Chosen Family: An Interview with Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

By Spencer Quong April 9, 2020

The first moments in Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days are quiet. Mina, a thirty-two-year-old classicist, is walking along the George Washington Bridge on a humid summer evening. She feels the bridge shudder in the wind. She looks past Manhattan’s skyscrapers and imagines her husband, Oscar, working at home in Brooklyn. It’s not apparent to the reader why she’s here—perhaps Mina herself is uncertain—but then she looks at the river, and remembers what people say about jumping: “When a body fell onto water from this height, it was like hitting a sidewalk.” She gently tosses one of her flip-flops over the edge, before a policeman interrupts the scene. From these first careful sentences, Buchanan sets the tone of the novel, the proximity of its narration. Starling Days is as immediate, changeable, and surprising as real life.

Mina and Oscar are young, recently married, and coping with an intensification of Mina’s depression. Alternating between their points of view, Buchanan maps their attempt to find the key to Mina’s suffering. But despite their intimate knowledge of each other, their shared histories and identities, and their most tender efforts to bring about change (they temporarily move to London early on in the story) many of Mina’s emotions remain impenetrable. When Mina is hospitalized after an overdose attempt, Oscar attends to her: “For the whole visiting hour, his face was twisted with confusion. ‘Why did you do this?’ he’d asked. But she couldn’t point and go, There, that. That’s what’s wrong with me.” The dynamic of this scene replicates itself throughout the novel—the effort to make sense of the inexplicable, the ensuing confusion, the twisted face.

In the darkest moments of this cycle, Starling Days is heartbreaking to read, and yet, most days, I closed the book with immense gratitude for its refusal to pathologize family history or identity. It feels rare—in both literature and in our world—to sit with sadness and allow it to be unruly. Buchanan proves that to recognize that some sadness is unalterable is not necessarily a melodramatic plunge into despair. Strange, enduring sadness has a mirror: small, repeated gestures of survival. In the hospital, Oscar is still looking at Mina, and inviting her to try. 

Rowan and I first spoke via Skype, but our conversation spilled into emails and messages in the weeks that followed. We spoke about choosing to hold on, and about the literature that helps us do so. 

INTERVIEWER

Where did Starling Days begin?

HISAYO BUCHANAN

Maybe books are the record of everything I’ve been fascinated with for several years. I could say Starling Days began in several places and they would all be true.

As a writer, I’m often thinking about how much language we have. In contemporary culture, there are so many words we can use to describe our identity. I could tell you that that I’m mixed race, that I’m dyslexic, that I’m bisexual, on and on. Each word describes something true and important about me. At the same time, no words quite describe the feeling I get when I see a bird take off from a tree that I previously thought was empty. It’s odd to be simultaneously overwhelmed by language and also to find it inadequate.

As I tried to find ways to talk about mental health, often the language around it felt like a way of silencing the experience. A particular phrase stuck out to me: “You have to love yourself, before you ask someone else to love you.” It felt both true and very untrue. It’s extremely hard to conduct a relationship—romantic or otherwise—with someone consumed by their suffering, and yet it’s unfair to expect someone to feel able to love themselves if they’re not receiving any love.

Novels and fiction are a way of examining something I don’t fully understand, so I wanted to write about a couple where one person is struggling with their mental health, and show both sides of the relationship. Although the things that happen to Oscar and Mina are not the things that happened to me, I have loved and cared about people who’ve experienced severe mental health challenges and, when I was a teenager, I experienced very serious depression. I felt able to think about both sides, and invested in thinking about both sides.

INTERVIEWER

The novel is written in the close third person, alternating between Mina’s and Oscar’s points of view. Did you start writing from both perspectives early on? Or did one character arrive sooner than the other?

HISAYO BUCHANAN

The setup of the first chapter was there from the beginning—the moment with Mina walking on the bridge, the police taking her in because they are worried she might jump, and then the switch of perspective to Oscar picking her up.

