Karl Taro Greenfeld is a half-Japanese, half-Jewish writer whose work has taken him around the world in many ways. He was managing editor of TIME Asia, editor of Sports Illustrated and is the author of two books about Asia. Triburbia is his first foray into fiction, and is a Dubliners-esque portrait of a city–New York and specifically TriBeCa–through its people and parents. In the well-written series of stories that somehow all coalesce into a novel, parents learn how to parent by doing and kids learn how to torment one another much as the adults involved torment themselves. Greenfeld took time to do a Q&A with Kveller’s Jordana Horn about the transition from journalism to fiction, nightmares of parenting, and books with pink covers.
Your book is an ensemble piece of sorts, focusing on various parents in TriBeCa. What made you–a journalist who’s written extensively on Asia–take on this particular subject?
I was living in TriBeCa and then we moved to Pacific Palisades, California for a few years—we’re back in TriBeCa now—and that caused me to look back at TriBeCa and think about that time and place. It’s very similar to how I wrote Speed Tribes after moving from Japan back to the US. Somehow, when I am living in a place, the intensity of experience makes it hard to write about. But with the perspective of distance, ideas come into focus and I can get a better idea of what I want to say about a place. The distance helps to freeze a place in time; if I’m not there, I’m not taking in any new data about a place and I can sort of walk around it as if it is a three-dimensional model on a table and study it from different angles and make connections between places and people. It’s very hard writing about a place while you are experiencing it.
You live in TriBeCa with your wife and two girls. Has publishing this book changed how people, particularly other parents, see you in the “hood”? Did writing this book change your approach to parenting at all–whether how you perceive the actions of others or your own?
My wife was upset when she read the book, saying that some of our friends would be angry with us. But I see the characters all as such fictional creations I don’t think anyone should feel they are in the book. I mean, every single thing in the book is made up, besides some of the locations, so I would be surprised if some truth ended up in there. I don’t really have an approach to parenting, besides trying not to lose my temper, and failing. We’re a family that argues too much, and loudly. I wish we weren’t.
You describe yourself as half-Jewish, half-Japanese. How does that play out in terms of your religious observance or cultural identification, and that of your kids?
We are a family mired in godless secularism.
The kids in the book are pretty savvy–and some of them are very cruel. Does this portrayal of kids come from your own experience as a father? Do you think city kids are perhaps more cruel than suburban ones?
I could not have written this book before I had children, and I sometimes think that reviewers who don’t have children themselves are missing substantial ideas and tides in the novel. In watching my daughters, I’ve been surprised at how cruel little girls are to each other, and how brutal their social interactions can be. Perhaps grown up interaction is just as cruel—certainly, in Triburbia it is—but it is harder for me to discern the alliances and transgressions, or perhaps we are better at spewing a civilizing gauze that somehow obscures the cruelty. But kids, kids can be so guilelessly mean to each other. All while looking and acting so sweet and nice. I watched my daughters get bullied and as a parent, I had no idea how to fix it. When you approach the parents of the kids in question, much of the time you get a “kids should learn to work it out for themselves” kind of answer which, of course, works perfectly for the parent of the kid doing the bullying, but for the kid being bullied means more hell. And you can’t take it up directly with the 9-year-old because that would be viewed as violating some rules of decorum. So what do you do? It’s a nightmare. That’s why the story in the book about the gangster father whose daughter is being picked on by another 9-year-old is one of the most effective in the book. It takes a man who is so powerful in the adult world and shows how he is completely powerless in the kid world.
Your book has been applauded generally as a work of literary fiction. Yet I’d argue that if you were a woman, the book–cerebral and provocative as it is–would have a pink cover slapped on it in no time and labeled “chick lit.” Do you agree or disagree, and what do you think of the classification “chick lit” generally?
Congratulations, you are the first reader to make what I felt like was an obvious observation! In fact, when a chapter of Triburbia was excerpted in Harper’s, the editor sent me a note saying “Best chick lit ever!”, because he and I had spoken about how this could almost have fit into that genre. I think it could have passed as chick lit, if I were a woman. In fact, one of the books I always thought it most resembled was one of the Ur-books of chick lit, The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank, which was a great novel of linked stories and somehow informed Triburbia.
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