Emily Hashimoto is a queer writer of color from the suburbs of New Jersey. She is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in women’s and gender studies, and she earned her MS in Information Science from Pratt Institute. She has received fellowships from VONA and Queer Arts. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus and Bitch Magazine, centering feminist critique and queer narratives. She lives in New York City with her wife and child.
Lisa Grgas: Thanks so much for the privilege of interviewing you upon the publication of your first novel, A World Between. How are you feeling as the release date approaches?
Emily Hashimoto: Buoyant with excitement and nervous? But they’re anticipatory nerves, the kind one gets on a roller coaster as you creep up and up, waiting for the good part.
LG: I’ll start with a high-level sum-up: Eleanor Suzuki and Leena Shah meet as college undergraduates, fall hard for each other, and the relationship ends in heartbreak. The novel jumps forward several years, and the women re-encounter each other by chance on the streets of San Francisco. They’re both in their own romantic relationships—Leena’s more unexpected than Eleanor’s—but they soon are back in step and form a close and complicated friendship. Is there more you can share about the book that goes beyond the blurb (and my reductive plot-point summary)?
EH: First of all, that was a very good summary! Early on, when friends asked what I was working on, I said it was a “lesbian When Harry Met Sally,” because it follows them over the years and is romantic and funny with lots of meandering walks, but that ‘lesbian’ modifier changed the story significantly, as did their non-whiteness. Relationships between queer women can vary over the years: friends, exes, girlfriends, enemies, best friends. They can bounce around on a continuum of intimacy in a non-linear way. And the fact that they’re both women of color, Asian women, means that they brought the joys and challenges of navigating the intersections of their own identities, cultures, families, and expectations.
LG: How did you find your way to Leena and Eleanor? What inspired you to explore and tell their story?
EH: I started writing about them five years ago. In that long stretch of time I was pregnant and had a baby, which I’ve learned basically wipes your memory. To answer this question, I thought about how I’m approaching my new book, and that jogged my memory: I sort of just start writing. And that’s what I did with Leena and Eleanor. I wrote their conversations, and little details about rooms, but it took time to figure out who they distinctly were. Now, of course, they are complete people in my mind, and I could tell you immediately how they’d react in any situation.
When I began fleshing them out, I realized I sort of split myself in half, giving each of them my best qualities and my worst flaws. I may have also stolen some traits from close friends, too, but don’t tell anyone that publicly or anything!
Before they had true shape, I knew I wanted to tell a love story about two queer women of color, for very selfish reasons: I wanted to write a book that I would read. I’m a reader who will pretty much try anything, but I swoon most over love stories that are grounded in something tactile, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. “A smart guilty pleasure,” as someone recently said about my book—a moniker I will gladly accept. As I mentioned, I wanted to anchor them with real obstacles like family obligations and societal pressures, but I also wanted it to be…fun. Some books about queer folks of color are heavy, because our stories can be heavy given how we are perceived and treated by the world. I wanted to walk a different line: real; whimsical.
And, on the other hand, if it was to be a fun book, I knew there was a gravity I wanted in the stories of others that radiated out: Tomas, Eleanor’s best friend, who we learn is the child of parents who were deported. Cath and Sam, Eleanor’s friends, who have parents––it is clear––that will not receive their coming out well. Binita, Leena’s sister, who as a bride struggles with her self-image, including desires to lighten her skin. There are two weddings in this book, a handful of drunken and gleeful nights, and a scene where we literally experience two people watching television––and yet it is not all escapism.
LG: As Eleanor points out late in the book, she and Leena have a Felix and Oscar vibe. They’re opposite in many ways: Eleanor is more often impulsive; Leena is more often restrained. But they both are dynamic, complex characters. What makes each of them tick?
EH: I’ll start with what makes them similar: they are always looking ahead to what’s next or what else is possible. What they do with those thoughts is where they diverge: Eleanor wants to lasso every single moment and gulp it down. She is motivated by love––the quest as well as the receipt of it. Leena is more cautious and risk averse, even to the point of denying herself the things she might want or need. She craves stability and comfort. When we meet them later years down the line, we see a shift in what makes them tick, which was very satisfying as their creator to see how they were or weren’t growing.
LG: Though the novel is written in the third person, the section breaks delineate perspective shifts between Eleanor and Leena. I found this strategy especially effective in the transition between the end of Part Two (Leena)and the first pages of Part Three (Eleanor). Part Three begins with a temporal rewind that allows us to interpret a high-stakes exchange from both characters’ perspectives. Can you tell us a bit about the effect this achieves?
