By Mike Sonksen
From: Los Angeles Review of Books
Editor’s note: Naomi Hirahara has been a pillar of the mystery community since she published her first Mas Arai novel in 2004. To commemorate her final Mas novel, I asked Mike Sonksen, a.k.a. Mike the Poet, bard and historian of contemporary Los Angeles, to go on a walk with Naomi and write a profile that would do her justice. It was a huge task, but I believe he succeeded.
NAOMI HIRAHARA IS one of the most prolific Los Angeles writers of the last few decades. Best known for her Edgar Award–winning seven-book Mas Arai crime novel series, she has also authored several nonfiction titles on Southern California Japanese-American history. Her newest Mas Arai mystery title and the final one of the series, Hiroshima Boy, was just published by Prospect Park Books in March 2018, and in April her latest nonfiction title, Life After Manzanar, was published by Heyday.
On a cold March day just after the rain, Hirahara took me on a walking and driving tour of Little Tokyo and Boyle Heights spotlighting seven sites featured in her Mas Arai books. What’s more is that she read specific passages from her work pertaining directly to every site we visited. This essay looks back at the entire Mas Arai series and highlights how her many nonfiction projects inform her fiction.
Hirahara is in many ways a one-woman Japanese-American history project. Her nonfiction books have tackled seminal Japanese-American history topics like Terminal Island, the flower industry, Japanese-American gardeners, the Japanese-American concentration camps, and survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “I need to do both fiction and nonfiction,” Hirahara says. “They feed each other.”
In many ways, Hirahara’s process is like that of Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club and several other novels. In his book of essays, Stranger Than Fiction, he describes the nonfiction he writes between novels. “In my own cycle,” he writes, “it goes: Fact. Fiction. Fact. Fiction.” Hirahara’s bibliography shows a similar trajectory, alternating publications of fiction and nonfiction. Her historical projects have given her hundreds of pages of material for her fiction. She pulls the nonfiction narrative out and reconstructs it into fiction because “it is not my story to tell with real names.” Furthermore, she says, “in fiction you have more freedom to tell secrets.” Her combined fiction and nonfiction illuminate the Japanese-American experience not only in Southern California but in the United States at large.
The Pasadena-born Japanese-American poet Amy Uyematsu has known Hirahara for over two decades. Uyematsu says:
Naomi Hirahara is one of our most gifted and passionate Japanese American writers — whether she’s telling the stories of Issei and Nisei on Terminal Island or documenting the histories of the Japanese-American gardeners, farmers, and nurserymen of Southern California. In her Mas Arai mystery series, I love how skillfully she weaves Japanese-American culture and community into her plots; by the end of the novel, the reader finds out “who-done-it” along with an insider’s view of everything from baseball to strawberry farmers, spam musubi, a snakeskin shamisen, and more. Read Rest of Article Here