At the “Modern Families” roundtable at this year’s IFOA, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan explained that it only felt natural to build her characters with the seemingly endless details that comprise their lives, their selves.

roawn-hisayo-buchanan-harmless-like-youIdentity is clearly at the heart of her much-lauded debut, Harmless Like You, and a good part of that settles in the miasma of family, even if one is estranged from – or abandoned by – them.

“As if the solution could be found in bone structure, I examined her face looking for my own. I’d always known I had her eyes. White people just didn’t have eyes like mine. But I hadn’t realised that the high-flat cheekbones were also hers, or that the slight symmetry of my eyebrows – the left had an up-tilt – was genetic. Inherited inconsistency.”

Jay’s mother abandoned him when he was two years old but, even so, he has constructed an identity based on his ideas about her, in the absence of a life with her.

Jay’s narrative is set in contemporary times, but although the novel begins in his voice, the bulk of the narrative is his mother’s; her portion of the story flashes back, offering readers a Künstlerroman which unfolds largely in New York City.

“Yuki still went to school on Fridays for art class. Light and shadow required no translation, and while drawing she forgot herself in the whisper of charcoal on paper.”

Yuki regularly navigates the territory of translation, with varying degrees of success. “Who knew there were even four levels of politeness? And who knew that being too deferential could be considered a form of rudeness? Yuki was a chīzubāgā – enough to make a Japanese person sick and still inauthentically American.”

She has also inherited a certain kind of solitary existence. It’s fitting that Yuki has never heard the word ‘shinyū’ (meaning ‘close friend’) because her mother has not had one for a very long time. “Yuki had never heard the word before. Her Japanese was like that – things about which her parents did not speak did not exist.”

There is a quiet loneliness which pervades the novel. A sense of being untethered. “All day, she looked in the sky for planes, but saw none. The sky was flat and still as a bathtub. The city felt oddly empty without them in it. She had the same light-headed feeling as not eating all day.”

An integral element of loneliness is the sense of being not only overlooked (at an extreme, abandoned) but being misunderstood and misrepresented. Jay obviously feels this (his mother’s absence being the most glaring example, but he is also disconnected from other significant figures in his life) but so does Yuki.

She is not a ‘harmless little girl’. It’s not that simple. Nothing is. “Seriously though, I think the cowards are the ones over there [in Vietnam] killing harmless little girls like you.’”

ifoa-samplingBut what she is? That’s not simple either: she does not see herself reflected in the wider world beyond. “She laughed. Being married to Edison seemed sitcomical. He was so nice. But she was not a sitcom wife. She’d never seen herself on TV. Sh’d never even seen the all-American-girl version of herself on TV.”

She does not naturally fit into the spaces which she inhabits; over time, she takes on other shapes that are convenient (but not necessarily fulfilling) to adopt.

“Yuki sat next to Lou. He put his arm around her. It was heavy. It pressed down on her spine, curving and compressing her. As if he might squash her. The body let itself be pressed into a slump.”

At first, this seems situational, but eventually it becomes a way of life. Or, a way of not-quite-living. “She just needed to find somewhere clean and clear to think. She would find a way of loving that didn’t maim. Then as soon as she was worthy of these people, she’d come back.”

Loneliness is often accompanied by a deep sense of longing, and that is true in Harmless Like You as well. “I think that’s all most people want, to find someone they love so much they’re embarrassed to talk about it. Oh, and to be loved back as embarrassingly much.”

It’s easy to see how those who are left behind are left longing for something or someone, but those who have done the leaving are often longing just as intensely.

Throughout her debut, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s prose is carefully and delicately constructed, often poetic. This occurs within the narrative (“She’d display the raisin of her heart. It was such a shrivelled thing.”) but is most striking in the segments which introduce Yuki’s younger years, before she becomes pregnant with the child who will become the novel’s second narrator.

Consider this description of “Raw Umber”: “Umber from Umbria, as in the raw earth of Italian mountains. It is the colour of a fur coat rarely worn, the oak bar in the Plaza, coffee dried to the bottom of a cup.” Even here, the question of neglect and oblivion and remnants permeates the prose.

The structure moves through time solidly, offering readers who do not naturally slip between time and space in fiction enough chronological plot to move steadily through the story. And the bursts of lyricism are not so frequent as to put off readers who prefer a more conventional prose style. But ultimately the novel is preoccupied with characterization (my favourite is Celeste, the aging four-legged companion who represents Jay’s fledgling capacity for devotion) and its success depends upon readers’ connections with Jay and Yuki.

Is this debut on your TBR? Have you been attending IFOA events this week? Have you been reading another debut novel?

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s appearances at Toronto’s 2016 International Festival of Authors:
Saturday October 22 1pm “The Modern Self” (Reading)
Tuesday October 25 2pm “Modern Families” (Reading/Round Table)