Katie Kitamura on A Separation

Katie Kitamura’s A Separation was one of the most finely tuned novels of 2017 – smart, stylish, tragic, human – and publishes in paperback on World Book Day. She reflects on tackling the personal and political, in the shadow of Trump and Brexit

Article by Alan Bett | 28 Feb 2018

Reflection can be a fine thing. Take this interview for instance – conducted in August last year, somewhere between the original publication of Katie Kitamura’s third novel A Separation and its upcoming paperback release this March. Until the interview recording is replayed and transcribed on a dreich February morning, it’s only a memory as distant as the glorious sunshine the day it went down – bright enough to deliver a vitamin D boost during the short walk over Charlotte Square, from the Edinburgh International Book Festival to the Principal Hotel. There, we meet Kitamura for tea and she raises an eyebrow and a laugh at the egg timer provided to aid accuracy of our Earl Grey percolation. This puncturing of pretension sets an early marker for a conversation that mixes the high-end themes of politics and prose with... mixed martial arts. 

Considering the six-month gap between then and now, you might sensibly assume that its topicality has since perished. Yet fortunately for this interviewer, although perhaps few others out there, two of the subjects discussed have failed to evaporate since. Think back: this interview, on a day of azure skies and well-regulated tea percolation, takes place just eight short months after the election of Donald Trump, and only five since Article 50’s invocation. So, considering today’s cultural climate, our conversation has dated little. The grotesque and hollow totem in the White House is perhaps more gnarled, but he has confirmed rather than subverted expectation. And the Brexit debacle refuses to move beyond those same old questions tumbling around the political washing machine.

We ask at one point of our conversation whether Brexit provides the ideal backdrop over which to publish A Separation – a book where an estranged wife, under her unknowing mother-in-law’s instruction, travels to rural Greece to search for her missing husband. There are culture clashes aplenty, and just a pinch of colonialism where her earlier novel Gone to the Forest delivers a punch: ‘The land belonged to no one and then it belonged to him. A stake driven into the soil’ being a perfect and poetic take on such ignorance and entitlement.

Kitamura’s cringe answers the Brexit question in advance of words. Although this ex-Londoner is currently living in the USA, the country of her birth, so, we suggest, she could easily escape it all? “It’s [also] pretty grim in The States right now” is her pessimistic counter.

On Literature in the Trump Era

Kitamura – author of three novels, journalist, art critic – reflected on Trump’s presidency almost instantly, contributing to an anthology of essays published soon after his inauguration, Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times. Her piece – Language is How You Will Make Yourself – is framed as a letter to her infant daughter; her husband, the writer Hari Kunzru, directs his contribution to their son. She challenges the nefarious subversion of language in the news ‘which is constantly breaking over all of our heads’. Its Orwellian distortion is seen as a capitulation to the age of post-truth: ‘The very phrase post-truth is a sign of this capitulation.’ Language is malleable, and not always on the side of truth, Kitamura writes to her daughter, as the child itself is just beginning to learn its building blocks of vowels and consonants. This malleability is further emphasised by Kunzru, writing in his essay that 'the old word cosmopolitan has once again become a sly insult, along with a newer version, globalistMigrant, which used to be a neutral word, is a term of abuse.'

With these themes in mind, how might the mood of the Trump era manifest itself in literature? And how might writers document a man who documents himself so readily on social media?

“It’s interesting," Kitamura replies, "because I was asked to write an essay for [the] anthology, that was just after the election, that was writers responding to the fact that he’s been elected. The idea was that they would write it really quickly and it would be published in the first 100 days of his presidency. And I was very, very reluctant to do it, but I kind of felt that I should push myself.

"Actually, the thing that made me do it, you know Valeria Luiselli? Mexican writer, she’s a really wonderful writer, she wrote a great book about the border called Tell Me How It Ends. She said to me, ‘We’re all going to be very embarrassed about the stuff we write right now, but that’s not a reason not to do it.’ That was really clarifying. I thought, I shouldn’t worry about my writerly ego, about writing something that’ll feel foolish a year from now.”

