“Foreign-Returned”
by Sadia Shepard
from the January 8, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you’re all enjoying the holiday and that you might find time to read a bit.

If you’re so inclined, you can start the year out with fiction from The New Yorker, which has just published Sadia Shepard’s “Foreign-Returned.” I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of Shepard. Looking around a bit online, she is a documentary filmmaker and author. In 2008, Penguin published her memoir The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Lost Loves, and a Sense of Home. That title clearly has a nice connection with this week’s title, though “Foreign-Returned” is clearly not a continuation of her nonfiction memoir; here the main characters are a man named Hasan and a woman named Hina.

Please start or join in the conversation below — tell us what you think of the story. I’m looking forward to another year of great discussions focused on the fiction in The New Yorker.

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By | 2018-01-01T13:22:04+00:00 January 1st, 2018|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Sadia Shepard|Tags: |33 Comments

33 Comments

  1. Dennis Lang January 1, 2018 at 1:28 pm

    Same here Trevor.
    Happy New Year All!!!

  2. avataram January 1, 2018 at 4:23 pm

    Happy New Year!

    Lots of nuances in this story, some of it related to H1B visa and its intricacies. Why does Sara stay home, watch TV and not get a job? This is because she is probably on a H4 visa (spouse of a H1B) and cannot work legally in the US. (Obama was trying to correct this, but Trump has rejected this outright). The only thing she can do is to study at the University, but this would mean that Hassan would have to take out a loan to pay for her University fees, something she may not be comfortable asking him to do. So she does what she can – try and have a baby which would become a US Citizen, and to dream of a white clapboard colonial with green shutters that they can afford even less than a University degree or a baby. It is a bit sad that Hassan compares her unfavorably to Hina without thinking of these problems.

    As someone who held an H1B for just around 2 years, and who lived in NY, before getting kicked out of the US for similar reasons as Hassan, his problems seem very familiar. This line in particular was wonderful:

    “Hassan had always been aware that he might lack the qualities essential for success in America, but it had never seemed as evident to him as it did now.”

    It reminds me of the James Salter line, which served as a motto during the two years in the US, “One should not believe too strongly in a life which can easily vanish”. Like Hassan, I was quite resigned to losing the H1B visa and the job at some point, and remember spending most of my last two months in the US on this website(!), and am at least a bit more well-read as a result.

    Hina is a bit more difficult to understand. I absolutely get the fact that she is more driven, has a plan for her life, but her very strong religious belief seems a bit strange, I have met very few second generation Pakistani or Indian-americans who are that religious. For someone like that, inviting a man to her house in the middle of the night, taking off the headscarf in front of him is an absolute no no. I wonder what she was doing or why?

  3. David January 1, 2018 at 7:10 pm

    I think Shepard has potential to be a good writer, but this story was not very impressive overall. Hina’s most memorable characteristic is that she is rather rude and Sara’s most memorable one is that she lies to impress people. For Hasan it’s that he is not a very conscientious worker and seems more motivated by wanting to avoid embarrassment than anything. Then there are the Ahmeds, who seem most interested in smugly impressing people with they success and status. None of the characters were likable, making me care a lot less about what happens to any of them. Hina sharing the story of the assault seems slightly odd, as if she only does so because the story requires it rather than it being in character, but the more significant problem of that sort is when she suddenly decides to confide in Hasan about her relationship to her family. I didn’t buy that she would do that at all.
    .
    Shepard surely knows that most of her readers are going to be neither Pakistani nor Muslim, so she must know that the readers ability to deduce motivations or what the characters are thinking from their actions will, in most cases, be very limited. One example is the one avataram mentions above, Hina’s decision to invite the drunk Hasan into her home and taking her scarf off while he is present. It seems like it is possible she was suggesting some intimacy between them (she also disappears into the bathroom and starts running water and the next day, when Hasan says they didn’t do anything, she says “but we could have.”), but I don’t feel like I can really reliably interpret what she was thinking or why in moments like that. Even if she was hoping for something intimate to happen (maybe telling about the rejected arranged marriage is also a clue to that? Maybe?) I really don’t know why she would pick Hasan.
    .
    It appears that this is Shepard’s first published work of fiction of any kind. This might be the story years from now she looks back on with embarrassment after writing a lot more much better things. Despite my negativity about the story I do see in places that she can write a scene fairly well and despite being a longish story with unlikable characters it did not feel a slog to get through. I’m not sure why The New Yorker wanted to publish it, but that’s another matter.

