Rea Tarvydas's debut collection is How to Pick Up a Maid in Statue Square, tales of expats behaving badly. Here she shares the genesis of her such fascinations, and also an assortment of literary inspirations.
When my husband, a management consultant, was transferred to Hong Kong in 2000, I placed my job as a psychiatric emergency-room nurse on hold and packed up the house. And moved. For two years. To Hong Kong.
The noise, the heat, the hustle.
In reality, my life as an expat was quiet. I was busy with domestic details involved with two young children. But I occupied a space that existed between two worlds: the world from which I originated and the world in which I lived. It’s a funny space where loneliness and alienation exist. Negotiating it was tricky.
In the expat community, I met other trailing spouses who spoke quietly of losing their sense of identity and self-worth, of filling the void with shopping, drinking, and partying. Of marital infidelities.
There were stories, wild stories.
Of women, waking in the middle of the night, to find their husbands missing. And when they called their husbands cell phones, locating them in girlie bars in Wan Chai, Hong Kong’s red-light district. They refused to come home.
Of men with “secret” wives hidden across the border in Mainland China.
Of older women with sideways stares, screaming at the tops of their lungs in housewares shops.
I joined the American Women’s Association and cold-called a Canadian woman who lived down the street. Friendships formed quickly and weren’t always what they seemed, because they formed out of a shared necessity. But a community existed. It was flawed, generous, and a little bit needy.
Everyone behaved badly.
I’m addicted to short stories. I am. Here are five CanLit stories that served as inspiration as I wrote and edited my short story collection, How to Pick Up a Maid in Statue Square.
“Knife Party" and "Pompeii Book of the Dead,” by Mark A. Jarman, from Knife Party at the Hotel Europa
A man travels to Italy to escape a love lost and a marriage ended, two unrelated events. He parties with the young and beautiful, no longer young or beautiful, and a man bleeds to death in a hallway. Priapic statues come alive, and roam the alleyways of Rome, stealing buckets of used restaurant grease.
Scenes in Pompeii reminded me of Malcolm Lowry, an Englishman. He wrote the ultimate novel about expats behaving badly, Under the Volcano, while squatting in a stevedore’s hut in Vancouver, BC. Lowry, an incorrigible alcoholic, was a remittance man paid by his family to stay far away from England.
There are many sharp-edged words and images in Jarman’s prose. Afterward, I’m left with an excoriated cerebral space, and one or two ideas floating. Serious ideas like loneliness and alienation and death.
I loved reading “Knife Party" and "Pompeii Book of the Dead,” staring into the ruins.
“‘Bush Slumps to New Low in Polls’ Paris Correspondent—Lloyd Burko,” by Tom Rachman, from The Imperfectionists
The Imperfectionists is a short story collection about people who work at an international newspaper that is on the verge of shutting down. For the most part the stories take place in Rome.
Lloyd Burko, an aged freelance reporter, based in Paris, married four times, alienated from his children, except for one, desperately scrambles for a lead. His considerably younger wife, Eileen, is slowly leaving him for the neighbour across the hall and he cares more than he wants to admit. But the money has run out. Using his loyal son as a source, Lloyd discovers two things: he’s been living a lie and Lloyd doesn’t know what the hell is going on anymore.
I don’t know if Rachman is a Canadian and I don’t care. I’m claiming him as Canadian. He was born in England, raised in Canada, and has lived, and travelled, around the world as a reporter for The Associated Press. As a journalist, he’s a professional expat.
For journalists float between worlds, in search of the latest information. Interviewing, taking careful notes. Trying to find meaning. And the next story. Like me.
“Pyro,” by Sarah Keevil, from Journey Prize Stories 21
A young professional expatriate woman named Serena meets Leo, a fire fanatic, at a bar in Soho, London. She attempts to avoid her drug and alcohol addicted boyfriend by rolling through the suburbs of London in the middle of the night, lighting fires. The story skips and leaps, like fire taking hold and there’s a hallucinatory aspect. I found the descriptions of fire strangely moving.
This story is surprising and subversive.
I have an affinity for young professional expatriate women meeting bad boys in bars in Soho. I have one named Sarah in my own collection and her fire fanatic? A guy named Fast Eddy.
“The Concert Party,” by Mavis Gallant, from Varieties of Exile
Burnet, a Canadian academic, reflects on his life as a graduate student in the south of France. It’s hot. Wine flows freely. His memories of a fateful party create tension between what happened and how he felt about it, and the real truth of what happened that day: two wives leave two husbands behind. I suspect they leave more for personal freedom than for love. Who wants to wash out a polyester shirt in the sink every night? But harm is inflicted.
The setting, an exotic filter through which the story unfolds, casts an artificial, glamorous glow over the characters, creating performers of them all. Are we not all performers?
The lonely voice of Mavis Gallant is a singular thing.
In 2015 I searched for Mavis Gallant in Paris.
Mavis Gallant rests in an unmarked grave in Montparnasse Cemetery. It’s difficult to locate without knowledge that she rests, temporarily, in her friend’s family crypt, because Mavis died almost penniless. When faced with fragile, failing health and dwindling finances, she stated, unequivocally, “I have chosen to be a writer. I know what it entails.”
I imagine her careful walk through her neighbourhood, wearing low pumps that women of a certain age favour, her step precise and light. Through the dogshit-smeared streets, she walked, observing daily life in the shops and cafes, capturing moments in her memory. For her stories. Her white and grey and black stories.
It’s difficult to comprehend that Mavis Gallant rests in an unmarked grave.
“A Wedding Dress,” by Morley Callaghan, from Ancient Lineage and Other Stories
This is a story about Lena Schwartz, an old maid of thirty-two, who sets out one day to buy a serviceable dress for her wedding. She encounters a dream of a dress, fancy black silk with an orange collar, and must have it.
The consequences are disastrous.
It’s a simple story set in Ontario. But it was written while Morley Callaghan lived in Paris and he published it in a Paris magazine, This Quarter, alongside Ernest Hemingway’s story, and Hemingway admired Callaghan’s story.
But the real story of Morley Callaghan is his famous fight with Hemingway in 1929. A boxing match in Paris between two reporters, Callaghan and Hemingway, in which Hemingway was bloodied and knocked to the mat.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was the timekeeper and he messed up—a two-minute round became a four-minute round became an eight-minute round. At least, that’s what Hemingway said.
The men all disagreed on what happened, repeatedly argued about it, and were estranged. The story quickly became folklore and spread like wildfire through the literary underbrush. Who really knows what happened?
But Morley Callaghan was an expat behaving badly and he fought and knocked out Ernest Hemingway, the ultimate expat behaving badly. And that’s something, it really is.
Rea Tarvydas lives and writes in Calgary, Alberta. Her stories can be found in The New Quarterly, The Fiddlehead, and Grain magazines. Work is forthcoming in the Writing Menopause Anthology (Inanna, 2017).
Tarvydas’s debut book of short stories, How to Pick Up a Maid in Statue Square, is published by Thistledown Press (2016).
Please visit her website www.reatarvydas.com
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