That was the one thing I did take from my life. I was once picked up on the George Washington Bridge by the police. I hadn’t thought I was going to jump. I was just walking and thinking about the things I went through when I was a teenager, and I was trying to find the feeling of wanting to be alive. And so when I was picked up, it was very frightening. I suddenly went from being a person who had agency, to being a person who had not broken any law but who was in a police car. My best friend had to come to pick me up and sign the document that says, I’ll be responsible for you. It was fine, ultimately, but that night really stuck with me. I started to think about the other people who were picked up and needed to call someone. What happens if the person you call is your husband? What happens if they take the document—the taking responsibility for you—literally? What would that mean for a relationship?

INTERVIEWER

Your first book, Harmless Like You, is also about a pair, a mother and a son. How do you view the two books—and their subjects—in relation to one another?

HISAYO BUCHANAN

Harmless Like You is about family. It’s about a mother who leaves her son. And however you feel about her choice by the end of the novel, I did want the reader to understand how she felt and why she made the choice. Her choice was in the context of a world where mothers are supposed to stay with their children.

In Starling Days I was thinking about the opposite. What happens if you can leave? Divorce is hard, but these days, in Britain and America, people understand that you can break up with someone. And so what happens if you’re trying to hold on? I wanted to take a young couple’s relationship and treat it as seriously, treat the repercussions of the desire as seriously, as you would for the relationships in a family.

We talk about chosen family—family is hard. What happens when you choose? What does that mean? If we believe the relationship between a mother and a son cannot be destroyed, even if one of them leaves, it’s still a powerful connection, then what does it mean to make that kind of connection from scratch?

INTERVIEWER

Earlier, you mentioned the perils of having too much language, or too little. And it seems one of the times we deal with these perils is precisely when attempting to build romantic connections. Mina is often acutely aware of the limits of language in her relationship, of its failure to communicate what she means or feels. During a phone call with Oscar, she reflects, “The more they said ‘okay,’ the more the word deformed. The inflated, sounding top-heavy.” I wonder where you, as a writer, experience the limits of language as a tool. How do you persist in your craft, in spite of its limitations?

HISAYO BUCHANAN

It’s strange. No one I know loves words more than writers, and no one I know is more frustrated by words than writers. If something is easy to say or write, that is what we do. But so much of what we think and feel is sharp and vivid, confined to our skulls, and when we say it aloud it comes out drab and faded. People nod, but the essence of the feeling has been lost.

I often feel unable to communicate. My words seem to lose their depth and shine on the way out of my mouth. I am always aware of the limits. But one of the great gifts and challenges of fiction writing is that it is a way of trying to cast a spell and summon those feelings and thoughts up for another person via plot, character, language, rhythm. To do this is hard work and often it is only partially successful. But I think it is the only way I know to really talk about what it means to be alive.

INTERVIEWER

I’m also curious about the different ways Mina and Oscar harm and betray each other at various stages of the novel. There’s a scene in a flower market, where Mina and Oscar are arguing. He half-catches himself, “It wasn’t fair. She had a mental illness. You shouldn’t yell at someone who was sick. Except you did.” There are more obvious betrayals in the book, too, but the brief, fleeting conflicts—the daily harms in relationships—feel important.

HISAYO BUCHANAN

It was important to me to talk about the ways in which very understandable behavior—something that makes sense in the context of what you’re going through—still has repercussions.

It makes sense that Oscar is overwhelmed and so needs to take space. It makes sense that Mina is reaching out for anything that might be positive—even if that is pursuing another woman—because everyone’s telling her she has to find a way to be happy. But that still has repercussions. Your behavior can be both understandable and hurtful. When we talk about mental health, it’s often about the one person who has a diagnosis. But your behavior and feelings have an effect on the people around you—friends, family members, possibly even coworkers. It’s a system—a person’s health doesn’t exist in isolation.

