“Still, some wanted their mark there. On that dry water-course, on this shingled knoll…. But I wanted to erase my name and the place I had come from. By the time war arrived, after ten years in the desert, it was easy for me to slip across borders, not to belong to anyone, to any nation.” (The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje, 1992)
I was talking with a few friends earlier about Michael Ondaatje’s book, The English Patient, much of which takes place in the desert, and other parts in war-damaged Italian villa. For me, the book is very much about grief. It’s a powerful book, one that stretches me thin, and one that I’ve come back to countless times over the years.
I read it for the first time the summer after a friend died traumatically when I was nineteen years old. I was working on the farm near where I grew up, which is on the West side of the San Joaquin Valley in California. It is flat and dry, unless you are in the middle of the cotton fields where the plants reach up and form a canopy. In places, the cotton can reach above your head, and you will drip with sweat in the peculiar humidity.
I took that book to work with me every day. I read it on my breaks. I read it when I came home at night. For that summer, The English Patient and the desert and ruins Ondaatje wrote about were my constant companions.
For me, the desert will always be a place of grief and healing. A place where, in my own life, I have stripped bare the tangles in my mind and cleared out the emotional sludge that can lay in wait and grab you unexpectedly. It is a place where, as my great-grandmother would say, I can “stretch my eyes” and rest. So it was fitting that, years later, Ondaatje’s book and the literary desert he evoked helped me to unbind myself from the grief that had held me frozen and tearless for months.
“In the desert, the most loved waters, like a lover’s name, are carried blue in your hands, enter your throat. One swallows absence. A woman in Cairo curves the white length of her body up from the bed and leans out of the window into a rainstorm to allow her nakedness to receive it.” (The English Patient, Ondaatje, 1992)
How are you using geography? Are you allowing the landscape around your characters to become a metaphor for who they are at a particular moment? Are you letting the desert mirror the desolation of grief? Where are they? A forest? A library? A paradise with dark corners? Use your setting for more than backdrop. Allow it to inform your writing, and let your readers bring some of themselves into it. They will anyway.
Does a landscape evoke the same emotion in everyone? No. That’s part of why some books will always resonate more than others, but there are common elements in literature. Use your setting as another layer to build characterization and mood. Let the Earth (or whatever world you choose) become your accomplice.
Finally, I’ll leave you with one last quote from The English Patient. It’s a passage I’ve underlined in my copy. A passage that speaks to me. It’s something I’ve held on to for fifteen years.
“She stopped reading and looked up. Out of the quicksand. She was evolving. So power changed hands. Meanwhile, with the help of an anecdote, I fell in love.
Words, Caravaggio. They have power.”
Thanks for reading,