Marie-Helene Bertino published her debut collection of short stories, Safe As Houses, in 2012. It won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and was long listed for the Story Prize, and for The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She hails from Philadelphia (where Zinzi Clemmons is also from and currently lives) and resides in Brooklyn. Bertino served for six years as the Associate Editor of One Story. Bertino and Clemmons corresponded via email about their hometown and the writing process.
Zinzi Clemmons (ZC): In nearly everything I’ve read about you, you mention that you’re from Philadelphia. I counted two stories in your book, Safe As Houses, explicitly set in the city: “North Of” and “Great, Wondrous.” Most people’s relationships to their hometowns are complicated. How would you describe your feelings toward your home city?
Marie-Helene Bertino (MHB): Philadelphia is a difficult city to explain. There is some seriously dark beauty there, and some serious dysfunction. I think the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program is an example of Philly at its best, taking what it is specifically good at — its tenacious, stubborn spirit, and the courage to take risks — to stamp the city with gorgeous murals. These murals have become the city’s complexion. You can’t go far without seeing one, and I mean from Center City to West Philly to where I grew up, in the Northeast. No other city I’ve visited looks like that. It is specific to the spirit of Philly.