When Naomi Hirahara’s Clark and Division crossed my desk a few months before its August 2021 publication, I knew it would be something special. I’ve been reading Hirahara’s work for nearly 20 years, since she debuted on the crime-fiction scene with Summer of the Big Bachi (2004), the first of seven books featuring Hiroshima survivor and gardener turned detective Mas Arai. Two other mystery series, one featuring bike cop Ellie Rush and the other, amateur sleuth Leilani Santiago, followed suit, but Clark and Division, set in the summer of 1944, was Hirahara’s first formal foray into historical fiction.
Not only was the novel something special; it exceeded my expectations: As I wrote in my review at the time, “This is as much a crime novel as it is a family and societal tragedy, filtering one of the cruelest examples of American prejudice through the prism of one young woman determined to assert her independence, whatever the cost.” The cruelest example under consideration is the Manzanar War Relocation Center, where thousands of Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. The young woman is 20-year-old Aki Ito, who must forge her own path post-release, far away from her California birthplace—while also hunting for the truth about how her sister, Rose, died.
As Hirahara told me in a mid-May conversation over Zoom, she had wanted to write a novel from the perspective of a Nisei (Japanese American) woman. She had encountered many of them during her time as editor of the Japanese-language Los Angeles–based newspaper Rafu Shimpo. “Those women are such an enigma to me,” she said. “I would send my reporters to do something very innocuous, like, How about romance? How did you meet your husband in the camp? And inevitably, the subjects would always come back with, ‘Don’t write this. Don’t write this.’”
In their self-censorship, the women diverged sharply from the men. The latter “were definitely the star of their own story, and they weren’t afraid to stand out or even alienate certain people around them to get the glory.” For Nisei women, meanwhile, Hirahara noted, “if you say something kind of out of turn that’s public, it may isolate you from your group. I knew that this was a population that had gone through so much during World War II. Some were very outspoken and were the civil rights leaders, but I wanted to get the pulse of ordinary women.”
Writing a protagonist like Aki challenged Hirahara because, for the longest time, she’d found it easier to write from the perspective of a man, namely, seventysomething Mas Arai. “I was very tight with my father,” she said, acknowledging him as the inspiration for the character. “This is probably psychoanalysis, but maybe the mother-daughter relationship was a little more sensitive for me to dive straight into.” Hirahara also felt that she’d spent the past two decades “claiming my own voice.… My natural inclination is to tell someone else’s story.”
The sisterly bond was also a new dynamic for Hirahara to explore in fiction, and I wanted to know more about her approach. “There have been some tragic situations in my circle,” she responded. “I live in Los Angeles, and there are shootings. There have been times when the older sister got killed. Observing the wake of what happens to the lesser child and how they’re viewed by their parents…how it transforms the whole family—in the back of my mind, that was there, and I wanted to investigate it in some way.”
In 2016, Hirahara went on an initial research trip to Chicago, which she had learned was “the number-one destination” for those released from Manzanar (more than 20,000 Japanese Americans had resettled there). “I was scared, frankly, because for me, geography and setting are so important,” Hirahara said. “When people write about L.A. or Japanese Americans, it’s kind of weird. I get excited and upset. But there was something pushing me.” She credited several guides who gave walking tours of the neighborhoods where these resettled communities lived and said, “To tell you the truth, without that help, I don’t think I could have written Clark and Division.”
Hirahara returned to Chicago in 2018, in part to finish cowriting the nonfiction book Life After Manzanar but also to collect enough material to sell a proposal for Clark and Division to Soho Press, whose associate publisher, Juliet Grames, she’d been discussing the project with off and on. “I think Naomi is part of a vanguard of where crime fiction is going,” Grames (who, in full disclosure, is a dear friend) told me. “She’s at this nexus of entertainment and storytelling and social awareness. She’s also just incredibly humble and generous of spirit. She listens to people talk. She’s so receptive and compassionate to their stories and their data. She has assimilated it.”
That sense of compassion clearly resonated with readers of Clark and Division, and I was curious how Japanese American readers in particular, those with some or no inkling of their ancestors’ experiences, had responded. “It’s been wonderful,” Hirahara said. “There’s been people who have shown me photos of their grandmother in Chicago, and it was grandmothers they’d never met.… Even though Clark and Division is fiction, they said, ‘You gave me a feel for what it would have been like for my grandmother.’”
Though Clark and Division was envisioned as a stand-alone, Aki returns in the equally excellent Evergreen, publishing next month. The action moves two years forward in time, and Aki (ca. 1946) is a nurse’s aide living in Los Angeles with her new husband and close to her parents. There are new challenges and mysteries to explore, most of all within Aki herself. Her insecurities, as a young person grappling with major life decisions, are touching and painfully resonant.
Once more, Hirahara felt exhilarated working with a bigger storytelling canvas, which is why Evergreen is billed as “A Japantown Mystery.” Other characters will take the forefront in future books, which will be set in different time periods. “While I have a microscope on Japanese American history, I don’t want that to be in isolation,” Hirahara said. “[Injustice] happened to other groups of people, and it’s happening to our groups. Rather than a narrowing of focus, I want people’s views to be more expansive and see how these issues are affecting people today.”•
Join us on August 17 at 5 p.m., when Hirahara will appear in conversation with California Book Club host John Freeman and a special guest to discuss Clark and Division. Register for the Zoom conversation here.