Mary Helen Specht might have been born and raised in Abilene, Texas, but after graduating from high school, she’s barely stopped moving. She’s studied at Rice University and Emerson College; worked in Santiago, Chile and Quito, Ecuador, and lived in Nigeria on a Fulbright grant. Most recently, she was a Fellow at the Dobie Paisano Ranch outside of Austin, and she’s now an assistant professor at St. Edward’s University in Austin. A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, her work has been published in numerous journals and literary magazines. She is currently working on a novel.
In this interview, Specht discusses introducing characters, the challenges of writing global fiction from an American perspective, and why she chose to use her experiences in Nigeria as the basis for a novel rather than a memoir.
(To read an excerpt from Specht’s novel-in-progress Migratory Animals and an exercise based on how she adeptly introduces two characters, click here.)
One of the hardest things for beginning writers to do–and even for me–is to introduce characters to each other. So, I admire how easily you introduce Flannery and Kunle. You manage to cover the basics: where, when, and how and how they were dressed. But you also move on quickly. The introduction sets up the story rather than delaying it. Was this introduction always so smooth? Or did it become that way through revision?
Mary Helen Specht
The prologue has been the most worked over part of my novel. Each time I changed anything major about the rest of the book during a revision, the prologue would suddenly seem off. I’d lost the right emphasis or tone for what came next—a reverse domino effect. The fact that the prologue is set in Nigeria while much of the rest of the novel is set in the United States was another challenge—I felt that I had to give both the big picture trajectory of Flannery’s time there while also rooting the readers in scene. I ended up looking for guidance in the short story form for this, particularly in Jhumpa Lahiri’s most recent collection Unaccustomed Earth, which inspired me to start on a large scale and then zoom in to the “meet cute” between Flannery and Kunle. I also tried to use concrete physical objects (like palm wine) to transition quickly through time while remaining in scene throughout. For me, introducing characters and places is all about allowing the physical environment to do double duty by standing in for (or at least echoing) the interior lives or relationships of the characters.
The novel is set in Nigeria, and so, obviously, place plays an important role in the novel. And because you’re writing for an audience that likely hasn’t been to Nigeria, you’re writing about cities and a landscape that most of us don’t know. So I’m curious how you approached the descriptions of place. How did you balance the need to show enough details to locate the reader but also the need to keep the story moving?
Mary Helen Specht
Great question. This has been tremendously complicated, and like the prologue, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and revising the Nigeria sections. In particular, I didn’t want to portray Nigeria one-dimensionally, when in reality it is a country with rural huts and modern houses, dirt roads and concrete flyovers. I had notebooks full of descriptions of Nigeria from my time living there after graduate school, and I combed through them, looking for details that would do the most work in terms of demonstrating the country’s complexity. Instead of spending a paragraph explicating the strange mix of modernity and degradation at the university, for example, I used an image of a woman wearing a traditional wrapper while carrying a computer monitor on her head across campus.
As the writer-in-residence at Necessary Fiction, you wrote an essay, “The Challenges of Writing Global Fiction in the West.” In it, you talk about traveling to Nigeria for a Fulbright and knowing that you would write about the experience. And, yet, you wondered, “How could I use this setting, use my experiences with the people there, to write in a way that didn’t patronize, exoticize, or simplify the complex world of West Africa?” This is a significant problem with Western stories set outside of the West. Just recently, I saw the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which is about a group of British retirees who settle in India. In it, the Indians really only serve the purpose of enlightening the Brits. Yet, the film seemed well-intentioned. Is it possible to step outside of your Western influences when writing about places like India and Africa? Is there a way to somehow embrace your alien status and also honestly represent the people who are from that place?
Mary Helen Specht
I’ve spent a lot of time studying and writing about this question and my answer is this: I don’t know; but I won’t let myself off that easily. I certainly think there is an opportunity for writers from the developed world to write about the developing world in a way that is productive, especially when these writers use the opportunity to explore their own privilege and maybe even culpability. That said, I think it is almost impossible to entirely escape being part of the “western gaze” when writing about other cultures. I think the most important action writers like myself can take to make this situation less uncomfortable is to support—by reading, reviewing, promoting, assigning to our students etc.—international fiction written by non-western writers. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses in her TED talk (which you MUST watch if you haven’t—she’s amazing), the danger is perpetuating a “single story” about any given place. If there is a multiplicity of voices, native and non-native, all writing about a country or culture, then there isn’t the same pressure to provide some impossible “objective” viewpoint. The beauty of fiction, after all, is in the opposite, in its subjectivity and ability to refract the world through many prisms.
You published an essay about falling in love with a Nigerian man in Nigeria for The New York Times. It’s a really great essay. It also shares some of the same details as Migratory Animals. What went into your decision to write the story as a novel rather than as a memoir? What did fictionalizing the story allow you to do that wasn’t possible in nonfiction?
Mary Helen Specht
People connected to the publishing industry convinced me to work on a memoir based on my time in Nigeria, and I tried. However, it ended up more of a collection of essays (and is where the NYT piece came from), than one story with a strong arc. So, I returned to what I’d always really wanted to do in the first place, which was write a novel using my time there as a loose inspiration. Fictionalizing allows me to imagine what might have been—if I’d been a different person with different desires and challenges, and if I’d made different choices or been born into a different situation. In the real world, we only get to live one life; writing fiction allows me, for a time, to embody other possibilities.
Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.