The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: In Shireen Jilla’s second novel, a group of old friends go on safari and unpack their lives

Booklust Wanderlust column for the Displaced Nation

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), is back with her latest recommended read.

Hello Displaced Nationers! Do I have a treat in store for you this month! Shireen Jilla, whose 2011 psychological thriller, Exiled, was previously featured on the Displaced Nation, is with us again. She has written a new novel, The Art of Unpacking Your Life, which came out in March, and has graciously agreed to answer my questions about her latest work.

Shireen Jilla author photo and book cover for her second novel, The Art of Unpacking Your Life

Shireen Jilla author photo, by Francesco Guidicini (from her author site); cover art.

The book made our list of anticipated “displaced reads” for 2015. For those not in the know, it tells the story of what happens when an Englishwoman named Connie decides to celebrate her 40th birthday by organizing a group of her old university friends and their partners to go on an African safari.

But if Connie is the main character, she is not the only point-of-view character. She functions as the heart of the group—but, as we soon learn, doesn’t seem to manage her own affairs very well. To quote one of my favorite lines from the book:

“Connie was brilliant at life’s details, particularly other people’s life details.”

We all know someone like that, don’t we?

Many authors stick to similar genres and even similar stories but in her two books, Jilla has explored very different places and themes. Where Exiled is a thriller akin to Rosemary’s Baby—it centers on Anna, a British expat leading a privileged life in New York—Unpacking is The Big Chill set in an exotic landscape. Anna may feel isolated within the bustle of the Big Apple, but Unpacking‘s characters are faced with the Kalahari Desert, the kind of place where one must unpack one’s life, finding strengths as well as weaknesses.

Both stories are informed by Jilla’s own travels. An adult TCK and former expat, she has lived in Paris, Rome, and New York as an adult; and in Germany, Holland and England as a kid. (She is now back “home” in London.) And as a traveler, she has experienced firsthand the dry, unusual beauty of the South African bush she describes in Unpacking.

But enough introduction! Time to give Shireen Jilla the floor.

* * *

Hi, Shireen, and welcome back to the Displaced Nation. When we discussed your previous novel, you told us about how the cityscape of New York lent itself to writing a thriller. What made you go from New York’s hustle bustle to the stark, sparse landscape you describe in The Art of Unpacking Your Life? Why the Kalahari?
I had the characters in my mind for a long time. I wanted to explore my generation’s surprisingly disparate lives: single, divorced, gay, with children, successful, jobless. I needed them to be away from home, from their daily lives, unnerved and unsure and therefore open to exploring their issues. I tried setting the book in Sardinia because I know it well. But it wasn’t remote or dramatic enough to force them to “unpack” their problems. When I stepped out of an eight-seater plane into the vast orange heat of the Green Kalahari, I knew I had found my setting.

“Everything in Africa bites—but the safari bug, worst of all.” —Brian Jackman

Tell us more about that moment. I understand from another of your interviews that you went to the Kalahari with your brother?
Yes. My brother generously took me on what can only be called a trip of a lifetime to a private reserve, Tswalu, in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, bang near the border of Botswana. I had never been to Africa before. So my own experience of this extraordinary trip coloured my story in Unpacking. I was surprisingly drawn to the Kalahari.

Connie and her friends started out in the same place—in a shared house at university—but when the book takes place, they’re all at different places in their lives and don’t appear to have much in common any more. One is a happy housewife, or so she thinks, another feels like success has passed her by both professionally and romantically, others want to start a family, while still others are recuperating from seeing their families crumble. Many books are written from the point of view of a single character, but you give us a glimpse into the thoughts of six multi-layered characters. Was it difficult to imagine how all these people would react to the same events—how they would react to travel?
Thank you for asking this question. It touches the heart of the novel. I wanted to tell this story from the point of view of each of the main six characters because I am fascinated by how differently people read, and react to, the same events. I was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which roams from character to character, from paragraph to paragraph. That said, I wasn’t keen to jump around that much, so each chapter in Unpacking is told from a different character’s point of view. I loved writing the same scene from different points of view. It gave me a great sense of freedom.

“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno…” —Beryl Markham

Many of our readers are international creatives, so I’m asking this with them in mind: how do you capture inspiration while you travel? 

“Instead they snapped away, looking up periodically from their cameras, as if undecided whether photo memories or physical ones were more powerful.”

This line in Unpacking reflects my own feelings. While in Africa, I kept a detailed diary and took hundreds of photos, a selection of which are on my author’s site. Having started life as a journalist, I also bought books and talked extensively to the guides. I used all of this material for Unpacking, which I believe is faithful to the actual setting.

In the book, Connie and her group have a very dramatic encounter with one of the animals in the park and the friends’ various reactions reveal their state of mind. Did you have any big-animal encounters during your Africa adventure? 
Thankfully not! The scene was imagined.

Giraffe & Namibian sand Collage

A silent, self-contained Kalahari giraffe and blood orange sands make it into Shireen Jilla’s novel about a group of friends on an African safari. Photo credits: Male giraffe, by Charles Sharp, and Silhouettes in Sossusvlei, by Monica Guy, both via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

“The more I traveled, the more I realized, fear makes strangers of people who should be friends.” —Shirley MacLaine

As I mentioned in the introduction, you grew up a Third Culture Kid and you’ve also been an expat. Is there anything from your experiences living abroad as a child and an adult that worked its way into this book?
From own experience, I am acutely interested in how people react to being outside their comfort zone. Living or traveling abroad is a very visceral way of exploring this theme. With Unpacking, I wanted to place a group of close friends, who haven’t traveled extensively, into a remote, unnerving location. For me, it gives the novel its heartbeat.

I’m an Adult Third-Culture Kid, too (and an expat currently), and one of the things that I found remarkable in this book is the close cohesion of a group of people who met at an early stage of their adult lives—not always something we TCKs can find! I’m curious. Do you have a group of friends like Connie’s?
Actually, I have a varied and disparate group of old friends from many places and stages in my life. What I drew on in Unpacking is the notion that one can still feel intensely loyal to old friends, despite growing in different directions. But no, I’ve never planned a big trip with old friends as Connie does.

I noticed that within the group of friends you’ve created, there are two cross-cultural relationships. I enjoyed watching the conflicts from their opposing cultures arise in their relationships. Was this something you set out to capture from the beginning?
This is an interesting question. I haven’t consciously created two cross-cultural relationships. But I am clearly fascinated by and drawn to them. I loved writing both relationships, particularly exploring the cultural misunderstandings between the English friends and New Yorker Katherine.

“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” —Seneca

So far you’ve given us two great books based on interesting locations—New York and South Africa. What’s next? Will you follow up with Connie and her friends in another novel? Take your readers on a new adventure somewhere else?
I’m normally adverse to sequels, but I would actually love to write another novel based on the same characters. I’m not ready to let any of them go. I am deeply attached to them all. And I would also enjoy the challenge of another new setting abroad. It’s like moving country. Always exciting.

Lastly, my favorite question for everyone—what are you reading at the moment? Any suggestions for good books that might appeal to the Displaced Nation audience?
I am currently reading New York writer Hilary Reyl’s Lessons in French. The novel is an absorbing coming-of-age story about an American girl who does work experience with a demanding photographer in Paris. It’s an evocative, lyrical read for all expats. Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, is another addictive page turner that lights up a poor working class community in fifties Naples.

Thanks, Shireen, I’ll check those out! And readers, if you’re selecting books for your summer reading list, I suggest you pack Unpacking in your beach bag! Or on your Kindle, more likely… :)

Beach bag via Pixabay.

Don’t go to the beach without Shireen’s book and at least one of her recommended reads! Beach bag via Pixabay; book cover art.

* * *

And now Displaced Nationers, it’s your turn to answer some questions. And have you ever tried traveling with friends? Did you pick up any insights about them and/or about yourself? Do let us know in the comments!

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!

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Photo credit (top of page): “Notebook in hand,” by Oleh Slobodeniuk via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

For this wanderlusting Californian for whom photography and travel are a perfect fit, a picture says…

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA
Writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King is back with his latest interview subject.

Jenny in Ireland

Jenny Schulte in front of an old church window ruin near Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland.

Hello again, readers! My May guest is 38-year-old Jenny Schulte. who never had any thoughts of leaving her Northern California home until she travelled to Ireland in 1999 to explore her Irish roots. Now she is an ardent traveler who combines her love of photography with her travel experiences in her captivating blog Bulldog Travels, subtitled “Everything and Nothing Plus Some Pretty Photos.” Jenny is wrong to call it “nothing”: her blog is her her outlet for sharing her travel adventures along with the kinds of “photographs my friends have always enjoyed,” as she puts it.

On her About page, she says:

[Those] two wonderful hobbies of travel and photography fit perfectly together.

A woman after my own heart!

* * *

Hi, Jenny, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. Thank you for getting in touch and offering to share your photo-travels with us. Can you tell us where you were born and when you spread your wings to start travelling?
I was born and raised in Sacramento, California, and consider myself fortunate to live in such a beautiful part of the world. San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, the gorgeous California Coast, Redwoods, Yosemite, Napa Wine Country—all are on my doorstep. But while I have always loved to travel within the United States, when I was twenty I decided I really wanted to delve into my Irish heritage and see Ireland first hand. I had a very romantic vision of the country and figured I would be disappointed if I never went. Well…the moment my tennies hit the ground, a restlessness took over and I have been globetrotting ever since. I made a good friend in Ireland who is from Germany. and together we have seen much of western Europe (Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, France, Monaco, Spain, Andorra, England and Scotland). In more recent years I have been fulfilling an archaeological interest of mine exploring Mexico and Central American sites and ruins.

If you’re lucky enough to be Irish…you’re lucky enough!

