A Small Place for Fugitives

by Jia Tolentino


This year, I shelved a novel that I had been writing since 2010. The last draft I sent to my agent had its moments, but it read inert and youthful, sort of stained with indecision; at any rate, I’d started to think it had problems that neither of us would fix.

At final count, the manuscript was three hundred and six pages and almost seventy-eight thousand words long. There were fifteen chapters, all of which I’d edited several dozen times. In retrospect, that seems sensible — what you’d want to do, when a book was concerned — and also insane, as I don’t remember any of it. Editing is a fugue state; the time self-erases. I’d have forgotten about it altogether except for the fact that the weight of the effort has lifted only gradually, and also, the fact that the evidence is two clicks away: the evolution of an idea from nothing to something to nothing again sits peacefully in a folder named “Novel!” that I dragged off my desktop early in the fall.

Anything that long, you end up in something like a relationship. This one was absorbing and fun and punishing and important; it was naive in a good way, and suddenly incompatible with my life. I had spent hours trying to do well by it: I bound its pages and took it with me on vacation; I talked to it on dog walks and edited in the rain. And, just like a relationship, I think about the next one sometimes. I’ll be wiser, better at it — more controlled and more open and more specific in my hope.

I miss my book sometimes, is what I’m saying. It was a good book — quieter and sadder and more solemn than me — although now I’m trying to tell myself it was dour and awful, because if the book was bad then it’ll be easier to forget about it, and I never want to look at it again.

But writing things off is the exact trap fiction guards against. The form’s great grace is the argument it makes for ambiguity; it fails as soon as a story can be too easily reduced.

We do, too. I have learned this lesson in iterations with the people close to me; I learned it again with the characters in this book. There was a quiet long-distance taxi driver hiding his sexual orientation, and his daughter, an unflappable, antagonistic camgirl, and her nervous childhood friend, all caught up in the effects of a gold mining company scam. The book was set in Kyrgyzstan — LOL, did I mention that yet? — a post-Soviet, syncretically Muslim, rapidly globalizing country in Central Asia that looks like a combination of Switzerland and the moon.

The working title was The Earth Is a Small Place for Fugitives, a translation of a proverb that accretes meaning as technology spreads unevenly, wiring us to person and place. In the Kyrgyz village where I served a year in the Peace Corps, there were cookies shaped like iPhones and no running water; there was dollar-a-liter vodka and anvil-heavy tradition. It seemed a great human constant to try, and fail, to escape one’s own self.

Or maybe everything I thought while I was there was projection. I started the book during my increasingly depressive off-hours between shifts teaching at the tiny village school. I knew that writing about the country was hubristic — but then writing is, in general, and I was twenty-one. I spoke the language, anyway, and it’s hard not to mistake words for knowledge. In service of understanding, they kept tumbling out.

In country, I wrote out of pure compulsive behavior. When I got home to Texas, I kept at it because I was sad, and bored, and couldn’t stand to write about myself. I applied to MFA programs to see if what I’d written was worth anything, then I moved to Ann Arbor because it was worth at least that stipend, then I signed with my agent to see if I could write a decent book. Once I did, which happened around when I moved to New York last October, then I didn’t know what to do. The book was decent. What else had I ever wanted? “Oh,” I realized, after a very odd summer. “Why didn’t you try to write something fucking good?

My answer to myself was that I couldn’t have. I write to find the limits of my ability to understand things, and I found them this summer — on a project with a difficult premise, which I started before I knew I could write. But I have a goldfish memory and an inability to sustain cognitive dissonance. I feel so certain of some stories I tell myself until I feel certain, suddenly, that they are lies. Seen another way, this sequence seems suspicious. Who spends five years on a book out of curiosity?

It’s not the giving up that bothers me. Everyone has a drawer novel, a stretch of being religious, a longtime boyfriend now farming psychedelic mushrooms in Berlin. What bothers me is that I keep forgetting this isn’t the first novel that I’ve put to bed.

That other story begins in 2009, the year I graduated from college, pragmatic and scrappy from the recession. In the months I spent waiting for my Peace Corps departure, I tried out an idea that I thought could sell. The vibes, I’d say, were “ersatz J. Courtney Sullivan.” I plotted a story that would take place over the course of one summer, starting with four girls biking along the Hudson River on a bright, hot, blue day. A plane crash-landed just as one of them confessed something startling, and the emotional plot clock started to tick. The characters were roughly based on me and my three best friends from college. There were two embarrassing epigraphs. The novel, if you will literally believe it, was called Girls.

Thankfully, I am spared the evidence of myself, because about a hundred and fifty pages into the draft, I lost the entire thing. I kept working on the manuscript when I got to Kyrgyzstan, and then my backpack was stolen out from under me at an internet cafe when I was Skyping my boyfriend. I watched the security camera footage — two men pick it up and walk away.

To continue the relationship metaphor, the loss was a violent kind of breakup. I felt hollow and panicked and insane and I cried all day. My friends took me to the police station, combed the secondhand markets, bought me beers, and in the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me, one of them even lent me his laptop; he knew that I needed to write to get out of my head.

I did, on a blog now set to private. And I went back, finding an entry from November 2, 2010.

