Thursday, May 13, 2010

Guest in Progress: A.H. Wald on "Having New Eyes"

One of the many reasons I love going to a residency at VCCA is that you meet the most interesting people: novelists, poets, visual artists, playwrights, composers. It’s a constant flow of someone new who can tell fascinating stories over dinner. Unfortunately, sometimes the overlap with one of those fascinating story-tellers is only a day or two, and they're thinking of life back home just as you’re settling in to shed your old life. Still, a couple days can be enough time to make you know you want to hear more, and such was the case when I briefly met writer Annie Wald. One quick conversation at breakfast told me there were a lot of stories…and until we meet up again at VCCA, or until I get to read her completed novel-in-progress, these two blog posts—one today, one next week—will have to suffice. [BTW: The quote at the end of the first paragraph of this piece was me!]

Ten years ago, I left an idyllic home in New Jersey [the Garden State part] and moved to a developing country in Africa. Since then, I have found that living overseas is like a snazzy sports car, something greatly admired by friends and strangers. When I answer the casually-asked question about where I live, the other person usually responds with, “Oh, how exciting, how exotic.”

I don’t argue with them too much. Life here can be exotic and creatively stimulating. "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" Henry James said, after leaving the States to live in France, and then England, with frequent trips to Italy. A large part of writing takes place in a room of one's own. But it also includes going out to observe, and moving to a foreign country is a surefire way to keep one’s eyes open.

For the first seven or eight years here, little was lost on me, and I have the journals to prove it. Most months, I was generating 20,000 words--the equivalent of a book a year--as I chronicled bread and hats and market stalls and bargaining and tiles and desert dunes and waves and lanterns and shepherds and sowing seed in a field by hand and left turns from the right lane and beggars without legs or arms and men going through the trash barrel to find something to eat and friends who don’t know how to read their address book. It didn’t seem possible that I would ever run out of new things to observe. And I had the time to write it all down too, with fewer unproductive distractions to tempt me away from my desk. Here, life is simple. The pace is slow. People go to bed early.

But it’s not necessary to travel far. My first cross-cultural experience was right out of college when I moved from a Boston suburb to a small second-generation immigrant community in rural Ohio. Even when I was living my New Jersey idyll, I could go to a dying city ten miles away and enter a completely different world. To be a person on whom nothing is lost I don’t need a passport. I only need to pay attention.

And that’s my current problem in this exotic location. After ten years, I’ve become very settled. My journal output has dwindled as the foreign has become familiar. Donkeys on a main road? Seen that. Cows grazing at the end of the block? Seen that. A family of four on a scooter without helmets? Seen that. A bus passing a gas truck going up hill on a curve? Seen that [well, not exactly--my eyes were closed in horror].

I find what captures my attention these days is what I see when I go back to the States for a visit. I come through customs into the terminal, and feel like a kid in a candy store. The most mundane, ordinary experiences have become utterly fascinating to me. Riding the subway, driving on a six lane highway for five hours, swiping a credit card [and for a three dollar purchase no less], making a joke with a store clerk and being understood, walking down the street without anyone looking at me or hassling me, eating gigantic restaurant portions and bagels and sweet corn on the cob, browsing through libraries and bookstores filled with books written in English.

Anything can become commonplace. Anything can be exotic. It’s only a matter of my eyes being wide open or half shut. As Proust put it: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” ~A.H. Wald

About: A.H. Wald’s work has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies, including The Southern Review, North American Review and 580 Split. She is working on a novel that takes place in the US where she grew up. For the last ten years, she has lived in a foreign country which will be the subject of her next novel.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.