The last month or so has been an influx of good writing and since the literary stars seemed to be in alignment, I wanted to keep up the good reading streak with a book that had been on my list for a long time: Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan. Two of the biggest reasons that this piqued my interest was because I was familiar with Buchanan’s shorter writing pieces elsewhere (and enjoyed her writing style from what I saw) and the fact that she is also half-Japanese, like me. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that identity formation and creation of the self in mixed-race identities through literature is something that I am interested in and therefore are texts that I tend to gravitate towards. I don’t believe that a text will always include some trace of the writer’s cultural background, as if race or culture is something inherently ingrained in us and necessarily comes out through everything we say. However, I know that being mixed was an unavoidably important aspect of my own understanding of identity and I can’t help but be curious about how others in a similar situation see themselves in the world and whether that has a bearing on the stories they like telling.
I also grew up as the only mixed person and the only person of Japanese descent in the area, so it still is shocking to me to come across other ハーフ who are living and writing out there in the world. I am so used to being an outlying blip that I didn’t even think to look for these stories or writers for years.
This is a very roundabout way to say that now, more than ever, you can get me to read anything if they are written by someone who is half-Japanese, half-Asian, or mixed-Asian, regardless of genre. I am just happy to support those who I wished I had when I was younger! But now that I managed to make a post about Harmless Like You about me up until this point, let me get into why I enjoyed the work. There may be a few very minor spoilers in this post, but as always my focus will be on the overall structure, form, atmosphere, pacing, and so on — the writing itself — as opposed to specific plot points.
What struck me the most about Harmless Like You were the characters. There are a wide range of ways to write characters, but I find that there are certain types of characters that are incredibly difficult to make work on the page. Harmless Like You has one of these difficult types: the detached character. The novel itself is split between two perspectives: Yuki (the mother) in the “past” of the novel and Jay (the son) in the “present”. From the beginning we get a sense of the stakes for these two and why there is obvious tension between them, so much of the story is not on what happens but why and how these situations came about. Because of this focus, we spend our time very close to both Yuki and Jay, learning about their complicated internal machinations.
Both characters are very detached from the world around them, including with their loved ones. They both lack attachment to and attunement with the other characters who populate the narrative, which often leads them into conflict. However, they don’t necessarily feel unreal or uninteresting, even as detached as they are. I think there is a difference between characters who are inaccessible due to flat characterization or immature writing and ones who are intentionally inaccessible because they depict the way a human being like that would actually move within the world. Detached characters are hard to get right, I think, because a lot of detachment reads as something else — oftentimes “detached” characters can come across as bland, uninteresting, or even as a snarky asshole. All of these are fine character traits, because we all know people like that in real life, but they are not examples of human beings detached from the world.
Detached characters can also be an issue in writing because one of the key elements of writing is to be able to connect to the characters; as readers we want to connect at some level, whether that’s to get lost in the story, to feel sympathetic to a character, to find a character enjoyable or funny, to hate a character, the list goes on. At the end of the day, the reader wants to be engaged in some way. But a detached human being only allows some access to their interiority before they shut things down. This is something difficult enough to know how to navigate in person, when we can rely on non-verbal and non-linguistic modes of meaning, but it is even more difficult when the only way we can access this character is through words. There has to be a balance, then, between this particular (detached) character’s mode of being in the narrative and making them somehow compelling.
What Buchanan does really well is making both Yuki and Jay compelling but believably detached human beings. In many instances we watch them self-sabotage, play with situations regardless of the emotional harm it will do to other characters, passively allow the world to move them in whatever direction, react to events as opposed to act and thereby create situations that are often tricky to work past. In many ways it’s frustrating to see unfold, because you can trace how Yuki’s life, in particular, is exacerbated by events that she could have set into motion but doesn’t, choices she did make, the potentiality she let dry up. But that’s the thing about her: she is frustrating and she is detached but I can see why she takes the paths she does. Her motivations, though troublesome, are based in a sort of internal logic that is as flawed to us as it is real to her. You so often want to shake her, tell her she’s being stupid, that she deserves the good things — but at the same time you realize that you might make the same choices, operate in the same way if you lived these situations and if you had these wounds. That is what makes the writing so compelling; Yuki and (to a slightly lesser degree, maybe) Jay make frustrating choices, but they are written in a way that does not come across as hokey or melodramatic.
