The cover of Emily Hashimoto’s debut novel, A World Between, features loops of different shapes, sizes, and colors that overlap and intersect. It’s a metaphor for women and their relationships with each other, as well as the multiplicity of bonds that any two women can have. It’s an homage to Adrienne Rich’s theory of a “lesbian continuum,” a concept that Hashimoto investigates and sets to the rom-com blueprint of When Harry Met Sally. Like the Ephron movie, we first meet the couple—Eleanor Suzuki and Leena Shah—in college, full of big dreams and idealistic notions. What develops from there explores how women’s relationships are anything but linear, how they instead wax, wane, and loop.
Emily Hashimoto’s personal essays and nonfiction writing have appeared in Out, Electric Literature, Catapult, Literary Hub, and here at The Rumpus, centering intersectional narratives. She lives in New Jersey with her wife and child.
Hashimoto and I were fellows at Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA) several years ago, where she was working on another project. I was delighted to connect over the phone to dive into the DNA of this book and how she so creatively plumbs the depths of women’s relationships and emotions.
The Rumpus: Your depiction of Leena and Eleanor really captures the idealism and optimism of college—where folks can often live more purely in their values. It’s in this idealistic bubble where we first meet them. When you were considering what their journey would be after college, what did you think needed to break for each character as they journeyed out of the bubble and into adult life?
Emily Hashimoto: Leena had such a trusted vision for herself: I’m going to med school, this is going to be my specialty, and this is what I’m going to do. As it sometimes happens, things don’t go as planned. When we meet her again in 2010, she’s on her backup plan. I think it’s a pretty good plan but she’s dealing with some of that. I think that’s what breaks for her—the acceptance of feeling, I am where I am right now. I don’t want to label her, even though she’s my invention, but we can say she’s a queer woman and she’s had a string of bad relationships. Maybe she has terrible taste in women! Things just didn’t work out for her. We find her reassessing her life and asking herself, “What do I really want and need?” So, she’s really open to whoever might come her way. And I can’t deny that there’s some societal and family pressure at play for her as she’s thinking about her future.
For Eleanor, what breaks for her is her dissatisfaction with work. I remember the idealism of college. I was a Women’s Studies major and I did a lot of women’s leadership programs. There was so much emphasis on what we could do in the world. But ultimately, when you’re twenty-one with no real professional work experience, no one’s going to be like, “You should lead the advocacy department at Planned Parenthood.” No one’s going to ask that of you for lots of different reasons, and I think most of them are valid. It’s something I’ve observed in young women coming out of college, if they have been trained in this way, they’re just impatient to jump right in and do it. In the school environment, you’re given a lot of power, autonomy, and authority, so there’s frustration where you think, I’m ready to go! I can do it. Why isn’t anyone letting me do it? For Eleanor, you see this disappointment in her first jobs. Her work life isn’t what she thought it would be.
Rumpus: I see from your description of Leena that she’s “floating.” And there can be a desire to attach ourselves to something structured when going through this phase. For some people it can mean marriage, while for others it could be grad school. Then as you get older, you might realize those were bad ideas, but at the time it gives you a way to stop floating.
Hashimoto: That’s a good observation. I think culturally there’s an idea of “what’s supposed to be next.” Like there are people who probably never wanted to have children but then they thought they had to! Or when people rush to get married because “it’s time.” It always makes me wonder if that’s really what they want, or if they’re like, “I don’t really know what to do… so I guess I’ll do this.” I wish that our menus of life choices were better or there was an acceptance that there are so many ways you can go.
Rumpus: When Harry Met Sally helped you structure the book. That movie had a core question: Can men and women just be friends? When you were writing this book, were you also guided by a core question that you wanted to explore?
Hashimoto: With When Harry Met Sally, I owe so much to that structure. I like the gallop through time. But in terms of the question that I was posing, or had in mind, it’s probably almost the flip: Can queer women just be friends?
This goes back to something that’s very Women’s Studies and somewhat nerdy: to explore the idea that all women exist on a continuum. It’s based on an article by Adrienne Rich that talks about how all women live on a lesbian continuum and we connect to each other in different intimate ways. It can be a caregiver caring for an elderly patient. Or it could be, as Rich suggests, two women in a laboratory. In the book, I go a little further and extend it to a lifetime, that you can go through different parts of the continuum with someone. For me, that’s what I was interested in exploring, even in other characters.
For example, Eleanor has an ex that we meet in the very beginning and the ex comes around again later and they’re friends… sort of. And you’ll see this with Leena, whose ex is in and out. It’s about the roles that people serve in our lives and how that changes. This is what binds it all together.
Rumpus: As you were exploring what the continuum means and looks like to you and crafting a narrative between Leena and Eleanor, what did you learn?
Hashimoto: I knew I wanted them to function in this changing way because it felt so true to what many queer women’s lives are like. You’re like best friends forever and then you’re married—these things happen! In terms of what I learned, I would say that happened in the writing and editing process. There are pages and pages that are not included [in the final book]. There were places I took Leena and Eleanor but ultimately chose I didn’t want them to go there. I didn’t want them to go to that place on the continuum because it didn’t serve either of them. It was going to be this drawn-out, friends-with-benefits thing, but actually hating each other, yet having good sex.
I guess you could say I learned more about them through the process. I would start writing and realize, “No, they wouldn’t do that. That wouldn’t be where they’d go.” The characters told me what they did or didn’t want. Sometimes I’d say, “You’re right, gals,” and I’d back off.
Rumpus: It sounds like you had an idea about how it was going to go and instead the characters or characters’ journeys started dictating something different than what you had in mind.
