FOUND IN TRANSLATION
How my Memoir of Life Overseas Turned into a Novella
A Craft Essay
by Ele Pawelski
Fresh from having left my international development career and moving home to Toronto in 2009, I wanted to write a memoir. Browsing through the periodic emails I’d sent home over my twelve years away, I pieced together funny stories about life in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Bosnia, Kenya, Uzbekistan, and Kosovo. But the longer I was home, the harder it became to recall events without notes or a journal from that time (this kind of record-keeping isn’t my thing). Instead, with encouragement from the writing group I later joined, I fed these remembrances into a novella set in Kabul and found my footing as a fiction writer.
My love for factual writing began back in university where I wrote film reviews for my college newspaper. Overseas, I drafted project proposals and implementation plans, and occasionally helped create communications products. A couple of my real-life stories were printed in Canadian national newspapers, and in the past ten years, I’ve published two academic papers. I definitely enjoy putting together a solid premise or argument based on research and evidence: in some ways, the antithesis of creative writing.
So it was natural to land on a memoir as my story-telling vehicle. I’d read enough to know that successful ones needed a recognized author or a gripping, dramatic story. I’m definitely not the first and while I’d had many interesting encounters and was once almost evacuated from South Sudan, I didn’t think I had enough for the second. Nor could I come close to the riveting tales of working for the United Nations recounted by Heidi Postlewait, Kenneth Cain and Doctor Andrew Thomson in Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures. In this memoir, the three use intersected stories to relate their experiences on the front line of increasingly dangerous and dysfunctional UN missions.
While passing time before a speed-dating event (that’s a whole other story), I wrote down as many comical chapter titles as I could think of that evoked the satirical side of development work: “Airports, Airplanes and Goats,” “Where Taxis Go to Die” and “The Way of the Tea.” Instead of a linear storyline, my plan was to write a series of humorous anecdotes in the style of Bill Bryson. Readers would not be taken through the countries I’d worked in but rather experience my world through scenes tied together by a common topic. For each chapter, I would gather an inventory of my stories and then string them together into a cohesive depiction of life in aid-receiving countries. In my head, it worked. And I thought the chapter ideas were laugh-out-loud funny.
With the outline of a memoir in hand, I joined Moosemeat Writing Group in 2010, a writing group I found online. While its focus was fiction, non-fiction writers were welcome too. This group would form the backbone of my writing existence and transition to fiction writing.
About three months in, I presented my first memoir chapter. The critiques were sharp but honest. The biggest was that the piece contained too much wit to be funny. Sort of like a stand-up comedian delivering too many jokes, who eventually isn’t funny because everything is funny and there’s no downtime to process anything. Also, while colleagues with whom I’d worked featured in the narrative, their appearances were too brief. These were fascinating individuals, trying hard to improve things in their home countries, and I’d given them too little airtime. But the most important feedback I received was that without a subject continually present (i.e. me) it was hard to become invested in the story. I needed a narrator to give the story more depth.
So I regrouped, shifting my thinking back to a linear and more serious approach. I reread Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries and a fellow writer lent me Another Quiet American by Brett Dakin. Both are memoirs of time spent abroad and reflections on the unfamiliar. I developed my stories in the order they happened and renamed my chapters by the country I’d lived in. Instead of writing around topics, I would offer glimpses of my life in each place.
In the meantime, I absorbed more and more fiction scribed by the Moosemeat writers. Each year, Moosemeat publishes a chapbook collection of flash fiction pieces written to a theme. Six months after I’d joined, a call for submissions went out. With a bit of cajoling and an idea about a satirical take on a real event, I wrote my first fictional story, “A Tale of Two Summits.” At 500 words it was short—but completely imagined.
As part of the process, Moosemeat members critiqued my story. Perhaps because it was fiction, I didn’t endure the stress I’d felt when presenting my memoir chapter. In fact, I felt invigorated by some of the suggestions that I knew would make this piece better. With fiction, I wasn’t invested in trying to squeeze out all the details from my not-so-great memory or figure out how to make my true stories more engrossing. How freeing!
