When You’re Strange
Anne Marsella is the award-winning author of four books, most recently The Baby of Belleville, a novel about life, love, and motherhood in Paris. Today, she writes about reconciling the writing life with parenting, the very human need to belong, and the pain of alienation that sometimes comes with living in a foreign country. We look forward to welcoming Anne to the Library. She will talk about how living in France for two decades has shaped her work.
“Writing in French has expanded and, in a sense, liberated my English,” she states. “I am not the least afraid of oddities in language; in fact, I welcome them because my main interest lies in questions of otherness, exile and in foreigners.” The New York Times writes that Marsella’s work “is a passport into foreign territory not to be found on any tourist’s map.” Join us for a fascinating evening on Wednesday 12 October at 19h30.
It is to fiction that I have always taken my contradiction du jour. As a new mother I found myself caught in a bind which tethers so many mother-artists: How do you reconcile the demands of the caring arts with those of the literary arts? Both will keep you up at night, drain your reserves and whimper and tantrum until you shower them with your undivided and loving attention. My answer to this question took the form of a novel, a prolonged narrative investigation, that did not so much settle any scores as sustain the contradiction and breathe new life into it. Motherhood in those early months seemed to fuel up on exhaustion. It was a brave, wonderful adventure but laden with burdens not the least of which was extreme fatigue and this, the writer in me knew, had to be transformed, lightened, made more livable. The picaresque form seemed just the right narrative fit for the novel that was beginning take shape in my mind. Defined by its energy and voice, the picaresque work can move from pathos to bathos without a blink, create another world rather than mirror the one we know most effectively; its comic tenor, often knowingly naïve, amuses, I’ve always found, in the most satisfying of ways.
My pícara – strange how rarely we encounter the feminine of pícaro – is Jane Maraconi de la Rochefoucauld, an Italian-American woman in Paris who marries into an eccentric, aristocratic family and gets involved in a plot that forces her to conspire with her family’s Mafia connections. The Baby of Belleville is a book about motherhood, but not only. It is equally concerned with questions of religion, different creeds and philosophies, with family relationships, with the human need to belong and the pain of alienation, and with sensibility and the possibilities of language. Melville wrote in The Confidence Man: “The people in a fiction… must dress as nobody exactly dresses, talk as nobody exactly talks, act as nobody exactly acts. It is with fiction as with religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.” This is by no means a prescription for the conventional novel, but it is one I naturally adhere to; motherhood in The Baby of Belleville might not be readily recognizable to all but I hoped to have made it an experience worthy of literature.
During my talk on October 12th I will discuss the relationship between the French and English languages in my work, as I write in both, and about the position of the polyglot writer. This discussion will also shed light, I hope, on the experience of foreignness put to the service of fiction and lived out as a form of liberation. In The Baby of Belleville, my character Jane navigates the mores and expectations of her French in-laws and husband, but also those of her Chinese and Muslim neighbors, and her manner of narrating her family’s tale resonates with these multiple voices and realities. Along with six other readers (forming the “Belleville Choir”), I will also read/perform several of the novel’s polyphonic passages that celebrate the foreigner in us and among us.