So once you finally got the travel bug, you were up and running in those tennies of yours. I have only managed the UK and France from your entire list. I’m envious. Can you share with us some of the highlights of your travel adventures?
I really enjoy history and from Ireland I went to my first European countries: Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, where I could not only delve into history but also enjoy great food, culture, and scenery. From there I went on to other destinations such as France, Scandinavia and the UK. My search for ancient ruins took me to the Yucatán, Belize, and Guatemala. The animals and the raw nature of Costa Rica stole my heart. At home, where I have travelled California and the entire west on shorter trips, I really love Joshua Tree National Park, Portland, Southern Utah, San Francisco and Mendocino.

Now that you have gained so much real travel experience, I would love to hear more about what inspired you to travel originally and sustains you on your many trips.
No one in my family has ever travelled very far, with the exception of a few who travelled for Uncle Sam’s benefit. They tend to stick close to home preferring to take a drive rather than fly somewhere exotic. My family built a cabin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and we still enjoy it whenever we can. But my grandmother had told me stories of Ireland since I was a child, and I always dreamed of seeing it one day. After that initial Irish adventure, every trip has left me wanting more. I have averaged one or two main trips per year and as many small trips as I can fit in. As a photographer I tend to focus on areas I know will be wonderful to capture. But I am always surprised and pleased when I get great photos I never expected.

So tell us about where you have travelled most recently.
I recently returned from a trip to Belize and Guatemala. I tend to spend my home time in Sacramento, San Francisco, California Coast, the Lake Tahoe area, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I will probably stay in California until I retire and then I plan to be more nomadic, visiting places that are difficult to visit on a two-week trip. Then I hope to live in areas longer, to fully appreciate the culture and the environment.

Don’t leave it too late like I did. You need a lot of energy for the expat life.

“Laughter is the brightest where food is best.”

Now let’s move on to a few of your shots that capture favourite memories. Thank you for sharing and for describing the story behind each one and what makes them so special.  
Of course! For my first photo, I present you with a little boy cleaning a fish out front of his grandmother’s restaurant, Maggie’s Sunset Diner, in Caye Caulker, Belize. His family’s BBQ was fired up just out of the frame. The boy so badly wanted to be like his grandmother. He was begging to BBQ his own fish like an adult. My husband and I observed this charming scene while having dinner. I believe that good, inexpensive food in a place full of local ambiance is better than a five-star restaurant anywhere in the world. The photo was taken only with my iPhone but I think it captures the mood and the vibe of this small island off the coast of Belize.

Q9.1 Boy cleaning fish

Boy in Belize cleaning a fish. Photo credit: Jenny Schulte

The second photo is of some donuts my husband I consumed in Maui, Hawaii. I was driving around the rural part of the island looking for something to eat for breakfast when I stumbled upon a locally owned and run donut shop. The donuts were glorious and became a highlight of our visit. We have actually contemplated going back to Maui just for the donuts! Then again, you wouldn’t have to twist my arm very hard to go back to Maui. The older I get the more food tends to be an important part of my travels.

Maui donuts

Donut feast in Maui. Photo credit: Jenny Schulte

The last photo is of a two-headed jaguar you can see in the ancient Mayan city of Uxmal, which is located in Yucatán, Mexico. Something about Uxmal really spoke to me. I think what makes it so special is that the architects for these structures were so clearly artists. They went beyond function and focused on form in a way not seen elsewhere in the Yucatán. Their work is magnificent and the detail is phenomenal. I never grow tired of looking at photos from this visit, and I offer this one in hopes of transporting readers to these spectacular ruins.

Uxmal

A Mayan jaguar. Photo credit: Jenny Schulte

I am really impressed by the picture of the boy cleaning fish. And I agree that the experience of eating wholesome home cooking in basic local surroundings is better than any clinically manufactured setting. I am sure you take a lot of photos but where, so far, are your favourite places to shoot and can you explain why these places inspire you.
Photography is an integral part of travel for me. It doesn’t matter if I’m travelling to a faraway exotic location or hitting a local California beach—taking photographs helps me recall the trip in a way my memory alone doesn’t, and inspires me to be creative in a way I find difficult at home. I have many favourite places to take photographs, including zoos, gardens, and historical sites. In recent years, I have photographed the San Diego Zoo and the Belize Zoo. I am looking forward to a weekend-long photography expedition at Safari West in Santa Rosa in the fall. I enjoy shooting botanical gardens like Mendocino, DuPlooys in Belize, San Diego, Lake Constance (Germany) and the Maui Garden of Eden. One of my favourite architectural structures is the Eiffel Tower at night. I’ve had fun attempting to shoot it from angles not often seen.

Well, Jenny, since you left it up to me to choose three photos that represent your favourite spots, here my selection. My first choice is your photo of a rickety old building in Paris, which houses a gallery of some kind. I think your capture is wonderful because it looks as though the building won’t be standing much longer, and the shop is a relic of a bygone era.

Business in Paris

A rickety Parisian gallery. Photo credit: Jenny Schulte

Next I’ve chosen one of your Eiffel Tower shots. This one is not immediately recognizable as most shots of this iconic landmark are. So it asks a question—who am I? And the photo of the lighting on the structure in the night sky is beautiful.

Eiffel Tower

A new angle on a famous angular building. Photo credit: Jenny Schulte

Finally, I love this nature shot of yours, taken in Du Plooys Botanical Garden in Belize, with its contrast of the crimson flower, green leaves and shadows. I think it would make fine wall-art.

DuPlooys Botanical Garden Belize

Botanical blossom in Belize. Photo credit: Jenny Schulte

“Better good manners than good looks.”

So do you feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious that you are doing so?
I definitely do. I try to live my life in a considerate way. I would never feel comfortable embarrassing or offending anyone. I would never be able to look at the photo afterwards with a clear conscience. Sometimes I shoot images of people from an angle where they might not be aware. This is because I prefer candid photos versus asking for permission and taking what I would consider more of a portrait. I admire photographers who do portrait photography, but I suppose it makes me uncomfortable. It can also take the fun out of it.

On occasions where you do ask for permission, how do you get around any problem of language?
Sometimes what I do is show the person the photos I have taken of them. Recently, for example, I photographed a little girl in Belize whose mother owned the dive shop we were visiting. The girl was coloring a picture and smiling at me. I held up my camera and made an O.K. sign with my fingers. She immediately started hamming it up for the camera and then begged to see the image of herself on the camera. The girl and her mother spoke some English, but in this case it was more fun to ask without words. Miming can work pretty well. Holding up a camera or pretending to take a selfie generally gets a smile from a stranger.

Would you say that photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique which will never be seen again is a powerful force for you?
For me, photographing events or moments has the power to capture something that is both crisper and more emotional than if I wrote about the place or just relied on my memory. My photos represent what is in my heart and mind better than any other means of communication. Sometimes I will look back on an old photo and remember a moment or a place that I had completely forgotten about. The memories that come flooding back are what keep me planning for the next trip.

Clearly, a picture says a thousand words for you. When did you realize that, and how has it changed your perspective?
I don’t think there was a particular moment. I have always been that way since I had enough money to buy and develop film—I always took too many photos. But for me, and ultimately for my subjects, it is worthwhile to capture a special moment. That said, I sometimes have to force myself to put the camera down so that I can be in the moment.

“May the blessing of light be on you—/light without and light within.”

Now for the technical stuff. Can you tell me what kind of camera and lenses you use?
I use an iPhone 5s, Nikon D800 and Nikon D700 cameras. Nikon Nikkor DX 18-135mm and Nikon Nikkor AF 70-300mm lenses.

That’s quite a collection. And which software do you use for post-processing?
I just use Lightroom for post processing.

“Your feet will bring you where your heart is.”

Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
Be responsible, show respect, be a good advocate for your home country and for the human race and, if you can, travel while you are young. If you aren’t young anymore travel anyway and it will make you young! Follow your instincts, have fun, stay inspired, take breaks from your art when necessary to keep the spark, try new things, talk to people, eat the food, take the back roads and get lost…the world will all of a sudden become very very wonderful.

That is very good advice, Jenny, and I’d like to thank you for taking the time to tell your story in this interview.

Editor’s note: All subheds are from Irish sayings or blessings.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Jenny’s experiences and her photography advice? And do you have any questions for her on her photos or travels? Please leave them in the comments!

If you want to get to know Jenny and her creative works better, I suggest you visit her travel site. You can also follow her on Instagram or contact her at PhotosbyJenny@aol.com.

Born in England, James King is now semi-retired in Thailand. He runs his own photography-based blog, Jamoroki. 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.)

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: I lost my heart (but not my teeth) to the French artichoke

Global Food Gossip French artichoke

Global Food Gossip. Joanna Masters-Maggs (supplied); globe-shaped artichoke via Morguefiles; (slim-shaped) artichoke, by Marco Bernadini via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “global 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?”

* * *

“You can’t eat artichoke?” my dentist’s eyebrows lowered. “Something has to be done,” he declared, adding: “Don’t worry, the insurance will pay. In France we know that you can’t live life if you can’t eat an artichoke.”

It took a French dentist to understand that more important than a beautiful tooth, is a fully functional tooth, well able to withstand the demands of the artichoke, the most delectable of vegetables.

While out running a few years ago, I fell and broke my front teeth. Since then I had lived with two veneers, one of which never became my friend. Dreams about my teeth falling out came weekly and I never ate apples or baguettes unless first cut into bite-size pieces.

I could not, however, treat the artichoke with the same level of circumspection. I simply found it too interesting. Upon my arrival in the South of France, I threw caution to the winds—and then paid the price.

The Mighty French Artichoke

Artichokes springing up in a French field. Near Kerlouan – Artichokes, by muffin via Flickr  (CC BY 2.0).


As those who are acquainted with this exquisite food ritual will know, artichoke eating requires you to scrape the flesh from the leaves by gripping them between your teeth and pulling. The inevitable happened and that veneer bailed on me—twice.

