Harmless Like Me
by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
Harmless Like Me follows Yuki Oyama, a Japanese immigrant to the United States who is friendless until she meets the irreverent and beautiful Odile Graychild. Yuki convinces her parents who are going back to Tokyo to let her stay behind in New York City where she hopes to become an artist. More than ten years later, she abandons her two-year-old son and husband. And almost thirty years after that, her now-grown son, who just had a child of his own, journeys to Berlin to see his mother for the first time since she left her family.
The book itself is well-written and told from both Yuki and her son’s perspectives. Yuki’s sections are third person, while her son, Jay’s, are written in first person. Sometimes when having multiple points of view, the tone of the differents sections aren’t sufficiently distinct, but that is not the case here. Yuki’s sections begin with a color name and description. These were really quite interesting and something I loved about the book. The depiction of color carried into the prose in interesting ways, particularly when colors are given agency (e.g., yellow screamed). Yuki came of age in the sixties, and the Vietnam War served as a backdrop of the narrative. I read a lot of books about the Vietnam War, and it was interesting here to see it not as the central topic but as a cultural touchstone.
Yuki’s father, though an American citizen and chosen for his post because of his ability to work with Americans, is none too fond of the United States. Her immigrant status and distance from American culture contributes to her loneliness. “Yuki was a chīzubāgā—enough to make a Japanese person sick and still inauthentically American,” Buchanan writes. Her isolation makes Odile, who is not really a good friend, seem appealing. Yuki’s life hinges on staying in the United States while her parents return to Tokyo. Why they allowed this was never clear to me, and seemed unlikely, though Yuki argued that if she returned to Japan she wouldn’t be able to get into a good college. Maybe that was enough to convince her parents she needed to stay in America.
But staying does not lead to success for Yuki. Her history is a procession of pain: isolation, friendlessness, domestic abuse, a sense of insecurity and failure. She doesn’t want to pass this to her son. Of course, in leaving, she condemns him to pain of his own. Being a new parent and confronting his mother for the first time in almost forty years, Jay must determine how to deal with his own anxieties and the temptation he has to leave his own family.
To explain my reaction to this book, I have to admit that I watch Gray’s Anatomy. In a recent episode, Meredith Gray went on a date, and she and her date talked about how even on the best date, if the other person says the one thing, that no matter how well things are going, the date, and the person, can’t be redeemed. When I saw this episode, I thought about how this had played out in Seinfeld and Ally McBeal plus no doubt other shows and movies I can’t remember. At the same time, I thought it was rather rigid and unforgiving. It didn’t seem fair to judge a person and the potential of an entire relationship on that one thing. But, it turned out that in Harmless Like You, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan said the one thing that shut me down and made the book irredeemable in my eyes.
In this case, the one thing should be the domestic abuse that was depicted as a source of creativity, or even the glamorization of eating disorders. Those things definitely bothered me, but the one thing that made me not like this book was its attitude toward animals as disposable creatures. A book that perpetuates such a belief is not for me. I will admit that like those who go on dates and dismiss people because of saying the wrong thing or eating salad messily or having big hands, I might be being judgemental and unfair. However, my most deeply held convictions relate to societal and individual treatment towards animals, and I cannot forgive Buchanan for holding animals in such poor esteem. When I finished this book, I was angry, and reflecting on the book, it’s my dominant reaction clouding all others.
No doubt, Harmless Like Me, is a lovely, painful, complex, challenging, and mystifying book. Some readers will love it for that. I might have loved it myself if it hadn’t said that one thing that betrayed all my personal principles.