This brief collection of stories, winner of the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction, takes readers around the world to examine familiar relationships without geographical boundaries.
Have you ever wanted to visit Tonga, Tokyo, Hawaii, Taipei, New York, and other places in less than a hundred and twenty pages—and without the hassle and expense of traveling? In Midge Raymond’s collection of stories, Forgetting English, readers are taken on a brief, but surprisingly thorough, tour of these exotic locations; at the same time, they are immersed in situations without geographical boundaries, providing them with something comfortably familiar to take with them as they move across the map.
Raymond’s stories are about relationships—sometimes the expectations of one character exceed those of another, other times the experience is crucial in allowing one of the characters to grow, but in every case the relationships are delicately balanced on the breaking point. “First Sunday” looks at what one woman will do to retain her sense of dignity:
He looks down at me. We’ve learned very little about each other, and while that should have changed things between us, it hasn’t. He is engaged to a woman from his village, he told me last night, but they haven’t slept together and won’t until the first Sunday after they are married. I told him it didn’t matter. He asked if I had a moa back home, a boyfriend, and I said yes. I lied. I wanted things to feel equal between us.
No matter where one goes in the world, the story says, the pain of deep disappointment feels the same.
Through Raymond’s characters, we’re reminded that traveling with someone reveals the kind of person they are. The opening to “Translation Memory” is fraught with tension between two characters over the things that go unsaid:
In the airport terminal, Dan Marxen’s wife slips a pill between her lips as he pretends not to notice. The little white pills look as innocuous as aspirin, but for Julie they have become as necessary as water—and because she lets them dissolve under her tongue instead of swallowing them, by the time they board she will already be in a dreamy, hypnagogic state.
After takeoff, she lets her head fall toward his. “Did you know,” she asks sleepily, “that Japan has an earthquake every five minutes?”
One of the strongest aspects of Raymond’s writing is the way in which she shows relationships that are inches away from apathy—but in those few inches lies the hope that it might actually survive. Whether a relationship lasts or not comes second to a character’s need to believe that it could.
The exotic settings in which most of these stories take place are shown in an economical, but wholly effective, way. Raymond often chooses one or two concrete particulars and describes them so closely that we experience the setting alongside the character. In “The Ecstatic Cry,” we feel the narrator’s affinity for Antarctica through her fascination with emperor penguins:
This is the species that captivates me—the only Antarctic bird that breeds in winter, right on the ice. Emperors don’t build nests; they live entirely on fast ice and in the water, never setting foot on solid land. I love that during breeding season, the female lays her egg, then scoots it over to the male and takes off, traveling a hundred miles across the frozen ocean to open water and swimming away to forage for food.
Raymond trusts the reader to accept that the story is set in Antarctica without going out of her way to tell us how cold it is.
The title story in Forgetting English is about Paige, who starts her life over as a teacher in a language school in Taipei, and whose Chinese tutor, Jing-wei, teaches her as much about the Chinese Zodiac as about the language. The platonic relationship between teacher and student takes precedent over their romantic relationships:
They meet twice a week and spend less time on Chinese and more time on each other. Paige doesn’t know whether it’s Jing-wei’s guileless eyes, or the language barrier, or the fact that she is thousands of miles from everything she’s ever known—but she has found herself telling Jing-wei things she’s never told anyone. Her father’s death when she was four; her mother’s alcoholic haze. The revolving door of men—the first one, her mother’s boyfriend, the one who, in return for her silence, gave her enough money to cover her first semester of college; the last one, her boss, the one who, predictably, finally chose his wife.”
Forgetting English won the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction, and I’m not surprised by that in the least. Raymond has quiet, unrelenting control over the writing; each story is compelling and thrives because each detail and line of dialogue reveals just a little more about the characters and the evocative settings. Reading this collection is like sitting on North Shore on Oahu, watching the sun go down over the Pacific—it doesn’t last long, but you won’t soon forget it.