Had I been living elsewhere, I suspect the insurance companies would not have been looked on the prospect of my leading a desolately artichoke-free life with much sympathy—in any event, not to the point of covering the payment for a new fixture. But heureusement, as I found myself in France, I was soon the proud possessor of a tooth not only of great beauty but also of unsurpassed shearing ability. It was May, and the prospect of enjoying June and July’s premium artichoke season was just around the corner. I was ready to make up for lost time.

Je t’aime bien!” I declared with uncontrolled delight as I held up the mirror to my new smile.

Non,” Monsieur Le Dentist retorted, “vous avez le coeur d’un artichaut.”

We cackled with delight.

(The joke was not entirely appropriate as the idiom describes one who falls in love all the time so it becomes meaningless—a leaf for everyone you see.)

No matter. I will have life-long good feeling for the dentist who set me loose on the vegetation of Provence. Besides, what other idiom could he possibly have used in the circumstance?

The variety of artichokes available in the South of France surprised me at first.

Slim and chic artichoke

Slim and chic. Artichoke, by Marco Bernadini via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).


Not only do you find the large and familiar green globe type but also the longer, oval types. Trust the French to have a slim and chic artichoke, too!

The colours vary from the usual green to the deepest of violets and are sold in large bunches—I can imagine them being served at the wedding of a dedicated vegan bride.

The French like to eat artichokes boiled in salted water with vinaigrette dressing. Simple and perfect, though I must admit, I sometimes prefer to make homemade mayonnaise. After all, I am dealing with vegetable royalty. Surely I owe them a little effort?

Dealing with an artichoke can cause some worry, but the rules are pretty straightforward.

Preparing an artichoke:

Method
Cut the tips of the leaves off with a pair of scissors to remove any sharp or dry bits.

Lower the artichoke into a pan of salted water and cook uncovered until you can easily pull a leaf from the whole. This can take anything between 20 and 40 minutes, depending on size. NOTE: Just remember not to place a lid on the pan. There are acids in the artichoke, which, if prevented from escaping in the steam, turns them brown. We simply don’t want that!

Next, drain the pan and let the feast begin.

Eating an artichoke:

The artichoke offers tactile eating at its glorious best:

Simply pull a leaf away, dip into your preferred sauce, place between your front teeth and apply gentle pressure as you pull forward, stripping the “meat” from the leaf. (While you’re at it, reflect on the pleasure of knowing that one of your front teeth is unlikely to be dislodged—as you never know what’s around the next corner.)

Discard any woody remnants and move on. Soon you will find a greedy rhythm that makes conversation unnecessary.

As you reach the centre, the leaves become smaller and yield less.

Pretty soon it will be time to strip away the leaves and reveal the silkily haired “choke”—which you definitely don’t want to eat!

Comb away at this choke with your fork until the hairs lift up like poorly rooted weeds. Slowly the heart is revealed, cup-like in shape and richly creamy in colour.

You have now arrived in vegetable heaven!

The rich yet raunchy artichoke “keeps on giving”

The rich yet raunchy artichoke

(Right) Stuffed artichoke, by Joy via Flickr  (CC BY 2.0).


The delicate, buttery nuttiness makes the artichaut one class act. Yet it is far from bland. It has a full and complex flavor that richly fills the mouth.

Indeed, the artichoke is the culinary equivalent of the sophisticated French lady, dressed in natural-coloured linens with caramel-highlighted hair and warmly tanned skin.

If the flavor doesn’t shout for attention with overt showiness or any trace of vulgarity, don’t think it’s a pushover. The artichoke still has potential for a bit of raunchiness. It can provide a base for stronger flavours, as with recipes for stuffed artichokes, which often involve garlic, cheese and oregano.

And why not? Even Kate Middleton has been known to channel the sexy on occasion. However, it is her tasteful and demure style that best defines her—just as it does my beloved artichoke.

Wine…or water?

Finally, I’d like to make a confession. I love drinking wine; the worst thing about it is that it doesn’t even need to be great wine. Sometimes I worry about this, but then I just get on with things.

That said, I’ve discovered that wine just doesn’t go that well with artichokes. Something about this vegetable—its sweet, rounded taste—changes the taste of anything you drink.

But what’s interesting is that it changes the taste of water, too; it makes it sweet. I honestly believe that water is the best accompaniment to this vegetable.

What joy, a healthy, vitamin-loaded lunch, which feels like a decadent treat—yet I am not even tempted to consider just one glass of wine.

If you don’t already love the artichoke, I urge you to give it a chance. It’s the vegetable that just keeps giving.  :-D

* * *

Readers, we invite you to continue the food gossip! In your humble opinion, is it worth fixing your teeth veneers to eat artichoke? Have you ever “fallen” for a vegetable in this way in the country where you live? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

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CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: How to pry open your mind to new cultures—and keep them all sorted

Yelena Parker for CST Displaced Nation Columnist H.E. Rybol never saw a culture clash she didn’t want to fix. A “transitions enthusiast,” she credits her Third Culture Kid upbringing with giving her a head start in this department. That said, H.E. is always on the lookout for shiny new tools, and toward that end has been interviewing other displaced creatives about their culture shock memories and coping strategies. Today she speaks to Yelena Parker, a Ukrainian expat, executive coach, and writer who, through her many international moves, claims to have mastered the art of “moving without shaking.”

—ML Awanohara

Hello, Displaced Nationers! I’d like you to meet today’s guest, businesswoman and author Yelena Parker. Yelena is Ukrainian but has lived in the United States, Switzerland, Tanzania and now the United Kingdom, and has conducted business in many more countries. Last year she published a book titled Moving without Shaking, which made the Displaced Nation’s “Best of 2014 in Expat Books” list. Described as a “guidebook-meets-memoir,” it aims to help women “who are interested in building their new global life styles whether through working, studying, volunteering or simply living abroad.”

One of Yelena’s contentions is:

Once you are on a serial expat path, new relocations get easier.

Can we take this to mean it’s possible to get better at handling culture shock?

Let’s find out by asking Yelena to describe a few of her own culture shock experiences. She may advocate for moving without shaking; but how does that line up with her own adventures? Has she never shaken like a leaf at some point during her various international moves?

* * *

Hi, Yelena! First can you please tell us which countries you’ve lived in and for how long?

I came to California from Ukraine in my 20s to get an MBA and ended up living there for more than nine years. I didn’t make it till the very end of year 10 as an opportunity came along to relocate to Switzerland for work. After two years in Geneva I moved to London to continue working in tech. I’ve now lived in the UK for four years, only interrupted by a four-month volunteering stint in Tanzania, with a Kilimanjaro climbing break in between.

You’ve certainly made your fair share of cultural transitions. Did you ever put your foot in your mouth? Any memorable stories?

I travel to Moscow frequently for work. During the last trip the taxi driver asked me where I was from. This question is always complicated since, like many here at the Displaced Nation, I now feel as though I’m from everywhere and nowhere in particular. I tend to focus on the most recent location when giving an answer. To be polite, I share where I am coming from literally (versus where I am from). On this occasion, the last port of call was St. Petersburg, which in Soviet times was known as Leningrad. Some wires in my brain must have crossed as I blurted out: “From Leningrad.” The driver said “Really???” We ended up engaging in a much longer conversation, about my Soviet childhood in Ukraine and so on. I think I had a reverse culture shock reaction after being away from where I grew up for so long.

What lessons can you offer to the rest of us from this story?

It’s a bit of a strange example, but what I am trying to get across is that keeping your life truly connected to multiple worlds is very difficult. You are bound to lose some of your identity, forget the basics, replace them with new realities and then, perhaps, come full circle as you find yourself back in your good old comfort zone. You and your memories have many layers now. It can be challenging to keep them sorted. That toolbox of yours needs to have quite a few compartments!

Looking back on your many cultural transitions, can you recall any situations that you handled with surprising finesse?

Moving to Tanzania, I was surprised at how quickly I embraced the pole pole (slowly-slowly) way of life. Until I went on this amazing adventure, I had always been a workaholic. But then I found myself living enjoying the most beautiful sunsets and spending a lot of time talking to people in front of me instead of using various digital ways to connect with people remotely. I didn’t complain about the lack of speedy or efficient services anywhere as I no longer expected that kind of thing. I was not rushed or overwhelmed so wasn’t concerned about being late or other people being late or not showing up to meetings. I just enjoyed every moment of this new experience: no deadlines, no crazy work hours, only things I truly wanted to do. You could say I felt burnt out after working non-stop (or being in school) for 23 years. I do believe, however, that something in that culture was appealing to my natural preferences, which had been suppressed by years of working in the corporate world. I also realized that I wanted to teach again. My first career was in teaching English at a university level in Ukraine—work I’d chosen to abandon when I took a degree in business. That said, I am back on the corporate path again.

If you had to give advice to new expats, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first
and why?

I guess it would be some kind of crowbar to pry open your mind to new experiences, no matter how many times you relocate. Learn everything you can about your new home country. Explore it thoroughly. If you end up moving back home, you will regret that you didn’t do enough. If you stay, the more you learn, the easier your assimilation into your new life is going to be.

Thank you so much, Yelena, for taking the time to share your experiences and reminding us that keeping an open mind and a willingness to learn about other cultures can be effective tools, sometimes in unexpected ways! I love your example of becoming immersed in an East African culture and learning more about your own (suppressed) natural preferences as a result. And I of course love the idea of moving without shaking! That’s what this toolbox is for…

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Yelena’s advice? Have you ever found yourself having a Rip-Van-Winkle moment like hers? How about discovering your “true self” in a vastly different culture? Do tell!

If you like what you heard from Yelena, be sure to check out her author site and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Well, hopefully this has you “fixed” until next month.

Until then. Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin and Goodreads. She is currently working on her new Web site and her second book.  

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Columnist JJ Marsh bids farewell with generous book giveaway

JJ Marsh hands over the Location Locution reins to Lorraine Mace, who will start next month.

JJ Marsh hands over the Location Locution reins to Lorraine Mace, who will start next month.

