The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

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!

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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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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Is humankind getting too fussy to share food, one of our most basic bonding rituals?

Global Food Gossip April 2015

Joanna Masters-Maggs (supplied) and three forbidden foods: Wheat , by Rasbak via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); dairy, by Stefan Kühn via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); and peanuts, by Daniella Segura 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?”

* * *

Dost thou think there shall be no more cakes and ale
Because of thy wretched bowels?

—Paraphrase of Sir Toby Belch (Twelfth Night: Act 2, Scene 3)

Readers, I hope you will indulge me in this dramatic, and admittedly somewhat unseemly, turn of a Shakespearean phrase. Not long ago, I was planning a simple supper for a few couples and had just received a third text informing me of various food allergies. The relaxed and convivial supper I had imagined was rapidly becoming a nightmare of compromise and unsatisfactory substitutions.

Somehow I had to come up with a delicious menu that didn’t involve dairy, flour or meat.

I should have known not to invite a bunch of people I barely knew, but I was feeling expansive at the time. I’d also been envisioning a pleasant few days pottering through familiar recipes in my kitchen—only to find myself feeling cross, taken for granted and somewhat overwhelmed.

As those of you who are cooks will know, “simple” suppers never take less than days to bring off in the desired relaxed and blasé style—so one really needs to enjoy the preparation. Frankly, getting ready for this particular dinner was beginning to feel like a challenge on a brutal reality show.

I also felt I could empathize with the nearly 100 restaurateurs in Britain who last month signed a letter protesting the new EU rules requiring restaurants to audit their menus for allergens from lupins to eggs. These allergens must be flagged on menus. Failure to do so could result in a $5,000 fine which, for most restaurants, could be the difference between survival and going to the wall. They rightly point out that having to undertake such work will also reduce the spontaneity of their menus and reduce creativity.

Modern etiquette requires hosts to ask guests if there is anything they don’t eat.

SirTobyBelch

Toby jug (named after Sir Toby Belch), by Graham and Sheila via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

This is when the guest can mention any genuine allergies—not their likes and dislikes. I might feign polite interest, but I don’t really care to hear about your digestive issues.

Of course, I do want to know if you are actually c(o)eliac. Curmudgeonly as I can be, I get that this is a very real health issue and I will go to any lengths, happily, to accommodate it.

If I have to jump through culinary hoops because you “really feel that you have more energy since you gave up wheat,” I am, frankly, annoyed.

I once entertained a guest and made the mistake of including in a recipe an ingredient he had repeatedly informed me caused a severe allergic reaction.

To this day I cannot explain how I so deliberately included it; however, when I realized my mistake, it was with a heart-stopping thump in the middle of the night. I agonized for hours, caught a moral maze of whether or not I should call and confess my reckless stupidity or not. As dawn broke, so, too, did the suspicion that if this had been a true allergy, I could have expected some drama before the end of the evening. If I am going to get careless while entertaining an allergy sufferer, I expect the subsequent experience to include severe anaphylactic shock and hysterical calls for an ambulance…

Sure enough, by lunchtime I had received the text thanking me for a lovely evening. The experience has left me deeply suspicious of subsequent allergy stories.

It can’t be fun living with an allergy, but neither can it be everyone else’s responsibility and expense.

During the time when we lived as expats in Malaysia, my children were at school in Kuala Lumpur. Peanut butter was not banned. How can you ban it in a country where peanut oil is a major component of the air? But if your child took in nuts or peanut butter to school, it was their responsibility to sit with kids with who claimed peanut allergies, so that the latter wouldn’t feel isolated.

How severe could such allergies be, I wondered? Indeed, at that time, and probably to this day, Malaysian Airlines tested the peanut-withstanding ability of all those entering the country by serving peanuts with the aperitifs—long after other airlines had bailed.

(While on this topic, it’s worth noting that, according to the latest medical studies, those who consume a greater amount of peanuts have about a 35 percent reduced risk of coronary heart disease. This effect is a result of the peanuts’ ability to lower cholesterol and its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components.)

When you are invited to eat at someone’s house, you are being asked to share with the family.

dinner party quote

Dinner party, by Elin B via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

As we expats know better than anyone else, the dinner party is an age-old, worldwide gesture of hospitality and friendship. We must take every measure to protect this prized human tradition.

