Finding the Universal in Unfamiliar Places

DTW III moved around a lot as a child, but I grew up mostly in Miami, a city which people are constantly moving in and out of. I suppose that’s part of what made it feel like home. In Miami, when you meet someone, it’s not unusual that they’ll ask your name, followed by “Where are you from?”

It’s not the question you think it is. It’s not: where did you grow up? Or, where were you born? Or, what is your cultural background? (Though the answers can be.)

It’s really, how do you identify yourself—place yourself—in this rich kaleidoscope of countries and ethnicities and backgrounds that is Miami? In this rich kaleidoscope of countries and ethnicities and backgrounds that is the world?

As writers, we’re answering that question constantly, sometimes without even realizing it. Chasing the Sun is set entirely in Lima, Peru, where I was born before my family moved to the US when I was four. My current work-in-progress is set in Miami, with characters from Peru, characters from the US, and characters that feel caught somewhere in between. My next inkling of an idea seems destined to take place in a small city in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, just miles from the Mexican border.

I guess I’m still moving around a lot, and I have no idea where I’ll go next. Maybe that’s the whole point, for both writers and readers. We all come to the page carrying different pasts and perspectives with us. But we make a choice when we sit down to read or write a book, to pack those bags up and go on an adventure together.  We stand in the terminal that is the unopened book, and then we look around, eyes wide with anticipation and excitement, and ask, “Where to next?”

That’s what I love so much about writing. In one story, it’s allowed me to explore my roots, my background and the unknowns of my family history. In another, it’s helped me dig deeper into a city I grew up in, which I was only able to see clearly once I took a step back to observe it.

Recently someone asked me if I think I’ll ever depart from these places—the ones I come from, the ones I grew up in, and the places where I currently live—in my fiction. I think it was their way of asking if I’ll ever dip my toe beyond these perspectives.

But isn’t it the role of fiction to challenge us to see the world from different points of view? And a writer’s perspective, like their identity, is made up of so much more than place: it’s culture, and ethnicity, and race, and gender, and sexuality, and fears, and triumphs, and obsessions, and beliefs and thousands of other factors—large and small—that mold who we are and what we’re here to say.

In other words, it’s where we’re writing from. And I hope I’ll get to explore all of those places, not just within myself, but in others. I have a feeling we could all travel the globe, to all sorts of exotic places on and off the page, and still find the universal in our human experience.

What about you? Where do you write or read from? Where do you hope to go next?

Author: Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester is the author of the novel CHASING THE SUN (Lake Union/New Harvest, June 2014), about a frail marriage tested to the extreme by the wife's kidnapping in Lima, Peru. A former magazine editor, she now works as a freelance writer in Texas. Visit her online at

15 Replies to “Finding the Universal in Unfamiliar Places”

  1. Everything I write takes place in the same country, a country which doesn’t actually exist (though it’s based on some places I’ve been). My characters occasionally travel, but that’s always their home.

    I feel sometimes like Tolkien, spending his life building Middle-Earth.

    The last part of your post reminds me of the George Harrison song “The Inner Light,” which starts, “Without going out of my door, I can know all things on Earth…” Which is true and not true, of course.

    You can write a very broad-minded book set in a tiny town, or you can write a very narrow-minded book set all over the planet. Setting is important, but I agree that there are a lot of other factors, too.

    1. I’ve enjoyed so many books set in fictional places–they’re usually quite grounded in a mixture of places, so in a way we all find parts of it are familiar, and parts of it aren’t, depending on what we’re bringing to the reading experience. One of my favorites, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, is set in an unspecified South American country. (In my first drafts of Chasing the Sun, I also didn’t name the country, but then realized I wanted to explore Peru more through the writing.)

  2. That’s an interesting question, Natalia — where do I write from? What’s that place inside me? I’ll have to think about that. I don’t tend to write close-to-home, and I’d guess that’s because I’m a wanderer at heart.

    I know I’ve got to get back Ireland … Hopefully next year?

    1. I love that–being a wanderer at heart. That’s something I’ve only learned recently, because when I was younger, since I moved around so much, I always longed to be home. Moving from Miami to Austin was a big step for me, and it opened up a world of possibilities, and a new appreciation for finding a sense of home in all sorts of places.

  3. So eloquently written (as usual), Natalia. I’ve been thinking about this very thing myself. My first novel was set in my native Pennsylvania, my second in the place I now consider home – Arizona – and my third is actually vacillating between the past and present in both of those states. So I seem to – at the present – be writing from the “places” I know. But you’re SO astute in observing that as writers (even if we choose the same physical locales multiple times), we can create whole new worlds by tapping into our culture, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, fears, and triumphs, and obsessions, and beliefs … So many different stories and backdrops are available all within those pieces of us, regardless of the physical setting we choose for our books. Curious: do you tire of authors who write in the same geographical area, or do you think it’s just natural — that, in some ways, they are experts in those areas and bring them to life more and more with each story?

    1. Oooh, great question! I think it has more to do with the author and the stories they’re telling. For example, one of my favorite novelists, Cristina Garcia, often goes back to Cuba in her writing (either through a physical setting, or through characters who are from there) but each time she explores something different: things like exile, self-identity, the gap between immigrants and their children, even death, aging, and redemption. I love reading her books and experiencing new things and learning more about a setting I’ve been to before, but am seeing from a new perspective. But she’s also written books set in the US, in unnamed Central American countries, etc…and I’ve enjoyed those just as much before her voice is really what transports me.

      Then there are writers like Eowny Ivey, whom I HOPE is writing another Alaska story, because The Snow Child completely enchanted me with its setting, and I’d love to get back there.

      Ultimately it’s up to them, of course, and as a writer I can appreciate both the desire to want to write about a place we’re from, but also explore other parts of our identities.

  4. Did someone say Spain? SIGH. I spent a summer taking Spanish classes in Spain when my boss told me I would have to teach it one fall. I was in Sevilla. Double sigh.

    I’m very much a traveler. I blame my military upbringing for that, but I’ve found it’s really helped me as a writer. I’ve been “on the outside” for a lot of my life, observing and taking it in my surroundings. Great post, Natalia!

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Heather. One thing I hated at the time I moved around, but can appreciate now, is the newness of being in a “foreign” place, and how quickly it can become familiar. I loved taking it my surroundings and recognizing what made them unique.

  5. So excited to be reading you here, too, Natalia. Really lovely post! I also wanted to tell you that I’ve been to Lima. I loved it and it truly felt like there was a magical quality there. (And it wasn’t just the special tea!) I spent my junior year of college in Santiago then spent some time traveling before heading home.

    Also, your discussion of where you write have made me realize how much I need a writing place in my house. I don’t have one. Can you believe it?!?!

    1. Oh, that makes me so happy! Since my book sold, I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they’ve been to Peru and loved it. It reaffirms my belief that we don’t have to be from a place to be fascinated by it, and that we can feel connected to places that aren’t necessarily home.

      And yes, if anyone should have a writing space, it should be you!

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