By Samantha Samel
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Acclaimed author Nell Freudenberger is a Brooklynite, living with her family in Park Slope, but she is certainly no stranger to territories abroad. Before moving to Brooklyn, she lived in Bangkok and spent much time traveling in China and India, and her books are compelling evidence of her extensive cross-cultural experiences.
At 22, the young Harvard graduate turned down a job at Random House and moved to Bangkok to teach English, after which she traveled throughout India. Freudenberger’s first book – published in 2003 when she was just 28 years old – is a collection of five stories titled “Lucky Girls,” largely inspired by her encounters as an American abroad.
Three years later, Freudenberger published her first novel, “The Dissident,” which also follows a character who lives outside of her own cultural norms. This time, though, the perspective is reversed: rather than recreating the American experience abroad, Freudenberger portrays a Chinese woman’s encounters living in L.A.
Freudenberger most recently published “The Newlyweds” – a widely acclaimed novel released last spring. Like her previous books, “The Newlyweds” explores characters who dissolve conventional cultural boundaries. Freudenberger was inspired to write this story after befriending a Bangladeshi woman on a plane to Rochester. The woman, who had met her white American fiancé through an online marriage site, was on her way to begin a new and unfamiliar life in upstate New York; Freudenberger was captivated by the couple’s story.
In "The Newlyweds," Freudenberger creates an intricate depiction of a modern marriage, expertly weaving in the complications that in-laws and cultural differences may bring. Her ability to inhabit the body of her protagonist, Amina – who is navigating a new life in an entirely new world – is uncanny.
While Freudenberger’s travels have been the source for some fascinating writing, we are happy to hear she has settled with her family in Brooklyn. In fact, she will be speaking in Fort Greene on Wednesday, Feb. 27 as part of BAM’s ‘Eat, Drink & Be Literary Series.’ In anticipation of her upcoming Brooklyn reading, Brooklyn Eagle checked in with Freudenberger. She tells us how she wound up in Brooklyn, where she might like to live in the future, and offers a preview of what she’s working on now.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in writing about cultures to which you might be an outsider?
Well, I don’t like to make mistakes, so I do check my facts carefully. But I wouldn’t say that I really write about other cultures. Nonfiction books like Peter Hessler’s “Oracle Bones,” Suketu Mehta’s “Maximum City” or Naipaul’s classic “A Way in the World” do that so much more deeply than fiction can. And then there are novels like Mohsin Hamid’s recent “How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” that succeed brilliantly in saying something about a country at a particular moment in time.
I would say that what I’m doing is different because of who I am—I write about being an American, but I need a little distance from the U.S. in order to do it. My novel, The Newlyweds, is about a woman from Bangladesh who meets her American husband online and comes to Rochester to marry him. Her perspective gave me the voice I needed to write the book.
In the past, have you had a particular research methodology for writing about a foreign culture? …or do you find that you simply absorb the culture while living abroad and then form the ideas for your writing?
When I started writing the stories in my first book, I had just returned from a year spent teaching English and traveling in India and Southeast Asia. I had those places very much in mind while I was going to graduate school and working in Manhattan. It seemed natural to return to them in my writing, in part because I missed being there and in part because they were closed-off worlds—fixed in a certain way in my memory. It was easier to manipulate the limited number of details I had, rather than writing something that took place in New York, a city that changes in front of my eyes every day.
In the cases of the two novels, the experience was more like traditional research. I went to China on a magazine assignment to interview the artists I was interested in writing about in The Dissident. With the most recent book, I traveled to Bangladesh with the young woman whose experiences inspired the novel, so that I could meet her family in Dhaka and in the village where she was born.
After living and traveling in so many diverse cities and countries – L.A., Boston, Thailand, India, China, and Manhattan – how did you wind up settling in Brooklyn?
I did live in Bangkok for a year, when I was just out of college, but I only took very long trips in India and China. I feel at home in New York City, which is where I was born; my ideal existence would be half the year here, and half the year someplace very different. Nice for a writer, but not very practical for my family.
Brooklyn is home to such a distinct literary crowd (we’re excited to hear that you will be speaking at BAM’s ‘Eat, Drink & Be Literary’ series this month)! As a professional writer, do you notice the presence of this community or feel that your surroundings have shaped your choices and your work?
I’m very excited about ‘Eat, Drink & Be Literary,’ too—I love BAM. To be honest, I live here more because it’s a great place for kids than because there are a lot of writers here, but it’s nice to be close enough to friends to get a cup of coffee and procrastinate. I’ve only lived here for two years, so I don’t think I can claim Brooklyn influence, but I’m an incurable people-watcher, and I like living in a place that’s home to people from so many different parts of the world.
Would you ever consider living abroad again? If so, where?
Oh, absolutely. If you are my husband’s boss, and you’re reading this, my first choices are Hong Kong, Beijing, Bombay or Istanbul. But I can be flexible!
What’s the best book you read in 2012?
I loved Alice Munro’s “Dear Life” and Ben Fountain’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.”
What are you working on now?
A series of 100-word “short stories” for the NYT magazine. They’re fun: as the editor says, “No one is Tolstoy in 100 words.”
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The Feb. 27 event at BAM will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the BAMcafé/Peter Jay Sharp Building (located at 30 Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene). Tickets are $55(includes dinner, wine, tax, and tip) and may be purchased at http://commerce.bam.org/tickets/production.aspx?pid=7224