Hashimoto: Yes, definitely, and there were other elements. There weren’t a million people involved in my writing process. I wasn’t workshopping this with writing groups. I had a writing mentor through this program, Queer Art. Her name’s Sarah Schulman and she worked with me a ton. Her instincts are great and sharp.
For example, I don’t even think I showed any of this in writing to her, but there’s this specific kind of amnesia called transient global amnesia, which I learned about through RadioLab or This American Life. It’s like a writing device. It doesn’t sound real! You go back in time to a few years before and you repeat that moment and you keep looping. You can’t retain short-term memories. This happens for the period of time that you have this affliction and then it goes away without any problem. It’s a very weird thing that doesn’t happen that often. It’s so poetic! So, I’m thinking, what if one of them has this and loops back to 2010 while they were together in the present? Then I started thinking, “What’s the feasibility that this would happen?” It could happen of course, but it’s a little too on the nose.
Rumpus: So, what you’re saying is that idea was crushed by your mentor…
Hashimoto: Yes, I don’t think it connected for her! I also thought about scenes of “running through the airport,” or moments like that because When Harry Met Sally is a point of reference for me. I love rom-coms. It’s my favorite kind of “sci-fi.” It is not real, but it is enjoyable. Maybe as I get older it’s no longer true, but it’s just so cemented for me as a part of my upbringing. And I love the tropes! In fact, I couldn’t help but include some tropes. I’d like to think that they’re well-executed so it’s okay that they’re in there. But I did have to rid myself of some of that as I took in feedback. So, there’s a good balance and a focus on “what felt right.” Running through the airport wasn’t right.
Rumpus: You definitely have the “will they or won’t they” throughout the book!
Hashimoto: As a rom-com scholar, I definitely wanted to bring that in because it is effective. It keeps you engaged in a different way. It was interesting to figure out how you create chemistry on the page. It can be challenging. Even through editing, it’s about continuing to push moments where you feel like they’re destined, but also life gets in the way.
Rumpus: What did you want to show in the relationship between Leena and Eleanor that you hadn’t seen in queer lit?
Hashimoto: It is about their relationship but it’s also more about them as characters, as two queer Asian women. I don’t think I’ve seen it done, so that was part of it, to have that representation. And we talked about it before, but I also wanted to look at a relationship on a continuum because so many relationships in literature feel more linear. It felt true to show it this way.
It’s not just about their romantic relationship either; it’s about their relationship in total. They really are friends. There’s something deep that connects them, and they are attracted to each other. There are lots of things at play but they are people who are glad to know each other. It’s the kind of thing I wanted to see in a love story—the different textures a relationship could have.
Rumpus: I definitely saw the different textures of intimacy that they had: intellectual, emotional, spiritual, physical. They’ve also played different roles in each other’s lives. There was a point where Eleanor takes on a motherly role for Leena. You can see that in how she cares for her, nurtures her. I don’t want to reduce this to feminine archetypes, but you see them going through these archetypal changes as they relate to each other.
Hashimoto: As they intersect at different times in their lives, sometimes they’re getting exactly what they need from the other, and other times it’s a mismatch despite having a really strong bond.
There’s a lot of looping in the book. In a sort of meta moment, one of them actually mentions it in the elevator near the end. They talk about how things repeat themselves as you get older. I find that to be true. As it’s spread throughout the novel, things do loop back. There are two elevator scenes. Two mentions of the Alicia Keys song as an opening to two different kinds of mornings. It’s the song for Eleanor’s alarm clock; you hear it on one day and then you hear it again in the same year, but in a completely different moment in her life. In the end, Leena and Eleanor are in Boston again—bringing them back to the first time they met. This taps into the way that nostalgia plays out for people or how you derive meaning from the times in your life. Like you’re thinking, “I remember that time and I’m so different now,” or, “Wow, I’m feeling the same way that I used to.” This fits in with the whole idea of the continuum and how they weave in and out of different places on the continuum. It’s reflected in the cover, too.
Rumpus: The looping is interesting because it creates an interesting phenomenon for the reader, familiarity, a feeling of connecting dots, a little bit of deja vu. I would read something and think, I’ve already read this somewhere, and then I would attempt to look for how it was presented previously.
Hashimoto: So much of the DNA of the book is talking about growth and how we change, but sometimes that change is about going back. I think that about Leena. At the beginning of the book, she’s going in a certain direction and in the middle of the book, she’s going somewhere else. In the end she is still moving forward but wants to go back to something that was more essential about her before she went off course. This felt very true to my own life and what I’ve observed in other people, too.
Rumpus: You’re a debut novelist for a project that was years in the making, with plans for how you were going to launch, then the world came to a pause. How has it been for you to debut your book during the pandemic?
Hashimoto: This is a strange time to promote a book and say, “Hey, read my book about two queer women!” I’m hoping there’s someone who needs it and can relate to it. So much of this book takes place in the past. I’m hoping it might be nice for someone to read about a time when we thought George Bush was the worst thing that was ever going to happen to us! What did we know? It was definitely interesting for me to look back and see what my problems were as a younger person and think about what I didn’t know. The things that keep you up now versus then are different, like that crush you keep thinking about! So, hopefully there’s some good stuff for people.
I had some anxiety about a book tour. I have a two-year-old and I knew what departing from her and my wife would cause: missing them, feeling guilty to be away. But if I’m being honest, there was a part of me that was really excited to get away! While I didn’t get that experience, being able to virtually connect with people who really respond to the book has been incredible. There are people on Instagram who are very excited to read my book and want to talk about it and ask me questions. That has been such a joy.
Photograph of Emily Hashimoto by Eric McNatt, for the 2017 QueerArt Community Portrait Project.