An Iguana in a Japanese Garden — Guest Naomi Hirahara

I’m so happy to welcome back Naomi Hirahara. She’s an amazing author and woman. The first book in her new Leilani Santiago Hawai’i mystery series, Iced in Paradise, released in September. She’s giving away a copy (US only) to someone who leaves a comment.

Naomi: In my years writing mysteries, I’ve encountered turns in the road and also faced doors slamming shut.

My first novel featuring Mas Arai, an aging Los Angeles gardener and Hiroshima survivor, took me 15 years from conception to final publication. Early versions fell in the category of literary fiction before the tale finally found its footing as a mystery series.

Seven Mas Arai mysteries later, I’ve also written the Officer Ellie Rush bicycle cop mysteries and now ICED IN PARADISE, the first in a new series set in Hawai‘i with the protagonist Leilani Santiago. My writing path certainly has not been straight; it’s been more serpentine. I’ve been orphaned (lost my acquiring editor) at least five times during the past 15 years. Three of my literary agents have left the profession.

Yet I’m still around and excited about future writing projects. How can that be? I attribute it to embracing the unexpected, like discovering an iguana in a Japanese garden.

I actually witnessed this phenomenon recently at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, Florida. I was there on a speaking engagement; it was my second time visiting there and this time I brought my mother. I had heard about the museum since my days working at The Rafu Shimpo daily newspaper in downtown Los Angeles. We would receive their paper press releases in the mail (yes, it was that long ago) and from my desk in the middle of urban Los Angeles, I’d wonder why there was this magical place on the other side of the country in South Florida. Now, decades later, I would actually be standing on the stage of their state-of-the-art auditorium, talking about gardeners and mysteries.

The philanthropists and volunteers supporting this expansive project of 16 acres are not people of Japanese descent. In fact in the audience of about 70 only two were Japanese Americans. The Morikami Museum, a joint project of Palm Beach County and a nonprofit, has at its core a cadre of dedicated women, many of them Jewish retirees from New York and New England. Why would they devote their time and money for this Japanese-style garden? One reason could be the shared experience of Jews and Japanese Americans during World War II.

This land was donated by a Japanese immigrant, George Morikami, who was in search of a better life. He was part of the original Yamato Colony, which unsuccessfully attempted to grow pineapples and vegetables to sustain its community in the early 1900s. Most of the Japanese colonists eventually left, but Morikami stayed, acquiring these multiple acres of land. A bachelor, he left his property to Palm Beach County and it’s been up to the nonprofit to tell the colonists’ history and more importantly, create a garden that provides healing to its visitors.

My mantra through my writing and publishing journey is to embrace the unexpected. Be aware of change in our trade and world and see if any of my stories will have resonance. Mas Arai is about resilience; Ellie Rush, finding your purpose; and Leilani Santiago, how to return home when you have become a different person. I’m currently working on a historical standalone thriller set in 1944 Chicago. The mystery will reflect the experiences of the 20,000 Japanese Americans who temporarily relocated to America’s then second largest city from incarceration centers all throughout the U.S.

During my recent trip to the Morikami, I had my eye out for alligators in the water. My mother had never seen one and I wanted her to have this unique Floridian experience. Then rain began to fall and out came the iguanas. They scurried on the green grass and at times stood still as if they wanted all of us to know that they were here. “I see you,” I silently told them. “I see you.”

Readers: Did something delightfully unexpected happen on a trip or visit to a new place? Tell us about it.

Bio: Naomi Hirahara is an Edgar Award-winning mystery writer and social historian. Her final Mas Arai mystery, HIROSHIMA BOY, was nominated this year for an Edgar, Macavity and Anthony award. Her new mystery, ICED IN PARADISE, was chosen for October Hot Picks by the Hawaii State Library System. Her books have been translated into Japanese, Korean and French. Hang out with Naomi on her blog: http://naomihirahara.com/blog/

PHOTO CREDITS: Photos by Mayumi Hirahara and Naomi Hirahara

47 Thoughts

  1. Naomi, welcome! I can’t believe I haven’t gotten to your books yet. I grew up in the LA area (San Gabriel Valley) and taught English in Japan for two years in my twenties, so there is much to connect about. Will remedy that situation, stat! Here’s something delightful that happened to me in Japan. I was taking karate and went to watch a tournament. I met a delightful young woman, we became friends, and she invited me to her parents’ home. Can’t remember the name of the place but it was a few hours west of Tokyo in the mountains. There were hot springs and monkeys. Her home was a traditional one. I experienced SO much of the culture that weekend. Truly wonderful.

