Author Archive for Sujata – Page 2

Independence Anniversaries

A year ago today, July 4, our family drove into Baltimore for Act III of our life here. It was quite hot–100 degrees plus–and broken cherry, elm and oak trees were strewn across the streets. A week earlier, a massive derecho storm had devastated sections of Maryland–and electricity was absent in half the steaming city.

From Minnesota, we’d signed a sales contract for an 1897 house with an amazing location in the old neighborhood. We didn’t know that, while we were driving in to Maryland from the midwest, the cruel derecho would throw a giant old elm on its roof! That Fourth of July, we drove as fast as we could get away with, but still missed out on the morning’s annual Independence Day parade down Roland Avenue. It was three o’clock when we arrived at our friends’ comfortable shingle style cottage on St. Johns Road. I was overjoyed to stop driving and have a glass of lemonade, a shower, and space to stay in their home (which had not lost its power and had air conditioning). We were immediately invited to a couple of parties in the neighborhood that night. This invitation bonanza was classic Roland Park-Evergreen-Tuxedo Park-Alonsoville hospitality: a big reason we’d come back.

I have enjoyed living for short periods in Asia, Europe, on both coasts and the upper midwest of the United States. Moving around gives me the chance to discover new roads, words, foods, art, and friends. Baltimore had such surprises for me, during Act I of my residence here: the decade of my college and newspaper days. Cracking open steamed crabs at porch parties, developing street smarts while reporting on events in rundown East and West Baltimore, buying old silver at auction at Howard Street–all of it was good learning. I left to go to Japan with my new husband, and after a couple of blissful years there, we returned to the city where we’d first met as students. Act II stretched into 13 years devoted to building a fiction career and a family. We also became experts on moving: going from two different apartments within the same 1930s building in Tuscany-Canterbury to a small Dutch colonial in Evergreen and finally, to a rambling shingle style house in Roland Park. There I learned to strip wallpaper off of old paster and lead paint from wood moldings and make Martha Stewart birthday cakes for my children. The house was built with love and sweat, and it hurt to sell it to move away from Baltimore again.

Based on my fondness for exploration, I believed that I could fully acclimate to another place, but I never stopped missing Baltimore. I had to come back–even if it was to a senior citizens’ home, I told my husband. But in spring of 2012, we received a surprise offer on our Minneapolis house when it was not even for sale.Surely there was an angel on my shoulder, wanting to wing me back. And within a month of coming to terms with the buyers, we were on the freeway headed back east.

They call this week’s holiday Independence Day. For me, it’s more of a Dependence Day–realizing that my life is all the richer because of continued connections with people who know me.

The Road to the Right Cover

I just ate three five chocolates to celebrate the fact that my book’s cover design is finally approved. This was more than a three month process. The talented artists at Simon&Schuster went through four designs before resulting in this one:

I like the bold red and gold, the cozy, interesting vintage bed, and the opened book on it. And I’ve got to say, cover designs that match the writer’s dream don’t usually come together. Here’s how it happened.

Years ago, when I started writing The Sleeping Dictionary, I thought there was a strong chance I would self-publish, so I got an account at Istock, a photo image shopping source. There I saved a “lightbox” of good images I might one day use. I gathered pictures of ornately carved doors, intricate textiles, graceful young women in saris, and also, a very romantic, canopied bed (all right, it was a Moroccan bed, but I would sleep in it any day!) Then my book was sold to the amazing Kathy Sagan at Simon&Schuster…and I thought I probably wouldn’t look in the India lightbox again.

Writers don’t direct their cover designs. Our skills are typically stronger for words than graphics and images. Therefore, we are offered “cover consultation.” The art department comes up with a design, and if you absolutely hate it, will prepare another one for you to consider. Fortunately, I’ve never heard the swearing that must be inevitable after someone sweats for weeks on a design that I’ve rejected.

Over the last ten books, I’ve had thirty-plus covers, if you count all the US hardcovers, the foreign editions and trade and mass market paperbacks. Generally, for the paperbacks and all foreign published editions, I know nothing about what the covers look like until a box of finished books thuds onto my porch. Still, my favorite Rei Shimura cover design of all time is the very first one. How I love the face and Mount Fuji-san…let’s forget that only elderly farmers in Japan would ever wear such a conical straw hat!

