THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES explores female friendship amid cultural conflicts in Jordan

The Confusion of Languages

By Siobhan Fallon

Putnam — June 27, 2017

$26.00, 324 pages

Siobhan Fallon made a huge impression on me with her debut story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011), about the experience of military wives living at Fort Hood, Texas, and the men who leave them and later return in a range of challenging mental and physical states.

Fallon, who lived at Fort Hood and now resides in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, returns with her first novel, The Confusion of Languages, set in Jordan during the Arab Spring uprising in May 2011. It is the story of two American women whose military husbands work at the U.S. Embassy in Amman. Cassie and Dan Hugo have been in Jordan for a while and are asked to serve as mentors to a newly-arrived (and newly married) couple, Margaret and Creighton (known as Crick) Brickshaw. Cassie has mixed feelings about mentoring Margaret, but she soon decides that a new friend, with a baby in tow, would be a good thing so far from home.

The plot is set in motion when Margaret and Cassie are involved in a minor rear-end car accident. Margaret is astonished the local police officer ‘s brief, on-the-spot investigation concludes that the accident was her fault. Cassie’s explanation that in Jordan the woman is always at fault, as a legal and cultural matter, falls on deaf ears. An embassy guard, called to the scene by Cassie, explains that Margaret simply needs to go to the police station to complete some paperwork admitting fault, and the embassy will take care of everything after that. It’s Jordan, and they do things differently here. Upset, Margaret decides to go home first so she can change, feed her baby, and then go to the police station while Cassie babysits. But the hours pass and Cassie does not hear from Margaret, nor does Margaret respond to Cassie’s increasingly perplexed and agitated texts. Cassie begins to worry about her naive and emotional friend.

Margaret is as complex a character as one is ever likely to meet, the classic naif in this “fish out of water” tale. 

Before long, the plot of The Confusion of Languages becomes as much a thriller as a cultural exploration and character study. Fallon tells the story through Cassie’s first-person narrative over the afternoon and evening of May 13, 2011, and Margaret’s journal, which Cassie discovers and then reads while she waits for Margaret to return from the police station.

Cassie soon learns that Margaret has a secret that could change everything.

Margaret is as complex a character as one is ever likely to meet. Slender, blonde, and pretty, and seemingly extroverted, she is in fact carrying two heavy burdens. Margaret is loquacious, effusive, kind-hearted, and curious, the classic naif in this “fish out of water” tale. But, as we soon learn from her journal, she is also introspective and something of an intellectual.

She is struggling with her mother’s recent death from cancer and an oppressive childhood. She has placed all her hopes on her new life with Crick and their baby, Mather. Crick, the ultimate warrior, is trying to fulfill his sense of duty toward Margaret despite complications in their past.

Can this small-town girl find her way as a military spouse in the Middle East? She finds life in Jordan chaotic and difficult to understand. So, at the same time she is studying Arabic, she is also obsessed with the meaning of words in English, writing their definitions in her journal. She attempts to impose order on the chaos of the world and her life, trying to make sense of the incomprehensible.

Cassie’s efforts to guide Margaret through her transition to life in Jordan’s complicated culture are often met with stubborn resistance and her determination to do things her way.

Cassie is coping with her own sense of loss in not being able to have a baby, and it is driving a wedge between her and Dan. Cassie is methodical and reasonable where Margaret is impulsive and unpredictable. Their friendship is erratic, moving from a developing intimacy to perplexing distance without any pattern.

Cassie’s efforts to guide Margaret through her transition to life in Jordan and to teach her about Jordanian culture, especially expectations regarding male-female interactions, are often met with stubborn resistance and Margaret’s determination to do things her way, without concern for Jordanian and Muslim customs. Margaret is certain that her warmth, kindness, and American “can do” approach will be sufficient in every situation.

Cassie and Margaret may speak the same language, but they frequently misinterpret each other’s words, actions, and intentions.

But she is mistaken. Her innocent attempts to form friendships with Saleh, the maintenance man in her apartment building, and Hassan, a widower who works as one of the entrance guards at the embassy and who teaches her words and phrases in Arabic, lead to confusion and misunderstandings that go beyond “the confusion of languages.”

Cassie and Margaret may speak the same language, but they frequently misinterpret each other’s words, actions, and intentions. Margaret eventually rejects Cassie as her guide to Jordan, preferring to find her own way and place her trust in her new father-figure of a friend.

