Unavoidable and Unsettling Intimacy: A Conversation by Katie Kitamura & Ashley Nelson Levy

Two novels about grief, translation, and the revelatory traces of language.

Katie Kitamura Ashley Levy Blue

Photo of Ashley Nelson Levy (L) by Eustacio Humphrey and photo of Katie Kitamura (R) by Clayton Cubitt.

Immediate Family is about the skin that contains a family—the points where it ruptures and breaks, the places where it stretches and accommodates. As the narrator contemplates a future with or possibly without children, she also looks to the past to understand her complex relationship with her adopted brother. She sifts through memories—fragile, unstable, beautifully volatile—creating a fractured and deeply moving record of her past and of her family. 

I was first introduced to Ashley Nelson Levy through the publishing company she co-founded, Transit Books. Her list is utterly distinct, and has introduced me to some extraordinary books and writers including Wioletta Greg, Mariana Dimópulos, and Gabriela Ybarra. What a delight to find the same sensibility that pervades Transit—a sharp aesthetic and moral intelligence, an embrace of subtlety and complexity, a taste for risk and daring—in every page of Immediate Family.

—Katie Kitamura

Katie Kitamura’s fourth novel, Intimacies, follows a woman who has recently moved to The Hague from New York to take a one-year contract as an interpreter at the Court. Her father has recently passed away, her mother has moved to Singapore, and New York has stopped feeling like home. She’s trying a new city on, in a sense, to see if it could become something more permanent in the fog of her grief, if it could transition from foreign territory to someplace familiar.

Kitamura’s previous novel, A Separation, begins with the disappearance of the narrator’s estranged husband, and in some ways, Intimacies also explores a disappearance: as the narrator becomes a medium for the language of those around her, her own voice fades. Both of the narrators in Intimacies and A Separation are trying to understand how to see themselves in the wake of their grief, what they are removed from or complicit in, questions asked with both a subtlety and an urgency that makes Kitamura’s voice so distinct within contemporary fiction. 

I read most of Intimacies in the early hours of the morning, when the shapes and outline of your own home can feel, temporarily, like they belong to someone else. In those hours, the novel’s voice was the one I knew best, and I would forget myself and my family sleeping nearby and become lost in the novel’s suspense, and its beauty.  

—Ashley Nelson Levy

Ashley Nelson Levy There are so many gorgeous lines in the book that investigate the kind of psychic connection that forms between an interpreter and their subject, even when the person they’re tasked with representing is being charged with unspeakable crimes. The narrator examines the permeability a person must take on in that role, and even in her relationship outside of work she starts to feel complicit in her own erasure. 

I’d like to start by asking about your decision to make the narrator an interpreter. Can you talk about the unavoidable and unsettling intimacy in that kind of work, in inhabiting another’s perspective?  What becomes of the interpreter when their sole focus is to keep the space between language as small as possible, and must leave themself, in a sense, in order to do so? 

Katie KitamuraI love this phrase, “leave oneself.” It’s such a pithy way of describing interpretation in multiple senses of the word, whether it’s the interpretive work the central character in my novel does or the interpretive work of an actor or performer. I think it also describes certain experiences of language. You can lose yourself in language, or become another version of yourself, even as sometimes you can also find yourself through language.

In terms of the narrator in my book, I wanted to write a character who primarily thinks of herself as a filter for language. She’s invested in the idea of her own neutrality. But language always comes from somewhere, and some of the most consequential languages in the world—the language of laws and governments and institutions—carries the appearance of neutrality.

If the novel is about instability, then the relationship that is most destabilized over the course of the novel is the narrator’s relationship with language. She has to relinquish the idea of her neutrality, and accept that language—even and perhaps especially the language that simply passes through you—leaves a trace.

I felt there were so many shared concerns in our novels, but maybe I’ll start with this relationship between institutions and language. You often use the language of documents of forms and manuals to illustrate how institutions are involved in the intimate construction of a family. Among other things, you show how institutional expectation and language informs and shapes our behavior, the roles that we play and fulfill.

ANL The fact that language always comes from somewhere—I think about that so often in the context of literary translation. That the translator, like an interpreter, is not an invisible medium but a living, present being, making conscious (or often unconscious) choices with language based on who they are, where they come from, what their politics may be, or racial or socioeconomic background. That the translator will always be embedded in the narrative.  

I think my narrator becomes obsessed with so many of these institutional documents in an effort to fill the missing space of not only language but shared experience. There is a lost record of the first three years of her brother’s life that inevitably affects the years to follow. She studies the little they’ve been given of that time—paperwork that describes his weight, height, and history of illnesses in the orphanage, often incorrectly—and imagines a narrative in the absence of one. The documents provide a sense of solidity, even though they contain errors. At a certain point, she has to relinquish her own neutrality, too, in knowing that there’s really only one version of the story she herself can tell or understand, with her own markings all over it. Also embedded within the pages is the record they share as a family, with all its varying translations. She turns to these documents again in later years to try to put words to things that have become difficult to talk about, like the implications of her brother’s life in a white home and her failure to recognize them, despite her proximity and despite her love. Whiteness also functions as a false neutrality.

