New York in the 1960s was a ferment of creativity in music, art and literature, but not everyone who played a part in this scene won recognition for their contribution. Now, though, one forgotten group – Japanese women artists – has finally attracted the spotlight as the subject of Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel, Harmless Like You.
“A lot of Japanese artists were working at this time, but they are only now being recognised,” says the writer, who’ll be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to discuss her novel. “Yoko Ono, never described as anything but ‘John Lennon’s girlfriend’, has only now got an exhibition at MoMA. And Yayoi Kusama, whose polka-dot paintings are huge now, was also working in New York at that time.”
Hisayo Buchanan, who is of Chinese, Japanese, English, Scottish and American heritage, is fascinated by why such strong, talented female artists were sidelined in the cultural maelstrom of the 1960s. “I grew up with a lot of stories from that time, but I’d never read any from this perspective. When I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of books with people like me on the cover.” Harmless Like You, which spurred a bidding war between rival publishers, is split between the story of Yuki, the artist, which begins in the 1960s, and that of her estranged son Jay, told in the present day. “Yuki wasn’t the best mother, but I don’t think that makes you an evil person,” says the author. “I wanted to find out how she got there.” Left alone in New York when her parents return to Tokyo, Yuki almost disappears into her own loneliness. In the parallel narrative, Jay sets out to find his mother. “He thinks she hated him. I wanted to explore that dissonance.”
Hisayo Buchanan’s maternal grandparents, who were Chinese and Japanese, met and married in New York. She herself has lived in London, New York, Tokyo and Norfolk, and has spent a lot of time in Nairn with her father’s family: “I am more Scottish than anything else,” she says.
She draws on her own cross-cultural identity to create the unforgettable Yuki. “I do a lot of visual art as well and I spent a lot of time thinking about that world. That was a part of her character and the way she saw the world. Part of what she is trying to do is to find a way to be an artist. It’s not one of those careers where someone can tell you what to do.”
She is still getting used to the idea that others have read the book and seen into her private world. “It’s very satisfying that people whose lives seem very different from mine can relate to Yuki.”
Words: Claire Smith
Picture: Eric Tortora Pato
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan & Atticus Lish Writers’ Retreat, 27 August, 5pm