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Hawaii Journal Part Two

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Working on team stories with the 5th grade

Working on team stories with the 5th grade

In Hawaiian, the ‘Iolani bird is a heavenly hawk. Queen Emma chose it as the name for the Anglican school she founded for Hawaiian and mixed-race boys in Oahu between 1863 and 1870. Approximately 150 years later, the renaissance royal is gone but not forgotten. Many institutions and places hold her name, and the ambitious boys school now admits girls, and has become the largest co-educational Episcopal school in the United States.

I fell under the heavenly hawk’s gaze for the last two weeks as a writer-in-residence. I was brought in as the annual Harold Keables chair-holder, part of an endowment established about 30 years ago honoring a legendary English teacher.

The 'Iolani Bird, fierce and metallic

The ‘Iolani Bird, fierce and metallic

As a full-time writer who works by herself at home, it was a big shift to move from silent mode into talking about how to write. I arrived daily when it was still dark, and the metal ‘Iolani birds eyes glowed red. Gradually the sky lightened to reveal students and staff exercising or studying at the outdoor tables. It’s an intense school.

My first teaching appearances were in Japanese classes for 7th and 8th grade students, where I showed slides of my early years in Japan and talked (in English) about how I channeled those delightful experiences into my Rei Shimura mystery series. More than half the students in the class had been to Japan, so we chatted a lot about their most dramatic memories. Is it any surprise that Japanese toilets—both the antique variety, and the post-modern—brought gales of laughter?

In the journalism/newspaper classes, students were curious how I chose to weave details into both kinds of writing. I enjoyed their full-color newspaper, Imua ‘Iolani, which was packed with interesting stories, photos and art. With so much activity on campus, there was no shortage of stories.

'Iolani hulu dancers performed at a reception.

‘Iolani hulu dancers performed at a reception.

Most of my time was spent working with creative writing and creative non-fiction classes. I had just one goal: to make them feel writing could be fun, much more than an assignment done for a grade. Okay, there was a second goal, too: to help them tap into the stories that were inside them; great material that they might  never have considered. I spoke about how the places we visit—or the family history we hear about from our relatives—can be springboards for the imagination. I told them only to choose writing about things they were genuinely interested in.

Students work collaboratively in their multi-media study center

Students work collaboratively in their multi-media study center

In one class, I challenged them to brainstorm settings and plots based on situations out of their own or their family’s past. One young woman told us about her family’s historic home in France that had been overtaken by the Nazis during the war years. A high school boy thought of exploring the life of a Japanese picture-bride ancestor; and another male student wanted to write about the dilemma of being raised in a football-centered community, yet feeling the urge to put aside the sport for something cerebral. There were other story synopses set in North Korea, Viet Nam, and Japan: a whole world of creative possibilities.

Student-crafted books on Hawaiian history

Student-crafted books on Hawaiian history

And then there were stories I heard about how the teachers and staff came to Hawaii. Chatting with staff who became good friends, I heard hints of stories of their family histories on the island. Links between Japan and China and Polynesia sparkled like jewels.

Jo Okumoto, "Mrs. O," is a popular staffer many visit early each morning

Jo Okumoto, “Mrs. O,” is a popular staffer many visit early each morning

With my Keables organizer, Frank Briguglio of English, and Jackie Oda, the Special Programs assistant who nominated me.

With my Keables organizer, Frank Briguglio of English, and Jackie Oda, the Special Programs assistant who nominated me.

Stepping out into the sunshine after a day of classes, I could almost hear the great ‘Iolani bird rustling its feathers, readying itself to fly.

Hawaii Journal Part One

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I shouldn’t be in Hawaii right now, watching the waves roll in and basking in sunshine.

The only reason I’m here is because I’m a worrier.

In 2014, I began the application process for an artistic residency at the Iolani School in Honolulu. I worried I wasn’t going to be able to pull myself away from my household—even though the event was two years away. I applied because I thought I couldn’t possibly be chosen. But after several months I was surprised by the exciting news I had been chosen as the Keables chair holder and would travel to teach writing workshops to students for two weeks in the winter of 2016. With more than a year to go, it wasn’t hard to plan out the classes, think about what I’d do for the Community Night Public Lecture, assemblies and other events. The school bought my airline ticket five months in advance and booked a two-week stay at a nearby hotel.

