It would be a crime to underestimate the gardener

by Mark Schreiber

This past summer I was delighted to discover a new “ethnic detective” character named Masuo “Mas” Arai, an elderly Japanese-American gardener whose credentials include a green thumb and a nose for sniffing out criminals. The creation of Los Angeles-based journalist and author Naomi Hirahara, Arai made his literary debut in 2004 in “Summer of the BIG BACHI.” A year later he was assisting the New York Police Department in “Gasa-Gasa Girl.” This year he’s back cruising the L.A. freeways in his battered pickup truck in “Snakeskin Shamisen,” where a traditional Okinawan musical instrument left at the scene of the crime leads him to the killer.

Arai, on the surface, doesn’t have many endearing qualities. He is not adept at any martial arts. He wears poorly fitting dentures, is taciturn and speaks in the accented English of an immigrant (even though he’s American born). His favorite pastime is getting together with friends to play poker. And oh, yes: Arai is probably the first protagonist in a mystery fiction series to have survived an atomic bombing.

Here, author Hirahara discusses her series character and thoughts on writing.

Mas Arai is neither a cop nor a private eye. How would you describe his role in your stories?

Mas is a reluctant, reluctant sleuth. He’s pretty much like all of us — we want to mind our business and not get involved in other people’s problems. But then something happens to people he loves, and Mas is pulled into crime investigations.

Being a gardener, Mas is also underestimated, especially by people in power. In that sense, he is “invisible,” which gives him great leeway in looking into suspicious circumstances. He’s also a bit of a cultural detective. In the United States, many Japanese Americans don’t know the Japanese language or culture that well. As Mas is a Kibei (born in the U.S., but raised in Japan), he can apply his bicultural intuition in solving crimes.

Arai is a bit hardheaded, self-centered and doesn’t seem to be able to express himself very well in English or Japanese. Do you think it’s these eccentric qualities that make him appealing to your readers?

I’ve been surprised by different reactions to Mas. Some find him unlikable yet strangely compelling at the same time; others tell me he is totally endearing and they “miss” him when the book ends. Truth be told, I think everyone knows a “Mas” in their family or larger circle of friends.

It was important for me to make him Kibei, in between two worlds. That way I could use Japanese and Japanese American phrases without abandon. Mas’ world is extremely pungent, and I wanted the sounds and smells of his life to be apparent in descriptions and dialogue. Some readers love this clash; others find it difficult to plow through.

What attracted you to the mystery genre, as opposed to general fiction?

Actually, “Summer of the BIG BACHI” (2004) was first written as literary fiction. I knew that I had some strong characters, in particular Mas, but my early manuscripts lacked the engine to propel the story properly forward. I was tackling a big topic with my first book, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and was afraid to expand on a much smaller individual crime because I thought it may get dwarfed by the immensity of the larger theme.

I’ve always liked mysteries and it was actually a concrete clue — the drawing of a hibakusha’s (atomic bomb victim’s) body by a survivor — that provided me with the keys to the mystery. Once I had that clue I could start opening all sorts of doors to my story.

The mystery genre is wonderful — there are so many authors who use mysteries to touch upon social and historic issues. I’ve been very influenced and encouraged by African American mystery authors like Chester Himes, Walter Mosley and Barbara Neely. I just hope more Asian American writers will produce more work in this genre.

Was getting your first work published a difficult process?

Getting published was an extremely arduous process. It took me countless rewrites; the first chapter itself was probably rewritten more than 20 times. And the manuscript wasn’t even structured as a mystery at first, so it took time for me to transform the format. From the idea to published book took 15 years.

You yourself are the daughter of a hibakusha from Hiroshima. Your main character seems resigned about this, and keeps his emotions completely bottled up. Would you say this seeming ambivalence is typical among the hibakusha living in the U.S.?

Because Mas is technically an American citizen, his feelings about the atomic bombing are conflicted. If he hates the country that dropped the bomb, then in essence he hates himself, as well as his daughter and friends. I think that is the position of many hibakusha who live in America.

In one scene in “BIG BACHI,” Mas’ friend Haruo, a hibakusha who lost his eye in the blast, explains how he has stopped telling strangers how he was wounded because talk about the Hiroshima bombing is so taboo. I think many hibakusha in the U.S. feel that they need to repress their wartime experiences. This takes a toll on them psychologically. As Haruo observes, “Mas, you’re lucky. You have no mark on you.” Mas does have scars and wounds, but they have no voice.

Does Arai and his old pick-up truck have enough stamina to keep going much longer?

I’m currently working on a young-adult novel, “1001 Cranes,” which tells the story of a Yonsei (fourth generation) teenager who must live with her grandparents in Los Angeles one summer while her parents are having marital difficulties. I am also thinking of writing a mystery set in a World War II detention camp. Then it’ll be back to Mas. I have ideas for at least three more Mas mysteries. I’d like to end the series in Hiroshima.