Mas Arai-Mania: An Interview with Naomi Hirahara




IF YOU HAVEN’T had the pleasure of meeting Mas Arai, I’d suggest buying Summer of the Big Bachi, Naomi Hirahara’s 2004 debut, and reading it immediately. You might also start with 2006’s Edgar Award–winning Snakeskin Shamisen, or Hirahara’s latest, Sayonara Slam, just published this month. The series is one of my favorites, and though Mas’s circumstances change with each installation, the books all stand alone, on the shoulders of one gruff, aging Japanese-American gardener and Hiroshima survivor with an unfortunate tendency to wander into complex murder mysteries.

In Sayonara Slam, Mas is just trying to attend a baseball game — between the Japanese and Korean national teams at Dodger Stadium — when he witnesses the death of a reviled Japanese sportswriter. As it turns out, this death involves some uh, foul play, and Mas finds himself embroiled in an investigation that touches on the personal and the historical in poignant, difficult ways. Hirahara’s nuanced treatment of the relations between Korea and Japan and how they resonate in the States is particularly unique and affecting — this is a topic that interests me deeply, one that gets zero to maybe slightly more than zero play in pop culture.

I talked to Naomi over email about baseball, history, and of course, the magnificent Mas Arai.

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STEPH CHA: This is your sixth outing with Mas Arai. He’s almost 80 now, and you’ve put the old man through quite a lot. He’s such an interesting, nuanced character he feels real to me, and I have a lot of affection for him. Can you talk a little about how you conceived of Mas, and how he’s evolved through your series?

NAOMI HIRAHARA: Mas was inspired by my late father and other men like him. While I worked at the Rafu Shimpo newspaper, this type of cranky men would often come through our doors. Beaten by racism, exclusion, and war, yet not broken. They parlayed their passion in gambling and male camaraderie. But they often told their real stories — the vulnerable ones — to women.

Once realized on paper, Mas became his own person. I never thought that he would have a love interest, but there she was. As he left his easy chair to investigate the crimes affecting the people closest to him, he began to connect to other people, including his estranged daughter. It’s been cool to watch it all happen.

One thing that comes through is that Mas is a reluctant sleuth. He’s an old man and a gardener, not a detective, by occupation. I’m interested from a craft perspective because you manage it seamlessly how do you get a character like that going in a mystery?

This is so difficult. That’s one reason I knew that the series couldn’t keep going on forever. Some people probably wanted it to end with the first; I, in fact, didn’t expect to write Mas Arai mystery Number Two immediately for publication for the next year. So the business of publishing and genre expectation pushed me to figure out how I was going to proceed. I know that I couldn’t start off with a murder in the first page of each book. That would be too ridiculous for Mas. Since these mysteries are so embedded in the Japanese-American experience and Mas’s world, I usually start off with a more cultural set-up. This, of course, is not how many books in our genre begin, so I really need to woo the reader with voice — the third-person omniscient narrator and Mas’s. Some get it and some don’t. I don’t worry about it — especially six books into it!

I’m also a fan of your Ellie Rush series and was tickled to see Cortez Williams appear in this book. Your series are very different in tone, but they clearly occupy the same universe. How do you see them in relation to each other? Are they driven by similar engines, or do they carry out separate parts of your grand authorial plan?

I joke that I’m going to keep populating my fictional world until all the characters fall through the roof of readers. (My middle-grade book even mentions Haruo, Mas’s best friend, in passing.) I view Mas as the old and Ellie as the new. They both actually represent different parts of me and my life and certainly of the Japanese-American community. In some ways, I do have a plan or, at least, a strategy. I know that sounds more conniving and businesslike than artistic, but I feel as an author of color or maybe any author who wants to continue publishing, you need to have some sort of plan. It may not necessarily come to fruition, and it’s hard to predict anything in this business, but I think it’s important to reinvent and change it up. I know that I needed to develop my female voice, so I’ve been working on it through juvenile fiction and short stories. I’ve embraced it in Ellie and plan to write my novels from a female point of view. I know it sounds strange because I’m a woman, so it would be naturally assumed that I could easily write from a woman’s point of view, but it’s been a process. It’s probably related to some personal issues as well as leadership ones — that I had to push away or suppress some of my feminine inclinations to forge a path for my birth family and work.

Sayonara Slam is, on the surface, a mystery about baseball. Are you a particular fan? What drew you to this backdrop? It must’ve been fun to set a book in Dodger Stadium.

