Q&A with writer Rowan Hisayo Buchanan ahead of her March 12 event at the American Writers Museum

In Their Own Words: Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

In the editor’s note of the Go Home! anthology, editor Rowan Hisayo Buchanan describes the Japanese term kaeru, which is “a specific verb for traveling homeward,” she writes. “Going or coming home is its own enterprise, distinct from traveling to any other destination. There is something so particular about a journey made toward home. The word has a beauty and a comfort to it. But what does it mean to go home?”

This serves as the central question in the Go Home! anthology, which Buchanan edited. In the anthology, more than 20 Asian diasporic writers of various genres re-imagine the notion of home and what it means to them individually in our increasingly global communities. Home as a concept and its impact on writers and their work is also one of the major themes of our exhibit My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and T Kira Madden at the American Writers Museum on March 12, 2020

We spoke with Buchanan ahead of our March 12 program with her and fellow Go Home! contributor T Kira Madden, author of the incredible memoir Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls which was just named a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards. In addition to editing this anthology, Buchanan is the author of Harmless Like You, winner of The Authors’ Club First Novel Award and a Betty Trask Award, as well as the highly anticipated forthcoming novel Starling Days. Read our interview with Buchanan below, and be sure to join us Thursday, March 12 at 6:30 pm for Buchanan and Madden to expand on these topics, the Go Home! anthology, and their other acclaimed work.

AMERICAN WRITERS MUSEUM: What was the impetus behind the Go Home! Anthology?

ROWAN HISAYO BUCHANAN: Somebody from the Feminist Press approached me to ask if I had a manuscript to submit and I didn’t at the time. So I said, “I’m sorry I don’t but I would love to submit to an anthology.” They said they weren’t working any anthologies at the time but they were open to proposals.

Go Home! Anthology, edited by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

I was a fellow at the Asian American Writers Workshop and I had just overheard people there talking about how they used to do print publishing but that certain logistics prevented them from returning to it. So I connected the two organizations and said something like, “You could do an anthology together!” And they said, “Why don’t you edit it?” That was the very practical, things-fell-into-place component.

But once I started, I realized how much I had wanted a book like this. As I was developing as a writer and a human, I constructed my own Asian American reading list. In times of desperation that had even extended to going to bookshops and being like, “The end of the alphabet has more Asians in it…who is here?” I knew how important that journey had been for me to find those writers and I wanted to sort of create a door, an opening for another reader trying to orientate themselves.

It had actually been many years since the last Asian American or Asian diasporic anthology had been published, and there are new writers who are quite good and should be heard! It was one of those things where the practical bits slid into place but you’ve had all these thoughts and all these desires for a long time.

AWM: So everything just kind of came together at the right time?

RHB: Yes. And the reason it’s the Go Home! Anthology rather than, “The Best Asians Ever,” is I think there’s something a bit dangerous about thinking you can define “the best” of any group of people. Once we decided it would be themed around an idea, home came easily. It was a topic that I think people from most backgrounds have strong feelings about. But I especially found myself talking about ideas of home with my Asian American and Asian diasporic friends. They often had quite complex thoughts about what home means and I found myself excited about learning from them.

“It’s the process of making a home that makes me feel at home.”

There’s a tension between the importance of home as an idea, as a language, as a place, as family and the home that is imagined for you when somebody says, “Go home!” I love the range of approaches present in the anthology.

AWM: So it’s like the home you have personally, whether that’s physical or not, up against where people think you’ve come from?

RHB: Yes, and how you cope with that tension in yourself.

AWM: What does the concept of home mean to you?

RHB: I talk about this a little bit in the introduction to the book, but for me personally home is a verb more than it’s a noun. It is striving towards a sense of home—an effort of creation. I grew up in a mixed race household. My mom is Asian American but I grew up in England. There was a double displacement. My family didn’t eat like other people, didn’t look like other people. So home became something created rather than a particular place. I don’t think I could ever pick a spot on google maps and say, “This is home.” So I make the joke that my home is where my laptop is. But it’s the process of making a home that makes me feel at home.

AWM: Wow, I like that approach a lot. Like you said, you grew up in a mixed race household with many different cultural influences…how, if at all, has that impacted your writing?

RHB: I’ve been trying to think about that for myself for a while and it’s hard because you are who you are. I don’t know what it’s like to be a Swedish American writer, for instance. But there are a couple of things.

The idea of what was standard or what was canon at home was a bit different because my mother actually studied East Asian literature so from a relatively young age I read a lot of Japanese literature, in translation. I was also reading a lot of American literature and even between the British canon and the American canon are differences. And that gave me a feeling that there wasn’t necessarily one true set of best books ever. I suppose that was quite freeing for me as a writer.

