Issue #108: Foreign Girls

For issue #108, “Foreign Girls” by Tom Grattan, One Story staffer Elliott Holt acted as editor. She was responsible for bringing the story on board, and also taking it through the publishing process. So I’m happy to pass the hat over to her for a proper introduction to this fantastic story. -HT

In Questions of Travel, Elizabeth Bishop asks, “Should we have stayed at home,/wherever that may be?” I thought of Bishop’s poem while reading Thomas Grattan’s story of estrangement, “Foreign Girls.”

I have been a foreign girl. In Amsterdam, where I lived in my late twenties. In London, where a job took me in my mid-twenties. And I was a foreign girl in Moscow, too, where I moved right after college. I was teaching English and typed up the lyrics to The Times They Are A-Changin’ for my students. It was 1997, and the times were a-changin’ in Russia, but the people in my classroom weren’t interested in Bob Dylan. They wanted to learn the vocabulary words that would help them navigate the high seas of capitalism. “Is it true,” asked one of my students, a filmmaker who was about my age, “that Americans don’t read?” “I read,” I said. I was happy to finally be in a place that valued literacy above all else (or so I thought). But I think my answer disappointed him. He wanted an authentic American specimen, not an apparent anomaly like me.

My estrangement goes even farther back than that, of course. Like most sensitive, bookish people I know, I felt utterly foreign as an adolescent. Then I spent my twenties as an expat, trying to find a place where I’d feel more at home, until I realized—like so many foreign girls and boys before me—that my sense of exile had more to do with who I was than where I lived. Needless to say, Thomas Grattan’s story resonated with me (as I am sure it will with many readers), and it was my pleasure to act as guest editor for this issue.

“Foreign Girls” is a story about a German woman, Lore, in Albany, New York, who befriends her Georgian (as in former Soviet Georgian) tenant. Nino, with her crazy fur coat and constant laughter, is literally pregnant with possibility. In her, Lore sees a chance to feel needed, to feel more connected. But the friendship, like so many that are formed on foreign soil, is transient and doomed to fail. Because the story takes place in Lore’s own home—a house that she and her husband have lived in for years—her isolation is even sadder. Lore is not completely at home anywhere, and in the restrained narrative tone, the author evokes Lore’s distance from her surroundings. It’s a lovely, subtle story, and one in which the characters are so fully realized that I found myself thinking about them long after I finished reading. Many of us read and write to feel less foreign, more connected, or to get “a boost from the language,” as Joseph Brodsky said. One can only hope that Lore finds something as sustaining as literature to save her from alienation. To read an interview with Thomas Grattan about this story, check out the Q&A. And please feel free to share your own stories about feeling foreign. I suspect there are a lot of foreign girls among us.