Thursday, November 26, 2009

From Where You Write

Short story writer and enthusiast Tania Hershman has been running a series at her blog about writing and place. I loved the most recent post by Cypriot short story writer and poet (who is apparently a Betty Boop look alike ) Nora Nadjarian. Pop over and read it. It has inspired me, perhaps it will do the same for you.

How much does where you write affect your writing?

I've been thinking about this for awhile. First, I live in Botswana but I am a naturalised citizen with a very rudimentary ability to speak the main language, Setswana. Under duress I can survive, but I will sound far stupider than I am. This is a handicap to me in many ways. Though Botswana is the only place I can call home and is the place where I have lived the longest, I will always feel like an outsider. Because of this, I sometimes hesitate with a story. Is it authentic for me to write this? Am I allowed from the widest moral sense to write this? I don't want to be like the old colonialists writing from a position of false authority, lies and speculations, interpretations from a foreign perspective. This is my biggest fear. I want to be a Motswana writer.

I also have yet really to write from my true position. I can't write a story about the outsider in this culture. It always comes out sounding bitter or judgemental and I'm not that way. I'm always astounded when I read the words, it's not how I feel. I can't seem to pull out far enough to find truth, so I lapse into another place that is only misunderstood emotion.

I try, when I write about Botswana, to stick to what I know for sure from experience; the experience of others.

And what of my birthplace? What of the effect of America on my writing? Oddly, almost all of my writing set in America is the opposite. Almost always autobiographical. If I try anything else it rings false and is sent to the dustbin. I have only part of the novel that I'm currently working on that is set in America and is not autobiographical in any way. I'm still not sure if that is working.

I find this very curious. Why can I not write from my perspective here in Botswana where I am an outsider who should see better from my view than anyone else's but yet am unable to see from any one's view but my own when I write of the place where I grew up? Is it as simple as the selfishness of a child? Can I only see America through my youthful eyes that lived there? But then what of the quandary here in Botswana? Have I lost me in the crowd?

I have applied for a writers' residency for next year. If I get it, I intend to use the month to work on a novel I am just beginning. In this novel, set in Botswana, I want to try my best to force myself to see from my eyes, the place I have made home. Somehow I hope that leaving here will let me see things slightly clearer. In any case it is an experiment. I'll let you know what happens.


Elspeth Futcher said...

This is a fascinating post, Lauri. It is interesting how, no matter where you live and how long you've lived there, if you weren't part of the culture from the beginning you feel somewhat an outsider. How fascinating that you have ended up where you are! There is a large part of me that envies you.


Helen Ginger said...

It'll be interesting to see how this new project goes. Writing about Botswana and publishing in the States would give you a strong platform, plus Botswana would be an exotic setting, which publishers here look for.

Straight From Hel

Lauri said...

Elspeth- My biggest problem is I'm a terrible traveller. Whereever I travel to I want to live. Currently I'm trying to get a home in Namiba. This is why my husband does like to let me out much. :)

Helen- I suppose you're right. I'm slowly creeping away from home with my writing. I was first only published here in Botswana, now I have a few books published in South Africa- my next step is to jump one of the oceans. We'll see how it goes....

Sue Guiney said...

Do keep us posted on this. really interesting. 2 questions: (1)in fiction, you can use character to "channel" other peoples' ideas and voices. Might that be one way to deal with your issue of it not ringing true? and (2) why a novel? How about a memoir, and one that deals honestly with all these questions?

Lauri said...

Sue- not sure I get the first question. What I find is if I try to explore my own issues through a character's voice I can't get it right. I feel like I can't see the truth about it. It could be I'm not the most reflective person some times. I just sort of get on with things. This is why I feel distance might help. I can stop my mechanisms and restart a new brain path elsewhere- if that makes sense???

I think the very reason you mention is the reason I need novel. I want to explore these issues freely. Memoir is too restrictive and my memory is too selective and quite fictitous in its own way.

Elizabeth Bradley said...

Elspeth said it, fascinating post! And I think Helen made a good point, Botswana is certainly an exotic locale to set your novel in. I remember when John Irving was out and about promoting his book, "Son of the Circus", and he talked about how he wrote about an Indian man in Toronto. I thought, nervy, an American proposing to write from the perspective of an East Indian man living in North America, and feeling quite displaced. I found the book unathentic, (one woman's viewpoint.) I have lived in four states here in the U.S., and in British Columbia, Canada. I still feel like a fish out of water in California, as I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. But I have lived here 2/3's of my life now! How odd.

Maxine said...

This is a really interesting post, Lauri, particularly having just read your short story in the New Internationalist One World Anthology. I was wondering, whilst reading, whether you do write from 'other' perspectives (I won't say 'outsider due to the following comment...). I feel (and granted I haven't read a whole lot of your fiction) that you write the insider so well because you ARE an insider, whatever preconceptions others might place on you. It's also a political choice in a way: why speak for those who already have so many venues and mouthpieces for their stories?

Lauri said...

Maxine , that story in One World is a perfect example. I used to teach at a "rich people's school" in the village where I live. It is based on a girl I taught. This is where I say I try to write only stories I have witnessed or have been part of for fear I might get it wrong. I don't know why I'm so careful with stories set in Botswana and yet I have a published story set in Indonesia after the tsunami that I feel no angst about. It is based only on research and few comments a university friend from Indonesia once told me.

Having said that I have a story coming out in a SA journal soon that is not from the realm of my experiences and yet is set in Botswana and I'm quite worried about it.

I think I'm a bit middling in terms of how integrated I am. I talk with other "outsiders" especially whites who are completely out of it, they are not part of this society in any way. So I'm further along the path than those people I guess.

And Maxine, your comment about political choice is interesting too. I have a lot of class issues in my make-up having grown up quite poor in a wealthy society. You may be right that here my skin colour pushes me to an upper class sort of life (my bank balance says otherwise of course) and do we really want to hear another story from the whiny, rich, white woman with her self-obsessed angst over things that mean very little? Not very enligthening or interesting to write. Perhaps you're right that has something to do with it too.

Anonymous said...

I think many writers are to a certain extent outsiders. It is necessary for us to be observers - even of our own lives - and this perceived lack of belonging if you like can lead us to feel we will never find our place or fit in.

My experience is somewhat different from yours but I still don't feel completely Australian. Even after all this time. It is something I think about a lot. I hope you get the residency because I would love to explore your thoughts on this further!

Gutsy Living said...

As a person who doesn't really belong in any place in particular, and yet feels comfortable in most, why not write your thoughts on the pros an cons you notice in different places and how others can learn and benefit from these. I guess this would be more non-fiction, but it could also be fictionalized.