There’s a line in “The Rabbit Hole as Likely Explanation” by Ann Beattie: “You think you understand the problem you’re facing, only to find out there is another, totally unexpected problem.”

Since college, when I started studying writing, I haven’t been able to get around the wall of artificiality involved in relating a story — particularly one belonging to a person you make up yourself. My professors (including Ann Beattie) elide this completely in their own work, but I often feel like a little girl designing a wedding dress when I try to write fiction. How can you write into the base level of what constitutes an experience and make it true?

The thought eventually slipped into the way I conceived of my life, and it does so even more in Kyrgyzstan. Here I’m alone most of the time and must relate things with the idea that the telling has a point. I can tell you that a man pushed me into a taxi telling me he was going to make me his wife, but why would I? Only because it sounds like a good story. It sounds different than what it felt like: a hangover, a cloudy day, a dirty man wearing a leather jacket, something that registered only as dull, sad annoyance.

Still, like a liar, I like to shape things, and I like to write. Last fall I started a novel that I had gotten deep into by this point, a year later. I’m a tough sell but I was beginning to think that my book was decent, that I could eventually get it published. Then last weekend, two men stole my laptop while I was Skyping at an Internet café in the capital city.

I have excuses for not backing up my work, but they’re just excuses. Here’s where the artificiality kicks in: I can say that I’m devastated to have lost all that work, which is true, and that I lost book reviews and grants in progress and a dozen small projects and teaching tools, which are all true statements as well. I can say I’m writing this because I want to explain why I am letting this blog slip.

But you think you understand the problem you’re facing, only to find out there is another, totally unexpected problem. This is a theme of working for Peace Corps. You have a hard time understanding where your priorities should lie, what your perception of an event should be. You’re constantly creating a narrative for yourself that keeps derailing under these unexpected problems. You thought work would be hard until you realized you have to create the infrastructure first. You need to brush your teeth, but first you need to haul some drinking water, then you find that the well is dry. You think your language will be inadequate to speak to the police about your recent theft, then realize they only want to talk to you about your love life anyway.

You think the biggest problem will be rebuilding your novel, only to realize that you are barely capable of telling a story truthfully. In this I have somehow managed to make it appear that life is hard for me, as if that’s what was important.

The first week I got to my village, a drunk man threw a baby against a metal gate and it died. A month ago, my bus hit a person on the road and didn’t stop. Two close friends of mine (one of them a girl) were beat up on the street after leaving a club. Last night in my village, a drunk driver ran over a person on the street and in the resulting fight two more men were killed. The word for “woman” in Kyrgyz is the same as “wife” and there’s a wife down the road who always has a black eye. When I complained to my twelve-year-old sister about a man grabbing my crotch, she sighed and said, “Yeah, Kyrgyz men are like that.” There’s been a funeral in my village every day for weeks.

You think you understand the problem you’re facing, only to find out there is another, totally unexpected problem. What a minor tragedy, losing a manuscript that you know was sophomoric. What a major travesty, to be in the middle of all this and only be able to know your own story. Still I don’t think I can help being sad about this. I have enough trouble convincing myself that I can actually write without losing the first real thing I’ve ever written. And like all problems in Kyrgyzstan, it exfoliates outward endlessly, magnified and connected to sadnesses that I have no right and every right to feel.

I’m already telling myself that it’s better I lost my half-finished book so that I didn’t waste any more time on what I’ll call a warm-up exercise. That is not true at all, but I’ll probably believe it within a week. The mind can do easily what the author cannot. The story is done with, and like all the best ones, it makes me feel better about myself — which is always proof that it’s leaving too much out.

I shelved my second novel out of certainty that my writing had developed, that my instincts had gotten better, that as time went on they’d continue to. I suspect, reading this, that I am under some illusions, which I nonetheless hope to maintain my entire life.

The use of a year as a bounded unit is that, at the very end of it, you feel changed. You’re molting. You can identify what has exhausted you and what has made you hopeful; you know what you’ve clung to and what you’d like to leave behind.

A book, as a unit of focus and devotion, can function in the same way. Here, I am forcing myself to admit how thoroughly the second book was a reaction to the first one, which was itself a reaction to a problem around identity, a concept in which principle and projection seem almost reversible, in which there are shifting distances between how you see yourself and who you really are. I have been too uneasy about the “write what you know” edict; I have looked for too many ways around representation: who you want to write about, which means who you are writing for; the question of whether your eye reduces experience or enlarges it; the burden of this translation, and the gift.

To be less abstract about this: When I wrote that first book, I tried to pad it out with things that I thought people found appealing, which meant New York, money, status, anxiety, sex. (I had no money, had never lived in New York, and was celibate/shitting in an outhouse.) I was bad at writing about those things, but I thought they were “universals,” or would pass as such, and would help the book sell eventually. Very specifically, I wonder — and I would be so sad to have done this — if I ever took a look at the horizon and decided to make all the characters white.

But I can’t go back and I can’t look and I certainly don’t remember. Five years after I lost the first book, even the girls’ names escape me, and just months after the second one, I can barely recall how I felt while writing it — only how I felt when it was gone.

Photo by Thomas Depenbusch

Save Yourself is the Awl’s farewell to 2015.