EH: Lisa, I thought about this a million ways but I simply don’t have a good answer for you!
LG: That’s fair. While reading, I recalled Jordan Rosenfeld’s book Writing the Intimate Character: Create Unique Compelling Characters Through Mastery of Point of View. Rosenfeld suggests that writing the same scene from several characters’ viewpoints has the effect of slowing down the pace of the narrative. The implication is that slowing down is (or can be) boring to readers. I can see that being a potential pitfall for some stories, but that’s not the case here. Decelerating at the novel’s climax, I think, increased tension. It’s cinematic, really…
EH: I don’t think I realized it until now, but I must’ve been influenced by Hamilton’s “Helpless” and “Satisfied” pairing: one song that lays out a narrative, then another that gives you a completely different look into what happened. It gives complexity and emphasizes what’s important.
I appreciate what you said about increased tension! I would love to say, aw shucks, glad it had the intended impact. Really, it’s a delightful surprise that it achieved what it did. The origins of the decision were knowing I would have Leena hand off POV to Eleanor, and eventually I rewinded just slightly because there was more I wanted to share with readers. What it also does, I think, is give a softer introduction to where Eleanor is now internally, a departure from where she was in 2004. To see the same events but now through her eyes slowly steeps us in Eleanor.
LG: This scene, with Eleanor’s partner, Nasrin, is really incredible. I finished reading days ago and I’m still pissed at her. What the fuck is her problem? I’m not sure how possible it is to discuss the scene without spoilers, but I’m curious what motivates her to act destructively toward Leena.
EH: That is a fascinating reading of this. Another reader, who is perhaps more of a Nasrin, told me, “Finally, someone in this book has some sense and is telling the truth.” And in what unfolds, while she was intentionally hurtful, she didn’t mean to cause the damage she did––intent versus impact. But, to try and unpack Nasrin’s problem with Leena in general, because she certainly has one: of course there is a current of jealousy. She and Eleanor enjoy an intense, intimate relationship, and she sees Leena as a threat, despite what anyone tells her. What really gets Nasrin’s goat, though, is that Leena is not a truthful person. She is used to having to obfuscate, filter, and sometimes lie to people in her life to maintain boundaries between her history and present. Nasrin is one of those people who values the truth over all, and she cannot stomach Leena’s decision. There’s a very brief note of it in the book, but Nasrin comes from a Persian family who struggled to accept their queer child. She can absolutely understand family and cultural dynamics, but for Leena to not even try to be honest is very difficult for Nasrin to comprehend. It is easier for her to simply dismiss Leena.
LG: That makes sense. I appreciate Nasrin’s dedication to truthfulness and her frustrations with Leena. But she seemed to have little empathy for Leena or respect for her autonomy! Nasrin and Leena know each other tangentially, through Eleanor, but their interactions open up big questions about truth and privacy as related to identity. Can you speak to these themes in your work?
EH: If you were to ask Nasrin about truth and identity, she would say, “Tell the whole fucking truth about who you are. Anything else is a waste of time.” But I could go on and on about truth, privacy, and identity! First, I suppose, our identities are never fixed. If you asked Leena how she identifies, sexual orientation-wise, I think you’d get a different answer every year––or you’d get no answer, because it’s something she’d rather not define or explore. This highlights a belief that I have, that we are constantly changing and, if we’re lucky, evaluating that change and what it means about who we are.
There’s also something else about actions and feelings versus identity. In the middle of the book, Leena isn’t dating women, but suffice to say she experiences longing and desire for them, and yet there would be no equal-sign HRC bumper sticker on her car. I think of the mostly-public-health term, “men who have sex with men,” distinct from queer men; act versus identity. For a number of factors, some socially constructed (like homophobia) and others not (like not wanting a label), people don’t always pair these two concepts.
One other note on truth-identity: most of my thinking here comes from my women’s & gender studies background, informed in particular by a narrowly-named Lesbians & Gay Men in Society class I took in college. It blew my eyes open to the truth: that same-sex sexuality and gender identity/expression were present in so many cultures, in so many millennia, and it was only in the naming of it (“homosexuality”) in European cultures that it began to be criminalized. I think truth and naming are so unbelievably powerful and community-building, but it can be weaponized with violence, harmful legislation, and the like. While this is only tangentially related to my book, I think about cis men who desire trans women, but because they fear what that means about them, how they could be identified, they reply with violence to their desires, shortening the lives of brave and luminous trans women––in particular Black and Latinx trans women. I offer this to say: truth and identity are not simple, uncomplicated concepts.
