The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: Turning into Jordan Rivet, writer of post-apocalyptic adventures, for an entire month

DiaryExpatWriterAs regular readers of the Displaced Nation will know, Shannon Young* recently 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. She joins us today to update the diary of this new phase of her life—and this time has brought along Jordan Rivet, her alter-ego. Hmmm…should be interesting!

—ML Awanohara

Dear Displaced Diary,

I hope you don’t mind if I allow Jordan Rivet to contribute to this month’s entry. I created Jordan Rivet as the pen name for my post-apocalyptic adventure series, which I first started writing during National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo (often shortened even further, to NaNo), two years ago. For those who aren’t familiar, NaNo challenges people to write 50,000 words of a novel in the 30 days of November.

Nowadays, writers across the world come out in force to meet this challenge. (Hmmm… Shouldn’t it be renamed INTERnational Novel Writing Month: IntNoWriMo?)

But enough from me: The next portion of this entry will be from Jordan.

* * *

Thank you, Shannon. Displaced Diary, I’ll start out by saying how grateful I am for NaNo: it’s what brought me, Jordan Rivet, into existence. By the end of the month of November two years ago, I had produced 57,002 words about a floating city one disaster away from extinction, and I now have a book out under my name! (I even have my own email and twitter accounts.)

Last time Shannon wrote to you, she talked about going through the final publication stages for her memoir, Year of Fire Dragons—with a lot of help from her friends.

This month, though, has been all about me. I am back and am writing away furiously, having joined NaNo again, here in Hong Kong.

There are writers in Hong Kong!

Hong Kong is sometimes accused of lacking a literary culture. The scene definitely exists, but it can be hard to find. There’s a lot of pressure in this city to focus on purely commercial pursuits—and people are busy.

Yet every November, lots of us creative types come out of the woodwork—pros, beginners, and hobbyists alike. We are a mix of locals, expats, and returners who were educated abroad. You’ll find students and teachers and lawyers and marketers and homemakers. Unlike me, they don’t necessarily have time to write every day, but they do love books. They carve out time for writing in the midst of busy schedules and obligations. They get excited about stories and about inventing new worlds. Their energy is infectious.

People come and go a lot here, but I make new writing friends for Shannon every November, particularly at the NaNo write-ins, where participants gather to chat, write, laugh, and drink coffee together.

Being an adventuresome sort, I particularly love it when we have visitors at our write-ins who are just traveling through the city or who’ve made special trips from Macau and Shenzhen to connect with their fellow NaNo participants.

“Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” —Kenneth Lamott

Seabound - Jordan RivetThis is my third November working on a novel in Shannon’s post-apocalyptic adventure series set at sea, called The Seabound Chronicles.

As already mentioned, Shannon just now launched my first book in this series, which I’d drafted in November 2012. It’s called Seabound, but back then I’d titled it The Vertigo. Shannon loved it immediately: it was her first foray into fast-paced genre fiction. “Planning and writing a grand adventure is just as much fun as reading one,” she told me.

Now every November I hammer out a very rough draft of another installment in the series, and it always reminds Shannon how much fun writing actually is. (Actually, I wrote the first draft of the sequel the spring after that first NaNo. In November of 2013 I wrote the prequel.)

In Bird by Bird, her classic mediation on the writing life, Anne Lamott argues that writers should produce “shitty first drafts.” Her point is that by giving ourselves permission to write rough, messy, and even bad work, writers can avoid the kind of perfectionism and fear that stifles creativity.

That’s why I’m so glad Shannon invented me during NaNoWriMo. She was thinking that NaNo is a great time to produce what may well be a shitty first draft in the madcap rush to reach 50,000 words in thirty days, and that revisions can always come later.

I love that I get to do the first draft, which is all about discovery. As I’ve said, adventure is my thing!

I’m now working on what I believe will be the fourth and final book in the Seabound Chronicles (27,555 words and going strong). This is the part where I get to figure out what happens in the end.

Though I’m enjoying it to the hilt, I have to tell you that writing my final first draft is bittersweet. Of course Shannon will call me in again, as the series still needs a lot of work. But will I still have a life after it finishes? That is the question…

Since I don’t know the answer, I’ll give you back to Shannon.

* * *

Priorities, priorities

Thanks, Jordan. Diary, I must confess that ever since I quit my job to write full time, I’m finding there are still a lot of things that pull me away. These are all writing-related tasks: answering emails, writing blog posts, updating my websites, requesting reviews, promoting my books, etc.

And, as Jordan reported, I’ve been working on formatting and uploading all the files for the e-book and paperback of Seabound, a task I kind of love but it’s time consuming.

As you know, I want to make the most of this time. I’m slowly developing strategies to keep me on task. Even if the miscellaneous stuff is writing-related, I still have to make sure the real writing comes first.

Thank goodness Jordan has reappeared to keep me on track this month.

It’s not New York City, but…

Once upon a time, I dreamed of living in New York City. I imagined renting a loft in Brooklyn, going to book launches every weekend, and having lunch with authors (ideally as an editor at a major publishing house). It was a very particular sort of dream.

Then this crazy, wonderful expat life happened.

Shannon Young at HKILF

Shannon Young at the Hong Kong Literary Festival earlier this month, reading from her memoir of her first year in Hong Kong, Year of Fire Dragons.

When I first moved to Hong Kong, I worried I’d have to give up my book publishing dreams. A little over four years later, it’s amazing how wrong I was. Hong Kong may not have a deeply entrenched literary and publishing scene like New York’s, but it has provided opportunities for me to chase a more evolved version of my dream. And Hong Kong writers have an energy and optimism that’s all their own.

Earlier this month, I attended the Hong Kong International Literary Festival as one of the featured writers. I got to be on the radio, visit a local secondary school, attend the opening and closing parties, and read from my book, Year of Fire Dragons, at an event.

This expat life isn’t what I planned. I meet people all the time who also didn’t mean to end up in Hong Kong. But through chance and circumstance, here we are. As it turns out, there are plenty of opportunities to follow our dreams, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Thanks for continuing to follow my expat writing journey.

Yours,

Shannon (& Jordan)

www.shannonyoungwriter.com

* * *

Readers, I hope you are finding writing buddies wherever you are, as well as alter egos who are as fun (and productive!) as Jordan is. And if you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, get back to work!

*Shannon Young (not Jordan Rivet!) 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—they taste delicious!

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 snippets of worldly wisdom, exclusive book giveaways and our nominees for the monthly Alice Awards. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

TCK TALENT: Nina Sichel, writer, editor, and guiding light on the Third Culture Kid experience

Nina Sichel_TCK TalentElizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her monthly column about Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields, Lisa herself being 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 she has taken all over the country. In fact, she turned up as the convocation speaker at Carleton College on October 31st, where my niece, now a Carleton freshman, had the pleasure of watching her perform some excerpts!

—ML Awanohara

Welcome back, readers! Today I’m honored to be interviewing Nina Sichel, co-editor of the seminal TCK / global-nomad anthology Unrooted Childhoods, which includes essays by several famous TCK writers such as:

  • Pico Iyer: “I fold up my self and carry it round with me as if it were an overnight case”;
  • Isabel Allende (she fled her homeland for political survival); and
  • Military brat Pat Conroy: “Each year I began my life all over again . . . and I think it damaged me.”

In addition, she co-edited the TCK / global-nomad anthology Writing Out of Limbo—to which I contributed. Thank you, Nina, for the hard work you did on my first published essay!

Nina grew up in Venezuela and “repatriated” to the USA for college and beyond; she is a writer, editor, and leader of memoir-writing workshops in Virginia.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Nina. I understand that you grew up in a multicultural household as a TCK in Caracas—the daughter of an American mom and a German-Jewish dad. With Thanksgiving around the corner, my thoughts are turning to the upcoming holidays. Did any particular holiday traditions or celebrations take precedence over others in your household as you were growing up?
My father had to leave Germany when he was 11 and grew up in Uruguay. He seldom spoke about his childhood. He came to the U.S. for college, and, after marrying my mother, lived in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic before settling in Venezuela. After all of those moves, his identity was not at all tied to nationality, and, like so many other choices in his life, citizenship was a matter of practicality. So national holidays were completely unimportant.