There were more documents in earlier drafts, but what stayed were things like the Life Book, a small manual provided by the adoption agency to help families give language to the beginning of a child’s story, even if the adoptive family was not present for it. The narrator is surprised to find that even though the manual is oversimplified, reductive even, parts of it have structured their story. She’s critical of that institutional shaping while still seeing the faint image of her family within it.  

One of my favorite passages in your book is a description of siblings, when the narrator encounters a woman’s twin brother at the door. She says: “He had none of her beauty, on some level his features simply registered as a coarsened version of hers. And yet they had a quality that was in some way primal, as if his was the originating mold.” There are such interesting parallels between the narrator’s personal relationships and her profession in this novel—the world around her often presents these moments of double vision, or inversion, or erasure. What do the people in her life help her see? Or what remains a mystery? 

KK I hadn’t really thought about it in that way but you’re right—there are a lot of doubles and parallels in the book. There’s the doubling of certain characters. There’s the echo of interpretation, with its repetition and distortion. Probably the scene I had the most fun writing takes place at a museum opening, and pivots around the idea of replicas. A food artist recreates Dutch Golden Age still life paintings out of actual food, that are then served at a dinner for the museum patrons, and are consumed in a literal way. 

I think one of the reasons why there are so many doubles in my work is because I’m preoccupied with performance—with the way we perform certain social roles, certain versions of ourselves. I think my books always exist in the gap between the self as it is privately experienced, and the self as it is performed for others. In that sense, the fundamental double is the double of the self.

In this novel, the primary arena of performance is the courtroom, which is so obviously a space of theater and projection. But as you note, it extends through to her private life. Most of the characters are performing in one sense or another. I think the question the narrator faces is how this has resulted in a kind of erasure. She’s spoken the words of other people for so long that when it comes time to speak for herself, it’s difficult.

Your novel is also structured around a performance of sorts: the narrator’s pending speech at her brother’s wedding. It opens with the recitation of the brother’s demand, “Will you give me a speech?” And in some ways, the story of the novel is the story of the narrator’s ambivalence in the face of this demand.

ANL It’s funny, I’ve heard the novel described a few different ways but this is how I’ve always thought of it—that the central tension is how a story should be told, or if it should. The opening section asks, “What right did I have to speak of your life?” and then wrestles with an answer for the remaining pages.  

If performance is your preoccupation, then maybe mine is perspective or the ownership of stories. It took me so many drafts and years to correctly angle her story into the light—at first it was a third-person narrative with a lot of horrible plot twists. Then it was a sparse and kind of obtuse nonfiction experiment that sucked all the love out of it. Then it was written with an almost absent family around Danny until I realized how important their role was, particularly in examining their complicity in much of the book’s silence. Once the narrator started to be honest about her uncertainty about how to tell their story, then the book finally found its life force. She both resists and feels compelled to tell it.

I think a kind of performance anxiety also led to the book’s more intimate structure—what you end up reading is not the speech, but a private letter addressed to her brother. The novel doesn’t reveal what she says at his wedding, though I imagine a reader could guess. Instead it reveals what has become unspeakable between them. I also hope it reveals the depth of her love.

I’m so glad you brought up that scene in your novel where the narrator attends the museum opening—there’s this wonderful moment before the dinner where she wanders into the permanent collection to examine a painting of a man standing over a woman. The young woman is working a piece of embroidery and it’s difficult to square her modest image with the man leering over her. The painting is titled Man Offering Money to a Young Woman and it’s then that the narrator notices the force and resistance in the image—there’s money gripped in the man’s hands, he’s pulling her arm, and the young girl’s eyes are wide with fear. If the novel is about instability, as you suggest earlier, class and power are often a destabilizing force within its pages: in the courtroom, on the streets, in the passing of stories. 

KK It was only once I finished the first draft of the novel that I realized how many instances of sexual harassment and intimidation were in the novel. But in retrospect, it made a lot of sense to me because as you say, the novel is concerned with power, and sexual harassment is primarily about the exertion of power.

That chapter at the museum was interesting to write because there are so many layers of power around a work of art. In the case of this particular painting, there’s the scene depicted in the painting itself, there is the museum as a gatekeeping institution, there’s the question of class and access—who gets to be in the room, at the opening, who has privileged access to art. I think we can sometimes have a tendency to speak about works of art as if they exist in a void, but they are always operating within a context, and that context is usually created and reinforced by institutions and people in positions of authority.

