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“Our sense of who we are is constantly shifting”: novelist Katie Kitamura on Agatha Christie and being a reluctant critic

The Japanese-American author of Intimacies and A Separation is a strong believer in the malleability of self.

By Leo Robson

The Japanese-American novelist Katie Kitamura is riding high following the publication of her most recent book Intimacies, which was widely praised, chosen as one of Barack Obama’s summer reading picks, and longlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction. The novel at once builds on the success of its predecessor, A Separation (2017), and also seems like a refinement of its approach. Both books concern an unnamed translator during a moment of transition – this time around, a woman, grieving the death of her father, leaves New York for the Hague to fulfil a temporary contract at a major legal institution.

It isn’t quite a work of realism. The setting is identified only as “the Court” and the vision of the Hague remains shadowy. But context is crucial to the novel’s meaning and effect. “I wanted to think about complicity,” she told me recently, over Zoom, from the office of her husband, the writer Hari Kunzru, in Brooklyn (the WiFi works best in there). Kitamura’s narrator expresses a desire to be neutral and even objective. But Kitamura reveals the ways in which her behaviour, and her work as an interpreter, are conditioned both by personal animus and by her position in a “larger social construct.”

Kitamura was raised in the Bay area, near San Francisco. As a child, she hoovered up mystery novels. It was, she says, “the kind of fodder that was going into the reading machine. You know, reading one or two Agatha Christie novels a day.” She went on to study literature at Princeton – “a very traditional American university experience” – and then she moved to England.

[See also: Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies is an amorphous, disquieting novel]

Towards the end of her degree, one of her professors, the critic Michael Wood, had told her about the London Consortium, a multidisciplinary postgraduate degree based at various academic institutions. “Sometimes your classes would be at the Architectural Association with design students in the room next door,” she recalled. “Sometimes you’d be at the British Film Institute, watching a series of films.” She had just turned 20 when she arrived and describes the period as “a kind of expansive moment”. She had a part-time job at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on the Mall (“I learned a lot from just being in that environment”), and wrote a PhD on the portrayal of vulgarity and commerce in the work of Henry James, Nabokov and Don DeLillo. During her six years in the capital, she completed her thesis and embarked on her first novel.

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“I still identify myself as a reader first and foremost,” she said. “I get depressed when I’m not reading.” But despite this self-description and her academic background, she says she is a reluctant critic: she struggles “to find the right tone” and she ends up engaging too much with “what the writer was trying to do” even if the book isn’t successful. She talked with enthusiasm about the work of Parul Sehgal, the New York Times reviewer who recently moved to the New Yorker, and Brandon Taylor – “the grappling with really quite big, existential questions about what fiction can do. You can see him working things out on the page. That’s always interesting to me.” She added: “Maybe this is just my predilection as a fiction writer, but I do love the kind of criticism where you feel like you’re learning a lot about the critic, you experience another mind flexing and moving in different ways.”

Kitamura is a strong believer in the malleability of self, and so her approach to creating character is deliberately short-term. “I’m interested in the idea that people are different according to the situation. There are moments when I look back and don’t recognise the person who I was. Our sense of who we are is constantly shifting.” As she gets older – she recently turned 42 – she recognises that things can become obfuscated, that old memories can return quite suddenly. Her belief in stages of identity partly explains her reluctance to define the narrator of Intimacies. She is aware that she “could have created a more obvious platform for connection,” that she wants to achieve “an intimacy without divulging very much.” During the period the book covers, the character is “moving through a fog of grief and dislocation”. That’s all we need to know.

[See also: Richard Powers’s Bewilderment is full of bold ideas – but strays into earnestness]

Providing backstory, pointing to causes, can not only feel “reductive and a little bit simplistic,” but also risks creating what she calls “a sort of predictability” in the reading experience. “A writer that I admire a great deal – I was going to say ‘the writer I admire most’ but that just felt too final – is Javier Marías, who has this wonderful tone, acid and observant and absurdist” while incorporating genre elements. She said that wanting to know more is “hard-wired in my understanding of narrative.”

She acknowledges that there’s “a very deracinated element of the detective story” in the new book, which touches on both a case of genocide in an African country and a violent attack, the victim of which the narrator encounters. “She is an observer and as she watches she constantly slips into other narrative possibilities. There is never a fixed fact that she can accept, very little that is a given, that’s not questioned or undermined.” But it would be wrong to describe Intimacies as a thriller. Kitamura’s real interest, she said, is “how you can take that external landscape of events and resolution and try to turn it inward.”

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