Crossroads by Karen Lord

Tue 14 Dec 2010 - Filed under: Not a Journal., | Posted by: Gavin

Crossroads by Karen Lord

I’m not fond of the word exotic. I find it mindbending when people use it to describe things that are familiar to me. Snow, long nights in winter, oak trees and strawberries—those are the things I find exotic. Mangoes, mahogany and sunny days are normal. Having said that, let me assure you that any traveller, in space or mind, needs to be able to have more than one ‘home’ setting. I do, in fact, have a mode for which strawberry tarts and real ale are the norm, and another which is fine with black coffee and honey crullers.

The word exotic is merely a way to measure the distance from home to the unknown, and it is my opinion that such a word has no place in the lexicon of the speculative fiction writer. It’s not a word for the era of globalisation, and it’s certainly not a word for anyone who is capable of creating worlds. Speculative fiction takes the odd and makes it ordinary, convincing the reader that flying cars and talking animals are as mundane as talking cars and flying animals. The writer must live in a land of no extremes, where one can journey easily from one end of the universe to the other and be comfortable at every inn and rest stop along the way. Nothing human is alien to me; nothing alien is alien to me.

I may have an advantage; my country is so small that insularity is not an option. When the room is tiny, the windows are so close that you cannot help but look out of them at the world outside. Windows can definitely help (though the glass may warp the true image), but their line of sight extends only so far and they rarely focus on everyday matters. There are guides to foreign restaurants and classes in international cuisine, but there are no books written on what to expect when you enter a restroom in Belgium.

I went on a study tour of Europe and the urban architecture didn’t vary much, but my word, figuring out the public toilets every time we crossed a border became pure entertainment. Hand levers, foot levers, automatic flushes, automatic taps, taps you press down, taps you turn, taps that don’t run unless you stand on a particular spot on the floor … the only option missing was clap-on, clap-off. In the UK, foreign students from Poland to Guatemala have bonded over the challenge of trying to wash dishes without getting scalded or frozen. Just as A. A. Milne warned decades ago, ‘the cold’s so cold and the hot’s so hot’, and mixers seem to be a miracle of rare device. As for their showers, I’m still amazed that technology allows us to combine electricity, water and human beings in one place. The new version of The Karate Kid won my heart with one small scene concerning how to get hot water out of a Beijing shower. That was me in England.

(Anecdote alert. Once upon a very cold winter in Scotland, I was tucked cosily in bed listening to the rain falling outside when I suddenly realised to my horror that rain at minus fifteen degrees Celsius was an impossibility. What was that delightful dripping, trickling, gushing sound coming from the inner courtyard of my uni residence? The pipes had burst. Now that’s culture shock.)

There are other advantages beyond small size, such as location and history. The Caribbean is the crossroads of the world, where Africa, Asia and Europe meet and blend with the lineage of pre-Columbian America. We are all somewhat alien and somewhat familiar, and any attempt to draw a line between the two will only produce a mazy patchwork that fragments colleagues, friends, family and self.

Better to have roads than boundaries, a connection between home and away instead of a fence between them … because when everyone is exotic, no-one is.


Fictional Geography