Something I wanted to try to do in the novel was to observe various manifestations of power, both small scale and large scale, both personal and impersonal. It’s at work everywhere in our lives. How does that shape our behavior, our sense of ourselves, our ability to act in the world? Those were some of the questions that I wanted to think about. 

I wonder if I could change tack slightly, and ask about grief. It’s something that is present in both our books. Mine starts with the death of a parent, which in some ways provides the emotional framework for the novel; in your case, I felt your novel captured grief in all its multiplicity—the characters are grieving lost history, lost time, the loss of possibility.

ANL In some ways the death of a parent is the loss that sends both of our stories on their way. Though the wedding introduces the narrator’s story and encases it, the story really begins with the brother’s first loss, when his birth mother dies and he’s put up for adoption as an infant. It’s the event that connects him to his sister, bringing them together as family, and a loss they find themselves returning to throughout their lives, consciously or not. The family as a whole comes to grieve this loss for him, multiplying it, in a sense, as you say, while also trying to fill it, realizing at a certain point that some losses simply can’t be filled, only lived with. There is also the grief the narrator carries in her inability to conceive, but so much of that is, again, filtered through the lens of her experience with her brother and the loss that has shaped their family.

In thinking about what you said before about art and the question of access—so much of what I had read around motherhood in the years leading up to this book seemed to struggle with the impossibility of art and domestic life coexisting productively. I loved these books but at a certain point wanted to write against them, focusing on the ambivalence of motherhood while stripping the artistic ambition out. I wanted to look more closely at how far we are willing to go, emotionally, physically, at the expense of relationships, work, personal happiness, to fulfill this deep and often unspeakable biological need, especially when a body is supposed to meet this need on its own but can’t. Maybe I also wanted to write about the grief that comes with not feeling at home in your body, about how your body can dictate the shape of your home.  

Your novel opens not only with the loss of a parent but the loss of a sense of home. Can you talk about this a bit more, about grief in your book and its relationship to home, to family, and even to silence, in the narrator’s difficulty in speaking for herself?

KK I’ve been thinking a lot about the question of grief in Intimacies. In a lot of ways, Intimacies is very similar to my last novel, A Separation—in terms of the voice, the register, some of the basic concerns and themes. They are both novels that are intimately tied up in the question of loss and grief. But I think they move in opposite directions. In A Separation, the narrator is plunged back into her grief (at the collapse of her marriage), whereas I think Intimacies is somewhat a novel about recovery, about emerging out of grief. 

There is a shift in the final section of the book. The narrator is finally able to speak (the novel ends on her words as they are spoken), and home becomes something of a possibility. Whereas the narrator in A Separation is still guarding secrets, trapped inside an apartment that was once but is no longer a home. I wanted the end of Intimacies to feel the exact opposite—I wanted it to feel like a door opening.

I’d love to ask one last question, if I may, which is about how your work as an editor and publisher informs your fiction. Your work at Transit Books is so distinct, and it was really a delight to feel the same sensibility at work in your novel, albeit in different form.

ANL I’ve always liked what Cynthia Ozick once wrote about small press publishers, that “they concentrate on making room: for eccentricity, for risk, for poetry, for the odd essay and the odder fiction; for the future. Unexpectedness is what the small presses are open to. They are like the little shoemakers who come unseen at night to stitch the leather no one else can master.”

It’s possible that unexpectedness is the common thread in our list at Transit. There’s tremendous variation in the work, but each one has made a new claim for what a book can be, whether it’s the bold architecture of Maria Tumarkin’s nonfiction or the incantatory rhythm of Jon Fosse’s Septology or the possibilities for discursive prose within our Undelivered Lectures series.

I learn so much from that unexpectedness, it’s like the feeling of the door opening at the end of your book. This is my first novel, so in some ways it comprises everything I’ve ever read. But hopefully at a certain point, too, it gathers the courage to take its own course and veers off someplace untraveled.

Immediate Family is available for purchase here.

Intimacies is available for purchase here.

Ashley Nelson Levy received her MFA from Columbia University, where she was awarded the Clein-Lemann Esperanza Fellowship. Her work has been a notable mention in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and she’s the recipient of the Bambi Holmes Award for Emerging Writers. In 2015, she co-founded Transit Books, an independent publishing house with a focus on international literature. Immediate Family is her first book.

Katie Kitamura is the author of Gone To The Forest and The Longshot, both finalists for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award. Her third novel, A Separation, was a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the Premio Gregor von Rezzori. It was named a Best Book of the Year by over a dozen publications, translated into sixteen languages, and is being adapted for film. She teaches in the creative writing program at New York University. Her new novel, Intimacies, is out now from Riverhead Books.

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