The early cover design ideas for The Sleeping Dictionary appeared in February. I’d post them if they were not lost in the Iclouds. But I remember them! Both cover ideas were sepia toned photographs. The first was a teenaged Indian girl wearing a North Indian dancer’s skirt and blouse. She was smiling and frolicking in a meadow. The other was an image of a naked Victorian lady seated with her voluptuous back and buns facing the viewer. Now, there is a short chapter in the book about naked photographs…but this cover was from a different era, featuring a European! There was nothing ugly about these cover designs–but they just didn’t connect with the material inside the book. Quietly praying to myself–they will change the cover!–I sent my editor a polite note with suggestions and a link to the sepia toned photos of Calcutta from the University of Pennsylvania’s magnificent collection and also the image of the Moroccan bed from Istock.com. Luckily she adored the bed, and a month later the art department came up with a cover featuring their own Indian bed.

I was so thrilled with the publisher’s willingness to put a nice-looking bed with a red coverlet on the cover that I didn’t have the heart to make any comments other than they maybe brighten up the red. But in my long-ago imaginary design for self-publishing, I’d thought there should be a book on the bed. It turned out I didn’t need to say this, because the assistant publisher was struck by the idea herself, and voila!

But we weren’t done yet.My agent suggested that the book was awkwardly large–and the green didn’t play well with the red and gold. At a publishing meeting in New York, I mentioned that the book might look better if it was opened, like someone had been interrupted while reading. Again, the publisher listened–and a nice new book appeared on the bed!

The Sleeping Dictionary will be released August 20. But you can pre-order it now through Amazon or any bricks-and-mortar bookseller. If you do this, and you’d like something special from me now, I’ve started mailing out signed, personalized book plates to stick inside the books. Pre-orders REALLY help the book to succeed…and right now I still have the time to send out bookplates in a timely fashion! I will sign personal messages to you, your mother, your friend, your school library…whoever! Just email me the details of where you’ve ordered The Sleeping Dictionary, and where I should mail your bookplate.

Hey! If you would rather have the book’s title page signed in ink by me, simply email one of the early bookstores on my tour–like Once Upon a Crime, Centuries and Sleuths, Mystery Loves Company, and The Ivy. They’ll take pre-orders and get the details from you on what I should write on the page. And rest assured that your book will be mailed straightaway once I’ve had it in my hands.

The Next Big Thing

My good friend Naomi Hirahara, who writes the Edgar-winning Mas Arai series, asked me a few questions about the Next Big Thing in my life. So here goes.

What is the Working Title of Your Book? The Sleeping Dictionary. In the 18th century, Asian women who were romantically involved with officers in the British and Dutch East India Companies were sometimes called Sleeping Dictionaries because of the importance of the languages and culture they taught. Even though the book is set much later on in India, it deals with colonial relationships and also the power of books and language.

Where did the idea come from? I was originally inspired by the ornate 19th century office buildings and bungalows in the Bengali city of Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, the foundation and most important city in British India. As I child, I was swept away by the grandeur of old British colonial architecture. As I continued to visit Calcutta into adulthood, these lovely buildings began crumbling or were torn down for the sake of progress. Writing a novel set in the zones of Chowringhee, Ballygunge and College Street at the end of the British colonial period gives a glimpse of a lifestyle and people in danger of being forgotten.

What genre best defines this book? Definitely historic fiction, with a touch of mystery and espionage thrown in. I adore espionage and was gratified to learn about a covert intelligence unit operating with in the Indian Civil Service in Calcutta. So I could have my cake and know it was historically accurate.

Which Actors would play roles? I have a Bengali heroine called Kamala who ages from ten to almost thirty through the course of the story, so I would need two or three actresses for her role. There are a lot of talented, beautiful Indian women actresses, so many I couldn’t hazard a guess. Rubina Ali from Slumdog Millionaire could play her in the young teens. I have always imagined John Abraham (wearing glasses) as Pankaj, a love interest of Kamala’s. For Simon Lewes, the English ICS officer, a young Ralph Fiennes type is what I’m after–uptight but cute and veddy English! Give me your suggestion for a good English actor in the comments section below.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of the book? In 1920s Bengal, A young Indian girl orphaned in a cyclone struggles to stay alive, gaining languages, skills and grace leading to her spying against the British for the freedom fighting movement.

Will it be self-published or represented by a traditional agent? My agent Vicky Bijur sold it to editor Kathy Sagan at Simon & Schuster’s Gallery line. The book will be a trade paperback published in 2013.

How long did it take to write the first draft? This book took a year to research (including Hindi language study!), two years to complete the first draft, a year to revise to my agent’s satisfaction, and a year and a half to sell.

Who or what inspired writing the book? If you’ve read any of my Rei mysteries, you may have noticed a recurring theme of people attempting cross-cultural liaisons. The impact of militaries and colonial powers on Asian societies is another issue that I care about. For this novel, I wanted to paint a multi-faceted picture of colonialism and the diverging freedom movement–the non-violent Gandhians and also the militaristic Subhas Chandra Bose freedom-fighting group that was very inclusive of women patriots.

