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'Outsiders' who bring us comfort

April 26, 2009 |  4:15 pm


For anyone growing up slightly frightened and unsure of the world, literature can serve as an escape route and a place of discovery. We can connect to those perfect little phrases that elegantly get to the center of how we feel and to the characters that reflect back our own experiences in new and exciting ways. Books and stories are like secret messages from authors, coded with meaning: “Don’t worry, we understand. You are not alone.”

At the fiction panel "Exiles and Outsiders" on Sunday at the Festival of Books, authors Mary Gaitskill, Aimee Bender, Dylan Landis and Giocanda Belli — four female writers described by moderator Donna Rifkind as “not authors you can feel neutral about” — discussed their work and their use of their perceptions as outsiders to connect with readers.

The definition of an outsider shifted from the isolation of literal exile — Belli, who explores the mythic original exiles Adam and Eve in her book “Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand: A Novel of Adam and Eve” experienced it keenly in war-torn Nicaragua — to the perceived alienation of being human, which Belli says comes from “being limited by our own bodies.”

 “You can’t constantly belong,” said author and professor Bender. The women agreed that the process of writing involves stepping outside of characters and situations to observe and communicate with fresh eyes what would normally be taken for granted.

The conversation was summed up best by Landis, whose novel in short stories, “Normal People Don’t Live Like This,” is due out in September: “You can’t write a novel if you’re not an outsider or have a strong protagonist that isn’t.”

Her own experience as an outsider stemmed from what she described as an “extraordinary sense of self-consciousness” felt through her youth. Gaitskill (“Because They Wanted To,” “Veronica,” “Don’t Cry”) identified with this feeling but was quick to point out that it might be flattery.

“The world is big and there are so many worlds that you can be a part of,” she said. “We’re all insiders simply by the fact that we’re here.”

--Heather Robertson

Photo: Mary Gaitskill by Hillary Harvey / Pantheon