Hirahara, Naomi 1962-

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HIRAHARA, Naomi 1962-

PERSONAL:

Born 1962, in Pasadena, CA: daughter of Isamu (a gardener) and Mayumi; married; husband's name Wes. Education: Stanford University, B.A.; also studied at the Inter-University Center for Advanced Japanese Language Studies, Tokyo, Japan.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Pasadena, CA. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER:

Rafu Shimpo, reporter and editor, until 1996; Newman University, Wichita, KS, Milton Center Fellow in creative writing, 1996-97. Member of advisory boards, Asian Pacific American Book Festival, Los Angeles, CA, 2007, and Orange County Agricultural and Nikkei Heritage Museum, Fullerton Arboretum.

AWARDS, HONORS:

"Ten Best Mysteries and Thrillers of 2004" citation, Chicago Tribune and "Best Books of 2004" pick, Publishers Weekly, both for Summer of the Big Bachi.

WRITINGS:

(Editor) Green Makers: Japanese American Gardeners in Southern California, Southern California Gardeners' Federation, 2000.

An American Son: The Story of George Aratani, Founder of Mikasa and Kenwood (biography), introduction by Daniel I. Okimoto, Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles, CA), 2001.

Distinguished Asian American Business Leaders (biography), Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 2003.

(With Manabi Hirasaki) A Taste for Strawberries: The Independent Journey of Nisei Farmer Manabi Hirasaki (biography), Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles, CA), 2003.

(With Gwenn M. Jensen) Silent Scars of Healing Hands: Oral Histories of Japanese American Doctors in World War II Detention Camps, Center for Oral and Public History, California State University (Fullerton, CA), 2004.

A Scent of Flowers: The History of the Southern California Flower Market, 1912-2004, Midori Press (Pasadena, CA), 2004.

Summer of the Big Bachi (mystery novel), Bantam Dell (New York, NY), 2004.

Gasa-Gasa Girl (mystery novel), Delta Trade Paperbacks (New York, NY), 2005.

Snakeskin Shamisen (mystery novel), Delta Trade Paperbacks (New York, NY), 2006.

SIDELIGHTS:

Naomi Hirahara writes about the lives of the Nisei and Kibei (Americans of Japanese descent), many of whom lived through the catastrophe of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or were detained in interment camps in the United States during World War II. Stories of the Nisei (Japanese Americans born in the United States) and Kibei (Japanese Americans born in the United States who later removed to Japan) incorporate members of Hirahara's own family: her "father, Isamu … [was] born in California, but was taken to Hiroshima, Japan, as an infant," explained an article on the author's Web site. "He was only miles away from the epicenter of the atomic-bombing in 1945, yet survived. Naomi's mother, Mayumi, or 'May,' was born in Hiroshima and lost her father in the blast."

In her works—both fiction and nonfiction—Hirahara works to reveal the relatively unknown world of the Nisei and Kibei to the average reader. She sees her role as a kind of bridge between the closed society of Japanese Americans and other societies in the modern United States. "We're kind of invisible as J[apanese] A[merican]s … we're not represented and it makes me sad," she told Caroline Aoyagi in a Pacific Citizen interview published on the Web site IMDiversity.com. "But to intentionally avoid JA characters because you're JA, you have to take a second look." "As a daughter of an immigrant," Hirahara continued in another interview with Bookreporter.com writer Joe Hartlaub, "I learned to negotiate two cultural worlds at a young age. You serve as an interpreter of the outside world for your parents. In my books, I do the reverse: I interpret a closed world for the outside world."

In her nonfiction Hirahara recaptures the rich cultural and economic life of Japanese Americans and explains their historical significance in the United States. Green Makers: Japanese American Gardeners in Southern California and A Scent of Flowers: Southern California Flower Market, 1912-2004 tell about the roles played by the Nisei in creating and maintaining an important part of the modern Californian economy. An American Son: The Story of George Aratani, Founder of Mikasa and Kenwood and Distinguished Asian American Business Leaders delineate the leading roles taken by Nisei and other persons of Asian descent in important American businesses. "Business leader," according to a Booklist reviewer in an article about the last title, "is defined broadly to include those who showed determination and perseverance while overcoming prejudices, learning the English language, and succeeding in the world of commerce."

Hirahara has more recently become known to a broader audience through her mystery fiction: novels featuring a septuagenarian Nisei gardener named Masao Arai. As in her nonfiction, Hirahara uses elements drawn from both her personal history and her research. "Mas is inspired by my father," she told Hartlaub, "who also happens to be a gardener and an atomic-bomb survivor." Arai has become popular among readers and critics alike, and the author has featured him as an unlikely sleuth in a series of stories that, as with her nonfiction, help reveal the inner workings of Japanese-American society to readers. "We all have different stories to tell," she explained to Aoyagi. "Part of my intention is to introduce readers to JA characters. If people are interested, they will pick it up."

