Winner of the 2004 PEN/Malamud Award
Synopses & Reviews
A Conversation with Nell Freudenberger Your writing career was officially launched with the Summer 2001 "Debut Fiction" issue of "The New Yorker. When did you begin to see yourself as a writer? Did you grow up with dreams of making writing your life's work?
Nell: I don't think I knew what writing was until I started to do it every day. That was during my last year of college, when I wrote stories as a thesis project. There was a lot of comfort in the routine, which hasn't changed. I'm not someone who has frantic bursts of inspiration; I tend just to sort of plug away. My father is a screenwriter who worked at home while I was growing up, and I noticed that he preferred walking the dog and taking out the garbage to sitting at his typewriter -- it didn't look like much of a job to me. I dreamed of being a neonatologist.
How did you feel about the wildly enthusiastic response to ""Lucky Girls,"" the very first story you had published in a national magazine? Why did you ultimately decide to entrust your first book, "Lucky Girls" (September 5, 2003), to Ecco?
Nell: I felt as if someone had hired me to play the part of someone who had had a story published in a national magazine. Or maybe as if I was the understudy of the person they had hired, and that the agents and editors I met were kind of disappointed when I showed up, like: "Oh, it's you -- where's the writer?" I liked the idea of Ecco, because I had a lot of Ecco books on my shelf. When I met Dan Halpern I knew I wanted Ecco to publish my book. We didn't talk very much about writing. He told me a story about a camel safari in North Africa, which made me forget for a minute that we were talking about publishing a book. Andthat seems (from my limited experience) to be a necessary thing about publishing something: you have to forget that you're ever going to hand it in -- in other words, finish it. Otherwise you would know that you couldn't do the thing you were picturing in your head, and you would never get started. The five stories in "Lucky Girls" are set in Thailand, India, and Vietnam. As a native New Yorker and a Harvard graduate, what inspired and compelled you to write about places so far from home?
Nell: It was an accident that I went to Thailand. One afternoon, during the spring of my senior year of college, I was walking back to my apartment and I ran into a parade. There was no way to get past the parade without taking a detour, except to go through the Office of Career Services. On the day of the parade they were having an information session for something called "Worldteach International." When I wandered through, the meeting was over, but there was a representative handing out applications. I had never been to Asia, and it sounded like a good way to postpone thinking about what to do with myself.
Where I wound up was a large elementary and high school, with 6,000 students, on the superhighway that runs through the northwest corner of Bangkok. I had a vague idea that I would be able to write in my spare time, until I heard that I would be teaching 18 ESL classes a week (50 students to a class). I lived in a modern, cinderblock room on the edge of the campus, with a large picture window tinted on one side, so that it was difficult to see in or out. My students (and some of their teachers) would press their faces up against the glass to check up on me. Someone started calling it the"foreigner zoo." When I tried to write about my "experiences" in Thailand in a journal, all I got were atmospheric descriptions of the weather: the polluted, illuminated nights, the monks smoking in the temples, the Siamese stray cats, the pineapple vendors lounging at the edge of the superhighway -- cliché s of Asia. But because I was lonely, I started writing letters. Sitting alone in my weird Thai room, trying to be funny for someone 8,000 miles away, writing stopped seeming like such serious business. I could play. In retrospect I think the foreigner zoo was where I learned to write. Somehow I tricked myself into it. It wasn't until I got back that I realized a story is a letter to someone; like a good love letter, it should entertain, show off, flirt with and satisfy the reader.
How is your personal experience of Asia, your extensive travels and volunteer work there with various humanitarian organizations, reflected throughout your fiction?
