Making your world bigger

by Amy Reiswig, October 2010

Set in Bangladesh and Salt Spring Island, a debut novel takes us on a trip through world events and the psyche.

Walking the winding, autumn-spiderwebbed path to Peggy Herring’s front entrance, one passes a strange wooden door in the middle of the rocky garden. A hedonistic—and, in this residential neighbourhood, slightly scandalous—outdoor shower? “No,” says the resident. “My nine-year-old son asked if we could hang a door there. So I did,” she laughs, flashing the open and playful mind that makes this mother, traveller and writer a master craftsperson of unexpected doors.

Herring’s first novel, This Innocent Corner, being released with Oolichan Books this month, is set half in what was then Dacca, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1970 and half on Salt Spring Island in 2001. These two settings provide the entrances and exits for first-person narrator Robin Rowe, who we meet as a naïve 19-year-old American exchange student walking onto the stage not only of a foreign culture, but one crowded with issues of war, peace, involvement and self-knowledge as the conflict for independence from Pakistan erupts.

Bangladesh is a world leap from the small farm where Herring grew up in rural Ontario, but the sparkling, ever-curious journalist and international development worker has made crossing unfamiliar thresholds a way of life. Herring’s bright and colourful house is welcoming and full of reminders from her years of living and working abroad—in Bangladesh, Nepal, India. My tour through Herring’s home evokes a particular nostalgia, reminding me of my own year in Nepal in the mid 1990s and making me wish I had brought more things back to mark the experience as she has.

Herring and husband Michael first moved to Bangladesh in 1994 where she worked as a United Nations volunteer on a drug addiction and abuse project. Spending a total of five years in the country, Herring became intimately familiar with the city of Dhaka, the Bangla language and the country’s historical struggle for cultural definition and independence.

“Living in Bangladesh was really an extraordinary experience for us,” Herring explains over coffee in her own peaceful corner of a somewhat jungly garden patio, where her old and well-travelled Bangladeshi cat, Taga, sleeps in the sun. “Being in a place where all your traditional anchors are gone—work, family, even the environment; all these things fall away—means you can either fall to pieces because you can’t cope, or use it as an opportunity to make your world bigger,” she says. That’s precisely the struggle facing the young, stubborn Robin.

“Robin constantly has her foot in her mouth when she’s in Dacca,” is how Herring explains it. Downplaying the seriousness of the flaring political drama, Robin focuses on her American sense of equality as superior to the “backward” customs of her host family. She becomes the go-between in a Romeo-and-Juliet plot of forbidden love between Luna, a Bengali, and Razzak, a Bihari. She repeatedly makes grand statements about “the right course of action” and being “fiercely proud of my role in helping this young woman to liberate herself.” However, Robin’s ill-fated return 30 years later to what has become Bangladesh reveals the actual, unforeseen and tragic consequences of her earlier actions based on unexamined cultural assumptions.

“Robin is someone who has looked at shaping the outside world but neglected shaping the inside world,” Herring says. “Living in another culture pushes you to look at yourself, your values and your beliefs about how the world works. People live differently. It doesn’t mean it’s worse because it’s not ‘our’ way.” Herring examines this struggle for openness on several levels, from political arguments and negotiations to small and resonant details of place, such as the “tiny lajja-patta plants whose delicate fringe of leaves folds up when touched.” In a comment on the difficulties of all types of personal exchange, Robin notes that the plant “took much longer to open than it had to close.”

Presenting the physical as entranceway to the psychological is one of Herring’s skills, making for a book that is well-crafted and deeply satisfying. For example, in the book’s second half, Robin must deal with the debris of broken relationships—a dead husband, estranged daughter, and destroyed friendships in Dhaka—all as the roof collapses on her Salt Spring Island schoolhouse home.

“The ceiling of my office in Delhi really did collapse during the writing of this book,” Herring laughs. “After it happened, I knew I had to write it into the book!” She was taken with Carl Jung’s idea of building a house as a means of representing and exploring the psyche, and therefore offers a kind of paean to homebuilding and its psychological significance. For instance, Robin notes that “There was enough integrity to work with, to rebuild.” 

The rebuilding leads readers back to the innocent corner of the book’s title. Once her house/self is rebuilt, Robin is able to say: “The roof continues to hold. I go to sleep in my innocent little corner, no longer the place it once was, but that’s for the best.” The phrase  “innocent corner” comes from a protest poem by Sukanta Bhattacharya, written in the 1920s and later used during the war of independence as a motivational song: “There is sound of fury on the land and in the water/ The innocent corner of the earth that I love/ Has suddenly awakened.” 

A bildungsroman, This Innocent Corner examines the process of awakening to difference as being not a problem but a teacher. “I’m grateful for that experience in Bangladesh, for the gray areas,” Herring says. “None of us as individuals, countries or cultures are simple. And thank God for that. We’re fascinating!” 

For another fascinating door into other worlds, watch for Herring’s next book, which fictionally explores her Russian family roots, blending 1950s rural Ontario with mythological Russian folk beliefs. As another open-minded, playful writer once declared, “Oh! the places you’ll go!” 

Amy Reiswig is a Victoria-based writer whose reviews and other non-fiction have appeared in the Danforth Review, Quill & Quire, The Malahat Review and The Walrus.