Q&A with Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

We spoke to Rowan Hisayo Buchanan about her debut novel, Harmless Like You, and what it’s like to be longlisted for the 10th anniversary Desmond Elliott Prize.

Harmless Like YouWhen the meaning of ‘home’ is complicated, we strive for a sense of connection. Yet sometimes being alone feels like the easiest choice to make. In 1968 Yuki is 16 and has not one friend in all of New York. It’s the year her parents move back to Tokyo, but Yuki decides to stay. As she sketches out her new life, it is also the year she’ll fall in love with a shade of orange, climb out a window, meets an aspiring model, and run tangle-haired through the night. In 2016 gallery owner Jay becomes a father, believing he is a happily married man. It’s the year he will finally confront his mother, who abandoned their family when he was two years old. Her name is Yuki Oyama and she has been living for decades as an artist in Berlin.

Praise from the Desmond Elliott Prize: “Here is a narrative framed by a grown-up son’s pilgrimage to his mother (emphatically not a shrine to maternity) which loops around the decades and across continents to form a perfect arc of revelation and reconciliation. Told in tandem by the teenaged Yuki and the troubled Jay, their stories cover harsh terrain, signalled by abuse, shadowed by abandonment.  Buchanan deftly traverses this toxic narrative landscape, the violence of the emotional, and actual, blows diffused by the tender beauty of the bruised text.”

Describe your book in one sentence

One hot Connecticut summer in 1983, a Japanese artist decides she has to leave her son.

How does it feel to be longlisted for the 10th anniversary Desmond Elliott Prize?

When I was eight, my grandmother made me macaroni and cheese. Each piece of pasta was shaped like a dinosaur. I had no idea such a thing was even possible and so I kept asking her where could this have come from? It feels a little like that.

Why do you think a prize for a first novel is important?

To persuade people to read upstarts with names and faces they don’t know. To give first time novelists hope that one day, they’ll be second time novelists. To celebrate books and their making.

What one piece of advice would you give to someone looking to write and publish their first novel?

Writing, like everything I’ve ever loved, has made me cry. Try not to beat yourself up about the days you want to cry—it means you care.

What is your favourite debut novel?

I don’t even have a proper favourite colour, never mind a favourite debut novel. A debut work that shaped me is Kazou Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills. It’s now one of his least talked about books but it lodged between my ribs.

What’s the book you are recommending right now?

Can I cheat and pick two? Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Ones is subtle, strange, and beautifully written. Evening Primrose by Kopano Matlwa Mabaso is out in July, but I read an advance copy. I can’t wait for it to come out so I can talk to everyone about it.