The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

For this former contractor in Iraq, now an expat in Thailand, a picture says…

Jackie Littletaylor portrait

Canon zoom lens, photo credit: Morguefiles; Jackie Littletaylor in Iraq in 2005 (own photo). Yes, it’s a real tank, which disappeared a year after this photo was taken.

English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King is back with his first “A picture says…” column of the new year. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

Happy new year, readers! My very first guest of 2014 is 64-year-old Jackie Littletaylor, who, like me, is an expat living in Thailand with a passion for photography. Unlike me, though, Jackie had a past incarnation as a professional photographer in his home country, the United States, which he is now putting to use in his new life abroad.

Jackie keeps a blog as well as a travel site, where he shares information about his travels around Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand. He speaks more in pictures, full of vibrant colors, less in words, about what he has seen and observed.

Today I hope he will give us his 1,000+-word story as well as some background behind a few of his favorite photos.

* * *

Welcome to the Displaced Nation, Jackie. I have been looking forward to discussing your photo-travel experiences ever since I discovered your blog some months ago. What first intrigued me was that although you were a professional photographer, you now seem to be intent on breaking the rules and creating your own unique style that flies in the face of convention. But before we go into that, can you fill me in on what led you to travel in the first place?
At an early age, I traveled with my family from Alabama, where I was born, to Texas, where I spent most of my life. My family loved to travel. Thanks to them, I’ve backpacked many of the great national parks including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Rocky Mountain, and have seen almost all of Western USA. But I didn’t venture overseas until the age of 55. Never, for a moment, did I anticipate that my greatest travel adventure would come so late in life.

How did you end up in Iraq at the ripe old age of 55?
My approach to life changed after I went through a bad divorce. I thought, why not go have an adventure? I was no longer taking care of kids so there was not much holding me back. I took off for Iraq in 2005 and spent six of the best years of my life there. Actually, I hated it when I was there, but looking back, all I can think is how simple life was: just day-to-day living, with good money and some great friends.

Why Iraq?
At that time I was living in Houston. I heard about the opportunity to work for a company providing services to the armed forces in Iraq. I went to check them out and the rest is history.

“He’s so busy you’d think he was twins.”

I can relate as I did a similar thing after my divorce at 48. Up sticks and off I went to South Africa. What happened once you arrived in Iraq?
Work and more work. We worked 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. The first year’s average week was 102 hours. But then every 4-6 months we were given some vacation time. I traveled all over Iraq, from the Syrian border to the Iranian border, and also to Kuwait—that’s where I spent Christmas in 2005. In 2006–07 we were very busy, and there were many days I had no sleep—but it was still the adventure of a lifetime. Many of us left in 2010, when troops were being pulled out. I have a vivid memory of being at the airport in Baghdad and seeing the tears in the eyes of a retired general who’d been one of our leaders. He knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that could never be repeated. I went back for another year and could have stayed when the US military pulled out, but decided six years was enough.

You probably saw and experienced more in six years than many people do in a lifetime, but let’s move on with your story.
I had friends in Iraq who went to Thailand for their vacations and always had good tales to tell. So, having become an intrepid explorer, I decided to check it out. I flew to Phuket via Dubai with a good friend. Thailand captivated me at first sight: the people and the culture, along with the opportunities for more travel. Although most of my time has been spent here since Iraq, I have also visited Burma, Cambodia, Malaysia, Oman, France, and Kuwait.

I would definitely place you in the seasoned traveller category! So where in Thailand do you call home now, and what is life like in a new place?
As I was saying, I fell in love with Thailand—and with a Thai woman. We now have two young kids! Imagine, at my age! So Thailand has become my home. My wife is from a village in Isaan, in the northeastern region, near Sisaket. We live in Phuket because I love the sea, but we visit her family regularly in Isaan.

“There’s no slack in his rope.”

I know Sisaket as I lived in Buriram, which is nearby, for three years. I understand you are retired now. Tell me, how do you keep busy?
I love to work so have taken up fine art photography. Last year I started a blog on life here in SE Asia. Along with taking care of the kids, these activities keep my mind and body busy. I’ve been learning a lot.

But photography hasn’t always been a hobby for you.
No. When living in the US I was a wedding and sports photographer, where the challenge was to capture the shot and, through skillful editing, please the customer. It is a real pleasure seeing the customer’s smile when you present some good work. I discovered Fine Art rather by accident while I was doing post processing.

It’s fascinating how, so often, we stumble across exciting things by pure accident. And now let’s have a look at some of the shots you’ve selected for this interview, which capture a few of your favourite memories.
This first photo, of a rice field in Isaan, is what set me free as a photographer. When taking the shot, I envisioned it in my mind’s eye in a certain way, and through processing I managed to achieve this vision. I took my inspiration from impressionist artists, such as Monet and Gauguin, not from other photographers as you may think. Here is the before and after:

Jackie Collage

Rice fields in Isaan, Thailand, before and after processing. The experiment led to Jackie’s “a ha” moment. Photo credit: Jackie Littletaylor.

I took the next photo on my first trip to Isaan. A young woman, Nicha, took me to Prasat Ban Prasat Khmer temple ruins on a motorbike from her village. She did not know I was taking her photo:

IssanPraying_pm

Nicha’s quiet moment of prayer at a shrine in Isaan, Thailand; photo credit: Jackie Littletaylor.

Preah Vihear Khmer Temple ruins on the Cambodia-Thailand border (Southern Isaan) has been the subject of dispute between the two countries for some time now. On this trip, in 2006, I was with my family. We had no idea where we were going or the significance of what we were seeing. These ruins are now off limits to tourists:

CambodiaRuins_pm

What remains of the spiritual life of the six-centuries-long Khmer Empire, now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site; photo credit: Jackie Littletaylor.

This next one you will recognize: the restaurant scene on the paved promenade along Rawai Beach, located at the south end of Phuket Island. I love taking photos at night or late evening using a tripod sometimes but with a slow shutter. It takes a lot of editing but is fun:

RawaiinEvening_pm

The seafood restaurants along Rawai Beach, Phuket, affording beautiful views on the many nearby islands; photo credit: Jackie Littletaylor.

On a more personal note, here is an old photo of my parents, in an old-fashioned pose:

Jackiesmom&dad_pm

Dad and Mom Littletaylor, back in Texas, USA; photo credit: Jackie Littletaylor.

Last but not least, my two adorable little angels—I love this photo!

ThaiKiddiewinkles_pm

Jackie’s kiddiewinkles, son and daughter; photo credit: Jackie Littletaylor.

Indeed, I do recognise the one in Phuket. Thank you for sharing this special collection of your photos, including a couple of family portraits. I wonder, do you ever feel reserved about taking shots of people you haven’t met?
I do feel reserved about taking photos of people unless it’s a crowd of them, and I usually ask if I want only one person in the frame. I don’t find language a problem. People can see there is a camera so they know what is happening. In the Thai villages I now have people who actually ask me to take their photo, which is great. In my wife’s village in the past I made 8×10 prints of the villagers for her to give away as gifts.

“He’s got more guts than you could hang on a fence.”

That’s one way to boost your popularity. I believe there is a history of photography in your family?
Yes, photography runs in my family starting with my great grandfather and then my grandfather. But I think I’ve also been influenced by my time in Iraq. That experience reminded me that life can be short and should not be taken for granted. Without being over dramatic, every evening before we left the “wire” or base, I would get out and look at the moon or setting sun, not knowing if it was going to be my last. No sadness or fear. I feel the same with people. You never know when you see someone if it will be the last time. Photography can refresh the memory even after a long time, so it has become a part of my life and it would be strange to be without it. I also just love the beauty of landscapes. I know my photos are quite different. Some like them and some don’t. But most importantly I like them.