The Confusion of Languages probes the ramifications of these misunderstandings and the characters’ good intentions gone awry. Both Cassie and Margaret are good people, but they are flawed and deeply human. Here, as always in good fiction, that is what makes for a memorable novel. Although their alternating perspectives create a rich, insightful character development, I was occasionally distracted by the nature of Margaret’s journal, which seems overly sophisticated and literary for a journal but, admittedly, does make for a more compelling read. Fallon is reportedly now at work on a novel about foreign laborers in Abu Dhabi, so she appears to be carving out a niche as the novelist of the expat experience in the Middle East.

A Conversation with Dylan Landis: Rainey Royal “comes from my own lifelong fascination with mean girls”

Dylan_Landis

Interview by Ellie Gaines

Special Contributor to Read Her Like an Open Book 

 

During the last semester of my senior year in high school, I did an internship with the novelist Jessica Anya Blau. I was beyond excited when I saw that on the long to-do list that Jessica made for me was a request that I read two galleys (Dylan Landis’s Rainey Royal and Katie Crouch’s Abroad) and interview the authors. Reading a book that wasn’t out yet seemed a lot more exciting than organizing bookshelves (that was also on the list!), and to be honest, it made me feel pretty special. And getting the opportunity to interview these writers truly thrilled me.

From the opening pages of Rainey Royal I fell in love with Landis’s prose. When I finished the book, I went to Jessica’s bookshelves and borrowed Landis’s debut novel-in-stories, Normal People Don’t Live Like This. Over the next two days, I devoured the stories every chance I got. Here’s the conversation I had with Dylan Landis.

 

In your first book, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, we see the characters Rainey and Leah. What made you decide to continue on with these characters in Rainey Royal, and make a whole book dedicated to Rainey? Where did you get the original idea for this character?

               Rainey was one of the most compelling characters in Normal People Don’t Live Like This—a school bully, a radiantly sexual girl with serious troubles at home. But after the first two stories she vanished, because I was focusing on Leah, who had troubles of her own, and also because this was my first book of fiction and I didn’t know much about structure. My mentor and teacher, the novelist Jim Krusoe, suggested I add another Rainey story, but I was impatient to have a book out and thought my manuscript was finished. That unwritten story left a little hole in the book that readers often pointed out—”What happened to Rainey?”

And that became the opening for the new book, Rainey Royal. The fact is that I missed her and she never stopped talking to me. She comes from my own lifelong fascination with mean girls. I grew up not just wanting to hide from these girls; I wanted simultaneously to be them. They seemed so beautiful and fearless and free; they seemed to have some knowledge about the world and its mysteries, which I took to mean sex. I wanted to stand near them, just out of their sight. I wanted to absorb something magical from them. Later on I became a bit wild like them, but I never became the real thing. I write about them instead.

Normal People Don’t Live Like This is composed of connected short stories while Rainey Royal is more novelistic in that each story centers around Rainey, and we move forward in time. Why did you choose to do it one way or another?

All I knew, moving from story to story in Normal People, was that Leah would get older. She grows from twelve to twenty-two. I circled her life, pausing to write about a conflict here, a problem there. That circling and pausing is what makes it more of a linked story collection, though because she matures it’s possible to see it as a novel-in-stories.

Writing a novel, or something closer to a novel, felt like a natural next step, a more fluid way to tell a story that took place over fourteen years.. I tried to stay conscious of a narrative arc, aware of specific problems that had to persist and either blow up or resolve as the book progressed. The novelist Benjamin Percy calls these problems “flaming chainsaws.” They have to keep recurring, and they have to move forward each time. So a chapter may stand on its own and may be published as a short story—I was thrilled when the story “Trust” won an O. Henry Award—but if the flaming chainsaws are juggled well through the entire book, you should end up with something that has the weight and the arc of a novel.

In Normal People Don’t Live Like This we see a few short stories that revolve around Leah and her mom. The fact that Leah’s mom is anorexic adds an interesting tension to Leah’s relationship with her mom. Why did you decide to have Leah’s mom be anorexic? Did you want to relate her lack of food to the lack of connection she has with her daughter? A starvation in two senses?

That link between anorexia and emotional starvation came straight from the basement, the writer’s subconscious. So it wasn’t a decision but rather a discovery that Helen was anorexic—though that word wasn’t so much in use in the 1970s. We just called it dieting. You put your finger on it exactly, though: a starvation in two senses. I didn’t think about it while I wrote, but in revision I saw the starvation as being Helen’s lack of connection, not just to Leah, whom she genuinely loves, but to her own self. It always intrigued me that when Helen first gets sensually involved with a man, she takes a bite of food from a spoon he holds.

Rainey Royal begins with Rainey making connections between Saint Catherine of Bologna and herself. When you started writing did you know that Saint Catherine would be woven throughout the book? Or did you write about Rainey and then discover their similarities? Why did you believe it was important for Rainey to relate to such an unusual character like a saint from the times of Columbus and Queen Isabella?