Nell: It's never exactly in the way you expect. I went to India the first two times with a friend who was working there. The third time I went alone, to Bombay. I had a room in the Mehta Blocks: a boarding house/maternity hospital run by three generations of gynecologists. Dr. Mehta, Sr., confided in me that he wrote poetry on the side, and even read aloud to me some of his work -- poems about extramarital indiscretions and the Russian space program which would be difficult to paraphrase. I thought that Dr. Mehta or the Mehta Blocks might have figured into a story (the whole environment seemed like "material") but they never did. While I was staying at the Mehta Blocks I had a friend who worked as an SAT tutor, preparing high schoolstudents to go to college abroad. I started writing the story "The Tutor" after he mentioned to me that his female students responded enthusiastically to Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress." It was an interesting anecdote, but one that I could have heard just as easily in New York. How did living in Laos and Bangkok and Delhi shake up your previous concept of Asia?
Nell: I can't remember what I thought Thailand or India would be like. Of course the picture you have of a place you haven't been is replaced by the reality the minute you get there. It would be nice to be able to get those phantom places back.
What are the challenges of writing about familiar yet complex subjects -- love, loss, betrayal -- from distinct, and often conflicting, cultural perspectives?
Nell: I think it's probably easier to write about something like family life in America if you have something to compare it to. The more dramatic the comparison, the more what's distinct, or American, about certain situations stands out. But I've never thought I was writing from a different cultural perspective; I have only my perspective. There's one story in the book with an Indian male protagonist, but what was important to me about that character was the fluid part of his cultural or national identity. The attraction between the two characters in that story has to do with what they share rather than what's different about them. How are your stories about being an American?
Nell: When I went to Asia, I often felt like a child -- a stupid one -- just learning the rules. I remember being at a wedding and having a colleague reach into her purse, take out a safety pin, and, without a word, pin my dress to cover moreof my throat. Often I felt that people expected me to be even more helpless than I was: I was not supposed to be able to choose my clothing, go out to eat, or even take a walk without assistance. In Bombay, friends usually felt that I shouldn't be allowed to visit tourist sites or take the suburban railway without a chaperone. Sometimes they were right. That combination of privilege and naiveté seems like a good metaphor for what it's like to be an American abroad today.
If you had to choose one young woman from the protagonists in your stories, who is closest to your alter ego? Why?
Nell: The boring answer is that I feel connected to all of them. Most of the characters come from stories -- or better, half-stories -- that people have told me. Usually when an anecdote stays with you, it's because something in the experience resonates with your own. If I have to pick one I'd say that I'm probably most like the girl who drive
"[T]houghtful and entertaining....Freudenberger is more inventive and piquant when she probes characters' relationships to their adopted homelands..." Publishers Weekly
"Every story in this remarkable collection reveals the emergence of a truly prodigious talent." Richard Ford, author of A Multitude of Sins
"[G]orgeously written...a remarkably poised collection....Young writers as ambitious and as good as Nell Freudenberger give us reason for hope." Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times Book Review
"Within the close confines of the short story form, Freudenberger's descriptive powers evoke precise visual settings that ache with loneliness....Lucky Girls doesn't have a single disappointment." Andrea Hoag, Minneapolis Star Tribune
"[A] haunting assemblage....There isn't a weak story in the bunch....Freudenberger succeeds nicely in creating sharply focused pieces in which each detail directs the reader along a clear path." Robin Vidimos, The Denver Post
"Freudenberger has an acute, steady eye for the physical world, and she creates a scene and its mood through exacting detail....Quietly and stealthily, her insight has a way of sneaking up on the reader." Elisa Ludwig, San Francisco Chronicle
"[I]ntricately constructed, emotionally affecting tales....Instead of living up to the hype, Freudenberger gracefully transcends it, establishing herself as a talent to watch for years to come, rather than simply for her years." Elle
"The speakers are at best half explained, motivation remains a mystery, and you are left wanting a fuller explanation of events....The stories work best when read slowly...but at most we get a glimpse into a complicated scenario." Library Journal
"Five longish, often familiar, but always readable stories....Fiction more skillful than memorable." Kirkus Reviews
"The five stories are well-written, well-plotted, intelligent and surprising....Nell Freudenberger's book not only reminded me why I read, it also reminded me why I write." Curtis Sittenfeld, Salon.com
(read the entire Salon.com review
Here are five stories, set in Southeast Asia and on the Indian subcontinent -- each one bearing the weight and substance of a short novella -- narrated by young women who find themselves, often as expatriates, face to face with the compelling circumstances of adult love.Living in unfamiliar places, according to new and often frightening rules, these characters become vulnerable in unexpected ways -- and learn, as a result, to articulate the romantic attraction to landscapes and cultures that are strange to them.