JJ Marsh first graced the shores of the Displaced Nation two years ago. Growing up a Third Culture Kid in Africa and the Middle East, and now an expat in Switzerland, she was an immediate fit. For two years we have benefited from her love of language and place, and now, as she takes her leave from this column (though not from the Displaced Nation), she does something that makes us love her even more: hand picks a successor and offers a chance to win a set of SEVEN books from Triskele, the acclaimed writers’ collective she helped to found. Thank you, JJ!

—ML Awanohara

Two years after joining Displaced Nation with the Location, Locution column, it’s time for me to say goodbye.

It’s been a terrific experience and I’ve learnt so much from my interviewees, not to mention discovering wonderful books and unexplored places. Heartfelt thanks to ML Awanohara and the Displaced Nation team for taking a risk on me.

I’m going to hand over to a fresh face, with her own unique flair. From June, Location, Locution will be in the expert hands of inveterate creative and nomad, Lorraine Mace. I asked Lorraine to introduce herself to you next month by providing her own answers to the Location, Locution questions.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a goodbye present. As international creatives, I know you enjoy exploring books that make a feature of place.

My colleagues and I at Triskele Books have created a box set of books to transport you across time and place, from 3rd century Syria to futuristic Wales. A Time & A Place contains seven award-winning novels that have in common the theme of this column: location, locution.

Come on a journey.
We’ll take you to another place.
And tell you a story.

And as my farewell gift to Displaced Nation readers, I have one free copy (ebook only) to give away. You can win by adding a comment in the box below. In no more than 50 words, where and when in the world would you like to go, and why?

JJ Marsh's farewell giveaway

JJ Marsh’s farewell giveaway

The winner will be announced in next month’s Location, Locution.

* * *

Where would you like to be taken?

1) Modern-day Anglesey on the trail of a psychopath
Crimson Shore, by Gillian Hamer (Contemporary crime)
“Hamer does for Anglesey what Rankin does to Edinburgh, what Dexter did to Oxford”

2) Post-apocalyptic Wales, surviving with a rat pack
Rats, by JW Hicks (YA)
“An absolute treat for fans of SF, dystopian, and YA novels, but I would recommend it to anyone who loves a great story brilliantly told.”

3) Contemporary Zurich, where everyone has a secret
Behind Closed Doors, by JJ Marsh (European crime)
“Warning: once you start this book you may not be able to put it down, and you may find yourself talking to it.”

4) WWII France to resist occupation and fall in love
Wolfsangel, by Liza Perrat (Historical fiction)
“Fascinating, forceful and extremely well researched… will thrill historical fiction fans.”

5) Ancient Palmyra to fight alongside a warrior queen
The Rise of Zenobia, by JD Smith (Historical fiction)
“Packed to the hilt with tension and adventure, it kept me spellbound.”

6) Charleville, France, and the poetic voyage of a manuscript
Delirium – The Rimbaud Delusion, by Barbara Scott-Emmett (Literary fiction)
“Beautifully plotted and written, this absorbing, enchanting novel is one of the best books I have read this year.”

7) Coventry – a 1980s crucible of racial tensions
Ghost Town, by Catriona Troth (Literary fiction)
“Unique and brilliant… not just a compelling read, but also a learning experience.”

JJ Marsh and her  fellow Triskelites.

JJ Marsh and her fellow Triskelites.

Can’t wait to get the set? It’s available for a limited period at the special offer price of $9.99/£7.99. Don’t miss this box of delights. Who knows what you’ll discover?

Or, to reiterate, you can try your luck at winning a FREE copy (ebook only) by adding a comment in the box below:

In no more than 50 words, where and when in the world would you like to go, and why?

Goodbye, thank you for reading the column and I wish you all excellent journeys.

Jill

* * *

Happy trails to you as well, Jill! I noticed you said in a recent interview: “My definition of literary genius is writing about places you want to visit.” May that become the Displaced Nation’s new mantra! Readers and JJ fans, let’s all bid JJ a fond farewell by answering the question: In no more than 50 words, where and when in the world would you like to go, and why? (Seven books, wow! That’s your summer reading…)

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 has been writing a European crime series set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs. She recently produced the fourth book in the series: Cold Pressed, which takes place on a luxury cruise bound for Santorini.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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WONDERLANDED: “Can you make me a Manhattan?” by A. Spaice

Can you make me a Manhattan Collage

Drink a Manhattan at Eat Me in Bangkok. Photo credit: “Alice 15,” by AForestFrolic via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Eat Me Restaurant, Bangkok; Manhattan cocktail via Pixabay.

A couple of days ago, we wonder-landed in Phnom Penh with serial expat writer, artist and sometime photographer A. Spaice. She told us falling down rabbit holes in Europe and Asia has sparked her imagination in untold ways—not least by convincing her that a Mad Hatter’s tea Party would not be complete without champagne and an opera singer.

Spaice ended her musings on the expat writer’s life on this fittingly dramatic note:

Knowing it’s the connection that I write for now, instead of the “art,” I’m moving into a different channel. I trust this current, because it feels good. It moves, it flows. Sometimes, when I’m lucky, it even likes to dance.

Today she offers a sample of her work that seeks to connect with others who have wonder-landed and lived to tell the story—whether in words, photos, or other forms of creative expression. It’s an except from her short book Bangkok, which she produced as a kind of roman à clef after taking a trip from her current home of Phnom Penh to the Thai capital. Bangkok marks the first in an unconventional short book series she is planning, titled n+1.

Cover art for Bangkok, by A. Plaice.

Cover art for Bangkok, by A. Spaice

* * *

Excerpt from Bangkok

The story principally concerns Karin Malhotra’s attempt to reconnect with an old female friend in Bangkok, Thailand, the Land of Smiles, only to discover they are no longer that compatible. But in this passage, Karin is about to meet someone new, another displaced creative, a magazine editor who has professed an interest in her work…

“CAN YOU MAKE ME A MANHATTAN?” I asked, truly wondering. “Of course.” This was supposed to be the best bar on this side of Bangkok, according to the gay couple that seemed like good people to ask the day before. I wanted a comfortable place. Not too conspicuous, not too loud. But I didn’t expect it to have the kind of name it did. Eat Me.

Still, the guy from the magazine had said “yes,” to meet me there. I muttered something about the name and how I’d heard about it from a bunch of people (two being a bunch) and thought it could work for a conversation space.

He was taller than I’d pictured, and seemed like he might have been French, because of the two-kiss thing that the Europeans like to do when they meet you for the first time. For some reason, he was extremely close to the lips on the second one, but that was kind of flattering, in a way, because he had a rich dark musty scent and I rather liked it.

“So,” he said. “You’re Karin Malhotra. We meet at last.”

At last? Hadn’t we just talked online like, twice? Business conversation making, that was the agenda today.

“Tell me about what you do.”

Oh, boy. Here it was. The test. I hadn’t really prepared for this. I was going to have to wing it. Really, at the end of the day, pretty much everything good that’s come to my life has come of winging it, I realized. With that thought in the forefront of my mind, I got into character. “I make space. I know that might sound odd, but I was meant to be an architect. Designing physical spaces with bricks and glass and maybe new materials but not concrete because in Kyoto I got a giant magazine with Tadao Ando teahouses all in these sad greys which got me depressed for a while because the ones they have in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai and stuff? They have these lovely bamboo colors and textures and earth tones. Which is better. Anyway, I didn’t become an architect for lots of reasons, the biggest one being that I don’t like projects that take more than three or four months to finish. With books, you know, you can take years to write books, but I got into eBooks and nothing more than like a two-hour read, you know? People like that. Short and sweet.”

“Uh-huh.”

“People like it because we are so time-poor right now. Modern people, that is. I’m talking about the malaise of the Western progressive world, where we have books and medicine but we have nothing to get happy about because our souls aren’t nourished properly in the time we’re growing up.

“What I’ve been doing, what I’ve just started since putting the brakes on my own design studio, which you’ll never believe this but is the second time I’ve done that. The first time I just felt compelled to do the same thing again, when we moved from Seattle to Durham NC. Durham is in North Carolina. Have you been there?”

“No. I rarely go to America. I can’t say that I’d ever want to live there, and visiting is a trial.”

“So you’re actually from…”

“Vienna.”

Oh. Memories of college.

Schubert.

Nabokov.

A bottle of Sauvignon blanc.

“Yes, I knew someone from your country once.” I stammered. I wanted to forget about that, but you can’t really forget about those ones you fall for at first sight. Why was I talking about that, though? That was weird. “He was a colleague.” A lie. But… so?

“Where did you work together?”

Shite. I was going to have to keep going with this one? “Oh, just a small firm in Tokyo. They did architecture, but had a base in Los Angeles. I thought I’d make it to Los Angeles because I knew my husband was big into the West Coast, drier air and all. But we wound up in Seattle. It took a while to get there from our time in Japan, though.”

“I love Japanese teas, they are the best.”

“I prefer Darjeeling to everything, personally. But I do love those whisks from those places they have in Kyoto.”

“Are your genetics from India?”

Wow. That was a first. No one put it that way before. Are my genetics from India?

“Yes,” I said. Not barking at them that I’m from the outskirts of Detroit. I hate the where-are-you-from question but I still ask other people, for some reason. I guess it’s habit? Smalltalk.

My bar companion brushed his dark brown hair with his hand, and I noticed that it had a few stray grays. This was interesting. When did I ever think men with gray hair could be attractive? This was news. Maybe it had something to do with turning almost-forty. A round number.

“I have never been to India,” said Glenn. He had a really long last name that I couldn’t pronounce, much less remember to spell. What was the custom in Austria when greeting someone? Was it two kisses like the French, or three like the Swiss? I tried to remember how it had been in those couple of weeks with

“But I intend to go. This winter, in fact.” Glenn was all business, and that reminded me to focus. Not on his hair and his hands and his blue eyes, so puzzlingly deep, but the agenda. “I have to get more writers from that part of the world.”

