- PERFORMING EMOTION: Katie Kitamura's latest novel, "A Separation," depicts an unnamed narrator in Greece's Mani Peninsula grappling with the terms of her dissolved marriage. Kitamura speaks about the novel Saturday evening as part of the 2017 Arkansas Literary Festival.
Over 70 authors, illustrators and humorists land in Little Rock this weekend for the 14th annual Arkansas Literary Festival, a project of the Central Arkansas Library System. If you're a bookworm, you were likely delighted by the breadth of this year's lineup: decorated writers like Deb Amlen, who writes the crossword blog for The New York Times; stand-up comedian Todd Barry ("Louie," "The Larry Sanders Show"); quantum physicist Dominic Wallman ("Professor Astrocat's Atomic Adventure"); Natalie Baszile, author of "Queen Sugar," adapted for television by writer and director Ava DuVernay; Therese Anne Fowler, author of "Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald"; and Arkansas-based authors like Ragan Sutterfield, Wendell Griffen, Kevin Delaney, Hussein Hussein, Trenton Lee Stewart, Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers, Rex Nelson, Celia Anderson, Michael Hibblen and others. The festival connects the public with workshops, signings, presentations and panel sessions on everything from meal plans to magical realism to military history, and nearly all of the sessions are free to attend.
I talked with one of this year's featured authors, Katie Kitamura, art critic for Frieze and Contemporary Magazine, whose novels "Gone to the Forest" and "The Longshot" were both in the running for the New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award, and who joins author Kevin Wilson ("Perfect Little World," "The Family Fang") for a talk Saturday, April 29, at CALS' Main Library Darragh Center, 5:30 p.m.
Your most recent work, "A Separation," is set in a part of Greece in which you yourself spent time, specifically time spent coming to terms with the fact that your father was very ill. Can you talk about why you went there, and how those associations you had with the region may have informed your work?
My father had been very sick, and I had accepted that he wasn't going to get better, which is very distinct from accepting that he was going to die. So I had this sense of dread and anticipatory grief while I was there, and it was not located in the narrative, or in the story at all. That was all really in the landscape. I have very distinct memories of being there, and it's got a really striking landscape, as I'm sure you can imagine. And when I got back home, I had this very distinct sense of a story waiting to happen, of a drama waiting to emerge, and I had to let that sit for a while until I found a character that could match that in some way. Once I found that character, I tried to find the story that would match that character, so it really all did come from that landscape in that part of Greece.
You are an art critic, and maybe for that reason, I took a third and fourth look at the art for the hardcover version of "A Separation," whose cool blue strokes against the fiery reds and oranges gain meaning after the reader becomes privy to the story — the narrator's cool demeanor intermingling with all the fires raging in the part of Greece where she lands. Did you have a hand in the art?
I didn't at all. I was kind of shown what was more or less a final version of that cover, and I think there were a lot of internal discussions. You know, Riverhead, the publisher, has this incredible art direction team. And there are requirements that are very specific to book design; they have their own aesthetic, but they also have quite a few practical demands and constraints that must make for a challenge. So, in a way, I think that maybe mixing in the author's ideas of what they put on the cover is maybe not that helpful, but I was absolutely delighted when I saw it. I was keen to have a cover that would rely on text, and that would be relatively abstract. It's a really smart cover.
The book's narrator has alternately been described as "cold," "taut," "observant," noting her restraint in times when the reader might feel she should be emotional and demonstrative — when she reaches her missing husband's hotel in Greece and hears that his belongings were left in disarray, for example. It is as if the passivity she says she loves about being a translator has seeped into her psyche. She interprets the events and landscapes that surround her, but does not directly experience them.
I think the important thing about the character is that she's in some state of grief, almost in a state of trauma when she arrives there. People and characters are constantly changing in the way that we interpret and react to situations, and when she arrives in Greece, she believes that she has moved on from the problems and the kind of break-up of her marriage, so she doesn't allow herself to have this kind of emotional engagement in what is happening. Then, of course, that's not really the case, and her grief kind of comes up and takes her by surprise.
There are some gender expectations at play, too. The narrator does not grieve in the way that society often expects women, specifically, to grieve.
I think women's emotions are monitored so carefully by society, and there's this kind of pseudomedical term for it. You know, if you have too much emotion, you are "hysterical," if you have too little emotion, then you're frigid. In his last book ["White Tears"], my husband [Hari Kunzru, who will also be at the Arkansas Literary Festival] had a character that was loosely based on this English couple, and their 4-year-old daughter is kidnapped while they're on holiday in Portugal. It was a very big story in Europe, and there was constantly pressure on the wife — not the husband, but on the wife — to be more demonstrative in her grief. People kept saying she should cry for the camera, that she should cry while she's making this appeal for more information. "She just stands there, she's so cold." Of course, all grief looks different, but I was very interested in the idea that women are sort of called upon all the time to perform their emotions. I'm very cautious of that. The narrator of this book is not willing to perform her emotions.
Is the term "affair" appropriate in describing the narrator's relationship with Yvan?
That's an interesting question. I don't think I do, but there's a sense in which it must register as betrayal for her, despite the fact that she's the one who has been betrayed more. This question of faithlessness is interesting. I like the idea of infidelity as a kind of faithlessness. In that relationship, Christopher is the one who has been unfaithful, but she is the one who has been without faith. She's been the one to step away from the relationship earlier. She's the one who left him. So that kind of idea of where her loyalties lie is sort of unclear throughout the book, even to herself.
There's a single little line in your Wikipedia entry that says you trained as a ballerina early in life — someone who, quite literally, performs emotions. Do you think that skill set has given you any particular insight as a writer?
You know, it definitely informed the first book I wrote ["The Longshot"], which is about mixed martial arts and cage fighting. At the time, I was very wary of writing anything that was autobiographical. I didn't want to write a coming-of-age novel in which the character was clearly very similar to myself, so I thought I'd write a book about something that was completely removed from my own experience. It was really only after I finished writing it, and maybe after publication, that I found that there really was something in it of my training as a dancer, and what that training had taught me about discipline, but also ... the wear and tear on the body is such a difficult thing, physically. In a funny way, even though dancers are very powerful, and some of them are in extraordinary physical condition, their bodies are under so much strain. The knees, the injuries. So, on the other hand, they're incredibly fragile, and there's something of that that went directly into the first book.
The Arkansas Literary Festival takes place April 27-30 in venues throughout downtown Little Rock. For a full schedule of events, visit arkansasliteraryfestival.org.