  4. avataram January 1, 2018 at 8:17 pm

    Since the Connecticut finance world, particularly related to people of South Asian origin is so small, I was playing a game of guessing who the different characters were inspired by. Ali Ahmed almost certainly seems to be based on Ifty Ahmed, who was accused by the SEC of having embezzled millions of dollars from a Connecticut VC fund and ran away to India in disgrace. The Ahmeds used to throw or attend all the nice parties in Greenwich CT.

    Ifty Ahmed has Ali Ahmed in his full name, has three sons, lived in Greenwich, instead of Stamford. I groaned when I saw these references. Hopefully in later stories, the author will be able to disguise her inspirations more effectively.

  5. David January 3, 2018 at 5:03 pm

    avataram, I’m about to go off on a rant based on your last comment, but my rant is not directed at you (at least I don’t think it is). It was just twigged by your comment. Here I go….
    .
    A few weeks back we had a discussion about whether what an author has to say about their writing should matter at all in how we understand a story. There were some things we disagreed about, but the one thing I think we did agree on was that what an author has to say about what they intended the story to be doesn’t matter if the story itself does not back her up. A good example of this from popular fiction would be the case of the Harry Potter books. In 2007, after that last of them was published, author JK Rowling revealed that Dumbledore is gay. Most people accepted this as fact, as she is the author so she gets to decide those things. But there is nothing in any of the books that suggests, let alone dictates, that this is his sexuality. It is, in fact, wrong to conclude that the character is gay because the author says so when the text does not support the claim.
    .
    A similar circumstance is when characters in stories are based on real people. Often this comes in the case of authors writing characters based on themselves, but it can be other people as well. The mistake people often draw from this works in two directions. On the one hand, sometimes they will say, “this character is based on that person and that person has a particular characteristic, so we can attribute that characteristic to the character as well.” On the other hand, sometimes they will say, “the author based this character on that person and this character has a particular characteristic, so we can assume that the author thinks that the real person the character is based on also has that characteristic.” Both of these are wrong conclusions based on not recognizing the basic difference between a character being based or inspired by a real person and a non-fiction account. In fiction, an author can keep or change as much or as little of a character as they want when it is based on a real person. Ultimately this means that very little is to be learned at all about a story (or about what an author thinks of any actual people) by linking characters in stories to real-life inspirations.
    .
    The example that avataram mentions is a good one. Most readers would never have heard of Ifty Ahmed. If it is true that Shepard modeled Ali Ahmed on him, we are no better informed about that character than we were already. Ali Ahmed is only similar to Ifty Ahmed in the ways that the story specifically tells us. It is not part of the story that Ali is an embezzler, so that is not part of who that character is.
    .
    Of the two mistakes I noted above, the one that actually annoys me the most is the one that goes the other way. Far too often I hear people comment that a character in a book is based on the author and then they want to tell me all about the author and how we should make conclusions about the author’s life and character from that. Those conclusions are often not only of no interest to me, but ones that are not validly come to. I guess one reason I am thinking about this is because, as I mentioned elsewhere on this site, I will soon begin reading Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1. Last year I read Invisible and quite liked it. I have tried looking up a few reviews of his work but not actually read very many of them very far because it seems that reviewers often get sidetracked by the idea that his characters are stand-ins for the author himself. This leads them to what seems to me to amount to wanting to gossip about the author rather than discuss the book. So I have mostly avoided them.
    .
    As a reward for reading all the way to the end of my rant (assuming you did) I have a book recommendation. Not too long ago comedian Norm Macdonald wrote a book called Based On A True Story, as I started to read it, I, like a lot of people, thought it was a memoir. But soon he includes comments that cannot be dismissed as just funny quips along the way to telling his life story and I realized that this is a work of fiction masquerading as a memoir. The “Norm Macdonald” of the book shares some characteristics and life story with the author, but there are massive deviations as well. When the book appeared in paperback they actually changed where it said “A Memoir” on the cover to “Not A Memoir” because apparently some people thought it was a true story. Read it for yourself because it’s very funny. You also should see why it ultimately becomes very difficult to believe that it was a real memoir, or that the book tells us anything at all about the author/comedian, Norm Macdonald.

