Read/Write Challenge – Day 23

Hi readers! Ready for another short story? Today let’s look at a piece of contemporary fiction, The Boundary, by Jhumpa Lahiri, published in the January 29, 2018, issue of The New Yorker.  The story is told from the point of view of a teenage girl whose immigrant family works to keep up the vacation house where a writer (maybe the author?) and her family are staying while on vacation. We learn quite a lot about the narrator through her voyeuristic recounting of the family’s stay.

Incredibly, Lahiri taught herself Italian and wrote this story first in Italian and then translated it into English. Check out this earlier interview–in which she discusses the difficulties and rewards of writing in a different language and of translating her own work–and an excerpt from her book, In Other Words, her dual-language memoir about what prompted her to reinvent her writing life in this way.

One Thing I Noticed: As Lahiri notes in the interview, there are things about this story that we as readers simply don’t know. We know that this is a vacation home, maybe in Italy, but nothing more specific. We know that the narrator’s parents are immigrants struggling to fit in in a foreign place, but nothing about where they’ve come from. We only know what the narrator knows or cares about and, to her, the place where her parents came from, which they may not talk very much about, is simply not worth mentioning.

You might note this, as a reader, and appreciate the fact that it gives the story a more universal applicability. Cool, you think, these could be the experiences of a lot of different people, in a lot of different places.

But as a writer, this is a pretty big deal! One of the most paralyzing things about sitting down and putting words on a blank page is the thought that you need to know everything about a place, or a person, or a situation, before you can write. Unless you’ve lived a jet-setting, adventurous life, writing what you know gets boring. But writing what you don’t know seems risky. You might misapply a fundamental law of physics if you try to write sci-fi, or write about a historical character using a household appliance that was not invented during her lifetime. So yes, sometimes research is necessary. But sometimes it isn’t. If you don’t know something, just say your character doesn’t either and charge right ahead, describing things just as your character sees them and just as he or she understands them. You can use point of view to get yourself off the hook sometimes.

One Idea: Think of a vacation you have been on. Write about yourself and your fellow vacationers from an outsider’s point of view, someone who knows nothing about you except what can be observed. Treat yourself anonymously. Tell us something about your narrator based on what details about you he or she notices.