When Earl Derr Biggers created the first Asian American literary detective, Charlie Chan, in the 1920s, he did so in contrast to the Yellow Peril depictions of Asians and Asian Americans that dominated American media at the time. Biggers’s creation resulted in the emergence of an “amiable” Chinese American detective hero whose legendary status has survived into the 21st century with dozens of literary adaptations, comic strips, radio shows, games, television spinoffs, and feature films.
But while mainstream white America warmly greeted Biggers’s hero, Charlie Chan has been the subject of much controversy in recent decades with accusations of racist stereotyping and cultural appropriation. Almost a century after Charlie Chan’s birth, the literary world of detective enthusiasts have enjoyed and welcomed the next generation of Asian American detective heroes. These characters not only offer counter narratives of Asian Americans’ relationship to crime and policing but also depict how legal limitations and restrictions affect certain marginalized groups.
Naomi Hirahara and Ed Lin are two of today’s leading authors of Asian American mystery and crime fiction. Through their own unique portrayals of Asian American detection, Asian American detective fiction now plays a more prominent role in the genre of American mystery fiction overall.
Edgar Award winner Naomi Hirahara is the author of two detective series, following Japanese American gardener and amateur investigator Mas Arai (loosely based on Hirahara’s own father) and Ellie Rush, a young LAPD bike cop with aspirations to be a homicide detective. At the time of the interview, Hirahara had just published her sixth Mas Arai novel, Sayonara Slam, and was about to embark on her seventh and final Mas Arai story. The second installment in Hirahara’s newer series featuring the biracial Ellie Rush was just published the previous year, after Murder on Bamboo Lane, the first Ellie Rush novel, won the T. Jefferson Parker Mystery Award.
On the opposite coast, Ed Lin’s Robert Chow series offers an alternative perspective to the traditional hard-boiled portrayals of New York’s Chinatown as exotic and foreign. Chow, a Vietnam vet and alcoholic, is the only Chinese American cop in the NYPD of the mid-1970s. Chow’s vulnerabilities as well as the racial barriers placed upon him offer an alternative lens to the noir tradition of Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and Thompson. Lin’s second series featuring Taiwanese amateur sleuth Jing-nan delves into the pressures of a contemporary Taiwan struggling with transformations between the old and the new. The interviews occurred just before Lin’s second installment, Incensed, was released to critical acclaim.
The following interviews took place in two parts. We began the interview at a round table discussion during the 2016 Association of Asian American Studies Conference in Miami, Florida. The second half of the interview occurred in a hotel room the next day where we found respite from the humid and bright Miami heat. Conducted by Betsy Huang of Clark University and Jinny Huh of the University of Vermont, it was a pleasant afternoon of bonding over murder, sharing inspirations, and meditating between west coast vs. east coast differences. There was laughter all around.
JINNY HUH: One of the reasons why I wanted to assemble this panel is because I work on detective fiction and there seems to be something going on in the last five, ten years with genre fiction that is really important to people who do work around literary studies but also around issues of social justice, race, and diversity. I’m happy to have Ed and Naomi join us today because whether they’re consciously intending it to or not, their work reflects a lot of the larger shifts in the detective narrative over the last twenty or thirty years, especially in African American narratives. I really wanted to get some feedback from them about their writing processes, and which authors they are looking towards for inspiration.
ED LIN: In my reading experience, the detective in the English language is someone who is a societal outsider. She has to be, because it was that very society that created the criminal, the encouragement and the opportunity to commit crimes. The detective doesn’t judge the offender in particular; all of society is an offender, a criminal. In fact, it is disgust with the amoral foundation of society that has pushed the detective to be who she is: someone repulsed by its values and although she knows how the system works to profit by it, decides not to play. She is only moved to help those less fortunate, the victims, who suffer because they play fair rather than play by the rules.
Do you know the difference between playing fair and playing by the rules? Neither has anything to do with whatever laws that happen to exist. It’s about what’s morally right versus what the powerful in a society want. Before his writing career, Dashiell Hammett, who is probably best known for The Maltese Falcon, was an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Apart from solving crimes they would engage in all sorts of activities for their clients, including breaking up unions. Anaconda Copper, a mining client of Pinkerton’s, offered Hammett money to kill Frank Little, a union organizer. Hammett said no. Then shortly after, a mob gathered up Little and other union organizers and lynched them. A note that read, “First and Last Warning” was pinned to Little’s thigh. No one was ever prosecuted for his murder. Frank Little is gone. So is Dashiell Hammett. But Pinkerton’s still exists. Anaconda ended operations decades ago but it still exists on the books because BP, as a successor company, is responsible for the environmental cleanup of former Anaconda mines. Trying to play fair got Frank Little killed and left arsenic in the groundwater.
You cannot write a truly resonant genre work unless you take the side of the oppressed individual. It doesn’t feel right to an emotionally balanced reader to see people sacrificed to feed a greedy machine. It doesn’t feel right because it isn’t right. Lately I’ve been seeing tweets from asshole chauvinists decrying acts by social justice warriors trampling upon the traditional white male hero in video games and comic books. Some elements of this thinking exist in the mystery and crime genre as well. Both fans and writers. Remember what I said about being emotionally balanced? These people are not emotionally balanced. Prejudice and notions of racial supremacy in adults are mental illnesses.
This isn’t to say that mysteries and crime fiction, in dealing with these issues, have to be sober and straight. I’m all about the funny. A big part of it is that I’m saying, I’m not going to give any of you jerks the power to take away my good times. Another part of it is that I like to celebrate the absurdity of life, like one of my favorite writers, Charles Willeford. Lastly, I like to employ the laughter of recognition, recognition of the struggle.
NAOMI HIRAHARA: My first book, the Summer of the Big Bachi, took fifteen years, from ideas and first words to publication. The writers who walked beside me were primarily African Americans, most importantly Chester Himes. I gravitated towards the absurd situations that sleuths got into. There’s also Walter Mosley and the way he tackles L.A. history in his books. And most personally, there’s a woman named Barbara Neely who wrote the “Blanche on a Lam” series, probably in the early nineties. She has a maid on the east coast who has some sass and solves crimes.
When I was trying to get published–and this was in the nineties–I asked myself, “Who was Amy Tan’s agent? I will send her an inquiry.” [Laughter] I got a rejection postcard. Since this was before the proliferation of computers, the rejections were printed on a card with a blank for names to be handwritten in. And someone had written “Naomi” on my card.
