First of all, a huge thank you to the lovely writers at Black Ink, White Paper for inviting me on board to be their newest blogger. It’s lovely to be here in such wonderful company.
Second, a brief introduction. My name is Lisa Janice Cohen, but I go by “LJ” for the most part, since the year I was born, “Lisa” was the most common girl’s name. I’ve never been in a group of people that didn’t have at least one Lisa. (Waves to Lisa Didio!) I live just outside of Boston, MA with my family–hubby and 2 teen boys, 2 dogs, and an international student from Beijing, China.
And that is a good segue into what I want to talk about in my first official post here. The ability to expand beyond your boundaries is a crucial skill for any artist. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of tunnel vision in extrapolating only from what you know. Reading and
research helps, but there is no substitute for experiencing life outside of your comfort zone.
I live in a fairly mono-cultural upper middle class to wealthy suburb of Boston. There are more people in my town unenrolled in any political party (what people think of as ‘Independents’) than there are Republicans. The vast majority of people here are liberal Democrats, highly educated, with professional jobs. There is little cultural or ethnic diversity, nor is there much diversity in thinking. While that can make for a tightly knit community, it can also lead to intolerance and a sense of self-righteousness, even narrow-mindedness.
I write speculative fiction–a mix of fantasy, science fiction, and YA work. I create worlds and people them with individuals out of my imagination. If all I am exposed to is my narrow view of the world, then what I create will be narrow as well. So aside from reading as much within and outside of my genre as I can, what else can I do to expand my world view?
I can travel and I can bring the greater world to me.
Our family has done both. When my boys were old enough to appreciate and engage with people from other countries, we began to invite international students to stay in our home. Our first student was a young lady from Kyrgyzstan.
I had to admit, to my extreme geographic shame, that I had no idea where Kyrgyzstan was before Nurjan came to live with us. (It’s a small country in Central Asia, bordered to the north by Kazakhstan and to the east by China.) Through Nurjan, we were introduced to a rich nomadic culture, to new food, new ideas, new understanding. She shook us out of our preconceived notions of life in what we always referred to in our ignorance, as the ‘third world.’
We learned about the traditions of an oral storytelling culture that revered horses and hospitality. We learned about the great conflict between traditional Kyrgyz culture and the Russian lifestyle that was layered over it during Russia’s long rule through the time of the USSR. We learned about the custom of bride kidnapping–a custom that still exists today and devastates the lives of young women and their families.
We even learned to cook Nurjan’s favorite foods, though I could never master the pulled noodles of Laghman.
In the nearly two years she lived with us, our sense of the world became larger, more inclusive, richer. And when we traveled with her and her husband to Kyrgyzstan two summers ago to attend her Kyrgyz wedding, our viewpoints became expanded even more fully. It truly was the trip of a lifetime, not just for the writer in me, but for all of us. I daresay, our children will never see their lives in quite the same way again.
Since that experience, we have opened our home to several other students, one an elementary teacher from Harbin, China, and the other, a high school senior, from Beijing.
I may still live in my small, limited corner of the universe, but my dreams and my imagination travel to a much larger place, indeed.