I had a moment of inspiration, while making notes for the first story, that Rainey—who loves libraries—would look up the patron saint for artists. And of course she’d make the connection personal, and call her Cath. To Rainey, Cath is not some ancient, inaccessible religious figure; she is a chick just like herself, a girl who can draw like crazy, and whose mother is out of the picture, and who must have problems with grown men, because don’t all teenage girls have problems with men? If you’re Rainey, isn’t that part of the territory? I knew right away, reading Saint Catherine of Bologna’s bio, that she would make a great sister-protector for Rainey, who desperately needs one.

In Rainey Royal we follow Rainey from the age of fourteen until she is in her mid-twenties. Is there something important about those years particularly in a girl’s life? Is there something important about a girl’s relationship with her father in those years?

Those are the coming-of-age years; they’re packed with emotional growth and pain. My memories of those years are the most vivid I have, more vivid than yesterday’s. So it’s good, rich earth to turn over and pick through when I’m looking for psychological material. And I think by the time a girl is fourteen or fifteen her father has taught her, by example or by neglect, how she should be with men, and how they should be with her. If that’s a lesson she has to unlearn, as Rainey does, she’s going to have a struggle on her hands.

Tina is Rainey’s best friend and is very protective of her. She also does the one thing that scares Rainey the most, when she develops a relationship with Howard. Can you explain the love/hate dynamic between the two girls? Do you think all female friendships are double sided?

Adult female friendships can be utterly devoted in the most straightforward way, but in adolescence I remember them as passionate and sometimes two-hearted. There’s a moment where Tina thinks about how she and Rainey are so close, “she doesn’t get why God made them both girls,” and a contrasting moment where Rainey thinks about how, with Tina, she “always has to mention the one thing that hurts; it’s like nudging a loose tooth.” Those are the two hearts, the urge to push away and the urge to fuse. It’s not always that complicated, but as a writer I’d rather explore both aspects of female friendship.

Both of your books are centered around the 1970s.  Why did you choose this time? Do you think your stories would be different if you set them in modern day times?

               The era chose me. I was writing about teenagers, and that was the time of my adolescence, the decade when emotional memory, and memory of visual and auditory detail, were strongest. If the stories were set now I’d be consulting the internet and my friends’ teenage children for details and veracity, and it’s possible things might not feel as true.

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YOU ARE ONE OF THEM probes friendship, a disappearance and U.S.-Soviet politics

You Are One of Them paperback

You Are One of Them

By Elliott Holt

Penguin Press, 2013

Trade Paperback published by Penguin Books on April 29, 2014

304 pages, $16.00

Elliott Holt has pulled off a clever hat trick of a novel with You Are One of Them. First, it’s the story of a friendship between two young girls coming of age. Second, it’s a time capsule that contains the mid-80s sociopolitical tension between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. And third, it’s a literary thriller with a missing persons case at its center.  And through it all, Holt’s writing is nearly flawless. She delicately opens up the heart of a close friendship between 10-year-olds Sarah Zuckerman, the narrator, and Jenny Jones, while powerfully recreating the mood in the last years of the Cold War, when strong rhetoric from President Reagan had many Americans fearing the nuclear end was near. (Remember Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth?) Holt has taken the life of 13-year-old Samantha Smith as an inspiration for the novel’s premise, but that is just the starting point for a rich, textured, and compelling story that poses provocative and intriguing questions.

Despite living in a Washington, D.C. neighborhood, Sarah and Jenny live a more or less typical suburban life. Sarah’s mother is an anxious agoraphobic and her British father has returned to England, where he has remarried and evidently forgotten his former wife and his daughter in America. Jenny’s parents seem perfect to Sarah; her father works as a consultant to the U.S. government and her mom orders items from catalogs, volunteers in the community, and manages a picture perfect household.

“Jenny and I were best friends. That title mattered then. We didn’t throw the term ‘best’ around lightly. You had to earn it. I’d never had a best friend, but I didn’t tell Jenny that. I didn’t tell her that until she came along I’d never felt like I belonged anywhere…Our bedrooms faced each other across the street. The houses were too far apart for us to actually see into each other’s rooms, but at bedtime we exchanged good-nights, flicking our flashlights on and off three times: blink, blink, blink.”

One rainy day, the two bored girls are stuck in Jenny’s house. Sarah, whose mother is a zealous anti-nuclear activist who has indoctrinated her young daughter, decides to write a letter to Soviet president Yuri Andropov, asking him to take steps to prevent nuclear war for the sake of the American and Soviet children, who really couldn’t be all that different, could they? She thinks Andropov might listen to a normal American child. Jenny is excited by the idea and joins Sarah in writing a heartfelt missive to the leader of the “Evil Empire.” Mr. Jones promises to address and mail the letters for the girls.

