Welcome to the Spotlight Mariko Nagai and Dust of Eden!


I’m absolutely thrilled to be shining the spotlight on Mariko Nagai and her debut middle grade novel in verse, Dust of Eden. I first met Mariko in 2006, I believe. I was living in Shanghai at the time and made a trip to Tokyo and met up with some wonderful SCBWI members in Japan. Stay tuned below for a chance to win a copy of this powerful book!


Dust of Eden by Mariko Nagai (Albert Whitman & Co./2014)

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Mina Masako Tagawa and her family are forced to leave their home in Seattle and relocate to an internment camp in Idaho. This is the story of the Japanese-American internment during WWII. In poignant and powerful verse, Mariko Nagai tells the story through middle-schooler Mina. Mina who has to leave behind everything – including her cat and best friend. In the dusty barrack camps where the families are crammed together with no privacy and little amenities, Mina’s family cracks under the strain. Mina’s brother angry in camp, volunteers for the Japanese-American infantry to fight in the war. The beauty lies in the telling – Nagai’s verse is filled with emotion. Grandpa’s beloved roses survive in the harsh environment and serve as a reminder that under even the harshest conditions, beauty can be found.

Spotlight on Mariko Nagai:

How did this book come about? Please share with us the journey of Dust of Eden, from idea to research to drafting to sale.

The book story has been with me for a very long time – you can almost say that it’s a lifetime’s work. When I was eight, we moved to San Francisco, where there were many Japanese-Americans living there. That’s the first time I heard about “the camp” that Japanese-Americans had to live in during World War II. As I grew older, I learned different aspects of the Japanese-American experience, both good and bad. It was maybe in 2002 or 2003 when Mina, the protagonist, came to me fully, and she told me that she lived in Seattle and that she had two names – Mina and Masako – and sometimes she wasn’t sure which name was really her. It took several years to do research. The writing itself came rather quickly, but it took several years to revise, to sell it to the right publisher, and… well, it was a very long journey from idea to sale, but the journey was worth it.

I am not a poet. I am in awe of you – poetry and novels in verse. What are some of the special challenges when it comes to telling a story in verse?

I think one of the things I am still learning is how to write poems, which are like snapshots, while answering to the demand of the novelistic form – character development, action, etc. In many ways, in the perfect verse novel, you have poems that can stand on their own while having characters develop in a way that’s demanded by the novel form. You also have to answer to the demand of poetry – rhythm, forms, rhyming, etc . Often times, when verse novelists write, they are more focused on the structure and they sacrifice poetic elements for the sake of the novelistic form. It’s difficult, but there are wonderful poets who engage with verse-novels elegantly and wonderfully – Helen Frost, Margarita Engles, Marilyn Nelson, Nikki Grimes, Karen Hesse, etc.

Mina has to deal with huge change, not only from her comfortable home in Seattle to the barracks in Idaho, but in the demeanor and behavior of her beloved family. The emotions come through so strongly in your verse – how did you get to know Mina?

I’m not sure if I got to know Mina all that well – because poetic form demands that I focus on the moments, I could draw from my own experiences – anger, bewilderment, fear, hopelessness, love, closeness. As I wrote, the first draft took relatively a short time to write, but getting each emotion right in each poem, oh, that was a difficult part. Mina/Masako couldn’t articulate her feelings, and I had a hard time sorting it out in each poem.

You were born in Japan, raised in the States and Belgium and now live in Tokyo. What do you love best about each place you’ve lived?

I love each place! Each place is so rich with history and stories, it’s going to take me a lifetime to go through them! I love traveling, I love experiencing new places. There’s so many stories, so many places, I would love to explore!

Mariko Nagai Bio: Born in Tokyo and raised in Europe and America, Mariko Nagai studied English/Creative Writing – Poetry at New York University. Her numerous honors include the Erich Maria Remarque Fellowship from New York University, fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, Akademie Schloss Solitude, UNESCO-Aschberg Bursaries for the Arts, Yaddo, and Djerassi. She has received the Pushcart Prizes both in poetry and fiction. Nagai’s 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 includeInstructions for the Living (Word Palace Press 2012), Dust of Eden (Albert Whitman & Co, 2014) and The Promised Land: A Novel (forthcoming Aqueous Press, 2016). She is an Associate Professor of creative writing and Japanese literature at Temple University, Japan Campus in Tokyo, where she is also the Director of Research and Study Abroad Academic Coordinator. She also serves as Assistant Regional Advisor of SCBWI Japan. 

For more about Mariko, check out her web site or follow her on Twitter.

Want to win a copy of this outstanding novel in verse? (You do, you do!) Follow this directions to enter a drawing for your very own copy of Dust of Eden.

1. Comment on this post, and for fun, tell me your favorite place you’ve lived. I have good memories of every place I’ve lived. But if I had to pick a favorite, it would be a toss up between growing up in West Los Angeles (very good memories) and my current home here in CT.  I am blissfully happy here.

2. Entrants must have a U.S. or Canada mailing address.

3. Comment by midnight EST on Friday, May 2. Winner will be drawn at random and notified by email. I’ll announce the winner here on the following Tuesday.

Good luck and happy reading!




5 responses »

  1. Thanks for this wonderful spotlight. I’ve been hearing about Dust of Eden and am anxious to read it! Especially liked Mariko’s answer about the challenges of the verse novel form.

    Favorite place I’ve lived is London, England, hands down. 🙂

  2. It is fun to think of the two of you meeting in an SCBWI meeting in Tokyo. I love those small world moments. And loved dust of eden, and have a copy, so you don’t need to enter me in the contest. I always enjoy thinking of Jama in London! And like her, I especially enjoyed the way you spoke of the feelings and moments within the narrative whole, Mariko. Thanks for interviewing, Debbi!

  3. Terrific looking book, I’d love to win a copy. I’ve lived in some wonderful places but I guess my favorite would be Halifax, Nova Scotia in my 20s. Loved my job, met my wife, and got married there too. Thanks

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