SH Flashback: “Late for Dinner,” by Ursula Pflug

A new entry in my weekly Strange Horizons retrospective:

Late for Dinner,” by Ursula Pflug
A compelling and lovely magical-realist story about a young liberal woman (whose mother committed suicide) who crosses the border to live with the once-enslaved rebels in a nation at war. Among other things, it looks at the difficulty of communication across gaps of privilege and of culture and of experience. (Published in 2001.) (5,000 words.)
“It was [my father] who'd first told me about the war, dragging me to a rally when I'd wanted to stay home and watch television: ‘This country is knee-deep in bones.’”

(See also the full list of Flashback stories.)




The past is another country.

I am not often a fan of ambiguity; but in some cases, including this one, part of the appeal of a story for me is the ways in which it slips back and forth across the boundary between literal and metaphorical, and the ways in which it literalizes metaphors.

On one level, this could be a story set in any fictional nation at war; on another level, it's the slightly-sfnalized story of a white Canadian woman in the 1960s who has come to the US and has a black American lover. I like the ways in which that ambiguity plays out.

...If I were editing this story today, I would probably ask Ursula to make a few small further changes to it. I'm not entirely politically comfortable with a couple of the nuances; and given that it was written by a white Canadian woman and edited by a white American man, it was probably inevitable that the story frames a couple of things in ways that I consider a little unfortunate in retrospect. But I'm hoping that those aspects can be forgiven, because I think the story nonetheless gets at some interesting and useful things.

I'm also pleased that Ursula suggested using one of her mother's paintings as an illustration for the story. Christiane Pflug was a Canadian magic-realist painter who committed suicide in 1972; I think the use of her art here lent some resonances to the mother/daughter aspects of the story.

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