I have to agree with you there, Jackie. Trying to create art just to please others rarely works, and it’s a bonus when you find others with similar taste. On the technical side, some of our readers may want to know what kind of camera and lenses you use.
I have always used Canon and now have a Canon EOS1 along with my L lenses which are in the US. Darn! When I left Iraq the last time I was told not to bring them back. These days I use a Canon G1X, which is small and has a great processor but not much lens for zooming. For post processing I use Adobe Lightroom for my basic editing and Nik for most of my artistic editing.

Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
My advice to others is simple. Take LOTS of pictures. I started in analogue where you bought the film and had to pay for processing to see the good and bad shots. Those were costly days. Now we have digital cameras the exposures are free so you don’t have to worry about cost and can experiment freely. Steve McCurry is the photographer who took that famous photo of the Afghan girl with the green eyes in a refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan, which ended up on the 1985 cover of National Geographic. But he didn’t know the photo was so good until he was back in New York editing. That wouldn’t happen now. So, learn what your camera can do. Forget the flash and buy the best lens you can afford. On prints, don’t accept poor printing as no two printers or processors are alike. As to timing, I prefer early sunrise or the last two hours of sunset. But to repeat: experiment and use your own judgement; the photo is yours.

Thank you, Jackie, for the tips and for taking the time to tell us your fascinating story.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Jackie’s experiences? If you have any questions for him on his photo–travel adventures, please leave them in the comments!

If you want to get to know Jackie and his work better, I suggest that you follow:

You can also contact him by email.

(If you are a travel-photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.)

Editor’s note: All subheadings in the above post are old Texan sayings or adages.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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TCK TALENT: Gene Bell-Villada, literary critic, Latin Americanist, novelist, translator and TCK memoirist

Gene B-V TCK Talent

Professor Gene Bell-Villada (own photo)

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is here with her first column of 2015. For those who haven’t been following: she is building up quite a collection of stories about Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields. Lisa herself is a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about growing up as a TCK, which is receiving rave reviews wherever it goes.

—ML Awanohara

Happy New Year, readers! Today I’m honored to be interviewing Gene Bell-Villada, author of the Third Culture Kid memoir Overseas American: Growing Up Gringo in the Tropics and co-editor of my first published essay in the TCK/global-nomad anthology: Writing Out of Limbo. Gene grew up in Latin America and “repatriated” to the USA for college and beyond; he is a Professor of Romance Languages (Spanish), Latin American Literature, and Modernism at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He is also a published writer of fiction and nonfiction.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Gene. Like me, you’re an Adult Third Culture Kid of mixed heritage. Since you were born in Haiti and grew up in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Venezuela as the son of an Asian-Polynesian mother from Hawaii and a WASP father from Kansas, your identity development was complex and nuanced, as you make clear in your memoir.  Can you tell us how you identify yourself these days?
Like the title of my memoir, I identify myself as an Overseas American, of mixed WASP and Chinese-Filipino-Hawaiian ethnicity, with a Caribbean-Hispanic upbringing. I wrote my memoir in great measure to disentangle and explain that background—for myself and others! More broadly, in my middle 20s, it dawned on me that, by default, I happened to be a cosmopolitan, and that I couldn’t feel “local” even if I wished to. And so, I set out to make the best of that cosmopolitanism and build on it.

OverseasAmerican_cover

Tell us two things you miss about each of your childhood countries.
From my three childhood countries, I miss mostly the Latin informality and warmth…and salsa dancing! From Puerto Rico, I’ve fond memories of the University campus that was next door to my first home in Río Piedras, and where my mother would take us for walks. From Cuba I miss the richness of the music and folk culture. About Caracas, 3,000 feet above sea level, I remember its mild climate and “eternal spring.”

“Puerto Ricans do a lot of hugging, Dickie reflected. His parents and relatives almost never did.”

Your TCK childhood had extra upheaval due to your parents’ divorce and your two years at a military school in Cuba while your parents each lived in other countries. I imagine that affected your feelings about where you lived.
I must admit, I don’t “miss” most of what I lived in my 17 years in the Spanish Caribbean. I had a very difficult childhood, in which I never really “belonged” to any of those countries, had little contact with the expat community, and was leading a painful, dysfunctional family life. Since my brother and I were put away in a military school in Cuba, it’s not a place that I would “miss.” The circumstances of my upbringing have made childhood nostalgia an elusive sentiment for me.

After a young adulthood in New Mexico (briefly), Arizona, California, Massachusetts, and New York—and some trips to Europe—you settled in Williamstown, MA.  When did you come to feel that it was home, inasmuch as any place can be for an ATCK?
My wife and I actually have had homes in two locations in Massachusetts: Williamstown and Cambridge. So we lived both in the city, where we had our home life, and the country, where I taught. And I guess I realized sometime in the 1970s that New England had become my home. The place had enough cultural density, layered history, and overall cosmopolitanism for me to feel at ease in those parts. (I’d also earned my Ph.D at Harvard.) I even turned down a job offer from UCLA in 1976 because by then I felt attached enough to Massachusetts to stay there. Plus, I didn’t look forward to living in my car on the LA freeways, or putting up with Los Angeles pollution, which was fairly serious back then!

“‘Ah, but you speak such good Spanish…'”

Have you returned to any of the Latin American countries in which you grew up? 
I’ve been back to Puerto Rico and to Venezuela, always experiencing those mixed feelings. When I visited my old neighborhood in Hato Rey, PR, in 2012, I found it largely changed. Moreover, during a previous visit to San Juan in 1985, I went for a stroll at the University grounds. At the sight of the palm trees at the entrance and the tower looming above it all, I fell to the ground, crying. It was a reminder that much of my youth there, when I’d believed that I was an “American” boy in the tropics, had been illusory.

As for Cuba, I could only go back under very specific conditions—not because of the regime, which I’m not against, but owing to my painful personal memories of the place. I worry that seeing certain streets and buildings might elicit a wrenching sadness in me.

Since you’re a professor of Latin American literature and have written about the heavyweights in the field, I presume you’ve also visited quite a few countries in the region at this point. What were your impressions?
Inasmuch as I’ve written books and articles about Borges, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and Mexican literature, I’ve been more than once to Argentina, Colombia, Perú, and Mexico. Going to and traveling in those countries brought insight into their literary works that one cannot get simply from reading them in one’s study. On the other hand, my Latin American and Caribbean background proved enormously helpful in accessing the culture and the society of those places. Indeed, García Márquez’s world is the Caribbean coast of Colombia; exploring that area in 1982 and 1988 was a lot like being back in San Juan and Havana! Writing about it was fun, a bit like a return to my childhood, without the pain.

“She was from New York. Didn’t people from New York listen to classical music?”

Although you have always had a passion for classical and Latin music, you ultimately found ways to express yourself through writing fiction and nonfiction. Does music still play a big role in your life? 
Music is my first love. If I hadn’t had a late start at the piano (a fact that unfortunately set me back several years), I might have stayed with it. I turned to literature, in some measure, because it didn’t require advanced hand-muscle skills! But once I got involved with the written word, I strived to make my prose style as artistic, expressive, and fun as music can be, and I worked to give it rhythm and melody. (Someone has remarked that I write like a musician.) I still play piano, though.

Is there a particular work that you are most proud of having written, and if so, why?
I feel equally attached to all of them! Each one has had its role in my life. My books on Borges and García Márquez (which have sold well and gone through second editions) are used in AP courses, and are consulted by general readers, here and abroad. From early on, I had set out to be a “cultural mediator” between Latin American literature and U.S. readers, and those volumes serve that purpose.