What else about the book might pique readers’ interest? There’s a twisting, turning love triangle; lots of yummy Indian food, and a mother-daughter story that makes me cry and hopefully will do the same for you.

I have harassed a number of writer friends into doing interviews just like this about their upcoming work. Next Wednesday December 12, you can learn about the upcoming work of Lois Greiman . She’s a really funny, sassy writer of mystery, historical, women’s and paranormal who lives on a farm in Minnesota. Also please check out the latest from Ellen Byerrum a former style journalist who writes the Crimes of Fashion mysteries and has a standalone ebook coming out. Paranormal lovers (intentional play on words) see what’s doing with my supercool fellow Simon&Schuster author Maria Lima. And I’m also offering a free ticket for first-class travel to Denmark, India and points in between with fabulous international fiction author Amulya Malladi.

Enjoy all your journeys with The Next Big Thing.

The Gomi Pile

Gaijin going through Japanese trash–for personal gain.

Excuse me?

That’s what I said the first time I heard about “gomi-picking” or “gomi-hunting.” Apparently one night each month, in neighborhoods all around, Japanese residents set out used furnitures, TVs, stereos and the like to be collected by garbagemen (so they believed) while the real collectors were…eager foreigners.

Funny how the Americans living on tight military salaries noticed these TVs sitting for the asking. And they went for it. Gomi-picking expeditions turned into dinner party stories. Remember the time Jack drove two blocks and came back with two TVs? The time Donna got a CD player for her kids and a stroller? The best story of all was about the faux leather massage chair, still vibrating after all the years.

Big garbage memories hit me like an overloaded contractor bag the other week. I’d held a yard sale resulting in very few items sold (although, it must be said, a woman showed up who said she would like to buy the house). That would take time to come to fruition, but in the meantime, I still owned too many books, kitchenware, clothing, toys, furniture annd sporting equipment.

A friend suggested I call the Salvation Army and arrange for them to pick up the leftovers. I did this. Because my front yard is up a steep flight of steps, I decided to carry everything down to the grassy strip next to the sidewalk in front of the house. The Salvation Army dispatcher said it would be easier for the driver.

By the time I’d finished putting out the gomi–on a fine, sunny Monday, with the pickup scheduled for the next day–I met a young woman who looking interestedly at the many baskets I had heaped together. “These would be nice for my church!” she said. What else could I say but, “please take them?” She did–and the bamboo screen that has dogged my basement for years.

A few hours later I saw another unknown person standing by the pile, using a cellphone to call someone about the goods. And then, a few hours later, there was a truck, and a man excitedly looking through everything. “I’ll pay whatever you want,” he said, “But some of these books would be great for my kids.”

And so it went. Perhaps a few dozen people stopped by the gomi pile, taking what they wanted. It felt really good to know people wanted these things! After one night, the gomi pile was maybe 1/5 gone; still plenty left for the Salavation Army, I thought as we packed up to leave town on a short family vacation. When we returned, though, plenty of gomi awaited. Big storms had scattered it across the grass near the sidewalk–making us look like the worst neighbors.

Sadly, I packed up the leftovers into my trash cans,wishing this had been Japan and there was a base nearby with enthusiasts who would have gone for everything on the first night. Or would they? A mishmash of books and textiles is hardly comparable with a massage chair. That was probably the problem; my gomi wasn’t high end enough.

Next time, I’m listing it all on Freecycle. And that time might be sooner than later. As we unpack our boxes at our new house, we’ve discovered inherited trash in the crawlspaces underneath the porches. What was left for us ranges from empty beer bottles to remnants of wood and decomposing shag carpet. My husband has worked many hours, wearing a respirator, removing this smelly, wet horror show, which was probably also the reason we had about a hundred times more mosquitos on our property than anyone else in the area. A hauler’s coming Friday; $50 seems a small price to make our big, bad gomi pile go away to the landfill.

Because nothing’s ever really gone, is it? It just moves to another place.

Member of the Club


Last week I put on my favorite Etienne Aigner heels and went out clubbing–that is, to the Minneapolis Woman’s Club. Housed in a handsome old red brick building near Loring Park at the edge of downtown, the club is one of my current home city’s most celebrated venues for weddings and concerts. I’m not a member. A few years earlier with my friend Lois Greiman to speak at an author luncheon. At that time I was struck by the facility’s elegance and the interesting ladies–mostly over the age of 70–who made the time to come out and listen to a couple of mystery authors yammer on. This time I didn’t want to be a performer; I wanted to go incognito with some women friends for fun. But was the word ‘fun’ congruous with an organization that had been started by the city’s female elite in 1907?  And the whole business of it being a Woman’s club (versus a women’s club, or a club that didn’t discriminate on account of gender) struck me as worth investigating.