This went on, and I refined my manuscript. And I started to think: maybe what I was doing was not like Amy Tan’s work. Maybe it was more like Barbara Neely’s because she was dealing with race and class, which were important for me to tackle.
My sleuth in my first series is a Japanese gardener, based on my father. So I looked up and wrote to Barbara Neely’s agent this time. An associate there who is Indian American asked to see the manuscript. It took three months, and I had to rewrite it, and so on. Then the agency was absorbed by a larger one, but it continued to represent me. So, in that very direct way, an African American writer helped me get published.
During that time there were waves of local African American writers coming on to the scene–writers like Gar Anthony Haywood, Gary Phillips, and Paula Woods who interviewed me for the LA Times. In all these ways they’ve assisted me, whether alive or dead.
To the question about the limitations of the genre, one is that you need a dead body. Not all Asian American stories involve the dead. In my series with an amateur sleuth, many readers asked why this old Japanese gardener was encountering all these dead bodies? Is this becoming like Murder, She Wrote? You know, “Why are all these people in a small town dying?” [Laughter] And some might have thought that this guy was becoming a caricature. I hope I’m not doing that. Enough people don’t think I am, so that is enough for me.
Regarding race and the mystery genre, what I love–and I’m not an academic, and I’m middle-aged, so I don’t use phrases like “white gaze” that often. This is probably the first time I’ve used it in a panel. [Laughs] But this is what I love about Chester Himes’s work–it’s not like he’s worried about whether the mainstream understands what he’s writing about with Harlem and the black community. He just goes for it. I feel the same way. In the genre, there is already a kind of formula, there is a dead body, and there are expectations that readers have, so perhaps they enter not necessarily interested in Asian America. They’re interested in the dead body. But because we’re submerged in this Asian American’s world, they are too–and they are curious about it because there may be something about this world that will tell us who killed that person. Our readers are of diverse ages, nationalities, and races. I think that’s one of the advantages of our particular genre.
BETSY HUANG: I would say that what I love about the genre is that it is fundamentally about justice. More specifically, it’s about access to justice. It taps the readers’ anxieties about losing access to justice. Or, some of us come to realize that we are so privileged that we never worry about our access to justice.
What I love about writers of color in the genre is the way they reveal these vulnerabilities, particularly the precarities of communities with very little access to justice. Walter Mosley and Chester Himes are exceptional at this, and at creating alternate models of justice to compensate for the failures of the state. Writers of color do that critical work that both Naomi and Ed talked about–revealing social and political inequities that are part of the practice of daily life for members of these communities.
The detective’s character function is that she embodies critiques of justice. One can function as a Hammett figure, like the Continental Op–strictly in the noir tradition, remaining amoral from beginning to end, and fairly a flat character. But the detectives in Ed’s and Naomi’s fiction don’t remain amoral. They don’t just uphold the law, they intervene, try to circumvent it, even change it. Old school noir was in love with that amorality and is not interested in changing societal injustice or inequities. They’re more about how to survive within an unjust system. Today’s writers of the genre do both–how to both survive in it and right it.
JINNY: I am reading Viet Nguyen’s The Sympathizer right now, and there’s a scene where the narrator and the General whom he serves are in a room full of very rich white individuals. The General makes a comment about being an anthropologist observing this sea of whiteness and of the necessity of people of color to be able to “read” whites. It’s a skill that whites don’t need to read people of color.
It seems that there is an element of reporting in both of your work, about communities that the detectives are coming from. That’s not necessarily an active display of “here’s what Chinatown is like,” or “here’s what Little Tokyo is like.” It’s more through the little comments that Ellie makes about the Internment that the reader may not have any knowledge of. There is also a way of criticizing law through these very subtle ways that the characters bring up elements of their community in their detective processes that are not part of the process of detection of the actual crime. This, too, is central to detective fiction written by nonwhite authors.
How much of that type of knowledge production, and the spreading of the knowledge of difference, of the fact that Robert Chow always has to be the face of Chinatown, its symbol as the only Chinese officer in the police department, he has to represent that in all these images, and Ellie has to confront all the gender bias in the police force from her white and nonwhite male colleagues–many of the ways these characters are also commenting somewhat subtly on the injustices they have to also endure on a day to day basis–I’m wondering how much you took those into consideration when you were going through the actual plot of the detective story? How much of that do you focus on in the whodunit plot?
EL: I went to Columbia University and was lucky enough to take the first Asian American class that was started in my senior year. There were already a number of things I already knew: the railroads, Japanese internment, and so on. But one thing that was really cool was that Yuri Kochiyama and her husband Bill and a number of Asian American activists would just come in and talk to us. Even before the class was instituted, my friends and I were agitating to get this class in, so the visits by these activists from the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties were really great.
Something that really stuck in my head because I never really knew about the more recent moments in contemporary history: before the Museum of Chinese in the Americas in New York City got its space, it was known as the Chinatown History Project. It had this archive that it would let you browse through, so whenever I got a week off from work, I would go there and just look through. It was a mess and there were files everywhere. Nothing was coordinated. People would bring in bags of stuff and leave it, and they didn’t have the capacity to process the material.
I read through issues of Bridge magazine–have you heard of the magazine? [Acknowledgments from the audience] All these old issues of Bridge had stories about women who were protesting the perennial Miss Chinatown contests, burning their bras and confronting these guys and I thought, “Wow, this is great!”
I talked to these retired Chinese American cops who were active in the seventies and you know, the thing about communication is that only about 15%, maybe less, is spoken. For the rest, you use your hands or other body gestures. And so, while I interviewed these cops, even though I had the tape recorder running, I was looking at their eyes and their hands, and what they would do with their bodies. I remember never listening to the tapes, because the body remembers better.