My book Art for Art’s Sake and Literary Life, on the other hand, grew out of my cosmopolitanism and my desire to deal with the uses of art as both escape and expression. (In some subliminal way, it’s autobiographical.) The volume covers the phenomenon of aestheticism in Europe, the U.S., and Latin America. I felt vindicated when the thing was a finalist for the 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award (there I was, sharing space with Cynthia Ozick and William H. Gass). It also got translated into Serbian and Chinese! When I asked my two translators just what had drawn them to the book, they both replied that what I’d said about Latin American aestheticism was also applicable to analogous 19th-century movements in Serbia and Taiwan. So my cosmopolitanism had shed light on some corners elsewhere in this world.

My two books of fiction focus in part on TCK issues, plus such cultural-specific matters as American relativism or the seductive influence of Ayn Rand.

But I finally turned to memoir because I felt it was the way to confront head-on the question of my crazy, mixed-up background, to make sense out of it all and give it a living shape. The process of remembering that past, and crafting it and getting it out there, has proved enormously therapeutic. It also led to my meeting Nina Sichel and, then, you, Lisa, via our essay collection, Writing Out Of Limbo!

My latest volume is a kind of experiment, starting with its very title: On Nabokov, Ayn Rand and the Libertarian Mind: What the Russian-American Odd Pair Can Tell Us about Some Values, Myths and Manias Widely Held Most Dear. Besides dissecting the two authors, I tease out my troubled relationship to them, delve once again into my own life history, and finally move on to the larger problem of a rising, spreading libertarianism in this country. There’s even an Appendix in which I throw in a number of spoofs of my own of hard-line libertarians! (I’ve been playing with satires of something or other ever since I was in middle school in Puerto Rico…)
on-nabokov-ayn-rand-and-the-libertarian-mind_cover

You’re a true international creative, with works that run the entire gamut! Tell us, what’s next? Fiction? Nonfiction? Something else?
I have stuff in the works, but am in the process of rethinking my projects in the wake of my wife’s death in 2013. (Widowerhood does things to your mind and spirit, alas.)

Where can people find your works?
All my books are available from Amazon and local bookstores, as well as from any good library!

Thank you, Gene, for sharing your wonderfully inspiring story with the Displaced Nation. So, readers, any questions or comments for Gene? Be sure to leave them in the comments!

Editor’s note: All subheadings are taken from Gene’s book The Pianist Who Liked Ayn Rand: A Novella & 13 Stories.

STAY TUNED for our next fab post.

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Author and part-time expat Susan Jane Gilman, who plunders her life for memoir and fiction

JJ Marsh Susan Jane GilmanWe welcome JJ Marsh back to the Displaced Nation for her first “location, locution” column of the new year, in which she talks to current authors about their methods for portraying place in their works.

My guest this month is the precocious and prolific Susan Jane Gilman. She is the author of three acclaimed nonfiction works:

  1. A travel memoir, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven
  2. A memoir of her upbringing in New York City Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, and
  3. An advice book, Kiss My Tiara.

And now she has a novel, a work of historical fiction called The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, which came out in February of last year.

Gilman has also contributed to numerous anthologies, worked as journalist, and written for many well-known publications including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Real Simple, and Us magazine. And she claims to have opened the Susan Jane Gilman Institute for Advanced Gelato Studies here in Geneva.

Oh, did I mention she is an expat?

Though made, born, and raised in New York City, and educated at Brown University and the University of Michigan (MFA in Creative Writing), Gilman currently divides her time between Switzerland and the United States.

Perhaps she developed her wanderlust through exposure to her high school English teacher (she went to Stuyvesant), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish-American memoirist Frank McCourt. In any event, she holds him accountable for her decision to become a writer.

Now let’s find out how Gilman perceives the connection between location and locution.

* * *

Which comes first, story or location?
Before I sit down to write, I need a sense of narrative, of a who-what-where, but so often, story and location are intertwined. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, for example, is the true story of a disastrous backpacking trip I made through the People’s Republic of China in 1986. To separate the story from the place is simply impossible; so much of what made the trip horrific was the poverty and totalitarianism of China itself; I can’t imagine that my travel companion and I would have disintegrated in the same way at, say, the Canyon Ranch Spa or a luxury resort in the Maldives. Similarly, my novel, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, is a rags-to-riches-to-indictment story that begins with a child immigrating to the USA in 1913. New York City was simply the logical place to have it begin. It is not only my hometown but, of course, the great immigrant gateway to America.

location locution gilman

Lower East Side New York City @1910, credited to the Brown Brothers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; cover art.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
First, I usually describe vivid, visual details so that readers can see a place in their mind’s eye. Then I go for are the smells. Smell is the most evocative of all the senses. It brings a place to life more potently than anything else. Add sounds, and there you are. I’m afraid I’m sounding glib in the way that I’m saying this—”use all the senses”—it sounds easy, and it sounds like a recipe. But it’s not. I really struggle and strive to conjure a place, be it a roadside restaurant, a German city, an abandoned tenement, using incisive, significant details. I’m always on “cliche alert.”

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
Background noises, cooking smells, shadow and light, voices, architecture…there are no given particulars. I try to find what is most unique and evocative and go with it.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
Saul Bellow wrote a whole novel set in Africa, apparently without having set foot once on the continent. I find this presumptuous. That said, I have written about places that I’ve only been in briefly, or glimpsed, or created out as a composites of other places I’ve been. But I like to have a feel for a place; I need to be able imagine it throughly, to exist in it. Often, if a character needs to be in a place that I’ve never been to, I research it as much as possible. The Internet is a godsend; I find old photographs or use Google Earth. I try to travel there in whatever way I can.

Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?
I don’t have any of my books in front of me because I’m on the road, but read the very first paragraph of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street and you’ll immediately find yourself on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1913. Read the first page of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven and you’re on board a plane plummeting into Hong Kong; the next six pages take you right into downtown Kowloon at night, with all its lurid traffic, neon, and squalor. I’ve been told by readers that these sections have utterly transported them…

Gilman Kowloon Undress_medium

“Typical street scene in downtown Kowloon,” by VasenkaPhotography via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); cover art.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I love the way Richard Ford conjures up the American West, John Cheever the Connecticut suburbs, Junot Díaz the Dominican community in New York City and Dominica. That said, I usually don’t admire writers so much as specific books, eg:

And, in a different way, I have always admired Anne Tyler for the way she conjures up so well these cosy, fraught, detailed middle class American households. She is stunning in her ability to make you see rooms, houses, offices—small, intimate tableaux—in such a rich way.

Locations need not be exotic or epic, just alive and relevant.

* * *

Readers, if this interview has piqued your curiosity about Susan Jane Gilman and her writings, I encourage you to visit her author site. You can also follow her on Twitter.

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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The Displaced Nation responds to France’s 9/11

Solidarity with Solidarite

SOLIDARITE, by Patrick Janicek via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Time and again, the Displaced Nation has featured the works of displaced creatives who have been captivated by Paris, a city that has been beloved of expats for longer than anyone can remember. For today’s post, a few of us offer some responses to the terrorist attacks that beset the city last week. Our thoughts are with those expats who remain in the city as it attempts to move forward in the wake of disruption and tragedy, what some have labeled France’s 9/11. We express solidarity with your solidarité.

—ML Awanohara

ML_for_blogML AWANOHARA, Displaced Nation founding writer/editor: My first two experiences with terrorism occurred when I was living abroad: first in Britain, where I always felt the threat of an IRA attack when traveling into central London for my studies; and then in Japan: I was living just up the street from one of the subways that Aum Shinrikyo attacked with sarin gas.

Then, not long after I repatriated and moved to New York City, 9/11 occurred: a spectacle almost beyond belief. I still remember the gamut of emotions I felt in the weeks and months that followed, everything from practical considerations (should I take the bus since a rumor is flying about another attack on the subway today?) to large questions: why do they hate us so much?

Although in each of these cases the terrorists were tied to religion (even Aum Shinrikyo espoused a “new religion”), when I first heard about the Parisian attacks, I felt that something different was taking place. It sounds grand to call it a clash of civilizations, but that’s been my impression, this time around.

