15 / 05 / 19
By Samera Iqbal
“I’ve always had my hyphens, so it’s hard for me to imagine how I’d write if I was only one thing.” – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan.
We are all complex individuals trying to mould together as one society. That’s a concept I find crucial to working at The Faith & Belief Forum, and in planning the intern event, I’ve noticed how our authors honour this topic. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, as one of these authors, focuses on the complexities of identity in her debut novel ‘Harmless Like You’.
The novel follows the parallel stories of Yuki Oyama, a Japanese-born teenager in late-twentieth century New York with dreams of becoming an artist, and her son, Jay, who, after the death of his father in 2016, is forced to confront the mother who abandoned him. Although the novel isn’t faith-based, the intercultural narrative gives room to explore the aspects of inclusion that The Faith & Belief Forum heavily assert. Rowan herself grew up in a diverse household. She was born to a half-Japanese, half-Chinese American mother and a British father, allowing her to grow up with different faiths: Shinto, Buddhism and Christianity (Church of England). This helps with her writing, as her diverse background allows her to invoke the emotions of her ethnic “hyphens”.
Rowan asks us two questions throughout her book: what does it mean to have an identity, and how much of it is passed onto us from our parents?
For Yuki, I found her identity meant a sense of belonging. Her decision to stay in America without her parents holds a huge significance because she appears to abandon the part of her that is Japanese. In her mind, this allows her to become ‘American’, and essentially find somewhere to belong. But the irony is that her choice doesn’t make her American. Her visible Japanese features continue to isolate her, and even when these features are accepted, she feels suffocated and leaves. She cannot belong in late-twentieth century America.
As much as Yuki’s aspect of identity interested me, I couldn’t fully resonate with it. I’m not an immigrant like Yuki, nor have I questioned my place of belonging. Instead, I resonated more with her son, Jay. There’s a quote that stuck out to me:
“In Asia the clients came out and asked, ‘What are you?’ Sometimes their translator did the asking but I always understood the question. If I answered ‘American,’ they asked, ‘Where is your family from?’”
The novel is set in 2016, a time where countries like America and Britain are culturally diverse. However, the questions disregard Jay’s ‘Americanness’ – as though his concept of identity is incorrect. Is that the case?
Biologically, yes. Jay is half-American, half-Japanese. But at the same time, he is culturally ‘American’. He grew up without his Japanese mother, and as a result, doesn’t know his Japanese heritage. Therefore, his concept of identity revolves around this idea that identity is fluid. The effect of Yuki’s abandonment has led him to believe that he must create his own identity, based on what he knows. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. I could emphasise with him: I was born to British-born parents, and biologically, I am Pakistani due to my Asian heritage. But like Jay, I feel more ‘British’ rather than ‘Pakistani’. So, hearing these questions frustrated me because I have also heard them many times.
I think this idea of identity being fluid is the perfect accompaniment to Jay’s storyline. By meeting his mother again, he is forced to confront the biological aspect of his identity that he ignores. Then, it is up to him whether he wants to identify as a Japanese-American.
In all, ‘Harmless Like You’ is an exploration of identity that can only be created by someone with experience in the topic. Rowan’s diverse background gives her the room to explore what identity means to different individuals, and whether we need to stick by what is biologically given to us.
We feel fortunate to have had Rowan at our intern event ‘Honouring the Diversity of Belief and Identity in Women’s Writing’, and wish her success with her upcoming book, ‘Starling Days’.
You can listen to Rowan on the podcast from our intern event here.