What about your mother?
My mother was a nostalgic American—more so when she was in Venezuela than when she was anywhere else. But she was an expat, and U.S. national holidays were not celebrated in that country. My parents’ friends were multinationals—our social circle was not defined by nationality. And, even though my father’s sister and mother, Uruguayan citizens by then, lived in Caracas, close by, we were secular Jews, only going to synagogue on the High Holidays and mostly not even then. We had an abbreviated seder, we lit candles at Chanukah. That Jewish identity, more ethnic, perhaps, than religious, was important to my parents. Yet we had very little religious training. I think things were assumed more than instructed… I remember going to summer camp in the States with Jewish girls from Long Island—and feeling I had absolutely nothing in common with them.

Did you celebrate other holidays?
We had a Christmas tree with lots of presents and sang carols. Santa Claus came till we were too old for him, but there were still gifts afterwards. We dressed up for carnaval, and the Easter bunny came to visit us. Hmmm… I’ve given you a long answer to what should be a simple question—but then, some things are not so simple. Like composite identities.

I was raised with no real roots, an American child in Venezuela…

Writing_Out_of_Limbo_coverWhich brings us to your wonderful essay, “Outsider,” which appears in Writing Out of Limbo. You mention in that piece that there was a lot of turnover among your friends at your international schools. Can you tell us a little more about what that was like?
I never knew, from one school year to the next, which of my classmates would actually be back. I don’t remember ever talking about it; this was normal, nothing remarkable. I remember a few friends who left with advance notice, and I tried to keep in touch with them—pen pals during a time when letters would take one or two weeks to reach their destinations. Those friendships faded over time. Quite a few friends were sent away to boarding school once they reached high school; sometimes they’d be back for summer vacations, but by then I’d usually be in the States. There were also, of course, quite a few children whose parents would stay in Venezuela indefinitely, till retirement and after. And then there were the kids who rotated in and out every couple of years, many of whom were Americans. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how different the ones who stayed as long-term residents were from the ones who rotated in and out. And how difficult it is to make general statements about any of this—there are layers and layers of outsiderness, not just one sort of expat or TCK identity.

Have you still got friends from that period?
I’ve kept strong ties to some friends from my youth, and to me this is very special—they are more like family than friends now. I’ve learned to invest deeply in relationships I hope will last, perhaps because the chances are so fleeting. I’ve felt incredibly lucky to be able to contact some people from my past via the Internet, and rekindle friendships from long ago, and learn how TCK life has affected them, their choices, their lives.

Our memories are the part of life we get to keep and take with us…

After an entire adulthood in the USA, tell us what you still miss about Venezuela. I’m also curious to know how many of those things can still be found there, and how many are connected to memories of family and/or friends who are no longer there?
Though I have lived my adulthood in the U.S., my parents remained in Venezuela, and I went back often to visit until they passed away. The place changed—all places do—and I also changed. My memories now are interwoven with nostalgia for what was or might have been. But there are also tangible things. Venezuela is a beautiful country, and there are things about nature I miss. I miss smells—that thick Caribbean salt air, the tangy grass. I miss tropical light, and will miss it more and more now that we’re approaching winter here.

Nowadays, do you feel at home in the United States?
I do feel “at home” in the States in general; just not rooted in any particular place. As you know from my essays, I’ve lived in several places. I lived in a small town in upstate New York, then Manhattan; I lived in the Deep South two different times; in rural Michigan; in West Palm Beach and then urban Miami; and now I live outside Washington, DC. In the smaller towns, what I missed was diversity—of language, ethnicity, experience, culture. I had to seek it out in the people I befriended and the kind of work I chose to do. But even in the cities, I felt outside the mainstream. Remember, coming to the States was not coming home for me; it was immersion in a different culture.

Unrooted_Childhoods_coverIn Unrooted Childhoods, your co-editor, Faith Eidse, writes about her yearning “for thick gumbo-limbo roots.” Do you sometimes wish your roots were deeper in this country?
I remember being fascinated by a friend’s roots in the Deep South that went back many generations. As my family does not have that history, it was something new and rather foreign to me, an oddity. But it was not something I wanted, as it felt too confining, to be defined by your predecessors that way.

Do you have “itchy feet,” which still make you want to move frequently? Or are you the kind who prefers to have a home base and travel only for pleasure?
Yes yes yes. All of the above. o I have to choose?

You mentioned longing to find other people with the experience of having lived overseas. Have you found that “your people” tend to be other ATCKs in creative fields—or does it really depend on the individual and what s/he evokes in you, whether it’s a resonance that’s artistic or political or personality-related or life-experience related, etc.?
I tend to fall in love with people, with aspects of people, and am constantly surprised that all my friends don’t automatically feel the same about each other as I feel about each of them! So, yes, I think it’s about that resonance that you mentioned, but it’s a different resonance in each person, a different connection I respond to. In any case, I never knew about TCKs or ATCKs until I began to work on Unrooted Childhoods.

I want to choose and gather the markers by which to remember our years here…

Like other ACTKs including myself, you were drawn to the craft of writing as a means of self-expression. Is there a particular piece that you think expresses your feelings of transience or loneliness or instability—or freedom or curiosity or love of travel—that you are most proud of? And where can we read it?
I’m not going to choose among my babies, but anyone who is interested can read my essays in Unrooted Childhoods and Writing Out of Limbo. I also wrote much of the introductory material in both books. There was an essay of mine published recently in Brain, Child Magazine, titled “Leaving,” which many of the readers of this column will surely respond to. And I’ve been posting short blogs on the Children’s Mental Health Network website, to inform readers about issues concerning TCKs.

We both lead workshops for people who want to write about their own lives. Tell us what got you started as a memoir workshop leader.
I’ve always felt torn between creative expression and nurturing others—as though I had to choose, as though the work I’d always done (teaching, counseling, raising children) wasn’t already a combination of the two. When I moved to the Washington, DC area, I developed the memoir and other writing programs I currently offer and am always expanding the menu of choices. The workshops are theme-based, and range in topic from creative change and transformation to intercultural exchange to turning points to writing about place to parenting to… I had a program that I developed once specifically for au pairs, which I’d like to offer again at some point. I keep the workshops small, intimate, supportive. We do not engage in critiquing—most of my writers are beginners in memoir, and need to both give and receive positive feedback to grow into the writers they are becoming. I feel honored by their trust, in bearing witness to their journeys.

It’s wonderful that you enjoy helping others make the most of this genre. Of course a good example of that is Unrooted Childhoods, which is a book of memoirs by people who grew up in multiple countries.
Memoir is a wonderful genre, open to many forms, and helping writers find their voices, their unique expression, their subject, is a joy for me. There are strands in life that one thinks of as separate, and I have figured out a way to braid them together. There is so much self-discovery in the process—I can’t tell you how many times students have told me, “I had no intention of writing about that. And I’m so glad I did.”

Where can people find those workshops?
My regular memoir-writing workshops are offered through Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, outside Washington, DC. I’ve offered other types of reflective writing programs in various community and art centers in the area, and am open to offers elsewhere. I’m happy to share more detailed information upon request.

Thank you, Nina, for sharing the story of your creative life with readers at the Displaced Nation. So, any questions or comments for Nina? Be sure to leave them in the comments!

*All subheds are quotes from Nina’s essay for Brain, Child Magazine, “Leaving” (April 2014).

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!

Related posts:

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Brittani Sonnenberg’s gem of a novel about an expat family for whom home is everywhere–and nowhere

Booklust Wanderlust Collage

Left: Oleh Slobodeniuk (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0); right: Beth Green (her own photo).

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, is back. An American who lives in Prague, Beth mixes booklust with wanderlust in equal measures, which gives her just the right background for reviewing recent book releases on behalf of international creatives.

—ML Awanohara

November greetings, Displaced Nationers! I’ve been reading up a storm lately (including Tana French’s latest addition to the Dublin Murder Squad series that I reviewed here this past summer—another great book!). But as I contemplated which work to pull down from my digital bookshelf for this month’s review, my attention came to rest on a super example of Third Culture Kid fiction: Home Leave, the debut novel from Brittani Sonnenberg, which came out earlier this year.

Home_Leave_coverPerhaps I was attracted to this book because the story Sonnenberg tells, about a globetrotting family, reminds me of my own. As some of you may know, I grew up on a boat and spent most of my life before high school outside the US—we were seven years in the Caribbean and two in the South Pacific.

