An Interview with Katie Kitamura - Believer Magazine

I haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting Katie Kitamura, author of Intimacies, in person—as a result of the pandemic and travel restrictions. This interview was conducted with Katie over email. I’ve long been a reader of her work and she is equally a relentless philosopher of language as she is a pure storyteller—whose sculpted sentences and subtle portraits of individuals haunt us in the most exquisite ways. It is rare for a writer to achieve both, and we should be thankful for Kitamura’s body of work.

Katie Kitamura is the author of Gone to the Forest, The Longshot, and A Separation, which was a finalist for the Premio Gregor von Rezzori and a New York Times Notable Book, translated into sixteen languages. 

Her latest, Intimacies, is a stark yet sensual exploration of what we think we know of those we love, the limitations of language, and the multiplicity of truth. Beneath the surface, it’s also a brilliant investigation into the nature of writing.

Darley Stewart

THE BELIEVER: I’d love to talk about how dialogue is handled in Intimacies. Visually it is muted—no quotation marks to set it apart from ordinary text. I know this isn’t anything new and that many authors choose to do this with dialogue.

But it got me thinking that this introduces a form of “intimacy”—because it requires much closer attention from the reader. At the same time, it can intentionally create an ambiguity that needs to be pulled apart (at times). From this one stylistic decision, bigger thematic questions come to mind. 

Is intimacy—whether linguistic, moral, or interpersonal—a form of ambiguity that can’t always be resolved? 

KATIE KITAMURA: Everything is through the perspective of the narrator, everything passes through the filter of her consciousness, including dialogue, much of which is reported. That introduces a level of unreliability, and that ambiguity that you mention. I wanted the unreliability of the first-person narration to show itself in a relatively subtle, but consistently destabilizing, way. 

The question of intimacy and ambiguity is an interesting one. A lot of the novel is about a person who is struggling with perspective—how to achieve it and how to maintain it. She’s often too close to the matter at hand to really understand it. And that closeness is, of course, a kind of intimacy. Her unreliability is a result of that over proximity.

BLVR: I knew that I was jumping into a first-person narrative, but I didn’t really feel the first-person impact until later on, about 40 pages in. There is a transparent or invisible quality about the narrator that I think is vital to the story. I’m not sure what clicked that into place for me. Maybe it was when another character was judging her—or when Adriaan touches her—that I suddenly felt tethered to a first-person point of view.

Our (unnamed) narrator has a talent for reading into the people around her—their conflicting desires and intentions, the delicate subtleties in their body language. But when she is faced with emotions that take her out of her comfort zone, she’s often very uncertain of how to read people. It’s interesting to see her handle her work as an interpreter so efficiently, but also to have such difficulty knowing how to “interpret” the people in her personal life—especially Adriaan’s romantic intentions.

What do you think about this juxtaposition? 

KK: I think of her as someone who reads people relatively well, but is also acutely aware of how perception is constructed. She knows that the way we understand people is shaped by the context in which we meet or see them, and that it’s very hard to have a so called ‘pure’ encounter with any person. 

I don’t think she’s necessarily interpreting people badly. If anything, she’s interpreting people too closely, she’s too attuned to the minute shifts in a person’s behavior, the minor and major inconsistencies that mark everyone.

BLVR: What were your first explorations on the page like when you were creating your narrator? Did you have a strong sense of who she was right from the start? 

KK: I had a very strong sense of her voice and her occupation, and the rest followed from there. I don’t remember having to do too much on the page to find that voice. I also had a clear sense of how she would react to different characters and situations. For me the hardest part is often the connective tissue, the moments when the narrative pulls back and underlines an emotional through line. I don’t edit the in-scene passages that much; all the editing is spent on these interstitial sections.

BLVR: Experiencing emotions through a female lens still feels radical to me for a novel. Our world still feels so shaped by men and the masculine point of view, our literary world included.

Speaking of which, I didn’t expect Adriaan to come back. I was judging him pretty hard through the novel (from a purely indulgent reader’s perspective).

It was so interesting to see how the narrator doesn’t put herself first in her romantic life and invites vulnerability—by being so intimate with a man who hasn’t yet dissolved his marriage. It makes you think a lot about the relationship between rootlessness, empathy, and self-generated suffering. She’s caught up in such unsettling, complex situations. As a reader, you might think that with a career like hers, she’d choose to simplify her personal life. 

But our narrator continues to press herself into difficult situations—I often found myself asking “Why don’t you just leave the party, or why don’t you just excuse yourself from this situation?” I felt protective of her and frustrated with her, depending on the situation. 

