books, Debut Novel, Immigration, People of Color, Reading, Women Writers

“Harmless Like You” by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

“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.”

IMG_0395In her debut novel, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan spins a complicated story about Yukiko, the daughter of Japanese immigrants who has only known life in America. As a young woman in the New York City of the late 1960s, Yuki is silent and adrift. She feels utterly invisible, unseen by and unconnected to those around her. Her parents welcome the chance to move ‘home’ to Japan, but Yuki is unsure. As unsettled and lost as Yuki feels in New York, as much as she aches at her ‘otherness’, she resists the idea of a move to Japan – one that wouldn’t really be a return, but a new beginning, another challenge to find her fit.

“Yuki had visited her grandparents once, and while she’d befriended their dog, she couldn’t do anything right for the humans. How many languages had four conjugations for My name is Yukiko, one for each level of politeness? And who knew that being too deferential could be considered a form of rudeness? Yuki was a chizubaga – enough to make a Japanese person sick and still inauthentically American.”

“To her father, America was a snare. It was as if each time he said the Pledge of Allegiance, America’s rope tightened, and now he was finally about to struggle free. She didn’t want to hurt him. But she didn’t want to return to a country of offerings to the dead.”

Amazingly, Yuki convinces her parents to let her stay in America and live at her friend Odile’s apartment. Odile lives with her bohemian mother in a world without structure or limits. It is a world Yuki covets and yet one in which she is even more at sea, more other.

“The apartment was a nation with its unique barbarisms. Yuki told herself that Odile would be just as lost if the situation were reversed, but it was a lie. In Rome do as the Romans, but everywhere else the Romans had made damn sure the locals did as the Romans. Odile contorted the world to her will.”

Odile, whom Yuki follows unquestioningly, slinking in her shadow and blending into the background, is explicitly the goal, the ‘ideal’ American in Yuki’s mind. Her life force, her unbending, unapologetic personality, are irresistible to Yuki, even though their friendship is clearly toxic.

Yuki is a main character with detailed plot points but little depth – not as in superficial, but as in flat, hollow, enigmatic. She exhibits minimal personality. Her struggle to be seen by the world is vividly replicated in the reader’s struggle to see her. “Harmless Like You” is all about Yuki’s lifelong difficulty connecting emotionally to the people and the world around her. The reader endeavors to decode Yuki, learning in tiny flits and sparks about this enigmatic character. Buchanan alternates her trail of breadcrumbs between narrating young Yuki’s life and shadowing Yuki’s son Jay as he seeks to know the woman who abandoned him as a baby.

“Harmless Like You” is a rare treat – a character study in which the main character, despite never fully coming into focus, is immensely compelling. Yuki’s disquiet is visceral, and the entire novel conveys a sense of otherness that is profound and permanent. Buchanan’s prose is often serene and still, leavened with brilliant barbs of sarcasm and wit. A delightful, touching debut.

“Artists will tell you they don’t draw objects. They draw the way light falls. The puppet strings that jerk our emotions are woven of photons. The power of moonlight is famous. March morning light stroking your wife’s face can end a fight. A headachy, halogen glare can start one. We need light. Without it, we get melatonin deprivation, our immune systems crash, our internal rhythms get lost. In long, dark, northern winters, people shoot themselves in the head.”


books, Debut Novel, People of Color, Reading, Women Writers, Works in Translation

“Girls of Riyadh” by Rajaa Alsanea

          “We all live in this world but do not really experience it, seeing only what we can tolerate and ignoring the rest.”

IMG_0391When “Girls of Riyadh” was first published (in Lebanon in 2005), Rajaa Alsanea (رجاء الصانع‎) faced immediate fame and rancor in her home country of Saudi Arabia and throughout the Arab world. In this debut work, Alsanea tells the story of four young women – Gamrah, Michelle, Sadeem, and Lamees – exposing the inner world of young upper-class Saudi women as they come of age, navigate tradition, and try to forge their own romantic and professional lives. The narrative is framed as serially-released, anonymous emails (this is pre-blog, nascent-internet territory) which share the inner struggles and outward foibles of four well-educated, privileged women in a society where education and privilege only allow women to rise so far. 

“All Michelle wanted was to hear that she had been accepted in one of the schools [in California] so that she could bundle up her belongings and turn her back on a country where people were governed – or herded – like animals, as she said to herself over and over. She would not allow anyone to tell her what she could and could not do! Otherwise, what was the point of life? It was her life, only hers, and she was going to live it the way she wanted, for herself and herself only.”

“The Girls of Riyadh” contained frequent reference to Saudi Arabia being culturally and politically unique even within the Arab sphere, but included neither explanation nor instance of how this was so. Perhaps the writer assumed a familiarity with Saudi culture, though given the book’s presentation as an exposé, as a damning airing of family business, a more thorough explication of the nuances and key characteristics which distinguish Saudi society would have made this story more engaging and meaningful, particularly to foreign readers allowed this rare glimpse at a veiled world.

“The Girls of Riyadh”, at least in English translation, was not particularly exceptional on the merits of its writing alone. Similarly, in a western culture where boundaries are constantly called into question, where popular culture in all media continuously test the limits of social mores, the stories contained in “The Girls of Riyadh” can seem mild-mannered, even quaint. It is important to recognize that what may seem to a westerner to be benign and slightly banal anecdotes were considered shocking, rebellious, and incendiary to many in Alsanea’s home country. Where this work excels is as a barrier-breaking act, as a courageous effort to give voice to the voiceless. As a window into this world for outsiders and as a platform to the world for insiders, “The Girls of Riyadh” has political and cultural import that outshines it’s composition and makes it an important work of art.