I spent my formative years in Britain, you see, where I learned to appreciate irreverent humor, so much so that I’ve had a tough time adjusting back to life back here in the U.S., where people take themselves a lot more seriously. Though I don’t think I’m Charlie (I draw the line at the kind of irreverence that magazine was up to), I do feel that artists should be free to explore the boundaries…

In fact, isn’t that what the Displaced Nation is about? My fellow founders, Kate Allison and Anthony Windram, and I conceived of this site as a space where one could be irreverent about the expat life (within certain limits, of course—and we occasionally argued about that). Humo(u)r and sending things up has been our stock-in-trade.

On that note, and in the spirit of artistic freedom, allow me to offer one final thought. In the days after the terrorists struck, I have also been thinking that, in a strange kind of way, I’m not unlike the perpetrators. I went abroad to be exposed to new ideas and in some sense I became “radicalized”—emerging from my European experience as more secular, more aware of the world, and with more of a social conscience than I’d developed while growing up in America.

That’s where the comparison ends, of course. Having a European, secular mindset means I’m much more afraid of my fellow Americans waging war on me with their fundamentalist beliefs, Biblical literalism and guns than the other way around. No doubt that’s why I now live in New York City—though ironically, this location makes me more vulnerable to terrorists with an axe to grind against this country.

I look to the Displaced Nation as a source of community while also knowing it cannot guarantee my safety. No nation can do that, not even one built in cyberspace. (I’m thinking of the Sony hackers.)

Rita GardnerRITA GARDNER, Adult Third Culture Kid, memoirist, and interviewee for the Displaced Nation’s “A Picture Says…” column: I am outraged and scared that the acts of a small group of radicals just shook the world. It’s not just Paris that is reeling from this blow. The number of lives affected spiral out widely beyond those who lost their lives, crossing continents and oceans, the pain an ever-expanding circle. When I first heard about the Paris attacks, my first instinct was to go into denial – and pull into a cocoon of self-protection. Selfishly, I can turn off the TV and not see the horror. It’s happening “somewhere else”, not in my immediate world. I realize hiding is just a defense mechanism. I think that because expats have had the experience of living far from our “passport country”, none of us can cocoon into unconsciousness for long. We have been in that “somewhere else”—we know this attack could have happened to any of us, any place on the globe. And yet—we must live, we must manage somehow to reconcile the fact that evil and good exist within mankind. That’s the hardest idea to contemplate or absorb at this time. Maybe all we can do right now is attempt to be good ambassadors wherever we find ourselves, and add love to that ever-expanding spiral.

Cinda MacKinnon_300x300CINDA MACKINNON, ATCK, novelist, and subject of one of our writer interview features: I wanted to write something profound, but what words can you say about terrorists? It is shocking and senseless. No cause can justify terrorism, yet hardly a week goes without innocent people being slaughtered. There is a feeling that the real target in Paris is Western civilization and values (and some say freedom of speech). The French are united in their grief, and they joined us after 9/11 when the newspaper Le Monde wrote: “Nous sommes tous Américains.” In response I would like to say: “Nous sommes tous Françaises.

Joanna_Masters_Maggs_300 x 300JOANNA MASTERS-MAGGS, Displaced Nation (“Global Food Gossip”) columnist and expat in France: I talked to my children, who’ve spent six years on their young lives in Muslim countries, about what happened. As I explained in yesterday’s post, I’m never shocked by terrorism as I knew it existed at an early age. When the attacks in Paris happened and my kids asked about it, I didn’t sugar the pill for them. I told them I didn’t have the definitive answer. I don’t know why people do this sort of thing. I can’t imagine caring that much about anything. I think I would shoot someone who hurt my kids, but for an idea, a belief? I told them not to get so uptight about things themselves and never say something as embarrassing as “Well, I’ve never been so insulted in all my life”. Get over yourself. The victims in last week’s attacks died for nothing. It was a waste of life. That’s what I tell them. Because someone had a gun and a shaky ego. That’s the truth. That’s what terrorism is.

While I was talking to my kids, I was thinking about the historian Niall Fergusson’s book on WWI. He says the war went on as long as it did for many reasons, not least that young men are turned on by danger. “Going over the top” gives them a massive adrenaline charge, which becomes addictive, and they can’t really believe “it” will happen to them. When I read this, it was a light bulb moment. I suddenly understood why the working-class boys I witnessed in Belfast growing up (I’m half Irish) turned to paramilitary groups: it gave them a sense of power and authority and purpose. There appears to be a limitless supply of such young men. The current situation in Syria makes me think of all the young British idealists who went to Spain to fight in the Civil War. Sometimes I wonder if National Service might actually fill the need for thrills in a safer way? My father for example did two years in Northern Ireland in the Intelligence Corps, and my father-in-law spent his youth in the Malaysian jungle during the insurgency. Aren’t we all turned on at times, by the gun-toting hard guy? Hollywood thrives on it!

* * *

Readers, do you have anything to add, or any comments on these heart-felt responses? We’d love to hear from you!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s Location, Locution post!

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A British expat in France defends the right to feel skeptical about “Je suis Charlie” fever

Joanna_and_Charlie

Marche Républicaine, by João Dias via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Joanna Masters-Maggs in Provence, France.

Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France, in Provence. She normally writes about food for the Displaced Nation, but today she offers this opinion piece on the shocking events that took place in Paris last week.

—ML Awanohara

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”—this line was actually composed by the English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her 1906 anecdotal biography of Voltaire and ten of his closest associates, although the statement does capture the spirit of the great French philosopher and wit.

I am ashamed to say that unlike the fall of the twin towers on 9/11 or the London bombings of 2005, I cannot remember exactly what I was doing when I first heard of the shootings at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo—I imagine it was something rather prosaic in the kitchen.

I’m not sure what it says about me, but my first thoughts were along the lines of: “Oh good, some news to listen to as I iron.” That, and the usual schadenfreude you feel when something bad happens to someone else. That sinking thrill that it could have been me (I live in France, after all) but it wasn’t, this time at least.

Perhaps I have become immune to these things as a result of my own news addiction and life experiences.

Travelling to and staying in Belfast as a child meant that terrorism occasionally formed the backdrop to my daily life. I still have memories of white-gloved airline staff manually checking our opened suitcases in front of us. I can also recall being scanned, frisked and having our bags searched to enter the so-called ring of steel that protected the Belfast City Centre. Though never pleasant, these searches and quick looks under cars became routine.

For the French, last week was a wake-up call to mass insecurity. The idea of being gunned down while in the supermarket is not a happy one, nor is the thought, for France’s Jewish population, that their lives will be curtailed by the need for constant surveillance of schools and synagogues.

We are not all Charlie Hebdo, are we?

In this land of Voltaire, the slogan “Je suis Charlie” has taken rapid hold. We are all Charlie because we all believe that free speech should be protected, like it or not, and you cannot execute us all.

The problem I have with this is that we are not all Charlie Hebdo, are we?

Which one of us has put their offending cartoons on our Facebook profile or Twitter feed—anyone? I didn’t think so.

Perhaps if we all did, the point would be better made. In fact, we should be uploading a cartoon of an imam, a priest, and a rabbi walking into a bar, as the old joke goes—since satire should be aimed at all groups equally.

Like most people here in France, I was not a reader of Charlie Hebdo, whose weekly circulation averaged 30,000 and which was forced to suspend publication between 1981 and 1992 for want of finance. What I know comes mainly from the headlines the publication generated by its provocative cartoons. It is, therefore, difficult to comment intelligently, but since that doesn’t seem to be a bar to the subject for anyone else I’ll go ahead.

Sauce, satire, and silliness—a British speciality

Being a Brit, I do know about satire. I see it as a means of bursting the bubble of one’s own pomposity and seriousness in all matters.