“I found myself most interested in protagonists who didn’t fit in. I always thought the ‘Mary-Jane-who’s-just-a-standard-girl-from-a-standard-home’ narrative was very peculiar. I was interested in the weird and strange.”

Also, as someone from an unusual family, I suppose I was looking for people who were as confused as to what was normal as I was. I found myself most interested in protagonists who didn’t fit in. I always thought the “Mary-Jane-who’s-just-a-standard-girl-from-a-standard-home” narrative was very peculiar. I was interested in the weird and strange. Even if it was a white man doing the strange things—I liked the weirdos. Perhaps that was because these characters often found the world puzzling and so the stories asked the big questions I was interested in. And reading those stories made me feel able to write about people like that too—to believe they deserved space.

AWM: As you were reading these books and beginning to write, were there any writers or books in particular that had a big influence on you?

RHB: On some level there’s too many to name—many of which are pretty boring choices like Nabokov and Virginia Woolf. What can I say? They’re good at what they do. But when I was growing up we had the internet but the internet was not as good as it is now, and so a lot of where I got my reading from was the “cult fiction” section of the local bookshop. It was such a strange collection of things from Bukowski to Vice magazine to graphic novels to Heller. And eventually, I came across voices that helped me figure out the direction I wanted to go in.

“It is important to me as a writer to try to read as widely as I can…I write best when I’m being influenced by very different works, just magpieing a little bit.”

For example, there’s this book called Autofiction by Hitomi Kanehara I stumbled on when I was a teenager. I go back to it again and again. It’s really weird and it’s told in reverse and you don’t know if you should trust the narrator at all but it was really exciting, like nothing I had ever read. Recently, I’ve been very excited by the Irish writer Anne Enright. She has an economy of language and the ability to be viciously sarcastic.

It is important to me as a writer to try to read as widely as I can. I mostly read literary fiction but I read crime, memoir, and graphic novels as well. I am actively trying to read more books in translation. I write best when I’m being influenced by very different works. So I think it’s just magpieing a little bit.

AWM: Magpieing? I like that approach. Now, you mentioned it a little bit already, but one of the major themes of My America is the concept of being “American” and what exactly does that mean…and I think you bring a very unique perspective to that question so to you what does it mean to “be American” or what does the term “American” even mean?

RHB: It is quite strange. I didn’t grow up in America but I grew up as an American citizen. I was born as a citizen because my mother was the child of immigrants to America. My mother, she really really missed New York and she saw New York as her home. And when people asked her that “Where are you from?” question she’d always say “America.” And they’d say, “No, really?” Because they wanted to know where her Asian face was from. And she’d reply “New York.” And they’d say “No really?” And she’d say, “the Upper West Side.” That was very much her.

“The American Dream is a wonderful dream and a wonderful story and I wish it was possible for everyone. But the belief that it is seems to lead to some pretty problematic policy choices.”

We would visit my grandparents and I remember it seemed in some ways like all of the things that America advertised itself as being. Like, it was this place of freedom. The sky was literally bluer than where I grew up. And there were things that seemed really positive to me that I think are still there? The ability that people have to believe they can change things, to believe they can make something new, to believe that enthusiasm is a good thing. They’re some of the reasons I spent much of my twenties in America. But as I got older I began to see the problems too. The American Dream is a wonderful dream and a wonderful story and I wish it was possible for everyone. But the belief that it is seems to lead to some pretty problematic policy choices. America has always been an important part of my identity and sort of like a family member maybe. You can love a place and think it’s wonderful but also really see that there are some major flaws that maybe we could all work on.

AWM: Yeah I’m right there with you. And also like a family member, we shouldn’t be afraid to call them out on it.

RHB: Yeah, you have to. It’s the kinder thing to do.

AWM: So you mentioned identity earlier, have you found that writing has helped you get a sense of your identity?

RHB: That’s a good question. I think it has. When I first started writing when I was a teenager I wrote what I can best describe as fiction set in the world of Donnie Darko. Everything was an American suburb, everyone was very white. And I’d never been to an American suburb, ever! But that was where I set everything because Cheever and Carver were my idea of literary fiction. That’s where I thought stories happened.

I don’t write memoir but I started including elements from my family’s context. I found inserting these tiny fragments in the larger fiction gave it power. And when people responded to those fragments, I could see better how we were linked.

“I’m still surprised all the time by the way books and writers give me a sense of community.”

And equally, there were moments where I felt my difference more clearly. For instance, I had a story about a Japanese American family in which nobody hugged each other. I didn’t think of it that way, it was just a story. My first readers, who weren’t from my background, were confused and thought it meant they didn’t love each other. But with the Japanese side of my family we largely hadn’t expressed affection physically. When you realize what people aren’t picking up, you have to figure out how much to explain.

AWM: Yeah, totally. I get that.

