Meet Maria. Maria’s sitting at home, sitting on a swept spot in front of her house. It’s three in the afternoon on a very hot day and everyone in the village is sleeping. Maria’s fifty years old, and it’s not really her house. It’s her husband’s house. Actually, it’s her husband’s family’s house. Her husband’s not around any more. He was a good swimmer. He was such a good swimmer that one day village security members came to inform Maria’s husband that the army was interested in his doing some swimming across the river. Very interested. Maria’s husband—Sergio—went to the nearby army post. He went the very afternoon he was asked to go, in fact. That was fifteen years ago, and he still hasn’t returned.

Jason Grunebaum

Jason Grunebaum grew up in Buffalo, NY. He earned an MFA in fiction from Columbia University, and is currently Senior Lecturer in Hindi at the University of Chicago. His stories and translations have appeared in Web Conjunctions, Southwest Review, Third Coast, eXchanges, and Muse India. In 2005 he was awarded a PEN Translation Fund Grant. In 2006 he received a fellowship from the American Literary Translators Association. His translation, from the Hindi, of the novel The Girl with the Golden Parasol will be published in 2008 by Penguin India.

Q&A by Hannah Tinti

HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
JG: I was working on a completely different story, narrated by someone else, but set in the same place. Maria came up a couple of times, and I wanted to flesh out her character. I began to write a separate bio sketch just to have for background material. It began with the phrase “Meet Maria,” and then went on to Sergio’s summons by the army. After her first request for information to the head of the village, I decided to follow her search. I’m a bit obsessed with the missing, particularly how families of the missing cope with the not knowing. Maria’s not knowing soon became the whole story, and the first draft came relatively quickly.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
JG: Two things. First, getting inside in Maria’s head, and second, marking the passage of fifteen years—the length of Maria’s wait in the story—in sixteen pages.
HT: Have you spent time in East Timor? Why did you choose this setting for the story?
JG: I worked in East Timor with the International Committee of the Red Cross for a little over a year during the UN transition period after the independence referendum; the setting came with Maria, her name, and her situation. I decided not to mention East Timor because there’s plenty I made up that’s not Timor. And I didn’t feel the reader would lose anything if I didn’t specify Timor as the location.
HT: Maria is a wonderful, indomitable character. Was it easy to find her voice? Did you know from the start how long she would wait for Sergio?
JG: I wanted Maria to be resolute in her search for Sergio, but, given the unbelievable constraints of the occupation and her situation, I also wanted to make sure her search felt true. I didn’t want her to seem like a swashbuckling transplant from a Hollywood film. And, yes, I did know from the start how long she would wait—and that Sergio wasn’t going to turn up in the end. I suppose once I felt reasonably confident the writing was able to convey what this particular, courageous search in these particular, limiting circumstances might look like, Maria’s voice came more and more easily.
HT: The bureaucracy of the village head and the army are a fascinating counterweight to Maria’s steadfast hope. Was this a dynamic you were aiming for from the start?
JG: I’m not sure if I was aiming for a particular dynamic, but I was very interested in the various ways that people in the civil and military structures reacted to Maria’s inquiries. There are several characters who, despite their position of power and natural inclination to dismiss Maria, want to help her. And for whatever reasons, some do indeed try to help her in some small way—by taking down a name, giving her a job, double-checking information with an officer. But even with the best of intentions, their idea of assistance clearly brings Maria no closer to the truth of what happened to Sergio, and may actually burden her further with false hope. So what’s the right thing to do? It’s an awful dynamic.
HT: The scene with the helicopter is absolutely terrifying. It feels like a natural progression, even though on the surface it seems unrelated to Maria’s situation. Did you base this on an actual event?
JG: Yes, it is based on an actual event. The image has always haunted me, and though I wanted to put it in the story, I resisted for one reason or another. I finally gave in, and once I did, I saw how the story of the event could help give Maria some sort of closure. I plan on writing a separate story about the dozens of men Tito saw fall from that big white helicopter.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
JG: I wrote the first draft in a few weeks, then did the main revision over a year-and-a-half period.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
JG: “Ass in chair.”
HT: What are you working on now?
JG: I’m finishing up a collection of short stories set in Kosovo, and I’m about to start a novel.