Katie Kitamura on the Psychological Residue of Bearing Witness

katie kitamura

There is a devastating, perfectly choreographed scene toward the end of Katie Kitamura’s fourth novel, Intimacies, where the unnamed protagonist, an interpreter who has recently moved to The Hague in the Netherlands to work for the International Criminal Court, is translating the already translated witness testimony of a woman who watched her family get massacred in her West African village. On trial is the ex-president that likely ordered this act of genocide. What ensues in Kitamura’s powerful, masterful prose is the way in which notions like truth, guilt, objectivity, and responsibility slide and shift and sometimes bend toward breaking while in transport: “Her voice came through with remarkable clarity in the gaps between interpretation, the syllables distinct, the timbre unmistakable, so that I still had the sense that I was speaking for her, despite the layers of language between us.” The question lingers, can you speak for someone without siding with them or modifying their story for the comforts and clarity of a different language? Interpretation is often considered a passive act, but as Kitamura’s novel makes plain, it is a deceptively aggressive performance, where the interpreter is both marked by and leaves a mark on the text as it passes through them.

Kitamura gravitates toward characters in emotional freefall, psychologically between acts of translation. As with her previous novel A Separation, which dealt with a translator trying to track down her estranged husband who has gone missing in Greece, Intimacies is filled with gaps in knowing, with lovers disappearing, stories half-told, the parts of relationships and memory left out, all lingering like blind spots in consciousness. One might call Kitamura one of the most talented thriller writers who doesn’t write thrillers, for her novels are tinged with menace and threat and dark alleys that seem primed for acts of violence. And yet, really, the artistry in the New York-based author’s work lies in the delicate ways in which characters continue on, persevere slightly better or slightly worse, and survive. Kitamura was in Paris, teaching for NYU, when we spoke by phone. Before we discussed her book, we went on a long tear about the rise of “the limited series” versus the plain, old, beloved two-hour films of yore.


CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: It’s funny that we’re talking about film or television because your novel has certain cinematic aspects to it. One of the qualities I really admire is its tautness. It doesn’t have filler scenes, no feeling of excess baggage, no lumbering digressions. I’m wondering if that leanness comes naturally with your prose style or you set out to compress time to these focal moments.

KATIE KITAMURA: One of the things that feels quite formally challenging to me about writing television is the rhythm of each episode ending with a climax or a hook. And there are novels that operate according to that rhythm. But that’s very different to how I think about writing, which tends to be about creating sustained tension. I try to keep the reader inside a single mood or atmosphere.

BOLLEN: Intimacies is rife with tension. There’s a constant sense of looming menace, and yet, there’s really none of the trappings of a traditional thriller that usually supplies that sense of menace. It’s not like someone is stalking our narrator or there’s a killer on the loose. And yet, your last two novels do conjure that feeling of a thriller.

KITAMURA: I think the reading that you do as a child really informs what you write as an adult. Maybe it does it in obvious ways, or maybe it does it in ways that you only later understand. I grew up obsessively reading Agatha Christie mysteries. I reread and reread and reread them. So the tension of the thriller is really hardwired into my understanding of narrative. I’m drawn to the trappings of the genre, which I used both in A Separation and Intimacies—they open with a sense of danger that might result in a mystery or a thriller. But rather than placing the source of that danger in the exterior world around these characters, it’s more about what’s inside them, whether it’s their understanding of their past, or who they really are, or their relationships. That’s kind of where the real menace lies.

BOLLEN: I think that’s where a foreign locale can really be a gift for a writer. When we’re locked in our ordinary domestic lives, we’re just used to unthinkingly moving through the day, every part of a life functioning as it’s intended. But when you airdrop a protagonist in an unfamiliar location it sets off this re-questioning of every single part of life, from eating to sex to public safety. Do you feel drawn to foreign countries?

KITAMURA: I do. Both this novel and the last one begin in a position of grief or loss and disorientation—that sense of not really knowing where the ground rests beneath your feet. And that feeling gets amplified by the characters being dropped into these foreign landscapes where they may not know the language, they don’t know the customs, they kind of have to find their place within the culture and try to decipher what’s happening around them. I think that lets me really turn them into archeologists of the culture—they’re constantly trying to interpret, trying to understand. Nothing is taken for granted and I think that’s also the existential state of these narrators on some level.

Like A Separation, Intimacies is written in the first person. I have a nervousness about first person in general and I didn’t write in it for a long time because I found the authoritative quality of a first person somehow didn’t seem to suit me. But when I realized that I could use first person to express doubt and uncertainty, when it could be like holding up an object and looking at it from as many different angles as possible. Then I realized it could work for me. And you’re right, even that relentless scrutiny is much more natural when you’re in a totally new place.

BOLLEN: The narrator is an interpreter who works at the International Court at The Hague. What research you did on The Hague and its high court to get it down so well?

KITAMURA: I knew I wanted to write something where the character would be working as an interpreter at a war crimes tribunal. That was where the setting initially came from—because the big international tribunals are in The Hague. But I did have this very funny experience after I finished writing the first draft, and which I ended up writing into one of the later drafts. I went to The Hague and I researched it and I sat in on a trial at the ICC [International Criminal Court]. Then, but only after I had finished the first draft, I realized that I’d actually been to The Hague when I was a child. I had spent probably two or three summers there because my dad was visiting for work. I suddenly had really specific memories of being on the dunes and going to an amusement park called Madurodam.