Listen, it is even possible to desensitize ourselves to allergies. I recently saw a documentary about a little boy who showed extreme allergy to a new dog brought into the family. Instead of re-homing the dog, the family decided that the positive aspects of owning a pet were worth making an effort for. They began a desensitization programme at a local hospital and, in time, the boy could begin a wonderful relationship with his dog.

It’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?

* * *

Readers, we invite you to continue the food gossip! To what extent has food fussiness become an item in your social circle? Are you a victim, or do you agree with the curmudgeonly Joanna, that fussy eaters are making dinner parties and other group meals less fun for the rest of us? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

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CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: How to be a diva in another culture–by not being one!

Culture Shock Toolbox April 2015 Rossi Columnist H.E. Rybol never saw a culture clash she didn’t want to fix. She calls herself a “transitions enthusiast” and credits her Third Culture Kid upbringing for giving her a head start in that department. That said, H.E. is always looking for new tools to add to her kit, and toward that end has been interviewing other displaced creatives about their culture shock experiences. Today she speaks to Kristen Rossi, a New Yorker who is on a mission to spread the Golden Age of Broadway/jazz throughout Asia. Okay, H.E. and Kristen, time to paint the town and all that jazz!

—ML Awanohara

Hello, Displaced Nationers! Today I am delighted to introduce Kristen Evelyn Rossi to Culture Shock Toolbox readers. Kristen is an American actress, singer and voice over artist based in Southeast Asia. Besides being a talented performer, she is an entrepreneur and, while living in Bangkok, has co-founded two organizations: Broadway Babe, an endeavor to bring Broadway style to the Thai capital, and Musical Theatre for KIDS, which offers Broadway musical and theatre workshops for Asian youth.

I was lucky enough to catch up with Kristen recently and ask her a few questions about her somewhat unusual life of crooning her way around Asia, while also teaching others how to traipse the Broadway boards. I can see from the YouTube videos on her Website that she has racked up many successful performances; but I wanted to know: have there been any cultural flops?

Here’s what she had to say…

* * *

Hi, Kristen, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. Can you tell us which countries you’ve lived in and for how long?

I have lived in London (UK) for just under a year; about seven years in Bangkok, Thailand; Hanoi, Vietnam for the past four months; and I will call Macau home in May.

That is quite a few cultural transitions! You are a singer, so I’m not sure if this is the right question, but did you ever put your foot in your mouth? Any memorable stories?

As an entertainer I meet people from all over the world. One common mistake I make is in judging a guest’s nationality. In particular I find it hard to tel the difference between Japanese and Koreans. Sometimes I can tell the difference and sometimes it is hard, especially when they come in their business suits! Several times I have said, “oh are you from ___” and they will just say “no, we are ____” and then look at me very seriously. Awkward.

Another occasional mistake related to nationality is that I don’t always know what the people of a country are called. I remember the first time I was speaking with a diplomat from Qatar. I was about to refer to the people…and hesitated. It made me feel a little embarrassed. (Of course I know now it’s Qatari!)

How do you usually handle these situations?

I try to quickly move on to something I do know and like about the country or culture in question. For example, with Koreans I always say, “Oooh, I just love makgeolli (an alcoholic beverage native to Korea).” Once I say this, I usually get smiles and “ooooh!” and laughs. I’ve found that it helps to learn a few positive facts about the nation and its culture—so you can always change the subject quickly.

In general, how do you think you have handled your many cultural transitions?

Most of my transitions have been positive and quite easy I think because I’m a performer by nature. I just get out there. I walk around, I interact, I am patient, I smile a lot. I figure out how to make the best of the situation.

If you had to give advice to someone who just moved to a new country, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first and why?

Engage with the culture. I can only speak on behalf of Southeast Asia/Asia, but what I have found is people want to share their culture with you. They want to be good “hosts”; embrace this. Ask your colleagues or new friends to show you their favorite local artists (music, gallery, etc). Ask them to take you to their favorite coffee spot or their favorite place to get their favorite local dish. Most of the time, they will be flattered you are interested in them, happy to share their culture—and you’ll probably end up making new friends. Another important tool is language. Make an effort to learn even a few words in the local language. You can practice simple words at home and then go into the office and ask your local colleagues if you are saying the words right. They will LOVE IT, I promise!