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    1. What a splendid adventure! I like visiting people in their homes when I travel because you get a true sense of daily living. And yes, check out one of the Mas Arai mysteries. I recommend the first or the third one.

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  2. I thought your name sounded familiar to me. I have Murder on Bamboo Lane on my TBR pile. The cover was intriguing so I had to grab it at the bookstore. Congrats on your release day!
    My husband and I were in Aruba last year for vacation and it just happened to fall over their national anthem and flag holiday (like our 4th of July). We got to see the whole country basically shut down and all the neighborhoods had block parties and celebrations. It was pretty cool to see how the native Arubans celebrated, although it made for some crazy awful traffic jams.

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    1. There’s a term in Japanese–omiyage banashi, which literally means gift of story, or a travel story gift. Sometimes, instead of tchotchkes, it’s nice to bring home a story and you have a good one from Aruba! And a heads-up on MURDER ON BAMBOO LANE, Ellie is related to my young protagonist in Hawai’i, Leilani. Thanks for picking up the book.

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  3. What an awesome thrill to have spotted an iguanas in the wild! I love lizards and had them as pets as a child when we lived in California so I have a special soft spot for any form of lizard.

    We have had several trips to Yellowstone National Park. First trip we saw no bears – just my luck. Second trip we saw a couple but at great distances and were thrilled. Since I’m not able physically to get out and hike like lots of folks, I had assumed that we were fortunate to see them at least. Imagine my surprise and extreme delight this year to have them not only close by, but actually walk beside the car close enough that if I had had my window down I could have reached out and touched it. Talk about heart pounding thrill! Sure made my trip and experience I will play over and over in my mind.

    Another instance of an exciting thrill although not a new location, was many years ago while walking in the woods I came upon a deer thrashing about with his hind leg tangled in a downed wire fence. I started talking calmly to him and eventually he relaxed and laid down with his dangled leg up in the air still attached to the fence wire. I moved slowly while still sweet talking him up to him staying on the other side of what was left standing of the fence. It took some time, but while holding his hoof with one hand I unwrapped the wire with the other. Before releasing his hoof, I pushed down the hide that had ripped up some where the wire once was. When I did release the hoof, he slowly stood and tested his leg, looked at me once more with gratitude in his eyes and walked off. It’s an experience I will always remember. I would still love to be able to walk the woods, but I can relive it in my memories every time I think about it.

    Thank you for the chance to win a copy of “ICED IN PARADISE”. Sounds like a wonderful book and one that I would greatly love the opportunity to read.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

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    1. We were in Yellowstone for the first time this year, too. What a glorious place. And what a sweet story about the deer. I’m sure that deer is forever grateful for what you did.

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  4. I visited Key West for the first time a couple of years ago (thanks, Barb!!!!). There were orchids growing on the palm trees and they were so gorgeous and unexpected. Thanks so much for joining us today, Naomi.

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  5. Hi Naomi-Welcome back. I live in Key West three months of the year, so I am not a fan of iguanas. They are an invasive species that over-breeds in years when there are no cold snaps to kill them off and they are EVERYWHERE. They can climb trees, but they can’t really climb down, so they drop out of the trees and land next to you with an unnerving TWWAAP! They’re like pigeons or rats or the seagulls in my home town of Portland, Maine.

    But for all my ranting, I do understand what you are saying. This year my husband and I visited the town in Calabria his paternal grandparents had emigrated from a hundred years ago. By talking to everyone in the little village in our terrible Italian and their somewhat better English, we found a second cousin of his and heard family stories we never otherwise would have.

    I wish you the very best with ICED IN PARADISE.

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    1. Regarding your negative feelings about iguanas, I feel the same way about squirrels. (There are so many of them in Pasadena, California, and they cause havoc.) But I recently bought a tunic with squirrels on them, so I must have some affinity for them!