  6. David January 4, 2018 at 3:30 pm

    Hello. It’s me … again. Today’s subject: Just how original is this story anyway?
    .
    In the author interview Shepard is asked, “Did you feel the influence of any other short-story writers when working on ‘Foreign-Returned’?” She answers, in part, “This story owes a great debt to one of my favorite short-story writers, Mavis Gallant, and specifically to her story ‘The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street.’ ” I have not read any Gallant before and was curious how much of a debt Shepard’s story might owe to it, so I got a copy of “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street” and read it. It quickly became clear that Shepard’s story would not exist without Gallant’s story. Here is a brief overview of “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street”:
    .
    The main characters are Peter, a married man working in a foreign country, and Agnes, his new female co-worker who is from the same country he and his wife are from. But they are from very different parts of the country and seem to have little in common. Peter thinks he and Agnes have been put in the same office to work together because they are from the same country. Peter is not a very conscientious worker, but Agnes is. Agnes is religious, and her bringing a Bible to the office and placing it on her desk is noted. Peter and his wife, Sheilah, are not as well off financially as they would like and have been trying to socially ingratiate themselves with the Burleighs, a compatriot and well-off couple living in the same city. Peter is surprised when he finds out that Agnes seems to know the Burleighs quite well. Peter and Sheilah invite Agnes over for supper, but it does not go very well. Agnes does not eat the lobster they serve as she never eats food from the sea. She also – repeatedly – points out that she does not drink and refuses their wine.
    .
    I’ll cut to the finish here and mention that the couple and Agnes end up at a party at the Burleighs, Peter accompanies Agnes home in a taxi, she regrets going to a party where there was so much drinking, when they get to her place she changes into a housecoat, seems to make a pass at him, then disappears into the bathroom. He hears water running and leaves. Back at work, she apologizes and he insists it’s ok because nothing happened but she worries it could have. She also inexplicably shares some personal information about her strained relationship with her family. The end. PHEW!
    .
    Some of you might remember a few years ago a story called “Benji” by Chinelo Okparanta that turned out to have a near identical plot to Alice Munro’s “Corrie”. It caused quite a bit of controversy when this was revealed. I would expect the question from the interview I quoted was quite consciously asked of Shepard to allow her the opportunity to give credit to Gallant that is due her. Gallant’s story, like Munro’s “Corrie”, was originally published in The New Yorker so there would be no excuse for them not knowing about it. I know this sort of close similarity in stories bothers some people a great deal, but not me. I actually find it quite interesting to read another person’s take on an existing story. But I would say that of the two, Gallant’s is clearly the better work. I don’t know what Shepard really added in her version other than to show it works as a story about Pakistani immigrants to the US as well.
    .
    I don’t know if two examples makes a genre, but with “Foreign-Returned” and “Benji” we have two examples of stories originally about Canadians written by Canadian authors who are regarded as masters of the short story being transformed to being stories about characters from the developing world. Someone now has to do this with a Margaret Atwood story to complete the trifecta!

  7. avataram January 4, 2018 at 8:08 pm

    Wow David! I cannot believe The New Yorker did it again! Another plagiarized story, this time from Mavis Gallant. No wonder the religious muslim girl making a pass at the coworker made no sense. Stories are not that universal that they can move from Canada to Pakistan without striking many wrong notes here and there.

    This is also the first story of 2018!

    I was quite upset with the Okparanta story. I thought this will be the end of her career, that she would never write again, never hold an academic position again. But it was not so. Not a single African-American or Nigerian writer said a thing against her. Some, like Noviolet Bulawayo helped her with sympathetic interviews where she could extend her BS story about being so inspired by Alice Munro that she wrote the story as a homage. Okparanta went on to publish more books and now teaches creative writing somewhere. How creative, only she knows.

    I dont know whether we should be more forgiving about this one, because Sadia Shepard clearly says in her interview that the story owes a lot to the Mavis Gallant story. There is some difference between “owes a lot” and “owes everything” to another story.

    Maybe the New Yorker is simply commissioning rewrites by Developing country writers? The Okparanta story was published by Willing Davidson when Deborah Treisman was on leave, but Treisman herself is responsible for this story and the author interview. If someone at TNY is taking requests, I would like to rewrite James Joyce’s “The Dead” in an Indian setting.

  8. Trevor Berrett January 4, 2018 at 10:22 pm

    Not having read either story yet — ha! — I am okay with this one in theory. It’s disclosed beforehand. The Okparanta felt like theft because it was covert. This one, where they were up front, is different. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s original, but I’m not disturbed that it exists.

