The narrator of Katie Kitamura’s novel A Separation has a secret. After five years of marriage, the unnamed narrator is separated from her philandering husband Christopher. He has asked for a divorce and, alienated from marriage and her spouse, she readily agrees. There’s just one catch: Christopher has also asked her to keep their separation between them. She agrees again, creating a second separation, this time between herself and the self that she’s agreed to perform. The schism works, both the narrator and Christopher move on—build lives for themselves outside of their unhappy marriage—until she is asked to find her estranged husband who has disappeared on an island in Greece.
It’s on that small island, the landscape charred by a fire, while waiting for her husband to reappear, that the tension between perception, performance, and the self unfolds. As she waits, she revisits details from her marriage as they are conjured up by current events. The hotel employee turned Christopher’s mistress, a woman who is the narrator’s “physical opposite” with a “practical body” that men enjoy, prompts memories of Christopher’s infidelities and of an unhappy marriage. The story of their marriage or, at least, of the narrator’s perception of it is slowly revealed without a linear arc. But then, that’s how memories work, simply as temporally disjointed moments conjured up by the present. As the narrator chooses to reveal these memories, we’re given a glimpse of a woman in a liminal position—she is technically a wife and must act as one, to appear concerned about her missing husband while concealing their secret, and yet she is she is not a wife, she is separated from the institution and its perfunctory roles.
Kitamura’s narrator is detached—alienated from both Christopher and her performance of herself—so her narration is passive and unreliable. Perhaps that’s, by nature, her personality, perhaps it’s something more. When Christopher is found dead, the narrator’s self-detachment becomes even more profound, the role of a concerned wife is now transformed into grieving widow. It’s a performance she engages in with embarrassment, guilt, and uneasiness.
Kitamura explores the concepts of performance and alienation with compelling depth and intelligence and that the plot elements—a scorned wife, a missing husband—are secondary to the psychological portrait presented here. A Separation is an eerie read, the internal dialogue of the narrator is simultaneously intimate and elusive. These concepts, often the stuff of academic theory, combined with a plot that superficially reads like a typical thriller, could be clunky or difficult to explore. But Kitamura is an elegant writer and she deconstructs the idea of identity seamlessly, applying narrative pressure for insight rather than sheer spectacle. A Separation is a quiet novel, thoughtful in its examination of relationships and role-playing, and smart in its approach.
I spoke to Kitamura about A Separation, role playing, and other themes that drive her wonderful novel. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jezebel: I wanted to talk about the narrator’s work as a translator which you write appeals to her for its “potential for passivity.” Throughout the entire book, she seems very reluctant to tell her story even though she does and she seems to act more in the capacity of a translator than a narrator, particularly when describing her marriage. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about her standoffishness from herself and that relationship to her work as a translator?
Katie Kitamura: For me, the central quandary of the book is her inability to access her own emotions, her inability to articulate what she’s feeling herself. She’s quite good at analyzing the situation around her but to actually turn that analytic lens around is something that’s quite difficult for her to do. I think it’s that divide between that forensic intelligence and the moral courage to look at your own behavior was something that I wanted to think about.
I think translation is such a funny thing. One of my translators said to me, “I’m looking forward to writing your book in French,” which is incredibly accurate. I think that’s what translation is; it’s writing a book, translators are co-authors on any book. Sometimes the authority of authorship is something translators don’t always claim and, I think, that’s something about the way [the narrator] tells her story. She doesn’t necessarily claim responsibility for that authority but, at the same time, she’s definitely wielding it and using it: she’s an unreliable narrator, she’s manipulating the story, she says things that are untrue, she conceals information, reveals information when she wants to, she does things that are morally questionable.
You brought up the narrator’s reluctance to tell her own story. One of the elements that I found striking about the novel is this back-and-forth that she recalls between herself and Christopher when he tells her that her reserve is snobbish. You have this really nice line, she says, “Our marriage was formed by things Christopher knew and the things I did not.” That was an interesting approach to the narration of a relationship, that the narrator doesn’t know her own self or can only see herself through the perceptions of others. Can you talk a bit about that sense of self-alienation?
We encounter the narrator at a particular moment in her life with a lot happening that has to do with playing roles and pretending to be something that she’s not. She’s speaking from a real position of uncertainty and instability, both in her personal life and in her relationships but also in terms of how she understands herself. I think we all have a tendency to rely on certain social categories when we think about ourselves no matter how conscious we are about what those categories mean, our how they function, and the fact that they’re socially constructed.
We still have a tendency to think of ourselves through them whether it’s being a single woman or a married woman or a mother or not a mother, we understand ourselves through these constructions. At the moment of the narration, she doesn’t have recourse to these because she’s not any of these things. I think that’s the self-alienation, it’s in part her character but it’s also the precise moment of the story. She has agreed to maintain the pretense of her relationship with Christopher for the outer world so she’s already performing a kind of role that is at odds with her inner reality. That schism grows and grows over the course of the novel. I think something else that happens is the divide between the person you are and the role that you’re playing collapses quite suddenly.