But if it’s my story, it’s also Sonnenberg’s. She spent her childhood alternating between her native US and the UK, Germany, China, and Singapore, and, like many of us TCKs, has opted to become a “chronic expat” in her adulthood. She has worked as a journalist in Germany, China, and throughout Southeast Asia. (Currently, she resides in Berlin but is also a visiting lecturer in Hong Kong.)

Until Home Leave, Sonnenberg was known primarily for her short stories and NPR commentaries about life in Berlin.

In fact, her novel started as a memoir, but then one of her agents encouraged her to try re-approaching the material through fiction.

There must be more to life than having everything!”—Maurice Sendak

Home Leave concerns an American nuclear family, the Kriegsteins. The parents, Chris and Elise, determine to escape their dreary lives in the US by living and working overseas as expats. As Chris pursues a career at several international companies, their two daughters, Leah and Sophie, learn what it is to feel at home abroad and a stranger “at home” in the US. They revel in their uniqueness, but they also sometimes long for putting down roots and living like kids back home.

Sonnenberg makes a creative decision not to have a single character as the protagonist. Each of the Kriegsteins is a main character, and there are multiple narrators.

But for me, the book did have a star, and that was Leah. Sonnenberg links Leah’s emotional and personal success as a young adult to her peripatetic childhood, delivering in her a multifaceted portrait of a Third Culture Kid to whom other TCKs can relate.

“Home is where one starts from.”—T.S. Eliot

Leah is the elder daughter, and her toddler years abroad insert themselves into her identity almost from the moment when the family moves back to the US for a few years. As Sonnenberg writes:

Even Leah, with eleven-year-old pretensions of grandeur, craved a “next,” though her memories of “before” Atlanta were limited to the backyard in London, fish and chips, and falling blossoms in a British park…Leah grumbled that they always went to the airport to pick people up but never went anywhere themselves.

Her wish is granted when the family departs to Asia, where they begin a tradition of going on home leave back to the United States:

Like Persephone’s annual permitted return to her mother aboveground, by the gods in Olympus, the powers that be at Chris’s company will grant the Kriegstein women “home leave” once a year, each summer, when they will stay with friends and relatives, the flights covered by the company. In September they will be forced to leave again, back to China. This habit of home leave will cement Atlanta as “home” in their minds, since they always fly back to the Atlanta airport.

Of course, the price to pay for home leave is a complicated definition of where “home” is. As Sonnenberg writes:

When the Kriegsteins leave Atlanta for Shanghai in 1992…they are desperate to be overseas again. After three months in Shanghai, they will be desperate to return home.

And once Leah is an adult, she faces the classic Adult Third Culture Kid dilemma—how to answer the unanswerable: “Where’s home?” Speaking for myself, I never seem to answer it the same way twice in a row!

But what if one must re-start from tragedy?

There is a further twist to the Kriegsteins’ story, which is that Leah’s younger sister, Sophie, dies unexpectedly in their teen years—another parallel to Sonnenberg’s own life (she lost her own sister, Blair).

If you haven’t read the book yet, please note: to tell you about Sophie’s death is not a spoiler. Her death is referred to in the book before it happens, and at one point, her ghost actually narrates the story.

Now, Leah’s strongest relationship is with Sophie—something any TCK out there will understand. As children in foreign places, Leah and Sophie are sometimes each other’s only playmate. As preteens, they look out for each other in Shanghai and share a conspiracy to run away back to Atlanta—a plan only foiled when airport staff won’t accept their father’s credit card without their dad present.

Not surprisingly, Sophie’s death breaks the teenaged Leah, influencing how she perceives her place in the world and reality for years afterward:

Was Sophie’s death a foregone conclusion in any geography, a heart failure built into her system that would have struck her down on any continent? Later, the doctors would say, “There was nothing you could have done. Undetectable heart conditions are just that: undetectable. You mustn’t blame yourselves.” But because the death will happen in Singapore, its occurrence will be unimaginable anywhere else. Thus, in the parallel (irrational) universe, where they stay in Atlanta, where the good years never end, Sophie never dies.

Likewise, Sophie’s abandonment of Leah comes to affect her definition of “home”:

Years later, as an adult, when asked where she is from, Leah will always say “Atlanta,” as if we come from our joy, as if, aside from their goodness, there was anything to say about the good years.

Living in not-so-splendid isolation

The late, great David Pollock, a recognized authority on TCKs, once wrote*:

The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.

Sonnenberg gives us a sense of the disjointedness of the TCK upbringing, and the many identity issues this results in, by having each chapter of Home Leave read like its own short story, with its own narrator. Thus we go from Elise delivering an electric first-person narration of how she coped with her daughter’s death, to therapist appointments written like scenes in a play, to a first-person-plural foray into describing how a group of young TCK women experience university.

Although this style can be jarring for the reader—the book you pick up in the afternoon doesn’t feel like the same book you put down in the morning—taken as a whole, Home Leave feels as fragmented as a life abroad sometimes feels.

Most importantly of all, Sonnenberg’s book does not shy away from the irony of the TCK experience, which is that although a family may travel abroad to broaden its horizons, none of its members ends up having any long-standing relationships except with each other. And, in the case of the family she depicts in Home Leave, even those relationships are uncertain. As the novel’s action unfolds, the older Kriegsteins are shown to be deeply flawed people whose naivety toward the world, and indifference to the needs of their own children, is sometimes astounding.

Home Leave left me feeling sorry for the Kriegsteins: they appear to have been impoverished by their life abroad, not enriched. Throughout the story, I kept wishing they might form a real connection to the places they inhabit and the people they encounter. But, except for the touching scene when Elise is pregnant in Germany, Chris’s ambitions and their own dysfunction buffers them from opportunities to create authentic bonds.

The sections about Shanghai seemed particularly sad, though perhaps that’s only because we see the city partially through the lens of an awkward, pubescent Leah.

But, although not all TCKs will find that the Kriegsteins’ experiences are close to their own, Home Leave is a gem of story suitable for anyone with international experience. And the quality of Sonnenberg’s writing is such that I’m really looking forward to seeing what she produces next.

* * *

Now for a parting thought for my fellow TCKs, some of whom may be feeling rather wistful after reading this review:

Home life is no more natural to us than a cage is natural to a cockatoo.

—George Bernard Shaw

Till next month!

*Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, by David Pollock and Ruth Ven Reken (2009, rev. 2010).

* * *

Thanks, Beth! I note that the New York Times reviewer of Home Leave concluded that in putting Leah at the book’s emotional core, not her parents, Sonnenberg has opened the door for the next generation of international creatives, no mean feat! Readers, any thoughts or responses?

Beth Green is an American writer and English teacher living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes, and she is about to launch a new site called Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

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 Alice nominations, exclusive book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

HERE BE DRAGONS: And much else besides! A fantasy-laden Halloween paves way for NaNoWriMo

http://www.flickr.com/photos/taymtaym/15520387690/

Left: Lucca comics & games 2014, by taymtaym via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); the “dragons” of Lucca, by Andrew Couch (October 2014).

For the past few months expat Andrew Couch has been helping us make the connection between a life of international travel and fantasy writing. This month he reports on how he spent Halloween. After you read it, I have only one question: train trip or mind trip or both?

—ML Awanohara

While my compatriots were out trick or treating, I was having my own kind of Halloween adventure over here in Europe, one that took me beyond my wildest imaginingssaying a lot for a fantasy writer!

Naturally, it had people in all manner of costumes wandering about. But it also presented opportunities to hear from a grown man about why he loves writing stories from the point of view of talking mice, and to explore a medieval walled city.

By now fellow geeks should be able to guess that I was attending a comic and games convention: the one that took place in Lucca, Italy, over Halloween weekend. Lucca, a city in Tuscany, is an hour from Florence and half an hour from Pisa.

Now, Lucca may not be able to boast of having a Uffizi Gallery or a leaning tower, but it does have church towers, clock towers, winding streets and odd-shaped plazas, all within a set of Renaissance-era city walls. So many fantasy stories feature towns inside of walls, and there are not many cities that still have them. I had a blast walking around on top of them. Here’s the view it yielded:

Photo credit: Andrew Couch (October 2014).

