Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.
Asian Heritage Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond, where Asian authors and bookish content creators are invited to celebrate being Asian, Asian books, and the experiences of being an Asian reader. (Note: Here is an explanation of why we are calling this guest series ‘Asian Heritage Month’.)
I have always been a reader of mysteries and thrillers. It was the first genre I fell in love with for its page-turning, edge of your seat, nail-biting qualities and rhythms. I was a regular ol’ Nancy Drew. However, over time I realized that the genre as a whole didn’t showcase people of color, let alone Asian-American women. It is not an exaggeration when I say that I have been searching my whole life for mysteries that reflect my experience.
Enter Naomi Hirahara! She is the author of many novels, including her latest, Iced in Paradise and the Mas Arai series which features a lovable and curmudgeonly Japanese protagonist. Her take on writing mysteries as a woman of color is poignant in that, in her interview, she says that she believes mysteries reveal so much about the societal structure of their settings and the specific ethnic communities’ relationships with this structure and the legal system. And to that I give a big AMEN.
Iced in Paradise by Naomi Hirahara
Leilani Santiago is back in her birthplace, the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i, to help keep afloat the family business, a shave ice shack. When she goes to work one morning, she stumbles across a dead body, a young pro surfer who was being coached by her estranged father. As her father soon becomes the No. 1 murder suspect, Leilani must find the real killer and somehow safeguard her ill mother, little sisters, and grandmother while also preserving a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend in Seattle.
When I found Iced in Paradise by Naomi Hirahara on my Libby app, it was being featured as a mystery novel set on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i, with protagonist Leila Santiago, who works at a shave ice store, serving as our lead “detective”. As I read, the book felt incredibly authentic, like I was there myself, and the characters relatable and distinctive. I am beyond happy I found Naomi’s books, because she has quite the repertoire that I have to get through!
Author Interview: Naomi Hirahara
Joce: Hi Naomi! Thank you for joining us at the Pond, and welcome! We are so excited to have you here to celebrate Asian Heritage Month. Can you please tell us about yourself?
Naomi: I’m primarily a mystery writer and social historian who has worked as a reporter and editor for the largest Japanese American bilingual newspaper in the U.S. I’m passionate about history but am also young at heart, so I seek ways to make the past more relevant for younger audiences and readers. I feel fiction can change people’s perspectives in ways that nonfiction sometimes cannot. So far, I’ve published 10 mysteries and one middle-grade book, 1001 CRANES. During the pandemic, I’ve been finishing up my historical mystery, CLARK AND DIVISION, which is set in 1944 Chicago. It will be published by Soho Crime in May 2021.
Joce: For starters, I found Iced in Paradise on a whim at my library, and I am so glad I did. I personally love mystery and thriller novels, but it is so difficult to find women of color who write in this genre. Can you tell me more about your experience as an Asian-American woman who writes mysteries?
Naomi: I am a big fan of African American detective fiction as well as British police procedural television shows–no one can weave a great television mystery like the Brits can! American mystery writers like Walter Mosley infuse their tales with social issues and a strong sense of place. The mystery genre is a perfect container for my characters’ stories. Many of my protagonists are ordinary people with little known lives; I use the high stakes of a crime to elevate the drama and reveal the larger context of their community history.
Joce: I find that when I read mystery novels featuring POC characters, their race and ethnicity add another layer to the investigation because of the nuanced ways and complicated relationship POC have with the legal system due to systemic challenges. Why do you think mysteries are a good fit for marginalized stories?
Naomi: Since I write mostly whodunits, the clue is paramount. For many of my mysteries, especially my Mas Arai series, the clue is rooted in Japanese American or Asian American life. As a result, established investigators with the LAPD or NYPD, unaware of our history or culture, disregard the clue. It makes a statement about how this ignorance impacts not only the maligned ethnic community, but society in general. In my Officer Ellie Rush bicycle cop mysteries, Ellie, a mixed race Japanese American, understands the systemic racism that has shaped law enforcement, but feels that she feels that she can change things. So there’s an additional tension that’s neither black nor white. This dynamic adds more dimension to a traditional police procedural.
Joce: A part of why I love novels that feature POC protagonists and multiple POC characters is that although their race informs their experience, it is not the entire makeup of their character. Being able to view the experience of multiple POC characters, in the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, avoids the “danger of a single story”. Can you speak more about this in terms of how it specifically pertains to the mystery genre?
Naomi: When you write about an entire ethnic community in the context of a crime story, you can see the complex and varied reactions to being a marginalized person. There’s the perpetrator of the crime, the victim, those who seek justice and those with flawed motivations who want to hide it.
One reason I love writing mysteries is that you can eliminate the model minority myth–the perception that people of Asian descent are elevated human beings–from the get-go. Everyone has secrets that they are hiding. You can’t have a mystery without that. So even the most die-hard believer of the model minority myth has to place their placard down when diving into a mystery story. Every character is suspect.
Joce: Switching gears a little, your other mystery series features a detective protagonist, Mas Arai, who is in his 70s. Can you tell me a little more abowut him? What is it like writing a main character who is similar to you in some characteristics but different in others (age and gender)?