Dwarfed by the palms at Foster Gardens

Dwarfed by the palms at Foster Gardens

About a week before my departure, my worrying spiked. Forecasters were predicting a massive snowstorm for Maryland and Washington, D.C. I had the sinking feeling the snow would ruin the carefully laid plans. And if my flight was cancelled, how long would it be till I found a seat on another one? How many classes and Waikiki sunsets would I miss?

Such worries led me to constantly keep checking with American Airlines the whole week. And then, on a Wednesday, I saw a “travel advisory” pop up button on the airline’s homepage that offered a chance to rebook flights for no charge. I recklessly nabbed a seat on the last flight with any space to Hawaii—which left two days before my scheduled flight on Saturday, Jan. 24. My school contact fixed the hotel reservation so I could check in as soon as I arrived. I started to feel better.

On my right is Jackie, a longtime reader and Iolani School staffer who nominated me for the artistic residency

On my right is Jackie, a longtime reader and Iolani School staffer who nominated me for the artistic residency

I arrived in Honolulu on Thursday evening and had a quick sushi dinner by myself on buzzy Kalakaua Boulevard before crashing. When I rang my husband the next day, he was quick to show pictures of the snowstorm. After we said goodbye, I stared at the waves from my hotel balcony and contemplated the power of nature, for better or worse.

That day I fought jet lag by exploring Waikiki in all directions. I went to dinner with Jackie and Ryan, who picked a great Cantonese restaurant. I ate beyond my usual capacity at a wonderful Cantonese restaurant in the Kaimuki neighborhood called Duk Kee, where I tasted a stir-fry of Chinese New Year’s vegetables.

Duk Kee's owner Cammy talking food with Jackie's son, Ryan Oda, a realtor and Iolani graduate

Duk Kee’s owner Cammy talking food with Jackie’s son, Ryan Oda, a realtor and Iolani graduate

The next day, my mystery convention buddies Marji and Hank who now live full-time in Honolulu brought me to Foster Gardens, a historic botanical garden, where I marveled at trees both huge and small. The palm below was barely ten feet tall after 150 years of growth. Sometimes, writing a novel feels about that slow!

tiny tree foster gardens

I was pleased to see that Honolulu residents were growing vegetables in personal plots set up on Foster Gardens grounds. I saw a lot of kale, ginger, and chilies and began imagining how to mix them.

community garden jpeg

Marji and Hank also brought me to see Honolulu from an excellent vantage point on Sand Island below. A high rise building surge is on. Unfortunately, the new condos are priced for overseas investors, not local people. Not that it was a surprise.

Honolulu skyline jpeg

Table views at La Mariana Sailing Club

Table views at La Mariana Sailing Club

We rounded out the night with mai-tais and dinner at La Mariana Sailing Club, a delightful open-air restaurant on a marina filled with sail boats. This hideaway is styled the way it’s always been since its founding by the famous Mariana in 1957. It’s built with with vintage carved tiki and rattan furniture and glowing colored lanterns in the shapes of pufferfish. The menu contains fish, pasta, and other classic indulgences cooked to perfection. It was too dark to get good photos of the interior, so you’ll have to be content with the above view of the marina.

The hilly garden at Spalding House

The hilly garden at Spalding House

On the mellow Sunday that followed, my friend Liz and I visited two locations of the Honolulu Museum of Art. First was the Spalding House in Makiki Heights. This small contemporary art museum has a glorious, rambling garden and an excellent café.

After losing ourselves in the garden, we continued along to Honolulu Museum’s main building. Because this is my fourth time visiting Honolulu, this museum is well-known to me. However, the Japanese decorative arts collection is so huge I’m always entranced by something new. This time, I was captivated by  beautiful painted Japanese screens from the Showa period (1920s and 30s) in immaculate condition. And I was impressed by a brilliantly curated exhibit of  21st century fashion worn by young people in Tokyo’s trendy Harajuku neighborhood. For the last fifteen years or so, designers in Japan have catered to teenage style-setters with astounding dresses riffing on commercial stuffed animals, fairies, Alice in Wonderland, Gothic horror, steam punk, and Elizabethan England. Another museum-goer who was into Cos-Play told me the retail price for one of these modern masterpieces was $700-$800. Wow!

