Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel Harmless Like You is not a comfort read. At least, for me, a woman who has yet to be married or have a child, its themes revolve around a marriage at the point of potential break and a child abandoned by his mother. Reading the novel, I couldn’t help but fear “what if I do it all wrong, too? What if motherhood and marriage are jobs some people just aren’t meant for?” Luckily, I got to right to the source of the novel’s intense themes and ask Hisayo Buchanan about these questions and more:
Kati Heng: Harmless Like You touches on the hard questions many of us without kids are most scared to ask: What if I’m not meant to be a parent? What if I’m bad at it? The novel explores this idea; but, taken from your side and not the characters: Do you believe parenthood is a choice you make, or a role that naturally suits some and not others? Does it fall somewhere in the middle?
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: To me it seems there are as many types of parents as there are types of people. You may have the talent but no desire for parenthood or vice versa. You may be a good parent in one situation and a bad one in another. I know a brilliant, energetic, sparkling writer with two children. I know children whose parents treated them terribly. I know women who for one reason or another chose not to have children and whose lives I vastly admire. For the most part, I try not tell other people how to live their lives. I am struggling enough to figure out how to live my own well.
KH: Similarly, is Marriage the same sort of choice? Is every sort of bond and family you make a daily decision?
RHB: I’m not married but I do believe human bonds are daily decisions. But they’re decisions made not by one or even two people. You decide one thing, they decide one thing, and then the world throws itself at you. There are late trains, frightening governments, viruses, and car crashes. Even good things can be a surprise—daisies growing up through the sidewalk or a free cookie. The context of your decision can change entirely based on events that neither you nor your counterpart have anything to do with.
KH: As a smaller-woman with postures and ticks that are constantly self-shrinking, I could strongly relate to Yuki’s aversion to being called “Harmless.” As a (from what I see in pictures) smaller woman yourself, do you also feel like people see you this way – harmless, little, a non-intimidating presence?
RHB: Funny, you should ask. I’m actually not that short. I’m 5’5 1/2”, which is taller than the American average. But I feel short. There’s a photo of me when I was eleven in purple velveteen leggings and a black T-shirt and super tangled hair. That’s the picture I have of myself inside. I liked being this knees and elbows kid with big hands and oversized ears. It made me feel like I could slip in and out of the world unseen. So I’m always a little surprised when people spot me.
KH: On the question above, I’ve learned to use my smallness to my advantages in many situations. Have you developed ways of using this, too? If so, can you share a few?
RHB: This isn’t really about smallness, but it is about hiding. I used to have this thing where I’d sit on top of wardrobes. It made me feel safe to be tucked into that nook so close to the ceiling. I’d bring a book up there and just curl. I also found it funny not to be noticed. I can’t do it anymore because my wardrobe has too many books on top.
KH: It’s funny how the artists Yuki hang out with and listens to discuss art / literary magazines sound so similar to conversations between artists you’d hear today. Are we stuck in a track of the same? Has dissenting art evolved since the 60s/70s type of protests?
RHB: I’m always wary of making big statements about an era or about art as a whole. Sitting inside of a moment it’s so hard to see what is changing and what isn’t. I would say that in any movement there is going to be ego, competitiveness, pretension, and people who are overlooked. Maybe that’s cynical. But despite that I love that we keep trying to make art and that we keep trying to make the world better. Yes, we fail. Yes, we’re weak. But isn’t it wonderful that we try anyway?
KH: As a woman that only seems my Italian heritage present itself in terms of body hair, I very much appreciated Yuki’s frankness about having nipple hairs. As feminists are now celebrating a return of natural pubic hair and decorating/ dying the hair in their armpits – what is it going to take to finally normalize hairy nipples?
RHB: Taboos are so interesting. We break them and then we build them back up. Leg hair is not okay, then it’s okay, then it’s not okay again. Growing up, I spent a lot of time just trying to figure out what was acceptable. As a young teenager I was very unhappy. I remember thinking, I had to make myself pretty because when pretty girls were sad it was interesting. When ugly girls were sad it was just pitiful. This whole dichotomy is, of course, bullshit and dangerous. I think the ways we talk about bodies is so insidious—even the bodies of politicians I hate. Yes, they’re awful, but what about a lovely human being who happens to have small hands. How will they feel reading those words? Can we criticize ideas not bodies?
When I was writing Harmless Like You, someone asked me if Yuki was pretty. I asked them to who? There are humans whose bone structures I want to memorize, but who I know others find only meh. As a writer, I want to create characters who aren’t pretty or ugly, but who are seen and who see.
KH: The bio on your artist page includes the line “I’m British, Japanese, Chinese, and American – hyphenation and ordering vary depending on the day.” As a white American with very non-descript (and non-identifying) racial makeup, I can’t relate to this being a daily point of contention. Can you tell me a little bit about how and why the ordering changes daily?
RHB: If I meet a stranger there’s a fifty percent chance they’ll start guessing my race. So many times since being published, I’ve been asked to order my nationalities/ethnicities. Which is most important to me? Why have I said Japanese before Chinese or vice versa? These questions are usually innocent. But there is something slightly invasive about being asked. Would you ask a stranger which grandparent they loved the most? How am I supposed to provide this ranking? Genetically? My brother and I have both done DNA mapping, mine concluded that I was probably Korean. I’m not, as far as I know, even a little bit Korean. I don’t find my love for my grandfather whose bushy eyebrows sit on my face to be measurable against the hours I spent walking up and down Riverside Park in New York with my best friend reordering the universe. I can’t rank my loyalties.
KH: Finally, tell me about your bookshelves. In what rooms do you keep your books? How are they sorted? What authors or collections do you own every book of? What books are on your nightstand?
RHB: I move from place to place a lot. And my personal library is scattered between friends and family and loved ones. Inevitably the book I want is never where I am.
I do have a small collection of precious books. I have every Zadie Smith book. There are authors who I’d like to collect like Hiromi Kawakami, but who haven’t been published in English often enough for me to form a true collection. Books with inscriptions have special place in my heart. I once bought a Nicole Krauss novel from Housing Works with a whole love letter in the front. I have a small collection of signed books, which are weird. On one level, seeing the handwriting reminds you the author is human, but at the same time it makes the book all the more an object of worship. I’m looking at my signed copy of Loop of Jade by the amazing Sarah Howe and I do think it might be a little bit magic.
At the moment, by my bedside I have The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla and Good Girls Marry Doctors edited by Piyali Bhattacharya. I read them both a while ago, but they’re inspiration for a project I’m putting together.
Today, I’m reading Anelise Chen’s So Many Olympic Expectations, which so far is cutting me to the bone.