Naomi: My aging gardener and Hiroshima survivor, Mas Arai, is inspired by my own father. So in that respect, even though Mas is older and a man, I know him very well. And also, as a journalist, I’d say most of the people I interviewed were men. It wasn’t a stretch to create Mas Arai.
Joce: Mas Arai is similar to Ove in Frederik Backman’s A Man Called Ove in that he is curmudgeonly but lovable. Can you tell me more about writing lovable (and sometimes grumpy!) characters that readers can root for?
Naomi: My alter ego is a cranky old man. It’s so liberating to be older and ill tempered. You’re not interpreted through someone else’s gaze. I actually have more of a natural sunny disposition (you know the kind that says good morning at dawn and really means it), but I hate putting on an artificial mask. I like to keep it real as much as possible. I think most of us would love that freedom.
Joce: I think our visitors at the Pond would absolutely love some recommendations that you have for mystery novels by and about Asians and Asian-Americans. Please give us your best ones! Don’t hold back!
Naomi: Steph Cha: You will love her Los Angeles-based series character, Juniper Song. Her standalone, YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY, is a deep investigation of Korean-black relations in our city. It’s so penetrating that it’s sometimes painful but necessary.
Sujata Massey: Sujata is the Asian American queen of the mystery, from her mixed-race Japanese antique dealer, Rei Shimura, to her ground-breaking solicitor in Bombay in the 1920s, Perveen Mistry.
Gigi Pandian excels in locked-room mysteries, as you can see in her collection of short stories, “The Cambodian Curse and Other Stories.”
Jennifer Chow: If cozy mysteries and talking cats are your thing, check out Jennifer’s latest, MIMI LEE GETS A CLUE. I have a soft spot for Jennifer’s Silicon Valley gamer Winston Wong.
Tori Eldridge: In the mood for a kick-ass female protagonist? Then mixed-race Lily Wong is your person. Tori’s debut is THE NINJA DAUGHTER.
Ed Lin: Ed will make you laugh as you count up the dead bodies. He has his most scrumptious Night Market mystery series based in Taiwan as well as his Robert Chow detective series set in New York Chinatown in the 1970s.
Henry Chang: New York Chinatown also is the focus of Henry’s Detective Jack Yu series. A short adapted film is currently in the works.
Ovidia Yu: Who can resist Aunty Lee, a proprietor of a Singaporean restaurant who solves crimes? Ovidia also pens a second series, a historial in 1936 Singapore.
Vivien Chen: Are puns your thing? Then you should check out Vivien’s Noodle Shop mysteries, which takes place in a Chinese restaurant in Ohio.
Joe Ide: Joe is a Japanese American who was raised in South L.A. His protagonist, IQ, is a young Black man and the dialogue is whip perfect.
Scott Kikkawa: A historical set in Hawai’i in the 1950s before the territory officially became an American state.
Notable mysteries: I don’t think the following Asian American authors would identify themselves as mystery writers, but their novels have been awarded or nominated for Edgar awards: Pulitizer-winning THE SYMPATHIZER (Viet Nguyen); THE FOREIGNER (Francie Lee); COUNTRY OF ORIGIN (Don Lee); and SOUTHLAND (Nina Revoyr).
Non-Asian mystery writers who write Asian protagonists: S.J. Rozan’s private detective Lydia Chin is a wonderful character. Her mother, who also lives in New York City, plays a big role in Lydia’s life and occasionally stars in her own short story.
FINAL LIGHTNING ROUND! These are meant to be super short answers, so please don’t put a lot of energy into them! They are mostly for fun 🙂
Favorite running shoes? Saucony’s ISO Peregrine Trail-Running Shoe
Favorite book as a child? All-of-a-Kind Family
Favorite traditional Hawaiian food dish/item? Chicken long rice
Favorite activity to do with family? Walk
Favorite restaurant in Southern California? Sakae Sushi in Gardena–they only offer take-out and most of it is vegetarian
Favorite mystery/thriller crime book from the past couple years? Tana French’s FAITHFUL PLACE. Tana is one of my favorite mystery writers and I’ve been trying to catch up with everything she’s written. (I’m still behind.)
About the Author
Naomi Hirahara is the Edgar Award-winning author of two mystery series set in Southern California. Her Mas Arai series, which features a Hiroshima survivor and Altadena gardener, ended with the publication of Hiroshima Boy in 2018. The books have been translated into Japanese, Korean and French. The first in her Officer Ellie Rush bicycle cop mystery series received the T. Jefferson Parker Mystery Award. Her new mystery set in Hawai’i, Iced in Paradise, was released in September 2019. She is currently working on Clark and Division, a historical mystery set in 1944 Chicago which will be published by Soho Crime in 2021. A former editor of The Rafu Shimpo newspaper, she has also published noir short stories, middle-grade fiction (1001 Cranes) and nonfiction history books. She born in Pasadena and currently lives there today. For more information, go to http://www.naomihirahara.com.
Find Naomi on: Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter
Has your TBR not exploded?! Because mine definitely has. Thank you Naomi for visiting the Pond, and for making me feel entirely at home with your books featuring characters that reflect my experience. This is something I have been personally looking for, for my entire life. So, thank you, thank you, thank you!