Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Resistance Lit: Ilana Masad on Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You

By Ilana Masad

What's your favorite work of resistance literature? That's the question that launches this year's NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of NBCC members and honorees at this time of cultural shift. (NBCC Reads from previous years here.) We're posting these in advance of the #WritersResist events to be held on January 15–Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday– throughout the country, including an event on the steps of the New York Public LibraryAndrew Solomon, president of NBCC Sandrof-award winning PEN American Center and Trustee Masha Gessen will host; American Poets Laureate Robert Pinsky and Rita Dove will share original “inaugural” poems written for the occasion; and dozens of writers and artists including Laurie Anderson, Mary Karr, A.M. Homes, Michael Cunningham, Jeffrey Eugenides, and others will speak and read on the ideals of democracy.

In Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel, Harmless Like You (out in the UK, coming out in the US in February), resistance is a young woman decided to remain in the US and not return with her parents to Japan. It looks like a young woman floating through life and trying to understand herself through other people, and through her art. It’s a young woman trying her hand at photography, and being proud of her work even while she critiques it heavily and wonders if it is ever or will ever be good enough.

Resistance can look like refusing to be content with the cage that has been created for her, gilded and beautiful as it is. It can look like a woman leaving her husband and son and always meaning to go back, but never quite managing to. It can look like a woman deciding to find herself rather than define herself through marriage and motherhood.

Resistance can also look like a young man who grows up without a mother deciding not to care about her. It can look like a young man marrying a woman who fits him, who loves him, and refusing to be nice to her when his father dies. It can be his insistence that he has to keep his bald cat because she gives him comfort in a way that no one else exactly can. Resistance can look like a man not knowing how to love his child but trying, trying, trying. It can look like a man deciding to stay where his mother decided to leave. 

Resistance can look like a 27-year-old author giving life and love to characters who aren’t always loveable, but who resist their own flaws as best they can.

Ilana Masad is a fiction writer and book critic living in New York. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, Electric Literature, Broadly, Vice, McSweeney's, and more. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, a podcast featuring new, emerging, and established fiction writers.