  9. David January 4, 2018 at 11:47 pm

    I could write another long post on plagiarism, but I have used my quota of those for this week, so I’ll go to bullet points.

    – Plagiarism is largely an issue of who gets paid. As a reader, I don’t care about that. I just care if the story is good.
    – Even if the question of who gets paid bothers you, Gallant is dead and her story was originally published by The New Yorker, so in this case it seems a non-issue.
    – Further to it being a question of money, no one cares when people write new works that use very old stories as their plot guide. Write a new short story based on a Sophocles play and you might get praised for your creativity.
    – Many of the greatest writers stole plots from other writers. No one cares that Shakespeare’s plots are mostly unoriginal.
    – When people write fiction based on real life events, they also did not come up with the plot themselves, yet we don’t criticize them nor do we say they plagiarized reality (because no money is at stake).
    – The only reasons I can think to care at all are (1) if you want to judge the character of the author (which I am not usually interested in doing) you might think less of them using a story they did not create and not acknowledging that and (2) If you are coming to a writer for the first time and you think the plot was ingenious you might be misled about how much you might like other work by that same author if they did not create the plot you liked.

    But in general, plagiarism doesn’t bother me as a reader. It did not bother me with “Benji” and did not here either.

  10. avataram January 5, 2018 at 9:21 am

    The only positive thing I can say about Shepard’s story is that I have been able to go back & read a nice Gallant story.

    It also makes me realize how bad Shepard’s story is. In the Gallant story, Agnes (Hina equivalent in Gallant) gets drunk and that is the reason for her leaving the party, making a pass at her co-worker. Here, Hina doesnt even drink! So this is a procrustean exercise in fitting a Canadians in Geneva story into a Pakistanis in the US framework, which might pass muster as a first attempt in a Iowa Creative Writing Program, but should not in a magazine like The New Yorker. On twitter you can see that her professor at the creative writing course does indicate it was part of a writing assignment, which has been fleshed into a TNY story.

    Kudos to David for downloading the Gallant story and reading it, made me do that as well, thank you.

    I dont think I can be that blasé about plagiarism as David is, though. Okparanta was definitely a case of copying & trying to hide it, getting caught and making some mealy mouthed excuse about it. It is curious that Shepard has followed Okparanta’s script in the interview:

    Shepard: “I remember reading Gallant’s story—which is largely about Canadians working in Geneva—and thinking, This feels so Pakistani.”

    Okparanta: “I am a big fan of Alice Munro’s writing, which I was introduced to while at Iowa. At the time, I couldn’t help thinking how so many of her stories felt so “Nigerian”: quite a few of her characters recalled people I knew in Nigeria, and some of her conflicts mirrored conflicts that were in some ways trademarks of Nigerian culture.”

  11. Sasha January 8, 2018 at 4:54 am

    My problem with plagiarism is that the publication of stories like Foreign-Returned incentivizes more writers to borrow/steal wholesale by just changing the character names.

    Yiyun Li’s work is heavily influenced by William Trevor’s, but there’s a qualitative difference between what Li does with Trevor’s work and what Shepard does and Gallant’s. A lot of Li’s characters, like Trevor’s, are “old lonely people” who, in the course of a story, meet someone new and build a connection. But Li does so much more than changing the character names and add some hints of the Cultural Revolution.

    Publishing stories like Foreign-Returned is clearly encouraging another kind of “borrowing.” If this is what it takes to get published in the New Yorker, every student of fiction will start “borrowing” stories this way.

    Aside from the plagiarism issue, I find the scene-narration balance a bit off. I want to *see* more of the characters (dialogue, for example), but instead get this: “But at the pool parties Hassan and Sara felt a sense of rightness. On Sundays, they felt closest to the people they wanted to be.” I don’t know who Hassan and Sara want to be. I don’t know what “rightness” means. Okay, maybe Sara is this one-dimensional character who just wants to live in a big American house, but does Hassan want the same thing?

    Like other people on this thread have said, I’m also confused about the Muslim/Pakistani references.

    The election/Trump references also feel quite unnecessary. I’ve never been a fan of fiction that evokes proximate news stories, but that’s probably a personal preference.

    The ending is really strong, and as an immigrant I see a lot of myself and my friends in it. But I’m not sure whom I should give credit to.

  12. David January 8, 2018 at 6:11 pm

    Sticking to point form for my reply to Sasha –

    1. “If this is what it takes to get published in the New Yorker…”
    — So far we are talking about two stories published more than four years apart. I’m not worried there is a trend here that anyone should worry about.

