When the Setting Is the Story

Writers take on the challenge of transporting readers to a place using only words: Your weekly guide to the best in books

A pen with a red location marker as its nib writes a line.
The Atlantic

The way a place looks, sounds, feels, and smells is a crucial part of how we experience and remember it. So it can be a challenge to make somewhere feel real with words alone. To bring the South to life in her most recent book, Imani Perry turned to travelogues, a genre with long roots in the region. The books she revisited “are artistic and philosophical explorations” as well as geographic ones, she writes. And in her memoir, The Yellow House, Sarah M. Broom used her family’s story to help make sense of Hurricane Katrina’s effects on New Orleans. She assembled a personal sequence of events spanning decades, then layered timelines of the city and country’s past on top, firmly anchoring her tale in her hometown’s history.

That kind of grounding in a specific setting is essential, the author Linn Ullmann says. She needs to develop a sense of place before she can begin to write, though “it can be small: even a single room.” Without establishing a location, Ullmann feels like she’s “writing without a motor.”

Sometimes, writing a true account of an area means wrestling with—and rejecting—myths about it. In Lost Children Archive, a novel, and The End of the Myth, a work of nonfiction, the American West isn’t a promised land, but instead a site of disruption and violence. The authors Valeria Luiselli and Greg Grandin invert pilgrimage metaphors and “reach back to retrieve the narratives of those who were dominated or eclipsed in history,” according to Jordan Kisner. This allows them to depict the border region as a real place instead of a fantasy.

Still, writing about locale is hard, and misrepresenting a setting is easy. Travel writing is especially vulnerable to this—the genre has long failed to reckon with colonialism. Hawaii, for instance, is sometimes viewed as an exotic escape, Adrienne LaFrance says. But if you “focus on your own sense of self in a place where questions of belonging are at the heart of local politics and culture … you risk misunderstanding the place entirely,” she writes. “Escaping is not a form of understanding, anyway.”

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What We’re Reading

A group of Black people stand outside of a structure with an American flag in the background

Marion Post Wolcott / Library of Congress

Eight books that explain the South
“Many books [have been] written over the decades about traveling to, or through, the region. Though its tone and scope have changed over time, that genre consistently focuses on the particularity of the area: its cultural beauty, its idiosyncrasies, the poverty of many of its people, and the cruelty of its racial regime.”

Sarah M. Broom

Adam Shemper / skye studios / Unsplash / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

How to write the book no one wants you to write
“While it’s impossible to underscore Hurricane Katrina’s impact on her family and the city at large, Broom’s hope with The Yellow House is to reveal the ways in which Katrina was no singular catastrophe. ‘When we boil Katrina down to a weather event, we really miss the point,’ Broom told me recently over the phone. ‘It’s so crucially important for me to put Katrina in context, to situate it as one in a long line of things that are literally baked into the soil of this place.’”

A drawing of a doorknob and doorjamb.

Doug McLean

Before you can write a good plot, you need to write a good place
“I think it is this way for many of us: There is maybe one place, when we look back, where something happened. Or only a few places. ‘And then there are all the other places,’ [Alice] Munro writes: important too, but not distinct, not above all else. Those precious few settings where something happened are where meaning resides—they contain the story, they are the story. Yes, I think that, to Alice Munro, story is place—the two are that deeply connected. You do not have a story of a life without an actual place. You can’t separate one from the other.”

A car driving through the arched landforms of the American West with silhouettes of people in its headlights

Katherine Lam

The death of the pioneer myth
“[Valeria] Luiselli has created an extraordinary allegory of this country’s current crisis of self-concept: What do America’s borders mean now? Why are some migration (or pioneer) stories celebrated in the nation’s history, while others are framed as intrusions to be erased from the record? The same political and existential questions animate the historian Greg Grandin’s new book, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America.”

A worker cleans off a rooftop deck at a hotel in Waikiki in December 2016.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Escaping is not a form of understanding
“The travel essay, as a form, is particularly fraught in places where indigenous groups were displaced by colonialism. Theodore Roosevelt’s writings on Africa, for example, were deeply influential in shaping global perceptions of a place that he described as having ‘the spectacle of a high civilization all at once thrust into and superimposed upon a wilderness of savage men and savage beasts.’”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Emma Sarappo. The book she’s reading next is Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D. H. Lawrence, by Geoff Dyer.

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