Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

2016-08-20_ent_23808280_I2Interviewed by Ella Adkins

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (her/she) is a Japanese-British-Chinese-American writer, author of one novel Harmless Like You which was the 2017 winner of the Betty Trask Prize and a shortlist nominee for the Desmond Elliot Prize 2017. This novel has a multi-generational narrative, following two parallel timelines of Yuki, a Japanese girl born in New York, and her son Jay, who Yuki abandons when he was a child. I first encountered Rowan’s work at the Vancouver Writers Fest a few years ago, where she read an excerpt from Harmless Like You. I was fascinated by Rowan’s depiction of Yuki’s quiet, tormented character and how Rowan explores the complexity of what society would deem as an unforgivable act: abandoning your child. I had the pleasure of corresponding with Rowan, and picking her brain about her writing practice and her work.

 First things first, what are you reading right now?

I’m reading Golden Child by Claire Adam, because I’ve been asked to review it.

What was one of the first cohesive creative things you wrote?

 When I was in school, we were often given creative writing exercises in English class. They blur together a little in my mind, but I remember very clearly writing a story about a dragon. It was one of the longest stories I’d ever written and I decided it was necessary to illustrate the border, with many, many smaller dragons, chasing each other around the border. As an adult, I have written no stories about dragons, perhaps because that so thoroughly got it out of my system.

What was it that made you decide that you were going to pursue this whole writing business?

It wasn’t one big decision but rather several small ones. During university, I interned in various places, an architecture firm, a business consultancy, a fashion magazine. I was trying to find something practical to do, but my pleasure time was spent reading and writing. So, when one my professors suggested I apply to MFA’s, and spend two years being paid to do those things, I couldn’t resist trying. The support from my professors at UW-Madison lead me to look for a literary agent.

If you were to have an ideal writing space, if you don’t already, what would it look like?

I really like my set-up at the moment. I use desk that I inherited from my mother, who used it in her student days. The pale yellow wood is flecked with ink stains. It feels like proper working desk. The window has a view onto a white-painted wall, onto which a neighbour’s cat occasionally climbs. I have mugs filled with pens, a notebook with good smooth paper, and my laptop for typing up.

That said, I spent a year where I travelled four hours on the train every week, and I wrote there too – so I know it’s possible to write in clatter and clang, with a battery that’s about to die. I just prefer the former.

Do you find that physical location and where you are when you are working affects your writing?

The city or physical location where I am living can impact my writing. Often the physical places inform the atmosphere of a story. And usually locations and settings are at least partially inspired by something real.

With regards to whether I’m at home, on a train, or in a café, I don’t think so. My preference is to create new work somewhere quiet and solitary, (see your earlier question.) But I often find that editing, it’s good to refresh my brain and spend some time in a new location, usually a library or a café. Sometimes a different atmosphere will allow me to focus differently.

It seems like you dabble in various forms: obviously fiction, with your successful first novel Harmless Like You, but also non-fiction, and graphic forms. Do you find that you move between written forms often? Or do you mainly stick to one form of writing?

I think of myself primarily as a fiction writer. But each form of writing has the potential to help your mind work differently. And switching can open up new avenues of thought.

When I write fiction, it is almost an investigation into the characters, trying to understand them as best I can. I came to nonfiction later. For me, that is more of a conversation with the reader. Think of when you meet someone you click with and you want to share all you know with that person. You don’t just want to show them what happened to you, you want to show them the way the world looks through your eyes.

In both fiction and nonfiction, I’m most interested in the truth of how it feels to be a person moving through this world, because that is what I take pleasure in reading—those moments where you think ‘Aha, that is what it is like to be alive.’

On the other hand, when I draw, I’m more interested in beauty for its own sake. A line that is lovely or colours that bounce off each other are a great source of joy for me. And so drawing is for me a gentler mode.

Let’s talk about your novel for a second. In Harmless Like You, specifically through the character Yuki, you explore ideas around cultural identity, and the layered experience that is having a mixed race and cultural background. Can you speak to that narrative and how your own identity informed Yuki’s experience, if at all?

Harmless Like You is a novel about a Japanese artist in New York in the 1960s and 70’s who ends up abandoning her child. It is about how and why that happens.

My mother who is half Japanese and half Chinese, grew up in Manhattan at that time. She told me so many stories of her girlhood, but in the movies and books I read about that era there were no families like my own. So it was interesting to write a fictional family to whom I could give some of those stories. In the novel, Jay Yuki’s son is mixed race. He has a lot of worries—his wife hates his therapy cat, he feels ambivalent about his new baby, he’s quite angry at his own mother. I didn’t want being mixed race to be the main standout issue for him, but I do think that being mixed race can give a person the need to invent themselves. If you don’t grow up with a model of what people like you are supposed to be like, there is the need make it up yourself.

Can you speak a little to the journey of getting your first book published? And on that note, any advice to emerging writers trying to get their work into a more solidified form?

After the MFA, I taught high school English until I was offered a fellowship by the Asian American Writers Workshop. About six months after that, I found an agent, Lucy Luck. (It sounds like a superhero name doesn’t it?) She and I worked on the novel, through two rounds of edits. Lucy sent it out to publishers. I was very fortunate –a few publishers were interested in Harmless Like You, so there was an auction.I found an editor who was a good fit for me and now it is out in the world.

Advice? It will depend on the writer. But something a friend said to me that I’ve always found helpful, is to ask yourself what story you are best equipped to tell. What is your unique vision of the world? That might have to do with your personal history, your family, your community, or just what it is you love to read. If you have a gift for imaginary kingdoms, don’t beat yourself up for not writing realism. But equally, if it’s autofiction that makes your brain sing, go for it! What is popular will come and go, so stick to your gifts because those are what will make you stand out.

 Got any advice for some bright eyed, bushy tailed, recent graduates with BFA’s in Creative Writing?

Don’t rush. I was panicked all the time that I was too slow. I look back on that now and I see that was causing myself unnecessary pain. It is more important to keep yourself healthy and happy so that you have the strength to write the best possible book than it is to fret about the time it takes to write. I know writers who came to publication at very different times of their lives and who took very different routes. There is no one correct path and you never know which experiences will be useful to you in the end.

Can you give us a few words on your new project Starling Days?

Wow, you do your research. We haven’t even made the official announcement about that yet! Set in London, Starling Days is about love, mental illness and how the way we love changes when we get sick.

Ella Adkins is a writer working and living on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and Art History at the University of British Columbia. In her creative writing practice, Ella’s focus in on the female, in specific, the experiences of adolescent females and their coming of age, with a strong attention to the cycle of menstruation. Her work exists in many forms: script, poetry and prose, as well as the hybrid of them all. Within her art historical studies, Ella is interested in the intersection of language and art, and how textual and visual forms can co-exist within visual art.

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