Sen. Mazie K. Hirono is outspoken, self-assured and not afraid to say no.
These may seem like traits expected of a politician. But Hirono, the first Asian American woman elected to the U.S. Senate and the only immigrant serving there, began her career as a soft-spoken public servant.
“I came to realize that I was holding myself back by not stepping up, so I began to step up. And I gave a voice to the kinds of things I have fought for my entire political life,” Hirono said in a recent phone interview. “Clearly, this bully needed to be stood up to.”
That “bully” was former President Donald Trump. Hirono made headlines in 2018 when she told men in Congress to “just shut up and step up. Do the right thing for a change,” following the sexual assault allegation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh (now a justice).
In her new memoir, “Heart of Fire: An Immigrant Daughter’s Story,” Hirono chronicles her transition from a poor upbringing in Hawaii to a groundbreaking path to one of the country’s highest offices, where she advocates for workers, women, students and teachers, and immigrants.
Dedicated to her mother — whose resolve and resilience inspired Hirono to live boldly and to fight with everything she has — “Heart of Fire” focuses on, beyond politics, Hirono’s childhood and her mother, who left an abusive relationship in Japan to bring the senator and her siblings to Hawaii when Hirono was a child. The memoir is inspiring and compassionate, and illustrates the cultural and gendered lines the senator walks, and what led her to oppose the Trump administration.
Ahead of Hirono’s virtual Town Hall event with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen (see below for details), the senator spoke with The Seattle Times over the phone about her political awakening, speaking up, her mother and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
After reading your memoir, it’s clear that many factors led you to work in politics. What do you feel was the most defining moment?
All of this is part of a journey. I was very open to doing something with my life that would give back to a state and country that gave me opportunities that I never would have had. During the Vietnam War, I had my political awakening. I think I had a social awakening before then because I wanted to go into what I called the helping professions, which is why I majored in sociology. It was during the Vietnam War that I met activists and that I began to get very involved in politics as a young person in Hawaii. But it took me 10 years before I ever ran for office myself, which is a typical experience for a lot of women in my generation. It took us a lot longer to believe we had the experience, wherewithal and gravitas to hoist ourselves on the unexacting public by being a candidate. I felt, for example, that I needed to get a law degree before I put myself in the political arena.
How do you feel your diverse background affects your views in Congress? What ideologies do you draw from living in Japan and/or Hawaii?
I am grateful that I come from a totally different culture because it showed me that one person could make a difference. My mother changed my life by bringing me to this country. I am very grateful for growing up in a state where we have so many different racial backgrounds, cultures, and we intermarry to a higher degree than any other state that I can think of. We appreciate each other’s cultures and we appreciate each other’s food. It’s very multicultural in the best sense. So that also enables me to really appreciate the differences that people bring to the table. It’s not all just one perspective. It’s not all just the Christian perspective or the white perspective. It has made me very accepting of other people’s views. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t disagree with some of those views.
In “Heart of Fire,” you talk about merging your personal and public personas once the Trump administration took office. Can you explain a little more about why you felt that was important? What was the most challenging part about making this change?
I always regarded myself as a fighter, very feisty, but I just didn’t have to be so noisy about getting things done in the political arena. And I do come from a culture where we are not super confrontational and not particularly verbal and [we don’t] engage in verbal fisticuffs very much. But I was always a fighter, and it’s the Trump administration that brought to the forefront what I recognize as a need to verbally fight back because, let’s face it, the larger culture is a very verbal culture. And being vocal and verbal is rewarded. That’s not why I did it, I just thought, here’s this bully, and we need to stand up to him.
For someone who has yet to read your book, what is one thing you would want them to take away from your story?
We all have stories to tell and I’m telling my story, and I hope that there are points that people can relate to. There are a lot of people in this country for example that are dealing with loss. My dear mother just passed away several weeks ago. She is the person to whom I have dedicated this book. I would not have written this book were it not for me wanting to tell her story. Although, I don’t talk about my mother’s death [in the book] because it happened just recently, before the manuscript was completed. I hope that they see themselves in this story. And I hope it will encourage them to become what they can be. What they want to be.
Was your mother able to read any parts of your book before her passing? How do you think she would feel about this book coming out into the world?
No. I’m glad that I’m able to tell a generational story of very strong women. My grandmother who raised me in Japan, my mother, whose courage brought me to this country. Then my story; I’m really grateful that I did this.
I am a Buddhist and I believe that my mother is taking this book with her. I requested that this book be cremated with her. It’s a comfort for me to know that because, before she passed, I said to my mom, “I wrote a book for you. And I want you to take this book with you.” And so she did.