Interview with Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, author of ‘Harmless Like You’

Interview by Toby Sharpe

Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo

Illustration by Arta Ajeti

Could you start by describing your career? What do you do, and what have you written?

I wrote a novel called Harmless Like You about a Japanese artist living in New York in the 1960s and 1970s. She ends up abandoning her son. It’s about how and why that happens. Oh, and there’s a bald cat, if you’re a fan of bald cats.

I’m also the editor of an anthology called Go Home!, which is a collaboration with the Feminist Press and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. It’s a collection of poetry, non-fiction, and fiction about home by writers who identify as Asian or Asian-American.

I loved reading Harmless Like You. Both protagonists, Yuki and Jay, are characters one rarely reads about in fiction: you present them both so frankly, in terms of their flaws and foibles, and in terms of their experiences as marginalized folk at various intersections of oppression. Were you conscious of breaking new ground as you were writing?

I didn’t originally think of it as a political book. My mother grew up in New York in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I used to hear these stories about the ‘60s and ‘70s from her, about my half-Chinese and half-Japanese family. The ‘60s and ‘70s are huge in television and literature, but I never saw anyone like my family. I wanted to set a story about a Japanese family in that time. Later, people asked if it was political, and I now see that I was making a political choice, but that wasn’t the place I started.

There were so many moments where I was aware that I hadn’t read these people before, especially when they resonated with me personally – for example, when Jay mentions he had a fun queer experience once: you just never read about that in books.

I do want to pause on bisexuality because something that I’ve found kind of strange is how people asked me when the book came out if it was harder to write Jay than Yuki because he’s a man. I was very surprised. If you’ve not read the book, Jay runs an art gallery in present day Brooklyn. Most of the people closest to him are women.

Very early on, my publishers got Elle Canada to interview me, and I was asked that question, and I said well, Jay and I have things in common, we’re both mixed race and bisexual! Then I realised I’d accidentally come out to Canada. It’s not a huge issue in the book. He’s married to a woman. But I wanted to be in there: it was a way of giving him a bit of me.

Was the assumption that you were Yuki somehow, and Jay was not?

Or that as a woman it would be so much easier to write a woman than to write a man. Yes, there were some things that were not obvious to me. There’s one point in the book where Jay needs to go to the bathroom for plot reasons: I did need to call a man, and go: odd question…?

So yes, there are parts of that experience that weren’t immediately clear to me, but in the same way that being in the ‘70s wasn’t immediately clear to me and I had to call people and ask them about that. But people always assume that gender is the primary thing that you would have in common with a character.

One of the very nice things about writing your first book is that you don’t know what people are going to say must have been difficult or impossible to write. Everything feels impossible but you write anyway.

I was particularly struck by the descriptions of Jay’s struggles with anxiety, Yuki’s spiralling depression, and the way that their experiences are shown to impact their lives, and the lives of those they love. I’m also aware that you’ve talked in the past about your family experiences with Transient Global Amnesia (TGA). I wondered if you could first explain to our readers what TGA is -– and speak to the subject of depicting mental ill health in your work?

I suppose TGA is mental health in the sense that it’s something that happens to your brain, although I’ve never thought about it as something like depression. It has stroke-like symptoms, but unlike a stroke, you recover completely. No one really understands why it happens.

I am very close to my mother, and I’d been living very far away from her. I got this call saying your mother doesn’t know what year it is, who people are, she keeps forgetting information she’s being told, and she doesn’t know what country she’s in. I was terrified, and there was nothing I could do. After we found out that she was okay, I started thinking about what my life would have been like without her, if she had left. So that became part of the novel.

Anxiety and depression were always part of the characters. With Jay, I was thinking about people who suffer but feel the need to put it aside or deny it.

You shouldn’t diagnose your friends – or probably your characters – but Yuki probably does suffer from a kind of depression, although she doesn’t have the life situation to talk about that or to ask for help. I think that meant when I was writing her I really had to think about how she would express her feelings.

Yes, I was really struck by your descriptions of what Yuki is feeling – even when she herself doesn’t always know what those feelings are.

She’s a very visual person. Often people who have mental health problems and are good with words can talk about it. For others it’s harder. My grandmother on my father’s side used to talk about going out and walking the black dog [to describe her habit of] walking and driving around at night. There was never an idea in her family that she would seek therapy, just that she’d grab her coat and walk the black dog. That’s another idea as to a way of being in this world.

I was talking to someone about writing about mental health issues and he was saying that there was a risk there about writing unreliable narrators. There’s an idea of writing about mental illness that characters are going to have a devil talking to them, or that they’ll see ghosts – and yes, some people do see those things. For a lot of people, though, it’s not that they suffer from delusions, it’s that they struggle to navigate the world. I just wanted to write about characters who were trying to cope and trying to figure out how to be happy.

The novel deals with a lot of weighty issues – domestic violence, racism, misogyny, mental health, etc. – but never feels weighty. Did that feel like a risk to you when you were writing?