Case in point: Just a few weeks ago, I was listening to a well-known radio news comedy programme. One of the contributors was poking fun at those of us who were getting hot under the collar over the Scottish bid for independence. “Are people really angry?” he asked—and went on to improvise a scene between an unhappy and dreadfully posh couple in a classic 1930s British black-and-white film, where the husband [England] asks his wife [Scotland]:

“But we do alright, don’t we, Cynthia? I mean it wouldn’t do to make a fuss and do anything untoward or vulgar, would it?”

Despite my irritation with the situation, I laughed, and it was gone—the anger, that is. I laughed despite myself, the irritation gone in a flash.

Really, why get bitter when you can laugh? It feels so much better.

In my view, we can never get enough of this kind of satire. We must laugh at ourselves and each other, until we are helpless with mirth. Humour can be such a leveler. But I worry that last week’s events have generated the kind of anger that may become repressed, preying on the lingering fears of what the expression of ideas can provoke. As an expat, I am often shocked at how restrained the French are, of how afraid they are to risk pricking each other’s self-importance through humour, like us Brits. This experience may make them even less inclined to question pomposity—not a good thing.

More cartoons, please, less #JeSuisCharlie

More cartoons then—and less Twitter-friendly phrases that make us all feel as though we have done something noble when in fact we have done nothing at all.

My husband and I were a little afraid that our kids might not take the minute’s silence at school seriously. Living in, but slightly apart from, French life, we sometimes feel as though local news events do not touch us. Had our kids absorbed too much of our expat hardness?

As it turned out, we should have had more confidence in our offspring’s ability to absorb the feelings of schoolmates, their parents and friends at their sports clubs. Our kids knew better than us, perhaps, the level of grief there is in France at the moment. The legendary caricaturist Jean Cabut (Cabu) for example was loved by a generation of children because of his work on a children’s television programme. For many, the sadness over his loss is real, as though an uncle has died.

Cabu once declared:

“Sometimes laughter can hurt—but laughter, humour and mockery are our only weapons.”

So they are. If actions devoid of laughter, humour and mockery are the only way we can deal with such awful events as those of last week, the terrorist has won. He will know we won’t do anything more because we are afraid.

We post the phrase, but not the satire. We are afraid to, because to do so would single us out for attention and, possibly, reprisal.

We have all silenced ourselves—and this, in the land of Voltaire, is a sad thing indeed.

* * *

Thanks, Joanna, for such a brave post, so very honest while also thought provoking. Readers, what do you make of Joanna’s observations? Please leave a comment. Food lovers, rest assured, she will be back next month in her usual role of Global Food Gossip.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, offering a few more displaced perspectives on what is commonly being referred to as France’s 9/11.

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And the December 2014 Alices go to … these 4 international creatives

 © Iamezan | Dreamstime.com Used under license

© Iamezan | Dreamstime.com
Used under license

If you are a subscriber to our weekly newsletter, the Displaced Dispatch, you’re already in the know. But if you’re not, listen up. (Hey, why aren’t you? Off with your head!)

Every week, when that esteemed publication comes out, we present contenders for a monthly “Alice Award,” most of whom are writers or other kinds of international creatives who appear to have a special handle on the curious and unreal aspects of being a global resident or voyager.

Not only that, but this person tries to use this state of befuddlement as a spur to greater creative heights.

Today’s post hono(u)rs our four Alice recipients for December 2014. Listed in order of most to least recent, they are (drumroll…):

1) Lani Cox, half-Thai expat in Chiangmai, Thailand

For her comment on a post: “Dealing with Loneliness Abroad (and at home),” by Mary, former expat in Japan and blogger at The Ruby Ronin. (NOTE: Lani’s own blog is Life, the Universe and Lani.)
Posted on: 9 December 2014

2) Amanda Mouttaki, American expat in Morocco and blogger

For her post: The NOT-SO-NICE Side of Expat Life to her blog, MarocMama
Posted on: 25 November 2014

Alice Connection:
Pool of Tears Quote

LANI: “When I first moved to Thailand, … I was deeply confused over what I was expected to do and where I was supposed to go and basically get the help that I needed for my visa. So, I spent the day crying into my pillow! It didn’t help that we lived by this horrible electrical monster thingy and had squatters outside our window.”

AMANDA: “I cried. And cried. And cried. Over nothing specifically…”

Citation: Lani and Amanda, is it any wonder we have associated your writings with Alice in Wonderland’s “pool of tears” moment? Let us begin by saying how much we admire you both for overcoming the feeling of shame that comes with realizing, and admitting to others, that even “great girls” cry.

Lani, it seems that you blamed yourself, thinking that Thailand shouldn’t have confused you so much since you were raised in the United States by a Thai mother (she’d married an American soldier she’d met during the Vietnam War). But that of course is silly, especially as she didn’t teach you any Thai language (knowing some Thai would have helped with getting your visa sorted). On the other hand, maybe it’s good she didn’t teach you the language, you might have been further disappointed. (We speak from experience, having been Brits in the US or Yanks in the UK.)

Amanda, you say you didn’t want your readers to think you were complaining, especially when so many of them find your story romantic—and it is romantic, meeting and falling in love in fairy-tale fashion on the streets of Marrakesh. In any event, becoming catatonic over nothing specific sounds perfectly normal to us. We’re just glad MarocBaba was there to give you a hug—more than Alice could count on!

3) Kevin Lynch, American expat in Hong Kong

For his interview: “My Airbnb year in Hong Kong: ‘Big fat American’ discovers hidden sides to the city”, by Vanessa Yung, in the South China Morning Post
Posted on: 5 December 2014
Big Alice Quote

“Part of it is I’m a big fat American, which makes things even smaller. It’s just such a different scale of living. Just when I’m used to it—I don’t even take pictures of most of the small things any more—and then something will surprise me.”

Citation: Hats off to you, Kevin—even the Mad Hatter is removing his—for deciding to forgo Western digs to stay in Airbnb accommodation during your first 14 months in Hong Kong, a city that is challenged for space and known for its cramped accommodations. Recall that Alice, who isn’t fat, found the White Rabbit’s house a bit of an uncomfortable fit. You are right, of course: serviced apartments for expats don’t afford many opportunities to meet the natives even if they do have taller ceilings, longer beds, fatter sofas, and proper cutlery. Kudos to you for learning how to tilt your head when standing up in the low-ceilinged rooms and to sleep “in the fetal position” when beds are too short. You had the kind of Hong Kong experience not usually available to the generous of flesh.

4) Amanda van Mulligen, British expat in Holland, blogger, and one of the contributors to the new book Dutched Up! Rocking the Clogs Expat Style

For her post: “My Love Hate Relationship with Sinterklaas” to her personal blog, Expat Life with a Double Buggy
Posted on: 4 December 2014
Mock Tortoise SongAlice Connection:

“Now, I’m all for a good sing song. I’ll croon away with the best of them. But Sinterklaas songs get tedious sang at the top of a child’s voice for weeks on end.”

Citation: Amanda, surely a song repeatedly begging Sinterklaas to leave something nice in one’s shoe or boot is preferable to a song about green soup, such as the Mock Turtle sings to Alice? That’s after she had to withstand the Lobster Quadrille, with repeated refrains of:

Will you come and join the dance?
So, will you, won’t you, won’t you,
Will you, won’t you join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you,
Won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

But we do appreciate your attempt to convey the strange, Wonderland-like experience of raising children in a country other than the one in which you grew up. And we grant that you’re not as lucky as Alice, who was saved from having to hear the soup song in its entirety by the announcement of the trial, whereas for you the Sinterklaas din carries on until May! Sinterklaas bloody kapoentje indeed.

