I am in the corridor walking toward the writer’s office. I am taking his class because someone told me he is famous. I came to this college from somewhere else. He offered to speak to us alone about our stories. I figured I should take the chance. He asked me to meet him this afternoon.
The famous writer’s door is open. He sits on a wide, plush chair with ample arms. He gestures with one hand to a slim one made of metal.
“Sit down,” he says. I do. “Now, let’s talk about these pages.”
I would prefer to write, “your story” and not “these pages,” but this is how the famous writer speaks.
“I’m concerned,” he says.
“Your sentences are too simple. The style doesn’t suit you.”
There is a style that suits me? “Please explain.”
“This feels too old-fashioned and American. It sounds like Hemingway.”
“He is my main influence,” I reply, “along with Robert Frost.”
The famous writer rubs his chin.
“But you come from a place that is so much more colorful.”
I have no reply. I do not see how my words relate to the colors of my country.
“Let me give you an example,” he says. He brings my story closer to his eyes. “‘I came to this college from somewhere else.’ You should be more specific. Say the name of the college and that you come from…”
“… a country across the ocean.”
He frowns. “But why so vague?”
“Because of the old man and the sea.”
He shakes his head from side to side. “Find a style that comes from your own heritage. What kind of music did you listen to as a child?”
“The Goldberg Variations. Philip Glass.”
“You must have been influenced to some degree and in vital ways by your native culture at the level of lived experience,” the famous writer says. His sentences are too long.
“My culture told me that Hemingway is the best writer in English.”
The famous writer sighs. “You should at least name the famous writer character. Something suggestive like Victor Longwind.”
“I prefer ‘famous writer.’ It reminds me of—”
“The Old Man and the Sea, I know.”
“No,” I reply. “Just ‘old man.’ The sea is a place, not a person.”
The famous writer shifts in his chair. “You should at least have them walking around the American university so you can narrate your alienation from your environment.”
“The student character is not me,” I reply. I begin to wonder why he is so famous.
“Of course, yes.”
“But the writer character is a precise portrait of you.”
His eyes shift to the ceiling for a moment. He looks back at me. “I’m not sure what to make of that. I’m not sympathetic, but I’m not unkind. Maybe I should be more of a jerk.”
“So, Ms. Talisman,”—this is not my name, but I don’t correct him—“if you’re not interested in what I have to say, why are you even here? Why are you even taking my class?”
“It’s in the story. Someone told me you were famous.”
The famous writer squints. “You just said that you and your main character are not the same.”
“The two of us are the same on this specific point.”
“And I suppose you’re unwilling to specify who ‘someone’ is?”
“Who someone is doesn’t matter. It only matters that it is someone. Besides, I don’t remember.”
“It’s fiction, Ms. Talisman. You can make it up!”
“I like that I can’t remember.”
The famous writer rolls his eyes. I have never seen a white man roll his eyes. “You’ve told me why you’re taking my class, but you haven’t told me why we’re even talking if you’re not going to listen to anything I say.”
“I’m listening,” I reply. “I’m just not following.”
“I see. Are my explanations too difficult to follow?”
“I mean that I like my story. I don’t see how your suggestions would improve it. So, I am not following them.”
The famous writer sighs. “We seem to be at an impasse.”
We continue to sit in our respective chairs and watch each other. He looks past my shoulder a few times, to see if there are other students waiting. No one else comes by.
After a few minutes, he asks, “Have you thought about the ending?”
“The part where I—or rather, the writer character—asks if you’ve thought about the ending.”
My lips purse. “You think that’s the ending?”
“Well, it’s the beginning of the ending.”
“But nothing has happened yet.”
“I’m well aware,” he replies. “but doesn’t a conversation about the ending imply the beginning of the ending?”
“You want something to happen? Should I get mad? Threaten to fail you?”
My pursed lips turn into a smirk. “I want to see that.”
The famous writer’s chest heaves while he takes a long breath.
“Ms. Talisman, I have been invited to this university not only because I am well-known, but due to my extensive experience as the author of numerous acclaimed novels, two memoirs, an essay collection, several volumes of poetry, a monograph of criticism, and ineffable text-based performance works. If you’re not going to follow any of my suggestions, then I don’t see any reason why you should be in my course, unless you specifically wish to fail and leave an unsightly blemish on your record.”
“Is that a threat?” I ask.
“For the sake of your story, it is. Conflict is key to narrative plot.”
“That’s convenient because I object. I do follow your suggestions.”
“You just spent this entire conversation telling me you wouldn’t.”
I shake my head and say, “You don’t sound like Hemingway, do you? You use fancy words, sentences with many twists and turns.”
The famous writer considers this. “But that’s only in dialogue.”
“So? It’s part of the story. In that previous monologue of yours, I’d prefer that you say, ‘Take my advice or find another class.’ But I let your sentence be five times as long.”
“And why do you do that?”
I consider this. “Because that’s how you talk.”