Turning to privacy, I think there is tacit agreement in the queer community that disclosure of sexual orientation or gender identity should be solely at someone’s discretion. But that doesn’t mean we all like it! On numerous occasions, Leena puts Eleanor in the uncomfortable position of having to guard Leena’s privacy around her sexual orientation––and depending on the context, Eleanor goes with it or fights against it. Ultimately, no matter the season, she loves and respects Leena, and wants to honor what she needs in that moment, even if it goes against Eleanor’s sensibilities and her own sense of right.
In an ideal world, everyone should be comfortable living their life in the way of their choosing: partnered or not, or with multiple partners, loving and/or having sex with anyone who enthusiastically consents. But how we get to that ideal is not a straight (ha!) line.
LG: I imagine writing A World Between was an emotionally draining process. The characters experience so much, so deeply. What challenges did you face while telling their story? How did you get through it/them?
EH: My main challenge was learning to write a novel while writing a novel. I’ve never done it before, so clueing into the intricacies of arc building and achieving a satisfying payoff were a mystery until I dug right in and did it. From 2016 to 2017, I was a Queer Art Mentorship fellow, which paired me with the prolific writer Sarah Schulman. She was the one who taught me to write this book, offering feedback for over a year on draft after draft. Her close readings helped me understand how to tighten things up and write purposefully, to put the characters first and beware being too excited about a ‘cool’ scene that didn’t move the plot forward.
For example: early on, Eleanor and Leena’s reunion at the end of the book was marked with Eleanor suffering from transient global amnesia, which is like a writer’s dream (although in reality, awful): a brief amnesiac episode during which you retain long-term memories but cannot create any short-term memories, repeating yourself in the present on a loop. In the context of the book, it was an opportunity for time travel and an ignorance of the present. What a device! But it was too devicey to live.
LG: One of my favorite scenes occurs very early in the book, when Eleanor is at her Feminist Practices class. The text under discussion is Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” First, can you talk a bit about Lorde’s text to provide some context?
EH: Absolutely. This was a favorite reading of mine from college, containing one of her most famous lines: “Your silence will not protect you.” It’s about the ways that women endure silence, and how we can turn our fears into action if we push beyond what scares us to tell our truths.
LG: A student responds to Lorde’s text in typical undergrad fashion. She liked it, but suggested Lorde offered no connection to practice, that it’s “too academic.” I fell for Eleanor in this scene. You write: “Eleanor took a deep breath, raising her hand and speaking without waiting to be called on by Professor Post. ‘Yeah, but, no. She offers, like, a ton of ideas. Learning how to conquer your silences.’ She flipped the crisp page to read more of her marginalia. ‘Defining yourself. Coming together in unity. Moving across predetermined borders and separations to really understand others.’ She held up the reading, glaring. ‘Also, it’s in the title: “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.”’ Am I wrong to assume this scene was inspired by your own undergraduate experiences?
EH: I was a women’s & gender studies major in college. It was such a wonderful course of study that taught me about myself and the world, about politics, about concrete ways to make a difference in the lives of women and all people, really. In women’s studies, there are often tense debates about theory versus practice, because some folks worry that focusing too much on the former hurts movement towards the latter. I was thinking about that tension and other scenes from my program, with lots of heated arguments––between very serious women’s studies majors or with someone who sort of found her way into a class and hated the word “feminist.” I’m not as mouth-forward as Eleanor; I was listening most of the time.
LG: I want to point out, too, how true Eleanor’s dialogue is to millennial speech patterns and inflections. She’s a “like” and “um” over-user and ends many of her statements with a question mark. It’s interesting how well this works in your book, since these types of devices in other works can be cloying. I think it works here in large part because you have such a keen ear for natural speech. But, too, it’s because the speech patterns mature as time passes in the book. Eleanor does retain some of these mannerisms but they tone down just a touch as she moves from her twenties to thirties. How did you locate the sound of each character’s voice? Can you speak to the intentionality of that sound?
