Naomi Hirahara: A Japanese American’s universal story

Naomi Hirahara

Naomi Hirahara

Mystery writer Naomi Hirahara has always loved stories. “I went to the library and whenever there was a summer reading club I’d just go nuts and bring home a stack of books that was probably larger than I was. I was curious about other people, other families, other worlds, and books enabled me to travel to different places without moving.” She began to write novels during summer vacation as an elementary school student in Altadena, Calif., a city in Los Angeles County of about 40,500 people at the time. As an only child for eight and a half years, she initially wrote stories about the large Western pioneering families she read about in books. At her fourth grade teacher’s encouragement, Hirahara began to write funny, silly stories about people from Japan coming to America. “That was the first time I attempted to write something about my own background. At the time, there weren’t all these Asian American books for young people. I didn’t have models of what that looked like for me,” said Hirahara, whose writing has become the model she lacked as a child. Her journey as a writer focused on Japanese American characters has been shaped by her ethnic roots and self-discovery process.

Hirahara grew up in Altadena in a primarily African American neighborhood, then later South Pasadena in a white neighborhood. She lived in a bilingual household and interpreted the multicultural outside world for her parents. Her father was born in Watsonville, Calif., grew up in Hiroshima, Japan, and survived the atomic bombing in 1945; her mother was born and raised in Hiroshima and lost her father – Hirahara’s grandfather – to the bombing. They moved to Pasadena in 1960 after they got married. In the following years, Pasadena Unified School District introduced busing to integrate the schools. Her family experienced the ramifications of desegregation when white residents began to move out of the school district.

Hirahara observed the way things worked in the world outside her non-English speaking home. Her parents were very involved with the immigrant community, including groups such as churches and basketball teams. As an established gardener, her father would bring his family to gardener picnics. “Everything has its own set of rules. It gets complicated when you grew up with certain values like, ‘don’t brag,’ and in the public school context or mainstream society, if you don’t speak up for yourself no one else is going to. There’s a bit of a clash there and it’s up to each person to figure out how to negotiate that. As I grew older, I figured out what’s a good combination for me.”

Hirahara at around six years old during her family's regular summer camping trips along the California coast. Her mother Mayumi is on the left and father Isamu is on the right. Her younger brother, Jimmy, was born when she was eight and a half years old.

Hirahara at around six years old during her family’s regular summer camping trips along the California coast. Her mother Mayumi is on the left and father Isamu is on the right. Her younger brother, Jimmy, was born when she was eight and a half years old.

As an undergraduate student at Stanford University, she majored in international relations and initially chose Africa as her emphasis. “I was always interested in other cultures. I was always empathetic. I did have this streak. I wanted to change the world – very idealistic.” She spent a summer volunteering with YMCA in Ghana, West Africa, where she worked with children and helped build a septic tank. In her attempt to live like the Ghanaians, she became ill and had to step out of school for a quarter to recuperate. While in Ghana, locals would ask her why she was there. Someone said, “The best thing you can do is change your country.”

When she returned to Stanford, she considered becoming an international attorney to blend her interest in language and culture. Before she graduated in 1983, she made a commitment to study Japan academically and applied for the Inter-University Center for Advanced Japanese Language Studies program in Tokyo. She had previously learned the language and had visited the country. “Being away from the U.S. enabled me to be more present with who I was because when you’re in a foreign country, everything is new. Everything is exciting. Who am I really without other people telling me who I should be? I was thinking I’ll be a lawyer and then I’ll retire and write books. Why do I want to be a lawyer? I don’t really like conflict. I don’t think I’ll be good at it. I talked to people who said I’d be working with contracts and documents. That doesn’t sound very interesting.”

1984: Hirahara visiting Kamakura, near Tokyo

1984: Hirahara visiting Kamakura, near Tokyo

Since she had chosen literature as her emphasis of study during the language program, she read works by native short story writers and novelists. “We had to do a final project for the program and I wrote a short story in Japanese and when I did that, I said, ‘I love doing this. I would love to learn to become a better writer.’” While at Stanford, she acted in an Asian American theater project and did creative writing on the side. “Those things also fueled my interest in creative writing and the arts. Once I got away from the U.S. and my family, it made me think, ‘This is what I want to pursue. I want to pursue writing.’ I knew it would be difficult. I wasn’t sure how I would go about it.”

When she returned home, she jumped into writing as an editorial assistant for a small ethnic magazine in Los Angeles for a few months until her paychecks started to bounce. In December 1984, the Rafu Shimpo – the Japanese American newspaper she had grown up with – contacted her to ask if she was interested to work for the English section of the paper. She had previously submitted her short story to the newspaper for publication. “It wasn’t something I was really excited to do because in a way I didn’t totally value this ethnic paper. I wanted to write for the LA Times, some kind of mainstream publication. But as it turned out, it was one of the best things that I ever did and I was able to learn so much.”

