BK Book Fest: Bring Your Passport



From food talk to foreign lands. Still camped out at the international stage, I was taken from the dinner table to, well, appropriately, Hungary, followed by El Salvador and then China. A twist to this panel: all three authors are American (but they all retain personal connections to the destinations in their novels). The lineup: Andrew Ervin (who took us to Hungary), Sandra Rodriguez Barron (pilot to El Salvador) and Lan Samantha Chang (a trip to imaginary China).


A couple of good questions from the audience at this panel. It was asked, for whom do the authors write their books? Even though their stories take place in foreign countries, the primary audience for the three writers, it turns out, is Americans. Rodriguez Barron made a couple of good points on this note. For one, she views herself as an ambassador of Latino culture to Americans. Writing about Latin America for Latinos, she says, is akin to preaching to the choir. It’s more interesting (and more valuable?) to introduce and discuss foreign lands to an American audience that otherwise might be unaware of foreign cultural nuances, history, practices, etc. On the flip side, when her novels are translated into Spanish, the Latino audience gets a glimpse of American culture too. If, for example, a character starts out in the United States and then travels south, the Latino reader is exposed to American life before the protagonist’s journey begins. In this sense, her writing really does act like a bridge between two cultures.


When asked how much research was conducted before writing their novels, Ervin, Rodriguez Barron, and Chang all said that they did a great amount of research in order to get the details of their stories right. Not only that, when discussing historical incidents, as is the case in Rodriguez Barron’s novel The Heiress of Water (Harper, 2006), it was extremely important to get details of the El Salvadoran revolution correct. She was so adamant about this point that a notice at the outset of the novel reiterates the true nature of the historical “facts” presented in the story. Again, getting the facts right for these authors was important so as to give the audiences a more clear and accurate picture of the lands they like to write about. Ervin, author of Extraordinary Renditions(Coffee House, 2010) added comically—and rightly—that you better get your facts right, for when your work is translated into the language of the country in which the story is set, the local audience will be quick to pounce on any inaccuracies.


Of all three readings, I was most taken by Chang and her story “Water Names” from her anthology Hunger (Norton, 1998). In this transporting short story, Chang played a clever trick—the story within a story routine, but with a twist: each story was imaginative. Thus, an imaginative story within an imaginative story within the story.


At least I think I got that right…


Ms. Chang, please correct me if I am wrong here! From what I deduced, in “Water Names” the main characters try to imagine what life is like in China (the story). They picture sitting on a porch somewhere in rural China with grandmother (the imaginative story). This grandmother then weaves a tale of an old fisherman, a lost pearl ring, and a girl who yearns to be with her prince who lives under water (the imaginative story within the imaginative story). Chang’s feat is thus doubly difficult—she effectively penned two stories of a place with which she was not (at the time) intimately familiar, both in the real (sitting on a porch in China) and the imagined (the tale of the fisherman and his daughter) sense. Her language was colorful and as I closed my eyes and listened to her tale unravel, I felt like I was actually in a mythical Chinese land…


But not for long, because the next panel—a reading of translated work—was coming up quick!



Hungary, China, El Salvador, BKBF 2010