Claire Stanford’s first novel tackles our obsession with happiness – J.
Evelyn Kominsky Kumamoto, the protagonist of Berkeley author Claire Stanford’s debut novel, works at the San Francisco headquarters of “the third most popular Internet company.” She helps develop an app called JOYFULL that aims to “revolutionize happiness” by reminding users to drink water, exercise and show gratitude. It’s a project she feels increasingly conflicted about, especially after the app gave her a happiness rating of 7.1 out of 10.
“You would think people want to be told they’re happy, but really, I think what people want even more is to feel understood,” she said during a meeting with the application team. His future in the company, at this point, is up in the air.
Meanwhile, she tries to navigate complicated relationships with her longtime boyfriend, Jamie, and her father’s new fiancée, Kumiko, who invites her to attend a Japanese church with the couple, even though Evelyn is Jewish. “The same Old Testament,” Kumiko says. Then Evelyn unexpectedly becomes pregnant.
During a recent Zoom interview, Stanford told J. that Evelyn “is struggling with a lot of questions that I’ve also grappled with around what she wants to do for work, around marriage, around motherhood and especially around a lot of pressures that she feels from society as a woman in her early thirties.
“Happy for You,” which was released last month, is “a resonant meditation on what it means to be happy in an increasingly tech-saturated world,” according to Publishers Weekly. Stanford, 37, will participate in an in-person panel discussion on literature and technology at the Bay Area Book Festival on May 8, as well as a virtual Jewish Book Council event with novelist Gary Shteyngart on May 12.
As a child, Stanford attended Congregation Beth El Hebrew School in Berkeley and celebrated her bat mitzvah there in 1998. (She is not related to Leland Stanford, the university’s founder, but she is related to prolific nonagenarian San Francisco writer Herbert Gold.) She recalled how every Hanukkah, her non-Jewish Japanese mother, Michiyo Kawachi, prepared Japanese-style latkes and tempura dishes. “Maybe everyone thinks their mom makes the best latkes, but I think she definitely makes the best latkes,” she said.
Although she sometimes feels like she doesn’t fit in as a mixed-race child in a Jewish background, Stanford said she now recognizes that “there’s so much joy in having two heritages on which to lean on”.
In “Happy for You”, Evelyn’s Jewish mother encourages her to embrace “the heritage she felt was mine, by blood and by right, no matter that all the faces looking at us in the synagogue were white and my face was something else, not white, but not non-white either.As for Evelyn’s Japanese father, he chose not to convert to Judaism after being rebuffed by a rabbi holding to the custom to turn down a potential convert three times – although, after much practice, he recites a Hebrew prayer at Evelyn’s bat mitzvah.
Stanford said the father’s decision not to convert was important to her because “the book is about getting out of simpler, more direct narratives.” Evelyn doesn’t need two Jewish parents “to feel like she’s 100% Jewish,” she said. (Stanford’s mother also chose not to convert, but not because she was turned away by a rabbi.)
After earning a BA in English at Yale and working entry-level publishing jobs in New York, Stanford decided to pursue an MFA at the University of Minnesota. She is now in her final year of a doctorate. program in English at UCLA, with aspirations of teaching literature, creative writing, or a combination of both. His dissertation, titled “Future Asians: Orientalism and Post-Humanism in 21st Century US Science Fiction,” examines the works of Asian American writers Charles Yu, Franny Choi, and Sun Yung Shin. (Post-humanism refers to “clones, AI, cyborgs, stuff like that,” she said.)
Liana Liu, a Stanford MFA classmate and author of two young adult novels, said she was not surprised Stanford decided to pursue a career in academia.
“She’s such a smart person and her love of books is so broad,” Liu told J. “She was always looking for more theory lessons than some of the other people in our program, which always impressed me.”
This intellectual curiosity is on display in “Happy for You,” with characters referencing the work of a number of philosophers, including Aristotle, Nietzsche, Montaigne, and UC Berkeley professor Judith Butler.
One of the novel’s early readers, Liu, said it “talks about the experience of being a sensitive person in a society that’s really not set up for human emotions in many ways. It’s like that breath where you take a moment to notice the world around you and see it clearly.
Stanford said she hopes the novel will inspire readers to think about “how to live life on your own terms, outside of the algorithm, outside of late capitalism, outside of gender norms — all those kinds of pressures that Evelyn faces”.
One person who managed to do just that, to hear Stanford say, was his paternal grandmother, Florence Stanford, of Shaker Heights, Ohio. “She was an avid world traveler” well into her 80s, Stanford said, and she often traveled alone and made friends wherever she went. Speaking of her grandmother, Stanford showed off a chunky turquoise ring she inherited from her. She wears her grandmother’s jewelry more often when promoting her novel, she said.
So what makes the ‘Happy for You’ author happy?
“That’s a tough question,” she replied. “I think I have a happy life, especially with my book coming out. But I would say happiness is not my number one goal either.