To reach the club, I drove 5 minutes with my club member friend Janis in her harvest yellow PT Cruiser–a proverbial golden carriage to take us to the Woman’s Palace. Up the steps and into the softly lit foyer, we spotted another friend waiting on a chintz sofa. Within minutes, I’d sunk into a comfortable glow of polished wood, tapestry and Chardonnay. I was beginning to forget that we’d ever considered going to normal restaurant bar for our gathering. Why in the world? What pleasure this was–a room full of women of all ages, talking with each other, laughing, and not a single ‘Real Housewives’ cleavage in the room.

While social/charitable clubs are reputed to be on the wane, the Minneapolis Woman’s Club appeared to be thriving. Many professional women members, mostly in the 40s and above, were chatting with friends on comfortable couches. It was hard to break away from the lounge–where we were meeting old and new friends right and left. But after an hour, we drifted into the white-linen dining room, where we were given menus that were an update of club fare–lamb chops, salmon, and big dinner salads–but with charming side additions liked creamed celeraic and roasted brussel sprouts. You know–the vegetables that women always want to eat, but nobody else in the family does. I was stunned at how delicious the old-fashioned meal was, thanks to the club’s new chef (“from France!” Janis reported). We ended with excellent coffee and the ‘snowball,’ a vanilla ice cream sundae that apparently dates back many decades as a club favorite.

What do you need to join the Club? Two members to recommend you, an initiation fee that floats between $500 and &750, about $160 in monthly dues–and a commitment to spend $150 or more on food and beverage per quarter. It’s spendy, but probably a bit less than the athletic club I belong to. Though here all the heavy lifting at the Woman’s Club does not have cardiac benefits: just social and intellectual. However, it must be said that the club also donates tens of thousands a year on programs for women and children. I suppose the few all-male clubs that are left engage in similar philanthropy. But why does the idea of a men’s club–or a men’s club that will only grudgingly allow women–rankle me? I remember now how disturbing it felt to visit the Calcutta Club, for decades an all-male organization that now occasionally accepts women members, although  no female member or guest can ever set foot inside a famous upstairs bar.

I don’t have a problem with single sex education: for a lot of the childhood years, I think it’s better. But clubs are another kettle of fish; and I honestly can’t understand why I like the Minneapolis Woman’s Club so much and feel bad about the Calcutta Club.

But with any kind of social club, there is a deeper cost that many women my age cannot afford–the cost of leaving a busy family life. Participating in club life means going somewhere, maybe once a week, to spend time socializing–I don’t remember seeing any ladies scrolling their cell phones or chatting on them. Writers like me always have their laptops–they feel guilty when not writing. And for a mother in my shoes (Dansko clogs this time), how can I run away from the kids at the witching hour, when they need a ride back from their sports practice, homework help, not to mention dinner?

I’m not ready to transform into a clubwoman yet. But if you’re going next week, give me a call.

Shimura Style: a fashion critique

Blogger Sabrina catching up with The Samurai’s Daughter

So far, this spring has been a plodding one. I’ve been working so hard on the next Rei book for that I’m feeling a bit fuzzy and plan a shopping break tomorrow with my mother.

Still, my thoughts aren’t far from Rei, who’s also experiencing the Ides of March, but in Tokyo. How I  wish I could get her into something cuter than what she’s been wearing for the last couple of chapters ( men’s jeans, and a newsboy cap and North Fleece down coat). I had an email conversation with Sabrina Chun, a Facebook friend and longtime reader about Rei’s fashion style, and the fashion challenges for petite women who exist outside the world of fiction. You can check out Sabrina’s outfits at her blog, thepetitestyle.com.

Q: Sabrina, tell us about where you grew up and how you became a fashionista.

Sabrina: I grew up in the Bay Area (the East Bay, specifically) in a small city forty minutes from San Francisco. Even at a very young age, I still remember my grandmother buying patterns and cloth, sitting at her sewing machine and making me clothes. Ever since then, I’ve always been interested in what to wear, how to wear it, and to wear it well. I also loved reading magazines. Certain haute couture editorials and spread for each season struck me as so beautiful and creative! Also, fittingly enough, novels and literature played a major role. I really enjoy it when authors describe what their characters are wearing–which is part of the reason why I love Rei Shimura so much!

Q. You’ve mentioned that you enjoy the clothing in the Rei books–thanks a lot. Are there any outfits that stand out in particular books?