“You do?”

“Yes. We want to diversify the magazine. It’s far too European for its own good. I really want to bring in some new voices. From afar. From the East. That’s why I contacted you. You seem to have… an Indian-sounding name. I’m sorry… I guess I just assumed…”

“Oh, that’s fine,” I said, waving it away. The truth was it wasn’t fine. Why did my stupid name have to make me into an Indian person automatically? I’d been there enough times to know that the gender bias there is ridiculous and horrid and people aren’t nice within their families, especially to daughters. Goodness knows I’d put up with enough of that growing up with my mother. My complicit brother and father, standing by while she’d hurl psychological abuse upon stones. I hated thinking about those days, and pushed aside the thought as if it were one of Glenn’s locks. I had to stop myself from reaching out to touch his crown, to see if he might notice that kind of action. Just out of curiosity, I’d say, if he asked. Not trying to get with you or anything. Just like the look of you, and enjoy studying your features. High, strong cheekbones made him look a little feminine, but his hands were rough from, what? Magazine work couldn’t possibly be physical.

“Were you always in the publishing industry?”

He took a sip of a new drink that arrived, a tall slim glass that contained a mojito. Kind of a girly drink, wasn’t it?

“No,” he said. “I was a joiner in the past.” “A what?” “Joinery. It’s a kind of carpentry, but specialized. I trained in Germany for it, for about four years. That’s where I met my partner.” “Your… partner?” “He’s a joiner, too, yes.” He. I recalibrated, and quickly. “Ah.”

The waiter came around and saved me. “Another drink?”

* * *

Readers, what did you make of this portion of A. Spaice’s expat-life story? Among other things, I think she has nailed the down-the-rabbit-hole feeling of no longer knowing who you really are or anyone else is, once you have wonder-landed.

Interested to read more of Bangkok? It’s available for purchase at Gumroad and Amazon.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Wonderlanded in Phnom Penh with serial expat writer, artist and sometime photographer A. Spaice

A Spaice Wonderlanded Collage

Tea in Bangkok and Yellow in Phnom Penh. Photo credit: A. Spaice.

Curiouser and curiouser! Residents of the Displaced Nation have always had a deep affiliation with Lewis Carroll’s Alice. We can identify with her experiences of falling down a rabbit-hole and stepping through a look-glass into a world where one doesn’t know, can’t even guess at, the rules of the game. Alice’s sense of discombobulation—which of us hasn’t had at least one pool-of-tears moment after moving to another culture?

By the same token, which of us hasn’t grown, and been stretched, in new and unexpected directions by our displaced lives of global residency and travel?

This year, to celebrate the 150 years of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I am hosting a new “Wonderlanded” series, beginning with today’s post.

Our very first Wonderlanded story is from A. Spaice, who has led a life of remarkable transitions after falling
d
o
w
n
the hole.

Spaice grew up in a rich Western country to be an engineer-artist, disappointing a lot of relatives who insisted (without invitation) that a more “normal” career would make life easier.

But this just pushed her to resent all sorts of social mores, sparking a journey that would never stop anywhere for more than six years. Her path cut a line to the Far East, looped Western Europe, and now, as we hear the details of her Wonderlanded story, Spaice writes from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, having assumed a few new layers to her creative identity as she continues to insist on looking inward to work out Alice’s big question:

“Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!”

Without further ado, I give you A. Spaice!

* * *

Greetings, Displaced Nation readers! I look forward to telling you my story of how I became wonderlanded. But first, a few details about me. Before taking this new name, A. Spaice, I’d been happily writing under my own, mostly first-person essay style accounts and often set in foreign lands. It was fine. I got places. I enjoyed it. But then, I hit bricks. Through my writing, I’d wanted to tell my story and when that was done, I realized it was okay to stretch a bit, to try new things, maybe even third person. Crazy! So after a long time of not knowing one phase could end and a new one begin, I feel a reinventing going on, from within. This propels me, and it’s been a while since I’ve felt that kind of inward push, and I know this is the kind of thing you need to have if you want to get it done and make it good. So I’m happy to make the transition, and let go of the old style.

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Along the way I got surprised about something. My major in college was engineering, and I worked in architecture firms for a while, so it’s been fun playing with new concepts in my work, like torque and momentum, or the radiation heat transfer equation, that kind of thing. I’m going to have to find a way to use ! for factorial. I’m terribly excited, and I hope this energy will reverberate through in my just-born, about-to-become-something N+1 series. (Mathy, right? I kind of dig it.)

“I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?”

A year ago at this time I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I had no idea what I was going to do for work or how I was going to “make it,” or if I’d need to abandon some old idea about what that even means, or something else. Among my possessions was an old copy of You Can’t Go Home Again, which, if you are traveling Asia and the kind of person who sizes people up by the amount of luggage they have, you wouldn’t have given me an ounce of attention because this thing is cement.

You Can't Go Home_Thailand

You can’t go home again; you’re in the Kingdom of Wonder! Photo credit: Book cover art; A. Spaice.

Thomas Wolfe was pretty roundly criticized, it says in the back notes of the book, for not being able to edit stuff himself and relying on people to help him cut things into a story-like form. But wow. His writing. It’s just…it’s so lovely and right on.

It was there with me in the suitcases, and it is here with me now, as I write. It’s been a comfort. I didn’t know anything about what was ahead (a bus ride to Siem Reap, then another to Phnom Penh, a welcome from some people social media introduced me to, and then, falling in love with Cambodia in an abstract way, because of the whole “Kingdom of Wonder” thing, but also, in general, its aesthetics (architecture, attention to symmetry, detail, and something… something I’m working on trying to capture and will stay until I can name). Ask me about the tuk tuk driver whose floor’s decked out with astroturf. A humor, a style, something else. Unpretentiousness, perhaps? Directness? Reality? Maybe it was this that made me feel, “Yes. Stay.”

But the book, that book being with me, that’s been an anchor. I keep it for comfort. I read it for love. I look to it to remember that yes, the road is ahead of you, that you can’t go back, that you just can’t fall upon some idyllic picture that isn’t real. Snap! You Can’t Go Home Again. And accepting that, right there, in the middle of the wondering, in the enchanting early evening hour of arriving on that long road from Chiang Mai to Phnom Penh, with sun reddening this sky, I knew. Something would work out. “I’ve got this. This is going to be just fine.”

An early “pool of tears” moment

Ireland. 2000. I was plonking myself into the countryside “indefinitely.” There were times out there on the farm in southwest County Cork that I wondered, “What the heck was I thinking?” I was still young then, and feared I was missing something. The city, the lights. A more familiar variety of arts and culture. What did I have in the hills? Views, rainbows, sheep, the grass-fed cow’s milk and Kerry Gold butter, sometimes shared by friends and neighbors in Union Hall and Dunmanway. Lots and lots of partying, but the honest kind, with board games and stories and singing and the craic. This was before the Internet era, so I have my doubts it would be the same now. But little by little, sticking around three years and a bit, you got to know the place and the people, and they got to know you. (A part of me is Irish, you know. From West Cork, like, so.)

“But I’m not used to it!” pleaded poor Alice in a piteous tone.

bathroom slippers anime

Through the Utsunomiya looking glass. Photo credit: Toilet Slippers, by Lloyd Morgan (CC BY-SA 2.0); Alice in Wonderland anime doll.

When I was in high school I did a Youth for Understanding exchange to Utsunomiya, Japan. I knew some things, like how you were supposed to bring omiyage so I had one small item each for my host brother, sister, father, and mother. I felt cool knowing you were supposed to leave your shoes in the genkan and wear slippers around the house. What I didn’t know was that when you go to the bathroom you change into special bathroom slippers.

I saw those, put them on, but forgot to change back into regular non-bathroom slippers and so entered the dining room, excited about all the new kinds of food. My host family was horrified. Awkward, but they made a printout of house rules, which they left on the kitchen table the next day. “Bathroom slippers are for the bathroom.” When I realized what had happened, I was redder than the cherry tomato atop the last night’s dinner salad.

“Well, I’ll eat it,” said Alice.

Iced tomato smoothies. Saigon.

Recipe for a successful Mad Hatter’s tea party

I’d host it in a place with lots of windows, preferably floor-to-ceiling, maybe on the second floor of a well-maintained building with high ceilings. There would be just 16 people—I find this to be a magical number for gatherings, you can arrange guests in pairs and then change it up, into four sets of four. Also cozy. I love having people shift about when I throw a party, it changes up the energy, and gives it a tint of surprise. I would invite people of all ages and career types because there tends to be a lot of silos out here. There would be tea for everyone, and later, an impromptu concert, with an opera singer, and then, champagne. (The opera singer and champagne part actually happened once here, magic!, so I’d have that for my guests for sure.)

champagne and opera

This mad hatter entertains with champagne and opera. Photo credit: Champagne via Pixabay; singer via Pixabay

“Oh, I’ve had such a curious dream!”

I think it’s weird when I go to California, say, and see people eating salads out of boxes. Noticed myself wishing there was more rice around San Francisco. I wondered, quite out of character, why women don’t cover their skin, especially when swimming. Isn’t that funny, when you’ve grown up in the West? Yet there are also the nice parts: people understand one hundred percent of what I say, and vice versa, and I can joke around, and it’s received, and I feel like my “old” self again. Remarkable.

“I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”

But I also see now that I’m interested in other kinds of things and that my experiences have taken me to far edges, the kinds of edges that aren’t photographable, and these make me feel like I get along better with a traveled set, not necessarily those from a particular country, or style, or personality, or something else. I like the everykind, the mixitup. I like the sense of possibility and connect with those who also want to keep it open, not box it in. Maybe that’s why I’ve lost interest in identifying with a certain country, or any other kind of label, come to think of it, too. Disorientation is part of it, but it’s precisely because of the crisscrossings that I’m figuring out, slowly, who I am. And it’s this feeling, this waking-up feeling, that is why I wanted to connect with Displaced Nation because it’s here I see it’s not just me in this big pot of “Wait. What just happened?”

