Naomi Hirahara’s novel “Clark and Division” about Japanese lives

On the bookshelf

“Clark and Division”

By Naomi Hirahara
Soho Crime: 312 pages, $ 28

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Just as only James Ellroy could have written the Los Angeles Quartet and only Walter Mosley could have incorporated the experiences of Black Angelenos into the Easy Rawlins mysteries, detective novelist, and research. Maven Naomi Hirahara was intended to write “Clark and Division”.

“Much of my work has been informed by current events and little-known stories,” Hirahara said on a video call on a hot summer morning. “While my previous series involved cold cases where the past was unearthed to solve the current crime, ‘Clark and Division’ is actually my first real historical mystery.”

Released this week, “Clark and Division” turns a vast criminal saga from a little-known historical episode – the resettlement of Japanese Americans interned during World War II from places like Los Angeles to the heart of Chicago.

Hirahara, an engaging presence with a lock of graying black hair and transparent rose-colored glasses frames, spent a decade as a journalist and editor at Rafu Shimpo, the American-Japanese daily newspaper in LA, during the battle for repairs and repairs for the wartime government concentration camps. During those years she also embarked on an award-winning seven-book series featuring Mas Arai, a issei (first generation) Japanese gardener and Hiroshima survivor whose journey is a tribute to her father. She followed up with another series featuring a LAPD bicycle policeman.

Hirahara, however, never stopped being a journalist, writing or co-authoring eight non-fiction books on cultural history ranging from the flower markets of downtown LA to the Japanese-American community that once thrived on the Terminal Island. One of his collaborators was Heather C. Lindquist, editor and developer of interpretive exhibits for the National Park Service. After working together on an exhibit, in 2018 they co-wrote “Life After Manzanar,” a document about incarceration and resettlement that brought Hirahara back to long-simmering ideas.

Naomi Hirahara’s new novel is called “Clark and Division”, about Japanese American internees transferred to Chicago.

(Mayumi Hirahara)

Her enthusiasm bubbling across the screen, Hirahara asks me if I would like to see her PowerPoint deck explaining the basics of “Clark and Division”, which she first developed for a writing workshop at Occidental College. “After seeing this magnificent PowerPoint [Newbery Award winner] Cynthia Kadota showed in a joint discussion on a book, I thought it would be fun to look at the pictures.

On one slide, his hand-drawn caricature depicts the town of Tropico, a once thriving enclave almost lost to history. “Maybe 30 years ago,” Hirahara remembers, “I interviewed an American doctor of Japanese descent in the San Fernando Valley who told me he grew up in Tropico, which I didn’t. had never heard of! That fact alone, and how much I loved the sound of that word, Tropico, stuck in my head. “

Hirahara shares the fruits of the research that followed: photos of early 20th-century Japanese farmers crouching in the fields. Nestled between Glendale and what is now Atwater Village, Tropico was where many Japanese Angelenos first settled at the turn of the 20th century. It became the home of the Itos, the family at the center of “Clark and Division”: Pop, who worked as a manager in a Japanese product distributor; Mom, housewife; eldest daughter Rose, a frank beauty; and her younger sister, Aki, a Los Angeles City College student who considered herself a second violin.

It was a solidly bourgeois life, and it was cut short when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. In March 1942, the family was sent to the Manzanar War Relocation Center, about 200 miles north of Los Angeles. Rose, seen as a “model minority” in the camp, is chosen to be among the first of 10,000 Japanese Americans to be forcibly resettled in Chicago. The Itos follow later.

A photo from the Bancroft library served as inspiration for Hirahara: A resettled family stares in bewilderment at their lonely suitcase, unceremoniously dropped into their new Chicago apartment. “In their official photos, the War Relocation Authority liked to present these images that the Japanese were happy and smiling, very groomed and respectable,” Hirahara says. “In my novel, I try to remove a little of this glow, of this mask, so as not to deny that people participated in the official ceremony. photos but that was not the whole story.

The Itos thought their acclimatization in Chicago would be easier because Rose had preceded them and found a job. But it was not. The family arrive by train, only to learn that Rose has been hit by a subway car at Clark & ​​Division station.

As Aki, now 20, decides to investigate her sister’s death, “Clark and Division” turns into a complex mystery., a coming-of-age romance and a captivating look at a hitherto unexplored corner of American history. In his attention to the aftermath of internment, he is light years ahead of detective novels like “Perfidia” by James Ellroy or “Snow Falling on Cedars” by David Guterson, which ignore the experiences of Americans in the past. Japanese origin in favor of characterizations that flatten their humanity to meet the needs of the author. “Perfidia” in particular hits a nerve with Hirahara.

“I enjoyed the rhythm of Ellroy’s language and the general themes,” she says. “But imagine the reality – the thick layer of oppression that has kept Japanese Americans from becoming public school teachers or police officers. How did people adapt, survive or even succeed in such a climate? This is the most interesting review, at least from my perspective.

“Clark and Division” puts Japanese-American characters at the center of the story – and the crime. Saying more would lessen the joy of immersing oneself in the deeply felt and meticulously researched history of Hirahara. Everything bears the weight of truth, from Manzanar’s description to the Ting-a-ling candy store, an actual store that once stood on the corner of Dearborn and Division streets in Chicago.

A book cover is a photo mashup of someone's face above a cityscape, with words

Behind these descriptions, invisible to readers, are archival photos, family albums and ephemeral documents, some of which Hirahara have purchased on eBay. For the author, they opened up a world bigger than any story she describes as she moves through the slides of young men in zoot and pompadour costumes. “All kinds of people, mostly young people, have been relocated to Chicago – camps, from Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in Nebraska, to orphanages like Manzanar’s Children’s Village. And despite the war, internment camps and relocation, they wanted to live, have fun and just be young.

The vibrant characters, story, and aura of determined optimism that permeate the novel make it seem like the start of a saga is reminiscent of the mysteries of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs. Hirahara seems surprised at the comparison; his ambitions are even more timid. She initially thought of “Clark and Division” as a standalone mystery. For all of her research and travel, she said, “Because I don’t live there, I asked myself: could I adequately describe all the complexity of Chicago in the 1950s? I was much more confident writing about a confined neighborhood.

Fans Can Relax: “Clark and Division” is the first of at least two books about the Ito family and their intrepid daughter Aki. “With the Mas Arai series, which ran for seven books, I thought I was only writing one book and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s interesting,’ and I kept going,” Hirahara says. “So we’ll see what happens. “

Woods is a literary critic, editor and author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series.

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