Claire Stanford is the author of "Happy for You" and will appear this weekend at the Bay Area Book Fest. (Photo/Laura Pardo)
Claire Stanford is the author of "Happy for You" and will appear this weekend at the Bay Area Book Fest. (Photo/Laura Pardo)

Bay Area Book Fest: Claire Stanford’s debut novel takes on tech-driven obsession with happiness

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J.’s coverage of books is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund

Evelyn Kominsky Kumamoto, the protagonist of Berkeley-raised author Claire Stanford’s debut novel, works at the San Francisco headquarters of “the third-most-popular internet company.” She is helping to develop an app called JOYFULL that aims to “revolutionize happiness” by reminding users to drink water, exercise and show gratitude. It is a project she feels increasingly conflicted about, especially after the app assigns her a happiness rating of 7.1 out of 10.

“You’d think that people want to be told that they’re happy, but really, I think what people want even more is to feel understood,” she says during a meeting with her boss. Her future at the company, at this point, is up in the air.

Meanwhile, she is trying 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. “Same Old Testament,” Kumiko says. Then Evelyn becomes pregnant unexpectedly.

During a recent interview on Zoom, Stanford told J. that Evelyn “is grappling with a lot of questions that I was also grappling with around what she wants to do for work, around marriage, around motherhood and especially around a lot of pressures that she is feeling from society as a woman in her early 30s.”

“Happy for You,” which came out 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 about 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 Hebrew school and summer camp at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, and she celebrated her bat mitzvah there in 1998. (She is not related to Leland Stanford, the founder of the university, but she is related to the prolific, nonagenarian San Francisco writer Herbert Gold.) She recalled how each Hanukkah, her non-Jewish, Japanese mother, Michiyo Kawachi, made latkes and Japanese-style tempura dishes. “Maybe everyone thinks their mom makes the best latkes, but I think she definitely makes the best latkes,” she said.

Despite sometimes feeling like she didn’t fit in as a mixed race child in Jewish settings, Stanford said she recognizes today that “there’s so much joy to having two heritages to draw 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 that looked back at us in the synagogue were white and my face was something else, not white, but not not-white, either.” As for Evelyn’s Japanese father, he chooses not to convert to Judaism after being rebuffed by a rabbi holding to the custom of denying a potential convert three times — though, after much practice, he does recite 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 more simplified and straightforward narratives.” Evelyn does not need two Jewish parents “in order to feel that she is 100 percent Jewish,” she said. (Stanford’s mother also chose not to convert, though not because she was turned away by a rabbi.)

After earning a B.A. in English from Yale and working entry-level jobs in publishing in New York City, Stanford decided to pursue an M.F.A. at the University of Minnesota. The novel she worked on during that program is sitting in a drawer, she said. She is now in the final year of a Ph.D. program in English at UCLA, with aspirations of teaching literature, creative writing, or a combination of the two. Her dissertation, titled “Future Asians: Orientalism and Post-Humanism in 21st Century U.S. Science Fiction,” examines works by Asian American writers Charles Yu, Franny Choi and Sun Yung Shin. (Post-humanism refers to “clones, A.I., cyborgs, stuff like that,” she said.)

Liana Liu, an MFA classmate of Stanford’s and the author of two novels for young adults, said she was not surprised that Stanford had decided to pursue a career in academia.

“She’s such an intelligent person, and her love of books is so broad,” Liu told J. “She was always seeking out more theory-based classes than some of the other people in our program, which I was always impressed by.”

That 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.

An early reader of the novel, Liu said it “speaks to the experience of being a sensitive person in a society that really isn’t set up for human emotions in a lot of ways. It feels like that breath where you take a moment to notice the world around you and to see it clearly.”

Stanford said she hopes the novel gets readers thinking about “how to live life on your own terms, outside of the algorithm, outside of late capitalism, outside of gender norms — all these kinds of pressures that Evelyn is facing.”

One person who succeeded in doing just that, to hear Stanford tell it, was her paternal grandmother, Florence Stanford, of Shaker Heights, Ohio. “She was a huge world traveler” well into her 80s, Stanford said, and she often traveled alone and made friends wherever she went. While talking about her grandmother, Stanford showed off a big turquoise ring she inherited from her. She has been wearing her grandmother’s jewelry more often while promoting her novel, she said.

So what makes the author of “Happy for You” happy?

“That’s a hard question,” she replied. “I think I have a happy life, especially with my book coming out. But I would say happiness is not a number one goal for me, either.”

“Happy for You” by Claire Stanford (Viking, 256 pages). Available to order from Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley and online retailers. Stanford will participate in an in-person panel discussion at the Bay Area Book Festival at 11 a.m. Sunday, May 8 in-person at The Marsh, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley. $12. Details here.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.