    2. “…incentivizes more writers to borrow/steal wholesale by just changing the character names.”
    — That’s not what happened here nor is it what happened in the case of “Benji”. Both these worries seem a bit hyperbolic to me.

    3. “I’m not sure whom I should give credit to.”
    — (a) Suppose the story had been published as is, but credited as “by Sadia Shepard and Mavis Gallant”. There would be no plagiarism issue then and you still would not know who to credit for what.
    — (b) Suppose it turns out that there is some obscure interview somewhere where Mavis Gallant explains that the entire plot for “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street” was events that really happened to people she really knew. In that case, she should not get any credit for the plot of her story or this story.
    — (c) Insofar as we never really know what in stories is based on reality and what is not, we can never really know who deserves credit for what.
    — (d) Sometimes authors get story ideas from people they know, too, so credit is never really clear even when not based on reality.
    — (e) Who to give credit to is, at best, an issue of what to put after “by” after the title. This story could turn out to be by anyone and it is still the same story, so as a reader I don’t really care.
    — (f) John Lennon and Paul McCartney are co-credited with writing a lot of songs that only one or the other really wrote. I was talking to someone recently who said “Hey Jude” is his favourite Beatles song. He thought Lennon wrote it. I had to tell him that he’s wrong. But it’s just as good a song either way.

  13. avataram January 8, 2018 at 11:03 pm

    I thought Sasha’s comment was brilliant and captured much of what I wanted to say. Okparanta’s story was plagiarized but her author interview was original – the excuse that she was paying homage to Munro without anyone knowing was a good one and seems to have saved her Career. Shepard’s story was a copy (of Mavis Gallant) and the interview was a copy of Okparanta’s. Nothing original about either her story or her interview.

  14. Avataram January 13, 2018 at 8:32 am

    Francine Prose has been all over this scene by scene, line by line, dialogue by dialogue copy on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/francine.prose/posts/10155718038960067

  15. Harri T January 13, 2018 at 10:12 am

    In the discussion, it´s enlightening to read how Shepard has has answered her critics, and described the writing process, guided by the New Yorker editor.

  16. David January 13, 2018 at 11:58 am

    Avataram, thank-you very much for that link. Wow! I agree with Harri about the discussion in the comments after Prose’s post. There are a lot of them, many by other authors and literature professors, and include discussion by Shepard herself and Alexander Chee, the instructor of the course for which the first draft of this story was originally written. This is a truly amazing conversation. I strongly recommend anyone interested in this issue to follow Avataram’s link. The initial post lays out the similarities, but then the discussion really gets things going. Great stuff!

  17. Archer January 13, 2018 at 10:47 pm

    Wow, I can’t believe it’s happened again! This is really the Chinelo Okparanta scenario all over again, only this time they had the foresight to mention the “homage” in the Q&A. I feel like this is one of those issues that really depend on context and nuance. It’s certainly true that history is full of appropriated texts. But, to me, there’s a difference between Ulysses, Wide Sargasso Sea or On Beauty and what’s happened with these two stories. It’s one thing for a well-known author to appropriate a well-known work. It’s quite another for a new or emerging writer to essentially “retell” another story (that many readers probably wouldn’t be familiar with). “Theft” or “plagiarism” are strong words to throw around, but at the very least, it strikes me as ethically dubious.

    I’ve always thought of Francine Prose as a terrific, incisive critic, with a strong contrarian streak. She wrote some excellent pans of The Goldfinch and the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, and I agreed with almost every word. I’m glad she’s tackling this debate. I wonder if she’s aware that it happened before. I’m not on Facebook, but somebody should send her a link to that crazy “Benji” discussion we had. And that time, there wasn’t even attribution until after the fact (due to readers here speaking up about it).

  18. Avataram January 14, 2018 at 12:28 am

    Hi Archer, I tried to leave a comment, but couldn’t. One has to be a friend of Francine Prose to do so. But it is instructive reading women of color like Porochista Khakhpour, Nilanjana Roy etc in the comments. They believe they have all the right in the world to take something written by a white author and use it as they please. And who is Francine Prose, another white woman, to draw lines on what women of color can do and cannot do? They call this racism. As a person of color, I am appalled at this level of entitlement.

