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What I learned writing The Kizuna Coast

I met my first mystery novel at age twelve. It was The Moonstone, a prescient holiday gift from my father. In the years since, I grew into my life as a mystery and historical fiction writer. Turning bits and pieces of my imagination into something others can read is a thrilling experience.

Japan’s March 20l11 tsunami

From 1997 to 2008, I wrote ten novels in an amateur sleuth series about a young Japanese-American antiques dealer. I created a young woman, Rei Shimura, who left California to build a creative life in Tokyo; however, she kept stumbling upon secrets that led into bona fide mysteries. Due to Japan’s low crime rate, Rei’s mysteries involved very few guns, but did have a lot of art, sociology and romantic fun, starting with book #1, The Salaryman’s Wife. Nine more books followed, and then I took a holiday from Rei.


In March, 2011, a 9.0 Richter earthquake occurred 200 miles from Sendai, Japan. A powerful shifting of plates under the Pacific built a lethal tsunami wave that hammered the northeastern Tohoku region. More than fifteen thousand people died in one afternoon. An estimated one million buildings suffered damage and hundreds of thousands of Tohoku residents became homeless. Historians declared this was the toughest time for Japan since World War II, and TV footage made it look as if the country had suffered an irreversible fall.

During the weeks after the tsunami, I tried to learn whether my Japanese friends’ families were safe and how people were coping with gasoline, electricity and food shortages. I also wondered if the light-hearted, beautiful world I’d written about could continue. The Rei books were still in hiatus. I wasn’t sure what to do.

So I did what a lot of other people did: I followed the news. I learned that even as the wave was approaching, police, medical personnel and municipal employees stayed in the danger zone to help fleeing people reach higher ground. After the waters had subsided, survivors assisted others, not talking about the losses they were going through. Fukushima nuclear plant workers stayed onsite to shut down the reactor. As the nuclear situation worsened with persistent fires, soldiers, sailors and firefighters came from all over Japan, risking their lives for the safety of the nation.

Kizuna, a uniquely Japanese word meaning “bonds of loving kindness,” was used to describe this selfless behavior toward others. And as I heard even more stories of bravery, self-sacrifice and kindness, I felt these events were worth recording somewhere beyond short news reports that I knew would trickle into nothing after a year. But I had some worries about writing a tsunami book.

My first concern was that the tragedy was still ongoing, if you counted the thousands mourning the dead and suffering from health problems and loss of their homes. I considered making up a fictitious earthquake hitting a different part of Japan. However, that didn’t seem like it would be any more sensitive to survivors’ feelings. It also wouldn’t satisfy my desire to credit the citizens of Tohoku for what they’d endured.

Ultimately, I decided to write about the real tsunami, setting the book in a fictitious town close to real places. I brought back the same characters my longtime readers know, and I introduced new people of all ages from Tohoku. As well as a dog! I incorporated scenes of stylish Tokyo trying to pull itself back on track, as well as the battered coast. I found myself moving between two worlds—just like my protagonist had always done.

And with her voice in my head, I began understanding that beauty endures. While I needed to describe the impact of millions of dead fish on a town, I also could note the Buddha statues placed respectfully by residents to overlook the shattered streets. In my mind’s eye I saw children happily playing on a jungle gym washed clean by their loving parents; and the pleasure shelter residents took sipping the first hot bowls of miso-vegetable stew.

The Kizuna Coast

By the time I’d finished writing The Kizuna Coast, I felt grateful for what the people of Tohoku had taught me. Just as I felt blessed by the power of fiction, which allows us all to take the long view past misery and onward to hope.

A Winter’s Tale of Mothers, Ayahs and Children

I’m making cookies today with a 15-year-old daughter who likes the baking, and a 12-year-old son who always seems to know when they’re ready to come out of the oven. Deciding whether to go chocolate or coconut is a sweet moment that breaks up our non-Hallmark Card life. Peace comes when we are repeating activities that have continued from early childhood.

Pia and NeelInevitably, winter brings memories, and not all of them are of footsteps in the snow. During the first winter that I spent with my daughter, she was just 7 months old. I’d adopted her from an orphanage in Kerala, and we were staying in Kolkata, waiting for the INS to send permission for her to enter to the United States with me. There were tremendous bureaucratic complications. It was a stressful time, even though I was staying with kind and supportive relatives.