Sabrina: I’m an enormous fan of vintage. Like Rei, I adore rummaging through my mother’s closet to borrow pieces, although they’re lesser known Taiwanese brands from the 1960s and ’70s. Rei’s style strikes me as feminine but functional; she seems to only favor heels when needed. I love how she runs from professional to dressy to casual, just like me. This is exemplified in The Flower Master, where she is first shown in a casual outfit with her beloved Asics, then is in a flirty little red slip dress and heels on a night out, and later is dressed in an exquisite Japanese kimono for a party.

Q. Rei wears kimono more often than the typical woman in Japan. What are your feelings about young Asian American women wearing national dress?

Sabrina: I greatly encourage young women to embrace their cultures! Although I’m definitely very much an American girl in most respects, I do love my Chinese and Hawaiian background. When the occasion arises, I try to wear cultural clothing; for this past Lunar New Year, I donned a qipao (traditional Chinese dress for women). And there are definitely ways to take traditional items and make them modern again. For example, in one of my posts I wear Chinese style shoes that work surprisingly well with my outfit.

Q. Have you encountered any fashion violations in my books that make you cringe (like her running wear)?

Sabrina: As a whole, I very much enjoy Rei’s fashion choices. But like you mentioned, I would probably nix her wearing athletic shoes (that is, if she’s not actually running). My personal picks are heels, boots or flats, but I understand that a sleuth would need to get around quickly!

Sabrina goes Grecian in Chinatown

Q. There is usually a climactic scene toward the end of each book where Rei winds up wearing a dramatic costume to pull off solving the mystery. She wore anime attire in The Floating Girl, a formal kimono in The Bride’s Kimono, a Lolita look in The Typhoon Lover, and dyed her hair blond for Girl in a Box. Did any of these transformations speak to you?

Sabrina: I have noticed and I love it! It speaks of Rei’s incredible resourcefulness, cleverness and versatility. To me, those costumes are not only interesting to read about, but they serve to further emphasize to both the audience and our heroine what has been learned in regards to a different Japanese subculture–be it Zen Buddhism, anime and manga, or the intricate details of Japanese kimono.

Q. Hugh wears Thomas Pink shirts and Hugo Boss as well as other European labels. Michael dresses all-American in Brooks Brothers. Takeo wavers between Greenpeace T-shirts and loose linen Japanese designer suits. Who’s hottest? Do you have tips for any of them on how to look better?

Sabrina: The hottest for me would have to be Hugh. I’ve always had a bit of a crush on him (and how could I not, as he’s described as looking like a younger Harrison Ford!) I’ve always liked that the three men in Rei’s life are distinctive in their fashion choics. And Hugh’s keen eye for style and interest in Rei’s closet reminds me of my own boyfriend.

As for tips…I’d say that Hugh and Michael could definitely go a different direction for casual wear, maybe invest in jeans (some nice A.P.C. ones, perhaps?). And some classic plain black tees, like Takeo. Speaking of which, I actually rally love his casual style. His vintage Levis speak to my heart. I’m not really one for loose-fitting suits (though I’m sure it looks delicious on him), but I’d advise that he get one or two of them fitted.

Q. Rei has a longtime best friend, Richard, who happens to be gay. For a fashionable young woman, is a gay BFF an asset?

Sabrina: San Francisco is pretty much the gay capitol of the States, so I definitely have more than my fair share of gay friends and coworkers. However, I think that’s a bit of a misperception that’s been popularized by the media and fashion world. In my opinion, you don’t need a gay BFF–anyone who has a sharp eye for style is golden and allowed to romp around Union Square or hunt for sweet vintage finds down in LA with me!

Q. Do Asian women–and small-boned or petite women in general–face unique clothes challenges? If so, what are some things that drive you crazy, and how have you remedied it?

Sabrina: Ah…I could write an essay on this! While being small does have its advantages, there are definitely disadvantages as well. Just the other day at work, I was significantly dressed down for Casual Friday and a coworker kindly pointed out that “I looked like I could be in the fourth grade.” One really can’t do much when someone thinks that you’re supposed to be snapping gum and mouthing off to math teachers, but I do believe you can make outfit, hair and makeup decisions that make you look older, more mature and commanding of the respect you deserve.

And yes, I’m guilty of frequenting both the juniors and children’s department for certain items. Actually, Zara can be on point with their kids’ department. I’ve gotten some excellent skinny black pants and the most amazing trench there.

Q: Have you ever had the experience in the US of being mistaken for a foreigner (I have!). 