Advice for those who have only just gone through the looking glass

Trust the process.

“Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.”

Okay. Well, moving from essays in high school to papers in college to, later, writing that has to go out on deadline, I’m finally able to say: I’ve got my voice. I know who the writer in me is. I’m confident, too, that this writer really wants to grow and stretch beyond previous boundaries, and that’s where this new thing, this thing I’m calling “N+1”, came from. A series of short books, based on the people I’m meeting in real time in the places where I go for three weeks or maybe two months at a time.

"In Bangkok" by A. Spaice; cover art for A. Spaice's short book, Bangkok

Creative output from Bangkok. Photo credit: “In Bangkok” by A. Spaice; cover art for A. Spaice’s first short book, Bangkok.

I’ve spent my whole life observing and taking notes, but it’s not the notes I’m referring to anymore. It’s not the pretty turns of phrase that I can feel like I can put in there, just, there!, or things I used to think made a person go, “I’m a writer!” No, it’s other stuff. It’s knowing that something you’re saying actually resonates. Connecting deeply with other people in small moments of sharing—that’s important to me. Words have a brilliant potency to make that possible, but they’re just one way. Knowing it’s the connection that I write for now, instead of the “art,” I’m moving into a different channel. I trust this current, because it feels good. It moves, it flows. Sometimes, when I’m lucky, it even likes to dance.

After Bangkok I’ll publish a new piece set in Dalat. It’ll be the first thing I’ve written in third person. My best friend, and my go-to editor, is listening to me read this aloud, and nodding, and smiling. Switching gears, writing different. It’s a good, happy change.

* * *

Readers, how did you enjoy spending time being wonderlanded with A. Spaice? Did you find her story a curiosity or could you relate?

STAY TUNED for the next fab post: an excerpt from A. Spaice’s short book Bangkok!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Meet me in Atlantis—Mark Adams’ globetrotting search of the ultimate ancient mystery

Booklust Wanderlust Collage

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

Attention displaced bookworms! This month our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), is exploring a new book in one of her favorite genres, mystery—only this time the mystery has to do with an ancient place and travel.

—ML Awanohara

Hello again, Displaced Nationers!

Here in Europe, the spring weather has me in a mood for getting outdoors and exploring—but, alas, I’ve been inside submerged in this month’s book pick, Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City, by Mark Adams, which has just the right ingredients to appeal to international creatives. After all, didn’t we all venture abroad looking to solve at least one mystery and/or locate a utopian society?

Adams, who spent his career editing adventure and travel magazines, says he thrives on combining “travel writing with deep research and reporting.” (He is the bestselling author of two previous nonfiction books: Turn Right at Machu Picchu and Mr. America, a biography of “muscular millionaire” Bernarr Macfadden.)

Meet Me in Atlantis came out in March, and, yes, Adams does take a deep dive into uncovering the real story behind this fabled sunken city! As he puts it:

…this is a detective story, one that starts in ancient Greece and follows a twisting path through (to list just a few locations) Pharaonic Egypt, Nazi Germany, and contemporary Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Sinking one’s teeth into the Atlantis story

The mystery Adams is trying to solve isn’t so much a “who” or a “where” as a “why” and a “how”. Why do people keep trying to find the legendary city of Atlantis? And how did it get lost, anyway?

Book cover; author photo: Joshua Scott.

Book cover; author photo: Joshua Scott.

Adams starts off, as any good detective would, at the scene of the crime—two dialogues written by Plato more than 2,000 years ago, Timaeus and Critias. According to Plato, Atlantis represents the antagonist naval power that besieges “Ancient Athens”—the pseudo-historic embodiment of Plato’s ideal state. Athens is able to repel the Atlantean attack, thereby proving its superiority.

Inset: Raphael's Plato.

German scholar Athanasium Kircher’s map of Atlantis, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (south is at top). From Mundus Subterraneus. 1669. Inset: Raphael’s Plato (detail). Both photos licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Plato’s descriptions of the society—lost even when he wrote about it—serve as a textual treasure map. Among the features mentioned are “the rings, the earthquakes, the elephants, the location outside the Pillars of Heracles.”

It’s these seemingly concrete details that have enticed a whole group of people, known as Atlantologists, to search for the ruins of the island nation, which, as legend has it, fell out of favor with the gods and submerged into the Atlantic Ocean. And it’s the absence of other sources—every single clue comes from Plato—that makes the search so hard, some would say infuriating.

Meet today’s Atlantis sleuthhounds

Atlantologists (doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue!) are more numerous than I’d realized. Adams’ interviewees range from historians, archeologists and geologists whose work loosely concerns Atlantis, to laypeople who find themselves caught up in the mystery of the lost city.

Now, I’m the kind of person who loves to seek out obscure places that catch my attention for some reason. Once when I was living as an expat in China, I spent a few days with my partner without a map or Internet access trying to find packed-mud forts built hundreds of years ago by Hakka clans in the Guangdong countryside. Another time, in Inner Mongolia, we took a bus 10 hours across the desert each way to find a specific grove of poplar trees my partner had once heard about at a dinner party three years before. (How we even managed to remember the trees after the beer consumed at the dinner is another mystery!)

But I digress. Returning to Adams’ book: for me, the most entertaining aspect are the people. I appreciated his light-hearted touch when presenting the cast of modern-day characters who continue searching for Atlantis.

For instance, he describes one of the historians he interviews as follows:

Coleman looked like a Broadway casting director’s idea of a state librarian—tall, white-haired, tie askew. His office was as comically perfect as a stage set, too: precarious piles of ancient hardbound books, sepia maps of Minnesota on the walls…

Another Atlantologist is so intent on explaining data, he misses Adams’ repeated requests to use the restroom. Several characters he interviews don’t want to be known as Atlantologists at all—it’s regarded as pseudoscience by many academics.

“The great Egyptian age is but a remnant of the Atlantian culture…” (from the song “Atlantis,” by Donovan Leitch)

But wait, Adams isn’t writing a spoof but an exhaustive book on the Atantis myth. Light-hearted he may be, but it soon becomes clear he wants his readers to care as much as he does about the whether or not Atlantis existed. He includes sections on Pythagoras, on warring peoples, on ancient catastrophes, and on the question of whether an ancient scribe could have transposed numbers. And, though it would be satisfying to suddenly debunk the Atlantis myth as a series of typos or an allegory using math as symbols, Adams remains skeptical. He also doesn’t give much credence to the new theories about Atlantis that have cropped up in the last 10 years (more than in the past 2,400 years thanks to tools like GoogleEarth).

Adams wouldn’t approve, but my personal favorite is the one that was propagated by a 19th-century ex-U.S. congressman from Minnesota. Sometimes referred to as the “father of the 19th-century Atlantis revival,” Ignatious Donnelly published a pseudo-scientific book Atlantis: The Antediluvian World forwarding the idea that the existence of Atlantis would explain supposed similarities between ancient civilizations of the Old and New Worlds. As Adams recounts:

Pyramids stretching from Egypt to Peru to India to Mesoamerica indisputably share an Atlantean source despite their having been built in hugely different styles over thousands of years. The use of bronze, mummification of the dead similarities of language—Donnelly assembled every available scrap of evidence to support his diffusionist idea of a benevolent ur-Atlantis spreading its wisdom to the far corners of the globe.

Adams has no time for a theory that says all the sophistication found in the world descends from a single Mother Culture. And of course he is right. Donnelly must have been a bit of a kook, and a condescending one at that.

Getting that sinking feeling…this mystery may never be solved!

Like all good detectives, Adams sticks close to the original source, Plato, and tries to make sense of the 2,000-year-old evidence.

After a conversation particularly dense with particulars and logical arguments, one interviewee brushes off one of Adams’ questions with a smile. “I think Plato maybe made a joke,” he tells him.

But Adams doesn’t agree. He sets out to visit Tony O’Connell, an Irishman who runs a project called The Atlantipedia. He ends up spending a week with Tony in rural Ireland, during which they narrow down the number of plausible theories about the location of Atlantis to four: southern Spain, Malta, Santorini, or Morocco. Notably, none of them are in the Atlantic Ocean, the original Platonic setting.

In sum Meet me in Atlantis is worth reading not only for its insights on the culture of Atlantology but also for the way Adams weaves philosophy, archeology, recorded history, geology and more into his investigation. I enjoyed the book’s sections on map-making, sea trade and old legends, but the part that really got my imagination going was the discussion of natural disasters. If there was an Atlantis, what happened to it? Was it wiped out by a volcanic explosion? Slammed by a tsunami? Swallowed by an earthquake? Devastated by plague? Warfare? Or, simply, did the society decline until it was no longer known by its former glory? Could Atlantis still be thriving—under another name?

By the end I wanted more. As Adams said in a recent Ask Me Anything (AMA) discussion on Reddit: “The thing about a topic like Atlantis is that you come across so many ‘holy crap’ moments that you can’t fit them all in a book.”

And perhaps that’s the best kind of mystery, the head-scratcher that may never be solved, that always leaves you wanting to search for one more piece of evidence. Adams had that kind of mystery in Manchu Picchu: the structure whose purpose no one can explain. And he has found it again in Atlantis: the kingdom for which we have a description but no physical evidence.

* * *

That’s all for this month, Displaced Nationers! Have you ever read a book that references an obscure site and been inspired to go on a madcap quest to find it? Do tell in the comments!

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 the next fab post!

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TCK TALENT: Neil Aitken, Computer Gaming Whiz Kid Turned Award-Winning Poet

Neil Aitken Poet

Neil Aitken (photo supplied)

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her column featuring interviews with 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, called Alien Citizen, which premiered nearly two years ago and is still going strong. In fact, she will soon be taking the production to Valencia, Spain, and Capetown, South Africa!