First introduced in the acclaimed Summer of the Big Bashi, Mas Arai is jolted by the murder of Joji Haneda, a gardener colleague and fellow survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bomb blast. A very private man—a widower estranged from his daughter—Arai is drawn out of his shell-like existence by crimes that threaten his Southern Californian Nisei community. "Mas must revisit his past and open old, still festering wounds," explained a Publishers Weekly critic, "in order to solve the crime." "Hirahara's prismatic writing," declared a Kirkus Reviews contributor, "nails a Japanese-American subculture and a troubled past few of her readers have ever confronted directly."

Mas Arai returns and seeks reconciliation with his daughter, Mari, in the second volume of Hirahara's series. He travels to New York to assist Mari and her husband, whose boss has just been murdered in a way that implicates Mas's son-in-law. A "sequel to the delightful Summer of the Big Bachi, Gasa-Gasa Girl is a terrific who-done-it," declared a reviewer for MBR Bookwatch, "starring a wonderful protagonist who brings to life the first generation Japanese-American subculture." "The endearing, quietly dignified Mas … as well as the distinctive Japanese-flavored prose," related a Publishers Weekly contributor, "make this a memorable read."

The third volume of the series, Snakeskin Shamisen, draws Mas into a murder committed at a Los Angeles Hawaiian-themed restaurant. As in his previous adventures, the Japanese-American gardener is forced to emerge from his closed community to confront larger issues. "I was reminded throughout Snakeskin Shamisen of Raymond Chandler's Marlowe talking about the alien drumbeat of another race," Hartlaub observed in his Bookreporter.com review. "The reader feels it, as does Arai, not only with respect to Western culture but also to Eastern culture as filtered through a Western prism." Although he is reluctant to become involved in still another investigation, Mas, a Publishers Weekly reviewer explained, has a "strong sense of right and wrong [that] propels him toward a just resolution." "Mas Arai also shines here as an eminently likable character forced into the investigator role," Cindy Chow concluded in January Magazine, "and, despite his reservations, admirably living up to the task."

Hirahara told CA: "Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman made a profound impact on me when I read it in high school. I learned that an ordinary person could be at the center of a very dramatic and poignant story; I wanted to emulate that in my writing. During that important time of my creative development, I was also a big fan of Doris Lessing. Her ability to feature an intimate personal story within an international context resonated with me. And in terms of mysteries, I've felt that African-American writers—specifically, Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, and Barbara Neeley—have walked beside me, pointing the way of how a writer can reveal layers of an ethnic community while also entertaining readers."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, November 15, 2003, review of Distinguished Asian American Business Leaders, p. 619; March 1, 2005, Jenny McLarin, review of Gasa-Gasa Girl, p. 1147.

Entertainment Weekly, April 28, 2006, review of Snakeskin Shamisen, p. 140.

Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2004, review of Summer of the Big Bachi, p. 63; February 1, 2005, review of Gasa-Gasa Girl, p. 152; March 1, 2006, review of Snakeskin Shamisen, p. 211.

Library Journal, April 1, 2006, Jo Ann Vicarel, review of Snakeskin Shamisen, p. 68.

MBR Bookwatch, April, 2005, review of Gasa-Gasa Girl.

Publishers Weekly, March 29, 2004, review of Summer of the Big Bachi, p. 42; February 28, 2005, review of Gasa-Gasa Girl, p. 45; March 13, 2006, review of Snakeskin Shamisen, p. 45.

ONLINE

AllReaders.com, http://www.allreaders.com/ (November 9, 2006), Harriet Klausner, review of Summer of the Big Bachi.

Bookreporter.com, http://www.bookreporter.com/ (November 9, 2006), Joe Hartlaub, review of Snakeskin Shamisen.

Heritage Source,http://www.heritagesource.com/ (November 9, 2006), Joe Hartlaub, interview with Naomi Hirahara.

IMDiversity.com, http://www.imdiversity.com/ (November 9, 2006), Caroline Aoyagi, "Mystery Author Naomi Hirahara Looks to Her Community for Inspiration: Summer of the Big Bachi Author Discusses Her Japanese American Mystery Series."

January Magazine,http://www.januarymagazine.com/ (November 9, 2006), Cindy Chow, "City of Angles," review of Snakeskin Shamisen.

Mystery Reader,http://www.themysteryreader.com/ (November 9, 2006), Jane Davis, review of Gasa-Gasa Girl.

Naomi Hirahara Home Page,http://www.naomihirahara.com (November 9, 2006).