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Sujata Massey: Delectable feminist mystery and historical fiction set in Japan and India

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

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Sujata Massey, Writers on Resilience

Sujata at age 9 at Golconda Fort in India
Age 9, visiting Golconda Fort in India

The second “Writer on Resilience” is one of my all-time favorite authors, Sujata Massey. I discovered Sujata years ago when she was writing the Rei Shimura detective series, about a Japanese-American English teacher/antiques dealer and amateur sleuth. In recent years she’s moved into historical fiction set in India, and most recently, historical mysteries that are based on a real-life character, India’s first woman lawyer. Sujata has published 15 award-winning novels, two novellas, and numerous short stories published in 18 countries.

Born in England to an Indian father and a German mother, Sujata and her family immigrated to the United States when she was five years old, settling in St. Paul, Minnesota. Growing up, most of her parents’ friends were immigrants, so she didn’t have a typical midwestern experience. At the same time, she found it difficult to make friends when she was young, experiencing a lot of prejudice and xenophobia. Plus, like me, she was bad at gym! She felt like she had a divided life, so she was glad to put high school behind her when she moved to Baltimore to attend Johns Hopkins University.

Sujata in college
Sujata in college

Sujata was lucky to get a job as a features reporter straight out of college, working for the Baltimore Sun. She loved working in the newsroom with a highly diverse team.

She never would have left her reporter job if she hadn’t fallen in love with Tony, her best friend in college. He made a military commitment in medical school, so he had to work as a Navy medical officer for a few years. They wound up being fortunate to move to a tranquil place in Japan: Yokosuka, near Yokohama, and they lived there just a few years after my husband and I lived in Wakayama and Osaka.

“I spent a lot of time wandering through temples. That was just blissful. It was almost like being on vacation for two years.”

I asked Sujata what she enjoyed most about living in Japan.

Age 28, working as an English teacher in Kamakura, Japan
Age 28, working as an English teacher in Kamakura, Japan
Me a few years prior, in Kamakura
Me and hubby a few years prior, in Kamakura
“I loved that it was so different from the United States. I enjoyed the way people held onto traditions and celebrated them…like shrine festivals, the way people made sake from the plums on their trees, danced at the O-Bon festival in August, remember their ancestors, and pound mochi at the New Year.”

Rei Shimura Mysteries

Sujata and her husband Tony
Sujata and her husband Tony

After she returned home to the states, Sujata began writing. She published her first Rei Shimura book, The Salaryman’s Wife, in 1997. Similar to Sujata, Rei Shimura’s background is cross-cultural: Rei’s mom is American and her father Japanese.

Sujata thought the publishing industry would be interested in her premise, but she heard a prominent editor say that only mysteries set in England or Italy are successful. Not a lot of mysteries were set in other countries at the time. They seemed to think the people who read mysteries were all white and only want to read books with characters that look like them.

“It took a long time for the publishing industry to wake up to other countries as places people would want to read about.”
Pandemic writing office, summer 2020 in Baltimore
Pandemic writing office, summer 2020 in Baltimore

People described Sujata’s first book as “sly, sexy, and deftly done.” Rei Shimura is an underpaid English teacher in Tokyo who wishes she was doing something better with her life. Her chance comes when she goes on a New Year’s vacation to the Japanese Alps and finds the body of a Japanese executive’s wife in the snow.

USA Today described Sujata’s books as “Simply splendid… Massey is a gifted storyteller who delivers strong characters, a tight plot and an inside view of Japan and its culture.”

The Rei Shimura books are my favorite detective series, probably because I have always found Rei to be so relatable. All of Rei’s adventures delved into some sort of cultural art—cooking, fashion, furniture. Sujata also regularly took Rei to historical settings.

On the podcast, I told Sujata about a Japanese store in Whidbey Island, Washington, with beautiful antique tansu chests like Rei often admires. That store is called Jan McGregor Studios, a lovely place with Japanese crafts and antiques.