A very spooky rabbit mannequin in a romantic Harajuku fashion

A very spooky rabbit mannequin in a romantic Harajuku fashion

After viewing the fanciful outfits, I had a brief desire to be eighteen again. But then I remembered that Japanese and Hawaiian culture weren’t part of my mental landscape then. I wouldn’t know what Gothic Lolita meant and if you served me sushi, I would have run from the table.

Glorious Spalding House museum garden

Glorious Spalding House museum garden

Sometimes it takes years to arrive at the places you’re meant to go. And after such a highly relaxed weekend, I’m ready to start school.  More about that two weeks from now, in Hawaii Journal Part 2.

A Japanese Atelier

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The word “binge” comes heavily into use at this time of year.

Alcohol and chocolate are common splurges, but relaxing activities of all sorts can become crazy bad habits  when you’ve got holiday time away from work. I’ve a confession to make: I’m binging on something I very rarely imbibe: television.

Murder Under the Mistletoe: one of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries on Netflix

Murder Under the Mistletoe: one of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on Netflix

Typically, there’s so much computer usage in my day that I’m spent by evening and have no more interest in screens.  But during Christmas 2014, I forced myself to make use of our Netflix subscription. I fell in love with “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” from Australia—and to my regret was done with all episodes of the first two seasons in two weeks, including the infamous Christmas Special pictured above. Next I moved onto “Bletchley Circle,” a suspenseful BBC miniseries. International TV was better than I’d ever thought! As the holidays ended, I lost the time for my new hobby and returned to work.

This past Christmas Day, once the gifts were opened and papers and boxes captured for recycling, I got to work on my binge project. My requirements were lovely cinematography, an international locale and either humor or love.

Netflix suggested a series called “Atelier” based on my past, pitifully few selections.  Description: A young “fabric geek” lands a job at an upscale Japanese lingerie company and quickly discovers she’ll need help to survive.” Performed in Japanese, the subtitle options are English, French, German and Spanish, opening the show to viewers in many countries. In Japan, the show title is bit more blunt: “Underwear.”

Mirei Kiratani stars in a an original Netflix series called "Atelier" worldwide

Mirei Kiratani stars in a an original Netflix series called “Atelier” worldwide

Before tuning in, I was suspicious the lingerie aspect might mean the show was exploitative, but I was happily proven wrong. Atelier is a 13-episode series featuring an awkward, plainly spoken university graduate named Mayuko who gets an entry-level job at Emotion, a legendary atelier (designer’s salon) specializing in custom-made lingerie.

In Japan, "Atelier" is titled "Underwear"

In Japan, “Atelier” is titled “Underwear”

Who is the oddball heroine? Mayuko explains to a co-worker that her first name is written with the kanji character meaning cocoon; this is nicely symbolic for a girl with a deep love for silk and other fibers—and a person who grew up raised only by a father who worked at a textile factory in the country. She’’s been entirely insulated from modern femininity. Mayuko wears the same gray business suit with a white button down shirt and black Mary Jane flats in at least the first three shows. Her boss calls it “tacky,” and this very typical Japanese business suit gets her expelled from a chic party on Episode 3.

Emotion’s team of six experienced professionals teach Mayuko about the mysterious power of style, the construction of garments, and providing the world’s best customer service when selling bra-and-panty sets for $1000 apiece. Mayuko makes lots of mistakes, but is forgiven by her formidable boss, Nanjo-san, who has a heart of gold behind all the lace and underwire.