“It’s fiction, Ms. Talisman. You can make me talk how you want.”
“You’re the writer. You can make me sound different. You can turn me straightforward. You can make me say, ‘Take my advice or find another class.’”
“That’s what I want,” I say.
“You can do that.”
“That’s what I’ll do.”
“Then do it.”
“All right. See, I’m following your advice because I agree with it.”
The famous writer nods. He scratches the back of his neck. “I will still fail you.”
“For the story. The conflict.”
“Anything for the conflict.”
“It’s the basis of plot.”
“Sure. The conflict. And not your ego?”
“How dare you.”
“Is this still for the story?”
“We’re done, Ms. Talisman.” The famous writer stands and points to the door. “Drop the class or you’ll fail.”
I’m mad. I consider yelling, or worse. Maybe refuse to leave. Maybe take my chair and throw it at the window. No, that’s too much. I haven’t established that I’m capable of throwing chairs at windows, and it’s too late in the story for a flashback. If I throw a chair now it wouldn’t be believable. It wouldn’t be earned.
Instead, I say, “Before I leave, may I just ask one more question?”
“This part isn’t in the pages you sent me,” he says.
“No. I’m doing a revision you haven’t read.”
He nods while still pointing at the door. I forgot to make him put his hand down. He puts his hand down. I give up on Hemingway.
“Have you ever considered that fiction has different functions based on cultural context, including that in some cultures, it actually attempts to promote social cohesion and therefore avoids conflict, which Western writers refuse to allow even as they insist on promoting ‘authentic’ foreign writers who pepper their stories with exotic cultural references because they provide exciting ‘local color,’ which means that such stories merely use their foreignness as decoration without meaningfully engaging or communicating the fundamental aspects of that region’s storytelling tradition?”
“Who are you?” he asks. “You’re not a student.”
“No, I’m pretending to be a student for the sake of a thought experiment I’m trying to disguise as a story so it has a better chance of getting read. Also, I look young.”
“You do look like a student.”
“That’s just because you’re judging my age by American perceptions of body chronology based on white standards of collagen levels. I am now using this fact as a metaphor for how you’ve judged my story based on white standards of plot and conflict.”
“Great. You got me,” the famous writer says. “Now what do you want?”
“For you not to pout, first of all,” I reply. “I just want you to allow that if you’re going to accept the concept that writers from elsewhere should ideally use their own cultural background, we should be able to use our backgrounds not just at the level of decoration, but also for fundamental aspects of storytelling.”
“Sure, I’ll allow that. Not that one white male writer, no matter how famous, can really change a whole lot.”
I wonder whether this character should be so obtuse. “I’m using you as a symbol to represent the white American literary establishment.”
“That’s a figure of speech, right? One part standing for a whole?”
“Yes, a synecdoche.”
“And where did that concept come from?” he asks, folding his arms.
The famous writer’s eyes close for a beat of smug satisfaction.
I say, “Let me remind you that we started with me fangirling over Hemingway. I also fangirl over the Greeks. Foreigners can also be inspired by Western ideas, just as you’re allowed to be American and be inspired by foreign ideas. Except when you do it, you’re called innovative, while I’m inauthentic.”
“So, what are you saying, exactly?”
I sigh. “I’m saying I pick and choose my influences just like you. I’m also saying you can’t choose the most superficial parts of my culture to fetishize and congratulate yourself for knowing about through my stories, like trinkets you collect from some tourist trap bazaar while you’re on vacation. You have to engage with the parts that require more work to understand and appreciate.”
He tilts his head to consider. “Okay.”
“Yes, okay. I’ll try harder.”
“Yes, really. Am I agreeing too fast? Do you want a struggle first?”
“No,” I reply for the sake of philosophical consistency, even though part of me wants to say yes.
“Is this the end, then?” the famous writer asks.
“Well, I suppose what should happen if this is a story from my culture would be that the two of us hug as a form of reconciliation after our argument. Then, since you’ve discovered my true identity and realize that we’re a lot more alike than you thought, except I’m different enough to be beguiling, we would discover our attraction to each other the moment our bodies touch. This attraction would very soon turn into profound love and end with a wedding in which everyone from the village is invited.”
The famous writer raises an eyebrow. “Is that what you want?”
I take a heavy breath. “No. That plot is too far-fetched. I’d prefer to leave the story unresolved so it would be more avant-garde.”
“Forgive me for saying so, but the story is plenty avant-garde.”
“I don’t think so. Not these days, anyway. But I guess that judgment is up to the reader.”
“I see that you’ve read your Roland Barthes.”
“Are you surprised?”
“From The Old Man and the Sea to ‘The Death of the Author.’”
“Stop being so pretentious,” I say, standing up. “Goodbye. This is me dying.”
“Bye now. Too bad we didn’t get to have our love affair.”
“I don’t fall in love with racists,” I reply before walking through the open door.
When I cross the threshold, I find myself staring at a blank page once again.
Rumpus original art by Liz Asch