Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Writing Place When You're Displaced

Good writing is a magic carpet that can take us to unknown places and make them familiar. In his essay “The Sense of Place,” Wallace Stegner makes the case that a person must dwell in a place for years before writing about it:
"If you don’t know where you are," (the poet) Wendell Berry said, "You don’t know who you are." ... (He) is talking about the knowledge of place that comes from working in it in all weathers, making a living from it, suffering from its catastrophes, loving its mornings or evenings or hot noons, valuing it for the profound investment of labor and feeling that you, your parents and grandparents, your all-but-unknown ancestors have put into it.
But what if you’re a newcomer, like myself and other immigrant writers? Can you write about a place that's not the “land where your fathers died?” Will you have the power to transport a reader there the way a native would? Not in exactly the same way, no. But readers can experience your fictional place as a stranger instead of an insider, or as someone slowly beginning to feel connected. Just as we turn a carpet over to gauge the quality of the weave, an outsider’s sense of place is as valuable as that of the deeply-rooted writer’s. Writing place from many different angles helps us to remember that none of us have the right to “act like we own the place” — because we belong to it, no matter how long we’ve lived there.

2 comments:

  1. And some of the best fiction is from this perspective, Mitali. I especially like Ishiguro's "Artist of the Floating World" for this reason.

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  2. I love Ishiguro's writing, too. His use of understatement is magnificent.

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