Lucky Girls marks the arrival of a writer of exceptional talents, one whose generosity of spirit, clarity of intellect and emotion, and skill in storytelling set her among todays most gifted and exciting young voices.
First highlighted in the New Yorker debut fiction issue, award-winning writer Nell Freudenberger's highly anticipated debut short story collection.
"I don't have a memory of going to the fort that day, but my father said we did. He said that when I asked, he told me I was too young to go to Afghanistan, and that half an hour later, when he thought I had forgotten, I looked at him -- we were on the lawn, where you could watch the women in pink and yellow saris cutting the grass with machetes -- and said, "What about Afghanistan children?" "Even at that age your logical powers were astonishing," my father said. He had hoped for a long time that I would become a scientist.
-- from "Outside the Eastern Gate"
Questions for Discussion In this collection of five novella-like stories revolving around expatriate Americans living in Asia, each story turns on a moment of self-awareness. In "Outside the Eastern Gate," Nandani says, "traveling is for people who don't know how to be happy." What does she mean by that statement? Do the protagonists of each story eventually realize something about themselves? What is the object of each traveler's search?
"Although I don't feel the need to travel all over the world, Ilike hearing about foreign places" says Miss Fish in "Letter from the Last Bastion." Content with her life in Lancaster, PA, Miss Fish diverges sharply from the characters in the preceding stories. Miss Fish is also the least privileged of all the major characters. Compare Miss Fish to the narrator's mother, Jean, in "Outside the Eastern Gate," who is perhaps the most restless figure in this collection. Do their dissimilarities stem solely from innate differences in temperament? What are some ideas, presented in Lucky Girls, regarding the unglamorous notion of accepting one's lot in life?
Following Hemmingway's directive to writers, In "Letter from the Last Bastion" Henry uses the war as a whetstone, and becomes famous for his thinly veiled autobiographical novels. Yet the key passage in his book, "The Birder," never happened. "If you want to tell the true story of your life, you have to include the not only all the things you have done, but all the things you haven't" believes Henry, according to Miss Fish. Are possible courses of action as real as the one actually taken? Ultimately, who is the intended recipient of Miss Fish's letter? How does this story examine a writer's choices and the nature of storytelling?
In "Letter from the Last Bastion," Francois looks at Henry "as if he were being interrupted by a particularly irritating child." Are the other Americans in "Lucky Girls also perceived as children by the people they encounter? Think of Mrs. Chawla's impatience at having to explain Indian social codes to the American mistress of her deceased son, who refuses to leave India, in "Lucky Girls"; the waiter, Chai's, exaggerated Americanisms in "The Orphan"; Nandani'sattempts to buffer the children from their mother's rash impulses in "Outside the Eastern Gate." When Zubin, in "The Tutor," is a foreign student in America, he "felt as if he were surrounded by enormous and powerful children." Do you agree with this assessment? Could some American ideals be perceived as naï ve when juxtaposed against another cultural backdrop?
In "The Orphan" Mandy reverses her initial accusation of rape, dismissing what happened as a "cultural misunderstanding." Do you think she's being naï ve in the first instance or the second? Mrs. Chawla tells the narrator in "Lucky Girls" that she wasn't invited to her lover's funeral because "Nobody would've known what you were." Do you think these characters understand their foreign surroundings as well as they think they do?
In "The Orphan," when Alice looks at her recently-separated-from husband, she sees someone "who washes with a different soap, eats a different cereal or doesn't eat cereal, maybe doesn't eat breakfast at all; sleeps naked or with the windows open, listens to opera or salsa of bluegrass: a stranger." How important are these domestic details in truly knowing someone? How important are they to Alice? Consider the family unit as Alice would like it to be -- a postwar suburban ideal of a homemaker mother, authoritative father, sweet and smart daughter and a prodigal younger son. Are these roles anachronistic? How does being in Thailand expose each family member's desires and personalities? At the conclusion of the story, how precarious is Alice's hope of future happiness? Does happiness inevitably involve compromise?