Girl in a Box by Sujata MasseyI wrote an eleven-book mystery series set in Tokyo. In these novels, the young Japanese-American heroine Rei Shimura rhapsodized about Japanese customer service and lovely products she could not afford to buy. One of these books, Girl in a Box, is set in a fictional Ginza department store. When I was writing the first draft, I returned to Japan and tried to set up research visits at several department stores. I was always politely refused. The only way I could learn about Japanese retail was through my own shopping and secret interviews of retail employees at cocktail bars and restaurants! At the time, I was happy to get this stealth intelligence; however, what I’ve absorbed from watching Atelier is more illuminating.I had a glorious time living near Tokyo in the early 1990s. During these days, I was a devout visitor to department stores in Tokyo’s Ginza. I could tell if I’d been shopping too long by glancing up at the iconic Seiko clock tower atop the Wako department store–a lovely sight that is shared on Atelier. 

Ginza Wako Clock

I always felt safer when I was living in Japan: a fairytale lifestyle that was bound to end. “Atelier” has provided me a surprising return to that serenity, one hour at a time.

India’s History in Bits and Pieces

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

India Gray by Sujata MasseyConfession: It’s very hard for me to tell a story in less than 100,000 words.

A novel provides all the space I need to figure out what’s going to happen. This might happen well after the first half and change focus several times before the final chapter is written  Still, something about short stories and novellas tempts me. I admire the skill of writers who can paint rich characters and provide a full, rewarding story in less than twenty pages. I feel like I’m getting away with something when I consume a good piece of literary or mystery short fiction within one sitting.

Over the last eighteen years, I’ve had a handful of short stories and one novella released as e-books and within multi-author anthologies. In the year 2015, I set a goal to create my own trade paperback made up of short fiction works. I spent a few weeks culling through older work, deciding what to include and what to put away for another time (yes, I have a proverbial “drawer” in my laptop computer). Then I spent three months crafting an original novella and almost four weeks on a short story to anchor the book. It was becoming clear to me that no matter how much I wanted to write shorter fiction, I still took longer than most writers to accomplish my first drafts. After final edits, 67,000 words totaled about 300 pages of reading material. Enough for a real book!

The next task was coming up with its title: India Gray: Historical Fiction. I hope this hints at what’s inside: two stories and two novellas spanning the years 1919 to 2001 and featuring mostly South Asian characters.

Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain in "Testament of Youth"

Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain in “Testament of Youth”

The book begins with a traditional mystery novella, Outnumbered in Oxford, set in 1919 England. I became interested in the lives of Oxford’s early women students after seeing the recent film of the writer/peace activist Vera Brittain’s autobiography, Testament of Youth. I discovered Vera Brittain’s diary in the archives of our city library and began absorbing more Edwardian period history, including that of Indians who emigrated to study at Oxford and Cambridge during the late Victorian and Edwardian time periods. My Bombay-born heroine, Perveen Mistry, and her British classmate, Alice Hobson-Jones, are both odd, independent young women who come together as unlikely best friends at St. Hilda’s College. When they’re tasked with hunting down a missing Indian man, the ladies calculate various disturbing scenarios and lay out a daring series of tests to uncover the villain. What fun it was for me to pull together all the threads in just 86 pages!

Map of WWII Activity in India and BurmaFor the collection’s title story, India Gray, I returned to characters from my 2013 novel,  The Sleeping Dictionary. Kamala, a young Indian woman married to an Englishman, travels with him to the northeastern province of Assam during the latter part of World War II. Assam borders Burma and was penetrated by the Japanese during the War, creating a situation ripe with danger and intrigue.

The Ayah’s Tale is a novella exploring mother-child-nanny issues, which were considerable in late colonial India. Menakshi is a bright young teenager forced to leave her school in 1920s Bengal to provide round-the-clock care for three children of a wealthy, unhappy British couple. Her coming-of-age story is an expansion of a section that almost went into another novel, but had to be cut because it pulled the reader away from the central emotional struggle. This is a very common writer’s dilemma; too many ideas and themes to fit in one book. One could throw such a piece of lost writing into the cyber-trash—but I felt too committed to the characters not to alter them slightly, expand the plot, and create a novella.

Young woman in burqa (AP Photo)

Young woman in burqa (AP Photo)

Bitter Tea, the closing short story, is set in the Northwest Frontier Territories of Pakistan that was overtaken by the Taliban after 2001. While the time period is considerably more recent than the other stories, the lifestyle of the isolated villagers is much more antiquated and restricted. What happens when teenage girls are banned from school, confined to their homes and are smoldering with anger? I’m not sure if Bitter Tea should be described as black humor, a feminist fable, or a mini-thriller; I’m very curious what readers will say. Here is a link to read  India Gray‘s first fifty pages.