Hirahara produced multiple stories six days a week covering various sections and learned about LA as she drove all over Southern California. “It was hard work. They weren’t paying people a whole lot. I did a translation job once a week for a Japanese business periodical that had an English page. After three and a half years, I really wanted to do creative writing and I had no time at the paper, so I worked for a boutique public relations agency dealing more with technical writing. But I had more time to pursue creative writing. I took classes at UCLA extension and I did that for three years.”

In August 1990, the Rafu Shimpo contacted her again to ask if she’d be interested to be the English section editor. “I felt because I had already started writing creatively, I could continue it while I was editor and I did somehow. I worked as an editor for six years before I decided to commit myself to creative writing. I got accepted in a creative writing fellowship in Wichita, Kan. in 1996. I decided to leave the paper at that time and make a change. It seems every six years, I was making a pretty big change in my life.”

Hirahara says those who attempt to make a living as a writer, especially a fiction writer, will have struggles. “It’s kind of good to have struggled with it from the very beginning and understand what motivates me. Is it fame? Money? Or is it a need to tell a story? I think that focus really helps. Sometimes, if people are successful off the bat, they’re always looking for success. If you get too distracted from the main thing you’re supposed to be doing, it could ironically harm your career as a writer. I had a determination to keep at this until it starts to work. I kept hammering and hammering and trying to improve my skills, to learn more.”

1994, Los Angeles: Hirahara as English section editor of the Rafu Shimpo with Japanese section editor Yukikazu Nagashima

1994, Los Angeles: Hirahara as English section editor of the Rafu Shimpo with Japanese section editor Yukikazu Nagashima

During the writing fellowship, Hirahara worked on the manuscript for her first novel that took a total of 15 years from conception to publication. Despite extensive work, the manuscript did not meet publishers’ expectations. She initially intended her first novel to be a work of literary fiction. “It wasn’t working. The character was too passive. I’m trained as a journalist. I’m more of a straightforward writer. Even more than the plot, you’re looking for the story. What are the characters doing?”

She was a part of an informal group of writers that met once a week to share their work. As her manuscript evolved, it became a mystery novel. “My personal writing experiences went hand in hand with plot based mystery.” When she finally sold her first novel Summer of the Big Bachi in February 2003, she began to network more with mystery writers. “As a writer, you really need a community to endorse your work.”

Although selling and promoting her work is challenging at times, as well as having to write 1,500 words a day, six days a week while working on a rough draft, she cannot imagine doing anything else. “When there are periods of time I’ve been away from my writing, I miss it so much. This is a really important part of who I am. I wouldn’t feel like myself without it.”

2007, New York City: Hirahara received an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original for her third mystery novel Snakeskin Shamisen. Third from left behind her: Shannon Jamieson Vazquez, who edited the novel and is her editor at Penguin Berkley Prime Crime for her latest Officer Ellie Rush mystery series

2007, New York City: Hirahara received an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original for her third mystery novel Snakeskin Shamisen. Third from left behind her: Shannon Jamieson Vazquez, who edited the novel and is her editor at Penguin Berkley Prime Crime for her latest Officer Ellie Rush mystery series

She says her father, who passed away in January 2012, was her biggest inspiration and inspired the three-dimensional Japanese American characters in her Mas Arai mystery series. “He was encouraging and he believed in me. I would say that my fourth grade teacher was the same way. Someone said to me, in terms of people in your life it’s not necessarily what they’ve taught you that you remember. It’s more like how they made you feel. When things are rough, I just recall how they pushed me and believed in me. In the same way, I have the gift of encouragement too. That’s part of who I am and I want to impart that on other people as well.”

To Hirahara, success means to put something new on the table and to be able to keep doing it. “I don’t need to prove I can write a bestselling book. That’s not why I want to write. The wonderful thing about writing books is, if you can construct a good enough story you can make a person of color the main protagonist. It’s more possible than other art forms. I do like writing about Asian American characters. I think they’re really fascinating and you don’t get to see them that often. Anybody’s story can be universal, so why can’t an Asian American story be universal?”

Connect with Naomi Hirahara via Facebook and Twitter.

Hirahara’s first mystery, Summer of the Big Bachi, was a finalist for Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize and was nominated for a Macavity mystery award. Snakeskin Shamisen, the third mystery in the Mas Arai series, won an Edgar Allan Poe award in the category of Best Paperback Original. She has also published short stories in various anthologies, a number of nonfiction books, and 1001 Cranes, a middle-grade book recognized with an Honorable Mention award in Youth Literature by the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association. Murder on Bamboo Lane, the first book in her new mystery series about 23-year-old LAPD bicycle cop Ellie Rush, was released in April. Her mysteries are available wherever books are sold and may also be purchased online here.

{Photos courtesy of Naomi Hirahara}

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