Into our contemporary reality lands the historical mystery Clark and Division, a novel Naomi Hirahara was destined to write. Hirahara debuted as a mystery novelist with Summer of the Big Bachi in 2004. Long before then, she was a skilled journalist and nonfiction writer, including a seminal and formative time as an editor at Rafu Shimpo — the largest Japanese American newspaper. Bachi was the first of seven in her Mas Arai series. She is also the author of multiple nonfiction books, including Life After Manzanar, a collection of oral histories of former internees and their postwar-era experiences.
We meet Aki Ito, the young narrator, and her family in the nearly Edenesque setting of their hometown Tropico, an agricultural part of Los Angeles County. Aki’s older sister, Rose, is ambitious, determined, and so convinced she is just as good as any white person that when Aki is told she cannot go swimming in the pool at a white classmate’s birthday party, Rose marches back to the party and confronts the mother. And then comes Pearl Harbor.
In March 1942, the Itos and others of Japanese ancestry are ordered to present themselves to the US government. The day before their departure, Aki tells us:
I walked along the concrete riverbank in search of a last song from the toads. I laid some wildflowers at Rusty’s grave, my mother’s former shiso patch. Like Mom, I was pretty sure that we wouldn’t be back again and in the remote chance we were, we wouldn’t be the same.
Manzanar, the concentration camp in the Owens Valley for incarcerating Japanese Americans, is the touchpoint of the novel. Government incarceration was the dividing point of the lives of at least 110,000 people nationally, the majority of whom were US citizens. In a few pages, Hirahara depicts the disintegration of the Itos’ previous lives, and the growing distance between Rose and Aki. Rose becomes very involved in the Japanese American Citizen League, and it is her involvement and display of patriotism that offers her an early release to Chicago. Loyal Nisei (US citizens born to Japanese parents) weren’t allowed to return to Western military zones like California.
Rose’s early release acts as a lifeline for the rest of the Ito family, and after some struggle and delay, they all arrive in Chicago. They are greeted not by Rose but by the news that Rose has killed herself. Here begins Aki Ito’s search to find out what really happened, while navigating an unfamiliar world and her tenuous position within it.
The news of Rose’s death is followed by a second jolt: she had had an abortion. Illegal abortion is a fascinating subtext of this novel, again, like the best of historic fiction, reminding us of the connections to the present. Impressive also is Aki’s unsentimental, straightforward approach, which, perhaps, is derived from her Buddhist heritage. With this knowledge, Aki is plagued by multiple questions: Who was the father? Does Rose’s diary bear clues? Does Rose’s former roommate know what had happened? And how was she going to tell her family?
Here also begins Aki’s journey through grief and into full adulthood while navigating the conflicting advice of her parents and their attempts at reentry into the workforce. This is a many-layered mystery novel, as Aki not only delves into what prompted Rose’s death (was it suicide? how could it be?) but also discovers the world young Nisei have created for themselves in Chicago, and all its accompanying tensions.
Hirahara creates a vibrant cast and setting, allowing the reader insight into this time period. Aki’s mother, even in her new world of Chicago, is intent on not making waves, not standing out, as impossible a task that may be for a Japanese woman in a predominantly white world. Aki’s father has crumbled along with his business: he drinks too much and finds work only with a local crime boss. Aki cultivates a professional relationship with the investigating officer to find out what really happened.
Her family’s culture is one of the obstacles in her pursuit. Going to Rose’s neighborhood beauty salon in the Mark Twain Hotel, Aki wants to ask so much about her sister. Her mother has other ideas: “In the hallway she murmured to me in Japanese, ‘Our family business is our business. No one else needs to know.’ Tomorrow, though, we were having a funeral, and everyone would know that Rose Ito had died.” At Rose’s funeral are faces from Manzanar and Tropico, including Roy, an aspirant to Rose’s affections. Aki suspects he is not telling her everything.
Hirahara gives us a rich and vibrant portrayal of Nisei life in multicultural Chicago: the nightclubs, the hoodlums, the young people looking for connection, looking for their place in a world that up until previously had not merely excluded them but incarcerated them. The celebrations, the sorrows, the search for love and justice. The place of women. Rose was forthright, brave, and determined, and she is dead. Aki is forthright, and determined to find the truth of her sister.
For Aki, the mores are different in Chicago: “In camp, there were certain boys you knew you needed to steer clear of. With the Issei elders all around, there were lines that they couldn’t cross. But that wasn’t the case in Chicago. I got the feeling that young people ruled here.” This cultural shift supports her ability to push back against her mother’s edicts.
The title comes from Rose’s neighborhood, populated by young men and women similar to her — a neighborhood not presented in the media of that time, a history walled off, erased, which makes Hirahara’s depiction additionally powerful, compelling, and important. As Manzanar is the touchstone, Clark and Division is the landmark. Rose’s three-story walk-up was down the street from the Mark Twain Hotel, found at Clark and Division. The subway platform at Clark and Division was where Rose died.
Aki is the truth teller, and the truth seeker, even when it means uncovering disturbing details about her family members and friends: aware of the slights and injustices around her, yet persevering against them, as a truth seeker for her sister, and for her own life. Aki’s search leads her to confront a reluctant roommate, discover a romantic connection, and jolt the reader with the truth of Rose’s pregnancy and death.
Hirahara takes full advantage of examining the postwar lives of Nisei reentering the mainstream United States. Some work menial jobs, some want to enlist, some enter the underworld; all struggle to find their footing in this, their country of origin. There is an added poignancy reading this novel alongside the news of current anti-Asian hate crimes. The complicated legacy of this country is just beneath the veneer. Yet this is far from a didactic polemic. Mystery novelists, particularly those of color, weave the threads of social injustice into their writing by the very nature of their life experience.
Often mysteries pull the reader along with the addictive whodunit question, and our need to know the answer. Clark and Division definitely engages the reader on that level. But even more importantly, it is Aki, the young protagonist, with her shifting family dynamics, the challenging world of Chicago, and her ability and attempt to navigate this new world with its upheaval of emotions, who keeps us compulsively reading, wanting to know her life, her fate.
As I finished reading this book, this quote from Manzanar’s historic plaque rang through my head: “May the injustices and humiliation suffered here as a result of hysteria, racism and economic exploitation never emerge again.”
Would that it were true.
Désirée Zamorano is a California-based short story writer, novelist, and playwright. She is the author of the novels Modern Cons, Human Cargo, and, most recently, The Amado Women.