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ELLE (Canada) - - Radar - By Sarah Laing

The de­but

Let’s get this out of the way: Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is only 26, and, yes, Harm­less Like You is her first novel and, in­deed, it’s a stun­ning de­but that would make a writer four times her years proud. And while it’s cer­tainly worth­while to mar­vel at how some­one her age man­aged to ac­cess—and then bring to such vivid life on the page—the depth and nu­ance of hu­man emo­tion, do­ing so might re­duce her story about “sad peo­ple try­ing re­ally hard to be happy” to a nov­elty, and, well, it’s so much more than that. In fact, she says it’s a part of her soul: “These are the best, truest ideas I’ve ever had,” says the Ja­panese Bri­tish Chi­nese Amer­i­can over the phone from the United King­dom, where she’s work­ing on her Ph.D. “It’s a lit­tle scary that your most beau­ti­ful thoughts might not be good enough. I have to keep re­mind­ing my­self that if only three peo­ple like it and are moved by it, then I will have done some­thing.”

And mov­ing it cer­tainly is. The story be­gins with a knock on a door, a son look­ing for the mother who aban­doned him, and then morphs into a sort of emo­tional who­dunit, trac­ing the life of Yuki up to the mo­ment she leaves her child while telling the story of Jay grow­ing up without her.

“Jay was the char­ac­ter I most im­me­di­ately sym­pa­thized with,” says Buchanan, de­spite the fact that she calls him “a dick.” “I am also mixed race and have that sense of not be­long­ing. There’s also a brief men­tion that he’s bi­sex­ual, which I am too. That de­tail some­how freed me from writ­ing this stereo­typ­i­cal char­ac­ter who likes foot­ball and beer and has no feel­ings at all.”

In writ­ing a main char­ac­ter who’s male, Buchanan ac­tu­ally drew on her own ex­pe­ri­ences of read­ing some male au­thors’ de­pic­tions of fe­male char­ac­ters. “They em­pha­size too much that this is a wo­man, like ‘Mary looked at her long fe­male legs,’” she says. “So when I wrote Jay, I tried to think about him as a hu­man first.”

“These are the best, truest ideas I’ve ever had. It’s a lit­tle scary that your most beau­ti­ful thoughts might not be good enough.”

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