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Messages in Bottles: Francesca Forrest’s Pen Pal

by Francesca Forrest

Athena’s note: Francesca is a storyteller in the oldest, very best sense of the term – everything she tells looks like a hand-blown glass flower with smoky edges that leaves a whiff of warm amber in its wake. After a bouquet of stories, Francesca just published her first novel, Pen Pal, an epistolary exchange between two people from contexts that are rarely trodden in Anglophone fiction. I invited her to share the tale of its genesis with us.

Like Athena, I love tales of other worlds and their cultures. Many of hers take place in the vast ocean of deep space. Mine unfolds across the wide seas of our home planet, in the present day. One world in Pen Pal is an unknown, overlooked, floating community off the US Gulf Coast, home to twelve-year-old Em; the other is a temple-prison, in the crater of a volcano in a fictional Southeast Asian country, whose sole resident is twenty-four-year-old Kaya. Em loves her home but is curious about what lies beyond the horizon: she tosses a message in a bottle into the Gulf of Mexico, and the message ends up in Kaya’s hands.

What does it mean to become friends with a stranger, across great geographic and cultural distance? As anyone with experience of blogging knows, it’s sometimes easier to be intimate and honest with strangers than with those close to us, perhaps because we’re less bound by prescribed roles and expectations. These friendships can be a lifeline; they can sustain us; they can even transform us—and, through us, the wider world. In Pen Pal, I wanted to show this happening.

Athena asked me about the cultures involved. Em’s community is called Mermaid’s Hands. It’s a collection of house boats that rise and fall with the tide. Seen from the shore, it’s peripheral—marginal—but seen from within the community it’s whole, rich, and dynamic. It’s always irked me that “alien” or “other” cultures are so often treated as basically unchanging until the intrusion of some stimulus, when actually all societies are changing all the time. So that was something I wanted to do differently: I wanted Mermaid’s Hands to be a living, changing community, with internal tensions, strengths, and weaknesses quite apart from plot happenings.

In Kaya’s country, I wanted to show the competing narratives of the majority people and the minority people, and beyond that, to show that neither group is monolithic. It’s not enough to say, “Here are the oppressed and here are the oppressors.” Even when that pernicious dynamic is at work, it’s always worth taking a more fine-grained look at the situation.

I was continually surprised and humbled, as I did research to correct and strengthen the story, by how pale my imagination was, compared with the reality of actual human experience. I envisioned Mermaid’s Hands as having its origins among “runaways and other slippery folk who were happier on the sea than the land”—only to discover a real-life secret bayou community that came to light some 130 years ago, after a century’s hidden existence: The Manila Men of St. Malo, Louisiana, were Filipino escapees from Spanish galleons who managed to remain hidden from the mainland for a hundred years, only coming to the attention of the American public when the journalist Lafcadio Hearn (better known for taking up Japanese citizenship and sharing Japanese ghost stories) wrote an article about them for Harper’s Weekly in 1883. He wrote, “The world in general ignored until a few days ago the bare fact of [the community’s] existence. Even the United States mail service has never found its way hither.”1

With events and situations in Kaya’s country, I was guided in advance of my writing, much more than for Mermaid’s Hands, by real-life accounts and histories. I was particularly grateful, for example, for an autobiographical account by a political prisoner in Singapore. Although no happening in Pen Pal is directly modeled on anything in the memoir, the account was hugely enlightening and affected how I fine-tuned Kaya’s attitudes and behavior (though Kaya’s circumstances and motivations are very different). As with Mermaid’s Hands, the particulars of Kaya’s country are nothing compared with true-life human experience: there’s no exercise of power, act of suppression, or form of resistance that happens in Kaya’s country that hasn’t happened in more extreme form somewhere in the world.

I should add that there are some aspects of the story that might be called magical, or magical realist. Dreams, visions, mythical ancestors—these are integral to both Em’s and Kaya’s experience, and to their conversations with each other.

More important to me than anything else in the story, though, are Kaya and Em themselves, and what their relationship represents: the possibility of friendship despite huge actual and metaphorical differences, and the strengthening, empowering, beneficial effect of that friendship. I think that’s why I wrote the story. Zadie Smith said that when you write, you’re saying, “I saw this thing—can I make you see it?” That’s what I’m asking. I saw this thing—can I make you see it?

1Lafcadio Hearn, Lafcadio Hearn’s America (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2002), 54.

Pen Pal is available as a paperback from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, or as an ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple.

5 Responses to “Messages in Bottles: Francesca Forrest’s Pen Pal”

  1. Athena says:

    It’s fascinating to realize once again that reality can be more amazing than fiction — and equally fascinating to see Hearn mentioned. Himself of mixed parentage (half-Irish, half-Greek and “illegitimate” because the Protestant paternal side did not recognize marriages conducted by the Orthodox Church), he reported extensively on marginalized, disenfranchised groups in the US and married a black woman (an illegal act at the time). His Japanese sojourn acquires a very different hue if seen through the lens of his perpetual state of exile.

  2. Asakiyume says:

    I wonder how he thought of himself, in all his travels. To take Japanese citizenship, back in those days, must have required strong commitment (it’s still not easy to do today), so perhaps he saw himself as integrating more or less completely. Or did he hold a bit of the stranger in himself forever (“everywhere he goes, he stays a stranger”)? I’d be interested to read his biography.

  3. Athena says:

    I suspect the latter — partly extrapolating from my own experience, partly guessing from reading his biography somewhere. *rummages*

  4. Miquela says:

    I am excited to reread Pen Pal, and interviews like this serve to increase my impatience. I took so much away from the story and was very moved by it, but the more I read about Francesca’s experiences and thoughts writing it, as well as the reactions of others, the more I want to dive back into it.

  5. Asakiyume says:

    And yours is among the next books I will mail out! (I will let you know when it goes into the mail)

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