  19. Archer January 14, 2018 at 11:26 am

    Hi Avataram. Yes, the tone of some of the posts in that Facebook discussion is distressing to me as well. As David mentioned, it just so happens that the two writers of “Benji” and “Foreign-Returned” hail from developing countries — which, to me, is irrelevant to the issues at hand, but does give the debate a loaded context, especially in Trump’s America. (Surely we can all agree, at the very least, that the phrase “playing the race card” should be stricken from the English language.)

    To that end, I do think Prose’s response to Shepard was injudiciously-worded. I cringed a bit when she said “surely you have your own stories to tell”. That said, I find Shepard’s assertion that she believed most readers of TNY would recognize Gallant’s story (and thereby know what she was doing) disingenuous. I’ve read quite a bit of Gallant, but I’d never read that story. And she’s just not very widely-read, generally. I mean, how many people here, who read New Yorker fiction regularly, were familiar with it?

    I’d love to see Francine Prose go long on this issue, maybe in The New York Review of Books or something. I think this is a discussion that deserves more time and nuance than a Facebook post.

  20. David January 14, 2018 at 7:26 pm

    Archer, I agree that I would like to see some longer form discussion of the issue, specifically to address the various ideas that different people have about what sort of use of other writers’ work, how much, and for what purposes is acceptable. We are now several decades removed from when the issue was a significant one in the music world when sampling became much more common in popular music, but it surely is a closely related issue. I also would like to see more explicit discussion of how (or even if) this is an aesthetic issue at all as opposed to being a moral or legal one. I have yet to see anyone really say that this makes the work bad art, despite seeing many people saying this is a mark against Shepard’s character.
    .
    (As an aside, I love how many different words and phrases there seem to be to say “stealing that isn’t REALLY stealing”. We have inspire, homage, pastiche, tribute, “in conversation with”, transform, update, repurpose….)

  21. Greg January 14, 2018 at 8:05 pm

    Avataram – I learned so much from your above posts, and I appreciated you opening up on your personal experience in the United States.

    David, Sasha and Archer – Your differing views have allowed me to see all the sides to what the author did. Thank you!

    Lastly, I especially enjoyed these parts of the story:

    “Hassan could see that Sara’s eyes were bright with her lies, that she was trying to give him a message to play along. Walking toward her, he felt something bubbling up inside him, a well of anger about to erupt. Just once, he thought, just once he should say out loud that his wife was full of shit.”

    “He saw the whiteness of Sara’s eyes around her pupils, her stare suddenly narrowed and mean. His wife could be frightening when she wanted to be.”

    “”My parents wanted me to be educated. To be like educated Pakistanis,” she said, her voice a low hiss. “But I see you, and you’re all so confused and selfish. None of you are any better than my father.””

  22. Trevor Berrett January 14, 2018 at 9:36 pm

    Thanks for linking to Prose’s post. That’s a long, fascinating conversation.

    For me, I don’t necessarily care about the plagiarism angle. That sounds inflammatory, and I don’t need to prosecute anyone or get anyone expelled. But I am interested in whether this is original. I’m also curious about the argument of those who think this is okay; is appropriating another story to highlight cultural differences okay? Should we accept it because of the cultural perspective shift? I’m much more on the side of NO there, but I’m open to a solid argument (not just a conclusion) that this “new” story is doing something new and unique from the original and that it needed the original to make its point.

