a little time away from her busy schedule, Hirahara discussed the inspiration and ideas behind “Clark and Division.”
Rafu: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions. What is the significance of the title?
Naomi Hirahara: Clark and Division refers to an intersection in Chicago where many early Japanese American arrivals to Chicago moved to from the ten mass incarceration centers. Upon leaving camp, these Nisei were told not to congregate with other Japanese Americans, but who else will be supporting them through this chaotic transition?
Rafu: How did you do research for “Clark and Division”? Were there aspects of the Nikkei community in Chicago that surprised you that are woven into the story?
NH: There are so many wonderful oral histories that were collected in Chicago through the Japanese American National Museum’s ReGenerations project. The Chicago-based interviewer was Mary Doi and she did such a splendid job of pulling out colorful stories. Erik Matsunaga of the Instagram account @windycitynikkei has served as his city’s resident social historian and kindly gave me a walking tour of Clark and Division. His interpretation was crucial as not much is left of that World War II era and there’s absolutely no signage in all of Chicago indicating a past Japanese American presence. (The only place I saw any acknowledgement by city officials is the naming of some streets after specific Japanese American faith leaders.)
Certainly crimes committed by Japanese Americans piqued my interest. I’m a mystery writer after all! I think the juvenile delinquency reports filed by community members proved that we are human, susceptible to rebellious activity, especially after being locked up with thousands of other Japanese Americans.
Rafu: The main character Aki Ito is drawn into investigating her sister’s tragic death. Is Aki inspired by any Nisei women in your life?
NH: Aki is at first overshadowed by her older sister and I think many younger sisters have found themselves in this position. But, in reality, Aki herself is an outlier. I’ve dedicated “Clark and Division” to three women, one being the invincible Sue Kunitomi Embrey. The one detail that is directly from Sue’s life is that she worked at the Newberry Library while she lived in Chicago after leaving Manzanar and Wisconsin.
Rafu: What is your writing process? Was any of your process altered during the pandemic?
NH: For a research-heavy book like this, I start doing research while writing other books. I found an old journal that recorded that I was conceiving a Chicago-based mystery in December 2016. The premise was very different at that time. I usually select a special journal and start free writing, developing characters, various premises for a crime, etc. Once I collect enough concrete details, I dig in. Here the relationship between Aki and her older sister, Rose, was absolutely crucial. I don’t have any sisters, so this was a reach for me.
Once we were going through lockdown, I knew that I couldn’t be as productive as usual. Even though I was still sitting in front of my laptop, knowing that the world was in a sense on fire, I couldn’t help to be affected. And then there was so many unknowns in publishing. My editor even took a leave of absence for some months and I wasn’t sure if she was going to return. My publication date got delayed. And I was faced with a difficult rewrite. But I dove in and addressed my editor’s concerns. Actually, having more time improved the book immensely.
Rafu: Any advice for aspiring authors?
NH: Don’t get too ahead of yourself. Be committed first to finishing your story. Find like-minded people who share the same creative aspirations and exchange your work. Once you enter the publication phase, you are going to encounter a lot of setbacks, but believe in your story and carry on.
Naomi Hirahara will discuss “Clark and Division” on Saturday, Aug. 7, from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Online event hosted by Japanese American National Museum. Fee: $9.99. Book available for purchase from JANM Store. Virtual meet-and-greet for JANM members at 1 p.m. (separate RSVP). Info: www.janm.org