Considering how close to the bullseye these essays have since proved to land, that reticence was unnecessary. Their reflections remain solid. So, we ask, why might Luiselli have felt this way? “I think it was this sense that there was such a state of hysteria, that continues,” Kitamura suggests. “And you have to be very good to write with great clarity in those moments of social and cultural hysteria. I think the risk of writing something that’s trite or sentimental is quite high… I wrote the thing and the anthology came out, and I genuinely think the main value of it is that it is a document of how we felt in that time… and it feels outdated already, but that’s almost the point. If you can say we wrote this six months ago and it already feels out of date, at least that captures how swiftly the situation is shifting. And that’s all you can try to do as a writer in a way, is document and capture that, in a sense.

“It’s interesting because, correct me if I’m wrong, I don’t think there’s been a substantial number of good post-September 11 novels… and that’s now quite a long time ago, for my students. I teach undergraduates and that’s, like, deep history. So, I wonder what the first great Trump novel will be?”

One such novel was recently published, we remember and agree, even as the current situation was unfolding: Omar El Akkad's American War. His publisher must have felt conflicting twangs of guilt at the fortuity of its timing; some books just seem to know when they’re most needed. This raises questions around when it is most beneficial to reflect political moments on the page. “It’s something I’m wrestling with at the moment,” she admits. “It’s kind of linked to what Karl Ove [Knausgaard] does, but also I think about a writer like Mohsin Hamid, where you have writers that are incredibly good, writing about the present moment as it’s unfolding. They have the vision to understand what the moment means.

"For me it’s difficult, I don’t feel like that. I feel like I’m somebody who’s confused in the moment and I try to understand what I’m feeling later. It feels certainly like two different ways of writing and being, and right now with the political situation as it is, I find I have to think quite a lot about whether or not you can afford to be the writer that figures out what it meant to you 30 years from now, or if you need to find a way to engage with the moment, however imperfectly.”

A Separation, and 'dead women in literature'

Kitamura's self-criticism seems harsh. This is an author not only unafraid to tackle big themes on the page, but who is so much in control of the language she uses to do so. A Separation contains sentences that, while classically ornate, stop a good shade short of purple. Sentences like the following: ‘Charm is not universal, desire is too often unreciprocated, it gathers and pools in the wrong places, slowly becoming toxic.’

In addition, while tackling the subversion of language in her Trump essay, Kitamura evidences a more benign ability for subversion in her own writing. In an era where so many men pursue or avenge dead and missing women in fiction, it's refreshing for this trope to be inverted in A Separation, with the missing husband Christopher existing largely off the page, in the novel’s negative space. “There are so many dead women [in literature], it’s really extraordinary.” Kitamura shakes her head. “The thing that I find kind of crazy is that it’s almost as if that’s the trigger for the narrative, like you press go by killing off a woman, and that’s the pre-credits sequence and then the real narrative begins when you meet the male character, who’ll unravel the mystery of why this woman was killed.”

It’s a comment that brings to mind Helen McClory’s gloriously surreal piece of flash fiction, Pretty Dead Girl Takes a Break. In it, the titular character animates herself momentarily for coffee and a cigarette before lying back in place, to be found by the men who will solve her murder – her actions and existence seemingly irrelevant until their arrival.

The motif is so ingrained now that when the Swedish journalist Kim Wall was killed in 2017, the media framed this horrific true-life tragedy as Scandi Noir fiction. “Yeah.” A nod. “I knew that an inversion I wanted to do here was that it would be a missing man and a woman looking for a man… there’s this real fad for all these [books and films] with ‘Girl’ in the title. Which is funny because they’re always women. They’re not girls, they’re women. Those books do what they do incredibly well, but it’s striking that it’s become this idea that dead women, dead girls, missing girls, give this excitement.”

If the husband Chris in A Separation is shown in negative, then the nameless wife and narrator is the lens that captures this interpretation. A glacial self-analyser, she views the world as if from a psychiatrist’s couch, seeming to use the lives of others as test scenarios for her own; their love, their loss. “Yeah, yeah,” agrees Kitamura. “It’s funny, because I had this idea, that I never actually wrote, for a short story or a novel which would be somebody – I think it was going to be a male character, somebody who was very wealthy – who would outsource his emotions. And I realised that’s what she really does for a lot of the book. She’s almost watching things through a screen. That detachment I think is almost a manifestation of this grief that she’s going through.”

