On “Clark and Division” by Naomi Hirahara


THE NEWS CYCLE of the past year has been brutal. Deaths from coronaviruses to anti-vaccines; from anti-China presidential statements to anti-Asian hate crimes; from the murder of George Floyd to QAnon’s assault on the capital; From #BLM to conservative voices defaming CRT (Critical Race Theory), a theory that was once limited to quietly hopeful academics, we are surrounded by a mainstream culture that rages against the recklessness of the marginalized to represent themselves. , to tell the realities that have carpeted, buried or ignored.

In our contemporary reality lands the historical mystery Clark and Division, a novel that Naomi Hirahara was destined to write. Hirahara got his start as a mystery novelist with The summer of Grand Bachi in 2004. Long before that, she was a skilled journalist and non-fiction writer, including a seminal and formative period as an editor at Rafu Shimpo – the largest American newspaper of Japanese origin. Bachi was the first of seven in his Mas Arai series. She is also the author of several non-fiction books, including Life after Manzanar, a collection of oral histories of former internees and their post-war experiences.

We meet Aki Ito, the young narrator, and her family in the almost Edenic setting of their hometown Tropico, an agricultural part of Los Angeles County. Aki’s older sister Rose is ambitious, determined and so convinced that she is as good as any white person that when told she can’t go swimming in the pool at the party birthday of a white classmate, Rose returns to the party and confronts the mother. And then comes Pearl Harbor.

In March 1942, the Itos and others of Japanese descent were ordered to run for office in the United States. The day before their departure, Aki tells us:

I walked along the concrete bank looking for one last song from the toads. I laid wildflowers on Rusty’s grave, my mother’s elder shiso room. Like mom, I was pretty sure we wouldn’t be back and if we were, we wouldn’t be the same.

Manzanar, the Owens Valley concentration camp for the incarceration of Japanese Americans, is the point of contact for the novel. Government incarceration was the dividing point in the lives of at least 110,000 people nationwide, the majority of whom were US citizens. In a few pages, Hirahara depicts the disintegration of the Itos’ past lives, and the growing distance between Rose and Aki. Rose becomes heavily involved in the Japanese American Citizen League, and it is her involvement and display of patriotism that gives her early release in Chicago. Loyal Nisei (US citizens born to Japanese parents) were not allowed to return to western military areas like California.

Rose’s early release acts as a lifeline for the rest of the Ito family, and after some hardship and delay, they all arrive in Chicago. They are not greeted by Rose but by the news that Rose has committed suicide. Here begins Aki Ito’s search to find out what really happened, while navigating an unknown world and his precarious position within it.

The news of Rose’s death is followed by a second start: she has an abortion. Illegal abortion is a fascinating subtext of this novel, again like the best of historical fiction, reminding us of connections to the present. Aki’s straightforward and sentimental approach, which may have been derived from his Buddhist heritage, is also impressive. With this knowledge, Aki is plagued by multiple questions: who was the father? Does Rose’s diary contain any clues? Does Rose’s former roommate know what happened? And how was she going to tell her family?

Here also begins Aki’s journey through grief and into adulthood while navigating her parents’ conflicting advice and their attempts to re-enter the workforce. This is a detective story on many levels, as Aki not only delves into what prompted Rose’s death (was it suicide? How could it be?), But also discovers the world that young Nisei were created in Chicago, and all the tensions that go with it.

Hirahara creates a dynamic cast and frame, allowing the reader to understand this period. Aki’s mother, even in her new world of Chicago, intends not to make waves, not to stand out, as an impossible task that can be for a Japanese woman in a predominantly white world. Aki’s father has fallen apart with his business: he drinks too much and only finds work with a local crime boss. Aki maintains a professional relationship with the investigator to find out what really happened.

One of the obstacles in his pursuit is his family’s culture. Going to the Rose Quarter Beauty Salon at the Mark Twain Hotel, Aki wants so much on his sister. Her mother has other ideas: “In the hallway, she whispered to me in Japanese: ‘Our family business is our business. No one else needs to know. Tomorrow, however, we had a funeral and everyone would know that Rose Ito had passed away. At Rose’s funeral are faces from Manzanar and Tropico, including Roy, an aspirant of Rose’s affections. Aki suspects he’s not telling her everything.

Hirahara gives us a rich and vibrant portrait of Nisei’s life in multicultural Chicago: nightclubs, thugs, young people in search of connection, in search of their place in a world that until now has not excluded them. not but imprisoned them. The celebrations, the sorrows, the search for love and justice. The women’s place. Rose was direct, courageous and determined, and she is dead. Aki is outspoken and determined to find out the truth about his sister.

For Aki, mores are different in Chicago: “At camp, there were some boys you knew you had to stay away from. With the old Issei all around, there were lines they couldn’t cross. But that was not the case in Chicago. I had the feeling that young people reigned here. This cultural shift supports her ability to push back against her mother’s edicts.

The title comes from the neighborhood of Rose, populated by young men and women like her – a neighborhood not featured in the media at the time, a walled-up, erased story, which makes Hirahara’s portrayal even more powerful, compelling, and important. As Manzanar is the touchstone, Clark and Division is the landmark. Rose’s three-story staircase was across the street from the Mark Twain Hotel, located in Clark and Division. The subway platform at Clark and Division was where Rose died.

Aki is the revealer of the truth and the seeker of the truth, even when it means uncovering disturbing details about her family members and friends: aware of the slights and injustices that surround her, but persevering against them, as as a seeker of truth for her sister and for herself. own life. Aki’s search leads her to confront a reluctant roommate, discover a romantic connection, and shake the reader with the truth about Rose’s pregnancy and death.

Hirahara takes full advantage of examining Nisei’s post-war life back into the mainstream of the United States. Some hold menial jobs, some want to enlist, some enter the underworld; all are struggling to find their place in this country of origin. Reading this novel is poignant in addition to the news of current anti-Asian hate crimes. This country’s complicated heritage is just under the varnish. However, it is far from being a didactic controversy. Plot novelists, especially those of color, weave the threads of social injustice into their writing by the very nature of their life experience.

Often times, mysteries lead the reader with the addicting thriller question and our need to know the answer. Clark and Division definitely engages the reader at this level. But more importantly, it’s Aki, the young protagonist, with her changing family dynamics, the difficult world of Chicago, and her ability and attempt to navigate this new world with her turmoil of emotions, that prompts us to read. compulsively, wanting to know his life, his destiny.

As I finished reading this book, this quote from the historic Manzanar plaque resounded in my head: “May the injustices and humiliation suffered here because of hysteria, racism and economic exploitation never reappear.

Could this be true.

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Désirée Zamorano is a California-based short story writer and playwright. She is the author of the novels Modern disadvantages, Human cargo, and, more recently, Amado women.


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