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      1. Squirrels! Yes. I remember when colleagues came from Australia. They were so entranced by the “cute” grey squirrels and we were all like, “You’re kidding.” Of course they complained about the annoying wallabies that eat their garden plants. To each his own!

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  6. Welcome, Naomi! I love it when I spot different forms of wildlife during a trip. There is just something special about seeing animals you don’t see every day at home. Congrats on your new series!

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  7. We just had a visit from out of state relatives – nothing unexpected but it was delightful touring San Francisco again and seeing it through their eyes. Sounds like a good new series and I am looking forward to your standalone. I have a friend whose parents were incarcerated. How unbelievable, and even more unbelievable is that she is currently living in a large city on the West Coast and experiencing that same kind of prejudice.

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  8. Two blog posts today on embracing the unexpected. Now I’m a bit worried.

    Seriously, thanks for the good reminder. Embracing the unexpected and persevering through it is always a good reminder.

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  9. Once when I was stuck in Miami for 8 hours between flights and before early baggage check-n was available, I had to figure out what to do with a lot of luggage and a lot of time. I rented a car and drove through the Everglades. I went on a airboat tour and saw lots of alligators. Both new experiences for me and totally unexpected or planned.

    I always embrace the unexpected and love the results. I have books of stories I could tell. But, mostly I keep them to myself and bring out little vignettes when it seems appropriate.

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    1. Maui artist Edwin Ushiro, who is now based in L.A., did the cover. He’s pretty well known in certain art circles. And he’s said that he’ll do the covers of other books in the series, so I’m pleased as punch.

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  10. I have all your books, love shaved ice in summer, and one of my most cherished memories from my past is climbing the wall at the Japanese garden in Golden Gate Park before dawn with two friends and watching the sun come up there smiling at peace with all of creation smelling wet eucalyptus and pine . We hitchhiked, back in the late sixties from Seattle to San Francisco

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  11. I’m so glad I went on the exchange trip to Germany in high school. I saw so many amazing things and learned so much. I happened to be there at the same time they were hosting the soccer World Cup, so there were even more special sites and events and people because of it. One of my best nights was just walking around Hamburg with my host sister and her friend. I got to see so much of the city, beyond just the touristy parts.

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  12. Years ago my family was in Toronto and went to the Expo where we saw the Chinese exhibit. It was the first Western view before Nixon went to China. Also in Oxford, we saw a parade with presumably the mayor walking with a scepter. I don’t think there are a lot of mysteries set in Hawaii so yours sounds interesting.

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  13. What a great post! I am looking forward to Iced in Paradise! I don’t go on a lot of trips, they are all special! I visited NYC last year and had never been to Central Park.. I was pleased to run across an Alice in Wonderland sculpture. Thanks.

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  14. Naomi, thanks for sharing this! Had not heard about the Morikawa Gardens – now actually have a reason to visit Florida sometime. 😀 I would love to have seen the iguanas too (maybe not if I had to live with them falling out of trees and possibly on my head…).

    Had a similar magic moment when working in Darfur that might be called A Hedgehog in a War Zone. It was a really challenging time emotionally and physically. In the middle of the night I was feeling sick to my stomach and had gone out in our compound for fresh air when this little critter crept out of the shadows into the moonlight. I was enchanted and for just a few moments was able to forget about the conflict and violence around us. Thanks for sharing your mantra about being open to the unexpected – it resonates and is a reminder both of what took me to Darfur in the first place, and of moments like these. Hugs!

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    1. Oh my gosh, Daryn, if you haven’t already, you should write an essay on this. These kairos moments are the lights in the darkness.

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  15. On a trip to Newport on the central Oregon coast, I saw a grey whale close up while on a whale watching tour. She swam right up to the boat and dove under it. Very playful!

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  16. The setting of the book is unusual in cozies which makes it all the more appealing. You seem to have made the most of the unexpected and are sharing it with others.
    browninggloria(at)hotmail(dot)com

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  17. Hi Naomi, How fun that you got to take your mom with you!! And she got to take some cool photos! Was the iguana photo hers? I tried to get to Morikami garden last time I was visiting my brother in Del Ray. Will try harder next time! Also sorry I missed telling him & his wife you’d be doing events there!!

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