Aerial view of Lucca. Photo credit: Andrew Couch (October 2014).

You know, being an expat in Europe does have its advantages besides being able to spend Halloween in Tuscany. When in the United States, I never lived in a place big enough to have a decent Con, but in Europe, size doesn’t matter so much, and good train connections make it less of a hassle to attend (no parking woes, and maybe no need for overnight accommodations). This was my first time in Lucca, but for a few years in row now, I’ve been attending the Essen games in Germany, where I live. My first year I took a four-hour train to and from the convention on the same day. At Lucca I noticed someone buying a train ticket home to Turin, which isn’t so close either.

The costumes were a treat

It’s been seven years since I’ve seen any trick-or-treaters as Halloween isn’t widely indulged in Germany (as in other European countries, November 1, All Saint’s Day, is the holiday). But this year it didn’t matter as I had plenty of cosplayers to distract me. Cosplay, short for costume play, is a kind of performance art where we geeks dress up as our favorite characters or ideas.

Similar to Halloween, there are those who create their own original costumes around themes and those who don meticulous real-life facsimiles of 2-D drawings in a comic, game or movie.

I had fun watching both groups.

Since so much of what I like to read and write is steam punk (my fantasy world employs steam power), I enjoyed running into a troop of steam punk people:

SteampunkParade

Steampunk parade. Photo credit: Andrew Couch (October 2014).

Articulated metal hands and fancy goggles blending with romantic ideas of Victorian clothing—it’s definitely fantasy but not as over-the-top as anime and game characters. The mix of reality and fantasy is different, too. For many of the steam punk designs, you could imagine the mechanisms actually working, whereas the fellow on the other side of the street encased in red leather from head to foot? He can barely walk, let alone swing one of his many swords.

A real-life fantasy simulation

Perhaps even more helpful from my writer’s perspective was the chance to observe all of these characters circulating in the convention crowds. Writers, particularly fantasy writers, are free to create all manner of craziness—physics be damned. But seeing some of these ideas in the flesh wandering around was a reality check. The character who carries his signature 7-foot sword around on his back everywhere he goes really sticks out—even in a crowd full of people sporting wings and carrying all kinds of swords and staffs.

Wings, too, are interesting. Out of necessity they create a wider concept of personal space in a society, and potentially the need for wider doors…

So even my crowd watching was a source of reflection. Whether I want to write an over-the-top action story or a more realistic fantasy, I have an idea of what it looks like for various characters to wander around in a city. Because I’ve seen it.

Of Mice and Comics

I chose to attend this year’s Lucca Comics and Games primarily because of an American, the comic book creator David Petersen. He is the author and artist of Mouse Guard, an awesome set of comics (and a role-playing game) about talking mice in a medieval world. I waited in line for an hour to get my book signed (totally worth it!). I also sat in a old Italian church and watched him draw and listen to him talk about his creative process.

Asked about what inspires his drawings, Petersen told a story of being a young boy going with his family to a church in the States with rich wood carvings and decorative elements. He talked about how craftsmanship affected him. He liked the idea that functional items could still be beautiful and wanted his mice characters to have that.

He went on to say that he developed his storyteller muscles as a teen, when engaging in a lot of role-playing games. And he talked about the physical format of the comic book, allowing for dramatic shots and pacing. He said that the British film maker David Lean had inspired him to conceive of the comic book in these terms.

So Petersen takes part of his inspiration from movies. Who knew? And one day my written-word fantasy stories may take inspiration from comic books like his. Why not?

There was something rather stunning about Petersen talking about all this in the setting of a church, with stained glass behind him and a carved wooden ceiling above. My thoughts wandered briefly to the cathedral in Freiburg:

FreibergMinster

Inside the Freiburg Minster II, by orestART via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The original Freiburg Minster was built in the Middle Ages, before people believed the world wasn’t round. That is still mind boggling to me as an American.

* * *

In the end I found the Lucca event so stimulating I only went two of the four days. After being in such enormous crowds, I was happy to be quiet and retreat into the introverted part of my self.

And yet those two days got me thinking more about my own stories, a good thing. I definitely felt ready to write when I got back on the train. I started NaNoWriMo (see my profile) last week along with many others and am already 10K words into the new story (with my second novella nearing completion as well). This is partly due to having a plot pre-planned and partly due to the rich stew of images generated by my time in Lucca, more nourishing for geeks like me than your average Halloween witch’s broth.

Andrew Couch has been a fantasy book nut since childhood; he really has not grown up much since then. After struggling to write his own games for years, he is now creating fantastical worlds in a series of novellas that echo the TV shows, anime and role-playing games of his youth. Beyond fantasy he is an avid blogger and a world traveler who resides in Germany. To learn more about Andrew, check out his blog, Grounded Traveler, and follow him on Twitter: @groundedtravelr.

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!

Related posts:

EXPAT ART AS THERAPY: Works that capture precious memories of life in other countries

ExpatArtasTherapy_Principle1As explained in my introductory post to this series, the Swiss-British philosopher (and Adult Third Culture Kid) Alain de Botton argues that art of all kinds can be a form of therapy, providing powerful solutions to many of life’s dilemmas.

But is that also true of expat works? Does our art benefit humanity more broadly, or are we creating things—memoirs, novels, films, dance and stage performances, social enterprises—that will only ever speak to people like ourselves: what fellow global soul Pico Iyer has called the great floating tribe of people “living in countries not their own”? (We currently number around 230 million, or just over 3 percent of the world’s population.)

SEND IN THE CLOUDS: "London from Hampstead Heath," by John Constable (British Museum)

SEND IN THE CLOUDS: “London from Hampstead Heath,” by John Constable (British Museum). Photo credit: John Constable, via Wikimedia Commons.

In his “Art as Therapy” lecture, de Botton specifies 6 ways art can answer human needs.

The remainder of this series will look at whether, and to what extent, these observations apply to the works of international creatives, beginning with…

Principle #1: Art can compensate for the fact that we have bad memories.
De Botton cites John Constable and his paintings of clouds above Hampstead Heath as an example of how an artist can sometimes capture something significant yet fragile they have experienced and don’t want to forget.

Will the John Constables among us please stand up? Seriously, it strikes me that we international creatives are well positioned to preserve the memories of the daily wonders we’ve encountered in far-flung parts of the world, our knowledge of which accrues over time. (Not for us the Wonders of the World, when there are so many intrepid world travelers around, eager to conquer them.)

Back in the days when I lived first in England and then in Japan, I always felt like the poor cousin of the anthropologist—I wasn’t an area specialist but that left me free to approach life with an Alice-like curiosity, never quite losing the sensation of having fallen through the rabbit hole. And to convey that to others…

But let’s look at some examples, shall we? Each of the visuals below is inspired by or belongs to the work of an international creative that has featured on this site in some way. I selected these four individuals because of their ability to conjure up an image of something rather precious within their new landscape—the expat equivalent of a dramatically shaped cloud. And, as de Botton has been invited to do at several museums, I’ve added post-it notes describing the therapeutic effects I experienced.

#1: Parabéns: We’re All Mad Here

Parabens

Photo credit: Marbela via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

OBJECT LABEL: Parabéns: We’re All Mad Here, inspired by Megan Farrell (aka Maggie Foxhole) and her book, American Exbrat in São Paulo.
ML’S POST-IT: I have never been to Brazil, but reading Farrell’s step-by-step guide for foreigners who are living (or planning to live) in São Paulo piqued my curiosity. I particularly enjoyed her vivid account of the Brazilian birthday party. What a palava! Far beyond my wildest imaginings. But what is even more curious to me is the Sweet Table, sitting in splendid isolation until the very end of the festivities. According to Farrell:

“The design of the Sweet Table is on the same level of importance for the birthday party as is the set design for a Broadway performance. It consists of hundreds of sweets, strategically placed around the other decorations. But most importantly, NO ONE TOUCHES the Sweet Table until the birthday candles have been blown out at the end of the party. No one. An interesting objective when you have anywhere from thirty to fifty children running around wild and free.”

I rather like the thought of deprivation in the midst of so much decadence: does that make the brigadeiro, when you finally get one, taste even sweeter?
FURTHER READING: Our interview with Megan Farrell, by Andy Martin: Why exbrats in São Paulo need their own book to appreciate life in Brazil’s largest city.