*  *  *

So, readers, do you have a favorite from the above, or have you read any recent posts you think deserve an Alice Award? We’d love to hear your suggestions! And don’t miss out on the shortlist of Alice contenders we provide in each week’s Dispatch, which are sources of creative thought if nothing else! Get on our subscription list now!

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

Writers and other international creatives: If you want to know in advance the contenders for our monthly Alice Award winners, sign up to receive The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with news of book giveaways, future posts, and of course, our weekly Alice Award!. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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3 anti-New Year’s resolutions for expat creatives, courtesy of the Lord of Misrule

LordofMisrule

“Lord of Misrule,” by _william via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The start of a new year, and I’ve been struggling to think of just the right blessing, words of encouragement or meditation to inspire you (and myself for that matter) in the climb to reach new summits in your creative pursuits of 2015.

But here it is, the last day of Christmas, what some of us refer to as Three Kings Day or Epiphany—and I find myself with, well, no epiphanies.

Rather, my mind seems to have been taken over by the Lord of Misrule, a figure of mischief who presided over medieval celebrations of the 12th day of Christmas, or Twelfth Night—known to the Romans in pre-Christian times as Saturnalia (the Celts had their own version: Samhain).

* * *

Wait just a second… The Lord of Misrule is dragging me into the Feast of Fools and offering me a tankard of wassail. He has invited me to give a speech to the assembly. Well, here goes:

“Lords and ladies of the Feast, I am enjoying this occasion when we all have license to behave as fools.

In that spirit, I’d like you join with me in cursing—you heard it right, CURSING—my compatriot Clement Clarke Moore, who wrote a poem about St. Nicholas. I think it should have ended here:

And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap…

I ask you: Was it really necessary for St. Nick to bound down the chimney just as that poor couple was finally getting some rest?

In that same vein, let us also condemn whoever it was who invented the New Year’s custom of making resolutions!

Surely, what most of us want to do on January 1 is get back to that long winter’s nap and hibernate for a bit?

Where I live, we are now preparing for a second Arctic blast, even colder than the first.

Under these conditions, I would be doing well to get the dog out for a walk and myself to the office—especially as it has just started snowing. Indeed, the last thing I need at this point is one of those lists of 52 goals to accomplish in 2015.

I’ll be lucky if I can remember where I stored my old snow boots.”

* * *

Okay, here I am again. (They gave me a standing ovation, btw. If they ask for an encore, I’ll bring up my new campaign to refer to the Year of the Sheep as the Year of the Alpaca instead, so much cuter!)

But listen, I haven’t completely abrogated my duty of leaving you with some thoughts at the start of the 2015.

At the encouragement of my new best friend, the Lord of Misrule, I present 3 anti-New Year’s resolutions, which you’d do well to heed:

1) There’s nothing wrong with easing in to the new year.

Readers who follow us closely will remember that we recently posted an excerpt from a contribution made by Philippa Ramsden, a Scot who lives in Burma, to columnist Shannon Young’s Dragonfruit anthology. Philippa talks about finding out she has cancer as she reaches the Tropic of Cancer. Well, as her first post of the year to her blog, Feisty Blue Gecko, suggests, she plans not to lean in but to ease in to 2015. I see nothing wrong with that, particularly for those of us, myself included, who found 2014 difficult year because of health issues or losses in their families (not for everyone Facebook’s “Year in Review” app!). Easy, easy, one day at a time. Resolutions can wait.

2) Read what you want to, not what you have to, for a while.

To illustrate this point, allow me to spin a quick travel yarn. My husband and I spent Christmas-into-New Year’s in the arty little town of Hudson, New York, staying in this house with a Parisian-style mansard roof (who knew?):
Hudson_House
It was the kind of house that made you want to sit by the window with a good book, but for one problem: I forgot to pack my Kindle! At first I was in despair: what’s a poor Kindle-less girl to do? That was before I discovered that the Hudson Valley has a wealth of abandoned books. In nearby Greenport, I found a regency romance by Georgette Heyer (deliciously frothy) and J.B. Priestly’s novel Lost Empires, which, in telling the story of the early 20th-century English music hall, paints some extraordinarily vivid characters. Reading two books I’d encountered by chance, I was reminded of my grad student days, when I would read widely as a break from writing my thesis. I was also reminded of why I chose to live in England so long: I was, and remain, enamored of the way they write novels.

3) Be open to finding inspiration in the most unlikely of places.

In the era of social media, there are countless gurus who tell us how to write, offering writing prompts or daily inspiration—when the truth is, the best inspiration usually comes when you least expect it. To continue with my travel yarn: During our stay in Hudson, we decided to visit the Olana State Historic Site, the home of Frederic Church, one of the major figures in the Hudson River School of landscape painting. I went there thinking I would learn something more about this quintessentially American style of painting, only to find that Church was ONE OF US: an early example of an international creative! Yes, he was American and attached to the Hudson Valley, but he also traveled extensively through Europe and the Middle East—Beirut, Jerusalem, and Damascus—with his wife and children and, before marriage, had explored South America. Fittingly, the house he and his wife designed is a mash-up of Victorian, Persian and Moorish styles:

"Olana2006 3 edit1" by Rolf Müller - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Olana2006_3_edit1.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Olana2006_3_edit1.jpg

“Olana2006 3 edit1″ by Rolf Müller – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

My goodness, I thought to myself, did they design this place anticipating it would one day be visited by displaced people like us?!

* * *

Okay, the Lord of Misrule is signaling that it’s time to get back to the old wassail bowl and sing a tune for the 12th-night crowd.

Here goes:

With a hey-ho and the snow and the wind,
May you build your own Olana in 2015,
But that’s all one, this post is done.

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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Top 5 photos from “A Picture Says” in 2014

Top 5 Pix 2014For the final post in this year’s “A picture says…”, host James King highlights some of the photos that spoke to him most eloquently, from this year’s series. (If you like what you see, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.)

My heartiest holiday greetings to one and all. I hope you enjoying the festive season, and I wish you a wonderful New Year.

As ML says, we’re doing an End-of-Year Special instead of the regular monthly interview. But before I get started with my picks, I really want to thank the 10 wonderful people who have contributed so much to my column over the past year by subjecting themselves to my tortuous interviews. Without exception, every single one of you has had a fascinating story to tell which has been beautifully illustrated with the personal photographs you were kind enough to share with the Displaced Nation readership.

After it was suggested to me that I should select my five favorite photos out of the 70 posted, I dived in head first, only to realize I could upset some of the 10 new friends I have made in 2014.

So I want to say before we start that this is not a competition. I would like to pick all 70 photos but of course that’s not possible so here are my 5 (in random order) along with my reasons for choosing them. There were a few close shaves by the way.

1) “Pumpkin Field,” by Aisha Ashraf

Irish expat, blogger, traveller and photographer Aisha Ashraf is currently based in Canada with her husband and three children. A freelance features writer, Aisha has published articles in newspapers, magazines and a range of expat and mental health websites. She says she has been a cultural chameleon since she first emigrated from Ireland to England at the age of eight. She is also a friend to the Displaced Nation and a recipient of one of its “Alice Awards” for a post on her Expatlog blog, provocatively entitled “My mother was a nun.”

I have chosen this photo of Aisha’s daughter in a field full of pumpkins because it is so vital, and the naturalness of the colours brings her lovely composition to life. Not only this but the viewer can only guess how or why a picture was created and Aisha’s words offer a whole new dimension.
No 1 Pick 2014 Ashraf

Aisha says:

“I love nature—perhaps it was growing up on a farm and spending most of my time outdoors. I have a condition called Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and getting outside is a big factor in alleviating its debilitating hold. I see incredible, uncomplicated beauty in the natural world that I find soothing and strengthening. I try to capture it with my camera in a way that may allow others to be moved and nourished by it, too.”