I’m actually more of a basketball fan! I began playing for the Japanese leagues from sixth grade and played for my high school team as well. But I’ve always loved sports. (My husband is a huge spectator fan as well.) I love the intersection of body and mind and how both are needed to succeed in sports. When I was the editor of Rafu Shimpo, Los Angeles was hit by Nomomania — the addition of the Dodger’s first Japanese Major League Baseball player, Hideo Nomo. He was called Tornado for his unorthodox pitching style and it did seem that a tornado had hit Japanese America. (Think Jeremy Lin but more focused with an international angle.) The Japanese media descended on Dodger Stadium and it was quite a spectacle.

The baseball games in question, of course, are not Dodger games but Japan versus Korea in the World Baseball Classic in 2009. That is one sticky rivalry, even before a surviving Korean comfort woman enters the picture. I’m fascinated by the ongoing tension and resentment between Korea and Japan, but haven’t seen it explored very much in literature. How did you go about tackling this complicated subject?

Of course, I knew that the topic would not win me many fans in Japan, but I felt that I had to take it on. Actually, from the very first Mas Arai mystery, there has been a thread about Japan’s relationship with Korea. Since America’s treatment of Japanese Americans is an overarching theme throughout the series, I knew that I couldn’t ignore what the Japanese government has historically done to other Asian countries. I feel that Mas, with his streetwise sense, knows what’s up, for the most part. Being a Hiroshima survivor, he’s a perfect character to examine these sensitive issues. There have been some Korean American writers like Nora Okja Keller, Chang-Rae Lee, and my good friend, Chungmi Kim (in her play, Comfort Women), who have tackled this subject. But not many Japanese or Japanese Americans. I think that Japanese Americans, in a strange way, are in a liberating position to write whatever we want about this topic in a novel. It’s not like our government or certain political interests are going to seek to censor or influence us.

I became more aware of the “comfort woman” issue again while I worked at a newspaper in the 1990s. This was during the Kono Statement, in which a high-ranking Japanese leader admitted that the Japanese Imperial Army had been involved in the establishment of the “comfort stations.” We probably published a related story on the front page of the English section every day for a period of time. So this hasn’t been a new issue for me personally.

So much of Sayonara Slam depends on shifting identities and their particular weights the shame and resentment and burden of belonging to this group or that group. Mas himself is both a Hiroshima survivor and an American. This may be a leading question coming from me (we may or may not have talked about it on multiple panels), but is crime fiction a useful vehicle for exploring themes of identity?

I think every book in the Mas Arai series, and maybe Ellie Rush as well, deals with identity. Self-identity and how we identify others. Crimes and crime investigation deal so much about the boxes we, including the reader, assign to others. One of the common comments I received with the publication of my first novel was that people didn’t realize that there was such a big difference between Japanese and Japanese Americans. It’s more than 60 years since the incarceration of Japanese Americans and still the perception of “aliens/non-aliens” still persists.

One of my favorite things about Mas is the way he talks, this Japanese-inflected colloquial English. I know it’s been a while since your first Mas novel, but how did you nail down his speech patterns? And how do you decide how much Japanese/Japanglish you could include without confusing non-Japanese-speaking readers? For instance did you ever have a conversation about whether readers would see “orai” and immediately know it was Mas for “all right”?

I do need to get into that Mas groove to tackle his speech patterns. That’s one reason I took a break from the series after the third book. I didn’t want to be known to only write dialogue in this kind of vernacular. My own father’s speech patterns help guide me. Would he say something like that? I definitely knew that I would stay away from the “r” and “l” exchange, as that is used to denigrate and insult people of Japanese descent. In terms of words like “orai,” that’s what my friends and I sometimes text/email to each other — so that was an established vernacular. It’s not quite pidgin English, but something close to it. And the “su” that I add to some of the verbs — it’s a combination of Ebonics and the “su” in desu that serves as a copula in the Japanese language. The latter I didn’t realize that I had adopted until a Japanese language professor informed me what I was doing. Interesting!

What’s next for our old Mas?

The finale in the series! Numero Siete. Number Seven. He returns to Hiroshima for a visit. I recently received an Aurora grant to go to Hiroshima to do research, and I’m very excited to do some digging. I, of course, want to end the series on a high note. Since it’ll take place in foreign country, it will be a challenge, but then, nothing good comes out of something easy.

The other exciting development is that Summer of the Big Bachi has been optioned for an independent feature film. Independent means it will be crowdfunded, so we’ll see if funds can be raised. The team wants to set it in the 1960s, so it’ll be a younger Mas. It will be different from the novels, but I’m good with that because this will be an opportunity for Japanese Americans to develop a film that represents the experiences of their community and elders. The Kickstarter campaign for The Big Bachi will start sometime this summer, so stay tuned! Here’s the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/thebigbachi/

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Steph Cha is the noir editor for LARB. She is the author of Follow Her Home, Beware Beware, and Dead Soon Enough, all published by St. Martin’s Minotaur.



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