Review of Midge Raymond’s “Forgetting English”

Former colleague, good friend, and one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet, Midge Raymond is also the author of a lovely, smart, touching collection of short stories entitled Forgetting English, winner of the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction.

I wanted to take this posting opportunity to share my delight with her stories in an effort to keep spreading the word about her considerable talent (by the way, in addition to her gifts as a storyteller, Midge is also a gifted writing coach: see her newly released Everyday Writing if you’d like some expert help with your writing life…)

Below are edited remarks of mine taken from a private e-mail to Midge (reprinted here with her permission), focused on each of the eight stories. No spoilers have been allowed to creep in.

To warm you up, let me quote only one of the great reviews Midge received for this book:

Forgetting English by Midge Raymond is an exquisite thematic collection of short stories. The stories describe women in exterior and interior transit. The characters face a myriad of crossroads such as, divorce, infidelity, unemployment, abortion, and attempted suicide while a moonlight mile from home.

Each story deftly details the characters’ impact and adaptation to their foreign surroundings. Raymond’s masterful prose transports the reader to various locales including Antarctica, Japan, and Tonga to name a few. Similarly, the author’s keen insights into matters of the psyche gave this reader much to ponder after each story’s coda. — Metroreader

1. “First Sunday”

I read the first sentence of this story aloud to Jenny and we both got a big kick out of it. What a fine way to begin a collection, with that sure touch of character placement as well as humor. This one got me on, if I may call it, a ‘linguistic level,’ in that its concerns with language (as evidenced in part by the section headings) felt very real to me. Also, I’ve been reading, of all things, a lot of Wittgenstein lately, so the paralleling of language with emotion and psychological barriers, etc. rang true. I like the positioning of this story re the collection because it sets up the reader thematically. And on that note, I appreciated that theme aspect, too; that here you have a range of tones and keys, but that certain melodies come back again and again.

2. “Translation Memory”

This one is among my favorites because of my strong pull toward Japan/my Buddhist background. The text shifts back and forth between words, as you say “liminal(ly),” which is a very Japanese/Buddhist achievement. Last few lines very strong. Playwrights talk about ‘curtain lines’ — the crucial last line at the end of an act or play — and you’ve got some great ones in this book.

3. “The Ecstatic Cry”

I feel that this one might be the ’strongest’ story in the collection. Let me define ’strongest’ (smile): the most artful and real blending of fact and fiction, of style and substance, of concretism and absolutism. I keep thinking of the idea of your signature story. We hate to sum up authors, but it is a challenge and kind of fun, too. This one may be it. It begins with “I stifle an urge to start cleaning it up.” Right away, we’re dropped into the mystery as to why. And then it keeps pushing you forward, not only into odd physical terrain, but also into odd psychological terrain. I think the first-person helps establish a firmer reality to make the fantastic even more grounded. Can you ground the fantastic? Yes…

4. “The Road to Hana”

The symbolic story. If you stripped this one down to its barest essentials, you could make a neat Freudian dream out of it.

5. “Forgetting English”

“[W]ords hiss and snap in her ears…” Again, we’ve got a nice dichotomy set up in this book between language-as-barrier and language-as-communication, and the cultural/linguistic divide. In these stories, women are in foreign lands with foreign men, and both aspects of foreignness provide transitional opportunities.

6. “Rest of World”

You can feel the spin of jet lag on this one. The pairing of the two ‘how-to’ books I found really funny, and sadly poignant. I was a little unsure about the sequence of voice mails, just in flat terms of realism, but again you have the ability to carry your ideas along without succumbing to the weight of them.

7. “Beyond the Kopjes”

One of my favorite sentences lives here: “Then she lies awaiting sleep, staring up at the ghostlike shroud of the mosquito net, feeling trapped and weighed down, even though it hangs far above her, so sheer and light that it flutters in the ceiling fan’s breeze.” Well, that’s life, isn’t it? A simple affair, really, when you see it for what it is, instead of what we cling to believing it is. I think there’s quite a lot of that feeling in the book. The difference between, for example, the way the animals in the story understand what to do with life, and what the spectators/tourists understand.

8. “Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean”

Being is acting, acting is being. When you do both well, you do neither. There, I’ve solved our modern dilemma of self and consciousness (smile). But this is what, in part, she experiences, as I read it, and what the book points to: that we are travelers even inside our own skins. That the idea of ‘foreign’ is only an idea, not the reality of things. We can either act or be. Other lands can reveal to ourselves who we are only if we stop our acting, and instead embrace the foreign inside of us. This may sound a little metaphysical/New Age-y, but I see it here in these stories. Cody’s right: you can turn your back on the ocean if you accept your part of it (or its part of you) and realize the lack of real difference.

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