Crossing Borders, Fictionally

April 9, 2011

Recently I went to an interview and reading by Elise Juska, author of three novels published so far and a fourth almost complete. Afterward, since I hadn’t yet read one of her books, I used my new Nook to download One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, the story of a woman who walks out of her uninspired marriage and then spends the rest of the novel trying to figure out what to do next. Though I got a bit impatient for something to happen, I admired the writing style—vivid but not flashy—the depth of the characters, and the play with multiple languages (American, Irish, academese, and crossword-puzzle-ese).

Talking about her novel in progress, Elise mentioned that, for the first time in her work, a male character is becoming one of the central figures. He’s also 63 or 64, I think she said, a good deal older than Elise herself, and she was working hard to imagine this guy’s life and mentality.

The comment got me thinking about the many borders that fiction writers need to cross. Unless we want to write book after book about people exactly like us, we’re forced to stretch our imaginations into regions we don’t know firsthand. Well, maybe Hemingway knew a lot firsthand, but most of us haven’t been involved in a foreign civil war and two world wars, hung around with bullfighters, shot big game in Africa, and gotten soused in Cuban bars.

For me, the gender border, about which Elise was concerned, is among the easiest to pass over. I don’t know why, but a woman’s POV seems not that difficult to imagine, and so far none of my female friends has chastised me unduly for failing to understand female characters. Of course I haven’t a clue what makes my wife tick, but that’s different.

Class and ethnic borders are much tougher for me. Say, for instance, that my plot needed a tattooed tough guy from Chechnya who dropped out of school at age eight, helped bomb Russian military outposts, then fled to America to join a crime gang. I could probably describe him externally. (Let’s see, try Googling “Chechen tattoo”? I think he has to be bald, right, with a close-cropped fringe? Raw-boned, smooth-shaven face. Six-one, waist size 40? Slightly faded red T-shirt. Uh-oh, I think we’ve created a stereotype.) Getting inside his head, though, would be tricky; even after a lot of reading about every related subject, I might end up with a miscellaneous bunch of traits rather than a whole, breathing, cussing character.

When ethnic boundaries become “racial” ones, we also face social/political restrictions, real or imagined. Not being a Native American myself, do I dare use one as a main character? Even if I think I can understand him or her, would I be transgressing? How much should I care?

Oddly, too, borders of place are hard for me to cross, even in our globe-trotting times. It’s not the look of a far-off place that’s the problem; it’s understanding what it feels like to be there every day. If I lived in northern Siberia for a year, how would the cold and darkness affect my psyche? What does the Arizona desert smell like to someone who’s been there her whole life? If I stayed for a decade in the Northwest, would the rains depress me, fertilize my brain, or merely make me guzzle more coffee and start a garage band?

It’d be interesting to hear from a number of fiction writers about the metaphorical borders that trouble them most. As for Elise’s concern about her 64-year-old male, I think she can safely assume there’s an infinite variety of individuals in that category, probably even some bald Chechens. Her bountiful imagination is the only visa she needs.

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