Something that was supposed to make life simpler for me was the presence of an ayah, or nanny. I didn’t ask to have someone come in and take over my role 12 hours a day. But the two manservants who already worked in my grandparents’ apartment were males busy with a number of chores. They would not be able to carry out their normal work if a baby was not professionally tended by someone else. All my protestations of wanting to do it myself were overruled.

So the day after my sister and I arrived and set up in the guest bedroom with Baby Pia, an ayah agency in the neighborhood sent over a small, slim young woman with sparkling eyes and a sweet smile. Her name was Bharoti. She was eager to learn a few words of English and teach us Bengali. She was about eighteen, I think, and married to a taxi driver. Her own baby was living two hundred miles from her in the mountain village where she came from, cared for by her own mother, in order that Bharoti and her husband could make money in the city.

I tried to approach the situation positively, because I felt badly that Bharoti could not be with her own child. I reasoned that Bharoti could be more of a language tutor to my sister and me, and I could still be the real mother. I needed to send daily faxes to my husband regarding our immigration nightmare, which meant leaving the apartment. But for every hour I left my baby with her ayah, anxiety coursed through me. Bharoti was affectionate and attentive, but my aunt caught Bharoti giving Pia formula that had been mailed with unboiled water, and I saw the ayah chatting up street people while holding Pia, which made me worried she might give away information about where we lived. One afternoon when I was home, Bharoti opened the door and a rough-looking threesome stormed inside, refusing to leave until I’d paid them off (hijra, or transgender entertainers, make their living through extortion of people in the middle of happy life events like new babies and weddings).

But the most frightening thing for me was the ease with which Pia accepted this change in care and nestled peacefully in her ayah’s arms. When we went out shopping at Bengal Home Industries one day, Bharoti insisted on holding Pia, and foreign shoppers smiled at the two of them, looking like mother and child.

My tone with Bharoti became cool, and I began watching her like a hawk. I felt guilty about it, like I was turning into a British colonial memsaheb. Very quickly, I spiraled into the belief that I was a useless mother and my baby couldn’t attach to me.

After another month, we received government approval to return to the United States. I cried when I said goodbye to Bharoti and gave her a big tip. She had new work starting the next day. During my next trip to Kolkata, when Pia was nine, I tried to find Bharoti through the agency; but there was no record of her whereabouts. I’ve always hoped that she became able to return to her own daughter in the hills.

Years later, when I was researching my historical novel, THE SLEEPING DICTIONARY, I read many accounts of British children who felt very close to their ayahs and lived out their childhoods completely separate from their parents. Remembering how hard the ayah relationship was for me, I longed to write about this world of mothers, children and ayahs in the book…but there was no room in a book that was already more than 500 pages.

The Ayah's Tale by Sujata MasseyOut of this idea, I’ve created a 40,000 word novella called THE AYAH’S TALE, which examines the life in a 1920s British-Bengali colonial household from both a child’s point of view and the ayah’s. Menakshi is a 16-year-old girl Indian Christian girl whose middle-class household has fallen on hard times–which means she must leave high school to work as an ayah. Julian is a bright, neglected six-year-old boy who drinks up her attention and begins to see India around him differently, because of her. Marjorie Millings is his mother: a sad, disconnected woman who looks for love outside of their elegant bungalow. Ram Hollander is a young Anglo-Indian who works on the railways. It’s on the Bengal-Nagpur Railways that the characters collide and begin a journey toward change.

You can find THE AYAH’S TALE as an Ebook at Amazon. If you would like to receive a free short story and receive more email updates on India, Japan and writing, click here to subscribe to my mailing list.

Happy Winter reading.


Close enough to hear, but not to see

There was no way I’d get to see Khaled Hosseini.
No matter how long I stood, or how high I stood on my tiptoes. The author was there–but invisible. All I could hear was his beautiful Pashto accent, and shake my head at myself for being such a groupie.
Last Sunday, I drove through DC traffic, parked in a pricey downtown garage and walked a half mile in beautiful, 70-degree weather to the National Book Festival on the Mall. The Washington Post’s tabloid section promoting the book festival had given me the full schedule a week ago and I’d let many of my friends–and even my daughter’s English teacher–know about this rare opportunity to see the California-based international literature superstar discuss his first book in five years, And The Mountains Roared.