EH: Oh, I’m over the moon for this question. I wrote Eleanor’s dialogue exactly how I heard it in my mind. She is a millennial from California with an inability to censor herself, talking quickly and at length, and so “like” had to be present in what she said. During parts one and three, when we are in Eleanor’s head, the prose itself is also meandering, sometimes with big imagery and flowery language and run-on sentences. (I teased Eleanor and my own writing of her in assignment feedback from her professor: “You love a run-on sentence. And sometimes you use seven words when you could use two.”)
Leena, on the other hand, is all brevity and utility. Why answer three questions when you can answer the one someone actually posed? For the most part, her speech is concise and clear. There is no um-ing. And the same can be said for the prose in her section. Lots of sentences. Like this.
LG: You’ve made an interesting point about Leena’s speech. She certainly is concise and direct in speech patterns—but she is also elliptical, a master of misdirection. Is this a product of Leena’s need to keep parts of herself hidden or because she has a scientist’s mind?
EH: Some of it is her desire for simplicity; she does not see being verbose as a virtue. But of course, yes, some of it is that she is only going to answer the question asked of her. (And even then, she might not give you that.) If you ask Eleanor about the weather, she’ll tell you about that, and about how it rained yesterday and she went for a great walk, smelling the damp earth and listening to birds. Leena won’t give you any of that! For most of the book, she keeps things much closer to the vest.
LG: Audre Lorde, Ani DiFranco, Joni Mitchell, Marina Abramović, and others are sprinkled throughout the book. Are these personal influences of yours or purely character-driven or both?
EH: It is a bit of both. The book contains many easter eggs of things I love, but most references are meant to be character- and timeline-specific. Of course they go to see The Vagina Monologues in college. Of course Eleanor likes Le Tigre. Of course Eleanor’s parents bought a Prius as soon as it was available. Some references are character-specific but are meant to go a little deeper. Joni Mitchell is an example of that. She writes about romance and lost love and California, so Eleanor’s preference for her is not a shock, but her mother was a fan too. I imagine records or tapes playing at home, little Eleanor soaking it in without a thought.
The Leena references, for the most part, were foreign to me. She’s a scientist, so I had to dig deep to tap into the references that populated her world.
LG: How did you find your way into Leena’s scientific world?
EH: Some of it was following my own interests, or those of people in my life. I marvel at and am made anxious by plane travel, so there’s a little nod to the former. When Leena makes a reference to her heart, she might mention a specific part and not the overall organ itself, because that’s her world; she knows the names, she knows it well. I tried to give her references specificity even if it took my research and thinking like Leena to get there.
LG: Nasrin and Eleanor engage in intense makeup sex after Nasrin and Leena’s uncomfortable interaction. There seems to be no middle ground when it comes to writing about sex. On one end of the spectrum, there’s Garth Greenwell-level perfection in both What Belongs to You and Cleanness. On the other end, there’s Tom Wolfe dropping “otorhinolaryngological caverns” and “pectoral sheath” in I am Charlotte Simmons…which is hysterical but maybe not sexy. How do you write an amazing sex scene?
EH: An amazing sex scene is sexy and realistic. It communicates something that is difficult to make obvious on the page: chemistry. It has carefully chosen words (no ‘quivering members,’ no ‘fecund valleys’) and is well-choreographed.
It’s of the moment, not separated from it; it’s about what happened before and what happens after. It should, like all good scenes, move plot and character along. You mention Nasrin and Eleanor’s sex scene. It’s one born of comfort and intimacy, but isn’t gauzy or lush. Eleanor isn’t all the way there, her mind elsewhere. Their sex actually brings about emotional conflict, showing the fissures in their divide. That could’ve been done in an argument, and it partially is, but sex in that moment communicates a lot about who they are and where they are, emotionally and mentally.
LG: Although the plot is character-driven, A World Between is more than a romance. We’ve talked about characters’ struggles with identity, sexuality, gender, self-acceptance, community, and entrapment. And I’m leaving out a ton more. This is a big ask, but can you talk about some of the key themes in the book and what, if anything, you hope readers will take away from it?
EH: The key themes in the book are often lessons learned. At the beginning of part one, Eleanor is on a quest for a romantic-comedy version of love, only to find that it won’t save her like she wants. When we catch up with her years later, we see the effects of this lesson: she has hardened, a little bit, to the world. Leena is the one able to get through her shell, and Eleanor loses herself again in Leena. Later, in a drunken moment of disappointment, she begins a new journey to love herself. And I know that “love yourself” isn’t some sort of philosophical breakthrough, but it is something women especially need to learn, and it is perhaps unusual in a romantic love story.