—ML Awanohara

Welcome back, readers! Today’s interviewee is poet Neil Aitken: winner of the prestigious Philip Levine Prize for Poetry for his book of poems, The Lost Country of Sight and founding editor of Boxcar Poetry Review. Neil and I met at the Mixed Roots Literary & Film Festival in 2009. I am so pleased to have the chance to interview him this month for TCK Talent.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Neil. I understand that you’re a multi-ethnic ATCK like me! Please tell us about your heritage.
My father was born in the Okanogan Valley in British Columbia, Canada, of Scottish and English descent. My mother was born on Hainan Island, south of China, in the midst of the conflict between the Nationalists and the Communists in China. Shortly after her birth, her parents—her father was a high-ranking officer in the Nationalist Army and her mother, the daughter of one of the elite island families—fled to Taiwan to escape the Communists. Despite growing up a world apart, my parents met in the middle, Hawaii, while both attending university there.

Where were you born, and where did you live growing up?
I was born in Vancouver. My father’s bachelor’s degree was in Linguistics & ESL. His first job took us to Dhuhran, Saudi Arabia, where he taught English in the oil universities. But then my mother developed severe asthma due to the extreme heat and dust, and the doctors warned her that if she stayed any longer, she would be putting her life in peril. So she took my younger sister and me (I was four, my sister two-and-half) to Taiwan to live with relatives while my father completed the last nine months of his teaching contract. While in Taiwan, my sister and I forgot all our English, switched completely to Mandarin Chinese, and attended a Chinese-speaking pre-school. When my father finally arrived to pick us up, apparently we were so frustrated in our inability to communicate with him, we refused to speak Chinese until we relearned English. By the time we returned to Canada, we’d made the switch—but lost our Chinese in the process. My father returned to school in Vancouver, concluding that it was too hard to raise a family as an ESL professor. He completed a Masters in Library Science degree at the University of British Columbia and, when I was eight, we moved to North Battleford, Saskatchewan, a small city surrounded by farmland in the northern part of the province. Later we moved to Regina, the province’s capital and a much more vibrant multicultural center, where my father took his dream job as the supervisor over a special book collection focused on local, regional, and family histories of the Central Plains and Prairie Provinces. I completed elementary school and high school there.

“It is dark always, then someone opens a door./Then another. Then another.” —Neil Aitken from “Prodigal”

Fascinating! Did you stay in Canada for college?
No, I moved to Provo, Utah, to attend Brigham Young University, but I took a two-year break from school to serve as a missionary in Taiwan, relearning Mandarin in the process and re-immersing myself in culture, family, and place. When I returned, I completed my studies and then returned to Canada—to Calgary, Alberta. I looked for work for a year and eventually landed a job in Los Angeles.

I understand that just as your background spans two very different cultures, your academic background spans two very different disciplines?
Yes, as an undergraduate I studied Computer Engineering with a minor in Mathematics. I also took a number of graduate courses in Creative Writing. My first job was working in the computer games industry, but after five years, I left programming to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing and then returned to Canada for a year to look for work and to care for my father, who was in rapid decline from ALS. I also spent that year writing and finishing my first book of poetry and then applying to PhD programs. I received a number of excellent offers from all over the US, but in the end chose to return to Los Angeles and pursue a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. I’ve been here in Los Angeles ever since, but now, on the threshold of graduating, am likely to be packing up and moving again to somewhere as yet undetermined.

Binary code via Pixabay; cover art.

Binary code via Pixabay; cover art.

What has the transition been like, going from computer programmer to poet?
In truth, I’ve been writing poetry almost as long as I’ve been programming. I started writing poetry in earnest when I was around 10, about the same time my father brought home an IBM PC Jr with GW-BASIC on it. One of my very first original programs was a haiku generator that produced pretty awful haiku. Even as an undergraduate studying computer science, I sought permission to take creative writing classes at the graduate level. For a long time, I thought I could juggle writing poetry with computer programming. Eventually, however, programming lost its luster and I stopped loving the work, despite still being good at what I did. I knew at some point I needed to jump ship—I couldn’t bear the thought of spending my life in a field that no longer held my attention or affection. Working full time as a computer games programmer, I found myself putting in 60-, 70-, 80-, and occasionally 94-hour weeks. It was just too much. It was time to find a way out. At the same time, it was important to me that I avoid going into debt for my poetry degree, so I had to wait for the right offer. All the while, I continued programming and when possible, spent my evenings at open mic poetry venues, listening to all sorts of poets read their works. Eventually, I received a call from UC Riverside offering me a generous full-ride MFA scholarship, which made the transition possible.

“I wake already longing for those whom I soon will leave—” —Neil Aitken, from “Kundiman”

One of the judges for the Philip Levine Prize said that “Traveling Through the Prairies, I Think of My Father’s Voice” struck him as being a “perfectly made poem.” Was your family close?
I have many fond memories of time spent as a family together, whether it was picking through a coal seam at the side of a mountain highway with my father searching for fossils, or gathering together as a family on the eve of my graduation—the photo of which is the only family photo where we’re all smiling naturally, unrehearsed, unburdened by life’s later challenges and sorrows—or just simply lazing around the house at Christmas, listening to my father read Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales to us with his usual gusto and dramatic flair.

Where have you been happiest as an adult?
My happiest moments in recent years have been tied to my friends and fellow poets whom I met through Kundiman, an organization dedicated to the creation and cultivation of Asian American literature. The three years I attended the Kundiman Poetry Retreat set in motion lifetime friendships and bonds with people that, to this day, I count as my closest poetry kin—I was unprepared for how deeply and completely I would fall in love with the community, and how this group of Asian American poets would come to be a second family. When I showed up for my first Kundiman retreat in 2005, I was convinced that there had been an error—how had they let me in? What use could they have for a Chinese-Scottish-English Canadian poet who rarely wrote about identity, at least not directly? But on the first day, as we made our introductions in a classroom at the University of Virginia, I soon realized that many of the other participants felt the same way I did. We had all arrived convinced that our lives and our writing were somehow outside of what was expected and permitted—only to discover that what was happening on the front lines of Asian American literature was much more diverse and vibrant, much more compelling and dynamic, much more inclusive than whatever we had been led to believe from the anthologies we’d read and the classes we’d taken. To this day, I love running into a fellow Kundiman and can’t wait to hear about their work and discover what they have to offer to the conversation.

Your Kundiman experience sounds like a quintessentially good TCK experience. In general, do you find that “your people” tend to be other ATCKs, or cross-cultural people, or creative folk?
It varies quite a bit, but generally speaking I’ve found myself most at home with other Asian American writers (especially those I’ve met through Kundiman), other editors of literary journals, and other people who negotiate the fragile yet fertile space between faith, science, and compassion. On a broader level, I find my people are those who share a love of language and literature, whose eyes are on the forgotten spaces and figures of the world, and whose efforts and desires pointed outwards, with the ambition to make more room at the table. I love surrounding myself with people who are building bridges and tearing down arbitrary walls, who are not afraid to speak against the structures of oppression and forgetting, and who challenge themselves to do more and be more than who they were yesterday.

“There is always something that refuses to be contained…” —Neil Aitken in “Encapsulation”

On top of working toward your PhD, you won the DJS Translation Award for your co-translations of poetry from Mandarin to English. How do you feel about your two “native” languages? Do you prefer one to the other?
I love the strange and omnivorous nature of English. English is constantly devouring other languages, incorporating new terms into its lexicon, and expanding with each passing year and succeeding social revolution. In terms of tone, music, and range, very few languages can compete with English. That being said, I also have a big place in my heart for Mandarin Chinese, a language I learned once when I was very young, forgot, then relearned at 19.

What is it like to translate from Chinese into English?
The two languages could not be more different. Chinese is a language traditionally learned by the memorization of classical and literary texts. It relies heavily on allusion, each word and phrase carrying with it a wealth of cultural association and literary reference. It moves not just sonically but also visually, evoking the elements—fire and water, air and earth—and connecting words and ideas that share some common philosophical history. The act of translation is a humbling experience—I’m constantly reminded of how fluid concepts and relationships are between ideas once they are unshackled from one’s mother tongue. And yet, there is great pleasure in it as well. I enjoy puzzles—I enjoy this bit of creative play where the translator searches for a way to create an equivalent experience and gesture in a new language for something that they have encountered in the original. My childhood experiences with Chinese left a deep imprint in my mind that manifests itself now as a type of intuition when it comes to finding the right equivalent phrase or understanding the cultural impact or resonance of the original line. It’s an imperfect intuition, but one that nevertheless guides me through tricky places in the poems and helps me feel still a part of the Chinese culture.

Finally, I’d like to congratulate you on winning of the prestigious Philip Levine Prize for Poetry for The Lost Country of Sight. Is there a particular poem from that collection that expresses your feelings of transience or loneliness or instability—or freedom or curiosity or love of travel—that you are most proud of, and could you share it with us?
In many respects, my entire first book of poetry, The Lost Country of Sight, grapples with these themes and, therefore, it’s actually pretty hard to settle on just one poem. I’m going to suggest two, if I may:

In the Long Dream of Exile

You are counting the dark exit of crows
in the rear view mirror, or from the top of an overpass
looking back into the last flames of cloud.
Your car, steel to the world of flint, rests listless
with its windows wide, the stars slipping in
and settling down for the night.
Now, what you could not leave rides in boxes
heavy with numbers and places you’ve already
turned into poems. There is nothing left
in your pockets, your clothes worn down
to this list of miles taking you out of the known earth.
Outside your open window, the dark repeats
like the wind in late fall, twisting the names
of familiar back roads into a long rope of sighs.
You could lower yourself down with such longing.
It could be a woman or a young girl, the way the light
clings to that body like a sheet of immaculate heat,
invisible to the eye, but something, you are certain,
something that must be on the verge of love.

driving_abstractly

In the Country I Call Home

I have two countries, Cuba and the night.
~ José Marti

There is no Cuba, no other half of night.
No dark woman in her deep robe of grief,
no wooden doors flung open to emptiness. Nothing
of music. No city in flames. All this absent.