#2: Are Acacia Trees Humans in Disguise?

Acacia Trees

Photo credit: Gezira Sporting Club, by Jorge Láscar via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

OBJECT LABEL: Are Acacia Trees Humans in Disguise?, inspired by Alice Award nominee Kathleen Saville‘s description of these trees in Zamalek, Gezira Island (Cairo, Egypt) in a post for her personal blog.
ML’S POST-IT: The thought of living in Egypt scares me, and I’ve been avoiding most trees ever since Hurricane Sandy. But after reading Saville’s description of Egyptian acacias—

I see folds and twists in the trunks like nothing I have ever seen in another tree. Each tree looks like a long thin body or leg covered with support hose. It’s odd because the appearance is almost human like.

—I feel calmer. Might I have a tree-hugging future?
FURTHER READING: Saville’s blog, Water Meditations, focusing on her water travels.

#3: Elephant Road Trip

Elephant Road Trip
OBJECT LABEL: Elephant Road Trip, inspired by Ruth Hartley and her novel about Africa, The Shaping of Water (Hartley grew up in that part of the world).
ML’S POST-IT: Hartley’s novel begins with the construction of the Kariba Dam, one of the largest dams in the world, over the Zambezi, the fourth-longest river in Africa, flowing into the Indian Ocean. As much as I enjoyed Hartley’s book, I could never quite wrap my head around the scale of what she describes, whether talking about the dam, a massively ambitious project, or about the problems Africa faces as it attempts to shake off the colonial yoke. Perhaps that’s why I took comfort in Hartley’s description of elephants serving as the continent’s original bulldozers:

The roads over the escarpment follow for the main part the old migratory routes taken year after year for millennia by elephants. Elephants, who for all those thousands of years would roam, not just around Zimbabwe, or just around Kenya, but all the way up sub-Saharan Africa from south to north and back again. Now human governments have decreed that elephants must obey human laws and stay within the bounds of national boundaries drawn by straight-edged rulers on maps. In the time before colonization, a mere 150 years ago, elephants travelled where they always travelled, and they walked across mountains with consummate skill and ease, always finding the most direct routes through the least difficult of the passes.

In the midst of a man-against-nature, man-against-man story, I found it a restorative to imagine these pre-colonial times when the elephant, such a magnificent beast, could be relied on to forge trails through the dense brush and trees.
FURTHER READING: Coming soon: our interview with Ruth Hartley about her book.

#4: Shanghai Mix

Shanghai Mix

Photo credit: Rachel Kanev.

OBJECT LABEL: Shanghai Mix, consisting of a photo taken by globe drifter Rachel Kanev, which she chose to feature in her iinterview with James King for our site’s “A Picture Says…” column.
ML’S POST-IT: Rachel has captured a memory of an experience I’ve had several times myself but had nearly forgotten: namely, what it’s like actually to witness Asian economic development rather than pontificate about it. As Rachel puts it in her chat with James:

In that fleeting instant, one can see Shanghai’s varied transportation, high-rise buildings and red lanterns, as well as Kate Winslet—that curious amalgamation of Western modernity and Chinese traditionalism that is everywhere around you in the city.

Perhaps because she snapped the photo just as the sun was setting, it fills me with sweet nostalgia. (I’m not remembering the smog, for a change…)
FURTHER READING: Rachel Kanev’s blog, Globe Drifting

* * *

So, readers, what do you think of the above “exhibition” of works that touch on expat experiences and emotions. Did you find it therapeutic? And are there other expat works you would recommend for this reason? Do tell in the comments.

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 Alice nominations, book giveaways, and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

And the October 2014 Alices go to … these 3 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 three Alice recipients for October. They are (drumroll…):

2) Maya Kachroo-Levine, New Yorker in Los Angeles

For her post: “5 Things an East Coast Transplant Misses on the West Coast,” in Thought Catalog
Posted on: 15 October 2014

"But I'm not used to it!" pleaded poor Alice in a piteous tone. And she thought of herself, "I wish the creatures wouldn't be so easily offended!" "You'll get used to it in time," said the Caterpillar; and it put the hookah into its mouth and began smoking again. Photo credit: Arthur Rackham [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

“But I’m not used to it!” pleaded poor Alice in a piteous tone. And she thought of herself, “I wish the creatures wouldn’t be so easily offended!”
“You’ll get used to it in time,” said the Caterpillar; and it put the hookah into its mouth and began smoking again. Photo credit: Arthur Rackham [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Alice Connection:

[Y]ou occasionally find yourself feeling that your sarcasm is falling flat, and you want someone to appreciate it. Or better, you want them to argue with you. I miss that.

Citation: Maya, if you think navigating between East and West Coasts is bad in terms of sarcasm and irony, try the UK versus the USA. The former is a lot more irreverent, a difference can cause misunderstanding and even offense (not to mention homesickness for the perpetrator). You have our deepest condolences. What’s more, your point about having to drive two hours merely to go apple picking reminds us of Alice repeatedly trying to reach the garden at the top of the hill at the start of Through the Looking Glass. Likewise in your case it seems reasonable to ask: how hard can it be to reach a deciduous fruit tree? Thank you for your thoughtful (no pun or irony intended!) post. We wonder if the best way to endure this domestic culture shock would be to seek out a Caterpillar equivalent, who in the current California context would most likely manifest itself as a mindfulness guru. Until then, deep breathing; and, as one of that state’s more renowned self-help proponents used to say, try not to sweat the small stuff!

2) Sarah O’Meara, former lifestyle editor for Huffington Post UK turned China expat

Alice_in_Wonderland_by_Arthur_Rackham_The_Pool_of_Tears

It was high time to go, for the pool was getting quite crowded with the birds and animals that had fallen into it: there were a Duck and a Dodo, a Lory and an Eaglet, and several other curious creatures. Alice led the way, and the whole party swam to the shore. Photo credit: Arthur Rackham [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

For her post: “The art of swimming in China,” for Telegraph Expat
Posted on: 27 September 2014
Alice Connection:

Many young Chinese men prefer to conquer, rather than swim, in the water. They thrash their arms around, causing enough splash to choke fellow lane users, yet never quite enough to move them forward. While underneath the surface, their legs flail, neither acting as propellers or buoyancy aids.

Citation: Sarah, we have to say that after reading your wonderfully amusing post, we are still processing the image of women wearing pencil skirts walking very slowly on running machines in heels. Still, we commend your decision to focus not on Chinese sports centers but on the risks one faces “of being half-drowned by frothing waves, or hit in the face” when venturing into China’s public swimming pools. And, just as Alice concludes she may be better off swimming to shore, we applaud your solution to the problem. Joining a private pool, where, as you say, the proportion of non-swimmers is lower, must be much safer, even if you can never quite escape the young men who have adopted the walking and thrashing style of Mao crossing the Yangzte. (My, my. That Mao has a lot to answer for…)

3) Jenny Miller, NYC-based food and travel writer

For her post: “I Ate Tarantulas In Cambodia. And Liked It,” for Food Republic
Posted on: 23 September 2014

'—then you don't like all insects?' the Gnat went on, as quietly as if nothing had happened. 'I like them when they can talk,' Alice said. 'None of them ever talk, where I come from.' Photo credit: John Tenniel.Slatifs at en.wikipedia [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

“—then you don’t like all insects?’ the Gnat went on, as quietly as if nothing had happened.
“I like them when they can talk,” Alice said. “None of them ever talk, where I come from.” Photo credit: John Tenniel.Slatifs at en.wikipedia [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

Alice Connection:

We might have gone on sampling this towering insect buffet, but Megan made our excuses in Khmer and we walked down the road for an ice cream instead.

Citation: Jenny, we’ve got to hand it to you. What kind of traveler knows exactly what to say when, bumming around Southeast Asia, they find themselves on a bus sitting next to a Peace Corps volunteer named Megan who says she lives in Skuon, Cambodia? Only one who has read her Lonely Planet Cambodia guide from cover to cover! And then, as though being able to conduct a lively conversation with Megan about Skuon’s insect-eating habits were not enough, you take her up on her offer to visit and eat some tarantulas! Now that takes some guts, as you appear to realize once you reach “Cambodia’s spider central.” For sure, you show greater courage than poor Alice, who, upon being informed by the Gnat that a bread-and-butterfly is crawling at her feet, draws her feet back “in some alarm”. She certainly doesn’t think about eating it, even though, compared to your spiders, a bread-and-butterfly meal doesn’t sound half bad:

“Its wings are thin slices of bread, its body is a crust, and its head is a lump of sugar.”