2) “Church on Skyrne Hill,” by Ed Mooney

The story of Irishman Ed Mooney is quite different from others guests for several reasons, the main one being that he is not an expat. On the contrary, he travels within the confines of his native Ireland.

That said, Ed does cross boundaries, at least in a temporal sense. He loves nothing more than to immerse himself in an obscure historical site, exploring Irish history, lore and mythology while also photographing the surrounding ruins, to keep a record of what remains from generations past.

I really like the name Ed has given to his hobby: “ruin-hunting”. Ed tells me that ruin-hunting merges Past, Present & Future. By researching the history behind a place, he pays tribute to the Past. By writing about the experience, he brings it into the Present. And by posting his article, along with his photos, on his blog, he preserves his findings for the future. I love the way Ed weaves historic research into (mostly) black-and-white images.

I have chosen Ed’s photo of the church that sits on Skryne Hill, the site of an early Christian settlement. Ed says his memory of Skryne remains vivid. The tower is inaccessible due to a very heavy iron gate that appears to be rusted shut. As with all Ed’s pictures there seems to be a ghostly atmosphere, which is not surprising considering his subjects. Ed’s story of his experience is spooky to say the least and drew me into the picture more closely than usual.
No 2 Pick Mooney

Ed describes his visit to the church as follows:

“I shone my torch through the bars on one of the windows. Inside were a number of interesting stone artefacts that I wanted to capture. So I set up my flashgun and shot through the bars. On the second or third flash something physically grabbed my camera strap and pulled it into the tower. It all happened so fast, but somehow I managed to pull that camera away from the window while shouting a few expletives. At first I wondered if it might have been a draught of some kind that had caught my strap, but it could not have been as I was pressed right up against the opening and there was no wind to cause a draught. Then I thought that maybe someone was inside, but there was no way for a person to get in or out of the tower. To this day I still can’t explain what happened. But it certainly left a lasting memory.”

3) Monteseel by Andy Harvard

South African photographer, traveller and chef Andrew (Andy) Harvard is by nature a creative person. His creative talents, ideas and passion spill over into his passion for photography, which he indulges on travels in South Africa and worldwide. His blog celebrates all three of his passions under the descriptive title “snap fly cook”.

An early bird, Andy often wakes-up at 03h00 in summer to be on the beach in Durban, where he lives, in time for first light and sunrise an hour or so later. He is also fond of seeking out “hard to access” locations and revels in the hours spent working and reworking his photos through his favourite software packages.

Andy says “I find this process very calming and am sometimes like a kid in awe when something magical happens. It is a meditation of sorts for me, an ‘addiction’ that has to be fed. Oh! The wonders of HDR processing.”
Pick No 3 2014 Harvard Collage
I have chosen Andy’s beautiful picture of Monteseel because, having lived in Durban for a while way back in 1990, I know how awe inspiring the landscape is. Andy has perfectly captures the essence of the Kwa Zulu Natal in this photo. I can feel the heat as the day dawns and, as Andy says:

“Huge mountains, deep valleys, tranquillity, big skies, rural living, clean fresh breezes, golden light—Monteseel, in the Valley of One Thousand Hills, makes one realize how small and insignificant certain problems we all have actually are.”

4) “Boy in the Door,” by Cornish Kylie

Kylie Millar was born and bred in Cornwall, England, and, though she now finds herself in Thailand, just like me, she remains proud of her Cornish heritage, having branded herself on her travel blog as Cornish Kylie.

Not only that but Kylie informs me that the Cornish were granted official minority status earlier this year. Being born and bred in Cornwall now means, technically, that a person is identified as Cornish first, British second—with the latter identity being confined largely to one’s passport. Well, it is true that Cornwall was its own Celtic nation before the Norman Conquest, and they have their own language, Kernewek, which is distinct from Welsh.

I had little hesitation in choosing Kylie’s “Boy in the Door” as one of my five. Adjectives like dirty, dusty, colourful, old and intriguing come to mind when I look at her picture. And each time I look at it, I expect the boy to be gone.
Pick No 4 2014 Kylie
Kylie describes it thus:

“When I was in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, I couldn’t resist taking pictures of the many beautifully decorated doorways. This picture was accidental as the boy emerged from the doorway just as I pressed the shutter release. Then I realised how people can add an extra dimension and started to include people in more of my photographs. This trip to Morocco was special: it opened my eyes to a very different part of the world.”

5) “Hampi,” by Maverick Bird

Born and raised in India, Svetlana Baghawan, who calls herself Maverick Bird, is a mother and writer as well a traveller. She describes herself as a compulsive shopper, foodie, bad cook (her words) and animal lover. She likes to travel solo across continents, sometimes completely alone, often with her five-year-old daughter in tow. Having worked as a flight attendant for quite a few years, she was bitten by the travel bug early, and for good.

I have chosen Svetlana’s picture of Hampi, a village in Karnataka State in South West India. It is famed for being located within the ruins of Vijayanagara, an empire that came to prominence at the end of the 13th century. Svetlana has clearly been touched by the places she has visited on her travels and in this picture she conveys feelings of solitude in the wilderness and tranquility. I find it very moving.
Pick No 5 2014 Maverick
Svetlana says:

“Although it was tough to decide between Hampi and Kashmir, I love Hampi more for its surreal mix of a tangible ghostly civilization lying scattered amidst one of the most beautiful landscapes in India (think balancing boulder, rice fields, forests and obscure rivers) and little pockets of villages. The enchanting blend of the dead and living is breath-taking and this photo represents Hampi’s larger-than-life beauty. You have to see it to believe it.”

I believe you. Svetlana.

* * *

Readers, do you agree with my picks or do you have other favorites? Please leave any questions or feedback in the comments!

(If you are a travel-photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for the 2015 series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.)

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DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: Will she, or won’t she, on Christmas Day? (We’re taking bets!)

diaryexpatwriter_christmas2014This past summer Shannon Young took the decision to quit her day job to become a full-time writer in Hong Kong, where she lives with her half-Chinese husband. As regular readers of the Displaced Nation will know, she has kindly agreed to chronicle this experience on our behalf.* Her December diary entry appears on Christmas Day for a reason—read on!

—ML Awanohara

Dear Displaced Diary,

This is my fourth update on my new life as an expat writer in Hong Kong. As I type this, I’m sitting in the Hong Kong International Airport waiting for my flight home to Arizona for the holidays. My plane is a little late, giving me time to reflect on the past four months.

I’ve written a lot about the bigger milestones I’ve reached this fall. They include the release of two books, one traditionally published and one self-published, speaking at a literary festival, and signing an audiobook deal.

These moments have been amazing, but right now I really want to talk about the work-a-day process of being a writer. I’ve finally settled into a routine, and that’s the part of this whole adventure that I love the most. Here’s what a day in the life of this expat writer is like:

Morning

I get up when my husband leaves for work around 9:15 am. I go straight to my computer to check my email, sales ranking (this is a bad habit), and Facebook.

At some point, I grab some breakfast (usually yogurt) and make a cup of tea. Over breakfast, I catch up on my favorite publishing blogs, read the news, and take care of any miscellaneous internet and email tasks.

Next I either take a shower or go to the gym (where I listen to audiobooks on the treadmill). I’m ready to work by 11 am or 12:30 pm.

I walk to a coffee shop, usually the Starbucks near me that has a tall table where I don’t have to hunch over my laptop. I typically write for three or four hours at a stretch. I only do more if I’m really on a roll. I’ve found that any more than four hours of actual writing time becomes counterproductive.

Late afternoon

When I hit a good stopping place I head home to make a late lunch or take a detour somewhere to eat and read. Those stopping places are often when I’ve been working at a tough problem like a segment of dialogue that doesn’t sound right and I don’t feel like I’m making any progress. Rather than continuing to chew at it, it helps to leave it and think about the problem throughout the rest of the day. Often I’ve come up with a way to tackle the issue by the next writing session.

