22 August 2007

Asian American Detective Fiction #1

Snakeskin Shamisen is Naomi Hirahara’s third Mas Arai mystery, following Gasa-Gasa Girl in which Mas, an aging, intrepid Kibei gardener, traveled from Southern California to Brooklyn to help out his daughter and solve the murder of a hapa millionaire. In order to unravel that case, Mas worked through the history of the Japanese on the East Coast, the development of Japanese American gardening, the specters of Hiroshima and internment, and remnants of Japanese imperialism (through Mas’s unexpected encounter with a Japanese-speaking Korean shopkeeper). Along the way, this reader couldn’t help but be won over by the descriptions of a Californian fish-out-of-water in Brooklyn:

Mas had put his old long underwear from his fishing and camping days on underneath his wool sweater and nylon jacket, but the blast of cold air still seemed to soak through the layers of clothing into his bones… Seven blocks during a winter day in L.A. would be nothing, but this was New York City at night.

Based on the gratifications GGG offered, I approached SS with enthusiasm, especially as the elements of the story came out: intergroup relations within the Japanese American community, the perils of white liberals, McCarthyist persecution of Issei radicals and the role of food as social glue/signifier. It’s a story that Hirahara is perfectly placed to tell as the former editor of the Rafu Shimpo and author of several non-fiction books on Japanese American history.

Unfortunately, Hirahara seems to have approached the book with a laxity of thought and execution that mars the enjoyment of a work with such promising premises and themes. The plot seems happenstance, but in today’s world of detective fiction, this is no longer a crime. It’s altogether common to substitute attention to tight plotting with character development, historical spadework and innovative styling of prose. To a certain degree, I even expect this trade-off in ethnic detective fiction, for better or worse. The problem is that Hirahara seems to have taken the low road on all counts.

The prose is neither taut nor lavish. At times, an effort is made, as in the description of Spam musubi as “a fat, shimmering slice resting on a rectangle of sticky rice and tied together with a band of nori, dried seaweed.” But most of the time, Hirahara simply translates Japanese names with a sterile English gloss: “rakkyo, the sweet and tart mini-onions” or with some greater flair “takuan, bright-yellow sliced radishes that stunk like tired feet released from sweaty socks.” The main characters suffer a similar fate of being glossed rather than developed. Throughout the book, I felt the urge to gift Hirahara with select works of M.F.K. Fisher and Patricia Highsmith.

But even these deficiencies are typical misdemeanors in genre fiction. I would be happy to forgive SS these offenses, if it had managed to at least push the limits of middle-of-the-road politics and historical interpretation (often Walter Mosley’s saving grace, for instance, and also GGG’s). But on this score, Hirahara opts in SS to endorse a diluted form of pedantic multiculturalism, voiced by a number of characters, but always leading to the same conclusions. At one point, Mas naively (especially for a 70-year-old Kibei worker!) reflects: “If Japanese Americans had been so disloyal, why had Tug and his fellow Nisei soldiers been handed rifles, grenades, and machine guns and told to fight America’s enemy? Didn’t make sense.” Another minor character sums up the racism of a McCarthyite: “He viewed [Mexicans, Jews and Asians] to be un-American, and joined the bandwagon to deport those with any connections to the Communist Party. It was the Cold War, of course, and we had to be protective of our national security, but Metcalf took it too far.”

The worst of these pedagogical moments comes from the demonized white liberal, who explains American racism to Mas, in case he didn’t get it (oddly enough, he does always seem a little confused by it): “We act like we own America… Forget about the Native Americans who lived here off the land. Forget about all the Mexicans who lived in California and Texas way before the Mayflower. Those folks don’t count.” Even if anyone actually spoke like this in real life, they shouldn’t do so in a novel; it’s unbelievable. So is the notion that if only those few aberrant illogical racists would think things through, life wouldn’t be so hard for our poor hero Mas.

But according to Hirahara’s world, this is the limits of politics. Even the committed Communist betrayed and murdered in the 1950s is eulogized as a patriotic family man: “He care about his wife. His boysu. He care about America. He fight so hard, in the end, all fight gone.” Certainly this line of interpretation is common-place in today’s world, but one can’t but wish that in all her historical digging Hirahara would present some wider spectrum of the past and its politics. It isn’t always easy to find. In fact, when you’re trying to get information on Issei radicals, it’s quite likely the FBI will send you something like this:

On the other hand, it’s not impossible to come up with something new, as Josie Fowler’s new work on some of these questions attests. Considering her wider audience, it’s hard not to feel bitter that Hirahara didn't follow this path.


McFly said...

A murder mystery based on the fate of a betrayed Issei radical holds so much promise! Being a fan of NH's previous books, it's disappointing to get a glimpse of her cursory treatment of history and character in SS. More on this later...
On a different note, lovely eulogy for Grace Paley.