So, yes, I was a journalist and still am. While I was in journalism school, I actually wanted to work on Asian American activists in Chinatown in the seventies. There was a really big divide between Asian Americans who became politically active, protesting Vietnam, moving into Chinatown and probably not speaking Chinese and the associations that had been there for generations that were extremely conservative, right-wing, virulently anti-Communist. And these new kids would fly the hammer-and-sickle flag and play “The East is Red.” The community groups were flipping out. I remember this one guy who told me that there was someone going around with a video camera in the seventies recording all the faces. So I went to the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. It’s always suspect when a group has “benevolent” in its name. [Laughter] I went in and asked the guy at the front desk about the association keeping track of all the activists twenty years ago. He was like “Yeah, yeah,” and trying to blow me off. When I pressed him, he said, “You’re a really nice guy, but you’re looking for trouble.” I thought, “Wow! He’s threatening me! Right here! I have rights!” [Laughter]
This was in the early nineties and long before I started writing This Is a Bust, but it set things in motion. A lot of what is portrayed in the media, even in Asian American media, is often very far from what is actually happening. When I was going through those archives, there were pictures of smiling Asian cops with groups and I thought, “Hmmm…very interesting.”
NH: There was a scholar from Japan who described my work as journalistic, and I was actually kind of insulted at the time. [Laughter] I thought, “What? You mean I’m not literary?” But when I cooled down, I thought that it was true. I think it was because I was a journalist for the Rafu Shimpo, a Japanese American newspaper, as a reporter for three and a half years. I went away, and came back as editor for six years. I think that was a real seminal experience for me.
I was raised in Altadena and Pasadena, California, and I led the very typical Nisei-Kibei existence–working class, with many other gardeners’ families. I literally went to only two restaurants growing up: a chop suey in Little Tokyo called The Far East Café, and a local Mexican restaurant in our neighborhood. Then I went to Stanford, and got more involved through the arts. My introduction to Asian America probably was through the theatre project there. I was a ribbon dancer [laughter] in David Henry Hwang’s adaptation of Yasunari Kawabata’s short story “House of Sleeping Beauties,” and I was the lead actor in Momoko Iko’s play, “Goldwatch.” Later on, Momoko and I became part of the same writers group in Los Angeles.
I don’t know if you’ve been to Stanford. It’s beautiful there, and suddenly I was working at the Rafu Shimpo, right next to Skid Row. The downtown L.A. scene of the eighties was homelessness. There’s still homelessness now, but they’re pushing it into smaller and smaller blocks. Those were our immediate neighbors to the south, and our parking lot had lots of hypodermic needles, and people’s cars were getting broken into. We could see people literally carrying someone’s car battery down the street. So this was a good initiation for me into the real world. This is not my quaint, suburban upbringing. It forced me to move around–now I had to go to Gardena, Sawtelle, various Japanese American suburban enclaves, to Crenshaw, Boyle Heights, and other historic communities of color.
Strangely, I’m kind of an outsider myself because my parents were not interned. They were in Japan during the war–they were in Hiroshima. So there’s been times when they’ve sat with their neighbors at Nisei gatherings and were asked, “May and Sam, where were you?” “Oh, we were in Japan.” “You’re lucky.” And my parents would say, “No….” It’s like sometimes we get so cemented in our POV and we don’t think beyond it.
That’s where the journalism comes in. That training forced me to travel and learn about people’s experiences. It’s funny because some folks are saying, “Hey, you went to Stanford. Get a better job. Go work for the LA Times.” I got that a lot. But the funny thing was, the more and more I was covering these stories, I thought, “This was really fascinating. Japanese Peruvians? Wow!” Everything became deeper and more interesting to me. And so journalistic approaches are definitely infused in what I do. I am not interested in being a teacher and being didactic in my mysteries. I’m just naturally fascinated and curious about what is part of our American history. I want to weave the diasporas, and the various injustices committed against these people, into my stories. These are secrets to be told.
One last thing in terms of crime. We had a small staff, so we had to stretch and cover a lot of crime. There was one incident involving a judge’s son in a community, living with his grandmother who had no idea that he had all these guns. He barged into a hotel in South Bay and started shooting. This happened to be a conference of police. Apparently he was unaware of this. It was all over the news, but because the local Japanese L.A. newspaper was covering it, people were mad. But the story was all over our affiliate television and news. I think sometimes our community wants to keep this kind of thing inside. We’re the model minority and do only good. For the genre, I talk a lot about gambling because I saw that in our family and community, and this one Nisei gentleman said, “Naomi, you’ve aired our dirty laundry.” And it was just gambling! But because it’s fiction, it’s an easier way to talk about these things than writing nonfiction.
BH: This is a great segue into a question on the issue of “reporting.” I’m thinking of how Ellie, Mas, and Robert negotiate the role of the “cultural informant,” or the idea of reporting on your own people.
I think there are now more instances where people take that role and add layers to it so that it becomes less about informing on culture, but more about informing on history. Non-insider readers sometimes want a de-historicized way of consuming culture and–this is cynical, I know–read ethnic fiction as a cultural artifact that can add to their social and cultural capital. But when your detectives reveal history, obscured or erased history, then it became less about consumption and more about ethics. You are disrupting the way that non-insider audiences have always perceived the culture and moving them toward a deeper understanding. To me, Robert and especially Mas are not cultural informants, but history informants.
So here’s a question about the detectives’ relationship with the communities they serve–or surveil. There’s so much talk lately about community policing. I learned about community policing from Ed’s This Is a Bust. (Ed laughs) No, seriously! Community policing practices have been around for decades but the idea didn’t get traction until Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Black Lives Matter forced the issue onto the national stage. Still such a long way to go. Just the other day the Baltimore Police Department, which has been developing it and putting it into practice, was in the news. The police chief gave the department a grade of A while the community leaders gave it a C+.
Robert, Ellie, and Mas all have had to work very hard to maintain some degree of organic connection to the communities they serve. They have to earn and sustain the trust while they dance that very difficult line between the community and the police departments they work for, staffed by people who may not have the connection with the community. What current events from the real-life communities you’re writing about are you drawing on to depict your detectives’ negotiations with this?
EL: Well, anytime you use a term like “community,” there is not this uniform mass. There are elements of the community that are doing very well, and there are elements of the community that are being left behind. Back when I was doing interviews to form the world of This Is a Bust, I got to interview the founder and chairman of this fairly prominent Chinese American organization. I was telling him about my book and he said, “Hmm, you probably shouldn’t write about a cop. You should write about a guy stuck in middle management and he can’t advance because of a glass ceiling. But he is really the one who is qualified to be CEO.” I thought, okay, this is certainly someone’s point of view. And it’s an Asian American story. But it doesn’t appeal to me.
