Notes on Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies
BY HEIDI SEABORN
I first encountered Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies, or what would become the hugely acclaimed, National Book Award nominated, on everyone’s must-read fiction list for 2021, novel in a Paris aerie in January 2019. I was in the first year of my NYU low-residency MFA in Poetry. Katie Kitamura is an NYU professor, and part of the program tradition is for faculty to read work-in-progress. On the 8th floor of a building above the Boulevard St. Germain, with students and faculty perched on plastic chairs or the lucky few of us (but weren’t we all lucky to be there at all?) tucked into the few stiff gray wool upholstered sofas, Katie stood before the expanse of windows revealing the Paris skyline—Notre-Dame, the Louvre, the sun setting over Sacré-Cœur. Dressed in clean geometric Japanese style and thick white sneakers, her clothing a photographic matte that framed her beauty—straight black hair angled down her back, red lips, bright, warm eyes. Against that backdrop of all of Paris’s glory, she quietly shone as she read a draft of the first chapter.
It was set in The Hague. I knew The Hague, knew it as Den Haag. I arrived there on a bus at 18. It was the first stop on a European summer student trip with my high school history teacher. Jetlagged from our mid-afternoon arrival in Amsterdam, I needed to get out and walk. So, as soon as our group dinner at our small tourist hotel was over, I snagged my assigned roommate Barb, and we headed out through the labyrinth of yellow-lit streets, guided by salted sea air. As kids from port towns, we sought the familiar. The Atlantic retreated out into the dark night, leaving a hard sand beach. Barb and I sprinted in circles like gulls, burning off travel’s confines, until we spied a pier with a neon-lit tavern. We were two teenage girls half a world away from our parents. Let’s go. I’d never been inside a bar before. Felt the gruff gaze as we entered. The bartender addressed us in Dutch. Heineken, Barb said, holding up two fingers. I remember the cold bottle, the taste of beer slipping down my throat. When we left, I pocketed the Heineken cardboard coaster, a souvenir of the first time I walked into a bar, ordered a beer, of feeling adult.
This memory surfaces again for me upon reading the published Intimacies, when the main character, an unnamed interpreter, seeks out the sea: “I walked instead toward the sea, onto the dunes, I walked until I could see the water and the sound of the tide blocked out the road and the city and the Detention Center and then I sat in the sand. The sun was dipping down slowly toward the water. I took out my phone and called my mother in Singapore.”
A landscape that for me inspired a moment of freedom serves as perhaps the one place of solace and familial connection that seems to “vibrate with possibility” for the main character in Intimacies. Otherwise according to the interpreter, The Hague “was a quiet city, and almost strenuously civilized. But the more time I spent there, the more its air of courtesy, the preserved buildings and manicured parks, imparted a general sense of unease.” A general sense of unease permeates the novel. That the author states it bluntly, attributing it to the setting early in the novel, clues the reader to, like the interpreter, pay close attention to environs. There are other early warnings in the first chapter: a series of police sirens followed by her friend Jana’s urgent request to be cautious. The interpreter hears but fails to heed the warnings, giving way to her inquisitive nature, as one who listens and observes, contextualizing for a living.
The interpreter works in the U.N. International Court of Justice, based on The Hague-based International Criminal Court. She is assigned to translate for a warlord from a fictionalized African nation, whose crimes are unthinkable. The reader is quickly absorbed in the act of shifting language. The interpreter must balance pure translation with creating context, otherwise, “You can be so caught up in the minutiae that you do not necessarily apprehend the sense of the sentences themselves: you literally do not know what you are saying.” The distinction between translation and interpretation is heightened by the severity of the nature of the trials before the Court. “Linguistic accuracy was not enough. Interpretation was a matter of great subtlety.” It scaffolds beyond words to the entirety of communication.
Hearing Katie’s work initially while in France caused my own struggles with language to surface. I had lived in France in college and had returned over and over, although never for long enough to keep my original fluency. But as I studied the new language of poetry, I found the remnants of my French fraying further, as if my brain had only so much capacity for the foreign. In Paris, I listened, my mind translating the conversations around me into the familiar. I could understand but was mute in response. Not unlike when we’d lived in Madrid and my children had quickly assumed the rolling ‘r’s and lisp of Castilian Spanish, while I was traveling too much to suffer through language lessons. Leaving my children to translate for me, and for me to learn what I’ve come to call ‘situational translation’ or the ability to read and respond based on context. I realize now, it was my own low form of interpretation.
