Harmless Like You: A Novel

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A Year in Reading: R.O. Kwon

The other night, at a party, someone asked if I consider my writing to be political. I said no, but also yes, always, what else can it be, since I’m an immigrant, a woman, and a person of color, living in a time and place in which more or less every aspect of who I am has been politicized. Every day, to pull up the news is to see part, or parts, of myself attacked, threatened, and marginalized.

And it’s not just the news. Not long after the 2016 elections, my parents were in a minor car accident. A car drove into the parking space next to theirs; the stranger’s car scraped my mother’s open door—no big deal, you might think, except that the other driver, the one at fault, lost it. He yelled at my parents. He terrified my mother, one of the gentlest women I know. What did he yell? The tired obvious: “Go back to your country,” he shouted, standing in a parking lot, in my hometown, where my parents have lived the past 25 years. My father shouted back. “This is my country,” he said, sure of himself, defying the racist shit spitting in his face.

As I look back at my year in reading, I’m thinking of my parents. A word about methodology: since any list like this leaves out more than it can include, I’ll call out writers of Asian descent whose fictional worlds have been, for me, lifelines. Also, I prize and require short stories and essays and poems and memoirs, but my first love, my lifelong obsession is the novel, so I’ll limit myself to long-form fiction; finally, I’ll restrict this round-up to books by women because it’s 2017, and, my god, what a year it’s been for us. But dear Umma and Abba: fuck that guy in the parking lot. This is your country, and this write-up’s for you.

All hail Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin, a tender, brilliant evocation of one woman’s experience of profound loss and gain. I loved, too, Katie Kitamura’s powerful A Separation, about a woman whose husband goes missing on a Greek island. I read it in one hypnotized go. I know you’ve probably already heard you should read Celeste Ng’s thrilling Little Fires Everywhere, but I can’t help adding to the chorus. In addition to its other signal merits, the book includes one of the best portrayals of artistic ambition I’ve read since I don’t know when.

Some of the writing I most crave, these days, is fiction that finds its way into what’s often called unimaginable. Along these lines, I admired A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi and Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, novels that incisively, wisely imagine the lives of people drawn to religious extremism. Jimin Han’s impressive A Small Revolution brings to life a different kind of terrorist, one so much more prevalent in this gun-crazed country of ours: the angry man who goes on a shooting rampage.

I was riveted by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You and Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, both of which feature those most maligned of women, mothers who leave their sons. In the haunting Lucky Boy, Shanthi Sekaran spotlights a different kind of parent-child split, when an undocumented woman loses her child to foster care. Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is centered upon a sister’s loss, and is by turns startling, harrowing, and compassionate.

Chemistry by Weike Wang is a funny and beguiling account of a graduate student uncertain if she wants to keep pursuing a life in chemistry. There’s also Dina Nayeri’s big-hearted Refuge, about the plight of a geographically divided family, as well as Arundhati Roy’s epic, vital The Ministry of Utmost Unhappiness. Finally, especially in these hateful times, I want everyone to read Min Jin Lee’s much-lauded Pachinko, a novel chronicling some of the challenges endured by Korean immigrants in Japan.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

February Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around).  Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. For more February titles — and there are a ton — check out the Great First-Half 2017 Preview.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders:  For Saunders fans, the prospect of a full-length novel from the short-story master has been something to speculate upon, if not actually expect. Yet Lincoln in the Bardo is a full 368-page blast of Saunders — dealing in the 1862 death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, the escalating Civil War, and, of course, Buddhist philosophy. Saunders has compared the process of writing longer fiction to “building custom yurts and then somebody commissioned a mansion” — and Saunders’s first novel is unlikely to resemble any other mansion on the block. (Jacob)

To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell: Millions staffer and author of Millions Original Epic Fail O’Connell brings his superb writing and signature wit and empathy to a nonfiction exploration of the transhumanist movement, complete with cryogenic freezing, robots, and an unlikely presidential bid from the first transhumanist candidate. O’Connell’s sensibility — his humanity, if you will — and his subject matter are a match made in heaven. It’s an absolutely wonderful book, but don’t take my non-impartial word for it: Nicholson Baker and Margaret Atwood have plugged it too.  (Lydia)

 

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li: The Oakland-based Li delivers this memoir of chronic depression and a life lived with books. Weaving sharp literary criticism with a perceptive narrative about her life as an immigrant in America, Your Life isn’t as interested in exploring how literature helps us make sense of ourselves as it is in how literature situates us amongst others. (Ismail)
 
 

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen: Pulitzer Prize Winner Nguyen’s short story collection The Refugees has already received starred pre-publication reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, among others. Nguyen’s brilliant new work of fiction offers vivid and intimate portrayals of characters and explores identity, war, and loss in stories collected over a period of two decades. (Zoë)
 
 
 

Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson: Well, it sounds like it’s got it all: the Badlands, the Twin Towers, Elvis’s resurrected twin brother, all put together to create what Jonathan Lethem called “a playlist for the dying American century.” He told Granta this was the best novel he read all year. (Lydia)
 
 
 
 
 

Amiable with Big Teeth by Claude McKay: A significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance, McKay is best-known for his novel Home to Harlem — which was criticized by W.E.B. Dubois for portraying black people (i.e. Harlem nightlife) as prurient — “after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath.”  The novel went on to win the prestigious (if short-lived) Harmon Gold Medal and is widely praised for its sensual and brutal accuracy. In 2009, UPenn English professor Jean-Christophe Cloutier discovered the unpublished Amiable with Big Teeth in the papers of notorious, groundbreaking publisher Samuel Roth.  A collaboration between Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards, a long-awaited, edited, scholarly edition of the novel will be released by Penguin in February. (Sonya)

 

The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: This sequel to the Nobel Prize-winning South African author’s 2013 novel The Childhood of Jesus picks up shortly after Simón and Inés flee from authorities with their adopted son, David. Childhood was a sometimes thin-feeling allegory of immigration that found Coetzee meditating with some of his perennial concerns — cultural memory, language, naming, and state violence — at the expense of his characters. In Schooldays, the allegorical element recedes somewhat into the background as Coetzee tells the story of David’s enrollment in a dance school, his discovery of his passion for dancing, and his disturbing encounters with adult authority. This one was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. (Ismail)

A Separation by Katie Kitamura: A sere and unsettling portrait of a marriage come undone, critics are hailing Kitamura’s third book as “mesmerizing” and “magnificent.” The narrator, a translator, goes to a remote part of Greece in search of her serially unfaithful husband, only to be further unmoored from any sense that she (and in turn the reader) had of the contours of their shared life. Blurbed by no fewer than six literary heavyweights — Rivka Galchen, Jenny Offill, Leslie Jamison, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Karl Ove Knausgaard — A Separation looks poised to be the literary Gone Girl of 2017. (Kirstin B.)

 

The Weight of Him by Ethel Rohan: Set in rural Ireland, the accomplished short-story writer’s debut novel takes on suicide, grief, overeating, and getting on. A novel that “that speaks to the essential core of our shared human experience,” says Robert Olen Butler. (Lydia)
 
 
 
 

Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: A debut about motherhood, art, and living across cultures focusing on a young Japanese woman who abandons her son. Alexander Chee says it is “the kind of novel our century deserves.” (Lydia)
 
 
 
 

Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom: Academic and Twitter eminence McMillan Cottom tackles a subject that, given a recent spate of lawsuits, investigations, and closings, was front-page news for a good part of 2016. Drawing on interviews with students, activists, and executives at for-profit colleges and universities, Lower Ed aims to connect the rise of such institutions with ballooning levels of debt and larger trends of income inequality across the U.S. (Kirstin B.)

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