Thank you so much, Kristen, for taking the time to share your experiences. It’s wonderful to hear that a Broadway diva knows when not to be a diva. And I think you’ve hit the nail soundly on the head in advising that the best way to handle culture shock is to engage with the culture head on. Show interest and ask questions; learn the language and ask for feedback.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Kristen’s advice? Do you agree with my impression that she’s brought some of the energy of the “city that never sleeps” to this column?

If you like what you heard, be sure to check out Kristen’s 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.  

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Canadian writer Lee Strauss uses busy, multicultural Dresden as setting for romance

Location Locution_LeeStrauss

LOCATION, LOCUTION: JJ Marsh (left) talks to author Lee Strauss about the craft of setting contemporary romance novels in foreign locations.

In “Location, Locution” expat crime series writer JJ Marsh chats with fellow displaced fiction writers about their methods of portraying place in their works. Her guest today is contemporary romance and speculative fiction writer Lee Strauss. Born near Chicago to Canadian parents, Lee might have grown up a California girl had it not been for Vietnam, which caused her parents to retreat back to Canada. At age 22, she married Norm Strauss, a Canadian folk rock musician—and signed up for a life of adventure. They have traveled extensively overseas and live part-time in Germany.

—ML Awanohara

Lee Strauss is the author of the Minstrel Series, a collection of contemporary romance novels set in the singer/songwriter world, taking place in Germany and England; the Perception Series, a trilogy of young adult dystopian novels; and several works of YA historical fiction. Under the alter ego of Elle Strauss, she writes fanciful younger adult stories about time travel, mermaids and fairies.

Lee is the married mother of four grown children, three boys and a girl. Because of her husband’s job as an indie folk musician, she has traveled to twelve European countries, Mexico, fourteen states, and six Canadian provinces. Currently, the couple divide its time between Kelowna, a town in British Columbia’s temperate Okanangan Valley, and Dresden, Germany. When not writing or reading Lee likes to cycle, hike and do yoga. She enjoys travel (but not jet lag :0), soy lattes, red wine and dark chocolate.

Now let’s talk to Lee about how she has woven European settings into several of her books.

* * *

Which came first, story or location?

It was a simultaneous decision. My singer-songwriter husband and I spent some time brainstorming on how we could merge our two worlds, indie publishing collaborating with indie music artists, and the idea for the Minstrel Series was born. (Each of the books has accompanying music.) The first two books, Sun & Moon and Flesh & Bone, are song titles of music used in the books. We live part of the year in Dresden, Germany, and I just knew that the books had to be set there, right in our neighbourhood.

Minstrel Series Set in Dresden

Cover art from first two books of the Minstrel Series; (middle) view of Dresden’s historical center, from the same spot where Canaletto made his famous painting.

I’ve also written a WW2 historical novel called Playing with Matches, about a group of boys growing up in Hitler Youth. The story takes place in Passau and Nuremberg. Traveling to both cities made a huge difference in getting the setting and ambiance right.

Playing with Matches Collage

Clockwise, left to right: Cover art; Nuremberg citiscape; view of Veste Oberhaus, a 13th-century fortress in Paussau, in lower Bavaria, Germany.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

Nothing like living in the middle of it! The street and building in Dresden where we lived are featured in great detail in Sun & Moon and Flesh & Bone. Many readers comment on how they feel like they visited Germany while reading my books.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

All three. I share a lot of Dresden images on Tumblr, including not just landscape but also food and the local culture.

Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?

Here’s a passage from the Minstrel Series, describing a scene in Dresden:

Katja stood in one of the cutaways on the old stone bridge over the River Elbe that joined the Altstadt with the Neustadt, the old city with the new.

She shivered despite her winter jacket and the scarf wrapped around her neck and strummed her guitar with fingerless gloves. The limestone dome of the Frauenkirche—the Church of our Lady—peaked out over the city’s ancient, baroque skyline. Like all the buildings in the historic center, it had been completely demolished during the Second World War. The entire city was rebuilt to look much like it had before it was destroyed. In essence, the old town was now the new one, and the new town the old one.

It was majestic and awe-inspiring to look upon.

Most days.

Katja’s guitar case lay open at her feet. She’d thrown in the few cents she’d found under the sofa cushions, hoping to lure other donations.

The cold wind kept people hunched over and moving at a fast pace across the bridge, most with chins tucked down and hands shoved into deep pockets. No one took the time to stop and listen, much less drop money in her case.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?