Another key aspect of the novel that I found really well done was the exploration of what it is to do harm. The Harmless Like You title comes from a moment in the novel where a character describes the Vietnam war atrocities they read about in the news; the character states that the U.S. is killing “harmless little girls like you” — the you here being directed at Yuki. This was a fascinating trope for me, because the statement itself and the fact that the phrase is the title of the book tempts readers to take the phrase at face-value: the tragedy is that Yuki is harmless yet she encounters pain, uncertainty, and despair in her life. In this reading, Yuki is just the hapless, sweet victim, but this is the reading I think we should reject. What becomes clear through Buchanan’s novel is not about who is harmless, per se, but how anything we do — even acts that seem inconsequential and minor on the surface — have the capacity to inflict great harm on those around us. The novel presents so many moments that initially seem very insignificant, little harms done by characters to each other, and the ways these seemingly “harmless” things actually accumulate their effect over time, often causing far-reaching, even generational, harm. The things that seem the most harmless turn out to cut the deepest.
With the notion of harm, then, we touch on the traumas that human beings experience in life and how some are “better equipped” — or are given a boost in one way or another due to random chance or circumstance — to navigate their lived experience than others. In the end, it seems that most of the characters are simply trying to do their best, which is a painfully real reflection of how many of us try to function. Unfortunately, the “best” that someone can genuinely offer is sometimes woefully lacking, setting off a chain of pain and confusion that has lasting consequences. Buchanan handles these problems gently, but firmly, and doesn’t shy away from revealing the real impact that harmless things have on people, such as Yuki and Jay themselves, as well as how their harmless actions in turn impact the ones they love.
From my reflections on Harmless Like You, you might think that there does not seem to be a way out of the harm we inflict on others. I think for some there is no easy way out, so the “happy ending” we have grown accustomed to when it comes to fairy tales and family dramas does not always happen — in fact, in I think these things really rarely happen. That is the final aspect of Harmless Like You that I truly appreciated: the room Buchanan leaves for choice, whether the choices made are generative and life-affirming to us as readers or whether a choice reads as something more “negative” or creating more harm. Amongst the decisions made by characters in the novel, there is a possibility for a new future: the choices that Yuki and Jay make, individually, indicate that options are out there and the decision to make one choice or another, or to remain as you are, is in itself a choice. These choices may not always be the ones we agree with, it may not be the choices that we are screaming for by the end of a novel, or it may be the outcome we knew would happen and hoped for, but either way it may be the choice that makes sense to the characters and to their analogues in our own world.
Being able to navigate this delicate path without moralizing, without trying to force a specific line of reasoning, and still make the characters fleshed out and real to readers is a real skill. Buchanan did a fantastic job of tackling these topics and I found Harmless Like You really moving
— I alarmed my partner at one point near the end of the novel by suddenly welling up and bursting out crying, don’t come at me, okay, just read the book. The prose itself was easy to get into the flow of, interspersed with beautiful evocative descriptions at key moments, while avoiding wordiness or feeling overworked. I also thought the pacing of the narrative was great; readers are introduced to the “answer” to the main issue of the novel (Do Jay and Yuki meet again?) right away, so you are not focusing on the what of the plot and have plenty of brain space to dig into how the story got to the point where it did and why characters are the way they are. I think it was a smart way to structure things and paid off nicely when we once again converge on the detailed moments of Jay and Yuki’s meeting near the end of the novel. I highly recommend Harmless Like You and I hope to see it popping up around on To-Be-Read Lists once again.