INTERVIEWER

Mina is not in therapy during the novel, but she alludes to her past experiences, and comments on the apparent commonness of seeing a therapist, at least within her circle of friends. I remember laughing when I read, “She’d lost count of the times one of her New York friends began sentence, ‘So my therapist says.’” It almost makes me feel more hopeless to imagine us all trying, over and over, to make sense of ourselves in these tiny offices around the world. I want to borrow Mina’s words: “Mapping your emotions was easy, it was cutting a new path that felt impossible.” Is there hope? Did writing this book help cut new paths in your thinking about your emotions?

HISAYO BUCHANAN

One of the things I realized as I was writing is there are seemingly endless possible explanations for our struggles. Thinking about my own life, I often spend so long thinking about why something happened that it leaves little energy to think about what to do next. You can get so caught up in the mapping that it becomes hard to move.

For Mina, part of what she needs to see is that she is not the only one who is flawed, and that Oscar is struggling, too. This realization isn’t going to fix her, but at the same time, always thinking, “I’m broken in this way or in this way or in this way” had prevented her from seeing, “This other person needs me and maybe I can help them.” There needs to be a balance.

The challenge is to not dismiss your own emotions and to not be consumed by them. One of the things I wanted the book to do is show that they’re juggling these whole lives beyond Mina’s suicidal ideation. Mina wants to pursue her academic career, Oscar wants to impress his father, and build a stable family.

INTERVIEWER

There are things to do besides mapping your own emotions.

HISAYO BUCHANAN

There are, and you can still be worthwhile even if you are in some way flawed or struggling. You still have something to give to the world.

INTERVIEWER

Sometimes the mapping is terrifying though. Returning to the opening scene, when Mina is on the George Washington bridge, she tosses one of her flip-flops over the railing—this is why the police officer takes her aside. And later she tries to explain to Oscar, “I was reading about that actor who jumped off and I just wanted to see it. The bridge, I mean.” I do understand that impulse to look closely, but to do so is precarious. This novel in general sets out to draw closely to sadness, to learn its “floor plan”—to borrow more of Mina’s language. But how do you write about a thing like the intense spirals of depression, suicidal ideation, without reproducing its harm?

HISAYO BUCHANAN

To some extent every reader will have to decide. But for me there is something useful about, even in fiction, describing a version of the world that feels true, that feels as flawed as the world is, with people who are as flawed as they are, but that also has the joys and the beauties that are in the world. To be silent or to give a simplified version of those things is a greater risk. I know that when I have struggled with something, whether it’s training my dog or a deep emotional issue, when I go to read fiction or to my own writing, what I want is not perfect people, but people who’ve been through something or who’ve tried to think about a thing I’ve tried to think about. Otherwise, I’m completely alone with it.

I wanted to read this and not feel alone. Especially because I think there is still a lot of stigma. It might be more acceptable to say, “Oh I have this diagnosis.” But there’s a desire to have the Starbucks ad version of your diagnosis: “I have this, but I’m fine and I’m a very functioning member of society and I never do anything wrong.”

At the same time, while I didn’t want either Mina or Oscar to be perfect, I didn’t want anyone to think the worst things Mina said to herself were what I, the author, thought about them, the reader. The things Mina says to herself are some of the harshest things you could imagine. That is part of the reason I included an author’s note at the end. I tried to be as truthful as I could, but I wanted to reiterate that the book really doesn’t believe that there is a single answer for everybody. And it did feel worth it to come out of the fiction writer’s sacred room. I started to think, worst case scenario, what would it be like if someone reads my book and thinks, Yes I am Mina, or, Yes I am Oscar, or even worse, I’m worse than MinaWhat do I do? Is this book telling me that my choices are wrong? I was concerned that some readers would feel that that note was more than they needed, that they would feel it was obvious, but I felt that in the end it was my job to be there for the more vulnerable reader.

INTERVIEWER

I was grateful to find the note at the end of the novel! The gentle reminder that this is just one story of many and that, “Every day you try again is an act of bravery.” Those are kind words to hear—whether or not you feel you need them in that precise moment.

