H

er mother is from Bonne, Switzerland. Her father is a Calcutta-born Bengali. They met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and she grew up in Philadelphia and Berkeley, eventually settling in St. Paul, Minnesota. And after all that, she spends each day writing about a half-Japanese, half-American antiques dealer cum detective living in the seedier streets of Tokyo.

Recently, literary fiction by South Asian women has been crowding the shelves in American bookstores. Novelist Sujata Massey, however, stands out from the current crop. Not only does she write mysteries, she stages them in far-flung Japan. And Massey’s protagonist and sometimes-detective, Rei Shimura, is the daughter of a Japanese Buddhist father and an American mother. Drawn to mysteries because of her love of plot—not to mention a childhood spent reading the famed British children’s mysteries by Enid Blyton—Massey has penned a total of seven books in her series featuring Shimura. Her latest, The Pearl Diver, hit bookstores last month. Published in 11 countries, the Shimura series features intricate plots, little violence and complicated characters.

Yet her stories offer more than intriguing puzzles. By providing tiny details that casual visitors might not notice, Massey’s work provides a window into the life of current-day Japan. Massey comments that when she’s writing her best, it’s like “like going on vacation” in her mind. That’s not hard to believe, considering that her product transports readers to places they’ve never been. Influenced by the travel writing of Pico Ayer (“I very much admired how he captured a country in a nonfiction essay,” she explains), Massey mimics that detailed touch in her own fiction by including nuggets such as the fact that most Japanese women remove the hair from their arms or that they sleep in their young children’s rooms.

This is, even for many of us, a chance to explore our culture for the first time or the second time on the stage and to be with a bunch of people who are doing the same thing.

The story behind the stories

With such a rich cultural background of her own, how did Massey decide to place her heroine in Japan? “I always loved fiction more than any other kind of writing but I thought it was unlikely that I would be able to make a living.” After majoring in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, Massey focused on fashion and food at the Baltimore Evening Sun. But her apprenticeship at the newspaper wasn’t all for naught. “Journalism taught me how to record a lot of detail about place,” she says.

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A selection of Sujata Massey’s books, including her latest, The Pearl Diver.

A few years into her journalism career, Massey married a naval medical officer and flew with him to Japan for a two-year tour of duty. With no kids, a husband who was frequently away, and lots of free time, Massey quickly learned to navigate the country. She enrolled in Japanese language classes, learned the art of ikebana, or flower-arranging, and taught English in Hayama, a small town outside of Tokyo.

As if that wasn’t enough to keep her busy, Massey took a stab at writing her first novel, The Salaryman’s Wife. When she returned to the United States after her husband’s military obligations were fulfilled, she spent another two years trying to finish the book. Massey finally completed it when she received a prestigious grant, designed to help unpublished mystery writers, from St. Martin’s Press/Malice Domestic. A few months later, armed with an agent, Massey sold her work to HarperCollins.

The Pearl Diver

Writing a mystery is tough. The author must not only concoct an intricate plot that keeps readers guessing until the end, she must also create a realistic tale driven by compelling characters.

Sujata Massey’s latest mystery novel, The Pearl Diver, captures both of these elements perfectly. In this seventh episode of the series, sometimes-detective Rei Shimura is adjusting to life in Washington, DC, with her Scottish fiance, Hugh, after being banished from Japan by its government.

Commissioned to decorate a new Japanese restaurant, Rei excitedly plans the restaurant’s interior but is soon sidetracked by some mysterious incidents. On the day of the restaurant’s opening, her cousin Kendall, a political fund-raiser, is kidnapped. At the same time, restaurant hostess Andrea engages Rei to find Andrea’s long-lost Japanese mother, who disappeared when the hostess was two. Investigating the two problems leads Rei to probe the history of American soldiers during the Vietnam War.

Through Massey’s latest handiwork, readers get a behind-the-scenes look into the restaurant world, insights into the games of political fund raising, and a tasteof the intricacies of kaseki cuisine. But Massey’s true talent lies in creating characters the reader actually cares about. Hugh and Rei’s complicated relationship feels real; we are both surprised by and occasionally frustrated with Rei. And ultimately, even though we are pulled in by the puzzle, we stay because of this determined and tenacious detective.

Mystery and more

Massey took off with her Rei Shimura series, dispatching her detective-heroine to learn about Japanese anime, vintage kimonos and ikebana. As for Shimura’s mixed ethnic background, Massey says, “I wanted to make her a hyphenated person. I wanted to write about Japan and someone who had more than a casual connection to Japan.” Massey’s personal hyphenated heritage only strengthened her own personality. “I’ve never been complacent about my identity because I came from two very strong cultures and grew up in another one. I never thought one culture better than another. [It was] a very good way to grow up.” The motivation behind Shimura’s specific cultural make-up is a little more political. Massey chose a Japanese father and an American mother for Shimura to go against the grain. So often, Massey explains, it’s the other way around: The wife is Asian and the husband is American. “Asian women are exoticized,” she sighs. But “it’s not just women from Asia who are beautiful—the men can be pretty terrific too.”

And Massey is not afraid to make social and political statements in her books. Rei Shimura has never used a gun in the series because Massey is against them. Several of her books also deal with the aftermath of war and its effects on the Japanese public. Her latest book deals with the Vietnam War and politics and couldn’t have come at a better time. “I felt really good for having written [it] this year. I don’t support this war—I think the nature of war makes good people make terrible mistakes.”

Cultural connections

Massey’s exposure to such a variety of cultures enables her to notice both subtle and obvious differences. “What I found surprising [is that] the lives of women in India are better than the lives of women in Japan,” she says. Massey points to the increasing number of professors and professionals, particularly in math and science, on the subcontinent and then states that while “women in Japan have more sexual freedom at an earlier age—in terms of career advancement, women have a higher success rate in India.”

Keeping in mind her own cosmopolitan background, Massey has been very careful to make sure that her children are in no way confused or ambivalent about their identity. “I know what it’s like to face discrimination. I can be very supportive of my children if they have problems. I’ve tried to fill our house with positive glamorous images of South Asia.” Massey can also rest assured that her daughter “will never feel that you have to be blonde to be beautiful,” because, thanks to Massey’s extensive Bollywood movie collection, her daughter has already seen dozens of examples of brown beauty.

And what of brown scribes? Massey believes that in today’s climate, it’s actually a good thing to be a woman in the written-word industry. Because the majority of readers now are women, having a feminine name on the front cover actually leads to greater interest. As for being South Asian in the business, Massey points to the recent interest in all things subcontinental and declares, “I think it’s actually more challenging to write a book about South Asia than about Japan.” Indeed, if you count the growing number of South Asian American writers and add the large amount of writers from the subcontinent who are also writing in English, “there’s a glut of talented people.”

And Massey is no stranger to talent—her career is certainly here to stay. With an author who’s keen on exploring India and Malaysia and a globe-trotting detective who’s solved crimes in Tokyo, San Francisco and Washington, DC, it’s anyone’s guess where Massey’s next book will take us next. n

Published on September 1, 2004.
Photography: Courtesy of Sujata Massey.

More Information

Sujata Massey’s Official Web Site
The Pearl Diver on Amazon.com.

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