I’d brought two of his novels in my trusty oversized bag. So did a lot of other people. Like–maybe a thousand? The line to his signing booth was actually three lines that stretched almost the width of the mall. Even though Mr. Hosseini stayed on signing long after the scheduled half hour event was over, hundreds were still in line. I was faced with a dilemma. Surely the experience of getting a book signed–with so many people waiting–would be reduced to a few seconds, and a quick scrawl. There could hardly be a chance to mention how much I loved his books, let alone have a brief conversation.
But we’d come to the book festival to see writers and hear them talk about their books. We would have a rotten time, if we just stayed in a line and never had a book signed. After 45 minutes in the Hosseini line, I moved to plan B and went to see the author-journalist Fred Hiatt and the young Chinese-Canadian human rights activist Ti-Anna Wang discuss Hiatt’s young adult novel, Nine Days. There was a crowd of over 100, but still extra seats in the Special Programs tent. The author and activist presented; the audience offered thoughtful questions which were answered at length by Mr.Hiatt and Ms. Wang. This book talk ran as smoothly as the soft serve ice cream being vended on the mall.

I ducked out of this event ten minutes before it ended, because I was concerned about getting a seat at Khaled Hosseini’s talk, which was scheduled to start at 4:35 at the fiction and mystery tent next door. Already I could see a ring of people standing around the tent, which had several hundred seats already filled by an audience enjoying a presentation by Mark Helprin. But when the Helprin talk ended…hardly anyone got up and freed seats. It turned out the Hosseini fans were already there, staked out. The hundreds of standing readers tried to press in to be close enough to see the podium–but could not. Festival staff begged people not to fill the aisles, or lean on the tent posts. I was left along with many others behind a standing room only crowd ten deep. Although Mr. Hosseini and his interviewer, the reviewer Maureen Corrigan, were supposedly seated on a raised stage within the tent, the only person I could see onstage was the interpreter for the deaf. A very attractive and tall woman–but not Khaled Hosseini.

OK. Staging a signing for someone who’s stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for the last ten years straight is a challenge. But placing him in a tent with a few hundred seats is tantamount to offering a free Robin Thicke concert in a high school gym. Khaled Hosseini crowds cannot be fit into any size tent. They need an open space about the size of a soccer stadium. This event should have been set up in front of the Lincoln Memorial?

In the course of publishing eleven novels, I’ve had a few big signings too. Not a thousand readers or more than 100–but many dozens at book launches in my two hometowns, Minneapolis and Baltimore. Yes, such crowds are flattering, but it’s just as sad for the writer as it is the reader not to be able to see each other. Writers feel a lot of guilt knowing the investment in time, travel, and funds that the readers have made to come to a signing.

I think Mr. Hosseini felt the same, judging from the first comments he made in the tent, which were blessedly amplified by a microphone. He thanked everyone for coming. He marveled at the turnout. But ultimately, he was impossible to see…and there were technical problems at the camera area, behind which I was standing. In the end, the technical team’s troubleshooting was so distracting–as were the texts from my daughter, who had become separated from me–that I bagged the event.

It wasn’t a total loss. I love the energy and diversity of D.C. That Sunday, I had a good conversation while waiting in the line with another Hosseini fan. But I wondered how many of the thousand fans I saw have a regular chance to attend author events. Publishers are cutting back on signing tours, and bookstore owners are sometimes loath to host authors who aren’t gigantic names. Both these factors compromise the magic of the time a reader meets a writer–ideas are exchanged–and books are signed, becoming treasures.

Later this week, I’m participating in a book festival, Fall for the Book, run by George Mason University. The events are spread out, over the course of two weeks, in many different halls and bookstores. Interestingly, this festival has been named as one of the best in the country. It may not the National Book Fesitval, but I’ll make a wild guess that there will be seats for everyone who wants to come.

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 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,

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

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.