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Danielle Lazarin Discusses Female Expression in a Society That Stymies It

Harvard Book Store
The Harvard Book Store at twilight.

“I’m teaching my daughters to be rude,” Danielle Lazarin said to listeners of her talk. On Feb. 13, Lazarin visited the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge to discuss her debut short story collection, “Back Talk,” and sign books afterward. The talk, hosted by Laura van den Berg, Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard University and author of the novel “Find Me,” traced Lazarin’s journey producing her new book.

Lazarin began by reading an excerpt from “Floor Plans,” a story she introduced as a key piece that guided her collection. The story follows a narrator in the process of selling her apartment after her husband asks for a divorce. Rather than focusing on the divorce, however, the story centers on the narrator’s newfound friendship with another woman who lives in the apartment next door. This relationship between women serves as the foundation for the rest of Lazarin’s collection.

Lazarin’s unembellished reading captured the essence of her book, which she noted revolves around women’s conversations with one another. “I’ve had so many conversations with friends, family, and, quite frankly, strangers,” she said, “One of the things I love about women is how quickly we get intimate with one other and how much we share with each other, just in the service of making other women not feel alone in the world.”

Lazarin said finding a voice to tell a story was a natural process. She explained that she began her stories while thinking of an image or a perspective. If she felt compelled to continue, she would find a voice to carry on the story. “Maybe it is a little bit like a spectral visit,” she said as the audience laughed. But she said the process of fleshing out a voice isn’t always easy. When complimented for giving the characters in each of her stories such distinctive voices—especially those written in first person—Lazarin revealed that she found writing in first person to be particularly challenging. “You don’t want it to sound like yourself,” she said.

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Lazarin gave an honest assessment of her writing style: “I’m not a landscape writer.” With time, Lazarin found that she was able to better describe settings in her stories, which often take place in New York City. Influenced by her childhood in the Bronx, Lazarin became interested in writing about the outskirts of the city. Lazarin chose to set her stories in the less glamorous parts of New York to better connect with her readers, whom she felt might feel alienated from reading a “New York story.”

Lazarin’s own age also shaped the fabric of her stories. Lazarin wrote the first story for the collection in 2002 and the last in 2016. Lazarin noted that her life completely changed in 2009 when she moved back to New York with her one-year-old child, and that she could characterize her stories into two chunks: Those before and those after the move. Before 2009, Lazarin based many of her stories on mothers and children. On returning to New York in 2009, Lazarin revisited her stories from a new perspective as a mother herself.

Regarding the title of her collection, Lazarin recalled a moment from her childhood when a friend from California called her opinionated, a quality which others she knew deemed undesirable in a woman. “When I was a teenager, I was freer with my ideas and less afraid,” she said. Lazarin noted that, when she was in her 20s, she learned to tone down her “unbridled feelings, anger, and opinion” and noticed that many other women were doing the same. Drawing from these observations, Lazarin wrote about women who, instead of unleashing their inner turmoil, often chose to internalize it. In her stories, Lazarin explored this internal conversation within women living in a world that tells them to “stop talking and apologize for existing.”

Lazarin concluded with some thoughts on the power of choosing when to be vocal: “I published an essay on not conditioning girls to respond to compliments,” she said. In response to compliments like, “You’re pretty,” Lazarin chooses to remain silent. On thanking people for these compliments, Lazarin said, “It’s actually unnecessary.”

After the talk, audience members formed a line for the book signing. “I love that they’re doing this here. I think this event brings new ideas and people to Boston,” Cambridge resident Helena Turner said. “It’s my first time meeting her in real life. We’ve been Twitter friends for a while—I’ve enjoyed her presence on social media for a long time. I bought three copies of her book,” Lindsay Hatton, another Cambridge resident who attended Lazarin’s talk, said.

The event also attracted those unfamiliar with Lazarin and her work. “I didn’t know anything about the book—I’m excited to read it. I liked the way she talked about her process and how she wrote her stories over such a long period of time,” Lauren E. Cortese, a Cambridge resident, said.

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