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June 2, 1999


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'An Offer I Could Not Refuse'

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Sujata Massey

Sujata Massey The only Indian writing high profile mystery books, Sujata (Banerjee) Massey, won an Agatha Award for her first book, The Salaryman's Wife, little more than two years ago. 'Sly, sexy, deftly done,' wrote People magazine, naming the book 'Page Turner of the Week'.

Massey has written two other acclaimed mysteries also featuring Rei Shimura, a Japanese American amateur sleuth, who in the best tradition of recent female sleuths is gusty and street-smart but she would rather shoot from her lip than from her hip. Massey's second novel, Zen Attitudefetched her an Edgar Awardnomination.

Zen Attitude 'An excellent new series from a very talented writer,' said best-selling novelist, Marcia Muller. Now, Massey, a former journalist and an avid antique collector has her third novel, The Flower Master, out. All the books are published by HarperCollins.

Sujata and her husband recently adopted a child from Kerala. The Indian connection was vital, says the writer. "In many ways, I am very, very connected with India," she says. Why hasn't she written an Indian novel, then? "There are too many brilliant Indian writers," she says with a chuckle.

"May be a few years from now, I would attempt an Indian novel but right now, I enjoy reading fine Indian writers."

I was born in 1964 in Sussex, England to a father from India and mother from Germany. My name is taken from a Buddhist story. Sujata was the young woman who served Buddha a bowl of rice or milk. (The food differs, depending on the country where the legend is being told. Indians say rice, but the Japanese go for milk, and a Japanese company called Sujata manufacturers coffee creamer and ice-cream! Japanese children usually sing an advertising jingle when they hear my name.)

When I was five, my parents emigrated to the United States. I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Berkeley, California; and St Paul, Minnesota, making enough trips to Europe and Asia that I never completely felt American.

I have trouble answering questions of where I come from, but when push comes to shove, I'm a passport-bearing citizen of the United Kingdom who has held an American green card since the age of two.

I went to college in Baltimore, graduating from the Johns Hopkins University in 1986, launching a career as a newspaper journalist at the now defunct Baltimore Evening Sun newspaper. I probably would have written twenty-inch-long articles about fashion and food forever had I not been courted by an attractive Navy medical officer who made an offer I could not refuse: marriage and a chance to love abroad at any military location for the two years obligation he had remaining. We moved to Japan in 1991.

Within the first few weeks, I learned to drive on the left, negotiated for a used car, and leased a charming Japanese-style house in a hilly seaside town called Hayama. I spent my days teaching English, studying Japanese and writing fiction.

Tony finished up with the Navy and we returned to Baltimore in 1993. It took two-and-a-half more years for me to finish my manuscript; luckily I won a generous grant for unpublished writers from Malice Domestic Limited, the non-profit group that runs a big mystery convention in the Washington DC area. Shortly after Malice Domestic convention, I signed a contract for two mystery novels with HarperCollins.

I purposely chose to write about a foreigner who can almost pass for Japanese because that was my experience, and I thought it would be helpful for an amateur sleuth to be able to mask the identity when she needs to.

Rei Shimura is multicultural; born in California, she has a Japanese father and an American mother. My protagonist speaks much better Japanese than I do, although I am still studying. Rei's anxious relatives Norie and cousin Tom Shimura are composites of good friends who guided me through Japan.

Rei's true love is Japanese antiques, and she has a master's degree in Japanese history. I have no decorative arts education, but I am a passionate antiques shopper.

The most important similarity I share with my sleuth is confusion over ethnic identity. Rei would like to be treated like a Japanese native, but her manners aren't quite right, and she speaks her mind too freely. At the same time, she battles a longing for Western luxuries and wonders whether it would appropriate to consider romance with a Western man, given the number of foreigners who have used and abandoned women in Japan.

While Rei strives to fit in with Japanese people, she also spends time examining the rigid hierarchy among Tokyo's gaijin, as foreigners are called.

At the top of the heap are international expatriate businessmen who earn high salaries and live in luxury apartments with central heating paid for by company executive expense accounts. Next down, are the American military, who have a cost-of-living allowance that covers American groceries and a house far from Tokyo without central heating. Below the military is Rei Shimura's class -- teachers, translators, and bar workers from countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia.

These gaijin usually share tiny, freezing apartments, one or two rooms with a hot-plate kitchen and a small bathroom molded out of a single piece of plastic. They have some tough times, but do not suffer the discrimination shown to workers who have traveled from countries like the Philippines, Brazil and Iran to perform jobs that are considered too hard, dirty or dangerous for the local population.

I have acquaintances in all these subcultural subgroups, and I gratefully count on their expertise as I continue the Rei Shimura series. I write at my home in Baltimore, but spend about a month per year in Japan fact-checking my settings and learning more about police procedure and cultural trends. I stay with Japanese friends in the suburbs or in a modest, centrally-located hotel called Asia Centre in downtown Tokyo.

In a typical day, I rush from Zen temples to antique stores and the bars of Roppongi fueled by green tea, rice cakes and the occasional vodka tonic. I always return to Baltimore five pounds lighter and lugging a suitcase jammed with antique textiles, photographs of my travels and notes for the next book.

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