The kind of thing I’m seeing is that there is this shell game that goes on in Chinatown, and these restaurants work with each other to keep the wages low. And they steal the tips from the wait staff. You notice this when you go to dim sum. There are various carts going around. The guy giving you the bill is not the person serving you the food. He has a different badge. So when the state attorney general finally takes interest and is ready to sue, and there may be a settlement, or a trial, the waiters may be able to get their union recognized. Then after a couple of months the restaurant closes down, and reopens with a new name, and the former staff are not rehired, and there is a new owner. But the people who owned the old one are still somehow affiliated. This is something that has played out for maybe as long as Chinatown has been around and as long as laborers have tried to organize. It’s these kinds of people and these types of struggles in the community that I’m most interested in.
In Chinatown there’s a group called the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association (CSWA), and there’s this guy, Wing Lam, who’s been completely demonized in the Chinese language newspapers. It was so interesting talking to him. The CSWA office is in an old tenement building, and when the CSWA was gearing up for one of its fights in court against a restaurant, someone firebombed its building! But strangely, and I also think illegally, there was a layer of concrete above the offices of the Chinese staff, and that miraculously saved all the papers they needed to bring to court. They won that case and the restaurant closed down. But then a couple of months later another restaurant opened up, so it’s a struggle that continues. I’m sure there’s somebody out there who is working on that middle-management Asian American struggling for that corner office. Maybe that story has already been published–I don’t know. But that’s not my mystery.
NH: How about Robert Chow, though? How does he earn the trust of the community?
EL: You can’t ask me questions! [Laughter]
NH: Well, this is an issue that’s complicated, especially with law enforcement in the community. With my Mas Arai series, Mas is a disenfranchised character. So in some ways it was easy for me to do historical investigation with that type of character.
But then Ellie appeared–hapa, twenty-three years old, a bicycle cop with the LAPD. One positive thing about Ellie being law enforcement is that it allowed me to avoid the whole “Murder, She Wrote” thing. There’s a reason why she would encounter a dead body more than Mas would. But then law enforcement presents its own issues. I’ve written two Ellie Rush books and I’m still wrestling with it now. Ellie’s aunt is the highest-ranking Asian American in the LAPD, kind of modeled after someone we’ve had in that position but who recently retired–a Japanese American. I’ve never talked to him about this series, but since he’s retired now I think I can get some information.
The way I worked it is that Ellie is young, very optimistic, believing that maybe she can make a change. She has a chorus of friends…It’s a light, fun read, so if you’re interested in or need that, pick it up because Ellie’s friends are in Asian American studies. This is a way to elevate you guys to popular genres! [Laughter] The friends are pan-Asian and that was the purpose, too, because that’s how I see Asian Americans now–not so ethnic specific, but in mixed company with each other. So Ellie has an ex-boyfriend who is Korean and raised in Latin America; there’s a Filipino guy; her best friend is Cambodian American. And they–especially the men–are very suspicious of the police, and understandably so.
But because Ellie is low-ranking, she doesn’t have a totally jaundiced eye yet. She’s working her way into the system and trying to figure out where she fits. She still feels like she can contribute to change it. I’m not quite sure how that’s going to go. That’s going to be the challenge for me as a writer. But again, I don’t want to be didactic, especially when I’m writing a mystery that is set in the present day and has to reflect real-world circumstances.
BH: Maybe we should have a book where Ellie meets Robert and they have a talk about this issue.
NH: Robert’s going to be pretty old. [Laughter] Maybe we can do something like that!
EL: Yeah, put me in jail.
JH: Let’s open this up for audience questions. If anyone has a question they’re dying to ask Ed or Naomi, feel free.
EL: You have to be dying.
NH: That’s the theme of today’s session.
AUDIENCE Q&A, QUESTION 1: What is the best way to get people who don’t want to talk to you to talk?
EL: Well, if you call them on the phone and they say no, just go to their office. It’s really hard to be mean to someone’s face.
NH: One time, I was writing on a crime story and a guy I talked to asked, “Why are you asking this question?” I said, “I’m curious.” He said, “Curiosity killed the cat.”
EL: I’m not a cat. [Laughs]
NH: Sometimes you have to play a good cop/bad cop. I’ve done that with my nonfiction work. I’ve done some hagiographies and one was on George Aratani. I went with a New Yorker…you know these New Yorkers [Ed laughs]. George Aratani was trained in Japan, and I had studied in Japan, too, so we were sympatico in that respect. But the New Yorker would barge in and say, “I want to see those documents!” And he would say, “No, no…” She would step out and George would say, “What is she doing?!” And I’d say, “Well, you know these New Yorkers…” And that partnership worked well to get information from George. So thank god for New Yorkers.
Question 2: You mentioned airing dirty laundry. My family is Chinese American. When you are talking with the older generations who are hesitant to talk about their past, what do you do? Do you tell them that it needs to be told? Or the shadier aspects of the community–Chinese triads, for example: how do you work around that, and the potential backlash?
NH: I don’t know how many of you have been in that situation where you’re trying to dig out the true stories from our elders. I have the advantage of working at a newspaper and writing these hagiographies, which helped earn peoples’ trust. I did have my share of writing good things about people and their accomplishments, whether that’d be ballroom dancing or awards received–I was there to cover it.
My mother to this day will not admit that she’s read anything of mine. When I was on a panel with an African American writer who said, “My mother reads my work and supports me,” I was thinking that my mom doesn’t say anything like that to me. But she does support me, because I would have the best food at my book parties. That’s how she shows her support. She always asks, “How is your book doing?”
As I mentioned earlier, my debut book took fifteen years. When it was finally coming out, the release became my parents’ worst nightmare. To prepare them, I had taken them to a mystery book convention. And you know these conventions–they are something like 95% white, although things are gradually changing now. Walter Mosley was being honored and I wanted them to see that this is a story that needs to be told. “I’m not airing dirty laundry and weaknesses to your friends,” I tried to tell them. “I’m trying to create a story for a larger audience for them to better understand what people in our community went through.”
I had these cards made that said, “Meet Mas Arai. Japanese American gardener. Atomic bomb survivor. Reluctant sleuth.” My dad saw that and said, “Hey! This is me!” My mother sunk into the hotel bed and said, “What are we going to do?!” [Laughter] And I said, “You know what? You guys will just have to be strong. Be tough.” And they said okay.
