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"The Foreign Cinema"
Winner of the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, 2016
Selected by Paul Harding
What inspired you to write “The Foreign Cinema”?
The story was first written in grad school after I'd heard Pete Turchi's lecture on stories with a short timeframe. I'd been writing stories based on my paternal grandmother's life—she was born in Istanbul in 1906 and came to the U.S. newly married at 15—and because her life always struck me as monumental, I'd been thinking in great sweeps of time. The idea of a story that was narrow in its frame was appealing, and also freeing. So I gave myself strict parameters: the story had to take place over a meal, at a table, and the table I knew I'd use was the formal, old world one I knew from my grandmother's house in Los Angeles.
The protagonist, Cenem, goes on a “journey of time more than distance,” in her trip from Istanbul to Los Angeles, to visit the sister she has not seen in decades. She also metaphorically travels back in time through the cinema. What made you choose to use the cinema as Cenem’s medium for connection with the past and present?
The challenge for me in drafting a story is to find ways to stay engaged, to stay inside the story, which is also what makes the writing interesting. One way to do that is to pull in subjects I feel a connection to, or that fascinate, and in this story, it was Curtiz's film, Casablanca. I'd never written about film before, fictionally or otherwise. The prospect was exciting, and quickly brought a new energy to the story. I didn't know where the thread was going, but as the characters responded to the film, I grew to know them better, and as the film came to have greater importance in the action, it echoed important emotional junctures in both sisters' lives. Casablanca quickly became an integral part of the story, which was a surprise, and also a relief. The film turned out to be a useful dramatic vehicle, and had meaning for the characters and their story.
Places are important and hold meaning and memories for Cenem. Why did you decide to focus on Istanbul and Los Angeles specifically?
I'd always felt that my grandmother life, which began in Istanbul when it was still Constantinople, and ended in Los Angeles, was a remarkable one. The eldest of seven, she left home at fifteen in an arranged marriage to my grandfather. Being married so young and leaving home was difficult, and she grappled with it throughout her life—the feelings of uprootedness, of being separated from family and the places she knew—though there were aspects of the separation she could never reconcile. In “The Foreign Cinema,” the character of Sofia represents my grandmother, but I endowed the character of Cenem with what I knew to be my grandmother's sense of loss, and the effect the distance had on her experience, and continued to have over time.
In a similar way, the story's dual settings of Istanbul and Los Angeles, were natural to think of in terms of loss, dislocation and longing, but there were challenges too. I grew up in Los Angeles, but know little about Istanbul apart from family stories. I've never been there, so I had to imagine the places that Cenem and her sister might have lived, beginning with what little I knew about my grandmother's early life. Google Earth helps too.
What was your biggest challenge in writing this piece and in writing overall?
For this story, it was dreaming Cenem into existence. From the start, I knew there would be an encounter between sisters who'd been separated for decades, but not much else. The character of Cenem developed slowly—the story was written over eight years—made slower by distracting real-life facts that I stubbornly pursued, then discarded. It's a problem I struggle with in general, chasing detail and my fondness for descriptive elements. I'm not always as selective with detail as I should be—I can be indiscriminate, a habit that can run a story into the ground. It's a tendency I always have to pay attention to. Detail, I constantly tell myself, is like calories: include only what's essential and nourishes.
Which writers have influenced you? What are you currently reading?
What excites me more than anything is a strong narrative persona. So much can be contained there: voice, tone, an idiosyncratic take on the story, and the world. Mavis Gallant, William Maxwell, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Charles Baxter—their narrators are defined by voice, tone, a conspicuous commentary. For me, reading fiction that has a strong separation between story and storyteller is like a trigger that sparks an awareness of story, character and voice in my own work.
The book I'm currently reading is William Finnegan's Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. As Geoff Dyer recently said, it's a book that can make you feel like you wasted your life because you've never surfed.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?
It's from a workshop with Stuart Dybek, whose words about a character I'd been struggling with have been applicable to pretty much every writing problem I've encountered: “Imagine him more.”