When you described the importance of crafting fiction that feels true, you reminded me of when Mina explains why she first fell in love with studying the classics. Myths, she said, “had felt truer than the tilt of the planet or its long spin around the sun. This world made so much more sense if it was filled with angry, hungry gods.” What is it about fiction or myth that helps you access more reality, more truth?

HISAYO BUCHANAN

All fiction, even the most realist fiction, is this huge act of fantasy. You believe you can be in someone else’s head, or multiple-someone-elses’ heads—as in the case of both my books. But I think it’s also what we all do, even non-writers, as we go about our lives: we try to imagine how all the people around us feel. You have to believe they have an inner reality, and you tell yourself a story about that inner reality and it’s how you connect with them.

When I’m trying to understand someone who is in a very different situation than my own, I might read articles and essays, but I’ll also read fiction. Books will make me think about the relationships between people in my life. I might read a book about a mother and a daughter, and it might make me call my mother. It might make me say, “Hi, I read this. It made me think of you.” Reading and writing present a way to combat the essential aloneness of being a human being. Maybe because the characters feel like you, maybe they share your life situation. But even if they’re not you, you feel less alone, because you are connected to this other story, this other consciousness, the consciousnesses of the characters, and the consciousness of the writer as well.

INTERVIEWER

The novel takes place over the course of only a few months. How did you decide on the scale?

HISAYO BUCHANAN

I wasn’t sure exactly the span of time, but I knew I wanted it to be fairly compact. We were talking about this book versus Harmless Like You, which takes place over decades and attempts to look at this life as a whole. If you take everything that happens to Oscar and Mina in Starling Days and place it in the Harmless Like You timeline, it would probably be two chapters, but I wanted to give this time in their lives a whole novel.

I am roughly Mina and Oscar’s age and, as I started to look around me at the choices people were making, I realized that your thirties are this unique stage. It’s not quite the bildungsroman—you aren’t squishy clay. People in their thirties are already pretty much themselves, they’ve already had a lot happen to them, but they also have a lot of life left. And if you believe in long-term relationships, or equally if you don’t, if you were defining yourself against them, it’s a moment where you’re saying, “This is the set-up in my life. These are the relationships that are important to me.”

Maybe you’ll get divorced, maybe something will change, but it’s a time where you have to actively make choices that you believe will last you for the next decades. Career-wise as well—the book is about their relationship but it’s also about Mina struggling with her job as a classicist, and that’s part of what’s freaking her out—she’s crying while she’s trying to work. And Oscar’s trying to prove he can be the young professional he thinks his father wants him to be. It’s this moment where you’re fighting for the life you will have.

INTERVIEWER

Mina and Oscar do withstand so much together. And the book offers so many beautiful articulations of what love and long-term relationships look like. What did you learn about love in the process of writing this book?

HISAYO BUCHANAN

I was thinking about this as I was writing. The people you love the most become an extension of yourself, and in the ways in which we are both the kindest and go the furthest for ourselves and the people we love, we are also the harshest on ourselves.

If someone who is unimportant to you is rude or boring or tiresome, you’d say, Okay, thank you, and leave. But the moment you choose to not leave, when you say, This person, in some form or another, is permanent. It’s an incredible investment and that investment can bring out the best and the worst of yourself.

That was a big part of thinking about how Mina and Oscar treat each other. I wanted to see what it means to try not the big gesture, but the again and again and again, the small ways, to still be there, to be yourself, to be your kindest self, with all your flaws. With the idea that it’s forever. That is big and beautiful and terrifying.

Our culture generally celebrates work when it comes to your literal job. We know it may be difficult, challenging, and frustrating but we have a model for that struggle. It’s okay, if you believe the work is worthwhile. But as a society, we’re still figuring out how much work is healthy in a relationship. The characters in Starling Days each have their own answer. They have different views on how much you can ask of someone, and how much you can help someone. Writing the book reminded me that everybody has to make that decision for themselves.

Spencer Quong is a writer from the Yukon Territory, Canada. He lives and works in New York.


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