Today, there are so many Asian American books out there. Viet Nguyen won the Pulitzer! There’s a lot that you can point to as success stories for telling stories. Back in our day, it was hard to do it. But I think the first thing you have to do is start with yourself and get over the self-censorship. Allow yourself to put it on paper and on your computer, and just let it flow. Put the elders aside and put everything down first and see what you have.
In terms of talking to people about your work: if you just do it once and you get rebuffed and go away, that doesn’t end the conversation. You talk to different people, you give them different books, you show them that this is part of a larger movement, that this is not just me. We are all attempting to do this, all telling different stories that share a thematic similarity.
EL: My mother never told me she read my first book, but she told my sister, “I was never that mean.” [Laughter]
You know, I feel like even though Chinese people can be some of the most tactless, greedy, awful people, there’s something for them about sticking out as an individual that is really frowned upon. You don’t want your individual story out there. Even though in its history China has been an authoritarian society, the great works of literature–Outlaws of the Marsh, Journey to the West, Three Kingdoms–all have these beloved characters who flout the law, get drunk, and fight and everything. I feel like that has been very repressed in Chinese people. My dad is from Taiwan. His family has been there for hundreds of years. They went over when the Ming Dynasty collapsed. And I don’t know if you know this, but in Taiwan there’s this struggle between the people who’ve been there for a long time versus the people who retreated there when the Chinese civil war was lost.
I have this series that’s set in Taipei. When I started writing and doing research about it, I thought that my parents were going to be great resources because my dad’s family had been there all that time and my mom was among one of the contingents who came over from China after the civil war. And they told me nothing. They would refuse to talk about it. It was incredible. I tried to pry information from them and they’d say, “We don’t know anybody who was involved. We never heard anybody who was thrown out of school or anything. Those are complete lies!” So I had to give up on that front, on using my family’s personal history.
When I was in Taiwan, I met this guy online who had been an activist during Taiwan’s martial law era. I wanted to get to know him first and invited him out for coffee, but he kept wanting to go to a bar. He was all about drinking, so I was like oh-kay, I’m a horrible drinker, anyway. So we go to this bar and he introduces me to some people at the bar. And I just mention, “Hey, do you guys know anyone in organized crime?” And he says, “I actually work at a business that’s operated by organized crime. One of my friends is actually fairly high up. He’s coming in tomorrow. You wanna meet him?” And I said, “Uh, okay!” [Laughter]
So I started meeting all these criminals. One guy–I can only meet him after midnight. I remember driving up to this completely dark and abandoned park and all of a sudden twenty, thirty guys come strolling out. And we go over to this nearby McDonald’s, into the lower level, and just sit around and get all these stories from these guys. “These guys that are sitting around in the McDonald’s–they all know me, I know them, they’re all in this life”–and so on. I was like, wow, this is so wild. Because on the face of it, this could be a McDonald’s in Southern California, all these young Asian guys hanging out. But instead this is Taiwan and this is really dangerous.
I guess in the end, if you’re trying to get stories from your own family, those guards are still up. But if it’s someone you don’t know, it’s more open. I can’t help but think about the situation of Taiwan and China, and how China is very big on repatriating Taiwan and saying that it will really help the rejuvenation of the motherland. But really what China is angry about is that Taiwan is even talking about independence. There’s this Chinese thinking that we will be fine as long as we don’t talk about our problems. Which has really hurt the Chinese American communities, I think.
BH: If I ask my parents outright, they won’t want to share. But I found that they really want to correct misinformation. [Laughter] So I’ll say, “So and so told me such and such.” And they’ll say, “No, no, that’s not what happened. What happened was such and such.” The old baiting strategy always works like a charm.
Anyway, I think family members take fictional accounts of what appears to be their lives so personally because we’ve taken what they feel to be unique to them and made it someone else’s? I think there’s an ambivalence of seeing your experiences as unique or part of a common, shared history.
QUESTION #3: I’m interested in the way you made Mas Arai kibei and hibakusha–doubly marginalized in the Japanese American community. The atomic bomb was pretty controversial not just in the U.S., but also within Asian American communities. I am wondering how the genre both helped and deterred that characterization. You said earlier that compared with journalism, this was easier because it was fiction, but detective fiction targets larger audiences and so creates difficulties as well as possibilities…
NH: With Mas being kibei, nisei, hibakusha–that is my father’s story. And so it is a very personal one. Hiroshima is part of both sides of my family. My mother is a native of Hiroshima. I think there are members of your family who give you permission to write about something, and for me it was my grandmother. She lived with us for a year when my brother was born. She’s a very straightforward person, and she took me to the Peace Park and showed me a diorama. She said, “I was there with your uncle, your mother was out in the countryside, your father was right here at the train station.” She said it in such a no-nonsense way that I really felt the weight of it. I was no witness, but I was witness to a witness. And I felt she was giving me some kind of permission to keep the story going. It wasn’t that I felt a responsibility, but more like, “If you want to take this on, go for it.”
I’m also a sucker for the underdog. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in high school killed me. I just loved that play, and before it I knew that you can take an ordinary person and make him a star of a piece of literature. And so keeping the nisei experience to the fact that often their English and Japanese aren’t that refined, I wanted to give them a voice.
A question that was tossed around was: “What were some strange reviews, or the worst reviews, you’ve received?” I did encounter a group of women at one of our mystery conventions and they thought I was a bit disgraceful that I had Mas speak in dialect, that I wasn’t showing him respect. I don’t know if it’s the white gaze thing, but to me it’s my father, who has passed away. If he came back and started speaking in standard English, I’d be like “Who the heck are you?” [Laughter] That’s a part of who he is and it’s not a sign of disrespect. It’s how he communicated. It doesn’t mean he’s not smart. And the fact that a person like this is the star of a series speaks to that.
QUESTION 4: I have a question I’m dying to ask. [Laughter] When you two started writing mysteries, I was curious whether you referenced–Betsy mentioned Todorov–studies of the genre: histories, conventions, structure. Did you use these, or did you draw straight from your readings?
