Monday, December 17, 2012

Joanna Luloff: How A Lost Toe Provided a Creative Toehold

In the 56th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Joanna Luloff, author of The Beach at Galle Road (Algonquin Books), discusses why she decided to write a book of connected stories rather than a novel.

When I first began writing the stories in The Beach at Galle Road, I had recently returned from Sri Lanka, where I had worked as a Peace Corps volunteer. I began writing with a very tiny idea for a story—an old woman and her missing toe. The old woman was based on my Sri Lankan host grandmother. A few days after my arrival in the village of Baddegama, my host family took an emergency trip to the local hospital. There, my host grandmother had her toe amputated. She suffered from diabetes and poor circulation and her toe had “died.” Over the next weeks, she hobbled around the house with a bandaged foot, looking at times confused, at other times tremendously angry. We couldn’t understand one another; I hadn’t learned her language yet. So we sat in silence, keeping each other company in our shared befuddlement.

A few months later, she died, and I felt stunned by her sudden absence. She had been kind and patient with me, and I had hoped that my Sinhala skills would eventually get to the place where we might share our stories. After her death, I was surprised to learn that my host mother Dhamika (who had become my best friend) had hated her mother-in-law for a number of small meannesses. In my story “Counting Hours,” I eventually wrote about my host grandmother and her missing toe. I tried to explore the silence that had accompanied her return from the hospital, what it might be filled with—anger, regret, confusion. I also wanted to look at the ways in which a once large and fulfilling life could shrink to the small space of a couch. Dhamika’s character hovered in the shadows of that first story, a somewhat bullied young wife and daughter-in-law. After a few months’ time, I started a new story that would allow a fictionalized Dhamika to play a central role.

Sri Lanka
Luckily, at the time I was writing these stories, I took a class on the linked short story with the wise and generous Margot Livesey. In that workshop, we read Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid, Harriet Doerr’s Stones for Ibarra, and Russell Banks’s Trailerpark along with a few other linked collections. Munro’s stories offered glimpses of a single life refracted across time. Doerr’s stories conjured a richly drawn place through multiple vantage points, and Banks’s stories used a rather enclosed space to explore the very different people who live there. Each of these books, through their very different approaches and styles, helped me see the potential expansiveness of a linked collection.

There are many other books and writers that I like to imagine my collection talking with. While I was living in Baddegama, I read several books by Sri Lankan-born writers. I admired Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion and Coming Through Slaughter; his books felt like wonderfully complex puzzles where characters’ lives bump up against one another, forming an almost, but never complete, whole. Romesh Gunesekera’s Monkfish Moon is a subtle and kaleidoscopic view of Sri Lanka that shows how the notion of home shifts and realigns after both small and large journeys. And other writers have demonstrated the linked collection’s ability to capture long and complicated political conflicts within the particular lives of families and individuals—Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! and The Dew Breaker, for example. All of these writers helped me see the ways in which stories could communicate across a single text, how story collections could be these wonderfully malleable things that could move fluidly through time and place and character perspectives while still maintaining an almost novelistic narrative arc.

There are more than twelve different perspectives that make up my story collection. I knew a novel couldn’t handle so many points of view. The stories gave me the flexibility to travel from the south of Sri Lanka to the north and east, from older narrators to younger ones, Sri Lankans to foreign aid workers, from girls to boys, from those directly affected by the Sri Lankan civil war to those only tangentially touched by it. My hope was that each story could stand on its own while complementing and complicating other narratives linked to it. The book had begun with a very small idea—the absence of a toe—but it had become a collection that (hopefully) grappled with much larger contemplation of absences, hauntings, escapes, and disappearances.