Hmmm… Perhaps you should have read Lewis Carroll more thoroughly?

*  *  *

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!

Related posts:

DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: How to fly solo without burning the tips of my wings

DiaryExpatWriterI am pleased to welcome back up-and-coming author Shannon Young. This past summer, Shannon announced she’d cut 18 inches off her hair, quit her day job to become a full-time writer, and given herself a pen name for her planned adventure novel series. And, yes, she is an expat, a kind of love refugee, in Hong Kong. Shannon has agreed to chronicle her writing adventure for us. This is her second installment.*

—ML Awanohara

Dear Displaced Diary,

As you may recall, last month I gave you some background on my decision to quit my day job and dedicate six months to writing with all my time, all my savings, and all my heart.

I already love the sensation of flying solo. As writing coach Mary Carroll Moore once said:

Books demand more time inside, to think, muse, dream, and design our stories.

But what if I love it so much I end up soaring too high and burning my wings? To continue the aviation metaphor, I mustn’t forget to touch ground and refuel every so often.

Diary, my goal this month is to find the balance between chasing my dreams and relying on much-needed feedback, input and advice from the people within my editing and writing community.

Recently I’ve learned three lessons that I think could be useful to bear in mind:

1: Languish in limbo no longer.

fire-dragons_coverThis month saw the final publication stages for the first book I ever started writing: Year of Fire Dragons. The working title for several years was Hong Kong Limbo, which is a fairly good description of this book’s journey. After writing several drafts, I worked with an excellent critique partner (fellow expat author Jane Cornelius) and asked numerous friends and relatives to beta read before querying literary agents.

To make a long story short, one of the first agents who requested the full manuscript spent two years assuring me she would get to it soon. I don’t know if she ever opened the manuscript, leaving me—and my writing career—hanging in the balance.

At the two-year mark, I withdrew my manuscript from her consideration. By that time, I had begun to believe that this particular book could find just the right home outside the New York publishing world and didn’t want to keep being strung along. I decided to take my career back into my own hands.

Three months later I had signed a book deal with Blacksmith Books, an excellent Hong Kong-based publisher, and my piece on student debt had been accepted into the competitive Kindle Singles program. That piece is now being made into an audiobook as well.

In retrospect I’m grateful for the delay that took place due because of that New York City agent. It gave me time to do some rewriting, and my manuscript was much better by the time I submitted it to Blacksmith Books.

That said, it also taught me an important lesson about taking control of my own career.

In this season as a full-time writer, I hope I’ll continue to learn when to take the initiative and be a better judge of when to rely on other people’s responses.

2: Get by with A LOT of help from your friends.

My full-time writing schedule has allowed plenty of time to work on the little details while preparing for the launch of Year of Fire Dragons—with help and feedback from others, of course!

Here are a few things that happened this month:

1) The publisher sent the final proofreading notes. I combed through the manuscript one final time, knowing that this was my very last chance to catch any errors.

2) We rewrote the blurb (again), simplifying it a bit from the previous version. It needed to be stripped down to the basics of the story. Here it is:

Year of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong

When a bookish 22-year-old follows her Eurasian boyfriend to Hong Kong, she hopes it’ll be the happy ending to their long distance love story. But a month later, his company sends him to London. Left with a new job and a pile of student debt, she embarks on a wide-eyed newcomer’s journey through Hong Kong—alone. She works as the only foreigner in a local school and explores with other young expats. The city enchants her, forcing her to question her carefully laid plans. Soon she must make a choice between her new life and the love that first brought her to Asia.

(Is your curiosity piqued, Dear Diary?)

3) I practiced talking about the book without being annoying. This is a difficult one for me. Like many writers, I’m an introvert, and it’s a constant struggle to figure out the right balance of things to say. (If you know me in a real life and I talk about my work too much, please tell me to cut it out!)

4) I messed up, but got things sorted out in the nick of time. My publisher arranged to have an excerpt from my book published in a cool local magazine. I got the email about the opportunity shortly before I flew to Taipei for a friend’s wedding. I didn’t read the email closely enough to realize that they needed the excerpt ASAP. Several days later, I found myself in line for the elevator at Taipei 101 (the world’s second tallest building) reading an email asking where my excerpt was and could I send a photo, too? I had left my computer back in Hong Kong. At the top of Taipei 101, I tucked myself into a corner and spent most of our visit frantically trying to download the manuscript on my phone and find an appropriate photo to forward. Thank goodness for free WiFi! When we got back to the hostel I was able to use their computer to download my book and find just the right excerpt for the magazine.

5) I received blurbs offering advance praise of my book, the final full spread cover design, and a PDF with typeset pages (248!)—all the bits and pieces that make a book come to life. I’d written the pages, but my publisher had polished them, the designer had created the beautiful artwork for the cover, and the blurb writers had inspired me through their own books and offers of encouragement along the way.

Notably, all of these little victories were the direct result of other people’s input.

3: Expat life can be read as a metaphor for the editing process.

It occurred to me the other day that living in another country can be likened to the writing and editing process. An expat has to be open-minded to the cultures around him—just as a writer must learn when to accept feedback. An expat must also forge her own path—just as a writer must sometimes decide to hold fast to the words she wants to write and the career she wants to pursue.

With the near constant feedback of the other culture, an expat naturally reassesses the way they do things. Sometimes your new country doesn’t offer the same opportunities and you need to adapt, and sometimes you see a better way.

Year of Fire Dragons used to have a lot more words: awkward words, melodramatic words, giddy and petulant and angry words about my first year living as an expat in Hong Kong. The process of writing the book was a maturing process. I had to first learn to describe what I saw on the surface, with assumptions and prejudices and even rose-colored glasses. Then I had to learn to refine my perceptions even as I learned to edit my words. I had to cut to the heart of what was most important, most interesting, and most moving.

My work and my expat life are not so different, it turns out.

Diary, I still struggle with whether I’m making the right decisions. I wonder whether my book will be good enough, or if I should have spent yet another year revising. I even question whether people are just trying to be nice when they say sweet things about my book.

Throughout the next few months, I hope I’ll continue to learn how to take all the lessons offered by the wise folks around me, while still building this new life the way I want it to be.

Thank you again for following along on this journey!

Yours,

Shannon Young
www.shannonyoungwriter.com

* * *

Readers, it’s your turn. Have you ever struggled with the writing process, wondering how long you should hunker down before accepting feedback on your work, or if that feedback is genuine? Let us know in the comments!

*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—they taste delicious!

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 snippets of worldly wisdom, exclusive book giveaways and our nominees for the monthly Alice Awards. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

TCK TALENT: Alaine Handa’s fringe fest dance performance immortalized on the big screen

One year later (August 2014), Alaine Handa finds herself dancing in Spain. (Photo credit: Alaine Handa)

One year after her Edinburgh Fringe adventure, Alaine Handa finds herself in the land of flamenco: Valencia, Spain to be precise. (Photo credit: Eveline Chang, July 2014)

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang started up this column in summer 2013 with a two-part conversation with today’s guest, fellow TCK performing artist Alaine Handa. By the end, I for one had come to believe in the truth of Martha Graham’s assertion: “The body says what words cannot.”

—ML Awanohara

Welcome back, readers! It’s a pleasure to have choreographer/dancer and adult third culture kid Alaine Handa back with us at the Displaced Nation. As ML says, Alaine was my very first interviewee when this column made its debut last year.

I am circling back to Alaine to see what happened with her dance performance at the Edinburgh Fringe and also because, rumor has it, one of the performers has made a short documentary about this artistic adventure.

Dance and film: that’s quite a pas de deux!

* * *

Welcome back, Alaine! When we spoke to you last year you were about to premiere your newest show, Habitat, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The piece “shows how different people from different backgrounds change the way they behave around others and when they are alone.” How was it received at the fest?
The Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world, so we worked very hard to get the word out about our production. We blasted out press releases, distributed physical flyers everywhere (and befriended some local shopkeepers!), and performed excerpts at the venue. All of these promotional efforts starting paying off in audience numbers as the festival progressed. The feedback from audience members was mostly positive—the stories portrayed on stage were relatable. Our negative feedback was that the performance should be longer! I guess that isn’t really a bad thing: to have the audience wanting to see more.

