In Anne Raeff’s story collection, The Jungle Around Us (140 pages, University of Georgia Press), nine stories span decades, covering numerous lives and multiple “jungles”; urban, Amazonian, and metaphorical, to name a few. In these “jungles,” Raeff’s characters face a Russian nesting-doll of isolation. Here, the land itself is alien to those displaced far from their homes. Language barriers and internal turmoil prevent communicating fully with those around you. But Raeff also shows how these same places can be a shelter, a refuge for embracing or experimenting with aspects of oneself that may have otherwise been ignored or hidden. Some experience magic moments of connection, and a few even find love.
Raeff, whose essay “Lorca in the Afternoon” was published in Issue No. 98, is not afraid to cause discomfort with her stories. Sometimes they end in an unsettling manner, with our last view of a character being one of he or she committing a confusing but all too human action. Occasionally, though, protagonists re-appear in later stories, adding to the intrigue of the collection. I am still pondering some of the book’s strangeness now, imagining how the lives of Raeff’s characters might pan out past the pages of her collection. We talked to Anne Raeff via email about The Jungle Around Us, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.
ZYZZYVA: Throughout your book, there is an ongoing theme of translation, of characters teaching and learning other languages. In “The Buchovskys on Their Own,” Katja Ladijinskaya will only let Simone and Juliet speak French at the dinner table. In “Maximiliano,” Simone must read Maximiliano’s expressions to communicate with him. In “Carlito on Pink,” Kenard can only understand certain parts in the Spanish conversations between his host mother and her new boyfriend. What is it about languages and its barriers that interest you?
Anne Raeff: I grew up in a multilingual environment. My mother is from Vienna and my father was Russian, but he grew up in Germany (until Hitler came to power in 1933) and then in France. German was my first language, and I only learned English when I started school. My father taught my sister and me French through dreaded Wednesday lessons, for which I am now grateful. When my mother’s family escaped from Vienna in 1938, they moved to Bolivia where they spent the war years, so my mother spoke Spanish as well. When I was twenty-three I moved to Madrid to figure out who I was and how I was going to write, and to learn Spanish. When I arrived in Madrid, I was still socially awkward and introverted, but in Spain one must engage with the world. One must drink and talk all night long. One must run through the streets at dawn and claim one’s place in line at the market. Madrid forced me to look without. The process of learning a new language and navigating a new culture pushed me out into the world. As for Russian, my sister and I didn’t learn Russian since my parents didn’t have that language in common and my father thought that French would be a more useful language to learn. But we both do a really good Russian accent. Finally, I am a high school teacher, and I have spent most of my teaching career teaching English to recently arrived immigrant students and Spanish to both Spanish-learners and Spanish speakers. Thus, I continue to live in a multilingual world, and I am reminded every day of the beauty as well as the limitations of language.