Not long after her father died, Katie Kitamura remembers hearing Charles Taylor speak.
She was driving on the Bay Bridge in California in 2009, and Taylor, the former president of Liberia, was on trial for war crimes at The Hague. She listened to him over the radio, his voice a simultaneously magnetic and monstrous force as he defended himself.
That memory is perhaps the simple answer to how and when Kitamura’s latest novel, “Intimacies,” began.
“I had such a clear sense of a performance taking place,” she says in a video interview in June from her home in New York City.
She was also drawn to “that kind of pliability and mutability of language” — the ability to mold it, to persuade even on the starkest of stages, to defend the worst of crimes. Not long after, Kitamura wrote an early draft of “A Separation,” her 2017 novel focused on a steely translator.
“Intimacies,” which Riverhead published on July 20, also features an interpreter, this time a woman who has moved to The Hague to work at the International Criminal Court. Coming from New York after her father’s death, the protagonist is assigned to translate for a former president on trial for war crimes, a job that she takes on with exactitude as well as anxiety. Her personal life adds to the story’s complexity, as she begins a relationship with a married man and becomes preoccupied with the violent mugging of a friend’s brother.
The novel, Kitamura’s fourth, resembles “A Separation” in that it confines its perspective to the perceptive, circuitous mind of an unnamed first-person female narrator in a city that is unfamiliar to her. “Intimacies,” though, has a different, more expansive feeling, in part borne of the politically chaotic time in which she wrote it.
While Kitamura has been alarmed to see the turbulence of the last five years create an environment where people are entrenched in their beliefs and opinions, she says, “the narrator has a very partial understanding of what’s happening all around her. That felt to me like it might speak to how some people are feeling right now, this cascade of news.”
Uncertainty, particularly in the narrator’s voice, pervades the novel.
“What I’m really interested in trying to do is put the messiness of a meandering thought, of a digression, of a contradiction, onto the page and in that way decenter the authority first-person narrators often have,” Kitamura says. This quality has become part of her style, she notes, one that she has found slowly through writing.
Kitamura, 42, began writing fiction in her late 20s, after a somewhat roving early life: She was born in Sacramento, California, and grew up in nearby Davis before leaving for Princeton at 17.
“She’s not somebody to toot her own horn too much, but she was kind of a prodigy,” her husband, novelist Hari Kunzru, says in a phone interview.
By the time she was 20, Kitamura was in London obtaining her doctorate in literature and working on projects and talks at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
“I remember being intimidated by her, but then she was so nice and always goes to such lengths to make others comfortable,” author Zadie Smith, a longtime friend who met her at the ICA, writes in an email. (Both Smith and Kitamura now teach creative writing at New York University.)
Kitamura’s first serious attempt at writing fiction became “The Longshot,” a novel about a mixed martial arts fighter. That debut, along with its follow-up, the cutting colonialist allegory “Gone to the Forest,” tackled wildly different subjects — a way for Kitamura, who is Japanese American, to assert the kind of creative freedom she saw in the work of white male counterparts. But the voices of “A Separation” and “Intimacies” are her “closest expression to what it feels like at the moment as I’m trying to navigate everything that’s happening around us,” she says.
“Intimacies” quietly reflects the absurdity of existing at this time in the wake of, if one chooses to notice, persistent doom.
“There’s a real cognitive dissonance as a person in the world,” Kitamura says. “Your consciousness can only accommodate so much, and certainly it’s been incredible to me how I can simultaneously be very worried about the state of democracy and also thinking, has the turkey gone off?”
Embedded in that dissonance is a kind of complicity, the act of participating in systems responsible for terrible things — a notion that, to Kitamura, is perhaps the book’s central concern. “These things are happening, but it’s never enough. Whatever you do, it’s not going to be enough,” she says.
The sentiment can be applied to any contemporary crisis of one’s choosing. She pauses for a while.
“The phrase ‘not in my name,’ but how is it not in your name?” she says. “How can you sever it so completely?”
In the book, the trial of the former president forces the narrator to confront a kind of moral ambivalence about working at the court. In 2016, Kitamura visited The Hague and interviewed interpreters who, as in the novel, spoke into the ears of war criminals.
“Logically and by the evidence that you’ve observed, this person has done the worst things that a person can do,” she remembers them telling her. “And yet you can feel relieved when they are not found not guilty.”
She has felt some of these quandaries herself over the past few years. While the world is on fire and the planet heats up, she has been rather happy in her comparatively tiny life, finding stability and raising two children with Kunzru. “Intimacies” is often reflective of this balancing act: the evil on trial and the banal bureaucracy that manages it, or the narrator’s desire to find security in a world seemingly streaked with malice.
Speaking of this, Kitamura returns to her father’s death. “It was very interesting to me how I could watch my father die and hold his hand as he died, and then a little bit later get up and go eat something,” she says.
“My God, there’s a part of me that thinks I have to stop writing about my dad dying,” she continues with a wry laugh, “because I can really see it all over the book.”
“A Separation” was partly inspired by the harsh realization of her father’s waning days while she was in Greece, where the novel takes place. “Intimacies” begins in the wake of the protagonist’s father’s death.
Near the end of the book, the narrator walks to rolling dunes adjacent to the court and its cold detention center, and is struck by an odd feeling of familiarity. She finds out that she had been there before as a child, her late father having run up those same hills with her one weekend.
Kitamura herself had the same sensation: When she was in The Hague, she felt that twinge of familiarity, only to realize that her parents had taken her there when she was young, and she had played at the dunes with her father.
“Rather than the kind of slightly untrammeled grief of ‘A Separation,’ I think there’s much more recuperation that is happening in this novel,” Kitamura says. Her emotional state processes slowly, she notes, and “as it manifests in fiction, it moves even slower.”
She still seems to be connecting the dots. “Perhaps in the end,” she writes in the novel, “it was not something I could explain — the prospect that had briefly opened, the idea that the world might yet be formed or found again.”
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