BOLLEN: That’s wild, not knowing you’d already been there when you started doing research.

KITAMURA: It was really a strange experience to see all those memories suddenly drop into place. And that only happened after I finished writing the book. I feel like that’s one of those cases where I didn’t know why I wanted to write this book set in The Hague, and I had a logical explanation for it, a rational one, which was the tribunals were there, but there was this whole secret subconscious side that was part of the attraction.

BOLLEN: The interpreter ends up assigned to a war-crime case involving the former dictator of a West African country. I’m guessing it’s semi-modeled on the former president of Ivory Coast, who I read, just last month, after being cleared of all charges, returned to his home country. You bring this up in the novel, but I want to hear your thoughts on it. Does this esteemed International Court really ever dispense justice? Or is it born out of high-minded ideals that never actually change the system? Because it really does seem it has a disastrous conviction rate.

KITAMURA: The actual number of convictions that the ICC has is very small. But I think the symbolic role it plays is very important. There are so many limitations simply because of questions of jurisdiction—it only has jurisdiction within the countries that sign up for the Rome Statute. For example, the United States, which has not signed the Rome Statute, cannot be prosecuted for war crimes. So, yes, there are double standards at work. I think they work very hard to try to achieve transparency and balance. But the ICC has to work in tandem with other governments and other governing bodies and the decisions that it makes are not made in isolation. They are made in dialog with a lot of other institutions. And it is itself an institution at the end of the day. It has all the flaws of any institution. My novel is not in any way designed as a kind of critique of the international criminal justice system. But it was interesting to think about how these ideals of justice play out in reality on the ground, and how they are necessarily compromised.

BOLLEN: To me, the most moving part of the novel is how you capture the bizarre intermediary statue of the interpreter, forced to tell these violent stories on both sides—from victim and oppressor—and how the words chosen in translation can utterly change the testimony and the level of guilt of the defendant. It’s a bit like the game Telephone, too, the story changes as it’s passed through multiple mouths and ears. Did you talk to working interpreters?

KITAMURA: I did, I interviewed two interpreters at the ICC, and they were so different to what I expected. It showed me how I was misunderstanding the nature of the work, which is not simply about self-effacement, but about performance, interpretation in that sense of the word. They were quite charismatic. I don’t want to say theatrical, but they were comfortable occupying space. And they were also very open about how vulnerable some of the work could leave them. It’s not easy work psychologically.

I’ve thought about why I was so interested in this idea of interpretation; the main character in A Separation was also a translator. And I think I’m drawn to characters where language passes through them in some way. You mentioned the scene where she’s interpreting for the victim. It’s literally a case of language moving through your body and you speaking language on behalf of somebody else. On one level that scene is about how strange that action is. But I think it’s not entirely different to what we’re trying to do as novelists. It’s kind of being inside a world, finding a voice for somebody other than yourself, and then putting that on the page. And then you step away from it. You reestablish a distance.

BOLLEN: In terms of something like witness testimony of a genocide, when language passes through you it must leave a residue. A mark is left behind in the act of translation.

KITAMURA: Absolutely. I think that’s the lesson that the narrator finally understands at the end of the novel. Even if you think of you yourself as a neutral instrument in some way, there are consequences that are both ethical and psychological. The interpreters I spoke to told me that occasionally they would ask not to work a certain case, or certain testimonies. I remember one of them told me a story, which really stayed with me. He interpreted for someone accused of war crimes. But in interpreting for him, despite himself, he developed a kind of rapport with this person. He liked him. And when he was found innocent, even though the interpreter personally believed that he was responsible for everything he had been accused of, he was nonetheless relieved and even happy. That was incredibly complicated for him. I think that’s another thing about the ICC, and why the rate of conviction can seem so troubling. Even if the people who are put on trial are ultimately not found guilty, in many ways the world at large already believes in their guilt. That’s not true, I don’t think, of most criminal justice systems. But once you’ve been accused of war crimes, the distinction between innocence and not being found guilty can feel very pronounced.

BOLLEN: We’ve talked about her job. But there’s also a rather mysterious man she falls into a relationship with, Adriaan, who is recently separated and goes missing halfway through the novel. You seem to have a fascination with the partner that disappears.

KITAMURA: I found Christopher, the missing husband in A Separation, so much fun to write. And I loved writing Kees and Anton in this novel. Adriaan was different, and although people who have read the book have told me that they feel he behaves badly, to me all that’s really happened is that he’s in the early stage of a relationship. He needs to figure out what’s happening in his marriage and with his children and so he’s just kind of gone offline for a little bit. Part of what I wanted to do in the novel was to show how something that’s actually relatively reasonable can start to feel like an intense drama when you’re in that state of not having information. We’re so used to having all of the information all of the time, looking on social media to find out where somebody is or texting or all of those things that fill the vacuum of an absence.

BOLLEN: Well, you’re so vulnerable early on in a relationship. You need affirmation, you want to know this person is on the same page, feeling what you’re feeling. So silence can be profound and painful. God, I sound exactly like someone you don’t want to get in an early relationship with.

KITAMURA: One of the reasons I like these absent partners is because I like to write characters who spin out into different possibilities and stories and versions of what might be happening.  The absent partner is the ultimate hypothesis generator in so many ways, particularly as you say early in a relationship or shortly after a breakup. For me, it sometimes feels more interesting than the reality of a partner right there in the room. I’d rather write a relationship that is moving into or through an absence, though I wouldn’t want to be actually be living in one.