A Tale of Two Grandmothers

(Note: This is an author’s essay I wrote for Janet Rudolph’s Mystery Readers Journal, published earlier this year. To learn more about contributing an essay to MRI, refer to this. I’ll be posting an essay I wrote for Mystery Scene next month.)


My Mas Arai mysteries, featuring a Japanese American gardener and atomic-bomb survivor, are largely set in the United States, but the threads of two stories take us back to Japan. And in these two cases, it was a personal connection–in fact, two grandmothers–which led me to specific material clues that ended up in the center of my mysteries.

My late maternal grandmother, Chiyoko, had an unflinching eye for the truth. Although genteel and elegant, she never covered up anything in the name of civility. She lived most of her life in Hiroshima, her birthplace, but spent about a year with our family in Altadena, California, when my brother, eight years younger than me, was born. I also frequently traveled to Japan as a child and young adult. Chiyoko was the only obaachan (grandmother)–in fact, grandparent–that I had really known.

After I met my future husband, another grandmother would enter my life. Her name was Kame, but everyone–even those not related to her–referred to her as Mama. She had come to America as a picture bride from Okinawa in the early 1900s. She was short and squat and often boasted about making the best Japanese food in the western hemisphere. She grew Okinawan winter melons called goya, zucchini-shaped vegetables with a bumpy exterior, outside her fourplex in the middle of urban Los Angeles and distributed the exotic vegetables to all her Latino neighbors. In addition to her world famous maze gohan (rice mixed with red beans), she also cooked potfuls of snake that apparently filled her kitchen with a powerful aroma.

These two women had amazing stories of survival and tragedy. My grandmother had survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, but lost her husband, my grandfather, in the blast. Mama, on the other hand, had been sent to a detention center in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where she claimed that she made the best Japanese pickles within her block of barracks.

When I visited my grandmother in my early twenties, I heard that she had contributed an illustration to a Japanese television network, NHK, for a project the station was spearheading. It was a picture of a dead man she had seen while escaping the ravages of the Hiroshima bomb. It had been a few days since the blast, and the corpse was deteriorating in the summer heat. But somehow the man’s name tag, required by the Japanese government, was still visible, so my grandmother, the ever-dutiful citizen, wrote the name down. Later she drew a picture, complete with maggots coming out of the man’s belly, and his name.

While recording something so horrific seems grotesque to western sensibilities, but I understood my grandmother’s motivations. She, my uncle, and my mother had searched hopelessly through ground zero to find any signs of my grandfather. She felt that it was her duty to retrieve any remains and in probably the same spirit, she created the picture to honor this stranger’s life. Apparently the man’s family felt the same way. After identifying the illustration, they thanked my grandmother for taking the time to recognize the death of one person when the lives of so many hundreds of thousands had been lost.

Somehow that illustration stayed with me–both its beauty and grotesqueness. When my first book, SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, evolved into a mystery, I knew that somehow this illustration had to become a clue.

Mama, on the other hand, had lived a different type of life here in the United States. Her broken English was peppered with Spanish words, so sometimes it was difficult to follow the language she was speaking. She and her husband had religiously followed the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. "I Love Lucy" was her favorite television program.

But the Okinawan culture was also deeply ingrained in their lives through not only food but also music. Her husband had played the snakeskin shamisen, called the sanshin in Okinawan. He had passed away before I started dating my husband, but I saw pictures of him in a black hakama, Japanese flowing pants, proudly holding onto the sanshin.

Mama died several months after she turned one hundred. She didn’t quite make it to our wedding day. When the family was cleaning out her unit in their fourplex, I spied a dusty, battered sanshin on a chair. It was only for a minute, but that image stayed with me and became the title for the third Mas Arai mystery, SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN.

Both Mama and Obaachan are gone now. Much like the material things these women left, the illustration in SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI and the musical instrument in SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN take on lives of their own. Of course, without the stories of the people who touched them, these objects are meaningless. So here these material clues are not only keys to unraveling fictional crimes, but remnants of real and amazing lives lived.

OC SAYS HAPPY ANNIVERSARY TO SISTERS IN CRIME: Img_0428_1 I haven’t been getting out much in mystery circles these days, so it was great fun for me to party with the Orange County chapter of Sisters in Crime at their 20th anniversary celebration of the national organization at Book Carnival in Orange earlier this month. President Theresa Schwegel ensured that everything ran smoothly, including hiring an improv group that left dead bodies in the store throughout the event. It was good to see both Colin Cotterill and Eric Stone after their long road trip throughout the U.S. (Eric measured bookstore attendees by tonnage–hilarious). In addition to my favs, Patricia Smiley, John Morgan Wilson, and Sue Ann Jaffarian, I got to meet for the first time Taffy Cannon and Dianne Emiley, another Pasadena author that I’ve heard so much about. On the right is Dianne (center) and Number One mystery fan Emily (right). And yes, sadly, I’m the short one. I really forget what a munchkin I am until I see photos like this. (And I’m wearing heels!) Sigh. (Photo courtesy of Theresa Schwegel)

CHINA DOLLS WORK IT: I had the pleasure yesterday of meeting with two upcoming debut authors, Michelle Yu and Blossom Kan, actually cousins (I can’t remember if they are first, second, etc.), who will be releasing their chicklit novel, CHINA DOLLS, around Chinese New Year next February. These two New Yorkers were in L.A. to do some research for their next novel as well as to make some contacts. I give props to their editor Diana Sze, St. Martin’s Press, and the authors for working it so early in Southern California.

SUBMIT YOUR BACKSTORIES: M.J. Rose on her fabulous blog, Buzz, Balls and Hype, reports that some of her Backstory entries, written by various authors on their books, will be reposted on The Huffington Post. The Huffington Report is among of the Top 100 blogs out there in the nation (and maybe the world), so this is a great opportunity for authors. Check it out. I have my own Huffington story to share. When Arianna’s ex, Michael Huffington, was running for Senate, I sent our associate editor at The Rafu Shimpo, Takeshi Nakayama, to cover a press event. Several days later we received a thank-you note from the campaign addressed to Jakishi Nacoljaba, a strange Finnish-African hybrid. We figured out Takeshi’s bad handwriting was the culprit, but hey, couldn’t have the campaign staffer double checked? Shortly thereafter I started calling Takeshi, Jakishi Nacoljaba. Has a ring to it, right?

WEDNESDAY’S WORD: obaachan (SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, page 76) and obasan (SUMMER OF BIG BACHI, page 216)

Well, I defined obaachan for you up above–grandma. The suffix, chan, denotes affection or endearment. You can use san to create obaasan, as well, which is a more formal version. Obasan, with a shorter "a" sound means aunt or lady.

4 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Grandmothers

  1. Elaine

    Naomi – what an incredible family history. Moving and inspiring all at once! Thanks so much for sharing it – and for the opportunity to become acquainted with your wonderful Obaachan’s. Makes one wonder if they build women like that anymore.

  2. JT Ellison

    I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to stop by earlier today. What an amazing story — the poignancy of recognizing and celebrating a death with a simple stroke of a pen was overwhelming to me. I hope one day you write a biography, Naomi, for your backstory is fascinating.I will carry this story with me for some time.


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