Emily Hashimoto on what makes a feminist love story
Plus the musicals + classic 80s rom-com that influenced her debut novel
Later this week, I’ll be reviewing Emily Hashimoto’s debut novel, A World Between.
The book centers on Eleanor Suzuki and Leena Shah, who first meet in college in 2004 and fall into a whirlwind romance. They ultimately part ways, only to bump into each other on the street in San Francisco six years later. What follows is a complicated relationship as exes, friends, roommates, and sometimes more—and all of the messiness, tenderness, and love that comes along with it.
You’ll hear all about how much I loved it on Thursday.
In the meantime, I had a chance to talk with Emily about musical influences, queer references, and what makes a feminist love story. Enjoy!
Photo by Eric McNatt
Becca: One thing that really interested me even before I read the book was that it features two queer women of color as the main characters, which, even in 2020, is still a depressingly rare thing. And the type of relationship it features (a relationship between two women that’s a little complicated) is even more rarely represented even though it's something that happens all the time in real life. Was that something you thought about while writing—that you were telling a kind of story that hasn’t really been told in literature before?
Emily: It was on purpose, for sure. I really wanted to reflect the kinds of relationships I know. I have so many friends who broke up with their partners, maybe broke up three times, and now they’ve been married for 20 years. I think lots of people don’t have a linear narrative and—not to say that straight people do, but it’s just a more complicated thing, you know? So many people are best friends for five years, then maybe have a falling out, then fall in love, then have another falling out… this is what happens, and it felt really true and honest to reflect that.
You read the book, so you know that there are, very nerdily, a lot of mentions of Adrienne Rich and her essay Compulsory Heterosexuality. Truly, that is the underpinning of the book, and what a strange place for a love story to begin! But it began with that idea that women can move on the “lesbian” continuum. The word lesbian doesn’t work for me and doesn’t really work for the book, but I’ll use it because that was Rich’s word. But I think the ability to move to different parts of that continuum in different parts of life just felt true, and like it represented something that was super formative for me, as a women’s studies major. It felt like a great sort of blend to be able to take that concept and use it in a book, but then also have it be a reference point because it was, and it would’ve been [for the characters].
Yes! It’s so interesting how the characters and their relationship evolve, and towards the end I wondered whether it’s even technically “romance.” Parts of it certainly feel that way, but the relationship isn’t strictly romantic. At some points Eleanor and Leena are friends, at some points they’re roommates with lots of sexual tension, and at other points they’re completely separate. So I’m curious to know whether you’d consider the book a romance novel, or something else entirely.
It’s been really interesting to hear what reviewers call it and how it gets sort of “boxed.” I do think of it as a love story, but I wouldn’t call it a romance novel because that has a lot of other connotations. And I’ll take them! I wouldn’t say it’s specifically not that. But the book isn’t just about their romance in a traditional sense. It’s about their romance as friends and their romance as people who disagree with each other strongly, and there’s more to it than that. So it’s true, it’s not just that. But I do often call it a love story, because it’s ultimately about love. Sometimes hate, too! But mostly love. Love of different kinds.
That makes sense. I think the other thing that sets it apart from romances I’ve read is that it feels like we get so much more context here. In some books, it’s almost like the main characters are put in a vacuum—but here, Eleanor and Leena’s families play such a big role, and they have these whole other lives outside of one another.
That felt really important to me, because queer women, women of color, queer women of color, everybody—we don’t lead context-free lives. It’s not like you just show up and have your first girlfriend. There’s so much that goes into how you exist in the world and what makes you comfortable and what doesn’t, and what you even know about love and relationships. We’re all so formed by that.
I also think that for me, being a queer woman of color, being married to a queer woman of color, thinking about my friends—it just felt so important to bring all of those aspects in. I’ve seen these things play out for friends in really beautiful ways, in really heartbreaking ways, but it’s true that we bring our selves into the world in so many different ways.
I’ll be honest, the thing that made me go out and buy this book was a piece in LitHub where you cited When Harry Met Sally as an influence. I think the clearest connection is the way you skip past the years where Eleanor and Leena aren’t in each other’s lives to where they meet again, but it feels like there’s more to it than that and I was wondering if you could talk a little more about that.
