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A Q&A with Armchair Travel Guide Donna Raskin


While setting is one of the basic elements of a novel, great writers raise that requirement to another level, allowing readers to feel immersed in a place that doesn’t exist or that they haven’t visited.

This fall join Donna Raskin in reading and discussing novels known for their sense of place: Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, and The English Major by Jim Harrison. Read about Donna’s selections and learn more about the reading group below.

Armchair Travelogue: Setting’s Place in Fiction begins on Monday, September 14.

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What made you choose these four books?

I chose these four novels because I wanted a mix of time periods, locations, and writing style, all of which contribute to a discussion of the importance of setting. The first two (time periods and locations) may seem obvious to a discussion of setting, but the last, writing style, connects the reader to a sense of place by either making us feel like we there or that we are observing a time and place different from our own. For example, in The Joy Luck Club, the mothers’ lives are contrasted with the daughters so that the reader notices the interaction of location (China, San Francisco) and era (early 20th century and later 20th century). Jim Harrison, by comparison, has his main character directly comment on the locations, as he is on a road trip.

How do you plan to structure this group and lead discussions?

As a professor, I follow the Harkness pedagogy, in which discussions are student led, so I am more than happy to go wherever participants want to lead us, as long as everyone shares the stage. Nevertheless, as the leader, I will be prepared with information and discussion points. In all classes and book groups I lead, my focus is on community, so I hope that over the course of our meetings we will get to know each other as readers.

What do you hope the participants will learn? Or, what will they gain from reading these books during the unprecedented year we’ve been living through?

These novels offer a few different learning opportunities to readers. In no particular order: The group will discuss the variety of ways authors use setting to communicate other aspects of literature (theme, characterization). Also, we will explore when setting is integral to the plot and theme and when it might communicate a more universal idea. For example, The Joy Luck Club seems like a very “Chinese” story, but the mother and daughter characters give the book a universality of theme. I wonder if the book could take place in any country that had a lot of immigration to the United States and in any American city in which there is a large diaspora. The Irish in New York? The Scandinavian in the Midwest? Likewise, we will look at setting as a direct symbol of meaning. Could the main character in Good Morning, Midnight be anywhere other than Paris in the 1930s? I don’t know. Maybe New York in the 70s?

What do you love about a class that encourages close reading, particularly during a time of quarantine?

Everyone benefits from group work. As readers, we create a deep and intimate relationship with novels, and learning about other readers’ deep and intimate relationship with the same book can only intensify our relationship to the book because we learn from what other readers notice. Discussion is, to my mind, necessary to learning.

In your opinion, how have the authors of these books influenced setting in contemporary literature?

Amy Tan and Laura Esquivel’s novels were blockbusters, and part of what made them surprising hits was their settings, which were international and, in the case of Esquivel, flavored with magical realism, which contributes to the setting quite a bit. Jean Rhys is famous for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells the story of “the mad woman in the attic,” Jane Eyre’s Rochester’s first wife. Jean Rhys and the character are both from the islands. Jean Rhys was sent to London as a young girl and then spent a lot of time in Paris. She had a one-of-a-kind perspective on the importance of place. Jim Harrison, on the other hand, is known for being a “man’s man.” A drinker, eater, sexual adventurer, and inhabitant of the American West and Midwest, his masculine and yet romantic appreciation for passion and geography is legendary and prolific. He’s one of my favorite writers.

Where is your favorite place to travel?

I am taking one of my dream trips in September 2021: A small-ship cruise of the Scottish islands. I love any place that is remote and romantic, and I also love history, so I appreciate a place that also has a sense of time. I’m always happy on or in water, as well, so a long ago trip to Fiji was also a great favorite. I have also gone on a few service trips to Central America and Antigua, Guatemala is an extraordinary location.