EL: Well, you know, I’ve always liked mysteries a lot–the mystery genre, film noir, as far back as I can remember. One of the cool things that Black Lizard did…Black Lizard was this indie book imprint that Barry Gifford edited. He brought back into print all these people who published in the thirties, forties, fifties. Later the imprint was bought out by Random House. But so many of those books… I don’t even know how I first found them, but I think maybe I saw the cover of The Seven Slayers by Paul Cain, which was a fantastic collection of these real desperate, Depression-era stories.
When I grew up, my family had this business and we had a crappy hotel on the Jersey Shore, and the most desperate people in the world ended up there–people who lost their house who rented a room at the hotel for seventy dollars a week, with a double hot plate and terrible little fridge that I would often have to repair. It really spoke to me, that desperation. And the authors–these guys get paid a penny a word.
So after I read quite a few of these books, I thought maybe I do need to know some of this theory stuff. I picked up this collection called the Film Noir Reader that I couldn’t wrap my head around, that I couldn’t get into. I must be a terrible student! No, I am a terrible student. [Laughter] So a lot of my stuff is based on the actual work that I’ve read rather than analyses of the genre.
NH: I don’t do well with analysis either. And that’s why…I’ve only taught a few times. I do well with people who are just beginning and they have that editorial person on their shoulder. I’ll teach them to knock it off. Even journalism is so intuitive. It’s by reading and doing.
But I will say this on the Ellie Rush series. The two books were published under this imprint called Berkeley Crime, which does mostly cozy mysteries. Cozy mysteries are like the cat mysteries. There are a lot of culinary mysteries that are extremely popular. Mysteries set in lighthouses. It’s escapism. People escape and imagine that they are living in this idyllic place. I had followed my editor, who was my editor at Random House and had moved over to Penguin for commercial series. I looked at these mysteries…I mean, the Sushi Mysteries? The Origami Mysteries? [Laughter]
To make a long story short, my father had died and I wanted to write something more useful for the time being and Ellie came to be. I thought maybe I’ll try to subvert this whole notion of what is cozy and comfortable. Instead of a village in Maine, I’ll make it downtown L.A., which is geographically a very limited area, but we have the Garden District, the Flower District, Little Tokyo, all these little towns in this area. Instead of a white woman in her thirties or early forties, I’m going to make her young, biracial, and all her friends are going to be immigrants’ kids.
So that was my way of attempting to subvert the cozies.
JH: How did you begin writing detective stories? Why the detective genre in particular? Who are some authors you look to for inspiration? Is there a recent standout detective story that made you rethink or reformulate your relationship with the genre? Do you have a writing routine or must-have rituals?
EL: Very early on, I knew that rituals would kinda be my enemy because I had this thing where in order to prepare myself to write I need to have a two-liter bottle of Coke next to me with a bunch of ice, and I need to start at midnight. After a couple of weeks–I know it’s a low bar–meeting all those standards was like, “I can’t write. I don’t have a full bottle of Coke, so I need to go out and get this…” It just felt like different kinds of procrastination. So I purposely tried to break away from rituals. I’ve tried lots of different things. I tried writing on vintage PowerBooks. For word processing, I found that using a PowerBook G4 is great. I’ve installed a solid-state drive on one of them so it’s as up to date as a modern PowerBook. So I do most of my writing on that and save to a USB drive so that I have two copies.
I am against writing every single day for the sake of writing every single day, but with the whole necessity of parenthood and everything, I am writing every single day. Not as long as I like, probably about an hour every day. I used to do sessions of three to four hours at a time a couple times a week. I have an office at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop that I don’t get to often enough. I try to steal away to there as often as I can on weekends.
How did I get interested in the genre? Growing up at that shabby hotel, there were all kinds of shady things going on. I remember this guy who was staying there because apparently he was cheating on his wife. She found out and drove her car in and somehow it turned into a demolition derby. We had a U-shaped driveway and it was crazy. In addition to having family members who were going on hard times, getting thrown out of their house and getting money from the government to stay at our hotel, what really exposed me to this American Dream thing that was promoted and that my parents bought into, too, is that there’s this whole seedy backside to it as well.
Some of my favorite writers…I really like Charles Wolford. He was this guy who really liked the absurdities in life, and I laugh out loud at his books. They’re hilarious. There’s another writer, Norbert Davis, who was an old pulps kinda guy. He reached a point where he was publishing for the Saturday Evening Post, which for pulp writers–that was making it. Somehow things turned bad and he ended up committing suicide. But his stories live on. I’m a big Chester Himes fan. He’s the guy who started writing social-protest novels and later on turned to detection. He put a lot of the social issues for black Americans in these books even though he was writing from France at that point. Fantastic stuff.
NH: I’m so happy that “H-I-M” is right next to “H-I-R.” And not too far is Tony Hillerman, which is in the family.
BH: Hammett is close.
NH: Yes! I do think the newspaper was a seminal influence. When I joined the Rafu Shimpo, I was the only woman there at the time. We didn’t have cubicles. It was an old-fashioned open newsroom. Some guys smoked; I didn’t smoke. I had the filter thing, but it didn’t work. And all these guys would sit around and talk about sports. And I liked sports, but not to that degree. Then it was like, “Ok, Naomi…produce.” Remember when they used to do stories by inches? Write a 9-inch story about this.
My first story was about a woman found dead in a swimming pool, so maybe that foreshadowed things I would be writing about later. So under those circumstances, I knew that I couldn’t wait for the news to hit me. Just produce, do your thing, investigate and write! I think a lot of journalists don’t have a problem with putting words down. Other things–being more subjective or getting the voice of the character in our fiction–that’s sometimes the large hurdle.
I’m flexible, too. I can write anywhere. I can write literally on a napkin. If it’s a boring event, I enter into my stories. I don’t write everyday either. There are times I have, especially with a deadline. I do think that at the end of the book–I don’t know about you, Ed–you do need the heat on pretty high to fuse the book together. I have written a book in drips and drabs, but I find that it reflects in my work. At some point, the heat needs to go pretty high and I can lower it and everything meshes together.
I’m a Himes fan, too. It’s interesting, my education in literature. I was actually an International Relations major and I took some classes on Japanese lit. I think that was seminal. Unfortunately, most of the authors were male Japanese authors. But later, I picked up on these rebellious blue stocking women writers in Japan I found fascinating. There are some important Japanese female mystery writers like Natsuo Kirino and Miyuki Miyabe, but unfortunately their work in English translation is very limited.
