Malahat volunteer Katie Weaver talks with Jason Markowsky about his fiction piece, "Pomelos Are Out of Season," which will be published in Issue 189, Winter 2014 of the Malahat. Exoticism, broken relationships, and travel schizophrenia... it's all here!
The setting in your fiction piece, “Pomelos Are Out of Season” is so remote and exotic. What drew you to this location, and how were you able to give such a sensory experience, providing details such as the fresh sugar cane juice?
I’ve been teaching English as a Second Language for a number of years and it’s taken me to some far-flung places. Vietnam was the first country I’d lived in in Asia, so everything new and different fascinated me. I took notes, realizing I’d want to set a short story there one day. One advantage I’ve discovered about writing in a foreign country is that the cultural details are fresh and easily observable because I’m not used to them. They might be mundane to the locals, but not to me, and so hopefully not to Western readers. A character drinking fresh sugar cane juice in Ho Chi Minh City is no different from one drinking a Tim Horton’s coffee in Toronto.
Why pomelos? Do they have any significance to you, personally?
Not at all. I don’t even like them much. They’re a lot like grapefruits, aren’t they? Maybe a little sweeter. I realized my narrator needed something stupid to do to avoid the problems in his relationship. His job at the orphanage is done, but Bettina’s isn’t. He likes to fix things. I decided he should aim his efforts at the tree of a big, clumsy, exotic-sounding fruit. That seemed to clarify his character for me.
One of the most compelling parts of the story is the struggling relationship with Bettina. I can imagine it would be difficult writing about a crumbling relationship. What was the core message you hoped to convey to your readers? Was it always your plan to have their relationship this way?
Yes, I’d always planned to write their relationship as falling apart. We’ve all been there, but maybe we haven’t been there when it’s going sideways in another country. Much of what happens is completely the same, but there’s a denial of things becoming worse because of foreign (and sometimes dangerous) distractions. Some people move abroad to escape deeper problems in their lives. If those problems are relationship-based, they always find that the problems are still there, often amplified, even if they’re eating pho and sipping sugar cane juice halfway across the world. And when they realize it didn’t work, they move home and think that will help. By the end of this story, Bettina and the narrator haven’t resolved much, but they think their relationship will be reinvigorated because they’re moving again.
How do you perfect your dialogue? It felt natural from your foreign, broken English to your colloquial schmuck William. What’s your secret?
I don’t think it’s perfect, but hopefully it sounds natural enough for the reader to trust. I guess teaching ESL for many years has helped me hear the beautiful imperfections in the way people from other cultures speak English. I also love writing dialogue, so I spend a lot of time trying to get it right. I’ve done some acting and playwriting and that’s certainly helped. Carefully listening to how others speak is important, but practicing speaking like them is also very helpful. Not in front of them, of course (wouldn’t that be odd?), but alone, at home, like an actor might it front of a mirror.
The term “travel schizophrenia” was completely new to me. How did you come up with this concept? Are you no stranger to travel schizophrenia?
I can’t quite recall, but I think this concept came up during a conversation with a good friend of mine a long time ago. We were reflecting on what happens to your brain when you’ve decided to go home after living abroad for a number of months or years. There’s an absurd mixture of preparation, anticipation, and sadness swirling through your mind and it can be unnerving. While you are physically—corporeally—still in the foreign country, little by little, your thoughts return to home. I’ve always imagined it as a coping mechanism—something to ease the transition—but it can drive you a little batty. You feel in two places at once.
Do you plan to continue writing about any of these characters? There is clearly such a detailed, complicated backstory to each and every person you introduce. Will it be hard to say good-bye to all of them? If you don’t see these characters in your writing future, what do you see? What are you working on now?
I haven’t planned to write more about these characters, but you never know. I think I’ve said goodbye to them already, but I’m glad Malahat readers will get a chance to meet them for the first time. Right now, I’m working on a book of short stories with similar cross-cultural themes as part of my MFA thesis at UBC.
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