Spending time living there is the absolute best way. There’s so much you see and learn about a place over time. The second best is to visit in person. After that, talking to people who have lived or visited there along with research and Google Earth.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

Maeve Binchy has a wonderful way of pulling the reader deep into Ireland. (My next book in The Minstrel Series will be set in Ireland and Boston, where I’ve lived.) Susan Grafton does the same for Southern California with her Alphabet Mystery series, set in the fictional city of Santa Teresa, based on Santa Barbara.

* * *

Readers, if this interview has piqued your curiosity about Lee Strauss and her creative array of fiction works, we encourage you to visit her author site.

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

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DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: Shifting base to literary London, where it all began

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 until the end of next month—which we’re actually rather glad about as it means she’s still with us!

—ML Awanohara

Dear Displaced Diary,

It’s a blustery morning here in London and time for another update on my life as an expat writer. You may remember that I do not, in fact, live in London. I’m taking a break from my writing life in Hong Kong for a visit that combines the Easter holidays with my husband’s business trip.

I am still making the most of not having a day job by staying in the UK for nearly three weeks.

Of course the work never stops for a working writer. I spent the first four days of the holiday finishing up the final revisions of Seaswept, the sequel to my post-apocalyptic adventure at sea called Seabounda job that can be done anywhere, really!

Jordan Rivet in London

Shannon Young aka Jordan Rivet showing off her first book on a tea break in London; photo credit: Shannon Young.

As I mentioned in my last post, the revisions on Seaswept were a bit of a slog, but I really got into the groove by the final pass. I have to admit it was kind of magical to wake up with the sun (or clouds) in this famous literary city, write for a few hours, go for a walk, and then do a bit more writing before the jet lag knocked me out. London has always been a source of inspiration for me, and the setting somehow seemed right for ending my work on this book.

In addition to the beautiful buildings, blue historical plaques, and bridges (have I ever told you, dear diary, how much I love bridges?), I’ve found another source of inspiration in London: a friend from Hong Kong.

Expat connections are everywhere

As Displaced Nation readers know, we expats have a tendency to move on often, either to a new country or back to where we came from. Expat life is a constant rotation of hellos and goodbyes. While it’s sad when friends leave, it’s pretty cool to acquire connections all over the world.

A friend from my writers’ group in Hong Kong returned to the UK nearly two years ago, but she has maintained her link with the group and her role as true cheerleader for my work. Recently, she decided to embark on a similar literary adventure by taking time off work to write!

I met up with her at the cafe and bookshop run by the London Review of Books and spent nearly four hours writing and talking about writing together. (I also ate hummus on toast that came with real worms on the side, but that’s another story.) It was a joy to have a friend in a city thousands of miles away from both my home country and my country of residence, all thanks to this expat life.

The day I sent the final draft of Seaswept to my editor, my Hong Kong friend took me on a literary tour of Highgate and Hampstead—and, of course, a trek across the rain-soaked trails of Hampstead Heath. In between breaks for tea and hot cross buns, she showed me the home of Samuel Coleridge (and the alley where he bought his laudanum), a garden straight out of a Jane Austen novel, and a pub visited by many notable figures throughout its 200-year history. As we walked, I was reminded again and again of just how old this city is and just how much has happened in its streets. It’s the setting for some of my favorite novels, novels that made me want to be a writer myself.

Photo souvenirs from Jordan Rivet's London walks. At bottom: Hampstead Heath with a view of Kenwood House, a former stately home.

The houses of Highgate and the expanses of Hampstead Heath, with former stately home Kenwood House in distance. Photo credit: Shannon Young.

As my writing journey continues across the globe in Hong Kong, it’s nice to remember its origins and to soak in a bit of history in the company of someone who is just as excited about it as I am.

Beginnings, revisited

During my time in London, I’m also revisiting the origins of my own expat life. As you may recall, Dear Diary, I met my husband in London during a semester abroad. We ended up in Hong Kong, but our early romance took place here. The memories have been flooding back over the past few days as we walk by all the places where we shared sweet moments: first meeting, first date, first kiss.

I wrote about our romance in the first book I ever started, Year of Fire Dragons. It’s mostly about Hong Kong, but I can’t tell my Hong Kong story without starting in London.

Hong Kong tends to change very quickly, with restaurants and shops going in and out of business all the time. Buildings are torn down and rebuilt completely in the space of months. But London seems largely the same. Back in this place with this man, it’s easy to remember why I decided to follow him across the world.

