Positions of Precarity: Katie Kitamura Interviewed by Greg Mania


Here is an unequivocal truth: no one will ever be as smart as Katie Kitamura. And we’re better off for it. No one is supposed to be, otherwise we would not be able to relish in the distinct glow that comes from reading, watching, and listening to her. Every sentence and thought that exits Kitamura is like a Jolly Rancher, an extended release of sating nourishment. 

In her fourth novel, Intimacies (Riverhead), which has maintained a strong buzz ever since its announcement, Kitamura’s nameless protagonist leaves New York for The Hague to work at the International Criminal Court. In her pursuit of a place to finally call home, our narrator finds herself at the intersection of several personal dramas: her lover, Adriaan, though separated from his wife, continues to be embroiled in his marriage; her friend, Jana, witnesses a crime that she finds herself increasingly concerned with as she befriends the victim’s sister; and when she’s asked to interpret for a former president accused of war crimes in a high-profile case, the unpredictability she’s been grappling with forces her to confront the reckoning that’s been brewing since the start of it all.

(In 2016, Kitamura visited the Court as part of her research to watch the trial of former president of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, who was charged against crimes of humanity. The case circled the drain of her mind for three years until eventually funneling into the inspiration for this book.)

Kitamura’s interpreter is a vehicle for the profound search—sometimes lifelong—for a sense of belonging that transcends both time and borders. The novel measures want against reality and asks us to consider the dark underbelly of intimacy. And while the stakes are high, Kitamura’s delicately crafted sentences cushion the blinding power her fiction wields—leaving us quietly breathless.

—Greg Mania

Greg ManiaI devoured this book in a day. My goodness! What a triumph. The writing. THE WRITING. Every sentence is strung together with such delicacy, yet the delivery is powerful in its precision. My first question is: HOW?

Katie KitamuraThis is so charming, and I have no idea how to answer! But I guess I will say that the voice is the starting point for me. I spend a lot of time inside the voice, the construction of the syntax, which for me dictates both the psychological state of the character and the overall mood of the novel. What I enjoy the most is using that voice to write extended scenes and set pieces—trying to use that syntax to create tension within the scene.

GM I’m a nerd, so we have to unpack this. How does syntax evoke tension for you? 

KKThe sentences tend to be structured in a circular way, so that the narrator makes an observation, then circles back to reconsider that observation, and then reconsider it again before the sentence draws to a close. I think what I’m trying to create is a sense of instability, of being unmoored—which in turn becomes a motor for tension and dread in the scene. Nothing is apprehended with much certainty, which then affects how the character is or isn’t able to act.

GM This is your fourth novel. Has your approach to Intimacies differed from your previous work, or have you developed a flow with your craft?

KK I tried very hard to be a little looser in the writing. I shared an unfinished draft with my agent and my editors, something I’ve never done before. I had the sense, after three books, that I might try sharing work earlier. If you only share work that is very finished, and very polished—which is how I’ve tended to work—then to some extent its problems have ossified, and the project as a whole is no longer very mobile. With this novel, I wanted to write something that felt, at least in process terms, a little more fluid.

GM Did you set out to explore something in particular with this novel, or did it start out with one or more elements that eventually developed into something more?

KK I wanted to explore the idea of complicity—of the way that even when we assume our own individual neutrality (as the narrator does), we remain implicated in the institutions and social structures we are part of. That was very much the starting point of the novel. But as I wrote, it also became about the related question of the relationship between the individual and broader social contexts and narratives—or to be a little more precise, it became about the gap between individual experience and large, often historical events. How do we make sense of that gap, and all the cognitive dissonance it introduces?

GM Notions of home—finding it, deeming it, keeping it—are present from the onset.

KK I grew up between cultures, and as an adult I’ve also moved around a bit. I don’t feel myself to be firmly oriented toward a single culture. There’s a great deal of freedom in that, but it can also mean that the question of home is a more complicated one. ‘Finding it, deeming it, keeping it’—that’s a lovely way of describing the questions the narrator asks herself, and how volatile the idea of home is for her. She’s always in a position of some precarity. Her housing is temporary, or in some other way unstable.

GM Her attitude towards permanence seems fickle, too. It almost felt, to me, like she doesn’t want to call a place home, or at least isn’t ready to.

KK I think you’re right that there’s a fine distinction between not wanting to call a place home, and then not being ready to. Maybe the shift the narrator makes over the course of the novel is from simply wanting to call a place home, to actually being ready to.

Kitamura Author Photo Clayton Cubitt

Photo of Katie Kitamura by Clayton Cubitt.

GMWhich intimacy in the book was the one that finally convinced you to pluralize it and make it the title?

