"It became apparent to me that... a mystery novel would be the perfect vehicle to explore the hidden truths of the struggling Japanese American community."
Naomi Hirahara’s powerful new book, Clark and Division, follows the Ito family in 1944. Living in California at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the family is placed in a United States internment camp, and when they are released, are relocated to the very foreign (to them) city of Chicago. This is a family story as well as the story of how Japanese Americans were treated during the war.
Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: The story of the Ito family is by itself so strong that what's happening to them is almost made harsher by the dignified strength they bring to the situation. You really pull the reader into what's happening to the characters, which makes the story all the more memorable and immersive. Can you talk a bit about the Ito family, and how typical their life in the Losa Angeles neighborhood of Tropico would have been?
Naomi Hirahara: The family patriarch, Gitaro Ito, was an early immigrant to Southern California. The area called Tropico was the first recorded place in Los Angeles where Japanese Americans farmed at the turn of the 20th century. Ito's work at the produce market was very representative: Japanese Americans established themselves in various aspects of agriculture and horticulture, including gardening. Many immigrant men sent for picture brides* from Japan. Many times, these women were known to the family back in Japan. The Itos are a relatively successful, middle-class family. The daughters attend school with mostly white students, and while many do well academically, there are certainly social activities that are closed to them because of their race and ethnicity.
*Picture brides were women whose photos were usually sent to the prospective groom, usually an immigrant, in the United States. Since early Japanese immigrants were mostly bachelors who engaged in manual labor, they had to send for a spouse from Japan. In states like California, Asians were barred from intermarrying with whites.
The dynamic of the Ito sisters Rose and Aki really drives the story. loved the yin and yang, and the way the two sisters really understood one another—a very universal experience for those of us lucky enough to have a sister. Can you talk about creating Rose and Aki?
Creating that complicated sister relationship was key to the novel. It was the engine that powers us through a little known historic time. In some ways, it was more challenging for me to write from a younger sister’s POV than the history itself, as I don’t have a sister and am the eldest child. The book begins with Aki’s birth, but Rose takes center stage. The reader is not introduced to our narrator’s name for some pages. That’s how powerful Rose is—she subsumes her younger sister’s identity. But Aki is the one who is born breech, a sign that she’s not going to go through life in the typical way.
I had to interview a couple of my friends who are younger sisters to “shining stars” to capture the nuances of this dynamic.
Can you talk about the research involved in creating the atmosphere in the Japanese internment camps? What they were the living conditions like?
I’ve been writing about the camp experience since college when I took a constitutional rights law class. Of course, I was fully immersed into the day-to-day, emotional, and political experiences through my work as a journalist for the Rafu Shimpo newspaper, a Japanese American daily in Los Angeles. Afterwards, I was part of the team that created the initial exhibition for the Manzanar National Historic Site’s Visitors Center, so I was well aware of the physical conditions. The recent recreations of the lavatory, basketball courts, and gardens have added visceral aspects of the confinement.
The thread of the Japanese being treated as "other" runs through the book. I thought a very strong—if subtle—moment, came in the library scene where Aki realizes that another character, Phillis, is being condescended to because she is Black, and it's a revelation to Aki that Phillis is dismissed in the same way that she often is. Was it conscious, or automatic, to infuse this feeling throughout the book?
That particular scene was a conscious addition. The world of Chicago and the Black community is new to Aki. She was relatively sheltered back in Tropico and didn’t have that many friends of any other race. In Chicago, she rubs elbows with new people and her understanding of the plight of African Americans deepens. I heard that sentiment from older friends, now deceased, who were incarcerated in camps and moved to Chicago. The inter-ethnic interactions were definitely a positive result of the diaspora.
The way Aki fights for her sister and through her struggle really finds her own voice is a wonderful and sometimes heartbreaking journey. I appreciated that you made her detective work pretty believable, what someone of her stature in society would be able to accomplish. Do you feel you took any liberties as far as her investigative process?
I really don’t. I didn’t want Aki’s investigation to be a trivial one. She’s not only investigating her personal mystery but a larger one—what is happening to other young Japanese Americans during this transitional time.
How did you choose Chicago as the resettlement location?
Chicago was the number one destination of Japanese Americans being released from the ten mass incarceration centers. The second largest city in the United States at the time, it had a thriving defense industry in need of workers. It was also situated in the middle of the country, away from the West Coast. Both the government and social service agencies operated through churches pushed for this relocation. Before World War II, there were 400 Japanese Americans in Chicago. By the mid-1940s, there were 20,000. Of course, most of them eventually returned to their home states on the West Coast.
