Q&A with Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

For those who haven’t read Harmless Like You, how would you describe it?
Harmless Like You follows two characters and two timelines. In the 1960s and 70s, Yuki is a Japanese woman growing up in New York and struggling to become an artist. In 2016, Yuki’s son Jay is forced to travel to Germany to meet the mother who abandoned him when he was two years old. The novel is about how we choose between two bad options. It’s about how we find our families. It’s about the times when love does not overcome all odds.

There’s also a bald cat in a festive sweater.

Where did you originally get the idea for your novel?

Yuki, the artist, showed up in my head standing on a sunny street corner. I knew that she’d grow up and leave her son, but I didn’t know why. She was only a girl in that moment. She wasn’t evil. She wasn’t cruel. As I wrote, I discovered why she’d left. As a Japanese girl who has lived most of her life in America, Yuki struggles to find her place in the world.

What inspired you to write a girl who feels neither completely American nor completely Japanese?

The edge of things always feels the most natural place to me. There’s anxiety and loneliness there, but also so much beauty. Perhaps this interest is grounded in my own mixed-race multinational background. I grew up hearing stories about my Japanese grandfather and my Chinese grandmother living in New York in the 1960s and 70s.Yuki’s family isn’t my family, but writing about hers was a way of understanding my own better. 

Or this interest might just be my personality. I like doorways, real and metaphorical. I don’t like shutting them and I hate locking them. As I write this, I’m facing an open door. It’s casting a triangle of shadow across the floorboards.

This is your debut novel—congratulations! What about publishing a book has surprised you the most?

The kindness I’ve received has been a lovely surprise.

Writing is solitary. You spend a lot of time alone arranging words. Every now and then, a friend or teacher takes the time to advise you how to rearrange them better. Then you go back to your quiet room. Publishing means there’s suddenly a team of people fighting for your book.

Harmless Like You only exists in the world because of my agent, editors, publicists, copy checkers, proof readers, and cover designers. No one would read it without bookshops, reviewers, festival organizers, other writers, book bloggers, Twitterers, Instagrammers, and of course podcasters. And I’ve been so touched by the old and new friends who’ve bought the book and come to readings. There are people I haven’t spoken to in years who took the time to reach out. I don’t know how to hold all the gratitude I feel in this one ribcage.

Here at the Reading Women, we’re all about amazing female voices in literature.
What women have inspired your writing?

As a teenager, I found books mostly by chance. I’d see a cover I liked in my school library or on a bookshop table. Lorrie Moore, Zadie Smith, and Ruth Ozeki stunned me. If I hadn’t read them while still young, I’d see the world differently.

As I got older, I started reading women in translation. I wrote about Eileen Chang here. Many of my favorite Japanese writers are women—Yōko Tawada, Banana Yoshimoto, Hitomi Kanehara, and Yōko Ogawa. I can’t describe them all here. So, I’ll just say that I’ve never read anything so simultaneously creepy and exquisite as Diving Pool by Ogawa.

I have a big blue book of Sylvia Plath’s collected poetry. Editing my novel, sometimes I got stuck and language went limp. I’d open Plath’s collection somewhere in the middle and start reading. Her words throb with energy and emotion. I’ve been told Plath is a young girl’s poet, but I never plan on getting over her.

There are writers whose influence I can’t trace directly, but whose clarity of vision is something to behold. Chichimanda Ngozi Adichie, Olivia Laing, and Rebecca Solnit spring to mind.

What have you been reading lately?

I’ve been reading more poetry. In the UK, Penguin has been doing a series where they select three poets at different stages of their careers and put them together in one book. I’m so excited to start Malika Booker, Sharon Olds, and Warsan Shire’s Your Family, Your Body. Prose-wise, I’ve just started reading The Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico. After I’ve finished replying to this, I’m going to have a cup of tea and dive back in.


 © Eric Tortora Pato

 © Eric Tortora Pato

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is a Japanese-British-Chinese-American writer. She has a BA from Columbia University, an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is currently working on a PhD at the University of East Anglia. Her writing has appeared in, among other places, NPR's Selected Shorts, TriQuarterly, and the Tin House Open Bar. She has lived in London, New York, Tokyo, Madison, and Norwich.

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