Sabrina: This hasn’t happened too often, as I’ve been very blessed to have grown up in this fairly diverse melting pot that is the Bay Area. However, although I’m fifth-generation American, my Asian face has definitely been viewed as foreign by the more ignorant. This ranges from “You speak excellent English!” to outright racial slurs. Let’s just say that the latter hasn’t been met with polite or civil replies. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened in recent years.

Q: How is fashion in Hawaii different than on the US Mainland, and what trends should Rei consider?

Sabrina: She should invest in lots of slippers and flip-flops! Haha. And loose dresses. But overall, her casual street style would not be out of place on the islands. To me, fashion in Hawaii strikes me as quite similar to Southern California–laid-back, casual, and quite beach-oriented.

Thanks to Sabrina for this amusing and thoughtful interview. Until she becomes a features writer for Vogue (I hope) you can find her pictures and writing at thepetitestyle.com.

The Tohoku Tsunami, One Year Later

Sunday, March 11 marks the first anniversary of the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that killed over 20,000 residents of Japan’s Tohoku coast last year. Small cities and towns that few outside of Japan had ever heard of were suddenly world news. Tsunami waves, which at some points may have been 50 feet high, swept six miles inland with deadly force.

Immediately after the tsunami, many volunteers, the Japanese Self Defense Forces and US military troops traveled to Tohoku to bring food and medical care to the survivors, clear debris and begin rebuilding. This world of tragedy, confusion, and human compassion is the background of my next Rei book. This summer, I’ll go to Tohoku to continue my research and participate in the ongoing volunteer work. At this stage of the writing, however, I’m still locked at my desk in Minneapolis and have been gathering details about the disaster and its aftermath from Japanese volunteers who continue working hard on restoring damaged communities.

Photo courtesy AP: Junji Kurokawa

Dr. Jun Sato, a young economist at Gifu Shotoku Gakuen University, has been a great help to me, but more importantly, to the tsunami survivors. At his own cost, he travels six hours one way from his home in central Japan to Rikuzentaketa, a city in Iwate Prefecture that was completely destroyed by the tsunami. Ten percent of its people were killed or disappeared during the tsunami, and almost every building was destroyed. Out of a grove of thousands of old pine trees, only one survived; and its image has become the city’s emblem. Here are some questions Jun recently answered for me about volunteer work and Rikuzentaketa’s future.

Q: The photos of Rikuzentaketa are more devastating than the others I’ve seen. How is the city doing today?

Jun: Unlike other disaster areas, all of the downtown of Rikuzentaketa was destroyed and nothing other than debris is there. Many people have lost their friends, families and jobs. But they work hard and try to recover the city, and many people are helping them. What I can do is very small, but better than nothing. A lot of debris is everywhere, and we need to remove it. But it seems to me that more work is needed for mental care and employment. So letting many people know what is happening there is very important.

Q: What did you recently accomplish over a weekend’s work, and what are your plans for March 11?

Jun Sato is on the far left of the volunteer crew for Rikuzentaketa. Out of respect for survivors, photos are only permitted at the volunteer center.

Jun: Last weekend, I wiped off sand from postcards found in the debris. Most of them were greeting cards for the new year. The purpose is to return the to the owners and make an address book by reading the address and putting it into a PC. It was a mentally difficult task. You cannot wipe sand from a card without seeing a message on it. They wished a happy new year only two months before. But many people have participated in this painstaking task and that makes me encouraged.

I planned to be in Rikuzentaketa on March 11. But recently I decided not to go, because there will be a memorial service there, and residents want to do it peacefully with their families. In fact, the volunteer center is closed on March 11, considering the feelings of the residents.

Q: What was life like for survivors in the shelters?

Jun: I asked a member of my team. He visited a school gym in Kesennuma of Miyagi Prefecture a week after the quake and brought some foods and blankets. In the shelter, members of the Red Cross and Self Defense Forces were delivering food. Even at a big shelter, they did not have hot meals until three weeks after the quake. It took more than a month for people who were in small shelters or stayed in their own homes to have hot meals. After knowing it, my friend visited people who stayed in their homes and gave some food.

Q: Are Rikuzentaketa’s citizens still mostly in individual shelters (metal trailers)? Why aren’t they in real homes? 

Jun: Yes, most of Rikuzentaketa citizens still live in temporary housing, which are located in uplands. The condition is not so good. For example, it is cold and noisy inside because the walls are thin. The shopping area and hospital are far from there. There are many obstacles to having their homes rebuilt. There seems to be some conflicts among citizens and the city, prefectural and central governments. The government basically wants residents to live in the uplands, but they know it is costly. Some residents want to stay where they used to live, but some want to move.

