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Meet an Author: Mariko Nagai, award-winning author and poet

Mariko Nagai

Mariko Nagai is a much-awarded poet and author, a recipient of the Pushcart Prize in both poetry and fiction, and the most recent winner of the Les Figues Press NOS Book Contest for her forthcoming novel Irradiated Cities. Her collection of poems, Histories of Bodies, won the Benjamin Saltman Prize from Red Hen Press, and her first collection of stories,Georgic: Stories, won the 2009 G.S. Sharat Chandra Fiction Prize from BkMk Press. Her other books include the poetry collection Instructions for the Living and novel Dust of Eden, which we review below. Nagai was born in Tokyo and raised in Europe and America.

Book available at The Bookworm:

Dust of Eden (2014)

Events at The Bookworm Beijing:

Saturday, March 19, 2 pm: Memory and Place, with Michael Crummey, Anna Small; moderated by Kerryn Leitch

Sunday, March 20, 4 pm: The Meaning of Contemporary Poetry, with Michael Crummey, Andy McGuire, Nicholas YB Wong; moderated by Simon Shieh

Tuesday, March 22, 8 pm: Storytelling: “Far From Home,” with Matt Hulse, Lieve Joris, Yves Laplace, Kabu Okai-Davies, etc.; hosted by Amy Daml

Opening of Dust of Eden

Prologue

We held our breath for three
years. We did not have anything to call

our own except for the allowed number
of bags: two. We did not have anything

except for a rose garden my grandfather
made from hard earth and spit.

Dust of Eden review, by Laurie O’Donnell

Mina Masako Tagawa is a 13-year-old second-generation Japanese-American attending middle school in Seattle in 1942. And then Pearl Harbor happens, and Mina and her family are sent from their home to an internment camp in Idaho.

What do you do when your home country treats you like an enemy?

This novel is told in verse, a perfect vehicle to simplify and edit the voice of a young girl who is emerging out of a protected world of love and compassion and appreciation to the harsh, ignorant world she had yet to know.

Mariko Nagai explores the nature of fear, the value of acceptance, and the beauty of life. She gives this book a pure voice. Dust of Eden is told with an honesty that is quiet.

Mina is rehearsing Christmas carols with her Sunday school choir when Pearl Harbor is bombed and US anti-Japanese sentiment explodes. When called “Jap Mina,” she responds, “I’m not Japanese, I want to yell. I’m an American, I scream in my head, but my mouth is stuffed with rocks; my body is a stone, like the statue of a little Buddha Grandpa prays to. . .”

During the holidays, Mina’s father is imprisoned without being charged and doesn’t rejoin the family until a year later, aged and exhausted. Mina, her 15-year-old brother Nick (Toshio), her mother and grandfather are forced to leave their home and Grandpa’s prized rose garden in the care of their neighbors.

Nick is matured by events, his choices, and actions. He rages with righteous anger and defiance to outside authority, and eventually to the authority within his family. He enlists to prove his loyalty to the U.S., against the wishes of his father and grandfather. “America doesn’t trust us, so why should we help them?” “I am an American, Nick says. . . This is my home.”

Dust of Eden sheds light on a shameful period of U.S. history, which caused the suffering of tens of thousands of American citizens and their relatives. But it is also the story of two siblings that share totally different lives in the same space and time.  One who is outraged and expresses his anger and revolts and evolves, the other who is so much more docile in the face of so much ignorance and cruelty.

Praise for Dust of Eden

“I love how this story respects its readers. It’s a hard thing to know, that the United States once treated our Japanese citizens this way. Mariko Nagai does not soften the reality of what happened, but by giving her main character a loving family and a loyal best friend, she makes it bearable for readers to take this journey with her. This is an important story, beautifully told.” –Helen Frost, Printz Award Honoree and author of Salt and Crossing Stones

Mariko Nagai is an author participating at the 2016 Bookworm Literary Festival. To read about other participating authors, please see our Meet an Author series.

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