While fluent in many languages, the interpreter arrives in the Netherlands not knowing Dutch. She listens to the Dutch all around her “in a restaurant or café, on the tram” and eventually the language is absorbed; she shifts from being “in a cloud of unknowing, the speech around [her] impenetrable” to beginning to understand, and in that understanding to “[stumble] into situations more intimate than [she] would have liked, the city…no longer the innocent place it had been when [she] arrived.” In this novel, as in life, language erects and destroys its own set of barriers to intimacy. And so, Intimacies creates a dance between the elements of relationship—those that knit us tighter, and those that push us apart.
In July 2019, we are back in Paris for another residency. Again, Katie reads from her novel-in-progress. This time, from what she calls the ‘party scene.’ As she reads, I remember a similar party in The Hague—the swirl of political and power figures. Decades after my post-high school trip to Europe, I became a business executive living and working in Europe. When I decided to move the Dutch subsidiary of the business I ran from Amsterdam to Den Haag—our work being political—I traveled there for the office opening party. Like the interpreter, I knew no one other than the new Managing Director I’d hired. A proficient, handsome man. Not unlike Adriaan, who will become the interpreter’s lover. I remember watching my new office head work the room. Remember thinking, who is he? What do I really know about him? What do we ever really know about the people we work with? Was he married? Did he have children?
I know that Katie is married. I know her husband, the acclaimed writer Hari Kunzru, as he’s also an NYU professor. They make up one of a couple of power couples in the NYU faculty, including poet Nick Laird and Zadie Smith. The coupling of star literary talent creates an even brighter constellation. I also know Katie and Hari have children. In January 2020, I’m staying at a hotel off Rue Saint-Sulpice for the residency. Every morning, I walk past the flower market, the bright pink and purple hyacinths perfuming the crisp morning air, to the Maison Mulot patisserie for a café au lait and a croissant.
One morning as I wait for my order, Katie arrives with a stroller and her two small children. I had woken that morning disoriented from a poor night of sleep. Or prolonged lack of sleep. A lifetime insomniac, I had tried the night before to forgo Ambien, worried it was losing its potency. Katie and I chat about her children, the weather, and the wonderful food market down the street. To run into someone familiar away from home feels rooting. As if Katie, Hari, their children are my neighbors (which I guess they are for the moment).
The interpreter in Intimacies is untethered. She grew up all over, she’s left New York not for the job in the Hague, but to flee the city where her father recently died. There is a temporal cloud over her existence. Her flat is a space “designed to be both temporary and impersonal.” She’s on a one-year contract and throughout much of the novel concerns herself with what will happen at the end of the year. Looking back, I enjoy the irony of finding familiar comfort in the casual encounter that morning in the patisserie with the creator of this character, a character that in that moment I felt in my bones.
Before I became a poet, I had a career in global business. I assert the word “global” to shorthand that I travelled often and far for my work, that I lived abroad. I was always in motion, travelling nearly every work week. Even with a home and a family to return to, I understand the interpreter’s sense of rootlessness, the interim nature of her life. And how easily one can slip into the role of outside observer. It is what the interpreter sees because she is an outsider that propels thethrilling narrative of Intimacies. Even when the main character moves into Adriaan’s home, her perspective is remote. She lives with his shadow, the things that make a space, a home—books, photographs, kitchen gadgets, the artifacts of a life—all observed, distant.
Being homebound during the pandemic, I’ve come to look at my inhabited space differently and what I’ve chosen to surround myself with—the collected detritus of all the places I have lived. These should be personal touchpoints, imbued by memory. But after spending so much time in the familiar, it’s become foreign. The objects gathered during my life from all over the world now appear like props on a set.
For the interpreter, Adriaan quickly becomes the locus of her life in The Hague. She has made a few friends; her job is interesting but extremely taxing. “Adriaan was the reason why I wanted to stay in The Hague…though I was embarrassed to admit this even to myself—I did not like to think of myself as a woman who made decisions in this way, for a man.” When I read this sentence, I felt seen. Seen in the admission of vulnerability. I was raised to make my own way—to carve out a career, be self-sufficient, independent in all ways. And I have achieved that. Yet over and over throughout my life, I made decisions based on a fragile love, or to be honest, a sense of need. It was only when I was older than the interpreter that I began to make decisions based on a more powerful love. Which is to say that despite being considered an independent spirit, I am anything but. For the interpreter, she has chosen to set her compass to a man that is as alien, complicated, and mysterious as everything around her.
I am signing copies of my new poetry collection at Island Books in my hometown of Mercer Island. My mother, who once worked at the bookstore and still lives nearby, is with me. When done, we peruse the shelves. I am looking for something to read on my upcoming book tour. I had heard that Katie’s book was coming out, did they have it, I ask? No, it turns out Intimacies is due next week, but I order one anyway for my mother. And buy two copies the next week when I’m signing books at the Strand in New York.