In me, there are as many countries as names.
As many versions of the world.

If there is a country, it is a white-limbed tree,
a wind-drifted plain of snow. It is a country buried.
Or a man holding a camera to his eye. Or a silence.

If there is a country, there are two countries.
A double exposure. The other world ghosting the first.
The second full of dark-haired strangers. Ink ground
from charcoal pressed to stone. Hard as raw rice.

If there are two countries, a third always rises.
Life preserver on the waves. A ship without reference.
Anywhere. Everywhere. A nation of one.

If there are three, there must be a fourth.
I will find it in your skin. Hear it resonate in your bones.
A ringing echo. Something of sound. It will be small.
Almost a hut. A thatched roof shack in the wilderness.
A hermitage for two. A boat in a river. Almost a home.

snowdrift

“Wind shapes,” by John Holm via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

* * *

Thank you, Neil, for these two lyrical offerings. Again, congratulations on your numerous accomplishments in poetry and translation, and best of luck with post-PhD life! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Neil below.

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DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: My writing process, now being applied to a shiny new book series

DiaryExpatWriterAn American expat newlywed in Hong Kong, Shannon Young took the momentous decision last summer to quit her day job and launch out as a full-time writer. She’d given herself until Chinese New Year to see if she could make a living but has now postponed the decision—something we’re actually rather glad about as her expat writer’s diary can continue!

—ML Awanohara

Dear Displaced Diary,

It’s a hazy, jet-lagged time for me right now. Ever since I returned to Hong Kong from London last week, I’ve been awake through the night and struggling out of bed at noon or later. One advantage of setting my own schedule is that I can afford these late starts and still get plenty of work done during the afternoons and evenings (and in the hours past 3:00 a.m., it turns out). On the other hand, I don’t have a boss and a required start time to get me back on track—so could be on London time for a while yet.

But the work goes on no matter what time it is or where in the world I happen to find myself. I’m currently waiting for Seaswept, the second book in the Seabound Chronicles, to come back from my editor.

The cover for Jordan Rivet's latest book

The cover for Jordan Rivet’s latest book

As soon as it arrives I’ll jump into the final stages of proofreading and publication.

In the meantime, I’m working on my next book series.

That next book will be the first installment, which I’m aiming to release upon completion of the Seabound Chronicles.

It has been a while since I began an all-new project with all-new characters set in an all-new world. I’m trying to apply the same writing process I’ve been using for the Seabound books to the new idea.

So far it’s going well!

Since you, Dear Diary, are the vessel for my intimate thoughts about the writing process, today I want to share with you how I approach a new book. I developed this method while working on the four books in the Seabound Chronicles. As you know, all four are now completed—but in vastly different stages. Book 1 is published. Book 2 is finished and with the editor. Book 3 (the prequel) is in the third draft. Book 4 is a rough draft.

You may think I have too many projects on the go at once, but this in fact is the key to my writing process, as you’ll soon see.

"Emptying the NaNo bag at last," by  Anne-Lise Heinrichs via Flickr ().

“Emptying the NaNo bag at last,” by Anne-Lise Heinrichs via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

STEP ONE: The Idea

You can’t force yourself to come up with an amazing concept for a new book, but you can help the inspiration process along. Before producing Seabound, I knew I wanted to write a fast-paced story with high stakes and cool world-building, probably science fiction or fantasy, but I needed an idea. Then one day I hopped on a boat and spotted the cruise ship that inspired my post-apocalyptic Seabound series. It took more than just seeing a cruise ship, of course, for the concept to take hold. It took leaving my mind open and not forcing things, so that my subconscious could oblige.

With the Seabound Chronicles under way, the hope entered my mind of coming up with another fantasy project to work on; but this time I wanted an original take or some kind of cool mash-up. I held that thought for months and cycled through various ideas (a secret agent in a fantasy world? a fantasy apocalypse?); but none of them felt quite right. Then, suddenly, the idea was there when I arrived at my usual Starbucks. I could see it plain as day. I was actually supposed to be working on Seaswept edits, but instead I opened up a new Word doc and hammered out notes for several hours.

STEP TWO: Characters and Worlds

Once I had the concept of the world, the characters followed quickly on its heels. For some of these characters, I used a method similar to the one described above, where I had a general sense of what the person should be like, and then when I saw someone who matched the idea in my head, fleshed out my portrayal. (I spotted “Esther” walking down the Mid-Levels escalator with a camera around her neck that became a pair of storm goggles; “David Hawthorne” walked into one of my regular coffee shops dressed like an investment banker and wearing memorable black-framed glasses.)

"Mid-levels escalator blur," by Maureen Didd via Flickr.

“Mid-levels escalator blur,” by Maureen Didde via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

For other characters, I started with people I’ve encountered as a jumping off point to develop key aspects of their personalities, appearances, and roles they would play in the story. I spent several writing sessions scribbling notes on the characters and describing the basic structure of the world they inhabit. I held off on writing the first chapter for as long as possible because I wanted to give the ideas time to mature. I also worked out the world’s magic system, which I’m treating differently than in a typical fantasy novel.

STEP THREE: The Rough Outline

As my ideas for the story became more concrete, I wrote a rough outline of the plot. This is a back and forth process. As I developed more ideas for the story I’d go back and flesh out the existing characters or create new ones. My outlines typically follow a three-act structure and they absolutely must include the main conflict and climactic scene. Outlines are essential for my process, but I don’t do a strict chapter-by-chapter plan at this stage.

For the new fantasy project, I’ve now written a very rough outline for a five-book series. Even so, I’ll have to get further into the first book before I know whether the story will support all five books in the plan.

STEP FOUR: The Rough Draft

I am now 16,000 words into the rough draft for my newest book. I’m a huge believer in writing fast, messy first drafts.

I wrote three of the four rough drafts for the books in the Seabound Chronicles during three consecutive National Novel Writing Months. I didn’t worry about whether they would be any good at this stage. I told myself I can always take things out and rewrite as needed. This method really helped me keep up the story’s pace.

Seaswept is the only one of the Seabound books for which I wrote the first draft over a longer period (about six months, during which I took a break to rewrite my memoir, Year of Fire Dragons). The edits for this volume were actually more difficult than for the other titles.

Writing the first draft is a bit like watching a movie play out—it’s best if you can do it without too many gaps.

STEP FIVE: Rest and Repeat

As soon as I finish a draft I put it away, something Stephen King recommends in his book On Writing. The work needs to sit for a bit and I need to get some distance from it before I can rewrite effectively. But I don’t stop writing. At this stage, I’ll start the next book.

Go back to Step One and repeat!

STEP SIX: Read and Rewrite

With another rough draft under my belt, I’ll go back to the first one, print it out, and read the whole thing. I’ll make tons of notes as I go, but I won’t rewrite until I’ve completed a full read-through.

At this stage, I also create a more detailed outline. My rough drafts follow a basic plot structure, but sometimes they take unexpected twists, and I like to leave room for those in the new outline. Other times, I find gaps or pacing issues that I’m not aware of until I step back and look at the book as a whole.

When I do my first read-through, I plug the events of the rough draft into a storyboard. I use this one, which covers a classic plot progression over twenty chapters. I write the basic plot points in where they occur, paying attention to gaps in the storyboard. Then I may plan additional chapters for my next draft.

Stories are actually quite similar in structure, so the books often fit quite neatly into the storyboard with only a bit of tweaking. I don’t like doing this at the outset because I want to leave room for those unexpected twists—let the ideas come out once I’m really living in the draft.

After I’ve worked out what changes need to be made based on my read-through and storyboard, I rewrite the book from the beginning. I do all this in the same document and keep a lot of the first draft, but I also add thousands of words, fleshing out scenes and filling in chapters. At this stage, I’m still not worried about how neat the actual writing is.

STEP SEVEN: Rest and Repeat

I put that new draft away and then go back to do the second draft of the second book. Or the first draft of the third book. Or the third draft of the last book in the last series. You get the picture. It gets complicated from here, and this is why I have so many books on the go at once. Each time a draft needs to rest, I’ll have something else to work on.

And so on!

My process continues like this, and the books get better with each draft. I also become a better writer with each draft. By the time I wrote the final draft of Seaswept last month, I was far better writer than when I wrote the first draft in early 2013.

After I’ve done at least two, usually three, drafts, I ask other people to read the book and give me feedback. Then there will be more notes, more drafts, more hours spent sitting in the chair and refining the story and the prose.

Some problems are just easier to solve on the second (or third or fourth) rewrites.

I estimate that each book goes through five or six drafts before I send it off for editing. I’m hoping that as I become a better writer it’ll take fewer drafts to get the book where I want it, but the important thing is that I try not to get bogged down by worrying whether any one draft is good enough. Taking this approach is liberating, and it allows me to get a lot of work done.

"Edited Version of First Book," by Joanna Penn via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

“Edited Version of First Book,” by Joanna Penn via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

So, Dear Diary, this is my writing process as it exists so far. I’m having fun applying it to my shiny new project.

Seaswept will be out soon and then I’ll be doing another draft of Burnt Sea, the prequel, but in the meantime it’s exciting to have another series on the go!

Thanks for following along on my writing journey. I hope this glimpse at my process might be helpful for another budding writer or two. It is certainly helping me get my brain back in order so I can get back to work

I remain yours,

Shannon Young/Jordan Rivet
www.shannonyoungwriter.com
JordanRivet.com

* * *

Readers, Shannon has graciously shared her writing process with us this month. By breaking it all down, she almost makes it seem easy! (You can tell that she’s been a teacher.) So, what do you think—any responses to her methods, questions, words of encouragement for her next endeavor? Do let her know in the comments!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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