On Place: Miriam Vaswani

Place in Frankfurt

The stories I call good burrow into the reader’s mind, then come back like a tenacious virus. Place, for me, is what wakes the virus. I walk through the streets of a city and there’s the story, the one I read last year. It was set here, a character lived in a building like this one, smelled the smoke from that street vendor, slept on a bed that creaked a bit like this.

Frankfurt is the story of Farah, a woman enraged by her damaged career, and about her affair with Marcus. It began as a rough sketch of a woman opening a door to the garage underneath her apartment and turned into a story of the world, set in a small, impersonal space in the middle of a cold city.


The Apartment

I was living in Stuttgart when I wrote Frankfurt. It’s a rich, unhappy city, dedicated to the automotive companies that power the German economy. I was a contractor for one of these, and my employer organized a temporary apartment for me in the midst of its offices. It was a functional cube with good light, across from a row of corporate hotels.

Frankfurt, a banking town, is even more empty on the weekends than Stuttgart. I moved my/Farah’s apartment from the Neckar to the Main and altered a few details to emphasize her unwillingness to move in. The kitchenware is not her own, she has semi-unpacked boxes, she uses an empty jar instead of an ashtray. The garage is the same, with its Swiss and Italian license plates, as is the emptiness of the building on weekends as everyone goes back to wherever they really live.

Farah tells us nothing else of the room, and she develops few rituals. By contrast, her affair with Marcus is elaborate and ritualistic, remembered in vivid detail; we know about his fastidiousness with wine, the scar on his chest, the texture of his beard, her menstrual blood on his wedding ring, their subtle intimacies before they sleep. His body is more like home to her than the apartment.


The City

A few weeks ago I walked through Frankfurt Airport, a place familiar enough to navigate without much thought, and saw a reflection in a window of a woman lifting a black case onto a security belt. And I thought, there’s Farah. It’s only right that she’d haunt me in that most transitory of airports.

While the apartment is functional to Farah, the city barely exists. Frankfurt doesn’t feature in the story in any physical way. Her scorn for the place is clear; at her most animated she describes it as a money-obsessed backwater. The only image she provides of the city is her work on a collection of anonymous desks. I used Stuttgart again, transferring the worst of it to Frankfurt and to Farah. I didn’t give her the nice things, like cycling through the Schlossgarten in spring, the opera, my favorite deli, my wonderful office and colleagues. Misery magnifies bad shit, like the racist landlords Farah (and I) contended with. To make Frankfurt feel as cold and bland to the reader as it is to Farah, I needed contrast.

Frankfurt’s original title was Lahore, after Farah’s ancestral city which she’s never seen, but where Marcus has worked. Both characters exist in several places at once; another thing I lent them. Farah is Canadian, Marcus is Belgian and German. Farah’s memories of a childhood in Ottawa, a place she initially seems to dismiss, and her image of Marcus’ apartment, which she’s never visited, were written to convey warmth, though distant. Over time, she gives Marcus images of the blue streamers on her childhood bicycle and canoeing on the lakes of Ontario, and later evokes the worn, loved furniture that Marcus and his wife have collected in Brussels. Her mysterious years in Kazakhstan and St Petersburg, and Marcus’ equally murky time in Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan were written to hint at the unrest the two might be addicted to, as was Farah’s knowledge of her violent infancy. Farah’s mind is largely with the Arab Spring, in its late stages as I wrote the story. It’s where her colleagues are, where she wants to be.

Some places are hot, some are cold. Farah lives in Frankfurt (cold) in a sterile apartment (cold). It’s where the entire affair with Marcus happens (hot), but other places they’ve lived (hot) take shape in their habits and memories. There’s also a big/small contrast; the Arab Spring, Kazakhstan, Canada and Pakistan are big. Frankfurt is small and Farah’s apartment is minuscule, but at its center are Farah and Marcus, and their affair, which is enormous, and while this affair is a place where they’re free to be vulnerable, it’s also laced with war-like images of fire and blood.


The Internet

In the end, the internet. We’re all there, our names and images and everything connected to us, living a kind of parallel life. We have a little control, but not much, and it’s like home, but not really. For Farah it’s the place where her reputation was trashed and the reason she was exiled, more or less, to Frankfurt. She refers to ‘the Almaty incident’ that destroyed her career, and it’s understood that its stubborn place at the top of a search for her name is the main issue. For Marcus the significance seems to be less; he’s older than Farah, his career predates the internet, and his professional reputation is more solid than hers. Farah and Marcus aren’t intended to be a perfect couple, nor a particularly destructive pairing. I don’t think either of them intend to become significant to one another; it’s largely a result of the violent exposition at the end of the story that they become bound to one another in that most modern of marriages, search engine results.


4-up on 24-11-2014 at 19.33Frankfurt was published in Gutter. To subscribe to the magazine, please click here.

Miriam is the author of Frontier, a novella published by Pankhearst in 2014. Her short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Gutter Magazine, Valve Journal, The Stockholm Review of Literature, Gender Across Borders, Tin House, Newfound, Retort and Our Penniless Write. She covered the Edinburgh International Book Festival as a columnist in 2009, 2010 and 2011 and was fiction editor of Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine from 2012 to 2014. Her short story Under Water was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2013 and her blog, Little Bones, was archived by the British Library as part of the UK Web Archive project. She lives in Tunisia.



About the “On Place” Series

In honor of my first poetry collection–I Have Conversations with You in My Dreams, in which most of the poems engage with place in some way–I have asked other writers, authors, and poets to compose blog posts about the effects of place on their own work. To enter a contest for a free copy of the book, please leave a comment on any of the blog posts in the series. One winner will be selected at the end of February and one at the end of March. If the winner already has the book, he or she may select a different book from my collection.

For the schedule of blog posts, please see this page.

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