After lunch I take care of more miscellaneous tasks like writing blog posts, answering emails, and doing research. I find that even if I’ve exhausted my writing energy for my book-in-progress, I can still blog and work on other things. The change of pace and change of location help me to continue being productive past the four-hour mark.

Evening

I usually work straight through until my husband gets home. Sometimes I stop to read, but I think that counts as work these days. I read widely, staying caught up on my genres while seeking inspiration from other types of literature. I read writing craft and publishing business books too, but not too often. I find it’s generally more productive to practice than to read about how to do things.

I don’t write in the evenings, except on Tuesdays when a regular group of writers gathers at a local coffee shop for two or three hours to work side-by-side on our own projects. I make a point of only going to that particular coffee shop on Tuesdays, and the habit helps me to be productive even if I’ve already been writing for a few hours earlier in the day.

My daily rituals

I’ve been reading a book lately called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. It’s a collection of short descriptions of the work habits of famous writers, artists, and composers by Mason Currey. I’m reading a few entries at a time, and it’s amazing how similar the habits of the artists are. Like me, they work for a solid chunk of time (often three to four hours) and then devote the remainder of the day to correspondence and other tasks. Over a lifetime, they produce an incredible amount of work like this.

One theme I’ve noticed is that very few of the writers profiled actually waste time waiting for “the muse.” They just sit down and do the work. They recognize that although inspiration is helpful, you can’t sit around waiting for it. At the end of the day, you still have to put in the hours.

Looking to tomorrow…

For now, I’m putting in the hours and getting the work done. The jury is still out on whether this new path will be sustainable. I’m bringing in a bit of money and selling a few books, but I’m not there yet. I know it’ll take more books and more satisfied readers recommending my work to their friends before I can call this experiment a success. For now, I am happy with the process. I have my routine. I might even keep working over the holidays just because I love it.

In On Writing, his singular meditation on the writing life, Stephen King writes about how he used to tell interviewers that he wrote everyday except for Christmas Day. In the book, he says that was a lie. He even writes on Christmas. Perhaps I’ll do the same.

Well, my plane is boarding now. Thank you for all the encouraging comments over the past four months. I’ll keep you updated on my writing adventures in the New Year.

Happy holidays!

Yours,

Shannon Young

shannonyoungwriter.com

* * *

Readers, it’s time to place your bets. Here’s the question:
Will she or won't she

*Shannon Young has edited an anthology, How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia (2014), from which she is sharing some excerpts. We’re calling them “chunks” of dragonfruit—as they taste so delicious! Be sure to sample a few, if you haven’t already…

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Anthony St. Clair, author of urban fantasies whose plots are globally sourced

JJ Marsh Anthony St Clair

Columnist JJ Marsh (left) talks to “rucksack” urban fantasy writer Anthony St Clair about how he translates his travels into works of fiction.

In this month’s Location, Locution, JJ Marsh talks to Anthony St. Clair, author of the Rucksack Universe books, a series of urban fantasy travel novels set in Hong Kong, India and Ireland. When he’s not concocting the kind of fiction that thrills, delights and bewilders in the spirit of Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Tom Robbins, St. Clair is making a living as a copywriter, blogger and editor. He loves writing about business and anything related to craft beer, homebrew, travel (he’s a self-described globe-trotter), food, and the Pacific Northwest.

Which comes first, story or location?
Location. My original idea for Forever the Road, the most recently published book in my Rucksack Universe series, came to me in 2003, when I spent two months traveling through India. As the story took shape, I created a fictional city and river, both called Agamuskara, which is Hindi for “smiling fire.” Both the river and the city are pivotal to the action of the story and what happens with the book’s various characters. But I don’t think I could have come up with either the story or the location without having also traveled through India, especially the city of Varanasi, the holy city on the banks of the Ganges, which Agamuskara is based on.

Photo credit: "Ganges River, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India," by Babasteve via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Photo credit: “Ganges River, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India,” by Babasteve via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Forever the Road cover art.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
Have you ever noticed that when you go somewhere new, it’s like you notice everything and experience it more intensely? It’s like our guard comes down. We see, hear, smell, taste, and touch with an intensity and openness that we don’t usually bring to our day-to-day encounters with the world outside ourselves. I try to relate the atmosphere of a place by evoking all the senses. Is the place hot or cold? Crowded or sparse? What does it smell like? What does the food taste like? What are the colors? Sense helps us get to know a place, and evoking the senses works just as well in a book as it does in actual travel.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
All of the above. Landscape, culture, and food affect each other. What the land is like affects the food that can be available. Place shapes culture, because place drives so much of our experiences. Likewise, food has an influence on how culture connects and evolves. After all, how many of our most pivotal experiences have to do with a meal, or a particular moment in a new place, or by experiencing and trying to understand an aspect of a different culture?

Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?
This excerpt is from Chapter 2 of Forever the Road, which was released September 8th in e-book, all formats, and trade paperback (more information here).

The rattling truck moved so fast that the world passed in a blur, but Jay marveled at all he saw. Countless people wore brilliant colors and smiled from weathered, driven faces. They defied the washed-out landscape and the humid mat of the air. Every village had been here before time was time, it seemed. Each village also brought a glimpse of temples and shrines, elephant-headed gods, bulls, monkeys, multi-limbed deities rendered in brick, stone, concrete, and reverence.

Approaching Agamuskara, Jay now understood that India was four things: heat, humans, history, and gods. They shaped India not so much into a country or a culture but a world. India was all of the world, all of time in every passing moment, and every emotion, every depravity and transcendence, every hope realized and every futility suffered, of all the human race.

And, gods, was India heat. Humid, blazing, sopping heat. India felt as if wet blankets had been baked for an hour in a pot of water, then, steaming and boiling, wrapped around the country. Even Jay’s sweat glands felt sluggish. The humidity jellied the will. It softened the wood of the few meager trees. Even the concrete blocks of houses and shacks seemed to sag, drip, and simmer in the midday, clear-sky blaze of sunlight.

The truck turned onto a highway, renown throughout northeastern India for being maintained. The road reminded Jay of the interstate highways of his left-long-ago home, except that as far as the traffic was concerned, the four lanes were simultaneously one lane, three lanes, twenty lanes, and no lanes. Still, the truck’s consistent speed and motion brought a soothing breeze to Jay’s skin, and the smooth road took him from a blazing sear to a nearly gentle simmer.

For once, Jay’s tenderized rump stayed in one merciful, bounceless spot. After a few kilometers, he relaxed like a roast chicken resting after coming out of the oven.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
I want to visit a place before I write about it, and so far all my stories draw on places I’ve visited. Whether or not I’ve traveled there, I also use substantial research to try to understand a place as best I can, but there is no substitute for having been there. Nothing compares with eating the food, walking the quiet streets at dawn, observing the tiny everyday details that make a place its own.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I’ve spent many a time immersed in the works of Bill Bryson and Pico Iyer, and I try to bring their mix of place and experience into my own style. However, when it comes to using location in story, I admire Terry Pratchett the most. His long-running Discworld, a comic fantasy book series, is not only full of funny, richly told fantasy stories, but he clearly works hard to weave the setting into the story. Whether a book is set in a city or the mountains, it is always clear that a sense of place is key to the characters and events unfolding in the book. I try to evoke a similar connection in my own work. There’s an old saying that character is destiny, but I would add that place shapes character.

Thank you, Anthony! That was fascinating. Readers, if this interview has piqued your curiosity about Anthony and his writings, I encourage you to visit his author site. You can also follow him on Twitter.

* * *

Next up on Location, LocutionSusan Jane Gilman, Geneva resident and author of the New York Times bestseller The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street. Until then, I wish you happy holidays. See you next year!

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for our next fab post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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