RHB: I’m still surprised all the time by the way books and writers give me a sense of community. I was at a talk given by Celeste Ng, and she was great. Then she started talking about how in her home there was never enough space in the cutlery drawer because the cutlery drawer is not made to have chopsticks. It’s made to have knives, forks, spoons and, like, little spoons? But she had chopsticks which created some disorder. And I thought, “Huh? That’s why nothing ever fits in the cutlery drawer!? I just thought I was bad at it!”

AWM: Had you always wanted to be a writer, or was there a moment when you decided this is the thing for you?

RHB: When I was little I wanted to be a dragon. But that career option was not open to me, it turned out. I always loved reading and telling stories. But it didn’t occur to me that you could do it professionally until I was in college studying economics—because that’s practical and sensible, as you do. I had a friend who said I would love this creative writing class. So I took one and then was like, “OK, I need to take all of them.” It turned out to take the higher level ones I needed to be a creative writing major so I thought, “OK, well I guess I’ll be a double major and it’ll be fine.” And I had a professor who supported me and told me I could go to grad school and they would pay me to write stories for two years. Eventually, I had a grad school professor who said I should find an agent.

“Reading and writing has always been how I understand the world when I don’t know what the right thing to do is.”

So, on one level I fell into it as a profession. But reading and writing has always been how I understand the world when I don’t know what the right thing to do is or when I have a moral dilemma or I don’t understand how to juggle things. Often writing a story helps me think about it. So that part felt very natural. If that makes sense?

AWM: Yeah it does make sense for sure. Like, that has always been there and the other parts, the professional parts, just sort of fell in.

RHB: Yeah, and I’m still sort of clinging on, being like “Please, I want to keep doing this!”

AWM: Alright, now I have some fun questions. Since we’re a museum, if you could meet one American writer from the past, who would it be and why?

RHB: I was very happy you sent me this question. I think actually it would be Shirley Jackson. I think I mentioned this, but I came to American literature sort of as a formal canon quite late because I grew up in England and went to school in England. We did read one or two American books but it was like, “Here’s Steinbeck, and now we’re done.” But I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle when I was relatively young and it was amazing and continues to be amazing. And I only read The Haunting of Hill House recently and it delighted me. It felt very queer in an interesting way, which I was not expecting and really enjoyed.

Go Home! was meant to be a door…It’s an invitation to tell your own tales.”

I feel like the horror of Shirley Jackson isn’t the horror of the monster under the bed. It’s the horror of the bright street and the healthy friends and family and the big, “clean” world and things you “should” do. I don’t really have anything I want to say to her—I would probably be very tongue-tied—but I’d love to sit and listen to this woman who had a whole family and this whole very normal-from-the-outside-looking life but who saw the world so clearly and saw the gaps in society so clearly.

AWM: That’s a great answer. I ask this question all the time and I still haven’t picked one, so the fact that you could is impressive.

RHB: I mean, talk to me next week and I’ll probably have a different answer. I mean I also want Maxine Hong Kingston and Raymond Carver and Kathleen Collins—but at that point the density of talent in the room might make the walls swell and the floor buckle.

AWM: Fair enough. Who are you reading now? Anything on your bookshelf that is especially exciting?

RHB: This is less of a recommendation and more of an, “I’m excited about this! Maybe you will be excited too”—There’s a book called If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha, who’s a Korean American writer, and it’s coming out this spring. I was just at an event for her and it sounds really exciting. It’s about beauty standards and this group of different women, so that is what I’m about to start. Other than the ever-excellent Shirley Jackson, I’ve been reading a lot of Anita Brookner lately. Brookner is perfect if you like funny, angry, sad women which I do very much.

And of course, I would recommend all of the people who read your blog to read Go Home! But also read my co-panelist T Kira Madden’s book Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls. It’s about addiction and love and family and how you can love the people who betray you and queerness. It’s beautiful. She’s also excerpted in Go Home! So if you do read Go Home! first, you can realize how great she is and then go buy her memoir.

AWM: Speaking of Go Home! again, is there anything in particular you hope readers take away from it?

RHB: There is. Go Home! was meant to be a door. I hope that readers find things that they recognize from their own lives and that they feel less alone. But I also hope that if they see a gap that they are inspired to fill it. I hope they feel supported in making their own work. Or even if they don’t want to publish their own work, that they realize the stories they have to tell are important and that they tell them to the people who they find important. It’s not meant to be a book that is the last word on anything. It’s an invitation to tell your own tales.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan will be right here at the American Writers Museum this Thursday, March 12 along with fellow Go Home! contributing writer T Kira Madden to discuss the anthology, notions of home, and their other award-winning writing. Books will be sold and signed at the event.

T Kira Madden and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan book reading and signing at the American Writers Museum on March 12


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