This is grief born from the death of a relationship – that strange but universal experience of losing a type of access to somebody you were once so close to. “I think it’s also that idea that you no longer have access to the person you were when you were with that person,” she adds. “I think there’s something terrifying about the idea that somebody you’re very close to will become a stranger to you. It’s like that horror movie memo – you even see it with children when they think it’s their mother and they turn around and it’s somebody else and it’s just that almost primal horror.”

On MMA in books and film, and The Long Shot

The night of this chat will offer up an altogether different, visceral horror. It's 26 August, and tonight Floyd Mayweather will go head to head with the MMA fighter Conor McGregor in the highest-paid boxing match in history. I’ve only once before asked an interviewee for a gambling tip, and it ended badly (James Kelman, Grand National, horse finished fourteenth).

Kitamura’s debut, The Long Shot, is a tale set around the MMA octagon, but when we ask her for insider info on the evening’s fight, she admits she’s no longer tuned into the scene, so will need to swot up before writing The Long Shot’s upcoming screen adaptation. If your thinking is fuelled by stereotypes, then Kitamura is far from the image your mind may conjure up for an MMA fan. She is an academic, a respected author who is married to another respected author. Her book covers are decorated with complimentary quotes from literary elites, including Salman Rushdie and Siri Hustvedt. This trips off a gorgeously absurd daydream, of this literary gang all gathered around a TV screen with chips and dips and frothing cans of beer, baying at choke holds and bloody KOs.

“No, I don’t have a little crew,” she laughs, shattering this mental image. “I really got into it because of my brother primarily, that’s how I found a way into that material, and then I became really obsessed with it and channelled that into the book. I’ve taken a little bit of a break from it, but I’m going to go to some fights and talk to some people as soon as I get back to the States.”

There is a well-worn path between the literary and pugilistic arts. “My writing is nothing, my boxing is everything,” claimed Hemingway. A further wealth of literary talent has also looked to the ring for inspiration: Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Nelson Algren, Dashiell Hammett, Damon Runyon. All men. Kitamura was actually likened to Hemingway after The Long Shot, the most machismo-fuelled of writers. It's a comparison that sparks laughter when we raise it today.

“I think that book was the first piece of fiction I ever wrote,” she says. “Rather than writing about a world I knew very well, I wanted to try and learn through the writing, so I went the opposite direction from what I am and know, so it was very exclusively all male. That was a lot of fun, it was a little bit like dressing up in men’s clothes before you sit down to work. I really loved that. But then after I finished writing it I realised that you can’t keep yourself out of it, so much of that first book had to do with this dance training that I’d done [as a classical ballerina]. But I only realised that really after the fact.”

Joyce Carol Oates said: “To write about boxing is to be forced to contemplate not only boxing, but the perimeters of civilisation – what it is, or should be, to be ‘human’”. Kitamura has her own suggestion today: “The structure of a fight is not unlike the structure of a novel, or what you aspire to do in a novel. You have these artificial parameters and then in the middle you hope something real comes up out of it. And that’s what I always think when I watch a fight, or a good fight. Even though you have a ref and you have rules and rounds and all these things, whatever happens in it feels absolutely authentic, and I can see why that would appeal to writers.

“But it’s interesting with MMA, because I would have thought there would have been more films about it at this point. Warrior, I think that’s the only one so far. There is a kind of language where boxing is considered more aesthetic, but I think it’s really that we haven’t found a language to depict MMA yet. There hasn’t been a Raging Bull for MMA, this language of how beautiful it is to look at hasn’t been developed yet.”

Collections of words, perhaps, like the legendary Hugh McIlvanney’s brutal poem of a newspaper report when describing Joe Frazier in the final rounds of the Thrilla in Manilla: ‘His marvellous body reduced to a dilapidated, lurching vehicle for his unyielding will, reeling blindly in the murderous crossfire of the world champion's final assaults.’ And on screen, as Kitamura suggests, MMA has still to be set elegantly in monochrome to Mascagni’s Intermezzo. Considering the polish she puts on her prose, her eventual adaptation of The Long Shot may be the work to remedy that.

A Separation is out in paperback on 1 March, published by Profile Books, RRP £8.99