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March 1, 2017

Book Notes - Rowan Hisayo Buchanan "Harmless Like You"

Harmless Like You

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan's novel is a dazzling debut about family, home, and love. One of the best books I have read this year.

The Literary Review wrote of the book:

"Each way of life we choose necessitates the rejection of many others. Hisayo Buchanan's recognition of this fact propels her stylishly written debut into the exceptional."


In her own words, here is Rowan Hisayo Buchanan's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Harmless Like You:



Harmless Like You is about characters trying to find home. As I wrote the novel, I moved between New York, Wisconsin, and London. I could call this a travel playlist almost as easily as I could call this a playlist for my novel.

"Revolution"—The Beatles

"Revolution" starts Chapter 1 of Harmless Like You. It came into my life many years ago. I was so small that as I sat in the front seat of the car, my feet didn’t touch the floor. I must have heard the recording before, but it only broke into my brain in my best friend’s mother’s car. Out the window, the sky swept past. I didn’t understand the politics that the Beatles were singing about. Yet the song’s joy spun through me. Even as a kid, I was a worrier. But when they sang it was going to be alright—I believed them.

"New York, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down"—LCD Soundsystem

There are so many New York songs. This one is mine. If you go on YouTube you can watch Kermit sing that New York is freaking him out. It’s the perfect stroke of self-pity and self-mockery. Harmless Like You is in many ways a New York book. But I wrote the majority of the novel after I moved away from the city. I missed it. I even missed hating it.

"Kushimoto Bushi"—Chiemi Eri

"Kushimoto Bushi" is a surprising song. It opens with the brass sound of a big band. You expect the song to open up into American jazz or swing. Instead, Chiemi Eri begins a Japanese folk song about a small fishing village. She was singing in a post-war Japan that was trying to figure out how to be Japanese and how to be Western. The question was political, sorrowful, and stressful. The beats of this song somehow made it seem like reconciliation was something you could dance your way into.

Yuki Oyama, one of the protagonists of my novel, was born in Japan, but grows up in New York. She can’t dance her way into belonging, but I know she wishes that she could.

"Leaving on a Jet Plane"—Peter, Paul, and Mary

The most obvious connection is that a lot of Harmless Like You is about when and how to leave. It is a book about a mother who leaves her son. It is a book about a girl whose parents, friend, and lover leave her. It is a book about a man who wants to leave his child.

I left New York for the Midwest, perhaps not the most glamourous of departures. To write the book, I’d entered something which I joked was my Art Nun phase. I wore almost entirely loose garments. I ate repetitively—eggs, beans, rice—on rotation. To mix it up sometimes, I’d add dumplings or a sweet potato. I don’t want to make it sound too bleak. I made a few friends in Wisconsin and at times we went out. I enjoyed being an Art Nun. My graduate program was funded, and I had few responsibilities. I taught one class a week, took two classes, ate, read, and slept.

This routine was only broken when I returned to New York for short visits. The whole flight, I’d feel the city rising towards me. Once there, I’d dart around, frantically chasing down the people I loved. I was afraid. They had not just been sitting there waiting for me. What if their lives had moved on too far for me to ever catch up? Leaving on a Jet Plane captures the strange half-delight of leaving with the somewhat selfish desire that the person you’re leaving will wait for you.

"Wichita Lineman"—Glen Campbell

Glen Campbell croons the thin few lyrics of "Wichita Lineman." The song has about half a story. It’s clearly about need, someone on an open road, and a telephone operator. But mostly, it is a feeling.

When you sit down and dial or click a telephone number, it’s a moment of clear decision to reach out. In Harmless Like You, there are a few desperate telephone calls. But there are also calls that aren’t made. There are calls that should have been made. And sometimes, even when the number goes through, the characters realise they don’t know exactly what to say.

I was in a relationship that started just after I began writing Harmless Like You. It lasted three years—ending shortly after I signed my publishing contract. The person I was with was good, intelligent, and kind but our lives pushed us further and further apart. The relationship began long distance and only got longer. He moved continents. Then I moved continents. Then he moved back. We’d known each other before we started dating, and that made the distance seem possible. Our relationship lived in the phone lines, wireless and with a pervasive sense of longing.

"Darling Be Home Soon"—Lovin’ Spoonful

One of the places characters in Harmless Like You try to make a home is in love. They have mixed success. Many, but not all, of the songs on this playlist are from the 1960s and 70s. Much, but not all, of my novel is set in those decades. And so, I’ve chosen a love song from the 60s.

When John Sebastian wrote, "Darling Be Home Soon," he was twenty-two. The song supposes that a quarter of the singer’s life has almost past. And that he’s now come to see himself at last. I’m not sure I believe him. Who really knows themselves by twenty-two? But wouldn’t it be lovely if you could?

"Homeward Bound"—Simon & Garfunkel

When I was a baby, and I couldn’t sleep, my father would sing me Simon & Garfunkel. I left England for New York and I thought I’d never move back. I wrote a novel about the difficulty of knowing where home is or how to get there. In the very last stretches of editing the book, I returned to live for a time in my childhood bedroom. I set up a desk by the window. I tried to be okay and, in the end, I was.


Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and Harmless Like You links:

the author's website

BookPage review
Kirkus review
Los Angeles Review of Books review
Publishers Weekly review
Sydney Morning Herald review

Bustle profile of the author
Foyles interview with the author
Guardian profile of the author
Weekend Edition profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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List of Online "Best Books of 2016" Lists

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