I loved the inclusion of Chicago's Newberry Library. I grew up in Chicago, and the Newberry always seemed like a magical place to me. Can you talk about the Newberry a little bit?
My late friend and community leader, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, had worked at the Newberry Library after being released from Manzanar and passing through Wisconsin. She had a positive experience working there, so when I went on a research trip to Chicago, I visited the Newberry with my neighborhood guide Erik Matsunaga. I had no idea how grand it was and how close it was to the Clark and Division neighborhood. I couldn’t imagine going from a dusty desert camp and then being plopped down in the grandeur of the Newberry. A professor pointed out that a place like Newberry is a repository of the past, but my initial intent was to follow Sue, not to use the place as any kind of metaphor. The fact that Washington Square Park, or Bughouse Square, the gathering place of political thinkers, was across the street from the Newberry made perfect sense to me, as Sue became increasingly politicized in her young adulthood. For the mystery, it was the perfect place for Aki to be exposed to the outside world.
Photo: Newberry Library, Chicago, circa 1900, courtesy of the Library of Congress
I loved the character of Art, Aki's eventual suitor, and the portrait of his family, which Aki visits and finds bursting with life. It was refreshing in the middle of some grim happenings. Can you talk about Art and his family a bit? He's a dreamboat...
Art’s household is a picture of Aki’s past and also a snapshot of what things could have been if she hadn’t been stripped away from her home. So many ironies—nisei in Chicago and places like Hawai’i, the site of the Pearl Harbor bombing, were largely not displaced. In contrast, what made these Japanese Americans on the Pacific West Coast, operators and workers on profitable farms and fishing enterprises, such a threat?
Art is the epitome of decency, but since he didn’t experience geographic exclusion; he doesn’t fully understand what people like the Itos are going through. But he is very empathetic.
Another thing I loved was the portrayal of the Japanese community. No matter what, they seemed to support and care for one another. Can you talk about the various communities that embrace the Itos and help them get settled in their new life?
Everyone attempts to do their part—from the practice of koden (giving money for funerals to help the grieving family), giving leads on housing and jobs, and offering gifts of food. The Mutual Aid Society of Chicago is a real organization that assisted the placement of deceased ashes in a mausoleum in the Montrose Cemetery. They handled the funerals of the poor, and when other cemeteries refused to admit the bodies of Japanese Americans, they stepped in to find a resting place at the Montrose. Really beautiful organization. The Christian churches and Buddhist temples also provided support to Japanese Americans. In Chicago there are even streets named after pioneering faith leaders.
Clark and Division was just a beautifully told and rendered book. What was your favorite thing about writing it? And how long of a project was it?
The idea for the novel first came to me at the end of 2016, as my friend, Heather Lindquist, and I were doing research for a nonfiction book, Life After Manzanar. It became apparent to me that with the delinquency that was occurring in an already notorious place like Chicago, a mystery novel would be the perfect vehicle to explore the hidden truths of the struggling Japanese American community.
Clark and Division was difficult to write in so many ways. I’m dealing with the histories of Los Angeles, Manzanar, and Chicago. And then to capture Aki’s voice. To do a bulk of the rewriting during the middle of the pandemic, a time of such uncertainty, not only in publishing, of course, but the entire world, was daunting. My favorite thing was finishing it. And having the time to probably vet it.
Finally what's next for you? Will there be a follow-up to Clark & Division?
Yes, there will be a follow-up! It’s called Evergreen and I have a 2022 writing deadline. In the meantime, my second Leilani Santiago mystery, An Eternal Lei, will be coming out in March 2022. Of course, I never want to take the easy path—it’s set in October 2020, the middle of the pandemic. But at that time Kaua’i has no fatalities due to the COVID-19, so it’s not dark in that way. The lack of tourism and the issue of tourism figure prominently in that one. I must say that it was nice to travel to the beaches in Hawai’i in my mind!
Naomi Hirahara is an Edgar Award-winning author of traditional mysteries and noir short stories. Her Mas Arai mysteries, which have been published in Japanese, Korean, and French, feature a Los Angeles gardener and Hiroshima survivor who solves crimes. The seventh and final Mas Arai mystery Hiroshima Boy, was nominated for an Edgar Award for best paperback original. Her first historical mystery is Clark and Division, which follows a Japanese American family’s move to Chicago in 1944 after being released from a California wartime detention center. Her second Leilani Santiago Hawai‘i mystery, An Eternal Lei, is scheduled to be released in 2022. A former journalist with the Rafu Shimpo newspaper, Naomi has also written numerous non-fiction history books and curated exhibitions. She has also written a middle-grade novel, 1001 Cranes.