“In the electric light the traveler is writing”: At home and away


Foreign language scholars often find that they become someone else in many ways when they are elsewhere, inhabiting another language, another culture. Becoming immersed in a different culture and language is similar to writing fiction in this way: you enter a world and become someone in it so as to understand its order, its logic, its rhythms.

I am about to enter my last month of time at home with Audrey before I return to teaching. So I’ve been soaking in my time at home with her this summer. We’ve spent a fair amount of time in the backyard, tending our marigolds in the garden, swinging in the backyard swing, looking at bugs and butterflies together, and running through the sprinkler together (for Audrey, the first times).

When she’s napping or otherwise occupied, I write.

Fill in your own blanks, but these two things in tandem (spending time with my daughter on the cusp of year two, and immersed in my new novel) has made for some serious beauty this summer.

Two pieces have appeared recently by fellow writer-mothers that led me to put these thoughts together about this summer before I return to full-time teaching. Last week, I read Caitlin O’Neil’s lovely and inspirational essay about writing as the ultimate staycation. And then, a few days ago, Mary Vensel White wrote this astute essay based on Susan Sontag’s claim “if you want to go beyond something that is simply good or promising to the real fulfillment and risk-taking of a big body of work, you have to stay home.”

I was surprised and delighted by these two pieces juxtaposed with one another, as they fill in the gaps in something that’s been crossing my mind of late, that writing fiction is the ultimate escapist activity. It consumes your mind in a way that nothing else does. Even when I’m actually traveling—plane, train, car, in this country or another—I’m still in my skin, my life, my memories, my own awareness. Fiction? If you’re doing it right, you’re not just somewhere else – you’re someone else, too, consumed with their day-to-day, their consciousness, their joys and worries.

But so, too, does being a mother. I’m constantly amazed by the way that I perceive the world now – all of Audrey’s first times. The way the world must look from her vantage point, in terms of her stature, age, and experience. She amazes me.

And so motherhood and writing together? My world is all the more kaleidoscopic, multidimensional. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever need wanderlust again.

What first got me thinking about being somewhere else, someone else while writing was when I was drafting my introduction for an interview I conducted via email with Kazim Ali and Libby Murphy, the two translators of the first English edition of Marguerite Duras’ L’Amour, published this week by Open Letter Books. In my introduction I tried to convey to FWR readers—primarily fiction writers, of course—the experience of translating, and I compared it to inhabiting a character’s skin while that character was writing.

Truly great about the interview with Kazim and Libby was that, in addition to Duras’ mesmerizing text about former lovers’ return to the past, their responses to the interview questions also took me into another place.  Here: the sleepy seaside resort town of Duras’ novel. There: the idyllic gardens and house in Oberlin, Ohio, where the translators did their work. Voici the poet, exalting a literary giant. Et voilà, the careful French scholar, attending to the movement between languages.

So I find the cover of Duras’ L’Amour (are those windows, or doors?) altogether fitting for the book and our interview, not to mention this period in my life. And I am so grateful for these many returns.

Audrey sprinkler laughing

What to read while Chicago is downright canicular…

…here are some of my favorite novels featuring vivid scenes of winter:

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

My Antonia by Willa Cather

The Reception by Danielle Lavaque-Manty (not yet published, but will be soon!)

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Straight Man by Richard Russo

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt

Audrey on a snow-swinging mission, February 2013

Audrey makes tracks, February 2013

Il faut cultiver notre jardin: writing, gardening, and les filles qui poussent comme des fleurs

So last week, I attended this amazing Q&A/Discussion with Fadela Amara—founder of the French feminist organization for minority women’s rights, Ni putes ni soumises, and a particularly progressive cabinet member under former President Nicolas Sarkozy—at the Alliance Française de Chicago. I was there with my friend, former professor and (ahem) soon-to-be-colleague Ellen, who is a specialist of seventeenth-century French literature. At some point, a question from the audience came up about fears that racial tensions in France would “blow up” (exploser). The way the question was posed—by a student who further identified herself as a twenty-three-year-old Parisian woman—was particularly loaded and full of intolerant assumptions, which Amara called to attention in her elegant and nuanced way. She also said (I’m loosely translating here), “Man is not born a wolf. Man is made a wolf.”

I instantly thought of Simone de Beauvoir’s famous edict, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” I leaned over to Ellen and whispered, “De Beauvoir!”

She whispered back and said excitedly, “It’s Voltaire!” Later over dinner, she told me that she was pretty sure that Amara had used a direct quote from Voltaire’s picaresque satire Candide, ou l’optimisme, this bit about man not being born a wolf.

First, of course, that made me wonder if that’s part of where Beauvoir had developed her notion of the construction of woman. (Mind = blown.) But then, the next day, I was in my mom’s garden, which is transitioning leaf by leaf, bloom by bloom, day to day and night to night, from blossoming spring into riotous summer.

radicchio 3And that, of course, made me think about the quotation from Candide that is at least partially, if not fully, responsible for packing me off to graduate school: “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” (“We must cultivate our garden.”)

So Voltaire’s Candide is a satirical takedown of a lot of things, but this particular line advocates a balance between optimism and realism, the idea that even if we need to remain evenhanded about the world around us, there is much in our own day-to-day lives to appreciate and, indeed, cultivate.


And this made me think about the necessity of solitude to get writing done. It’s cultivating our own gardens—working on something inward—forgoing instant gratification in order to work toward the deeper pleasure of something that must be attended to, day by day, night by night, word by word, line by line, paragraph… well, you get the point.

Then I started to think about the French expression that’s more or less equivalent to “growing like a weed”: “pousser comme des fleurs” (in French, it’s gendered, I believe; I’ve never heard a little boy described as “growing like a flower.” But that’s a different issue, and I might be wrong about that.) And that made me think—of course and without question, as most things do—of my daughter Audrey.

This is Audrey in the garden, just about a year ago, with her cousin, my niece, Sophia:


This is Audrey in the garden, yesterday, nearly 21 months old:


Day by day, night by night… a child, a novel, a garden.