25 Women to Read Before You Die

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Personal Geography

I've lived a wandering life. I didn't plan it this way, but somehow I've managed to move every few years since I was 16 — for school, for work, and sometimes out of a sheer itchy restlessness that I can't entirely explain, even to myself. As a result, I spend a lot of time feeling homesick for the places that came before, while simultaneously casting an eye to the seductive destinations that are up next.

I've often feared that this nomadic tendency of mine is a character flaw, or — perhaps just as worrisome, from a writer's point of view — an aesthetic one. After all, isn't the best writing supposed to be colored by the landscape that gave birth to it, infused with its special climate and culture, like wine?

No small part of Faulkner's greatness lies in how vibrantly he conjured Yoknapatawpha County, the entwined personalities and lengthy, tortured histories of its inhabitants. Joyce lived in exile from his native Ireland but every word he wrote is both about and of that country. Alice Munro's stories venture far and wide, but she returns, time and again, to the small-town Ontario that seems to have formed her.

I'm from the suburbs. Since I left home, I've lived in college dorms and apartments and houses, in the desert Southwest, on a boarding school campus, in two small New England towns and several mid-size cities.Since I left home, I've lived in college dorms and apartments and houses, in the desert Southwest, on a boarding school campus, in two small New England towns and several mid-size cities. If place is who you are — and how you're supposed to write — then I'm a patchwork of influences, a collage of cultures.

For years, the fact that I didn't write from or about some singular place lent credence to that voice in my head that kept saying, you are never going to be a real writer.

But as I got older, I tried to let go of this fear. Part of growing up is accepting the person — and writer — you are, instead of wishing you were somebody else. By this, I mean not that you shouldn't stretch the boundaries of your imagination, but that you should use your background as a strength, and find the voice that's yours, based on your particular experience of the world.

So this new novel, Inside, is a wanderer's book. It's a story full of places, not rooted in one but touched by many. It's made of travel, and those twin beasts of restlessness and homesickness, and starting over.

The book begins in Montreal, where I grew up. In the opening scene, a woman named Grace, a therapist, is cross-country skiing when she comes across a man who has tried to commit suicide. Her attempts to save him change both of them, with consequences that radiate out to the other people in their lives. Into these Montreal chapters I put some of my favorite memories of the city: lovely Mount Royal, the city park where I too once skied. The linguistic habit of switching back and forth, often within the same sentence, between English and French. The silver light of early afternoon in winter, the short day already fading.

Later, a troubled girl named Annie, one of Grace's patients, flees Montreal to reinvent herself in New York and then Los Angeles, two cities where I've spent a lot of time. Just like Grace, Annie's life changes when she reaches out to help someone else — in her case, a teenage runaway who reminds her of her younger self — discovering the importance and complexity of such an act.

In New York, she lives in the East Village, where I myself moved straight out of college, and takes on a pose of jaded, edgy cynicism, finding in the city's turbulence an anonymity that suits her. In L.A., she realizes, as I have, that there is more beneath the city's sunny surface than is readily apparent at first, and winds up falling in love.

The geography of Inside contains other people who matter to Annie and Grace: Grace's ex-husband and patients. Annie's parents and friends. Like everybody else, I suppose, their maps of the world are individual ones, drawn by the loved ones who serve as compass points and borders.

Through Grace's ex-husband Mitch, the novel includes a section in Nunavut, in northern Canada, a place I saw long ago and have never forgotten.As a teenager, I traveled to Baffin Island to hike through Auyuittuq National Park. Auyuittuq — in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit, it means "the land that never melts" — is austerely, uniquely beautiful. In writing these passages, I returned to my memories of that trip, which helped me to understand, in some small way, the enormous expanse and diversity of Canada.

Through Tug, the former aid worker Grace meets while skiing, there is also a section in Rwanda, a place I've never been but whose history I was drawn to. For this part, I drew on research — news accounts, film and television documentaries, and the work of writers like Philip Gourevitch and Gil Courtemanche.

Montreal, New York, Los Angeles, Iqaluit, Kigali: each of these places escorts a different mood into the book. The shifts in geography mark moments of connection or disjunction in the lives of the characters, as they try to help each other, fall in love, make mistakes, start over, and return home. The book ends where it began, in Montreal, the place that — no matter where I live — I will always call home.

As for myself, these days I'm more settled, having spent the past few years in Pennsylvania, where I teach. But I still wonder — what does place mean in an era when transience is a fact of life, when so many of us live far away from where we began?

I don't know. But maybe those of us whose lives are a patchwork should see it as a privilege. Wandering helped me grow up; it deepened my experience of the world, made it big and sad and fun and complicated and interesting. And I wouldn't have written this book without it.

÷ ÷ ÷

Alix Ohlin is the author of The Missing Person, a novel, and the story collections Babylon and Other Stories and Signs and Wonders. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best New American Voices, and on NPR’s “Selected Shorts.” Inside is her latest novel.

Books mentioned in this post

2 Responses to "Personal Geography"

    Robert M. Koretsky June 15th, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    Maybe we are all destined to wander, because not only are we without "place", more importantly without self, the impossibility of being individual subjects; the world of objects, the "system of objects" has completely obliterated and usurped that mode, and to whose benefit? You need to escape the image society! Forget the prescribed forms of dissent you believe your writing is, it's really only trapped in that mess.

    Evelyn Krieger August 24th, 2012 at 9:07 am

    It reminds me of the character, Anne Shirley, and aspiring writer in Anne of Green Gables, who yeared to write a flowery romance. In the end, she comes to excavate her real book from the experiences and geography of Prince Edward Island. I just ordered Inside. Good luck on your wanderings.

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