My brother and I grew up eating macaroni and cheese... with chopsticks
- Credit: Archant
London, New York, Tokyo… Norwich. It might sound a bit Alan Partridge, but cosmopolitan author Rowan Hisayo Buchanan loves East Anglia
The publication of one’s first novel is undoubtedly a huge thrill, but is Rowan Hisayo Buchanan not cranking up the hype a tad when she talks about the Ipswich Waterstones window display created to mark her visit on Monday? Is it really “one of the most exciting things that has ever happened to me”? This from a lady who’s lived life in America and Japan and is a quarter Japanese and a quarter Chinese, three eighths Scottish and one eighth English.
She laughs. “Yes, it really is. I know people say ‘Oh, I knew I was going to be a writer from the age of four and was editing my own manuscripts’, and I look at them and go ‘You are brilliant and very confident, and can I steal it?’
“I basically thought that being a writer was an impossible thing that other people got to do. And so every stage of book publication has been really exciting. Having my book featured in a window, I’m genuinely, incredibly, honoured.”
The writer in her mid-20s, is just starting her second year of a PhD at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Her debut offering, Harmless Like You, ranges from New York to Berlin to Connecticut. Published after a six-way auction, it tells the stories of Yuki, a Japanese girl striving to establish herself as an artist, and her son, Jay.
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As an adult, he has to face the reality of a mother who abandoned him when he was just two years old.
The novel’s about identity, family, love, and geographical and mental rootlessness. Some of those factors are there in the author’s history.
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In 1949, her grandmother – the daughter of a factory owner and therefore bourgeoisie – fled Shanghai for Hong Kong, following the Communist takeover. She was 19 when she applied to go to an American university. In 1951, she got a letter from Columbia University in New York City. Another journey. In America, she married a Japanese student. They had a baby.
Rowan’s mother went on to marry a British man – hence the writer describing herself and her brother as “a scramble of genetics”.
The author’s hyphenated ordering of her heritage is often fluid. How is it today? “At the moment… let me think… American-Japanese-Chinese-British. Maybe.”
Leading with American? No American genes, but plenty of cultural inheritance, I guess.
“Maybe I should have said ‘New Yorker’! My mother is half-Japanese and half-Chinese. Whenever anybody asks her where she’s from – she’s a wonderfully grumpy person who I talk about too much in interviews, probably – she’ll say she’s from New York. Certain people have a habit of saying ‘No, where did you really come from?’ Her response will be ‘The Upper West Side’!”
Rowan and her brother grew up eating macaroni and cheese with chopsticks. “In England! It confused the kids who came round for playdates very much indeed!”
She says: “One of the aspects of the book examines how sense of identity and belonging is not simply down to your genetic fractions.
“Part of the reason I went to Japan was because I felt I wasn’t as in touch with that part of my heritage and the things I grew up with: the things you say before you eat or before you go to bed. But we didn’t speak Japanese at home, apart from those couple of words. Or there’d be certain foods or certain aesthetics which feel so part of me, but then other things that were as foreign to me as they would probably be to anybody. It’s sort of part choice about what’s part of you and partly it just happens and you can’t help it. In the novel, that’s something Jay struggles with. He’s half-Japanese but doesn’t know his mother. He’s like ‘I grew up in Connecticut… what does that mean for me in Japan?’ At the same time, people look at you and say ‘You do not look 100% Japanese...’”
While she was addicted to books as a child, Rowan never found it easy to think of writing as a potential profession. She has a BA from Columbia University in Manhattan and has studied economics. She had internships in the world of business, but knew it wasn’t quite for her.
Consumer behaviour was interesting. “What I didn’t have was the sort of cut-throat business sense that would say ‘To make our business survive, we need to fire this many people.’ I would have sat there crying and thinking ‘How would they feed their cat?’”
Bravely, she’s talked about coming to a crossroads. She was in her early 20s, living in Tokyo; an intern for a management consultancy.
The building was tall and beautiful. Even the loo had an amazing view. Sadly, Rowan was struggling with severe depression. Every time she went to work, she thought about jumping.
Telling stories, she thought, might well be the thing that might stop her wanting to unseal the window and fall. Today, she’s at a nice point in life and likes to think the depression is under control.
Sorry to ask, but did she ever really get close to opening a window? Rowan doesn’t want to go deeply into detail, but there was a point where she sought professional help to deal with darker feelings.
I want to end on an upbeat note. So: what makes her happy? “That’s a lovely question. I love this time of year. One of my friends jokes, correctly, that I have more jumpers than any other garment. Tea and books. Teenage Me would think I’m the lamest person ever, but I’ve recently got really into candles. “Sometimes, if I’m having trouble working, lighting one and seeing it flame and splutter, it almost feels protective. I love British weather. It’s one of the reasons I came back to England. New York is very, very, cold or very, very hot. It is an amazing city full of culture and brilliant people, but every time I go outside, I feel like the weather is trying to kill me! I can cope with a bit of drizzle. Drizzle’s fine.”
* Rowan is at Ipswich Waterstones on Monday (October 10). She will sign copies from about 5pm and is back in the Buttermarket store from 7pm for a question-and-answer session, discussion and more signings, until about 9pm.