She’s often surrounded by men with subtly coercive, manipulative intentions—both at work and in her personal life. 

KK: I’m always interested in characters who behave in ways that seem irrational, or incomprehensible—in part because that’s more fruitful territory for fiction, and in part because in my experience, that is how people actually behave. People are rarely completely rational, and they behave in ways that defy both logic and expectation.

Vulnerability is something that I think about a lot—the central characters I write are very vulnerable both emotionally and in more literal ways. They’re occupying positions of relative precarity within the larger social structure (the narrator in Intimacies is on a temporary contract, and living in temporary housing). But their emotional vulnerability expresses itself through their guardedness, the various defense mechanisms that they put in place.

With this novel, I wanted to write a character who was trying to overcome that natural guardedness and caution, and step forward—into her life, possibly into a relationship. 

People have a very strong reaction to Adriaan—but it was important to me that, from another perspective, his behavior would scan very differently. From the point of view that dominates the novel, he disappears without explanation, leaving the narrator in a state of almost unbearable limbo. But from another angle, he’s a man in the final stages of a long and complicated marriage. He’s in the very early stages of a new relationship, and he’s taking a step back while he tries to figure out what is best for his children.

This perhaps relates to the schism that the narrator observes in a Judith Leyster painting. She notes that the tension of the image is in the fact that there are two versions of what is taking place, two points of view. For me, their relationship is a little bit like that. The narrator has the imagination to see that—imagination that, she notes, is both a strength and weakness.

BLVR: How lonely is our narrator?

KK: Quite!

BLVR: It wasn’t until later in the novel that I felt that her decisions were driven in part by loneliness, a specific female loneliness as well. I empathized with her newness to the city, with her feeling of rootlessness. When you don’t have a place to call home anymore, your identity searches for almost any entry point into social belonging, love, intimacy—or anything even approximating it. 

I love the scene at the museum, Jana’s opening exhibition at the Mauritshuis, “Slow Food.” It got me laughing, of course (because it reminded me of New York and how so many people don’t look carefully at the paintings when they’re at openings). I’m obsessed with Golden Age paintings, so I was drawn in right away. I also thought about Gadamer’s concept of simultaneity, as you wrote about the temporal blurring in these paintings, and how different they are from modern photography.

But most of all, I’m interested in what our narrator says: that only a woman could have painted the image “The Proposition.” That only a woman could have shown these two irreconcilable subjective positions. And I think that this approaches the heart of the novel – looking at irreconcilable positions from a uniquely feminine perspective. 

Why did you introduce this scene? Is art mirroring the Court here? Why this painting?

KK: I always knew that I wanted this museum scene in the middle of the novel, as a hinge between the two halves of the book. In this scene, the novel moves away from the central setting of the Court. There’s a certain amount of playfulness that’s a little harder to do in some of the other scenes. I enjoy writing about art, and here I let myself write about existing as well as fictional pieces.

In this scene, I wanted to put art into its full context—the context of institutions and gatekeepers, the questions of who is allowed in the room and who is kept out. There can be a tendency to think about a work of art in isolation, as if it exists without context. But of course it doesn’t, and the scene is about the institution of the museum as much as it is about the individual art works.

There are not that many paintings by women in the Mauritshuis, and Judith Leyster was an exceptional artist in multiple senses of the word. The painting—The Proposition—is to me quite a mysterious image because it captures two contradictory points of view. As you say, that’s at the heart of the novel. The narrator is constantly aware of the multiple perspectives from which a single object, or incident, or person can be considered. That’s both a gift and a difficulty for her. She often finds herself all too permeable to multiplicity, whereas the male characters who surround her possess, I think, all too much certainty. 


BLVR: Yes. 

You write, “Her voice remained low and firm. She spoke with great deliberation, so that each word was like a link in a chain and the entire thing held fast, even as it moved across languages.”

I was blown away by this description of language as an unbreakable chain. And yet our narrator feels that the word “I” is not enough, as she interprets the victim’s story for the court. That the “I” belonged to the victim/survivor, and her alone.

There’s a creeping sense that we don’t have sufficient language to transmit truth, and too much language available to obscure it.

KK: I think this is so much a part of writing. You get to experience the tensile strength of language. That’s part of the exhilaration of writing. But you can also have the sense that your words aren’t transmitting meaning exactly as you want them to. And you can feel that language is doing too much—I’m very aware as a writer of the ways you can rely on style, on metaphor, on rhythm, to obfuscate a sentence that isn’t solid on the level of meaning. 

