LJ Talks to Naomi Hirahara

After six mysteries starring elderly Japanese American gardener and World War II atomic bombing survivor Mas Arai, Naomi Hirahara brings her Edgar Award–winning series to a close in her March release, Hiroshima Boy.

Photo by Mario Gershom Reyes

After six mysteries starring elderly Japanese American gardener and World War II atomic bombing survivor Mas Arai, Naomi Hirahara brings her Edgar Award–winning series to a close in Hiroshima Boy (LJ 2/1/18). Now, as the author prepares to be a Guest of Honor at the Left Coast Crime conference (March 22–25) in Reno, NV, she shares the inspiration for the books and why she decided to conclude the series.

I was surprised to discover that your parents were survivors of the 1945 bombing at Hiroshima. How did that affect your development as a writer? Was your father the model for Mas Arai?
The discussion of atomic bombings can be very polarizing for people, especially Americans, but for me, it originates from a very personal place. My father, like Mas, was a gardener and a Hiroshima survivor who was born in California. My mother was also a survivor, in that she was taken to ground zero within a few days as an eight-year-old to search for her father, whose remains were never found. At that time, the people of Hiroshima had no idea that there was a danger of radiation exposure.

Without the atomic bombing, my parents would probably have never married and I would have never been born. I felt that the Hiroshima story could best be told to U.S. readers through the lens of an American survivor such as Mas Arai.

Why did you set this seventh and last book in the series in Hiroshima?
I knew early on that the final Mas Arai [book] had to end in Hiroshima. The first one has flashbacks to 1945, and for Mas truly to be free, he had to return [to the city]. After [writing] the third mystery, I decided to map loosely the trajectory of the series, and seven seemed to be the magic number.

Before researching and writing this book, had you already been to Hiroshima? Do you still have family there?
My family roots are very strong in Hiroshima—in both the city and the neighboring towns. I’ve spent time there as a child, and then when I lived in Japan after graduating college, and then I’ve taken two more recent trips. I received a grant specifically for book research to Hiroshima and Ninoshima, which inspired Ino, the fictional island in the mystery. I actually stayed in a retirement home that my family manages. Ino reminded me of those English seaside villages—tight-knit communities with complicated histories.

The mystery revolves around the stigma that some hibakusha, or survivors, continue to face in Japan. Why do you think this prejudice still lingers after some 70 years? And in some ways, does Mas Arai feel damaged, too?
My maternal grandmother once told me that she was worried if I would be healthy because of my parents’ exposure to radiation. Although medical research had proven that subsequent generations, at least from this nuclear incident, are not in danger, the fear remains in some circles. Mas is more damaged psychically than physically.

I was especially touched by Mas’s reunion with his niece, and his realization that the family from whom he’d felt estranged for so long still cared about him. Is this something you discovered about your own relatives in Japan?
Actually, my husband’s experience with his relatives in Okinawa inspired that interaction. They showed him an album of photos of himself and his brothers that he had never seen before. It turned out his father had been sending these photos to Okinawa from Los Angeles. It was very touching and made me think how we view our existence can be so different an ocean way.

During a visit to Hiroshima last November, I was so impressed by what a dynamic and lovely city it is. Do you find hope in the area’s resurrection in the wake of the most horrifying destruction?
I definitely hope that more people will fall in love with Hiroshima. It’s a great size, with a good mix of culture, arts, food, history, industry, nature, and sports including the Hiroshima Carp baseball team and its Mazda Zoom-Zoom stadium, which is right next to a very popular Costco.

What’s next for you on the mystery front? Are you continuing with the “Ellie Rush” series or starting something new?
I’m currently working on a historical mystery set in Chicago in the 1940s. Its working title is Clark and Division, and it’s inspired by real stories of the temporary resettlement of Japanese Americans in Chicago during World War II from wartime detention camps. This was a time of new and chaotic beginnings, which in some cases led to criminal activity.—Wilda Williams, Library Journal

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