“The one underlying thread that runs through the stories in my book, is about accidents. Mistakes made inadvertly by a person in a new country, a new culture.” says Nell Freudenberger who was in Chennai recently. “It’s like going back to that part of childhood where you don’t intend making mistakes. But you make them all the same, out of ignorance.”
Thoughts that are at once insightful as they are endearing, seem to be Nell’s forte. Although you wouldn’t associate an achingly pretty, twenty nine year old with such immense writing talent, you get more than a glimpse of it in her debut book, 'Lucky Girls', named after one of the stories in this collection of five.
In the stories that make up the book, she takes us through slice-of-life renditions of Americans in cultures other than their own. “It’s like they need to go away to know where they’re from.” says Nell, sounding wise beyond her years.
So, you find characters not only from the US, but also, to a large extent, from New Delhi, Bangkok, Mumbai, and Vietnam. The stories, all ‘longer than the short story and shorter than the novel’, explore the accidents that she mentions, in a backdrop of dysfunctionality. The dysfunctionality itself, is portrayed as an underlying element of realism sans the coldness that one inevitably associates with it.
Nell recounts how she started writing, “I started out with a novel while at University. Although my teachers at Harvard were a major influence, authors like Peter Carey, Alice Munro and Grace Paley have greatly inspired me. While working as an Editorial Assistant at The New Yorker, I wrote the short story, Lucky Girls, which the magazine went on to publish in its 2001 Summer Fiction Issue.” Subsequently, although she had a choice of nine publishing houses that were bidding to publish the book, Nell chose Ecco Press, an imprint of Harper Collins, more for the fact that they were the right fit rather than the highest bid.
While she has spent an aggregate of 6 months across the four visits she has made to India, this is Nell’s second trip to Chennai. On her last trip, she confesses to having done some ‘usual touristy things’ en route to Kerala. This time, however, she was here to spend some time at Pondicherry, writing a travel article as well as to read from her book at an event held under the auspices of The Office of Public Affairs, US Consulate General for South India and the Madras Book Club at Chennai.
Her next book is set in Los Angeles, where she grew, and has ‘influences of China’ for which she travels to China soon. “I hope to test my Chinese on that trip.” she ends, on a whimsical note.
The Indian edition of Nell Freudenberger’s Lucky Girls, is to hit bookstores in Chennai shortly.
Pic courtesy Third Eye
An edited version of this article was published in Madras Plus in 2004.