As I recall, the members of your multicultural ensemble lived in different countries during rehearsals, so you relied on Skype, YouTube, and email a lot. What was it like to finally rehearse and perform the piece together at Edinburgh?
I rented a studio from Dance Base in Edinburgh a week before we opened for intensive rehearsals. We also lived together for the duration of the festival run so got more comfortable with each other. The rehearsal process through the 2-D medium of video was frustrating, to be quite honest. The time difference of 12 hours between New York and Singapore meant that feedback via email would be received hours later. The rare moments when we Skyped during rehearsal, we would run into problems with connectivity. I rehearsed weekly with another dancer based in Singapore and videotaped everything to send to the other dancers in New York. By the time we came together physically, it was a dream come true but also a whirlwind. We had to fit together all the puzzle pieces and find the missing links. It proved a bit of a challenge.

One of your dancers, Laura Lamp, is also a filmmaker who made a documentary short, Dreaming to Escape, about taking Habitat to Edinburgh while also exploring your philosophical and aesthetic approach to dance. Please tell us what it was like to be the subject of a documentary when you were in the middle of premiering a new work.
Laura partnered with Kevin Tadge, who runs the film company Nesby Darbfield, to make the film. They shot a lot of their material on stage, backstage, in rehearsal, at warm-ups before the performances, during dinners, in taped interviews, and everything in between. I was a bit self-conscious at first, but after a while, I just learnt to ignore the camera like a reality TV star! Upon seeing the short, I realized I should’ve cared a bit more about my appearance during rehearsals!

Where is Dreaming to Escape being screened?
Here’s what Laura reports:

“We hope to take it to documentary and dance film festivals around the world. It would be great if it screens at the Singapore Film Festival later this year. We’ve really only begun to send it out… It’s a bit of a slow process, but we’re excited to share it with everyone.”

Alaine, I understand you have relocated back to Singapore, where you were born and spent your adolescence. What has been the best part, the worst part, and the biggest surprise about living in Singapore again?
Reverse culture shock has been hitting me hard, living back in Southeast Asia. It’s been a little over two years now and I still go through culture shock every single day I am here. Singapore has changed so much in the 2000s. I barely recognized the country when I returned. The biggest surprise is how expensive it’s gotten to live here. The cost of living has gone up tremendously!

I know one of the things you’ve been doing in Singapore is teaching dance. Please tell us where prospective students can find your classes.
Yes, I’ve been teaching at multiple locations around the island. The best way to learn more is to join my mailing list by sending me an email at ahdancecompany@gmail.com and/or join my Facebook group.

Thanks, Alaine! Readers, here is a tiny taste of what you might see in Laura Lamp’s short documentary, the trailer created last year for Habitat:

Questions or comments for Alaine? Be sure to leave them in the comments section!

STAY TUNED for Thursday’s 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!

Related posts:

GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Solving the obesity problem with LBDs for all

global food gossipJoanna Masters-Maggs, our resident repeat-expat Food Gossip and Creative Chef, is back with her column for like-minded food lovers.

* * *

I’ve come to believe that it would be possible to stem the tide of world-wide obesity with the standard issue to all women of a beautifully made, French, Little Black Dress. You know — the type that appears in French adverts, or as worn by Audrey Hepburn, or in silhouettes on paperbacks about Paris (also featuring delicately drawn curly patio furniture and pom-pom headed poodles). A shapely fitted confection which flares out just above the knee, worn by a pony-tailed, impossibly thin, and very definitely French jeune-fille. Ah, me, she is just a black outline on my current bottle of rosé – but I want to be her and live her life of lightly, skinnily, skipping through streets of shuttered buildings full of parked Citröens.

If I could wear that dress, look like that, I’d forgo that extra croissant. You know I would.

Hiding a multitude of chins with Standard Issue Clothing

Joanna abayahThe last time I received a standard issue item was from my husband’s company when we relocated to Saudi. Black it was indeed, but that is where its similarity with an LBD began and ended. It was, you needn’t guess, a rather large and definitely not fitted abaya with matching headscarf.

The Husband returned home from his pre-visit carrying a lovely pink and black box which whispered all sorts of possibilities of delicious contents. In retrospect, it was probably rather large for that. As abayas go, it was a racy number with hot pink and silver around the hand-obscuring sleeves and on the edge of the black chiffony scarf.

Yes, I know. What a floozy. Actually, the scarf gave me considerable pleasure. I liked to drape it and imagine myself Benazir Bhutto or Jemima Khan. While I felt quite exotic at times, the sad truth was that I was indistinguishable from any other woman in town. It wasn’t rare for a strange child to grab my hand, confusing it for that of its mother.

That abaya was a dangerous thing, though. I heard all sorts of stories about what people wore under it, from saucy knickers to tea-stained pajamas, but I wore running tights and a long-sleeved black t-shirt. Whatever we wore, though, there was never need for a constraining waistband which would pinch us after a doughnut too many. It was awfully easy to consider pudding after lunch or even an extra Middle Eastern pastry at breakfast, especially since other pastimes were fairly limited.

Obesity is in the eye of the beholder (or in the outline of the LBD)

I am told that French obesity rates are rising, but from what to what, I am hard pressed to answer. Yesterday I drank a coffee on the Cours Mirabeau, Aix’s most fashionable street, and tried to count the number of curvier types I could find. By curvier type, I am talking about those with extra rolls. There were precious few – especially when I consider towns in England or America. A little eavesdropping revealed many of these chubbier folk not to be speaking French. Lots of tourists and people whose origins were other than French seemed to be the ones adding a little padding to the city. Perhaps it is for them there is a little crêpe and Nutella stand on the appropriately named Rotonde, the lovely fountain which marks the centre of Aix.

You might say that this really isn’t a very scientific survey and you might be right, but bof to you. The French assure me that only Aix and Paris are ultra-slim, while the rest of the country is very different – said with a charming little purse of the lips and shake of the head, bien sûr. Yet this is what I see and I am convinced that it is because French ladies have a uniform, and they see it as their duty to fit into the damn thing.

If you can’t fit in the uniform, you won’t fit in at all

The uniform in Aix is a nice dress, or neat trousers, elegant tops and casual but well fitted jackets or even cardigans – but not comfy ones, darling, don’t even think of it. Colours are elegant neutrals, whites or blacks, and linen is definitely favoured for the summer. Patterns are handled with caution and fabrics are always natural. The whole package is finished of with a head of expensive beige highlights and who then, frankly, has any money left over for overeating?

One cannot wear this uniform well if there is any hint of pudge and so discipline is required. Yes, French women absolutely do hit the gym. This should make you feel much better. Do not believe what you have heard, that French women stay slim just by walking everywhere and taking the stairs. There are lots of gyms and they are full; the classes are as frenetic as anything in NYC. Sport is organized, and grown adult women enroll in athletic-, swim- and sports clubs at the annual Rentrée which follows the end of August’s national Vacances every year. Indeed, it is organized almost along military lines and involves getting medical certificates, insurance, and all sorts of paperwork. Even staying slim conforms to the national obsession with bureaucracy. You need discipline to collect and organize that much paper.

Your mother was right: eat three times a day, and only three times a day

This discipline really seems to be in a typically French Classic manner. Old-fashioned, if you like. Three sensible meals a day, one large at midday, and do not open the fridge between meals. Wine is drunk, but not in bacchanalian English or Irish excess. “Only one,” my French friend explains with a slight wag of her index finger, “at 5pm.” These are rules which we all know we can follow, but……

This is where the government would be wise to issue that frock. Just as the abaya gave hiding room for the effects of little indulgences, a little black dress does not. Better than the abaya, it would be a luxurious thing to wear and worth an hour in the gym every day in order to get into it. Once on, it would be a reminder to avoid any bloat-inducing, calorie-laden treats, which would spoil the line of its exquisite cut.

Come on! I had to wear the abaya in Saudi. It seems only right I should have to wear the classic national costume of France. Doesn’t it?

* * *

Joanna was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself and blend into the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”

Fellow Food Gossips, share your own stories with us!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s 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!

