The Prescott schools are well into spring break now. While lots of students I know are out on fantastic road trips, skiing somewhere cold, surfing somewhere warm, or spending time with their families, I remain here at my desk, researching and writing, working on my senior projects. This morning, as I looked over everyone’s adventure updates and faced the reality that the highlight of my spring break may be as grand as meeting someone interesting at the dog park, I couldn’t help thinking about places I’d never been.
Alix Ohlin’s story, “Places I’d Never Been,” published in the current issue of AJ, recognizes far away, foreign countries as physical places the characters have never been. It also moves deeper into recognizing places of new emotional and psychological experiences as Kayla and her mother-in-law, Marilyn, deal with the grief of losing their husband and son. The majority of the story is set in the local zoo, which turned out to be, according to Alix, “an apt metaphor for the cage of grief.”
“It’s a tragedy, Kayla,” she said. “And it’s all our fault. Humans, that is.”
I nodded. We both stared guiltily at the bear, who ignored us.
“This guy looks miserable. Doesn’t he? He belongs on ice floes, not in this damn zoo.”
I glanced at her; she wasn’t much given to swearing. I could see she was shaking with anger. We hadn’t been so close, before—there’s an uneasiness in the triangle of an only child, his wife, and his mother—but now she was deeper in my heart than my own family, because she was the only one who understood. “I know what you mean,” I said.
“This is what the future holds for them,” Marilyn said. “They’re going to be totally out of place.” We stood there for a while, and I tried to picture the melting of the ice, the far northern landscape pale as the moon, snow giving way to rock, the contours of a disappearing place I’d never been.
The 2013 issue of AJ also features a thoughtful dialogue about the writing process of “Places I’d Never Been,” what it is like to be a professional writer, writing and academia, and Alix’s two novels. Here is a sample:
You have said: “I think fiction surrounds us … we are the protagonist in a given tale; politicians frame events in narratives that cast certain characters as heroes and others as victims. Stories are the way we understand the world.” Given this idea, do writers have a particular obligation to the world at large? If so, how do you see your work as speaking to this larger responsibility?
This is a hard question. I sort of think that as people we all have an obligation to the world at large: to be kind, to do the best we can. As a writer, though, if you set out to morally educate, you run the risk of turning didactic and wooden. So I guess I try to treat all the characters with empathy, to pose the questions in my work in a complex, deeply felt way, and hope that this communicates something about the world.
Alix’s story, “Places I’d Never Been,” and the full interview can be found in “The Gallery” section of the 2013 Alligator Juniper. Visit our website to subscribe.