Travel and exploration, how it connects and disconnects us, how familiar problems in unfamiliar locations can sometimes force us to see who we really are and where we've come from is a theme which pervades Raymond's first collection, Forgetting English.
First Sunday, set in Tonga, centres around two sisters: one idealistic, who for most of her life has moved from place to place with an ease that comes only with non-attachment; the other having just lost her corporate job and all the trappings attached to such a career. At a loose end she decides to seek out her sister in Tonga. Theirs is a relationship which is not only fraught because of disparate values and goals, but one which has also strained as a result of one's familiarity with the language, culture and customs of the place and the other's imposition of that "belonging".
A couple who have recently had an abortion take a trip to Japan in the story Translation Memory. The husband compares the economy of Japan, its sparseness, its efficiency and economy of space, with his own relationship:
"...he wonders as he tastes salt on his lips whether the withdrawal of affection between himself and Julie is perhaps not likewise a matter of economizing – not a falling away of love but a storage of energy for the future."
Raymond also uses the analogy of translation and technology, the problems associated with it; what can be lost or confused in translation as a parallel for the couple's communication breakdown. And yet if forgiveness is sought in a foreign culture which permits a kind of escape or sloughing of the self, it might be found in the touching lines:
"He had reached out his hand, as if he might bridge the liminal divide between their two worlds."
Chance encounters are often the heart and soul of travel stories. The Ecstatic Cry, set in perhaps the most isolated of Raymond's locations, Antarctica, features a biologist grappling with the realities of modern tourism, which may support scientific research and development, but which also has a serious effect on the environment. When an unexpected meeting sparks a chain of events, it forces her to re-examine her own life.
My favourite was the title story, Forgetting English, set in Taipei. Language is viewed not only as something which needs to be interpreted, but also a reflection of what we do not understand in our own lives; also, although not knowing a language may alienate us, conversely it can give us the anonymity and unfamiliarity we seek. Paige, a woman who has had a difficult and troubled past, seeks a new start and discovers it studying Chinese and immersing herself in a new culture. While in Taipei she makes a friend with a local woman.
However, while foreigners may seek escape and renewal in another culture, it may not be so easy for natives who are expected to follow prescribed cultural mores. When these cultural values clash, there can be devastating consequences.
The main criticism of the collection is a personal one: I'm not a huge fan of theme-based short story collections. However, Forgetting English is an enjoyable read; Raymond's style of writing is engaging, her locations exotic, her endings are often resonant and deftly-written, and what her stories express about travel and exploration is honest and forthright.
Causes Midge Raymond Supports
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Mercy Corps, Doctors without Borders, Coffee Kids, Northwest Harvest, Treehouse for Kids, Angeline's Day Shelter for...