When Kristopher Jansma, author of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, was just entering his mid-20s, he found himself the primary caretaker of his sister who was fighting cancer, sharing his New York apartment with her and the variety of surprising items for her treatments, from medications to IV bags—things he had never considered before.
Sadly, his sister passed away. A year after losing her, Jansma began to write about what he had gone through. “I was still so angry and upset and lost for a long time after…but I was aware that I had been through something really big and really serious that most people my age probably haven’t had to deal with,” Jansma says. “Part of me didn’t want to learn anything from it. I didn’t want to feel like there was any sort of point for what we’d been through…. But that’s sort of what I love about writing is that it allows me to work through these things gradually.”
Jasma worked on what would become his new novel, Why We Came to the City, for about five years. “I started seeing these characters in my stories emerging who were dealing with grief, or trying to let somebody go, or grappling with mortality.” These characters, people he began to like, made their way into the novel. The book focuses on a group of college friends who five years ago moved to New York City together. At the beginning of the story, they are meeting for an annual holiday party—one event that guarantees they will be together. After five years, their insular group is starting to move in different directions: two are in love and planning to get married; one is running away from problems with a new job and lover in the suburbs; and one, Irene, is worried about the results of a biopsy she just had after finally doing something about the sensitive bump under her eye.
For Jansma, it was important that the reality of the situation set in at the beginning of this story. This isn’t a tale in which tragedy strikes off stage and characters enter the story already in the process of dealing with grief. Nor is this a tale in which tragedy is the climax of an otherwise hopeful tale of youth and boundless possibility. When Jansma was taking care of his sister during her illness, “it happened right in the middle of a million different things. Life didn’t stop in any way while it was all happening. All those normal things about life in the city didn’t go away or change…it’s just one more crazy thing you have to deal with on top of everything else.”
It was important that Jansma set the story in New York, as this was where he dealt with all of the emotions and experiences he places on his characters. “What I wanted the book to be about beyond Irene’s cancer is sort of what happens when you’re young, and in the city in particular, when you first have to face the reality that everything might not work out well in the end,” he says. Jansma sets the story in 2008, right in the middle of the most recent financial crisis. On top of his characters having to take care of Irene, they’re also worried about losing their jobs and experiencing stasis in the city that represented hope.
Jansma knows exactly what this felt like. “All of a sudden this sense of excitement that we had known was gone,” he says. “And it happened really fast.”
New York is its own character in Why We Came to the City. It is the figure of hope and the figure of possibility; it is also the cold, harsh place that houses the grief and painful experiences of Irene and her friends. “I wanted the city to be a constant character in the background of these people but to show how it’s always shifting underneath their feet. It never really stays still, and after a while it starts to feel like the city is almost trying to get rid of you,” Jansma says.
A scene in the book that still resonates weeks later is one involving Sara, the friend who takes it upon herself to be Irene’s primary caretaker, standing in a Duane Reade convenience store, trying to pick up adult diapers and medication for Irene and having a breakdown when she’s unable to purchase both items at the pharmacy stand. It’s in this moment of frustration that Sara stops fighting for a minute and realizes the gravity of Irene’s—and therefore her own—situation.
“I remember what it was like to be standing there with a million things on my plate. You never know what [people] are going through in their world,” Jansma says.
You never know what a person might be dealing with, but in New York, you do know that everyone around you is experiencing the same struggle to hold on to their lives in this city. Jansma’s novel is a story of loss, not only of a person’s life but of life as people know it. It’s a story of grief and also survival, of constantly shifting perspectives and expectations. You can’t live in New York and stay the same—the city won’t let you. It’s a home to millions of people who are constantly experiencing change within its borders.
You can hold on tight, or you can let go. As for Jansma, who’s experienced so much in New York and who is now a father and considering leaving New York after 12 years, “I was also hoping a little bit in writing this book that in writing it I could start to say goodbye, if I had to. I wanted to make sure the city knew how I feel about it before I left.”
Chelsea Langford is the assistant editor.