Katie Kitamura complicates the narrative
On the Shelf
By Katie Kitamura
Riverhead: 240 pages, $26
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We are all immersed in our own circumstances, and we get used to them, especially when they come with personal safety and a measure of power. That’s a common enough combination for the kind of American who decides to live abroad, like the unnamed narrator of “Intimacies,” the new novel by Katie Kitamura.
But circumstances change. As the narrator’s friend observes after a man is attacked outside her apartment in The Hague, “One day you are living an ordinary life with its ordinary ups and downs, and then that life is ripped apart and you can never feel entirely secure again.”
The narrator is a newcomer to the Netherlands, arrived from New York, a place that stopped feeling like home after her father’s death and her mother’s departure for Singapore. She works as an interpreter at the International Criminal Court and doesn’t know whether she’ll stay past the end of her contract. Her decision depends on her tenuous relationship with her Dutch boyfriend, Adriaan, a married father who spends much of the book ignoring her texts in Lisbon, where he has gone to settle affairs with his estranged wife.
The interpreter shares many characteristics with the translator in Kitamura’s last novel, 2017’s “A Separation”; both are unnamed women set adrift in foreign countries and dealing with questions of love, power and language under increasingly painful circumstances.
“One thing about dropping these characters into” unfamiliar places “is that they become quite naturally kind of archaeologists of the culture,” says Kitamura, speaking with me on a video call from Paris, where she’s teaching an MFA workshop for New York University. “They’re trying to understand how it works. The rules are unclear to them.”
The device of anonymity underscores the narrators’ outsider status in an unsettling, pervasive way. “I’m always interested in characters who are a little bit on the margins of the dominant culture, whatever that culture might be, or observers who occupy this liminal space,” says the author. “Once you’re named, you are part of the system in some way, and you’re recognized. You have been named and seen.”
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By withholding such key information, Kitamura is also able to obscure her narrators from the reader, essentially blurring their features. It’s a neat trick, one that allows her to circumvent a common expectation placed on nonwhite writers: to build our stories around race through a filter of otherness.
“There’s a kind of pressure,” she says, “particularly once your characters are, say, identified as Japanese American or whatever, to perform that identity for the presumed white readership, which has always struck me as problematic and something that I didn’t want to do.” The narrator of “Intimacies” is Japanese American, but it comes up indirectly, and not in the usual context of cultural difference: “It’s a novel that’s about complicity, about understanding how the central character fits into various power structures and social structures.”
The court is a cosmopolitan place as well as a lofty institution of justice, but the uncomfortable truth is that most of the defendants brought to trial are from African countries. The interpreter brings her own legacy of atrocity through both her American and Japanese heritage, and she finds a stance of pure judgment difficult to maintain, even as she is horrified by the testimony in the genocide trial of a former African president.
She also has the luxury of leaving these horrors at the court, of going home and fretting about her boyfriend. “I sometimes find myself trying to understand what the ethical position is to being in a world where you know terrible things are happening, and at the same time, you are trying to move forward with your very small-scale life,” Kitamura says. “One of the few things you can do is to maintain that cognitive dissonance in your head and to not let that extremity become normalized in your experience. I think that’s very, very hard to do.”
This is a universal phenomenon — who among us hasn’t been more affected by an unanswered text than the news of somebody, somewhere, dying? — but “Intimacies” brings it into merciless focus. “It is surprisingly easy to forget what you have witnessed,” thinks the narrator, “the horrifying image or the voice speaking the unspeakable, in order to exist in the world we must and we do forget, we live in a state of I know but I do not know.” With the sharpened awareness of an outsider, she reveals with every slash of insight the hidden infrastructure that undergirds the apparent calm and stability in our lives.
The resulting narrative is uniquely, obliquely suspenseful, with the subtle but distinctive imprint of crime fiction. Kitamura’s narrator is passive, confined in roles that allow for a limited range of motion. Yet the book vibrates with tension, much of it emanating from her very passivity, her willingness to stand still while the earth shakes beneath her feet.
Kitamura’s prose is responsible for this effect — she writes like a concert violinist, with clarity and control and a sustained, uneasy high pitch. She grew up reading Agatha Christie and Sue Grafton, and she counts Patricia Highsmith, Patrick Modiano and Marguerite Duras among her influences: “I love a writer like Duras who plays with genre elements, then unwinds them in some way.”
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Like “A Separation,” “Intimacies” is suffused with violence, as well as the dread-thick atmosphere and vivid sense of setting associated with the crime genre. The narrator is also placed in the position of a detective, “somebody who often has only pieces of the larger picture but not the entire narrative” and who seeks to make sense of the fragments.
“Clearly, I don’t deliver the pleasures of the genre, which I would if I knew how,” Kitamura says. “But I think the extremity of a crime is useful for opening up an almost existential territory for these characters.” For the narrator of “Intimacies,” that inner territory becomes a minefield when the former president, a monstrous but charismatic war criminal, singles her out as his favorite interpreter.
Both “A Separation” and “Intimacies” stand alone, but they’re part of a thematic set — along with Kitamura’s current work in progress, about an unnamed actor — examining the enormous power of language. “The translator, the interpreter, the actor, they’re very much engaged with delivering other people’s language,” Kitamura says. She self-describes as “sadly, extremely Anglophone” but recognizes that “occupying other narratives and other bodies and speaking their language for them is not a million miles away from what a novelist does.”
The court interpreter has an ethical duty to be careful with language. Small deviations in tone can influence trials, and her job is to facilitate the impartial transmission of meaning. The novelist, who uses the authority of language to promote her own understanding of the human condition, has a similar responsibility. But as Kitamura points out, “Language is not neutral inherently, right? Language comes from a place — it is produced, often by a ruling class — so to speak language is always freighted.”
There is, of course, no such thing as a neutral conduit, just as there is no such thing as a neutral identity. “Even as language passes through you, it does leave a trace of some kind, and you in return change it in some way, so there’s no pure passage of language from one place to another,” she says. “That contamination is also the way that we are marked as people in the world.”
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