Another obstacle to rebuilding the disaster area is very few other areas of Japan accept debris for fear of radiation from the debris, even though no radiation is detected. it is unfortunate that many people regard debris as garbage. Once you do volunteer work, you immediately know that debris is not garbage. It is a piece of the daily life of the residents shattered by the tsunami. I want the people refusing to accept debris to think about how they feel when they have to give up something they got from their loved ones simply because it is broken and treated like gabage.

Q: Is “kizuna” the right word to express the strength of the volunteer-survivor connection?

Jun: A good question. Kizuna has several meanings. A dictionary says: i. anchoring animals to a tree; ii. affection among family members; iii. close ties established after some events among those who did not know each other well.

Kizuna was “word of the year” in 2011. Unfortunately, it seems to me many people use the word’s second meaning. People say that they try to see their parents and friends more often after March 11. But if using the third meaning, kizuna is right.

Since I started volunteer work, I feel a sense of unity with members who gather to help people–and even with their predecessors. In 1667, the residents in Rikuzentaketa started to plant trees  to prevent salt damage. They could not see the grown pine trees. But what motivated them might be the smiling faces of people in the future. When I knew this fact, I noticed that what we are doing now is exactly the same as what the predecessors did. The pine trees that they dreamed of are just like those that we are dreaming of today. It encourages me a lot. The accomplishment by the predecessors quietly but clearly shows that someday we surely will look up at beautiful pine trees if we hope and continue our efforts. Now I feel close ties with members working with me and the predecessors more than 300 years ago. I would like to use the word kizuna to express my feeling.

The Secret World of Arrietty

There once was a mother who longed for the suburban Japan she’d once lived in: a Hayao Miyazaki universe of lush gardens where camellias grew wild around and the chorus of tree frogs was deafening. The woman had to leave Hayama and return to American with her husband. They became parents. But because the children were raised on American computer animation, they preferred slapstick like Shrek and Puss in Boots, which when viewed in 3-D made the mother’s stomach and head feel bad.

In the theater earlier this year, just before one of the awful American animated films began, a trailer played for “The Secret World of Arietty.” The mother realized it had to somehow be connected with the May Norton book she’d enjoyed in her childhood half a century ago–although the story seemed different. But this new film, distributed by Disney, was made at Ghibli, Miyazaki’s famous  studio. It looked gorgeous. She promised herself that somehow or other, she would get at least one child to go with her to see it.

So it came that on a wintry Monday night, one excited mother and one reluctant ten-year-old son got tickets to The Secret World of Arietty, which was blissfully non-3-D– although with the brilliant artistic animation, ivy rustled as if it was truly dimensional, and pearl-like drops of water on leaves burst as the sun dries them. And the story was enchanting; a 12 year-old city boy goes to spend some quiet months with his elderly aunt in her French style chateau (although it is Japan). He’s sickly and facing heart surgery; all the adults try to protect him from exerting himself. Then he meets the tiny Borrower, Arrietty, who lives in a beautiful tiny home her parents have made inside some bricks in the basement. And he realizes that he can protect someone whose sincere appreciation gives him the happiness he’s missing. Other especially entertaining characters are a grumpy, chubby cat who’ll remind you of Tottoro; a Tarzanish boy Borrower who lives alone in the wild, and a comic ‘obachan’ housekeeper (voiced by Carol Burnett in the English language version).

As I watched, I marveled at how much my son looked like Sho (pronounced Shawn in the American version). And for once, I let him whisper excitedly through the movie. “Mom, they’re smaller than tea cups!” And “Mom, that counter must be the height of our whole house!” He appeared spellbound during the film, but afterward would only admit to a “good” rating.

When I got home, I went online to look at Japanese trailers for the original version; for me, the music was much more gorgeous sung in Japanese, and I thought some of the characters, like Arrietty’s mother, sounded much more gentle and appealing when speaking Japanese.

But frankly, my Japanese isn’t fluent enough to have made it through the original film, and I didn’t want to miss a word of the story, because the emotions expressed are so sweet. Just like the existentialist, unfulfilled love of Sean and Arrietty.

I quoted the last sentence to my son. He said: “What?”

But I know he liked it.

Shimura Trouble Giveaway

When I turned on my Nook E-reader the other day I was in the mood for a sweet treat–to buy a few self-published E-books with a good buzz. Well, I was gobsmacked. Several titles by different authors on my TBR list had vanished! They had existed in the Nook Store a few weeks ago but were no longer for sale. Their authors have taken them down from Nook, iTunes, and all other E-booksellers to enter an exclusive deal with the Amazon Kindle Select lending library program. These books will be gone from the rest of the cyber-world for three months–and maybe longer, if the authors prefer this route.

