Baltimore Mystery Writer Sujata Massey Talks About Oysters, War Brides, and Fusion Cuisine in Her New Novel, The Pearl Diver
A Johns Hopkins University graduate and former Evening Sun reporter, Massey first conceived of her heroine when she departed Baltimore at the age of 27 in 1991 for a two-year stint in Japan, leaving her job and former home behind to accompany new husband Tony Massey, now a psychiatrist, along on the completion of his naval career. The notions of change, adaptability, and cross-cultural fusion are central to her stunning seventh novel, The Pearl Diver (HarperCollins), where the unlikely story lines of Asian oysters repopulating the Chesapeake, a buzzing new fusion restaurant in Washington, D.C., and the grim consequences of the Vietnam War meld into a seamless whole.
The novel picks up in Washington, where Rei, ousted permanently from Japan, has taken up residence with fiancé and lawyer Hugh Glendinning. Miserable in the midsized city after the glories of Tokyo, Rei goes out to an opulent lunch with her fund-raising cousin Kendall and suddenly finds herself with a job decorating Bento, a hot new fusion restaurant. There, she meets Andrea, the half-Asian, half African-American hostess who is still haunted by the disappearance of her mother, a Japanese war bride and former pearl diver. Rei—and her spirited aunt Norie, who arrives from Japan for a sudden visit—find themselves helping Andrea unravel the grim story of her parents’ marriage, but after Kendall and then Rei are both kidnapped by thugs the search takes on a new intensity.
Massey, whose novels usually revolve around “a social problem” she wants to explore, conceived of The Pearl Diver after learning more about the plight of Japanese war brides in America. “It was so sad to me that many of these women were abandoned by their husbands, and they didn’t have the skills to fight for themselves, and they just descended into poverty,” Massey comments. “This is the ugly side of cross-cultural marriage—sometimes it’s not a marriage of equals.”
The difficulty of starting over in a new country without a job, the ability to communicate, or built-in family ties was something with which Massey was familiar from her earlier time in Japan, where she found herself negotiating the new world solo after her husband was immediately dispatched for Operation Desert Shield.
“I was alone, a 27-year-old in a Japanese house and Japanese neighborhood, and all I knew were a few phrases from a Berlitz book,” Massey says. Finding work as a paid English teacher was also difficult. “I wasn’t blonde and blue-eyed—people want to study from people who look really white,” Massey says. “Ironically, I speak, I think, really clear English because both my parents were foreigners.”
Yet, Massey ultimately found engaging with Japanese culture more exciting than overwhelming. “I was just totally, utterly in love with the country upon arrival, even though we faced housing discrimination and things like that,” Massey says. “I just found it so stimulating, to learn how to understand a place, to read signs and operate new machinery. There wasn’t a day I wasn’t exploring a new town, a new region, climbing a mountain, learning to make plum wine.”
Massey, however, was not so sanguine about traditional life as a Navy wife. She began her first book, The Salaryman’s Wife, partly to avoid joining the Wives Club as “the corresponding secretary, which people wanted me to do,” Massey says. “I really wanted to distance myself from the military and go about my life in Japan. So I thought, if I had this project, I could tell people, ‘I really have to work!’”
The Pearl Diver’s D.C. setting—as opposed to Japan, where most of her earlier Rei novels are set—also reflects the current circumstances of Massey’s life as a mother and Baltimore resident.
“This is the only book I could possibly have written, because I had a tiny new baby at home and I couldn’t traipse around the world, let alone the country,” Massey says. “But I could do a day trip to Washington.”
When Massey became a parent at 34 (she is the mother of Pia, 6, and Neel, 3, both adopted from India) she found that Rei’s character also changed with her own. “Rei started out as a very fancy-free twentysomething,” she says. “But as part of my own character has changed to have more concern about children and more concern about the ties that bind mothers that children and what being a good mother is, I really wanted to explore that.”
As in the other novels, The Pearl Diver also gives free rein to another Massey obsession: food.
“Both my parents were foreign and didn’t particularly care for American food, so they were doing Indian food and other world cuisines, and there were beautiful meals cooked by both parents,” she says. “I started seriously cooking when I left college. In my Charles Village apartment, I would make elaborate dinner parties every couple of weeks. When I think back on it, it’s amazing, but I had so much fun.”
Getting a handle on the fusion cuisine Massey wanted for The Pearl Diver required still another course in extreme gastronomy. “I’ve never lived in Washington, but it’s always been the place I’ve liked to go for dinner,” Massey says. In researching the fictional Bento, which she says was primarily inspired by D.C. hot spot Nora, Massey “pretty much ate my way through all the upscale restaurants in Penn Quarter.”
Friend and fellow Baltimore mystery author Laura Lippman finds that Massey’s obsessions are excellent springboards for the serious issues underlying her works. “She’s very canny about taking things that some people dismiss as girly or consumerist—antiques, flowers, shopping, clothes, restaurants—and finding a larger context,” Lippman says. “In her art and her life, Sujata has shown me that it’s OK to embrace your inner Martha Stewart—pre-criminal indictment and conviction—as long as you have a sense of irony and a lively curiosity.”
In Massey’s next novel, these interests found a home in the recent news stories of art theft from Iraq. “I was just captivated when I started reading the stories about the looting,” she says. “Of course, when significant works of art are stolen, the people that buy them are private collectors. Private collectors in places like Japan.”
Though Massey doesn’t know if she will continue the Rei series indefinitely, she is still “very much engaged with her, and I think they’re a lot of exciting things ahead of her for work and relationships,” she says. But Massey is also interested in writing about “my Indian half and my German half,” though she’s still “not sure how,” and possibly a novel set in her Roland Park neighborhood.
What seems certain, however, is that Massey’s work will continue to reflect the philosophy Rei expresses toward the end of The Pearl Diver, as she gazes out over the Chesapeake and considers the risky proposition of Asian oysters repopulating the barren waters. “Too risky, some environmentalists said,” Rei muses, then switches gears. “Ha. I loved old things, but now I understood that you had to change to survive.”
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