Kizuna Coast, Rei's last adventure
Sujata's last Rei adventure, about the Tohuku earthquake and tsunami

Sujata wrote The Kizuna Coast, her last Rei Shimura book, after the Tohuku earthquake and tsunami. All of us with Japanese connections were worried about what was happening there and felt deeply concerned about a country we love. I found the book to be healing. Here’s what I wrote after reading The Kizuna Coast:

“I could relate so well to Rei Shimura's great angst when she saw news coverage of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster. Even though I don't have relatives in Japan, it's where I met my husband and spent three of the most adventurous years of my life, and I have so many fond memories of the kindness of so many Japanese people. During those first few harrowing days, I was glued to the Internet and couldn't keep myself from watching that devastating wave destroy whole heart ached for Japan.”

India and The Sleeping Dictionary

Sujata Massey

Sujata started wanting to write about India a long time ago, but she was hesitant because she didn’t want to be a foreigner writing about India. She wanted to learn, understand, and become enmeshed in the world she was writing about…so she set out to do her research and write about the colonial experience from an Indian woman’s point of view in The Sleeping Dictionary. Here's the official description:

"In 1930, a great ocean wave blots out a Bengali village, leaving only one survivor, a young girl. As a maidservant in a British boarding school, Pom is renamed Sarah and discovers her gift for languages. Her private dreams almost die when she arrives in Kharagpur and is recruited into a secretive, decadent world.

Eventually, she lands in Calcutta, renames herself Kamala, and creates a new life rich in books and friends. But although success and even love seem within reach, she remains trapped by what she is… and is not. As India struggles to throw off imperial rule, Kamala uses her hard-won skills—for secrecy, languages, and reading the unspoken gestures of those around her—to fight for her country’s freedom and her own happiness. From an award-winning novelist, a stunning portrait of late Raj India—a sweeping saga and a love story set against a background of huge political and cultural upheaval.”

At historic office area in Colaba, Mumbai
At historic office area in Colaba, Mumbai

Booklist described The Sleeping Dictionary as “An utterly engrossing tale of love, espionage, betrayal and survival… historical fiction at its best, accessible to all audiences.”

You can read my review of The Sleeping Dictionary here. Sujata wanted to write a different type of historical novel about India:

“So many historical novels I’ve read about the colonial period are from a British point of view, and if any Indian characters play a role, it’s usually an elite man who’s a friend or adversary of the character. It’s never an Indian woman; they were always servants.”

“Sleeping dictionary” is a British slang term given to women who worked for the East India officers and taught them things about the country. If really “lucky,” the woman would become the officer’s girlfriend or wife.

I told Sujata about the book Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, which I thought of when I read The Sleeping Dictionary because it has a similar tragic beginning with a tidal wave. Read my review of Wave here.

Sujata likes to get the history right in her books, so she makes sure to consult with historians like Durba Ghosh, a Cornell University professor of history who specializes in the colonial period. Sujata and Durba recently led a discussion on Zoom about the colonial era in India.

Not only is it important to get the historical details as accurate as possible, but it’s also critical to not overwhelm readers with too much detail. Sujata praised Lisa See’s book, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and the way her descriptions of foot binding in China became part of the story.

“The other thing I love about writing colonial fiction and why I think that fiction set in the British colonial period in India is catching on right now is there are people, in the United States, who feel that the government is not their friend…the government is friend to a small number of people and would rather oppress people of color.”

I remembered, when I revisited my blog post about The Sleeping Dictionary, that the protagonist renames herself Kamala. I asked Sujata how she felt about our new Vice President.

We talked about how much we loved this video of Kamala Harris and Mindy Kaling cooking dosa, one of Sujata's favorite foods.

Sujata hopes that Kamala Harris finds out about her books in some way, because they seem to be made for her, another half-Indian American woman.

"I’m thrilled that her other side is Jamaican. I think we’re exactly the same age (me too; Kamala Harris was born 14 days after me), and I imagine her going through her childhood and adolescence with a lot of the same things said to her that were said to me…and yet she kept on going.
When she was in the early years of her work environment as a lawyer, things were quite different for women then…And I love that she’s in this family, she married someone and has these wonderful stepchildren that are really close to her…and she does a lot of cooking. She’s spent a lot of time in India too, so she just seems like someone who can show all of us what it means to have different sides to who you are and to be inclusive.”