Related posts:

Images: All images from Joanna’s personal photo albums, and used here with her permission

CHUNKS OF DRAGONFRUIT: A tale of an Australian expat navigating her own way in Japan

Dorcas Cheng-Tozun and Dragonfruit cover, courtesy Shannon Young. Purple dragonfruit by Mike Behnken (CC BY 2.0)

Kathryn Hummel and Dragonfruit cover, courtesy Shannon Young. Purple dragonfruit by Mike Behnken (CC BY 2.0)

How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia is a new anthology edited by columnist Shannon Young. For the benefit of Displaced Nation readers, Shannon has generously carved out a few tasty morsels from the writings of the collection’s 26 female contributors, highlighting their feelings of displacement within Asia. This is the second installment. The first can be read here.

—ML Awanohara

For our October excerpt, I’ve chosen Kathryn Hummel, an accomplished poet whose prose immediately stuck out to me for its lyrical quality. She uses intricate details to make her life as an Australian expat in Japan come alive, and she captures the emotions of displacement beautifully.

Kathryn also uses a unique structure featuring a poem followed by a meditation on the stages of expat life: from arrival to finding community to a mid-life crisis of sorts to acceptance. Kathryn draws the full map of a life abroad.

I hope you’ll enjoy the beginning of Kathryn’s piece, which is titled “Charting Koenji.” (Kōenji, for those unfamiliar with Tokyo’s layout, is a neighborhood on the outer western edges of the city.)

“Charting Koenji,” by Kathryn Hummel

Sometimes there are moments that catch in the flow of the everyday like a taped-up tear in a reel of film. Afterwards, there is an almost imperceptible change in the tension and projection of life, when I feel more than I see that Koenji is not my place. While I am closer than a stranger, I am still at a distance: this I measure from the inside out, since I can’t get far enough away to see it as an onlooker, detached but still interested in how the scene rolls on. For the past two years, the everyday scenes of my life have had Japan as a setting: most of these have been concentrated in the district of Koenji-minami, Suginami Ward, Tokyo. During my first weeks here, I intoned that address so many times it became a mantra, a verbal talisman to guard against losing myself in the city. Although being an expatriate—a collection of syllables I don’t often apply to myself—places me in a position of being both inside and outside, when I hear the wooden heels of my shoes clip the now familiar walkways of my neighbourhood, I am reminded only of this place, my present.

I. Arrival

Arrival is not signified by
the unburdening of suitcases
but the mechanics of realisation.
This is where I am, will be:
I have come now to the place
where before I was going.

Being present in a place means you inevitably paint yourself in the picture, draw the map around you. Slip outside these bounds and you are lost, or so I once thought. In 2004 I had stopped in Japan on my way from China to Australia and was delighted by my weeklong visit. I knew that living and working in Japan would be harder than traveling through, when my only responsibility had been to find the best way to be happy before my set departure date. Still, I had friends in Japan and their phone numbers to call; a Japanese language certificate and alphabet flashcards; a few tatami mats’ worth of rented space and a position, courtesy of an arts-exchange program, to write words for an intimate Koenji gallery wanting to commune with the English-speaking art world. If the present was a leafy bough, my future (as well as my literary imagery) would be heavy with the fruit of my Japanese incarnation.

I arrived in Osaka and rested for a few days at the home of Quentin, a university friend who had spent the last three years of his life traveling back to Japan to teach English, a compulsion he would spend another three years satisfying. At Quentin’s suggestion, I made my way to Tokyo on a journey of acclimatisation and language practice. I took a slow train to Hamamatsu to go on a gyoza (dumpling) hunt and traveled on to Yaizu, where, walking to the beach to see the distant Fuji-san bathed in the light of sunset, I met and later made love to a fish-factory worker from Peru. Yet even this encounter had the day-seizing quality of one made on a transient journey only.

When I reached Tokyo, the city was so miserably wet I thought it would never dry out. As arranged, I was met at Koenji station by my landlord, whose easy graciousness flickered warmth over my arrival, and accompanied to the building where my first studio apartment was waiting. After giving me a tour, which consisted of opening the bathroom door and indicating to the rest of the open-plan space, diminished by a folded futon and my wet bags, my landlord retreated with a bow. I was not delighted by Tokyo so far but wanted to be, so I gave my wool scarf a tighter wind, armed myself with an umbrella and ventured out. During my walk, I found that the compass on my Bleu Bleuet watch was only for show—an incidental discovery, since instinct is the direction I rely on above all. At that particular moment, I had none, and the rain didn’t help clarify my position. It leaked somehow through my umbrella and under my collar, where it remained without guiding me. As it usually happens when I walk the streets of a new place, I got lost.

The houses lost me. Or I lost myself in them. Every grey, dun, or cream-colored structure fit together in a maze of reinforced concrete. Some homes were irregularly shaped to sit correctly on their blocks; others had strange additions that seemed the architectural equivalent to tusks and antlers; oddly shaped, overgrown bonsai sprouting various thicknesses of branch and colors of foliage mingled with low electrical wires; antennas, rubbish bins, sometimes just inexplicable but neatly arranged collections of junk, assembled to give the impression that it was still of use, awaited their purpose. There was an element of seediness that did not feature in my memory of Japan: paint peeled from wooden walls and bald light globes had been left burning after midday. In the alleys behind restaurants, I was met with cardboard boxes, broken brooms and wooden pallets, rusty machinery and empty cans of cooking oil. The rain blurred the scenes without actually softening them, making greyer what was already dismal.

I told myself not to try to make sense of the maze. Tomorrow I would find my way to the gallery where I would be working and meet Kenzo-san, its owner, and all would be well if I believed all would be well. At the same time I thought, with naïveté or impatience, that I had to have a plan, that aimlessness would prevent me connecting to Koenji.

Before I left Osaka, Quentin studied my face as if trying to read its meaning. “You should have a Japanese name,” he told me. “Kat-san isn’t so easy to say.”

To me it didn’t seem as difficult as “Kassorin-san,” but I already had thought of a name that sounded appropriately Japanese. “What about Katsu?” I asked. “It’s a mixture of my first and second names: Kathryn Susannah.”

Quentin shook his head. “No. It will make people think of tonkatsu (deep-fried pork). They’ll think it’s strange. Why not choose something that represents you—a tree, or an animal?”

Quentin’s advice may have worked admirably for him in his various Japanese incarnations, but has never yielded the same results for me. I was then, and remain, “Kassorin-san,” a woman who navigates her own way. On that first afternoon in Koenji, I continued to walk until I at last saw something that indicated my flat was not far off: a secondhand bookshop I never have learned the name of, though I did eventually begin to buy books there that I hope to read, one day, with ease. The bookshop is recognisable during the day by its awning of green-and-white stripes, at night, by its security doors. Each of the three doors is painted with a face: one with running mascara and a Clara Bow hairdo, one with a sweat-beaded forehead and a guilty laugh, the last with an angry eye and an imperious-looking nose.

These faces, which remain guarding the bookshop until 11:00 am each day, signal more than my location—they are signposts for my mood. Depending on whether my mind is full or empty as I walk past on my way to the gallery or language lessons or the house of a friend, I either ignore or sympathize with whatever I can read in their expressions: their moods always change. It seems charmingly whimsical to write that these faces were my first friends, though when I realised this, I knew it was time to stop observing and start finding my community in Koenji.

* * *

Poems From Here KHummelReaders, if you enjoyed that morsel, I hope you will consider downloading a sample of the Dragonfruit anthology from Amazon. (The e-book and paperback of are available at all major online retailers.)

And if this excerpt has made you curious to learn more about Kathryn Hummel, her new collection of poetry called Poems from Here has recently been published by Walleah Press. You can also find out more about Kathryn at her author site: KathrynHummel.com.

I look forward to sharing more excerpts from the Dragonfruit anthology over the next couple of months.

* * *

Thank you so much, Shannon! Displaced Nationers, any comments on what Kathryn had to say in this passage? Having lived in Tokyo myself, I found her description of the city captivating. I was also impressed by her determination to “navigate her own way” in a city that makes many of us Westerners feel we’ve stepped through the looking glass.

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 snippets of worldly wisdom, exclusive book giveaways and our nominees for the monthly Alice Awards. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,169 other followers

%d bloggers like this: