By Allison Needles
Fiction writer Lori Ostlund visited PLU on March 16 to read from her novel, After the Parade, a story about a forty-year-old man named Aaron Englund who leaves his partner, Walter, to make a new life of his own. In the chapter Ostlund read, Aaron remembers being seven years old and meeting Clarence, his mother’s family friend, who happens to be a book-loving dwarf with tusks growing from his nostrils.
This chapter stuck out to me when I first read After the Parade, mostly because Clarence is different from others in his appearance, but also because of the way he stores his books:
“The walls of Clarence’s room were covered with books, the spines of which faced inward.”
Inward. The image was instant, alarming. For how often do we see someone shelve books so that you can’t read their spines?
Clarence is only an old memory for Aaron, and yet meeting the man was so memorable to him. It’s this, I think, that I took away from Ostlund’s reading the most: that everyone we meet is different, and that often the things that make us outsiders are also the things that make us unique.
Ostlund mentioned that After the Parade is very much a story about misfits and what it means to lead a life different from others. Ostlund’s short story collection, The Bigness of the World, is no exception to this, following the lives of individuals who see the world in different ways, like Ilsa, who thinks that cutting pizza into smaller pieces will make more of it.
At her reading, Ostlund shared with her audience that often her stories begin this way—with something that strikes her as different or strange. She told us stories about them: hearing a conversation about an unraveling bellybutton, researching as many ant proverbs as she could find, standing in front of the ocean and hearing about the bigness of the world. These snippets of life reflect her writing process—finding unique, strange things that seem to not go together but that ultimately, in the end, can make a great story.
As a writer, I’m often thinking about the people who surround me, wondering what they like or what they don’t like, or what their stories are. I wonder what makes them different. What random parts of the world make up who they are? What events happened to them that have never happened to anyone else?
I believe that one reason why we read is to connect to others. And this connection doesn’t just stem from our similarities, but from our differences, too.
Ostlund’s stories speak of the struggles of being different, but also how these differences can enrich the way we see the world. Humans, and our identities, are complex things. Writing about them can be hard. Where do we begin?
Sometimes all it takes to spark a story is to witness the vastness of the ocean, or be told a strange story about an unraveling bellybutton, or to see a book on a shelf, its spine facing inward.