Today we talk with Lindsay Merbaum whose beautiful Opaline graces the August issue. She talks with us about life in Ecuadar, the lack of beauty among nuns, being the new girl, and more.
1. Why can’t there be any hot nuns in literary stories?
Well, I’ve never seen a hot nun in real life, have you? Wimples and habits aren’t exactly the most hotness-enhancing apparel.
There is an attractive–or at least alluring–nun in the Lebanese writer Hanan Al-Shaykh’s story “The Keeper of the Virgins” wherein a dwarf–generally mocked and emasculated by those in his community–develops an obsession with the nuns in his town’s convent after a girl he has a crush on joins the order. The dwarf–his name is never mentioned–fixates on the ethereal and mysterious nuns and eventually finds a way to break into the convent by jumping onto the back of a visiting bishop.
2. Have you ever been the new girl? What was it like?
I suppose my entire childhood and adolescence was like perpetually being the new girl. I was the one reading a book during recess. I ducked when a volleyball came hurtling towards me in gym class.
The stories I enjoyed most were Greek myths or tales about faeries and mermaids and the like. I, like Opaline, spent a great deal of time ensconced in my own fantasy world, though I didn’t have her self-confidence.
3. How has your religious beliefs influenced your writing?
I am an atheist Jew who was raised without religion. Christmas was a huge celebration in my home, though I was taught from an early age that the holiday had been appropriated by early Christians to replace the pagans’ lost winter solstice. Though I went through a religious phase as a child, I think faith is a difficult thing to acquire. I am interested in religion in a purely anthropological sense.
4. What would you turn into if you were in danger?
A falcon. Or a virus.
5. When did you stop looking for the extraordinary in yourself?
Who says that I have? Would any of us continue to write if we didn’t secretly see the extraordinary in ourselves, however narcissistic the idea may be?
6. Why Ecuador?
Why not Ecuador? Everyone, including Ecuadorians, always ask me that question. It basically means, Why are you HERE when you come from THERE, the place everyone is trying to get to?
Well, this is the spiel: When I was studying my MFA at Brooklyn College, I was also teaching composition as an adjunct. At that point, I really had no idea what I was doing in the classroom but I wanted to keep teaching so that I could figure it out. I also knew that I needed to leave NYC and wanted to travel. So, I started looking for ways to teach abroad and when a friend put me in touch with her cousin who had taught in Quito, I ended up getting a job offer.
I think a lot of us frame travel, especially in developing countries, in terms of “having an experience,” which basically means how can I become a better, more interesting, more exciting person through travel? Hence the Eat, Pray, Love phenomenon. And, I do have to say that Ecuador has given me a great deal: the foundation for my novel, the chance to learn from my students and to learn how to be a teacher, the sometimes excruciating ability to see my own culture from the outside. It’s very easy to go to a liberal arts college in the US and talk about the inhumanity and indecency of the US government and its effect on people in huge areas we refer to simply as “Latin America.” It’s another thing to live somewhere else and begin to feel ashamed of where you come from, as you are confronted with the reality of your idealism and your furtive prejudices.
I hope that I have given something to Ecuador through my students. But the reality is, I am probably taking with me more than I’m leaving behind.