EL: The first Japanese novel was written by a woman.
NH: Yes, Tale of Genji? I read that in high school! Did you like that? Did you read it?
EL: I didn’t read it. I will!
NH: There’s a lot of pillowing, lot of concubine stuff.
EL: Oh, okay.
NH: I did go through a lot of the English writers like Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, those English female masters. There’s a lot of stuff in there in terms of character development. I like Agatha Christie, but I’m not a huge fan. I’m fascinated with her background. You know she was a pharmacist, so she knew how to kill people with poisons. That’s a very female way of killing people, versus a gun. I read a lot of Native American literature, too, that wasn’t necessarily crime fiction. But it was interesting to read Tony Hillerman, who is a white man writing about the Rez. I know he’s been criticized off and on. Sherman Alexie was kinda critical of him, but after 9/11 he said he wasn’t going to get tribal and so fundamentalist. But he calls it colonial literature, and he’s cool with it as colonial literature.
EL: How did 9/11 change…
NH: Because he felt that religious fundamentalists did that to the Twin Towers, so he wasn’t going to be so fundamentalist.
EL: Wow. Yet he’s cool with publishing a white dude using as a Chinese woman’s name.
NH: Everybody evolves for the better or for the worse. I just heard him speak about that. I will continue to evolve and I think I’ll have new favorites. But I can’t name you anything at this point.
EL: I was just thinking about Winter in the Blood by James Welch because you mention Native American writing. That is not a mystery by any means, but it encapsulates a lot of things that Robert Chow feels. I didn’t read it until after This is a Bust, but there’s this sense of being in this land that you don’t belong to, yet you’re also from it. The kind of wandering and hallucinative imagery is really haunting.
NH: Steph Cha, another mystery writer and friend, was really influenced by Raymond Chandler, and her work is a response to his work. As she is thirty years old, her age may be a factor because she studied it in high school and instructors are integrating detective fiction in their classes today. That wasn’t the case for myself, so I was less exposed to the mystery canon unless I read it on my own. I do think because we’re around mystery people all the time, so many of my colleagues tell me they like this guy and this guy and this guy…
EL: But never a woman?
NH: Some, but not usually. So I think there are some gender issues involved as well. It’s going to be different as time passes. Maybe people will write more as a response to or refrain from the classic canon. I wasn’t doing that necessarily; it was just the right container for my stories. I wasn’t fixed on the container. This mystery genre was the best way to tell my story.
EL: You know, reading the classic writers, even Hammett, who was obviously much better than Chandler as a person and a writer–I’m not biased–even he had a Chinatown background or background Asian characters. Just reading that, I can’t help but feel that these are the people who–I don’t know if he realizes it, but he’s marginalizing them. They have the stories, you know they are the waiters and the butlers who know you and your habits better than you do yourself. I want Chinatown to be a character in a way.
NH: One thing that has been interesting for me is that–not to say we’re elevated to the Harlem Renaissance, but you read about these time periods where ethnic or people of color writers would come together. And there were rivalries and people would attack each other, but it was some sort of community. It was hard when I first entered the world because when I went to these mystery conventions I was routinely mistaken for the other Asian woman, who was not a writer and was probably 5’9”. It was in Pasadena, where I live, and the woman greeted me with “konnichiwa”.
EL: Do you know that one of the first times I met you people thought we were husband and wife? Based on nothing!
NH: Yes, based on nothing.
I’m a member of Sisters in Crime. When I was in the newsletter, Dale Furutani saw my name and he contacted me. He said if you need a blurb, if you need help in any way, I’ll do it. I said, Whoa. I just really appreciated him reaching out. He was an example that we need to help each other out. Mysteries in some ways seem less competitive than literary writing. We’re not after grants or things like that. And mystery readers are so voracious, so the more the merrier. I saw Steph was coming out with a book, and I reached out to her before her book was out. I was at Book Soup on Sunset Strip the night of the Academy Awards so hardly anyone was there; someone asked for a recommendation, and I said there’s a new writer, Steph Cha.
BH: Now that these writing communities are growing and expanding, and you being from the West Coast and Ed being from New York, I’m wondering from your vantage point if there is a particular sensibility to geography, namely–and loosely–east coast versus west coast. Jinny’s from L.A. and I’m from New York. All the terrains you’re writing about, Ed–I know those streets.
JH: And I know Naomi’s streets.
NH: A literary journal did something on Los Angeles, and one of the things that kept coming up was transportation. I do think transportation is integral to the L.A. novel, to the detection novel, because how are you going to get around to all these places? Ellie was fun because she was trying to get around on this bicycle.
JH: Which is something I’m totally unfamiliar with in L.A.
NH: Right, which is a new development and more reflective of her age, and I’m trying to play with that. I just noticed, it’s not that I’m super into cars, but every vehicle that my sleuths drive is a very personal one. Mas and his old green truck that kinda personifies his American soul. And that was actually a car my father had. I think because vehicles mean freedom for us in L.A. In detection, if you’re going into foreign terrain or even familiar terrain where you don’t know the outcome, it’s nice to have your trusted sidekick, the car.
BH: What does Ellie’s bicycle mean?
NH: She has 2 bicycles. One is the one she has from high school. Ellie’s story is about a loss of innocence and coming of age. She has a nondescript one for work that is not really hers. She has to park it at work.
JH: But she also has the Green Mile, right, which is her old grandfather’s car that was given to her and is very personal to her. She really identifies with it and her friends want her to get rid of it because it’s old and trashy.
NH: I’m not a super car person but I see it as important as an Angeleno.
EL: I say East Coast but I really mean New York City. The whole thing of recognition of the suspect is a lot more personal. In L.A., that’s her car or that’s her license plate. But in New York, you gotta get up close. That’s her face, that’s her jacket. It’s a lot more personal, you know, too close for comfort. When you look at a place like Chinatown, it’s so population-dense in a way L.A. is not. L.A. is so spread out. In New York, you don’t necessarily know the person, but you know where they go and what they get up to because you’re in such close proximity and you interact with the same people at times. This is how people commute in NY. You’ll probably hit the train at the same time every day and you’re riding this train every day with the same people, potentially for years. You don’t know them but you know their faces.
NH: Did you read Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins?