It’s a tongue-and-cheek thing, but in part one they watch Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…, and Eleanor reads on the DVD box: “It’s all about loving your parents.” That made me and my friends laugh in college, because it’s so on the nose to what the movie is about, but I included it in the book because it is a major thread here as well. Eleanor struggles with coming out to her mother and being seen as an adult. She finds them annoying in her twenties. Later on, you can tell she has finally gained an appreciation for them.
For Leena, loving her parents is a different road. They are her guidestar and she sets her watch to them, even as they bother and overwhelm. But over time, the weight of what it takes to keep their approval and love begins to grow heavy. When we meet her again in the last chapter, she is enduring a strained relationship with them––but it is my idealist’s hope that after the book closes, at some point in the future, they enjoy a much closer relationship because she was finally honest. Because they finally know her, really and truly.
Overall, though, the key theme is that people can change, which I mark with movement: we always find Leena and Eleanor living in different cities over the course of 13 years, and the book largely centers immigrants and the children of immigrants. Time is another factor, allowing people to mellow or sharpen. I’m of the thought that people can learn and grow from what they experience, coming out the other side wiser or braver or kinder.
LG: Leena’s experiences encapsulate many of the above themes and, at times, her trajectory seems the most tragic. You touch on this briefly in the acknowledgments, but how did you approach writing about Indian Americans? How did you navigate the complexities of being true to Leena (your writerly invention) while remaining sensitive and respectful of the Indian American community?
EH: I’m the product of a Japanese man and a White woman. My wife’s family has roots in Europe and the Middle East. In this way, I am most familiar with what happens when two people in a relationship come from different backgrounds. My decision that Leena would be Indian American comes from my desire to make her race and ethnicity distinct from Eleanor’s, while not tapping into my own story too closely––but at the same time, I am, in a way. Through fortune, I have many South Asian friends in my life, and I know it’s cringe-y to say “Some of my best friends are Indian Americans,” but it’s true. Beyond my own lived experience, it is the culture that I know the best and felt some measure of comfort depicting in a story, even as I am at times uncomfortable because it is not an identity I have lived and breathed. But I’ve spent decades listening to the complexities of cultures clashing, being goaded by my friends’ moms’ to sit and eat their cooking, and loving the ways we can compare and contrast what being Asian American means. I asked my friends pointed questions about religious upbringings and what their parents told them about sex. I watched movies and read books to fill in my gaps. One excellent friend provided me with Gujarati translations.
In creating Leena, as much as she is specifically and intentionally Indian American, not everything about her is a reflection of her race and ethnicity. She was a devoted soccer player. She is an introvert and an observant person; a reader; quiet. She wants a career that helps others. She is a scientist obsessed with the mechanics of the universe. But it is true that she experiences challenges and setbacks that Eleanor does not, due to her race, ethnicity, and cultural connection. For me, her story is all triumph, as she begins to build a life where she lives to make herself happy, while reconciling with a family that is struggling to understand her. It is my only hope for her, for the life after the book ends, that she finds the balance she deserves.
LG: Eleanor and Leena both make major shifts in the final section of the book. In some ways, Leena seems to have taken a few steps closer to Eleanor’s impulsivity while Eleanor has become more restrained and/or practical. Do you see these changes as positives? How would you want readers to interpret the effects these women have had on one another?
EH: I’ve thought about this book past its ending in many ways, but I refuse to put a fine point on what happens to Eleanor and Leena after the story’s close; maybe I’ll never be ready to let them go. The only thing I know for sure is that they’ve helped form the other person, deeply and irrevocably, mostly for good. No matter if they marry or never see each other again, they’ve left their mark. And they’ve helped the other person become who they were meant to be, which I think are less extreme versions of themselves. More balanced. Healthy. And feeling worthy of self-love.
LG: Thanks so much for your time, Emily. Before I let you go, I’m curious if you’re able to share anything about the new book you are working on?
EH: While A World Between deviates from my own life in a radical fashion, it has its roots in my younger, non-married, childless years. It’s about parents and family, but centers romantic love and friendship. The next book is more about the relationship between a mother and daughter, and about long-term commitment, and the effects that motherhood has on one’s life. I have a lot outlined, I have tons of little tidbits, but not a lot yet drafted. I wrote A World Between at a distance from my old life, at the tail end of my fancy-free years. Writing about motherhood with a toddler underfoot––I may need more time to live. Then the writing can commence.