Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel Harmless Like You centers on how children inherit identity. It follows Yuki Oyama, a young Japanese artist struggling to make it in America and her son Jay who, as an adult in the present day, must confront his mother’s abandonment. The novel was a New York Times Editor’s Choice and an NPR 2017 Great Read.
THE ASPEN INSTITUTE: How might fiction help us to explore contemporary issues?
ROWAN HISAYO BUCHANAN: Philosophers are, in their own way, fiction writers. Plato’s Cave is a very short story. This is no coincidence. Stories stretch our thinking. Much of the more poisonous rhetoric today seems to come from an unwillingness to feel for others. This makes books, especially books about and by people whose stories are underrepresented, all the more important.
When we leap into a character’s life, we enter a thought experiment. We put ourselves in different life circumstances. We see why actions that at first seem inexplicable are taken. We invest our hopes in the hopes of someone unlike ourselves. And when that character makes mistakes, instead of judging them we can choose to see that bad choices might be the result of a human pushed beyond the person’s capacity to cope.
Certainly, plenty of unkind people have enjoyed novels. But for those who read with a desire to be more empathetic, fiction can provide the training wheels. Fiction opens our minds to problems and dreams very different from our own. And hopefully that can help us treat each other with greater kindness.
Read the full interview with author Roman Hisayo Buchanan about her novel Harmless Like You at The Aspen Institute.
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