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Characters Try On Different Cultures In 'Other Language'


Francesca Marciano has the rare distinction of being a celebrated writer in two languages.

FRANCESCA MARCIANO: It's almost as if by now I have two brains that are running parallel to one another. One brain writes films in Italian and the other brain seems to be writing novels in English.

MARTIN: Her new story collection "The Other Language" introduces us to a host of characters who are also somehow out of their element, trying on new cultures, languages, or identities. And like the rest of Marciano's fiction, it's written in her adopted tongue, English. She says that started when she was living in Kenya working on her first novel.

MARCIANO: The story was set in Kenya, and the characters were English and spoke English. And I remember that I first started writing the first few pages of the book in Italian. And it just sounded so inauthentic. And I stopped. And then a very good friend said try to write in English and see how it goes. And I remember how the minute I started writing in English, I felt I was on this, like, highway that would take me somewhere.

MARTIN: I would love to start by talking about the very first story in the collection, which is called "The Other Language." Emma, who is the main character in this story, is herself learning a different language. Can you give us a synopsis of what is happening here with this family?

MARCIANO: Well, Emma, who is about 12, travels for the first time to Greece with her father and with her younger brother and sister. This is in the wake of their mother's death. And of course, that summer coincides for Emma with the discovery of many things at once, the encounter with two English boys who speak a different language and the crush that she develops. It's also a way and a vehicle for her to escape the pain and the tragedy that just - has just happened, something she doesn't want to think about. And so Emma, that summer, is desperately trying, as she says in the story, to become a different person.

MARTIN: And learning English helps her do that, as you have articulated learning another language opens this other door to yourself. And Emma is trying to do that.

MARCIANO: Exactly. It's the boat that she takes to sort of row away from the pain.

MARTIN: There are several stories in this collection about changes in relationships. I'm thinking specifically of another that portrays a long married couple that decides, while on an extended trip to India, that it's time to end their marriage. And I suppose that is one of the most common experiences that force people to redefine themselves. Is that something you intentionally thought of and wanted to explore?

MARCIANO: Yes, and I thought it would be interesting to see how easily a long relationship can just come undone within the space of a few hours if two people - they're saying certain things which have been kept unsaid for many years. But what happens is that what they say then is impossible to cancel and it's kind of impossible to go back. At the end of the story, though, you know, one is left with a doubt whether was that the right decision? Maybe it would have been better not to ever say those things and continue. And it's just sort of a question that I have. You know, how many people are in a relationship and it could go either way?

MARTIN: There are a lot of stories about that kind of reinvention and sober choices and changes that people make in their lives. But there's lighter fare in here, too. Can we talk about the story titled "Chanel"?

MARCIANO: Yes, of course.

MARTIN: Because it's kind of a fun conceit. I mean, it's about shopping to some degree and how a simple garment can change your life or not change your life.

MARCIANO: "Chanel" is a story of a young girl, Catarina, who has been nominated for a documentary in what is the Cinderella version of the Oscars in Italy. And because she has been nominated, because suddenly looks like the future could be really bright, she buys a dress that she absolutely could not afford to have. And the irony of it all is that actually the ceremony will not be televised and it will be, instead of nighttime, daytime, so that nobody needs to wear an evening dress. So basically, she cannot wear the dress. And I'll tell you something, this has really happened to me.

MARTIN: Oh, it did?

MARCIANO: I know. And it's become the joke of my life. I still have this Chanel dress in the closet.

MARTIN: Oh, no. You do?

MARCIANO: Yes, I do. And I've had it for so many years. And...

MARTIN: Did you wear the dress?

MARCIANO: Never, never.

MARTIN: Really?

MARCIANO: But it just, you know, hey, it's been making me feel good to have it in the closet. But now it's become finally a short story, so at least I've done something with it.


MARTIN: So all these characters are going through change and exploring different identities. Are they OK with them in the end, the changes that happen in their lives?

MARCIANO: I think so. I have a feeling that all of those stories somehow have a happy ending. You know, there's no frustrations or defeats. It's the crisis that we all face. I think that crises sometimes make us better people and make us finally make those choices that we otherwise would have procrastinated for a long, long time.

MARTIN: The collection of short stories is called "The Other Language." Francesca Marciano is the author. She joined us from our studios in New York. Thank you so much for talking with us, Francesca.

MARCIANO: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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