In “Intimacies,” An Interpreter for War Criminals Questions Her Complicity
Katie Kitamura on what happens when your job requires you to erase your selfhood
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In Katie Kitamura’s latest novel, Intimacies, an unnamed woman moves to The Hague after the death of her father, relocating to a city and country where she has few personal connections. She takes a temporary job at an international organization known only as the Court, where she translates the legal intricacies of large-scale human atrocities for the men accused of perpetrating them. As an interpreter, her role is not to involve herself in the trial, to argue or add information, but to “throw down planks across the gaps” between words, an impersonal tool within the Court’s bureaucratic machinery.
The novel opens at a turning point in the narrator’s time in The Hague. She is halfway through her temporary contract with the Court, and she must consider whether or not to continue on in her work. She has also become romantically involved with a Dutch man, Adriaan, who asks her to live in the apartment he had shared with his family while he leaves for Portugal to disentangle himself from his marriage. As Adriaan’s absence lingers, the narrator finds herself thrust into ever-shifting situations: her relationship, her involvement in the personal life of a man who had been attacked near her friend’s apartment, and the sudden pressure of working on one of the Court’s high-profile cases as the hand-picked interpreter for an accused former president.
In Intimacies, the ambiguities the narrator faces in her personal life blend with concerns about the role and power of the Court and the narrator’s place within it. In my interview with Kitamura, we discussed the moral question at the heart of Intimacies and the novel’s concerns with language, neutrality, and complicity.
Alyssa Songsiridej: To start off, I’d like to ask a bit about the narrator’s job—why did you decide to write from the perspective of an interpreter at the court, a crucial but also extremely depersonalized role? What interested you in this particular point of view?
Katie Kitamura: I’m interested in writing characters who have a very particular relationship to language, who are dedicated to speaking the words of others, with great fidelity. The narrator in my last novel is a translator; the narrator in this novel is an interpreter; the narrator in the novel I’m writing now is an actor. I think of them as characters that language passes through, as it moves from one place to another.
It’s hard for me to think of anything more intimate, more personal, than language. But for these characters, their professional relationship to language demands a certain erasure of self. How does this change how these characters perceive themselves? How does it alter the way they behave, the scope of possible action? These were some of the questions that I wanted to think about in the novel.
AS: In past interviews, you’ve said that you’re interested in “morally fantastic fiction,” in setting up a situation with a moral question at its heart. In Intimacies, I began to sense (and please correct me if I’m off) that the moral question concerned neutrality, if neutrality is possible or even desirable. I’d love to hear you talk a bit about this and how it pertains to the narrator’s role as an interpreter for the Court. I’m also wondering if the narrator’s professional role—simultaneously intimate and depersonalized—has an effect on her relationships outside of work.
KK: That’s very much what I hoped to do—to think about neutrality, or the appearance of neutrality, and how it can give way to something very different. The narrator has been trained to think of herself as neutral, as a cog in the machine. But the machine itself isn’t neutral. The institution, its language, none of these things are neutral.
The narrator occupies a position that is adjacent to power, and over the course of the novel, she is forced to consider the possibility that this position is not especially neutral, and shouldn’t be considered as such. A great deal of cover is offered by the assumption of neutrality. A lot of things can be obfuscated, including complicity and implication.
AS: In Intimacies, the narrator’s relationship to language seems almost the opposite of the main character in your earlier novel, A Separation. In A Separation, the narrator witnesses a fight between a couple speaking in Greek, and while she doesn’t understand their language, she understands what’s happening between them. In Intimacies, on the other hand, the narrator is laser-focused on the specificities of the words to the point where she, at times, loses the thread of the actual trial. Could you talk a bit about this tension within language, the sort of distance or difference between precision and meaning?
KK: I hadn’t noted that distinction until now—but you’re completely right, those two scenes function in opposition to each other. In the first case, there’s an enforced distance, and in the second, there’s an enforced proximity. That possibly holds true in a larger sense, across the novels. It’s even present in the titles—A Separation, as opposed to Intimacies.
I think the narrator in A Separation begins from a position of relative certainty—she thinks she understands the narrative of her life and her relationship. She has, much as in the scene you reference, distance. Over the course of the novel, that certainty unravels and that distance collapses.
In the case of Intimacies, it’s almost the opposite. She begins from a position of uncertainty and destabilization, and very slowly moves toward some greater stability. She begins to recognize certain aspects of her life, there are memories and incidents she is able to put into context. She acquires the distance that the narrator in A Separation loses.
I’ve thought a lot about the similarities between these two characters—the fact that they are both observers (even in some situations, voyeurs), the fact that they both have a passive relationship to language. But in some essential, foundational way they are very different and you can see that difference in those two scenes you reference.
AS: The Court and The Hague both become almost like characters themselves, places and systems that operate in specific ways that have major consequences for others. I was wondering how you viewed the institution and the city, how you became familiar with them and how they worked as elements within the narrative.