Perveen Mistry Series

I asked Sujata what led her to writing historical mystery novels.

”I missed the mystery world.”

After spending four years researching the colonial period, she decided to combine the two things she loves.

“I wanted to tell the story of feminism in India, and I thought this would be a really good way to do it through the vehicle of a mystery.”

This is what I wrote after reading Sujata’s first Perveen Mistry book, The Widows of Malabar Hill:

Cornelia Sorabji, India's first woman lawyer
Cornelia Sorabji, India's first woman lawyer

"An Oxford-educated, multilingual Parsi woman in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1921, Perveen is one of the first female lawyers in India, partially inspired by the real life of Cornelia Sorabji. Perveen has modern parents who encourage her education and career, but they do still want her to get married. The novel covers the travails of her personal life as well as her professional work. She helps her dad with a case of a rich Muslim mill owner who has died and left three widows behind. The women are in full purdah (exclusion from men), so Perveen is best suited to speak to them. She soon becomes concerned because their husband's agent plans to give away their inheritance and leave them with nothing. When she begins to investigate the situation, a murder occurs and things escalate.

I am excited about reading more of this series. Massey does an exquisite job exposing the reader to many facets of Indian culture and religion--in this case Islam and Parsis, who are descended from Persian Zoroastrians. I've actually read quite a lot about Parsis; it seems that, although their population is fairly small and rapidly diminishing in India, their culture is a popular and fascinating subject in fiction!"

All of Sujata’s characters are fully fleshed, strong, independent women of color, my personal favorite type of character! I asked her about her inspiration for creating badass women.

Conducting research in India
Conducting research in India
“When I was young, it was the 1970s feminist movement. I remember knowing who Gloria Steinem was, reading Ms. Magazine. So it was very normal to think about women’s rights. If I was going to write books about women in India, I wanted to show the strength of women in India.”

Her books have become popular in India. Her Indian readers are inspired by Perveen and believe she represents their continued fights for women in India today.

Library Journal said this about Sujata’s second in the series, The Satapur Moonstone:

“Set in 1922, Edgar finalist Massey’s second whodunit featuring Bombay attorney Perveen Mistry is even better than the series’ impressive debut… The winning, self-sufficient Perveen should be able to sustain a long series.”

Her third book in the series, The Bombay Prince (which you can preorder here), is scheduled to be published in June 2021, and I can’t wait!

Since we both have such a fondness for Indian and Japanese cuisine, I asked Sujata about her favorite Japanese and Indian dishes. She loves Japanese festival and fermented foods, including yakimochi (grilled mochi coated with miso on the outside). And she particularly loves dhosa and cuisine from Kerala, which is low in oil and high in spice.

In response to my final question about a story of grit and resilience that has inspired her, Sujata chose Malala Yousafzai:

“It was incredible in the way she stood up to the Taliban, went to school, was so influential in starting that school, and continued to speak out afterwards. I’m glad she continues to be a force for social change in the world.”

I shared that I read a book Malala edited in 2019, We Are Displaced, in which she shares stories of other refugees like her who have built amazing, productive lives in their new countries but still long for the homelands they left behind.

Sujata with her family in Baltimore
Sujata with her family in Baltimore

Interviewing an author I have admired for 20 years was such a thrill for me! I highly recommend Sujata’s novels, and you can purchase them and other books discussed on this podcast at the Finding Fertile Ground Bookshop link, which supports local independent bookstores.

Next week my third “Writer on Resilience” is Julie Lythcott-Haims, writer, speaker, and former corporate lawyer and Stanford dean. Her first book was New York Times bestseller How to Raise an Adult, an anti-helicopter parenting manifesto. I read her moving and inspiring second book, Real American: A Memoir, which was my top nonfiction read for 2020. She has a third book coming out in April: Your Turn: How to Be an Adult.

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