Alice thinks her children's behave in Thailand as though they "hadnever been given breakfast, or stayed in an air-conditioned hotel." In "The Tutor," Julia thinks her sister liked to "pretend she was poor...and when she came to visit them in Paris she acted surprised." How does Zubin's inverted experience in America compare to those of the Americans' abroad? Why is does he feel embarrassed about borrowing his American roommate's sweaters, while Julia's sister, like Mandy in "The Orphan," revel in the novelty (or the pretense) of going without?
In "The Tutor," Zubin returns to India because in doing so "something would fall back in place, not just inside him but in front of him, like lengths of replacement track." If homesickness is, perhaps literally, a sense of dislocation, what is the 'something' that Zubin hoped would fall into place? Has he changed too much after his experiences in America? Consider the definitions of "home" that occur in this story. Julia's father believes that "you can bring your home with you"; in the market, a poster silently and grimly declaims, "Home is where. When you go there, they have to let you in." Do the characters in "Lucky Girls fit Zubin's assessment: "Americans could go all over the world and still be Americans; they could live just the way they did at home and nobody wondered who they were, or why they were doing things the ways they did"? How would you define "home?"
In "Lucky Girls," Arun dislikes the Indian garb on Western women, "because clothes mean something here. Historically. And when you wear them it's for romance, glamour -- you don't mean anything." The narrator of this story admires a buffalo's shiny black coat, only to discover a buffalo carcass thickly covered in black flies. She admiresthe singing of a bird at night, only to be told that it's the sound an "all-clear" whistle from the patrolling night watchman. To her, "a red cricket ball ... looked like some kind of exotic bloom." Do these moments convey anything in particular about her understanding of India? Does she prove Arun correct despite her attempts to the contrary? In glossing over the malign, or even the ordinary, as beautiful, what sort of reality has she created for herself?
Consider the narrator's feelings for Arun and India in "Lucky Girls," Mandy's defense of Joo in "The Orphan," Laura's letters regarding Andreas in "Letter from the Last Bastion" -- is love separable from fascination with the exotic in these instances? The narrator's mother in "Outside the Eastern Gate" used to say that going back to America was like "waking up out of the most beautiful dream you'd ever had." Why do you think she relocates so often, venturing into a land more exotic each time?
is the debut collection by an author who first came to national attention with the 2001 publication of the title story in The New Yorker
Here are five stories, set in Southeast Asia and on the Indian subcontinent -- each on bearing the weight and substance of a short novella -- narrated by young women who find themselves, often as expatriates, face to face with the compelling circumstances of adult love. Living in unfamiliar places, according to new and often frightening rules, these characters become vulnerable in unexpected ways -- and learn, as a result, to articulate the romantic attraction to landscapes and cultures that are strange to them.
In "Lucky Girls," an American woman who has been involved in a five-year affair with a married Indian man feels bound, following his untimely death, to her memories of him, and to her adopted country. The protagonist of "Outside the Eastern Gate" returns to her childhood home in Delhi to discover a house still inhabited by the desperate and impulsive spirit of her mother who, years before, abandoned her family for a wild, dangerous journey across the Kyber Pass to Afghanistan. And, in "Letter from the Last Bastion," a teenage girl begins a correspondence with a middle-aged male novelist, who, having built his reputation writing about his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam, confides in her the secret truth of those experiences, and the lie that has defined his life as a man.
Lucky Girls marks the arrival of a writer of exceptional talents, one whose generosity of spirit, clarity of intellect and emotion, and skill in storytelling set her among today's most gifted and exciting young voices.
About the Author
Nell Freudenberger's collection of stories, Lucky Girls, was a New York Times Notable Book and won the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2005 Freudenberger was the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award. She lives in New York City.