  23. David January 15, 2018 at 1:38 am

    Trevor, I share your lack of interest in the plagiarism issue. As for the originality issue, I think the question really isn’t “Is this original?” but “How original is this?” It’s a question we can ask about most works of fiction when we want to know how familiar or even cliche elements of a story might be, but in this case it is more a specific comparison to one story.
    .
    The issue of cultural context is an interesting one. For a Western or white author to use substantial elements of a story or stories that come from another culture or an author of a different racial / ethnic background would quite likely be strongly criticized as an example of cultural appropriation. So race and culture is relevant to the question to the extent that it works strongly against some cultural perspective shifts. The same worries about cultural appropriation do not exist for the use of work by Western or white authors by authors from another culture or with a different racial / ethnic background. But that is not yet enough to say it is therefore unproblematic.
    .
    I think that if the purpose of the cultural shift is either (1) to highlight cultural differences by how otherwise very similar stories play out in some way differently when the culture is changed, or (2) to highlight ways that cultures that superficially seem very different might actually have a lot more in common than we might have expected, then the story would be regarded as doing something original and interesting enough to make it’s use acceptable to people who might otherwise be bothered by plagiarism concerns. But in both of those cases the cultural shift has to result in something more than just pointing out that the story works in more than one context.
    .
    In the case of this pair of stories, I read “Foreign-Returned” first. When I read “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street” I did not feel like it was just the same story with the names and nationalities of the characters changed. Yes, there were a lot of familiar plot points and character traits, but it was not all the same. At the same time I would not say that either (1) or (2) mentioned above was really achieved. Shepard says in the interview that it was more (2) that struck her about Gallant’s story and why she wanted to write the Pakistanis-in-America retelling of it, but I don’t see this as some really significant cultural commentary. Lots of stories would work equally well in many cultures, but retelling them in each one is not particularly a profound achievement. I don’t need to read the version of the story about Chinese ex-pats living in Senegal to know that it would work that way as well.
    .
    So how original is this story? I’d say most (but not all) of the originality is due to Gallant’s work. Are there inter-cultural reasons to think it was an exercise worth doing anyway? I don’t think so. But that might be just because Shepard failed to achieve goals she had in writing the story and not that she did not even try. In my original comment (before I knew about the Gallant connection) I expressed some concerns about the story and gave it a mixed review. Now, knowing what I do about the Gallantian origins of the story, I have not changed my view of this one. I’m less optimistic about how good Shepard’s future work will be than I was originally, but this story is no better or worse than it was when I first read it.

  24. Avataram January 15, 2018 at 6:21 am

    Francine Prose’s mail to The New Yorker has been published in today’s issue, as well as Shepard’s reply, and I link to these letters: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/01/22/letters-from-the-january-22-2018-issue

  25. avataram January 15, 2018 at 11:02 am

    Francine Prose: Literature will survive online social media bullying just as it has survived book burning and state censorship. One of the ugliest aspects of bullying is the way the aggressor finds easy targets and avoids the bigger, tougher challenges. But these attacks—and capitulations—may make it harder for us to champion the importance of the imagination at a time when we so urgently need to imagine a way to solve the larger crises that face us.

    http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/11/01/the-problem-with-problematic/

  26. David January 15, 2018 at 2:01 pm

    Meanwhile, in Canada (on the same subject as avataram’s link) … the issue of cultural appropriation and a white author’s use of native peoples in Angie Abdou’s 2017 book In Case I Go has become controversial as well. Here is Abdou’s explanation of the process she went through before including Ktunaxa people and culture in that novel:

    https://quillandquire.com/omni/angie-abdou-on-seeking-permission-to-use-first-nations-stories/

    Here is a reply and criticism by Troy Sebastian, a Ktunaxa writer

    https://quillandquire.com/omni/misrepresentation-and-the-truth-of-ktunaxa-consent-a-response-from-ktunaxa-nation-council/

  27. Trevor Berrett January 15, 2018 at 2:37 pm

    This week’s story, John Edgar Wideman’s “Writing Teacher,” is of note as well. Here’s our thread on it.

  28. Archer January 15, 2018 at 2:55 pm

    Thanks for the links, Avataram. I’m not sure why TNY needed Jess Row to weigh in. I think it would have sufficed to have Prose’s letter, and Shepard’s reply.

    Like Trevor, I’m not interested in prosecuting anyone. Shepard disclosed her intent in the interview, and that’s fair enough. (The Okparanta incident struck me as less transparent, which I found more troubling.) As to the question of whether this is okay, I don’t really have an answer. I think it’s something people have to determine case by case. Some examples of appropriation are truly exceptional. Ulysses. Wide Sargasso Sea. Kurosawa’s Shakespeare films. But I would suggest that those works do more than transpose setting and culture. And I think, to do it well, it requires a great deal of craft, and an artist with a strong voice in his or her own right. With writers like Okparanta or Shepard, who are early in their careers, it’s hard to tell what’s theirs and whats the source’s, and that’s problematic.

    Many smart people have vociferously come to Shepard’s defense, so it’s clear that, for some, this is not only acceptable, but laudatory. But I agree with much of what David said, particularly the point that many good stories could “work” in different cultures. That’s what makes them good stories, that uniting human element. Does that mean it’s something writers should do? Speaking personally, I don’t think “Foreign Return” (or “Benji”) is particularly successful or distinct. I think it follows Gallant a little *too* closely. To me, taking the bones of a story, and simply putting it in another cultural milieu, is an exercise of minimal literary merit.

