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Kitamura Is Out With Another Novel That Transcends Languages And Borders


Katie Kitamura writes novels about slippery people, people who slide across borders and through cities. They speak three or four languages. They hold more than one passport. And they don't really call any place home. Her new book is called "Intimacies." It's about an interpreter who works at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Her job is to translate for some of the most violent and compelling criminals in the world. And the book is infused with a sense of menace, of something possibly wrong just below the surface of her rootless life.

KATIE KITAMURA: The novel is about a woman who is grieving the recent death of her father and decides to take a job working as an interpreter at a war crimes tribunal in The Hague. And once she arrives in the Netherlands, a series of kind of, I would say, personal and professional entanglements, both in the relationship that you mentioned and also in her work at the court, really force her to question the world that she sees around her and, maybe more specifically, her place in it.

KING: Working as an interpreter is such a specific type of job. Why did you choose that profession for her?

KITAMURA: I mean, I guess two reasons. One is that I was really interested in thinking about somebody who was adjacent to power, if that makes sense...

KING: Yeah.

KITAMURA: ...Somebody who was close to power but not actually in a position of power, somebody who perhaps felt herself to be powerless as she observed these very significant historical events taking place around her. So I wanted to think about what that meant to kind of be inside of history but not necessarily feel that you're able to shape or control it in a significant way. And then I'm also - I'm just always so interested in this idea of language, and the idea of speaking somebody else's language is such a strange and loaded gesture to do. This is a woman who literally speaks the words of other people; words are literally put in her mouth.

KING: And the words that are being put in her mouth are the words of war criminals because she works at the International Criminal Court, and so it's not like she's a translator or an interpreter for refugee families, right? She's saying the words of terrible people - or ostensibly terrible people, but people who've allegedly done terrible things. And I wonder, what did you imagine that doing to her psyche?

KITAMURA: I was really interested in the idea of neutrality and the fact that we think of neutrality as something that doesn't have a personal cost, but I actually think it's extremely difficult to maintain, and I'm not always sure that it can even really, truly exist. And while I was researching the book, I spoke to a number of interpreters, and they were very honest about what they felt was a psychological work and sometimes psychological distress that was caused by their work. You know, they were - they're so close to pain. They're so close to extreme suffering. They're so close to what most of us would simply call evil. And trying to understand how you negotiate your position in all of that, how you safeguard your own subjectivity, was something that they were definitely, I think, grappling with. So beyond the professional or the technical demands of the work, there is also the moral and the psychological pressures.

KING: There is a creeping darkness in this book. It's always present. It's very compelling. It makes it read like a thriller, like a mystery. When you're not sure where it's going, it keeps you going.

KITAMURA: (Laughter).

KING: I read it in a few hours. Where were you in your own life while you were writing this? Did it make you feel dark? Or were you coming from a dark place anyway?

KITAMURA: (Laughter) I love that question. I mean, I had such a funny experience writing this book because, in fact, in my own personal life, it's been a very, very happy time for me. I have two small children. I have a wonderful partner. I enjoy my work so much, and I find it very fulfilling. But at the same time, I've had to always kind of look at that small, personal, almost domestic happiness against the backdrop of an increasingly troubled world and try to understand how I make sense, how I reconcile the gap between my own small happiness and the things that are happening around me. And so in some ways, I think the novel is trying to show a character who is struggling with that disjunction and trying to understand how to live her life in the context of a larger world in upheaval.

KING: Her personal life is messy. She's in this relationship with a man that is seemingly stable at some point and then gets very, very confusing. The book seemed to constantly be reinforcing the message that you can't ever really, truly know someone. And without passing any judgment on whether or not that's a good thing or a bad thing, what point were you trying to make about the nature of human relationships?

KITAMURA: I think there is this fantasy of this idea of total openness and total accessibility to another person. That seems like an impossible ideal and possibly not even something that you would actually want in your life. I think, you know, the privacy of your partner is something that allows them to have an independent existence apart from you, and I think that's actually very healthy for a relationship. So I think in this novel, I really was interested in trying to depict the sense that, you know, when you meet somebody in the middle of your life, you will never know everything about what happened to them in the past, but also, the possibility that that's actually OK and that sometimes what you have is enough.

KING: Let me ask you lastly - this is a book in which not everything is wrapped up at the end, not everything is clear at the end. And that is both satisfying, and also, like, I kind of wanted a sequel. I'm like, is there an epilogue? What's she going to be doing next year?

KITAMURA: (Laughter).

KING: How do you feel about ending when not everything is - I mean, I guess that's what life is, for sure. It's true to life.

KITAMURA: Yeah. I kind of - you know, the tidying up of narrative, that's a narrative device. That's the way things are in fiction but not necessarily in real life. I think with this novel in particular, I really wanted the novel to feel in its final pages like it was opening up to possibility, like a door opening in some way. And I wanted it to feel that way not just for the character in the sense that she perhaps has a feeling of expanded possibility, but also for the reader in the sense that they might feel that any number of things might now happen to this character. So I was quite committed to trying to create that feeling in the book. I knew it wasn't the conventional kind of, you know, closing of the windows, pulling down the blinds, shutting up house. But I wanted to try to create that feeling of openness at the end of the book.

KING: Katie, thank you so much for taking the time to do this. We appreciate it.

KITAMURA: Oh, thank you. This was such a pleasure.

KING: Katie Kitamura's new novel is called "Intimacies."

(SOUNDBITE OF POPPY ACKROYD'S "LUNA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.