In that particular scene, I wanted to try to evoke the sense of language growing gummy, too elastic, of words losing their meaning and their constituent integrity. It’s quite specific to what is happening in that scene, but I think it’s informed by my own sense of what it means to write. Without question, my interest in writing interpreters and translators at least in part derives from my desire to think about writing.

BLVR: You write, on page 176, “Over the course of those long hours in the booth, I sometimes had the unpleasant sensation that of all the people in the room below, of all the people in the city itself, the former president was the person I knew best.”

This sentence destroyed me. 

I didn’t expect our narrator to get to this point of permeability. It’s such a painful statement—to think that she’s been placed, against her will, inside a point of view or even a bodily experience that she doesn’t want to inhabit. I didn’t think she’d get to the point where she would feel relieved as the Court moved in his favor and upset when the Court was against him. I didn’t think that her empathy would ever extend to him. I’m not sure I’d even call that experience empathy. It’s more like an invasion of her conscience. 

The former president is someone who doesn’t even value his defense team because he sees them as expendable. Your portrait of him is unusual and intriguing—and feels accurate to the nature of evil. 

The victim enters and prepares to give her testimony, and the former president is completely immune to the prevailing mood of the courtroom—the muffled gravity and emotional restraint. His defiance provokes physical disgust in our narrator.

All this makes our narrator even more deeply human to me. And it speaks to the dark charisma at the heart of someone who has committed unspeakable crimes against humanity. 

I found these scenes so compelling.

KK: One of the things I was interested in thinking about in this novel was the limitations of empathy. We—and in particular women—are told and expected to foster empathy. But I think that rather flattens out our understanding of what empathy really is, and the many ways it can function. In these scenes, the narrator’s impulse toward empathy is invasive—as you say, it puts her in a morally dubious position that is impossible to sustain. I think invasive is exactly the right word. It undoes the boundaries around her person, boundaries that she has had to work quite hard to erect and maintain. It exposes her.

BLVR: You write, on page 121: “…he wished for someone to be present during those long hours, someone who would not insist on examining the actions of his past, from which there could no longer be any escape. And I realized that for him I was pure instrument, someone without will or judgment, a consciousness-free zone into which he could escape, the only company he could now bear.”

I thought this passage was very provocative—presenting an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between language and moral accountability. Our narrator sees herself as someone who is enforcing linguistic borders, so that there is “no escape route between languages.” But the former president accused of war crimes sees her precisely as an escape route—away from words and their accompanying realities, such as “perpetrator” and “ethnic cleansing.” 

It’s disquieting that the more she translates and interprets, the reality of his crimes recedes. No one around her speaks in terms as bold and plain as innocence and guilt. 

Everything is about degrees, framing, and context.

KK: That’s all so beautifully expressed. I was hoping to explore some of the knotted complexity around language, morality, and institutions. 

The narrator thinks of herself as a cog in the machine, as an instrument without individual volition. 

BLVR: Yes. And the lawyers see her as a kind of experimental subject, too. While they are concerned with the technicalities, they observe her responses as a reminder of the volatility of feelings and “what the emotional effect of the evidence” will likely be. It’s insulting that they would choose a woman to fulfill this function of the role, and it’s sexist – but our narrator is also gifted in exactly the ways they expect.

The moral numbness of the lawyers and the towering, yet banal evil of the former president are contrasted against our narrator’s sensitivities and dedication to the moral nuances of her job. She ultimately decides that she doesn’t have the “temperament” for the work.

And yet she, like the other interpreters, are the ones who can see firsthand how moral uncertainty spreads through the narrative of the trial, “blooming like mold”—in direct contrast to the journalists who absorb fragments and assemble them into “a story with the appearance of unity.” The interpreters see the real stuff: the mutability of truth. And they track truth’s journey.

In front of the former president, our narrator possesses equanimity—but she has just enough emotion that rises to the surface for the lawyers to base their calculations on. And she has access to most of the disquieting, messy truths that emerge during the trial—yet the story and the outcome are ultimately taken out of her hands. There’s something so tragic about this. 

We, as readers, are given the true intimacy of her truths throughout this process.

KK: She’s a channel that language passes through. But language leaves a trace, and throughout she is speaking the words of other people. Words are literally being put in her mouth. That creates all kinds of complexities for her that are both psychological and moral in character. In the end, she no longer believes in her objectivity, and is no longer able to think of herself as a perfectly attuned, neutral instrument. Put another way, she emerges to herself as fully human.

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