Review of ‘A Place in the World’ by Cinda Crabbe MacKinnon

Available from Virtual Bookworm.  The author also has a WordPress blog.

Born to American parents working in the diplomatic service, Alicia Collier had never felt sufficiently settled in any one place to call it home.  The nearest she came to it was when attending high school in Bogota, Columbia, and, when she was required to move back to the US, to university in Virginia, she fell for the only Latino around, Jorge Carvallo.  At the first opportunity, Alicia rushed back to Columbia, believing Jorge’s vague promise of a job in tropical biology at Bogota University, only to find that no such post existed and that in Latin America women’s careers were considered not to be important.  Soon, Alicia and Jorge, now married and expecting a baby, moved to the remote coffee plantation, Las Nubes, on the edge of the rainforest.   At first all was well, but with volcanic ash (ceniza) suffocating the coffee plants and family profitability and the strain of parenthood, Jorge started to feel restless, wanting to do a Che Guevera on his motorbike, whereas Alicia couldn’t bear to leave the coffee plantation, because at last she’d found somewhere she belonged.

The story arc for A Place in the World is straightforward, albeit understated against a backdrop of volcanic eruptions, bandits, narcos, wild animals and, above all, the ever present danger of getting lost in the rainforest.  Many things might have happened yet didn’t.  This is a very honest novel, which seeks to chronicle a young woman’s battle with old fashioned social attitudes and male waywardness, her battle to keep the plantation going, against the elements and accepted ways of working which went against what she understood about ecology.   The author, who is herself an American environmental scientist, did not go in for hype or thrills.  Viewed negatively, you could say that this is a story about an American woman who came to sort out the backward Latinos, but this would have to be balanced against Alicia’s love of all things South American and her accepting attitude towards the indigenous people.

Hut in village in Amazon
Hut in village in Amazon
Kitchen in hut in Amazonian village
Kitchen in hut in Amazonian village

I was persuaded to download A Place in the World after reading about it on Hilary Custance Green’s  blog, Green Writing Room, at a time when I was feeling somewhat fragile because my own son had just departed for several months in Ecuador and that part of the world generally.  I suppose I was seeking out a ‘feel’ of Latin America and I certainly got it, the terrain, the climate, the people and the attitudes.  He is still there and to the right are a couple of photos of what it is like in the rainforest further south, beyond a town called Pulo.

On another topic, an article in the Daily Telegraph yesterday (Monday, 21 April 2015) about writers confirmed my worst fears.  According to a study carried out Queen Mary College, University of London, only ten per cent of writers are able to live on their writing alone and seventeen per cent of us earn nothing at all.   Do read the article.

Annoying Advice for Writers

As you will have worked out, Dear Reader, I have struggled to find time to do any writing for quite a long time.  This has been due to an overwhelming workload.   Overwork stops you writing in lots of different ways.  It physically prevents you writing because you don’t have enough time, or just a few isolated oases, then nothing at all for weeks and weeks.  It wears you out so that you can’t write even when you do have some time; right now, I’m exhausted and trying to persuade myself that I really don’t have a headache.  Another thing is that your head becomes filled with work rubbish, like what you need to do tomorrow and which meaningless statistics you have to provide next.  All this garbage pushes out the stories that normally go round and round in your brain, so that you have nothing in there to write.

What all this is leading up to is that I do get very irritated with all those writing pundits who tell me that I MUST findGirl writer lying on grass time to write EVERY DAY.  Indeed, I’m not a proper writer unless I do Write Something Every Day.  Write anything they say, even if it’s rubbish.  You don’t have the time?  Well, here’s an idea.  Do it early in the morning, before you do anything else.

Yeah right.  I’ll think about all those proper writers writing their daily pages, as I drag myself out of bed, push my breakfast down my throat, fall into the car, then struggle through traffic so as to arrive at college at 8am and start teaching at 9am.  And I don’t have young children anymore.  Even my daughter, who is a real writer (a journalist), cannot type a single word until she has got up my grandson, given him his breakfast and taken him to daycare.

I don’t doubt for one moment that the Write Something Every Day advice works for a lot of writers – even though I’ve never been in a position to try it out.   Practice makes perfect – sometimes, but not just writing by yourself to yourself, as most of us need to learn from others as well.

Another standard bit of advice is to keep subbing, anyhow, anyway – the scattergun approach – even though there are loads of disheartened wannabe writers out there who have never had anything published.    Moreover, entering lots of comps can be very expensive.

Old fashioned writer thinkingThis leads into the next pearl of wisdom:  read the publications you intend to sub to.  Well, yes, but – again – that’s not the whole story, is it?  You can read magazines and ezines and longer works until you’re blue in the face but be none the wiser.  If you end up thinking, “Well, they take anything really,” you haven’t picked up anything at all.  Moreover, you can’t assume that, because the editor has just published something like your writing that he/she will accept your piece.  He/she might reject it because it’s too similar to the other story.  Although there is an element of luck to what gets accepted and what isn’t, there is more to placing stories than reading:  you need to analyse length, points of view, genres, themes, male/female mcs, age of mcs and general philosophy, but the pundits never tell you that.

‘Write about what you know’ is another gem.  How boring is that?  My life and experiences haven’t been all that interesting.  I’m always fascinated, and want to write about, things that are unfamiliar and even exotic.

Moan over.  What do other writers think?   I’m going to read the newspaper now, before I go to bed in readiness for getting on to the daily grind again tomorrow morning.