It’s one of my favorites! It’s not without its problems, but it’s something that I always come back to. It just struck me! So when I started talking about the book, before I was deep into writing, I would say, “I’m writing a lesbian When Harry Met Sally,” just to like, I don’t know, be funny. But I love watching stories, and especially love stories, play out over time because of the ways we change and the ways we learn or the ways we struggle to change and can’t. That’s something I think is sort of interesting in the book—the growing pains that happen at all different points. We all have those growing pains, and we maybe go back, retreat on ourselves, but we learn and we grow. Hopefully! And I love the space for that.
I will say, to be totally honest, that there was a running-through-the-airport scene at the end that never came together. Because it shouldn’t! I’ve sometimes called this a feminist love story, and I hope what readers get out of it is that they love Eleanor, and that they love Leena, and that this is a love story for them, about them. And what happens after the ending, I’ve thought about a lot. I have some speculation. But my real hope is that with Eleanor and Leena, I leave them better than where I started them. And to me that’s a feminist love story.
The book switches back and forth between Eleanor and Leena’s points of view, but there’s only one scene we get to see from both women’s perspectives—where Eleanor is waiting for Leena outside her bedroom after an argument. Why did you choose to show that particular moment through both of their eyes?
It’s a quiet book, right? But that scene is where there’s sort of a swell of drama, of feeling, and there’s a lot to unpack.
I knew I wanted the baton to go back to Eleanor so we could get a little bit of her in 2010. I wanted us to see her and where she was. Again, there’s this theme of change and I wanted to show the ways in which she’s different from six years ago, along with the ways in which she’s not. And that moment felt like it earned enough to take us back. But it really, to me, is like a 360 view of the event and what happens. It’s rich. Do you know the musical The Last Five Years?
Sort of! I’ve heard a bit of the soundtrack, but I’m not solid on the plot.
So basically, [the two main characters] are separate the whole time but they cross paths right in the middle. That’s the only time they’re singing together, otherwise they’re separate and singing about and to each other. So this is that kind of passing moment, and it gives you a lot of context. From Leena’s perspective, you don’t really know what’s up with Eleanor. There’s subtlety, and there’s a lot going on in her mind. With that change, we can see Eleanor in a different way. And to be able to know a little bit more about that and pull it all apart felt really important.
I’m also thinking now about another musical reference—the twin songs in Hamilton, where you see what happens from one point of view and the next song takes you right back to the same series of events. Did that influence me? Maybe. But it’s that same idea that the ability to get another point of view can be really powerful.
Speaking of references, I loved all of the queer pop culture references in the book! From the Adrienne Rich essay to The L Word to the Mia Hamm poster in Leena’s childhood bedroom, there’s so much that I feel like any queer person reading this will connect with. Was that intentional?
That’s a great question! There’s a little texture to both Eleanor and Leena. I think as I looked to fill that out, they both have a little bit of me, but those references are all about them. So I mean, right on the first page we talk about short fingernails and big watch faces. [Emily holds up her hand to reveal short fingernails and a big watch face on her wrist.] Those are things, right? I don’t know why, but those are things.
And then there’s even maybe-not-queer stuff—like Leena is reading Oliver Sacks, she’s reading Neil deGrasse Tyson. To me, their worlds needed to feel really real, and so they came with these reference points. What are the things they would be talking about? Rachel Maddow gets mentioned, which is maybe a very obvious one, but it felt like the world needed to be populated with all of these bits. There are some from my world, some not, but I know enough about our culture to know that, say, the Mia Hamm thing would be a thing for someone of a certain age, right? Wasn’t it at the World Cup where she… ?
Ripped her shirt off, right?
Yes! I don’t know if boys had feelings about that, but I feel confident that some young women did. [Ed. note: We were both wrong—this was Brandi Chastain.]
Oh, yeah. And I feel like some of the references are almost an inside thing. Like if a straight person is reading the book, they may not pick up on every single reference or the subtext it holds, and I kind of love that. And then details like Leena and Eleanor going to Ginger’s and Cubbyhole are so fun because of course these are places they’d be going while living in New York.
Totally. I will say, though, that bar closings are a heartbreaker. I don’t know if you ever went there but The Lex, in San Francisco, closed as I started writing. So some of it is sad but it’s sort of nice to revisit these things that used to exist. Like Cattyshack is no more, but those things are there [in the book].
I also think there are these other things that are, like you said, maybe “inside.” Like I think there’s a reference to them accidentally dressing alike… [laughs]
Yeah! Just a thing that happens! And you might not notice it or it might not mean the same thing if you don’t have your own context.
Thanks for reading, and keep an eye out for my review of A World Between on Thursday.