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What We Want When We Read

Sarah Chihaya, interviewed by Lucy McKeon
“I always hope to be totally destroyed by a novel.”  

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

In the April 29, 2021 issue we published Sarah Chihaya’s “All Over Desire,” a review of Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs, a novel full of women who “do not yearn for passionate fulfillment, and are largely unconcerned with desirability, romance, or sexual pleasure,” Chihaya writes. “They are finished both with trying to be desired and with the struggle of articulating their own desires in a society that will never fully acknowledge or fulfill them.”

Chihaya relates Breasts and Eggs to other recent fiction narrated by women, in which “the act of seizing one’s desire can seem touchingly futile…that a woman, or anyone for that matter, might be able to articulate and lay claim to exactly what they want is laughably unsuited to these uncertain times.”

I asked her this week if she’d read any novels recently that have a decidedly different approach to desire. “Iris Murdoch [has] been my quarantine obsession, partly because she writes about the experience and expression of desire in such intense, opaque ways,” Chihaya told me by e-mail. “There’s a kind of madness and inexplicability to the ways her characters want each other, and I don’t understand it, but I keep going back for more—fortunately, she wrote twenty-six novels, so there always is more.”

An assistant professor at Princeton, Chihaya has over the years taught middle school, high school, undergraduate, and graduate students. “Every one of these experiences has shaped the way that I think about both my work as a writer and my life,” she said. “This semester, I’m teaching a seminar on British cinema, which is one of my absolute favorite classes to teach, mainly because I love seeing what films students are most baffled by and which ones really move them in ways they hadn’t anticipated (almost always Ken Loach’s Kes).” In both teaching and writing, she is able to explore unexpected emotional or intellectual responses—her own and others’—in ways that feel connected and mutually reinforcing; “I always feel more alive and ready to make things when I’ve been teaching,” she told me.

Chihaya’s first book—co-authored with Merve Emre, Katherine Hill, and Jill Richards—is an experiment in just this sort of communal inquiry. In 2015, the four began writing collective criticism in response to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Originally published online at Post45, a journal for scholarly work about American literature and culture, their exchanges appeared last year in book form as The Ferrante Letters. I asked Chihaya how the experiment first began.

I was struggling to figure out what kind of work I wanted to do, or was even capable of doing, and failing to see where that work fit in the various structures of academic writing and publishing. Professional life felt lonely, and I just wanted to write with friends in a non-competitive, non-judgmental way.

I felt the stakes were quite low when the four of us started—we just wanted to make a community in writing, like so many other readers and writers (and selfishly, I wanted a professional reason to spend time thinking and talking with my friends)—and it has been incredibly exciting and encouraging to see that community expand.

Today, Chihaya is a part of Reading Room, a collective column on reading and life published by the literary magazine The Point. “Working on these writing projects has only made me want to do more collective and collaborative work,” she said. “I came to realize quite quickly that I am always better in conversation—I feel sharper and quicker and more creative when actively engaged with other people.”

In an essay of her own for Reading Room, Chihaya describes “looking for a certain kind of Asian-American novel, some of which exist and many of which have yet to be written.” I asked her to say a bit more about this search. “My understanding of the landscape of what ‘Asian-American’ writing and popular culture looks like is still in development,” she told me. “I will say that reading and writing on Japanese and Japanese American writers like Kawakami, Ruth Ozeki, Jillian Tamaki, and Adrian Tomine in the last several years has really challenged me to reevaluate what I think is possible or available in my own critical and creative work.”

Her book-in-progress, Bibliophobia: On Misreading and Being Misread, is a defense of reading. But Chihaya also questions the ways in which “loving literature” is romanticized, especially in public debate about the importance and future of the humanities. “Rather than focusing on the lessons that literature can offer readers about being more empathetic and expansively human, Bibliophobia considers how seemingly negative, uncritical reactions provoked by texts, like bouts of melancholy or introspection, can actually generate the most vital readings,” she explained. “The aspects of reading sometimes deemed pernicious or unproductive—over-identification, misidentification, obsession verging on paranoia, avoidance—are often the most essential elements of a reader’s or writer’s education.”


What, then, does she herself seek in the experience of reading? “I always hope to be totally destroyed by a novel,” Chihaya said. “I mean that in the best way! I love novels that you can’t stop reading until the last page, and once you get there, you feel an eerie certainty that the world outside has actually ended with the book.”

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