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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:

PHOTO CREDITS: Photos by Mayumi Hirahara and Naomi Hirahara

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