NH: It’s like a follow up to Gone Girl. It’s about a woman on a train who notices something going on at a regular stop when something different happens. I’m just noticing that there’s a curiosity about someone next to you whom you know nothing about, but you would miss them if they weren’t there.
Mas is going to end with number 7. He goes back to Hiroshima.
JH: Is Mas going to work with Ellie because they meet in Grave on Grand Avenue?
NH: All my characters live in the same fictional world. In Sayonara Slam, Cortez shows up. If you’re a careful reader–I’ve met one so far…she asked if Haruo in my young adult novel is the same as Mas’s best friend. She followed the breadcrumbs! I want to have a purpose for the series. After the second, people were saying, “You need to take Mas over here to Seattle or there or there.” That’s crazy. I can’t just take him to all these places just because the readers want me to. But it’s great that the readers are so invested. I had to take control as a creator and figure out the arc of the series.
BH: Might have fan fiction starting soon.
NH: I would love that!
JH: Do you know how you’re going to end it?
NH: Well, he’s going back to Hiroshima. I received a grant to do some research and I’ll be going to Japan this summer.
EL: Is this an arbitrary decision to end it?
NH: I want to end it at number 7. But haven’t you read any series you thought should have ended earlier?
EL: There’s a series of this Doc character created by this writer Richard Dermody. He’s a pulp writer. I don’t think his stuff has ever been reprinted. After I started reading Norbert Davis, whose stuff has been reprinted, I thought I should read the original Dime Detective issues. This was right before the pulp fiction prices went crazy on eBay. You could still get them for $10-12.
I got the original issues with Norbert Davis stories. I started reading the rest of the stories in the issues. Richard Dermody wrote these hilarious stories about a hustler named Doc who would go into small towns and swindle people out of their money but in the end the Doc would screw up and lose all the money that he made. I’ve been trying to trace that whole trail of Doc stories. I saw that he had written a non-serial story in another magazine in the 40s and I got that. I was so disappointed. It was a Chinatown story. There’s always a Chinatown story with crazy exotic stuff. I feel like he had some outside input on it because some of the Chinese cultural stuff was right, you know? But it was like, I wanted a Doc story but I got the second episode of The BBC’s Sherlock. Ugh.
NH: Hey, speaking of Chinatown. We were talking of the Akashic stories, you know they do all the noir series. Have you ever pitched a Chinatown noir series?
NH: What do you think of that? Do it in different Chinatowns and have interesting people write it with insider perspectives.
BH: That’s so interesting. You mean Chinatowns across the U.S.?
NH: Yes. I wanted to pitch a Japantown series, but there are not that many. Three or four in existence in the whole continental U.S.
EL: Actually it’s interesting that we went to that garden yesterday, the Yamato Colony. Do you know about the garden we went to? It’s a Murakami garden but it’s a remnant of this Japanese colony that was started by this guy who promised Japanese men $500 to cultivate the land. At one point, they had like thirty to forty people. But the number of married men never exceeded single men, and the community died away. What’s interesting is that in Florida, they didn’t intern Japanese Americans. They were still free to move around. You needed a letter to visit another town or something but they were never interned. Only the people who were in this colony who moved to the West Coast were interned.
NH: My husband loves the noir series and suggested doing a 9066 noir series. That’s Executive Order 9066.
EL: You mean like the different camps?
NH: That would be interesting!
EL: The Tule Lake Killer!
BH: The Manzanar Murders!
NH: There was a mystery set in Manzanar by a white man, right?
JH: You mean a fictional story?
NH: Yes, a fictional story.
EL: I don’t know about the Chinatown Noir series.
EL: I’d want to read the whole thing and not just vignettes. I want a novel.
NH: There would be a market for it.
JH: I think so, too.
NH: The thing that would be cool is that you would get the people who have preconceived notions about Chinatown, you’d get Hollywood geeks interested, and then you would get actual Asian Americans interested, too.
EL: What Asian American at this point would want that?
BH: You would have to deal with the whole native or cultural informant stuff. But then it’d be great to write with an awareness that there’s a certain group of readers expecting that and to foil those expectations. Like the way Wayne Wang did it in Chan is Missing.
NH: In a way, my Mas series is a stereotype because he’s a gardener. Was it in Chinatown where the Asian gardener finds the spectacles? A part of me was responding to that. In these stories, the gardener doesn’t have a name. I give him one, Mas Arai. A part of it is subverting people’s expectations. I know a gardener! I had a gardener! That’s how they enter into it. Oh, this is a little different.
EL: I started this Taipei series because I did so much research on Chinatown and Asians in America I started looking at my own personal history. I realized I didn’t know much about Taiwan itself, even though I feel like I was living with Taiwan. After martial law was lifted, my father was like, “Taiwan must be free!” He never said this before and for good reason, too, because the KMT had spies everywhere. They would make your relatives in Taiwan suffer if they knew you were agitating for independence. So I wanted to explore this whole Taiwan thing a lot more.
NH: When did you see Chan Is Missing?
EL: This is a funny story. I saw Chan Is Missing in college. Blockbuster didn’t have it. There were a bunch of Asian Americans and we found a place that had a VHS copy of it. We reserved this room, wheeled in the TV, and we were like, “Yeah! We’re going to watch an Asian American film!” And you know like when at the end of the tape there’s a white noise? I woke up and everyone else was asleep. I read the screenplay to it, and I thought it was pretty good. But there was something about it where it was too slow for us young people.
BH: Really? I loved it. Did you like it?
NH: I loved it, too.
EL: It was probably like ’89 when I saw it. Not too long after it was made.
NH: That’s interesting. That’s a conversation, too. Pace and action and expectations.
EL: Wayne Wang is a long-take kinda guy. He’s not like a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon guy.
BH: He was parodying a lot of those shots in older generation noir films. Some of the shots are really funny because Wood Moy, who plays the detective protagonist, is walking down the street and he does this [sudden turn of the head to look behind him, straight into the camera] thing. When I teach the film, my students are like, “That’s so stupid!” when they see those shots. But it’s parodic and intentional!
JH: They didn’t see the original films though.
EL: You know what was an influence on me, definitely, is I read one of Chester Himes’s biographies when he was writing these social protest novels and they had gone nowhere. Then he was in France and a publisher asked him to write a mystery series and he said make it like a movie. Make something happen on every page. Wow, that’s great. I think something should happen. Whether subtle or not, something should happen.