Wow! It is terribly frustrating to know about a E-book–but be unable to purchase it. And while I’m not faulting authors for trying this scheme which Amazon suggests will raise everyone’s profits by at least 26 percent, at this point, I’m not in. I’m glad to be able to offer my growing collection of E-books (Shimura Trouble, Girl in a Box, The Typhoon Lover, The Convenience Boy and Other Stories of Japan) to anyone with any kind of E-reader, in the Nook Store, iTunes and Amazon.

Shimura Trouble E-book cover

To keep things going for those of us living outside the Kindle Bubble, I’m going to sponsor a daily giveaway of one Shimura Trouble E-book through March 12. The catch is that you’ll download the book from Itunes, which means you need an Ipad, Nook, Sony E-reader or other NON-KINDLE to be able to read it.

Enter the giveaway by sending me an email with Giveaway in the subject line at sujatamassey@mac.com

I’ll use an impersonal computer algorithm to pick each day’s winner, but if you’re chosen, I’ll personally email you with congratulations and the access code to download the book from iTunes/iBooks. Yes, the code is unique and will only get you to Shimura Trouble. It won’t work for The Mill River Recluse (which isn’t on the market anymore except for at Amazon).

If you’re wondering whether Shimura Trouble is a book you’d like to read, you can look under the Rei Shimura section of this website for a chapter 1 preview and published book reviews. It was the most recently published Rei mystery (2008–oh my gosh, a lifetime ago!). Rei, her father, Uncle Hiroshi and cousin Tom solve a mystery in Hawaii that relates to a lost family branch and the history of Japanese sugar plantation workers on the dry western side of Oahu. It also features Michael and Hugh!

Shimura Trouble print cover

For those of you without E-readers who are interested in getting a paper version of the book, it’s now in trade paperback and retails for approximately $15.95. You can find it at online retailers like B&N and Amazon, but there’s only one place to get an autographed copy: my neighborhood bookstore, onceuponacrimebooks.com, who mail worldwide and are very nice people.

I’m curious what you think about the Amazon controversy. Will it affect your buying decision if you’re in the market for an E-Reader, or the Internet or bricks-and-mortar retailer you go to when buying paper books?

The Kizuna Coast

I’ve heard the following comments in my house earlier this weekend (and a hundred other times).

“You promised.”

“You said!”

“You can’t change your mind.”

My children obviously have been taught to stand by their word. But what to do when one’s conscience says that a decision should be undone?

Four years ago, I finished writing the tenth Rei Shimura novel, Shimura Trouble, and wrote on this website that Rei was going on hiatus. A Hawaii sunset was the best thing for her to enjoy while I undertook a complicated project that I’d been longing to try: a standalone historical novel. Once I started working on The Sleeping Dictionary, my brain traveled to such a faraway place (1920s India) that I worried I might not be able to write about Rei again. I would never want to deliver books that didn’t have my heart in it; it’s not fair to readers.

Recently I checked the Wikipedia listing for my name and read that Shimura Trouble was the final book in the Rei Shimura series. Talk about sad news for me! There it was on the Internet, for millions to believe.

Almost a year ago, I was done with the standalone and trying to figure out my next book. Then came the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku, Japan. I have no words for how terrible I felt, far away from the country that became my second home. The catastrophic event that had been foretold—and I’d tried to convince myself would never come—arrived, killing more than 23,000 people on a horrific Friday afternoon.

As the disturbing reports rolled in, I felt that Rei Shimura’s Japan was dead. How could I ever write again about salty-sweet Pocky Sticks and whimsical clothing when the country had fallen onto its hardest time since World War II? But I realized that the Rei I knew wouldn’t waste a minute mourning that kind of thing. She’d leave the Hawaiian sunset for a red-eye flight to Japan and do something positive with her grief. The story of Rei’s adventure to Tohoku began naturally unfolding in my mind. And I realized that if I wrote accurately about Tohoku and its people, it might encourage people to visit the stricken areas where the local population is working hard to rebuild. And in the process of promoting my book, I could also raise money for survivors.

So, as I’m telling my kids: sometimes we eat our words. I’m about halfway through writing the first draft of Rei Shimura #11: The Kizuna Coast. Kizuna sounds beautiful, and so is its meaning: the caring bonds between people. The loving outreach of people internationally has given Tohoku a second chance. And the kizuna between you and me is why Rei Shimura’s coming back.

One Step Towards Recovery – Ties Between Survivors and Volunteers – from peaceboatchannel on Vimeo.

This is a video made about the Peaceboat NGO who brought some of the first volunteers to Tohoku. It’s 24 minutes long but shows great examples of kizuna.