Interview by Charity Burton with additional interview questions and editing by Jennifer Burton.
Charity Burton: The giant turtle laying eggs on the beach is the main story in "East of East," but there's a lot of other content in this story: Malaysian society, living as an expat in Malaysia, your parents' relationship, your relationship with your sister, your being a young white woman, themes of sexualization, and a theme of breaking down barriers, as well as that of being an object, and a foreign object. This is woven together with a parallel idea between you as the speaker in the story and the turtle as the main focus of the story... How did you figure out the flow and weaving these elements together?
Gabrielle Burton: My writing is like quilting. I start with one piece, then tie in another, which leads to another piece (the connections clear in my head, if not yet on paper), and then another, then perhaps touch back on that first piece...and at the end of the story, I work to wrap the different pieces together.
You know, our mother's writing style is like this. So I imagine I picked up the sense of that style, that possibility in writing from hearing her read versions to us regularly. I think that was a real gift from her. Now having kids, I don't know how she did it, really! I know one of us read every night after dinner while we did dishes, and I know sometimes it was stories that we'd read. [Note to reader: we had a system called First Turn, with seven people in the family; each day one person cooked, but then she or he got out of doing dishes.] Sometimes she would have read us her latest drafts, and of course we went to her readings. I think I picked up the idea that stories can develop over the long-term, like dominos that will form a bigger pattern at the end.
I am interested in all the themes you mentioned, especially the idea of outsiders looking into a culture. That’s something I focus on in my own writing and in reading works by other writers-- de Toqueville and Bruce Chatwin and Pico Iyer writing about other cultures -- what perspective writers chose, and if they are even aware of their perspective and interpretations. I’m writing about a number of the countries we travelled in (Southeast Asia and India), hooking each story on a particular moment. The turtles are something important to me, in my life and beliefs that developed from that experience, and they also represent a lot of the issues that radiate out in the story like bicycle spokes -- the landscape, the background of our being there, the position of Americans in Malaysia, the cultural and political issues happening in the country, and the situation of women there and globally, as well as the obvious connection to ecology and environmental conservation. Interconnection is a pivotal theme for me, in my work and in my ethical belief (my politics, etc.), and this anchor for the story presented that so clearly. I felt a solidarity with the turtle in that moment on the beach, and it echoed out into bigger themes that developed in the story into the bigger tapestry of interconnection I aimed to weave.
CB: In the writing or editing process, did you move paragraphs and story elements around for flow? If so, did it give a different sense of the story?
GB: Yes, definitely. I reworked this story a lot. That said, I didn't do radical changes to the main idea. I knew the story itself (from our experience), and so I worked out some of the segments more deeply; I cut some sections as I went, or moved them.
Working with the editor at SIR was a fantastic, creative experience. He had excellent suggestions and edits, and he noticed a couple of things in the story that could be combined or moved together (some information about Malaysia and the tudongs, for instance). He also asked me to look closely at certain parts of the story, and it made the story stronger. One thing we discussed was whether to cut the last part of the story, because it does not stay in the same time period. It's an interesting idea, but I felt strongly about bringing the story forward, to address its impact and connection to our present day -- a kind of subtle call-out to the reader also to do something. I deeply appreciate Ron’s respect for writers and his skill as an editor. It was a pleasure to work with an editor with such creativity, passion, and thoughtfulness.
Now, here's a funny story about moving things around, because in that editing process & typesetting, an ending went to the printer that wasn’t the one we’d meant it to be. (In the final version, I had flashed forward, then returned to that moment with the turtle -- with one paragraph moved around to the end, and the final line as "The moon seems much larger now, the men down the beach, much smaller, and my toes in the sand, everything.") When we discovered it, I decided it was stronger to end in the present day, rather than return to that beachside. A creative accident, and it worked!
CB: The story is set in 1988. How did you remember all the details when it happened such a long time ago? Did you refer to journals? Did you call up family members? Did you do research? Did you have a notebook where you got specific observations--the dog nuzzling the sugar cane juice box, the grand game room with rows of unused snooker tables?
GB: I wrote a version of this story about four years after it happened. I did research on the science of turtle egg laying, as well as on Malaysian politics. I talked with our parents about the academic situation, and I pored over photos and souvenirs from our time there. I had written some letters at the time, but much of it came from the pictures, memory, and fact-checking about ecological info, etc. I remember that room so well, but some of the reason I remembered certain details so clearly was because it was such an important experience for me, this whole story.
