These days, no matter where I go, I understand everything. The street signs and bus routes. The menus posted on restaurant doors, open for takeout only. Endless junk mail heaped atop the mailbox and my upstairs neighbor yammering on the phone in the foyer, appallingly unmasked. Everything in English, plain and sadly clear.
Since the pandemic hit, in constant lockdown, all I want is the unfamiliar. To be surrounded by words I can’t read. To eavesdrop on conversations I can’t understand. To board a train with no real sense of where I’m headed.
I want to travel. I want to be lost. I want to go.
So it’s no wonder that I’ve been rereading the story collection Here Among Strangers, by the wonderful writer Serena Crawford. Published in 2016 and the winner of the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction, this is a smart, funny, and moving book about Americans abroad, losing themselves as they find their way through new countries, where strangers can be more familiar than their closest traveling companions. In these stories, near-broke travelers make a home in rundown hotels, or find comfort in watching daily feedings of Komodo dragons. They return like pilgrims to sacred places, only to find them totally transformed, if not completely gone. And coming home is more foreign than the places they’ve visited. “Can you ever fully return from where you’ve once been?” the narrator in the heartbreaking title story asks.
Given these times, I certainly hope so.
Lysley Tenorio is the author of the novel The Son of Good Fortune and the story collection Monstress, named a book of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Whiting Award, a Stegner fellowship, and the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as residencies from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the Bogliasco Foundation. His stories have appeared in the Atlantic, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Ploughshares, and have been adapted for the stage by The American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and the Ma-Yi Theater in New York City. He is a professor at Saint Mary’s College of California.