KK: The Court is based loosely on the International Criminal Court, although the novel isn’t intended to act as a representation of that institution or its activities. Nor is it intended to act as a critique of the international criminal justice system—although it is intended to acknowledge that it is a system, and one that necessarily operates in a context, and in tandem with other governmental bodies and institutions. The ICC is more accessible than you might think—any person can observe a trial from the public gallery, and transcripts of the trials are available online. From a research perspective, that made writing the particularities of a plausible fictional court much easier.
In terms of The Hague, while I was researching and then writing the first draft of the book, I had a genuine sense of uncanny familiarity—aspects of the city and the culture felt like they were coming to me from some place of old knowledge, rather than the more clinical knowledge that comes from research. I decided to write that feeling into the novel. It was only when I finished writing a full draft that I realized that I had spent considerable amounts of time there as a child. I had many isolated childhood memories that I was then able to place in The Hague.
That feeling of delayed recognition was powerful to me, and I wrote it into the novel on the first revision. I think it’s a moment that’s important to the emotional logic of the novel, a piece that was missing in the first draft. It’s a case of my unconscious knowing something that my conscious mind couldn’t quite work out until later.
AS: So much of Intimacies seems concerned with context, with information and how it is withheld or delivered, both in the narrator’s work at the Court and also within her personal life. For example, the Court’s Detention Center changes depending on whether the narrator is translating for an “accused” inside of the building in the middle of the night, or if she is just passing it on her way to work in the morning. Also, an unappealing character, the defense attorney Kees, elicits different reactions from others at a party vs. at work with colleagues. Would you be able to talk a bit about this, the way that different situations and information affect the characters in the novel?
KK: The idea of partial access to information is really important to this novel. The narrator has fragments of information, pieces of the story, but never the complete narrative. This is, I think, not too different to how many of us move through the world—with a partial understanding of the larger narratives that are at play. That’s destabilizing, and it also compromises how we are able to respond ethically. What does it mean to be complicit in something you don’t fully understand, much less control?
Something similar happens in the narrator’s personal life, although the consequences are a little different. I’m always fascinated by how our perception of people—even people we know very well—changes depending on the context. Your knowledge of a person can suddenly give way and dissolve. They can seem like a stranger, like another person entirely. How do you then create intimacy, where do you locate the foundation for an enduring relationship?
AS: I do want to ask an additional question about Kees, even though he really is so unappealing. I was really struck by this line Adriaan, the Dutch man the narrator is romantically involved with, says about Kees’ role as defense attorney. He states that attorneys like Kees don’t have “recourse to the same cowardice” that other people do when it comes to facing the atrocities committed by their clients. They have to “inhabit and inhale their atmosphere.” Could you talk a bit about this ability and how it relates to the narrator’s role as interpreter (more passive but still having to take in the accused’s crimes). Also, how are these ideas connected to the question of neutrality mentioned earlier?
KK: Over the course of the novel, it becomes obvious that the narrator doesn’t have this ability that Kees does have—to live inside the world and the reality of these crimes and maintain a sense of equilibrium. She can’t maintain that kind of cognitive dissonance, she can’t negotiate the divide between the court and the everyday world outside, she can’t move fluidly from the tribunal to the dinner party in the way a character like Kees does.
This is possibly linked to larger questions about what it means to witness. It’s a layered and complicated act, ethically speaking. It requires living with moral ambiguity, whether it’s the ambiguity of being an observer, or maintaining neutrality, or telling stories that we don’t feel are ours to tell.
AS: I was also hoping you might talk about home and identity, which seemed to me more present as an absence in Intimacies. For example, the narrator is not rooted to any particular place, no longer has much family, and her racial identity is shown toward the end of the novel through characters’ reactions or interpretations of her, such as her tense interaction with the former president or the way the hostess at a Chinese restaurant speaks to the narrator hopefully in Mandarin. The interaction with the former president in particular felt very powerful to me, a move I don’t think I’ve seen before in other works of fiction. How did you view these ideas as influencing the narrator and the other thematic threads of the novel?
KK: Much like the narrator’s grief at her father’s death—which is mentioned once early on, and then not again until it returns in the final sections of the novel—the question of her identity is established at the beginning, and then returned to in the scene with the former president, which to me is the most important scene in the book. I think those two things—grief and identity—underpin the novel and provide the structure for it. They’re the axes that the two significant epiphanies (for lack of a better word) of the novel turn around.
As I said, the novel is about complicity. I always knew that at some point, the narrator would be asked to consider her own complicity as a person belonging, as the former president points out, to two countries with deeply violent, imperialist histories. To some extent, I think I was trying to keep my powder dry, for that final scene—so that moment of compromised reckoning would come up out of nowhere, but still have that whisper of both inevitability and truth, much as it does for the narrator herself.