KKI was always interested in the duality of intimacy. As a word, it can have a lot of positive connotations, and it’s something we often seek out with and in other people. But intimacy can also be a form of violence. The further I wrote into the novel, the more instances of this kind of intimacy began to crop up—there are numerous moments of sexual harassment and intimidation, for example, which are really moments about power rather than desire. So I began to feel that the novel was really about intimacy in multiple forms, some of them very contradictory in feeling, and the plural emerged from there.

GMAnd I think your use of syntax creates that tension we previously talked about. I felt like I was on a rollercoaster every time the narrator and the former president accused of war crimes on trial had any interaction. 

KKParticularly in the scenes with the former president—although to some extent, I think this is true of nearly every scene in the book—I wanted to capture minute shifts in power and attention. There are a number of unpredictable characters in the book, and that unpredictability is itself a major source of power. The narrator is on edge, in a state of hyperawareness, because she has to be. And, of course, putting someone in that state is itself a way of exerting power.

GMHas the intimacy of language—even more specifically, the interpretation of it—always been a source of fascination for you?

KKI’ve always been interested in characters who speak the words of other people—whether it’s translators, interpreters, or actors. The notion of language passing through these people is formally interesting to me. But it’s more than a formal interest. There are a lot of repercussions for characters and people in this position (and I think the position of the writer, or at least a fiction writer, is not entirely dissimilar). What are the psychological and ethical repercussions of allowing yourself to be a vessel for language?

GMYou made a trip to The International Court yourself a few years ago, drawing inspiration from the trial of a former president accused of crimes against humanity. What was it like finding yourself in the overlap of fact and fiction? Also, what did your research consist of?KKI spent about a week in The Hague before I started writing the novel, observing a trial at the International Criminal Court, on which the court in the novel is loosely based. I was fortunate enough to interview a couple of the simultaneous interpreters at the court, and their stories and observations shaped the novel in very specific ways. I understood the ethical dimension of their work better, as well as its psychological pressures. At its best, research can not only confirm and correct, but also expand your intuitions about a project, and certainly that happened in this case. I also spent a lot of time going through the transcripts of various trials. The ICC makes those available online, in relatively unredacted form, and that was incredibly useful because it gave me access to the language of the court. I felt better able to perceive the court as an institution, once I had access to its vocabulary and use of language.

GMThe Hague feels very much like a character in and of itself. Do you have a personal connection there?

KKI do, although I didn’t realize it until I had finished writing the first draft of the book. The entire time I was researching the novel and city, I had an uncanny sense of familiarity—certain elements of the city felt familiar, although I didn’t know why. Then, when I finished the first draft, I suddenly recalled that I had spent months in the city as a child, with my family. Suddenly, I was able to place so many childhood memories that had previously been free-floating, a moment of delayed recognition that was so startling that I subsequently wrote it into the next draft of the book.

GMWhat was that like for you? How did it texture future drafts?

KKI think it gave the novel an arc—from that point on, the idea of home became more important, and the idea that the narrator was not merely drifting, but also actively looking for something. A way to move forward, to step into life, perhaps.

GMEvery author who chooses not to name their protagonist has a reason—at least for the most part. What was yours?

KKI always think of my characters as existing at the margins in some way—as figures who aren’t fully occupying their place in whatever social structure—the family, their social world, their marriage. For me, the absence of a name reinforces that sense of characters who can’t be placed, or fixed in some way.

GMOut of all the chatter that there’s been about this book, one of the topics of conversation I’ve seen the most is about the ending. Some folks on Twitter were saying that as they got towards the end of the book, they were wondering what would unfold. The verdict is: you landed it! And I agree. Without spoiling anything, can you tell me how you arrived at that ending?

KK Oh, thank you. That’s very reassuring. Because I worked in a looser way than usual, I didn’t exactly know what would take place in the final chapter in terms of plot. But I knew the feeling I wanted the end to have—I wanted it to feel expansive, like a door opening. That’s a feeling that in some ways operates in opposition to the closure you expect from the end of a story, but that was what I was aiming for from the start. I like the idea that at the end, the range of plausible movement for the characters still feels broad, that there are possibilities and directions for these characters to move in that remain surprising.

GM Do you think your process writing this novel will influence how you approach future work?

KK I’d like to retain that looseness if I can. But I also know that it’s different with each book, and it’s hard to predict what approach will make the most sense for the project. I like the idea of starting from scratch with each novel, and seeing what comes up.

Intimacies is available for purchase here.

Greg Mania is the author of the memoir Born to Be Public.

Imagination is a Radical Tool: Hatty Nestor Interviewed by Lucie McLaughlin
Cover of Hatty Nastor’s book Ethical portraits: a grey cover with bright blue sans serif type.