Teenagers May Hold the Key

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

If you read books set in other countries, you care about things that happen beyond your front door.

Funeral procession of Ados Termos, who died after tackling a suicide bomber in Beirut (CNN)

Funeral procession of Ados Termos, who died after tackling a suicide bomber in Beirut (CNN)

The recent blog posts by  Annamaria Alfieri and Cara Black as well as a poem by Karuna Ezara Parikh are powerful testimonies to read after Nov 12-13.

What’s on my mind are the young men and women themselves. What is it that enables a person to step away from social norms and slaughter people unknown to them?

A killer’s psyche is a question that crime writers have to face with every book they write. And in books, you can’t get away with a killing that doesn’t have motivation, such as greed, anger, heartbreak, envy.

But there are killings without cause. Young people affiliated with ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda and other organizations murder not out of animosity for victims, but at someone’s command. In most cases, they’ve left their families and friends for training camps that are advertised to teens as the equivalent as summer camp. If they want to leave, they can’t.

Experts say these departures happen for many reasons. Poor education, unemployment, cultural oppression, political alienation. And then there’s loneliness.

Measuring blood spilled at Baltimore's 300th homicide (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

Measuring blood spilled at Baltimore’s 300th homicide (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

As I write I realize this list sounds awfully similar to the forces leading to young North Americans who’ve been immortalized as mass murderers of the public and gang killers.

In Baltimore, we’ve had 300 people killed from Jan 1 to November 14 of this year. Most of these homicides aren’t solved. The killers remain on our streets, working away. Witnesses to these murders are too frightened to give evidence to the police.

I feel that the unending chain of deaths in my city—and the almost-weekly mass shootings in schools and businesses in the U.S.—is also terrorism.

This brings me back to the similarities between disaffected young people on all of our continents.  For a huge number of children, life is wretched and unstable due to the lack of a secure home. If you are a minor, you usually can’t do anything to change your situation. You must endure put hunger, extreme temperatures,  the school with bullies where nothing is taught, harassment on the street from others, the physical or verbal abuse.

What changes things for children growing up without a loving parent? Another person who notices them and cares.

What I think really counts is kinship. People you spend time with repeatedly who will give you a chance to part of their lives and help you move on to another place.

A young voice is heard at Marnita's Table

A young voice is heard at Marnita’s Table

In Minneapolis, there’s a family who’s hosted more than 15,000 dinner guests in the last ten years.  Before you write in saying I’ve made a typographical error, let me explain that Marnita Schroedel and her husband Carl Goldstein have an “open-table” policy that brings together people at an event known as Marnita’s Table. The dinner parties are delicious and free and mingle people of every religion, race, gender identity and economic and educational levels. The goal is to really listen to each other and get to the root of serious issues plaguing the city and its people. Teenagers are always honored guests at the table; and at the end of the evening, when a circle is formed and each person speaks, they’re listened to with respect.

There are many positive outcomes to these evenings, starting with the fact that at-risk teenagers who attend the table just once improve their grades dramatically. Most teenagers come many times. They finish high school and go to college. They’ve built a youth advisory council that gives them a chance to meet regularly and take on the task of improving our world.

I dream that all across the world, young people in tough times could have the experience of knocking on a door and be welcomed inside.

A Taste of Literary New York

Book browsers on 4thThis post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

One of the perks of East Coast life is the freedom to visit other cities within just a few hours. Recently I caught a 6:30 charter bus to New York City and was midtown by 9:45. I’d temporarily abandoned my peeps in Baltimore to enact a very pleasant yearly ritual: my New York literary weekend. It was a short walk from my friend’s apartment in Cooper Square to Union Square.

Along Fourth Avenue lies a section once known as Book Row. Only a few bookshops remain out of the 48 that once flourished during the Edwardian era. Still, it was a happy sight to see books and browsers, and the very best bookstore in America is still open nearby.