    And I will briefly say this: I think it’s unfortunate that some people have framed this discussion as a white writer safeguarding white narratives from people of color. If Shepard had done this with, say, a Yiyun Li story or a V.S. Naipaul story, I would have found it equally dubious.

  29. pauldepstein January 15, 2018 at 6:28 pm

    I don’t understand Archer’s complaint about the New Yorker letters. They seemed nicely balanced. A critical attack, a critical defence, and the author’s response. I could understand Archer’s comment if Jess Row and Sadia Shepard simply repeated each other but their rebuttals were quite distinct. The question isn’t whether Jess Row’s letter was “needed” but whether it was a valid contribution. If Jess Row’s letter was weak, then those weaknesses need to be discussed. It makes no sense to say that he “wasn’t needed.” Almost any single letter-to-the-editor could be said to
    be “not needed” in the sense that the magazine would still be fine without it.

  30. avataram January 15, 2018 at 6:41 pm

    I have been thinking about this a lot as well, and maybe I have not been generous enough to Shepard given that she acknowledged Gallant clearly in her interview.

    It seems a bit unfortunate for Shepard that someone as famous as Prose realized that her story was adapted from Gallant, without reading the author interview, got upset at the similarities & dashed off a post on her FB page. She read the author interview only when someone in her FB comments advised her to do so, and remained upset enough to write a letter to The New Yorker, which is now there in black & white, putting an effective end to Shepard’s writing career.

    Okparanta seems to have escaped lightly in comparison, as no famous author wrote a letter to the New Yorker about her obvious plagiarism of Munro, which was not acknowledged until Mookse readers pointed it out.

    Prose’s response to Shepard is that if she had subtitled “Foreign-Returned” as “Adapted from Mavis Gallant”, that would be enough. Shepard’s defenders say the story stands on its own. Prose’s objection is that each time Shepard’s story is discussed or anthologized, it cannot be accompanied by the author interview, so there should be some acknowledgement in the story itself that it is an appropriation.

    I am not sure where others are on this issue, I feel the author interview was enough.

    Thinking about the larger question of appropriation, Prose wrote eloquently on a lecture by Lionel Shriver where Shriver defended the right of all authors to write about the experience of other ethnicities (a lecture from which a lot of the mostly non-white audience walked out). I do wish she writes a long article in NY Review on both Okparanta and Shepard, it should be interesting to read her thoughtful take on these stories.

    http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/09/19/the-trouble-with-sombreros-shriver-cultural-appropriation/

  31. David January 15, 2018 at 7:35 pm

    Just a quick thought about the idea that this could end Shepard’s career. Firstly, it seems clear that The New Yorker knew from the start that this story was based on Gallant’s story and the editing process was guided by this knowledge. It would be very odd if this ended Shepard’s career given the clear complicity they have in her alleged crime. Secondly, there have been enough supporters of Shepard that I would think that she will be able to find many publications willing to print her work. Once a body of uncontroversial (in this respect, anyway) work is published others will get over this matter. Thirdly, until now fiction writing has not been her career at all – she has been a documentary filmmaker and writer of non-fiction – so I don’t she will be too worried about career options should she find it more difficult to publish fiction anyway.
    .
    If I were in the position of the editors of The New Yorker I might actually be looking for something new by Shepard to publish in about six months time – both to help her get over any hump she might face and also to show that she really can write a story that owes no explicit debts to other writers. As her partner-in-crime here, I would think it the least they can do for her.

  32. Arleen McCallum January 15, 2018 at 11:41 pm

    This has been quite an amazing ride. I hope Avataram rewrites Joyce’s “The Dead” for us. I volunteer for something by Willa Cather….set in the jungle with no people.

    In the end I guess Shepard’s story has to stand on its own; and I believe it falls short. I found the characters, particularly Hasan and Sara to be plastic and two-dimensional. Nothing they did or said seemed to be at all believable; I could not understand what motivated or unmotivated them.
    At first I thought Hini was pretty neat and interesting, but her last actions — taking off her veil and then leaving,
    and “turning on the water” baffled me. She was totally out of character there.

    The most successful part of the story I believe was Hini telling about canvassing and giving her hand to the grinning jerk who subsequently refused to let her go as his buddy accelerated the car. This incident is told and then dropped like a hot potato. Why tell this and then not follow through?

    I look to Mookse and the G when I find a story intriguing, wonderful, upsetting like asking a friend “How did you find that?”. This story for me was a non-starter; it is its notoriety that got me here.

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