CB: Did your perspective change as a writer coming back to it as woman who's had a lot more life experience?
GB: It definitely does get enriched from life experience -- I think all writing is like that. That said, I wanted the voice and the immediacy of the story to feel "fresh." My reading and research did widen the scope of the story, and having the additional perspective this many years later also helped -- because ultimately it's a story about insiders/outsiders, about being a woman, about perspective -- which time gives too.
CB: Reading this story again and working on it again, how did you maintain the voice of the younger person?
GB: I tried keeping my writing voice in the voice of me as a young woman -- which was easy for the obvious storytelling parts, but a little more challenging for the factual presentation. I had to be telling truths but not drily, and yet not making the reader wonder if a 17 year old really knew that much. In fact, 17 year olds know a lot (I've seen this again and again with my nieces and nephews), so I felt it was natural to keep that voice for geographical description and history-telling; and I felt that also made it more interesting -- to present that material also as part of the storytelling.
CB: The use of time in the narration is very interesting to me--present tense for 1988, past tense for events before in the narrator's childhood, and future tense for events after, even though everything told is in the past. Can you talk about how you decided to structure the narration in this way? Did you try different ways of telling the story in time, or did the narration come out this way naturally?
GB: I had to make a decision of how to present that material, and I knew I wanted to flash forward to the future, to show the impact of events on a life. So that part was going to be in the future tense. There was some discussion with the editor about losing all of that, to simplify time and tense; and I felt so strongly about wanting to show how a pebble thrown into a pond ripples out -- and to show how a memory can feel so important, but also be kind of shrugged off. I also wanted to make the statement about how humans aren't making the connection between our own survival as a species and how we treat other parts of nature, and the flash forward was elemental for that point.
The balancing of the past and the childhood past was complicated. I first started writing it all in past tense, then ended up wanting to use the present tense, because it created a sense of immediacy for the reader. I wanted the reader to feel part of the experience, yet also be able to juggle the narrator's personal story/history, and the details of the sense of place, as well as the ecological information. In addition to the structured use of different tenses in this final version, using spacing breaks helped to give the reader time to settle and reset to move into new spaces, and I used paragraphs to help that progression through time and place also.
CB: So much of the story examines ideas of space and home. What does it mean to be a foreigner? Are all people in some ways foreigners on that beach while the turtle lays her eggs? How do you make a home in a foreign space? Who has claims to the land as home?
GB: Yes, you're hitting on the theme of the story -- what it means to be a "foreigner" -- which is an interesting idea in the US today especially with shifting immigration policies. In this story, I was the obvious foreigner; and the turtle seemed like a foreigner on a human landscape; yet in the end, the point is that we are all foreigners on a natural landscape, if you think about it. You could say that beach has been the turtles’ home for thousands of years, and we’re like pests invading and taking over, changing the landscape in the process. And then there’s the whole concept of what home means. We make our homes wherever we are -- as expats, as citizens, as people, as animals. If we notice the idea that we can value the history of a place, of the land and cultures that make up each place, we also realize that we have a responsibility to notice our interconnectedness, to be mindful of our power, and to be stewards of that world and those around us.
CB: How did this story impact you? I know you care about the environment -- what role did this experience play in your belief system? How about your attitude and actions toward environmental issues?
GB: I joke that I don't really get why everyone doesn't wake up each morning--knowing what we're all doing to the earth, the climate, the ocean’s acidity—and just lie there shouting in bed, "We're all gonna die! We're all gonna die!" [laughs] I'm very active in writing to representatives and businesses on issues about the environment, and I hope that makes some impact. I also hope that writing a story like this can impact people and actions. If even one person reads it and changes the way he or she acts -- be it with pollution or just being more aware of the plight of giant turtles, that would be a start.
CB: As your sister, I'm in this story. I find it interesting how stories written by other people that are shared memory take on a life of their own, and I remember some things differently -- like that I put frogs in my pockets and into our sleeping bag.