Strand BookstoreYes, I hit the Strand. Inside, big wooden tables were loaded with thousands of brand new books, in addition to venerable old ones packed tightly on industrial shelving that took up a supposed “18 miles” of space. I was astonished by the hordes of intense-looking employees—a number I couldn’t begin to count. Hundreds of customers swirled around me, and getting near a particular bookshelf was a give-and-take between people as carefully negotiated as entering the subway.

Soho Press was around the corner. I met with my new editor, Juliet Grames, and the marketing and publications staff. An energizing conversation was chased by a tasty lunch at a nearby Japanese restaurant. I left a few hours later with Soho’s cute “Crime Has No Time Zone” bag loaded up with the latest from David Downing, Mette Ivie Harrison and Andromeda Romano-Lax.

Dev Patel plays the lost genius Ramunajan in the film version of "The Man Who Knew Infinity"

Dev Patel plays the lost genius Ramunajan in the film version of “The Man Who Knew Infinity”

My happy publishing afternoon continued with a cup of tea with my literary agent, Vicky Bijur. As we talked about my career and the general future for fiction, our conversation turned to the good news that three of Vicky’s authors have had books turned into major films in the last year… one of these, The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel, is an Indian historical biography of Ramunajan, the mathematician. The film stars two of my favorite guys: Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons.

As Friday wound down, I sat in a Union Square coffee shop with my cousin, Suman Bhattacharya, who also writes fiction. I was intrigued to hear about Suman’s latest novel-in-progress set in a modern slum in Kolkata. The American agent who received his query asked whether there was a white male character in the storyline. My cousin’s depressing report reminded me of some chats with screenwriters interested in transferring my Japanese mysteries to US locations and characters. I encouraged him not to give up.

Sujata Massey, Maya Lang, Tania James and Mira Jacob

Sujata Massey, Maya Lang, Tania James and Mira Jacob

Still, this quandary was on my mind as I headed over to the Indo-American Arts Council’s second annual literary festival. I was so eager for the festival that I was one of the first people to arrive at the new location at Hunter College. The challenge of getting decision-makers to accept diverse works of fiction was a recurring topic on many panels, including one on how to break into publishing, and another about writing for film.

I moderated a panel on Sunday with three terrific women literary fiction authors. We discussed whether we thought we wrote different kinds of books because of our gender, and how audiences reacted when several of us chose to write about characters and places that didn’t seem to match up with our Asian names. It was a lively roundtable discussion. One of the panelists, Mira Jacob, recently wrote a Buzzfeed commentary about her odd experience of being talked over while giving a speech on race at a Publishers Weekly event. Mira said the net result of the ignoring drew more far more attention to the issue than a successful speech would have.

How do we create original, creative books that will be embraced by the English-language publishing universe? Believe it or not, this concern also applies to cookbook authors. Many big Indian foodies abhor the way food is typically photographed in brass dishes, and old-time Punjabi recipes are served a continuous loop. They want to convince us to cook differently.

Food writer Suvir Saran and India's TV journo Saransh Goila react to a question from from novelist/blogger Pia Padukone

Food writer Suvir Saran and India’s TV journo Saransh Goila react to a question from from novelist/blogger Pia Padukone

At a panel titled “The Hot New Genre of Food Writing,” a couple of Michelin-rated chefs, an Indian culinary TV host, and a US-based food writer shared tales of beloved family members who set them on their paths and the joy of using with spices with local, organic fruits and vegetables particular to North America. My appetite was whetted, and I wished I’d had a chance to eat at the panelists’ restaurants: Vikas Khanna’s Junoon, and Suvir Saran’s Devi. I also regretted missing the big interview with food writer/actress Madhur Jaffrey on Thursday, and another book talk with writer/actress/Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi.

A final bite and drink at Morrell's with Suvir Saran's "Masala Farm"

A final bite and drink at Morrell’s with Suvir Saran’s “Masala Farm”

Ten new books barely fit in the three bags I packed at festival’s end. As I awaited my bus at a bar near Rockefeller Center,  I realized that, for me, books are the seventh food group. Visiting one of the world’s great publishing capitals each year replenishes the pantry within my heart.