I leave one copy of Intimacies as a gift for my friend who had lent me the use of her flat in New York, saving the other to read on the flight home. Savoring the familiar passages I’d heard Katie read aloud, imagining her voice, how she gently pressed the black curtain of hair away from her face. I wonder how much that foreknowledge of the book layers my response. But as I devour the novel, I realize how little I know of the story, its mysteries unfolding page by page. I finish before the landing gear drops. But the weight of the characters and story stay with me as I deplane and even now, months later. Taken as a whole, the mastery of Katie Kitamura is evident. The rave reviews, the award nods that follow the publication of Intimacies unsurprising.
Unless you’re my mother. It’s very well written, but I’m not sure it is for me, she offers. I pass along the glowing reviews, add my own swollen words. It’s not the first time we’ve disagreed on a book. But this schism in taste gnaws at me. It leads me to think more intentionally about my mother. She too is a traveler. Even more than me. She is someone who lives in the world. Someone who I think understands dislocation. Understanding is at the heart of this novel. The interpreter says at one point, “I said only this: I understand. I could understand anything, under the right circumstances and for the right person.”
Then finally I understand how different my mother and I are in some ways. That she has known great love and intimacy with my father, has lived in one place for most of her life, and so she seeks out the unfamiliar, desires dislocation. Whereas I have largely lived a life of impermanence and like the interpreter seek stability and intimacy. Toward the end of the novel, the interpreter has a brief encounter in a Chinese restaurant that triggers a desire to go home. “I thought—I want to go home. I want to be in a place that feels like home. Where that was, I did not know.” After decades of moving, of movement, I arrived back in my hometown. Like the interpreter, it was for a job, but it was the place I grew up in, where my family lived. I had already come to know by that time that home is not a house or city or a place, it is the people you come home to. When I married again, I married the man that has become my home.
Central to Intimacies is the burden of knowing. The interpreter must live with what she hears and sees, the weight of crimes and secrets. She becomes complicit in the retelling of the warlord’s horrors. And so too does the reader. By writing in first person and present tense, the author ensures that the reader lives within the mind and routine of the interpreter. This helps drive the steady dis-ease throughout the novel. Relief and distance achieved only because the interpreter is an observer by nature and a witness by circumstance. Nonetheless, we come to know the ugly truths secreted away by various characters in Intimacies. We are unable to turn away from her knowing. And our own.
And maybe this too is a distinction between my mother and me. I think about how my mother can turn away from the dark, to unknow the ugly. She can live in the buoyed optimism of the moment. And yes, I admire that, even as I return again and again to examine my own scarred past through my writing. And through the reading of Intimacies—to retrace steps I’ve taken on the gray stone streets of The Hague under a raining sky, to remember what it’s like to leave the glow of a party, to return to unadorned, temporary rooms, or to await a married lover. I live with the consequences of knowing.
And the knowledge of literary construction. Having the benefit of taking craft talks with Katie and other NYU faculty, I think a lot about the choices made with point of view and tense, some of the tools we writers employ to control intimacy and distance. Katie’s last book, A Separation, also examines proximity and knowing through language. And it too is written in first person. Yet, as the distinction between the titles suggest, there is a broad range of achievement that a writer of Katie’s caliber can employ with tense and point of view. In A Separation, the narrator’s distance and separation collapse. In Intimacies, the interpreter can create distance and through that discover greater self-awareness. And while I’m talking about craft cleverness, it’s critical to note that the author has chosen to cloak the name and identity of her main character. With this stylistic twist, the reader is as destabilized as the interpreter. We see her world through her eyes with an immediacy, and yet we don’t know what she looks like or her ethnicity until later in the novel. We never know her name.
There is a secondary storyline that runs through Intimacies that involves an antique bookseller Anton who is assaulted when he is somewhere he shouldn’t be with someone he shouldn’t be with, his married lover. In one scene, over dinner with his twin sister and the interpreter, Anton claims that his severe concussion has clouded his memory of the assault. Neither the sister, Eline, or the interpreter fully believe him. But the interpreter sees that between the siblings, it doesn’t matter. “For all their bickering and all the secrets between them, they shared an air of intimate collusion, of things implied and understood.” Once again, the word “understood.” And as the interpreter traffics in words, as I do as a writer, I turn that word over in my mind then look it up in my hefty Oxford Dictionary. It’s all there: comprehension, the power of intellect, perception, judgment, unspoken agreement, to be sympathetically aware of others’ feelings: tolerant and forgiving, to perceive meaning.
The best poems, stories, essays, and novels expand our understanding of ourselves, the world we live in, and others. They bring greater depth and meaning to our own lives. In Intimacies, through the narrative of a single, unimportant woman, Katie Kitamura accomplishes these lofty goals and, through my own interpretation, has brought me to a greater understanding of myself and the people I call home.