In January 2001, an earthquake with a magnitude of more than 7.6 on the Richter scale killed about 20,000 people in the Indian state of Gujarat. Nine years later, a fiction writer who is drawn to tales of ordinary people in the midst of life’s extreme moments and emotions is at work on a novel that centers on aid workers who arrive on the scene.
Viet Dinh, who is calling the novel “After Disasters,” enjoys using individuals as vehicles for larger concerns and examining the effects of those experiences on people’s identities. Those who choose to serve others, the Wilmington resident says, must come to terms with a massive loss of life, property and hope, but they must do so without succumbing to despair.
Dinh wasn’t there during the earthquake, so he relied on imagination before fact-checking his work to ensure the fictional elements fit in the reality of the setting.
excerpt from “After Disasters, a novel”; 2010
Piotr smells coffee in pre-dawn darkness, when the world should be silent, but isn’t. He has always prided himself on being first to rouse, but before he even wakes, in the center of the canvas peaks rising from the dusty ground, someone prepares a communal vat of coffee in a stockpot hanging over an open fire. It beckons, an incentive to join the day.
As Piotr rubs his eyes, he discovers his Walkman has been running all night long. The plastic is so hot that it smells of ozone. The cassette, Chopin’s preludes and etudes, has played an endless loop, and now it’s been stretched so thin that the sound emerges tinny, as if he’s listening through a long, hollow tube. He pops the earpieces out and peels the Walkman off his chest. It leaves a bed of sweat, and the inside of his ear canal feels soaked, as if he’d been underwater. He rolls his head in a circle, the bones popping back into place. Lorraine’s empty cot looks remarkably neat; Ted snores lightly. But they are lucky even to have cots: two tents down, Monika from the UNDP simply lays across six plastic bins pushed end-to-end.
“First, you sit around and you think about it,” he says. “I haven’t been there, I haven’t lived that life. What do I imagine it would be like? And so you actively create, and then once you’ve put down what you think it would be like, you start doing your research and say, OK, how does my imagination comport with reality?”
That research in part comes by way of the digital archive Lexis-Nexis. Dinh, 35, probes reports from the period during which the event occurred. And with the recent earthquake in Haiti, he found himself attached to his TV.
“It was the same movement of people,” he says. “The same issues that they were facing. I liked the idea of seeing how the rescue effort occurs live.”
The Delaware Division of the Arts fellowship grant, Dinh says, helped him attend a writing retreat in Wyoming. He spent a month there focusing on his work.
It was markedly different than his typical writing habits: late at night, others asleep, sometimes a visit to the Golden Castle diner on Del. 202. Look for the man munching on a tuna melt or a French dip, wiping his fingers of the grease and typing on a laptop.
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