GB: Yeah, I remember the frogs; I also remember tiny turtles that we collected! That's what so interesting about memory -- it's personal and about how important something is to someone at the time -- what each individual selects from an experience. Of course, memory can be fallible... so we can also call mom & dad to ask them what they remember! Actually, I did have mom and dad read this story before it went to press, to fact check against their memory (particularly as they were adults there in Malaysia), and they signed off on it, so that was good. The funny thing about the idea of our collecting tiny frogs and turtles, and all those things we did as kids, is that it connected directly to the point I was making in this story about memory's connection to experience. We add up pieces -- so a wished-for tiny turtle taken from its environment links directly to the larger turtle’s being harassed and stopped as she tries to have her babies. They are both experiences of not respecting nature, and yet we didn't put that together as kids. We didn’t think about it, as those on the beach weren’t thinking about it, just as people who don’t recycle or doing personal actions about our impact as a species don’t think about these links.
That also brings up an interesting point about creative nonfiction. We all have our own interpretations of events. I felt strongly I can't speak The Truth, as in some sort of global truth -- none of us can -- so I was aware of presenting this story through the voice of a 17 year old -- granted, a worldly, well-traveled 17 year old, but also allowing space for reflections and links to be made by the reader.
To that point (as you know, Charity), some of the elements in the story are heightened or simplified for the story's sake -- like our parents' marriage, and our situation as teenagers. The essence is there -- for instance, all marriages struggle, and we saw our parents make theirs last into a healthy long partnership; so I boiled that down to a kind of concentrate that all readers could understand. It's like in poetry, one of my mentors (Andrea Hollander) said about one poem that I didn't need to tell the reader that I have five sisters, because they didn't play any part in that particular moment in the poem, so just to cut that detail out. That's also true in creative nonfiction -- the historical and geographic facts must all be true (and opinions presented as such, which I do in the story carefully), but the personal details don't all have to be dumped on the reader -- just the important ones that add to the story.
CB: Our mother's a writer, and some of her stories have become the Truth now -- I think you know what I mean by that?
GB: That's true. I actually cut out some details in this story that didn’t layer into the bigger need (Jane Fonda's workout! Our Christmas party where no one came!). I focused on the details that were vivid for me and important to the story’s development and purpose..
CB: I like so much about your writing your ability to throw in so much detail, but it didn't hit me over the head or overwhelm me as a reader. I felt like I was hearing the story, with the language you chose.
GB: Thank you. When I reworked the story at different points, I felt strongly about painting a picture, while also telling a story as simply as possible. I love the tradition of oral storytelling, and I worked at the Ozark Folk Center under Dr. Bill McNeil there, who's a folklorist. I had to transcribe concerts, including the banter in between songs. There were also professional storytellers there. Listening to that language and learning about that tradition -- how they simplify language to its essence, and prioritize the music in language -- made me think about word choices. I've also loved the sound of languages, and I always learned as much of the local language as I could when we traveled. I think living in Asia made me so appreciative of that nasal beauty of languages that some say they find "grating" -- I can't understand that notion, because the singsong quality of Thai, Mandarin, even some Bahasa is really like singing. And if you can hear that level of music just in vocal tones, then you can also notice the musicality in each word, and in phrases. I love that in poetry, in stories, in plays, and in screenwriting. I learned a great deal from studying with writers like Verlyn Klinkenborg and Buzz Poverman, playwrights Adrienne Kennedy and William Alfred, poets Andrew Hudgins and Andrea Hollander, and studying film in France. Each taught me a different perspective on the power of language, on how people hear language.
CB: Well, let me say that I don't know why I didn't run down to walk that turtle with you -
GB: You’ve always had my back, Charity; I mean, I know if anyone had messed with me on that beach, look out, you'd be all over them -- but I can see why you wouldn't have run up to be there. You could see the whole treatment of the turtle, the aggressiveness of it all—and then that what happened was almost a magical moment, that walking the turtle back down to the ocean, and I think we were all just sort of in awe of it. Especially me, even while doing it.
CB: That makes sense. So I was going to say that I was proud of you then, and reading the story, I'm proud of you now.
GB: I'm so glad you were there with me and that turtle, and I feel like this story is a tribute to us as kids together in so many of these kinds of incredible experiences that we shared. I'm happy you could do this interview too—as it’s interesting to me to hear your thoughts on the story. I'm grateful to you and our parents for these life experiences, and I feel like I share this wonderful writing award with you too.
All photos provided by the author.