LondonKiss+Year of Fire Dragons

A firey romance in London led Shannon to the land of Fire Dragons and her first book, a memoir (photo credit: pixabay).

What’s on the horizon?

Well, the sun is breaking through the clouds over the city. I’d better head out to make the most the sunshine before the rain and wind return.

I have two weeks to go in London. During that time, my editor will be working on Seaswept, which should be ready to launch by April 30th. Meanwhile, I’m looking ahead to my next project: the prequel to the Seabound Chronicles. Then it will be time to finish Book 3.

But I’m already working on my next series. I’ve written a rough outline and the first 10,000 words. While I’m enjoying the flood of inspiration and nostalgia in London, perhaps I’ll tap out a few more chapters. If there’s one thing I’ve learned on this expat writing journey, it’s that places have power. I don’t want to miss out on anything London has to offer in the next few weeks.

Thanks for following along on my writing journey around the world.

Yours,

Shannon Young/Jordan Rivet
www.shannonyoungwriter.com

P.S. If you like dystopian fiction and writing Amazon reviews, shoot me an email and I’ll send you a book or two!

* * *

Readers, Shannon’s diary post this month has made me nostalgic for my own days of living in London. Sigh! It sounds as though she’s making the most of her time in the Big Smoke with walks on the Health and so on, but if you have any further recommendations for her remaining two weeks (any bridges you think she should see?), do let her know in the comments!

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TCK TALENT: Maya Evans, Poet, Writer, Teacher, Translator, Consultant & Transition Facilitator

Maya Evans for TDN

Maya Evans (own photo)

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 is now raising funds to take the production to Valencia, Spain, and Capetown, South Africa, later this year.

—ML Awanohara

Greetings, readers. Today’s interviewee is Maya Evans, a poet and writer, transition facilitator, international education consultant, and translator based in Boston, Massachusetts. She is also my fellow ATCK author in the anthology Writing Out of Limbo, in which her poem “Le Français” appears. Currently, she is working on a memoir about her extraordinary life, which took her from the Middle East to Europe to South America and finally to her current home of the United States.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Maya. I understand that you were born to a Francophone Jewish Egyptian-Hungarian family in Alexandria, Egypt, and that you grew up there and in Caracas, Venezuela. Please tell us why your family moved.
My family moved from Alexandria, Egypt, in 1958 after what history termed the Suez Crisis, which is to say the nationalization of the Suez Canal. Built by the French in 1869, and jointly controlled by the British and French until 1956, the Canal was of strategic importance to Western powers. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser‘s actions to nationalize it provoked a brief war—a lot like the wars carried out presently in the Middle East. Nasser wanted to end Egypt’s colonization. We left because Jews were no longer welcome in Egypt. The revolutionary government confiscated Jewish properties and bank accounts, even expelling some Jewish people holding French or British passports. My father was demoted, the bank where he worked was taken over by the authorities, and clearly his career was finished. His brothers, sisters, and their families mostly went to Brazil, although some ended up in France, but none in Hungary, where they’d come from originally. (At the time, Hungary was occupied by the Soviet Union.) When we left, I was 12-and-a-half—and still have vivid memories.

Did your mother’s family leave as well?
My mother’s family, rooted in the area for generations, did not leave. My grandmother refused to leave her house. My uncles and one of my mother’s sisters, who were very close, all stayed, not daring to contradict their mother.

Where did your family end up going?
For a brief time we lived in Paris, scattered among relatives. We also stayed in Genoa, Italy, for a couple of months waiting for my father to clear his affairs and obtain a visa for emigrating to Venezuela. We were “stateless” at the time, having left Egypt with a travel document valid for one trip with no return. My father had managed to “transfer” money out of Egypt to Switzerland, which was needed to buy our passages to South America. This is a story on its own, one I’m attempting to describe in my memoir.