I have never been the victim of a sustained period of partner violence, so I think that was the issue I was most concerned about, going in. I talked to a lot of people who were generous with their time, explaining how that situation feels. They didn’t tell me the trick to writing, but it felt necessary to write a version of those experiences that felt respectful. I hope we’re moving away from the common societal misconception that people who stay with violent partners are either imprisoned or stupid. I wanted to show how a perfectly intelligent person can end up in an abusive relationship.

On the weighty side: as a novelist, you get certain compliments. One of my friends is praised for making people laugh until they cry. I just get people telling me I made them cry.

Yes, I was going to say that earlier!

I don’t know if I would have picked being this kind of writer. But when people are willing to go with you to that place, that’s an honour.

I tried to give people some moments of lightness. There should be moments of smiling even in dark times because that’s life.

Could I ask you to speak, if it’s all right, about your own experiences as a creative working at the intersection/s of oppression that you occupy? To what extent were you aware of the various limitations in publishing when it comes to diversity when you started plotting out your novel- and to what extent were you made aware as you went?

When I began, I didn’t think anyone would let me be a novelist. Being a novelist just felt like a job that you don’t get to do – I wanted to be a dragon when I was a kid, and I learned dragon was not a valid job choice, and I thought being a novelist would be the same. So only recently have I thought about the industry.

We’re at an interesting point in Britain in the publishing industry where I feel like there’s quite a lot of attention and money going towards making things more diverse, and celebrating diverse voices, but that can also lead to pigeonholing, and that’s something I’m still thinking about. There’s a perception that this kind of writing is homework, that it’s “good-for-you” granola reading.

When my book came out, a very small number of books that year that came out were by people of colour. Being part of that small group made me aware of the many ways that I’ve been lucky. If you have to be that lucky, then how many brilliant writers aren’t lucky and are being held back?

I’m very proud to be mixed-race, and when mixed-race readers come to me and say that I’ ve represented something that they wanted to see in a book, that’ s very meaningful to me.

It seems that books written by people of colour, women, and LGBTQ people are discussed in the media in very different ways to the output of their straight white male counterparts. Has that been your experience? Have there been positive moments in that, too?

One positive side to all of this is that people are hungry for other voices right now and that’s exciting. That means that some people in publishing are paying more attention than they would have been- – but that means that some books are put in a different category to others.

I’m friendly with a poet named Sarah Howe, she’s wonderful and mixed-race too, but a lot of press said she’d only won the T.S. Eliot Prize because she’s a woman of colour. That was reprehensible: she won because she’s a brilliant poet. For everyone who says something toxic like that you wonder who’s thinking it and not saying it.

Many of Project Myopia’s readers come from marginalized backgrounds, where perhaps they have not only been told that they would be unwelcome in literary spheres, but that their words and experiences won’t matter to the often white and male literary elite. Could you offer any advice to those would-be creatives who feel stifled in that sense?

Sometimes you may do things to please an establishment that you don’t necessarily trust so that you can do work that’s important to you. If so, don’t beat yourself up about it, as long as you do the work that’s important to you.

My second piece of advice is that we can work together. When you were telling me about how Project Myopia got created, how you both felt excluded, and then you got together to make something, that’s where some of the most exciting work is.

Project Myopia aims to democratize academia through crowdsourcing articles: we rely on a vast web of people to build and disseminate our work. One of the other things you mention in the afterword to Harmless Like You is the sheer number of people who need to be thanked for helping one develop a book. I wondered if you could speak to that ‘it takes a village’ concept: is that key to any creative or academic practice?

My first drafts are terrible. A lot of making them better is sitting alone in a room and reading them through, but you don’t have much distance on yourself. To make a book, I needed friends – writers and non-writers – to give me their impressions. Other people challenge you, try to make you better. I don’t know if I’m unusual in needing that community, but it helped me.

And then there are the people who may not help you with the book, but who help you with your personhood. When I was fifteen, I was very depressed. I didn’t think I’d ever be the age that I was when I wrote the book. It took people in my life to make that possible. It helps so much to have people who believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself.

Do you have any more advice for budding creatives – those working on first novels or other creative endeavours?

Read what you love. It’s important to read widely, so you’re not just imitating a particular person. Equally, though, I don’t think you have to read Dickens if you hate Dickens: you’re not going to learn anything from a book that does nothing for you. When you’re excited about reading, stop and think about why.

If you had to recommend some pieces of art & culture for our readers, what would you choose? What are you enjoying right now?

Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan had a small release a few years ago and is being re-released now. She’s a beautiful writer. I just reviewed America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo: it’s about the Filipino community in the Bay Area and has amazing bisexual Filipina women in it, and it talks about immigration very intelligently. I keep thinking about What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah, which has so much magic in it: it’s got such a confident voice. And, of course, Ponti, a darkly hilarious novel about Singapore, teenage-hood, cult film by Sharlene Teo.

Thank you so much!

About the author

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is the author of the novel Harmless Like You which was a New York Times Editors’ pickShe has received an Authors’ Club First Novel Award and a Betty Trask Award. Other work has appeared in places such as Granta, the Guardian, and The Atlantic.

About the interviewer

Toby Sharpe has two degrees from the University of Edinburgh. He is the co-founder of Project Myopia, a movement to diversify university curricula, and his poetry can be found in publications such as The Glasgow Review of Books, and Adjacent Pineapple.



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