Oddly enough, Andropov replies to Jenny but not to Sarah, who is initially mystified. But then she figures out that he chose Jenny because her name is so quintessentially American (perhaps he is anti-Semitic and disliked the name Zuckerman, although Sarah is not Jewish). Sarah is acutely aware of the fact that Jenny is exceptionally pretty, charming, and popular and is part of a perfect American family. She, on the other hand, is average-looking (perhaps even slightly homely), shy and bookish, and comes from a broken home with a mentally ill mother.

Andropov’s very public reply includes an invitation for Jenny and her parents to visit the Soviet Union as his personal guests. They will visit the key historic and cultural sites and spend time with Soviet schoolchildren. The story, and Jenny, become a media sensation, and before long the Jones family is on their way to the U.S.S.R., where Jenny is assigned a “minder” by the name of Svetlana, a “typical” Soviet girl who will be her friend while there. Looking back many years later as she narrates the story, Sarah realizes that, of course, it was all a Soviet propaganda ploy with children as the pawns in an adult game of chess.

Sarah tries not to resent Jenny but can’t help herself. They maintain their friendship upon Jenny’s return from the Soviet Union, but something has changed. Maybe it’s the fact that Jenny is inundated with fan letters from around the world or that strangers ask for her autograph, or that Jenny hasn’t said much of anything about the fact that the letter writing was Sarah’s idea. As they enter sixth grade, they grow apart. Jenny is now in demand by the most popular girls and begins to spend more time with another girl. Holt explores the social dynamics of life among sixth graders with insight and sensitivity. Clearly, she remembers it well.

In 1985 the Jones family dies in a small plane crash while flying to Maine to make an appearance. Life goes on for Sarah, who with her mother’s help, creates a foundation in Jenny’s name to promote U.S.-Soviet relations and exchanges among children.

The plot thickens when, in 1995, Sarah receives an email from Svetlana, the Soviet girl who accompanied Jenny during her 1985 trip. Svetlana encourages Sarah to visit her in Moscow and hints that there is more to Jenny’s life and death than Sarah knows or can imagine. As she is just graduating college, Sarah decides that living in Moscow for a year is an experience she can’t pass up. She heads off to the newly democratized Russia to meet Svetlana and investigate her intriguing suggestions that Jenny’s death may have been a hoax.

Sarah captures the zeitgeist of the early-to-mid 1990s perfectly. “We often telephoned each other to verify that e-mail had arrived. Cyberspace was so mysterious. This was pre-Google, so we weren’t yet relying on the Internet to answer our every question; in fact, we weren’t consciously using the Internet at all, just our various college e-mail servers. I had never heard the term ‘Web site,’ let alone seen one. One of my friends tried to tell me about the seemingly mythical ‘Internet,’ and I nodded indulgently, certain it was something  that would only capture the imagination of Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts.”

The second half of the book describes Sarah’s often surreal Alice in Wonderland experiences in mid-90s Moscow. Svetlana strings her along, providing tasty tidbits of information but concealing as much as she appears to reveal about Jenny and her family. Sarah learns to be patient and bide her time, while digging for information when and where she can. Is it possible that Jenny defected and is living in Moscow? Why would her family have done that? How could it have remained hidden? If it’s true, why is Svetlana revealing this fact to Sarah? And why now? Or is the hoax being perpetrated by Svetlana? What could she be after?

At one point, a frustrated Sarah complains to Svetlana, “You said I should come to Moscow to learn the truth.”

“‘Ah, truth. You Americans love truth.’ She leaned back in her chair and cracked her neck. ‘I think it is the favorite word — after freedom, of course. You want the truth, and you ask for it like the eggs you order for breakfast. Today I want my truth sunny side up! And tomorrow hard-boiled. And then sometimes it is scrambled. And you congratulate yourself for ordering this truth, because you think asking for it is what matters. But what is truth? Pravda? No, Pravda is a newspaper. We understand there is not one truth. There is your truth and my truth and yes, your Jennifer Jones’s truth.’”

Elliott Holt’s compelling debut novel explores the many forms of truth and comes to some surprising conclusions. You will walk away from this book to find that Sarah and Jenny still haunt you, talking to each other and to you. Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia, captures the essence of the novel in her blurb on the flyleaf: “The great accomplishment in You Are One of Them is how effortlessly the vast and global mixes with — and informs — the deeply felt story of a lost friendship. Elliott Holt is graceful, sharp, and super-smart, and her novel is a bildungsroman for the atomic age.”