The Problem With Writing Place

Today marks my four month anniversary in Taiwan. To parents and friends who have emailed, Skyped or facebooked me and asked how it is, I give the same response. There are pros and cons to the country like any other place. Cost of living is low. A five bedroom, three bath house with a rooftop patio and garage runs us 600 a month. Now that I have my national health card a visit to the doctor along with several prescriptions cost me four dollars. Also, a nice meal out with drinks and multiple courses generally won’t put me back more than 30 -40 bucks. Then again, traffic, and driving conditions are brutal, air pollution has given me a couple respiratory infections, and the concrete sameness of this place leaves you longing so desperately for an open patch of green.

Between my time teaching, I’ve made the commitment to write. Even if it’s on a lunch break between sessions of holding up flashcards with farm animals on them to kindergarteners or having plastic balls covered in suction cups lofted at my head, I still find a few minutes to jot away at a word processor every day. In recent weeks I’ve been trying to write realism. More particularly, stories about Taiwan itself.  There are a number of questions about writing a foreign country I’ve been wrestling with.

We often times read to satisfy our desire to know what life is like in another place, social class, time period, etc. In writing scenes about men and women driving sputtering scooters in bitter sideways rain, I’ve wonder how long you have to be in a place to write about it. In the brief time I’ve been here I’ve gathered enough images to last me a lifetime, but still, I worry one of the lifers here would read my work and call bullshit a hundred times over. Do I wait to learn the language more completely, to explore all parts of the country, and mingle more fully with residents here before I even put down a sentence?

Even when I do get to the point where I can write with authority, writing about place seems treacherous to me for several reasons.

For starters you run the risk of having the piece sound like a condescending, anthropological study. I think details, even the more bizarre or unusual have to be in the peripheries of the story. The importance of place can’t overtake characters or conflict. Also, your character can’t be too judgmental or biased in observing another mode of life. If they are overly critical, if they spend the entirety of the work complaining about how unlike America the place is, I think most people will reject it.

Another concern is that in writing place you can overdo it. You may be so focused on proving that you have lived or visited a place that pacing gets bogged down by dense setting description. I think by the fourth sentence describing the stench of stinky tofu, or the broken asphalt roads coated in betel nut spit, the reader will save him/herself the trouble and just buy a plane ticket to Southeast Asia.

My worry too is whether I have any right to jot down anything about another place. I don’t know the hardships, the history, the nuances of day-to-day life for Taiwanese people yet. I don’t think an agnostic, 20-something white guy from a family of bankers in Midwest America is the ideal representative for anyone. I haven’t personally been subjected to racism, sexism, religious or sexual persecution or known need in any tangible, immediate sense compared to so many. I can speak basic Spanish, can quote most Seinfeld episodes verbatim and one time I ran a marathon and spoke about it for the next six months always saying a faster finishing time. I don’t have a struggle, or a cause, so I don’t know that I should necessary represent anyone or stand as any worthwhile embodiment of this time and place.

The last question is whether or not it is even necessary to write about the new country. Could the conflict between the couple in a stagnating marriage just as easily be placed in rural Indiana? If so maybe setting is being used to make up for flat characters, or the fact that the writer still hasn’t found his story yet. Maybe its just pretty, albeit extraneous background noise.

Place has played such a vital part in some of my favorite works. Envisioning the bullfights in Pamplona in the Sun Also Rises, Dybek’s Chicago, or the small town of Winesburg, was really satisfying to me as a reader. I think like all aspects of writing it’s a matter of practice. Finding the right proportion of setting detail to plot. Having characters who observe as opposed to injecting their own bias about place.

What problems have you encountered in writing setting? What issues did you find in trying to capture life in another culture or time period.

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3 Comments

  • leyna krow says:

    Lots of good questions here. I actually have the same worries even when writing about places I am familiar with, places I’ve lived for a long time. Because my Seattle my might be a very different place than a reader’s Seattle and what if they call bullshit? But on the flip side, as a reader, I almost always enjoy stories with a strong sense of place. I only ever think to question the writer when the placeiness seems to overwhadow the story itself – like they’ve got something to prove. So, as you pointed out, good details in the right spots and not too much.
    Hope I get to read some of your Taiwan stories sometime.

  • Laura Citino Laura C. says:

    I think about this stuff all the time, since place has always been a tremendous factor in my writing. I think the question I always fall back on is, does this story HAVE to take place in this certain setting? Does the setting lend something to the story, or is it simply an opportunity for quirky details? Whether I’m writing about Michigan or Poland, that question of intentionality helps me stay grounded with place, instead of letting it control the story. If a story could, at least to me, only take place on this one street corner in Ypsilanti, then I feel comfortable making the place an informative character in its own right. If the only reason a story is in Germany is so the characters can eat a bratwurst on the street, well, then I have to change it up.

  • Melissa says:

    Great questions you’ve raised here about appropriation and authenticity. Personally, I love reading stories in which I learn something new without feeling like I’m being taught, so the sort of authenticating details about place that you used in your first paragraph are the kind of thing I like a lot. I think that whether or not you choose to set the stories you’re currently writing in Taiwan, it’s important to accumulate all of those little details and observations that you’ll forget as soon as you leave. I’d want to take a shit-ton of notes about all those details, and then you can decide later when and how to work them into stories.

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