Later, at our chapbook event, I read my flash fiction aloud to a room full of family, friends and a hell of a lot of strangers. Here, I was most definitely nervous. But another part of me was intrigued by how the story fit with the other ones. Or least, wasn’t remarkably (or terribly) different. Perhaps, just maybe, I could write fiction…
In the back of my mind, I remembered years earlier attending a meet-up hosted by Quattro Books, a small publisher in Toronto that would eventually publish my novella. Would-be authors were walked through what made for a good story, and what the publisher looked for when selecting a manuscript: a character with a goal, a crisis from mounting tension, and an epiphany at the end. Yet, it still seemed daunting to write a novel. But then, I read a very personal news story.
In January 2011, a suicide bomber targeted a convenience store in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital where I worked in 2007-2008. It was a place where I’d frequently shopped when I lived there. From online photos of the incident, I recognized the ads in the shop windows and could visualize the aisles filled with sugary drinks and snacks. Thankfully I didn’t know anyone who’d been hurt in the attack. But it felt like I did.
And, just like that, I knew the story I wanted to write: the book would happen over that one day in January 2011. There would be three characters, a local politician, a reporter and an aid worker, and each would tell their experience of the bombing, one after another. Through their eyes, readers would see the intensity but also the beauty of life in Kabul. As with my now-put-aside memoir, the story would encompass themes of challenging injustice and doing good as well as the importance of family.
I would aim for a word count in the territory of a novella. This all was manageable for my first attempt at longer fiction. Excitedly, I shared my idea with a writer friend, mainly as a commitment to writing it. But she also thought it was a good premise for a book.
To begin, I sifted through the comical chapter titles and finished stories that I’d crafted for my memoir, looking for bits that could be part of my new story. I also made notes on other remembrances and encounters I’d had which I could envision happening to one of my characters. If I didn’t quite recollect something, it didn’t matter because I could embellish or cut out as much as I wanted. This story was mine to own and shape just so.
As I wrote the politician’s story, I realized that fiction was providing distance, which allowed me to write in a more serious way. My memoir had been all about poking fun at my experiences and the places I lived, which partially reflected my personality but also kept me from being vulnerable in exposing my thoughts and reactions. The truth was, I wasn’t ready (and, in hindsight, I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready) to let the world inside my head and heart. But I could explore and exploit vulnerabilities I created in my characters, vulnerabilities that could mimic my own.
Slipping my reality into fiction was not overly difficult for two reasons: first, the story was taking place some years after I’d left Kabul. While I could picture the Kabul, I’d lived in, I also knew it had changed as the Taliban continued to creep up and in. Second, once I attributed a personal anecdote to a character, I found I no longer owned it. Rather, I sought ways to transform it, playing with the facts to fit the narrative. This was the case for all the characters, including the aid worker, who I fashioned after myself. In most cases, I wanted to add details that I didn’t remember to enrich the descriptions or create tension.
Four months later I presented the first chapter at Moosemeat. Many were surprised at the story’s grave tone and substance. This time, unlike my memoir piece, I received a good dose of positive feedback. Enough to convince me that the story had legs.
I’m still astounded at how relatively easily I moved into writing fiction. Well, I worked hard at it. But I’m a more creative writer than my twenty-something self ever envisioned. My novella, The Finest Supermarket in Kabul, was being launched in January 2018. I already have ideas for my next three novels. And all are grounded in true stories.
Ele Pawelski has lived in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Bosnia, Kenya, Uzbekistan, and Kosovo. She has climbed in the Himalayas, walked the Camino and hiked in Newfoundland. Now living in urban Toronto with her husband, she’s always planning for her next travel adventure. Her stories have appeared in magazines, journals and newspapers. The Finest Supermarket in Kabul, published December 2017, is her first novella.