It’s that old joke, somebody says, “I’m not in love with my wife anymore. What should I do?” and someone responds, “Pretend you’re in love with her and the love will come.” It’s a little bit like that. She’s playing a role and the role playing is so strong that it overtakes her inner reality. We all think of ourselves as having a precisely delineated identity, but I’m not sure that we do. It’s pretty unstable. The notion that there’s a true self that we can either protect or discover or be true to, I would question that.
The theme of the “true self” definitely runs through the novel. To play with that a bit, you have a nice observational line in the book about translators either taking a passage verbatim or working “in the spirit” of the original. You play with that with identity—how the narrator is constructing herself in this narrative—but also the idea of marital fidelity. I was wondering if you could tease out the connection you’re making with fidelity, be it the fidelity to the self or identity and the notion of fidelity within a marriage?
It’s interesting because quite a few people have asked me how I would place the book in the context of the “woman scorned” narrative. I don’t really think of [the narrator] that way in part because I wanted to complicate the meaning of fidelity, or of infidelity. Technically, Christopher is the one who has been unfaithful, but there’s also fidelity to the compact of marriage and she is the one who gives up on that pact first. In that way, she is the one who’s been unfaithful because she’s given up on that insane, deranged wager that you make in marrying someone. So there’s his infidelity but her literal lack of faith.
I think the idea of who has betrayed whom is very obvious but, in many relationships, it’s very difficult to trace where the fault lines are or how the fissures came into being. It’s rarely one person who is responsible for abandoning the relationship. For the narrator, the reason that she has this overwhelming sense of guilt towards the end of the book is that she realizes that she has been faithless.
Beyond that, she has zero investment in the idea of the one true self. She recognizes that her identity is completely mutable. That’s why she doesn’t have a name. A name is a way of fixing identity and that’s something that she resists.
Is that why so many of her relationships are ambiguous, too? Not just to herself but with her mother-in-law and the relationships that she forms with the people in Greece while she’s waiting for Christopher.
In the case of those particular relationships, they’re complicated because she’s playing a role. The person she has the most straightforward relationship with is Yvan, her current partner. But even that starts to disintegrate over the course of the book.
It’s funny, I do think that relationships function because we play roles. But the problem with her situation is that she’s too aware that she’s playing a role. In the book, there’s a moment where she’s looking at a honeymoon couple—an ultra-romantic couple that is also staying at the hotel—an ideal couple even though they are a cliche playing incredibly stereotypical parts. They work because they’re not aware that they’re playing parts or aware of the theater that they’re playing in. For her, the problem is that she’s all too aware of that.
That’s a tension that you explore in the book—that we’re all engaged in a performance but one that’s usually done so well, so effortlessly, that we don’t know we’re doing it. As you said, the narrator is deeply aware of this performance. Is that a tension that you purposefully wanted to explore?
Definitely. I knew the entire book was, on some level, going to be about playing roles. One thing that I came to as I was writing the book is the idea of the incredible efficiency of roles and identities in our lives. It’s something that I think about a lot. It’s no delusional to believe in these roles, it’s being functional in some ways.
There’s a hint of psychosis to the narrator because she doesn’t let herself inhabit those roles in the same way that everyone else does. That’s part of how we maintain a coherency to our psychology, is by playing these roles. There’s nothing pathological that she actually says, but there’s always an undercurrent to it in the book.
I want to ask you about the role of grief. It’s peppered throughout the book, there are the professional mourners—these women in Greece who are paid to cry at funerals—it’s very performative. There’s also the narrator’s performance of grief, of being a grieving widow. But grief seems stalled in the book. Even with her husband’s death, she never seems to get the resolution that she’s looking for. Christopher seems to haunt the narrator in both life and death.
The origins of the emotional landscape of book were set when I was on a trip to Mani about seven or eight years ago. My dad had been very sick with cancer and would die the next year. I had this grief and dread because I knew he wouldn’t recover. At the time, a friend who had recently lost her mother said to me, “They’re always there. They don’t go away.” I didn’t really understand what she meant at the time but now I do. I don’t think there is a moment of resolution or catharsis with true grief. It can remain unresolved for a very long time. At least that’s my experience—there’s never a moment when you can pass through the door and it’s gone.
That’s the fantasy of performance and theater and art—that it will allow you a catharsis but, in actual life, it’s much less resolved. You can find yourself struck by grief many years after you think you’ve recovered. For example, last year, six or seven years after my father died, I reached into the pocket of one of his old coats and found a list in his handwriting, it was just a shopping list but I was completely devastated. I cried in a way that I hadn’t cried since his death. The process of grief is so messy and non-linear. There’s such an insistence in our culture that you get over your grief, the five stages, the notion that it’s completely linear and when you reach the last stage, you’re done. It’s not my experience of grief or really any emotion.
That was in the back of my mind, the fact that there is no resolution. She’s in a state of greater uncertainty and greater grief than when the book begins.