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Do You Remember That Night With Old Charlie?

What's under your skin, not under your nose

I’ve been looking for an excuse to use the word “expatriate,” just to prove that I know how to spell it. You’ve no doubt noticed how almost everyone nowadays, including journalists for so-called quality newspapers, believes the word is “ex-patriot” – the abbreviation of which is, of course, “ex-pat” rather than “expat.” Even I have been referred to as an “ex-pat,” which I certainly am not.

All of which is to introduce an interesting and perhaps controversial passage from an interview with Richard Hughes (1900-1976), author of that splendid “novel of childhood” (as opposed to novel for children) A High Wind in Jamaica (1929). Hughes is discussing literary expatriation, detail in fiction (making it vivid), and the vexed question of whether you should “write what you know.” I know where I stand on this: I’m with Hughes, which is why I copied out the passage in the first place. (It’s from The Writer’s Place: Interviews on the Literary Situation [what a heart-sinking subtitle!] in Contemporary Britain, ed. Peter Firchow [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1974], pp. 205-6):

 

Q: Does the quality of the expatriate’s writing suffer from the fact that he doesn’t live in the home country any more – that he can’t dip his feet into the home water, so to speak?

Hughes: I don’t see why it should, necessarily. Indeed it can be easier to write about some place one has never been to at all.

Q: Why?

Hughes: Because you’ve got to make it vivid to yourself first. You do that largely – at any rate, mentally – through language: so that you’re already halfway toward making it vivid to your readers. Think of two old clubmen talking together, and one says, “Do you remember that night with old Charlie?” They both go off into fits of laughter. He hasn’t said anything funny, and it’s very boring for anyone overhearing it: for them it’s amusing simply because they both knew old Charlie and how funny that night was. Likewise, if you know a country well, you think you can mention some place-name that conjures up something very vivid to yourself and that it’s going to do the same for the reader who’s never been there: whereas if you haven’t been there either, you find out about the place and what is vivid about it; you have to make it vivid for yourself, and therefore, more easily I think, make it vivid for the reader. I’d never been to Jamaica when I wrote High Wind in Jamaica – just as I’d never been a little girl, which was equally important as far as that book was concerned.

Q: Of course, that’s also a different period. [The book is set in the nineteenth century.]

Hughes: Exactly. If I had been to Jamaica in my own lifetime I’d have committed more anachronisms. […]

Q: You don’t agree, then, with the usual cliché that one has to write about one’s own soul, about what one knows?

Hughes: […] I think that writing comes from under the skin, not from what’s under your nose.