Achieving happiness in the midst of displacement

I find your story moving as it’s about exile, not the usual voluntary migration for TCK families (voluntary for the parents at least). Still, your moves from North Africa to Europe to the Americas is very relatable for this ATCK. Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time?
I can recall the exact time when I realized I was truly happy. It was at Brenau College (now Brenau University), in Gainesville, Georgia. It took one year to convince my father to allow me to go to college in the U.S. He thought that a girl had to stay home and go to the university nearest to where her family lives which in my case would have been the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), a 15-minute ride from our home in Caracas. The problem was that the Venezuelan government did not recognize my high school degree from Colegio Internacional de Caracas (CIC)—the school is only accredited in the United States. Besides, my Spanish was not at a high enough level for the entrance exam. A solution would be to transfer to the UCV from an accredited school in the U.S., after a year of university-level courses. Reluctantly, my father agreed as long as I went to a “girls only” school, properly chaperoned during my trip to the States. I was fortunate enough to meet a trustee of Brenau College at a tea sponsored by the American Association of University Women. She traveled with me from Caracas to Atlanta, and drove me to her college. For a variety of reasons, among them the lack of money, neither my father nor mother could have made the trip at that time.

What was it like being in a small southern town after living in Caracas?
At Brenau, I was one of a handful of international students. Besides Venezuela, there were also girls from Norway and Taiwan. Luckily, two Hungarian sisters from Venezuela, in their third and last year of college respectively, took me under their wing. Both were intelligent and poised, which made me a “cool girl” by association. Suddenly, there was no need to explain why French was my native language but I wasn’t French, etc. It was easy to say: “I am from Venezuela.” Period. I had a distinct identity, foreign but also exotic. It was also wonderful to be far from the dramas of home. I had postponed the moment of reckoning, which would occur upon my return to Venezuela, when I would find out what it would be like to be a university student in Caracas who had attended an American high school full of students with tenuous ties to the country.

Maya Universities

From studying at Brenau in Georgia to getting a degree at Universidad Central Caracas Venezuela to working at Harvard…

Eventually, though, you moved back to the United States. Why was that?
I was just starting to feel Caraqueña (from Caracas)—finding my bearings as a journalism student at the UCV by night and as a bilingual assistant in an export company by day, enjoying 80-degree Fahrenheit weather year-round, living in a beautiful apartment facing the mountain—when I met my husband, an American. (We met in Caracas.) We moved to the States in the early 1970s. His job moved us to Boston; then to Stanford, Connecticut, where our first child was born; and then back to Boston.

Allow me to bridge cultures, people and dreams…

At what point did you start your career…or careers I should say, as I know you’ve had more than one.
After the birth of my second child, I was determined to find a job that would link me to the Latino community, or better yet, send me on frequent trips to Latin America. I found that job at Harvard, in a department facilitating studies in the United States for professors and business executives from Latin America. I traveled all over Latin America, and in the mid-90s, was assigned to a project in Venezuela sponsored by Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) to train a cadre of executives for studies in the United States. I left Harvard shortly after and worked directly as a consultant for PDVSA. I also trained as an interpreter, working for the Massachusetts courts, and taught Spanish at the University of Massachusetts.

Consultant, trainer, interpreter, teacher: your careers seem to have been influenced by your peripatetic upbringing…
True. I would slide in and out of professions just as I slid in and out of countries, and adjust like the chameleon I’d become. I was always being uprooted but then would find ways to adapt. This in turn led me to my life’s “calling”: to facilitate transitions for others. Whether working with foreign students at American universities, or with international researchers trying to find the right department to pursue their research, or with companies wanting to train their personnel to live somewhere else, I would bridge cultures and languages in an effort to help others ease into their new surroundings.

Who am I? Where am I from?

Have you found that “your people” tend to be Adult TCKs or other cross-cultural people?
Undoubtedly, I feel comfortable with other Adult TCKs as well as multicultural people. I am actually uncomfortable with monocultural, monolingual people, regardless of their education level or accomplishments. I find that I have little in common with them, or that I have to “explain” myself again—and at a certain stage in life, it gets tiresome. I also feel a kinship with artists and people who are a bit out of the mainstream. Like Adult TCKs, they tend to look at the world from the outside. For the longest time, I felt outside, looking in. Even now, that feeling hasn’t left me completely.

Not only for your sake but for the rest of us ATCKs, I’m happy you are now working on your memoir, a few parts of which I was privileged to hear you read. What inspired you to start writing it, and how far along are you in the process?
Thank you for your kind words. It’s been a long and tortuous road. For the longest time, from my days as a journalism student, I wanted to tell stories. Stories I heard around the world, and stories of my relatives who happen to be an eclectic bunch of multinational people. But I am always escaping into work, travel, poetry writing, whatever other excuse I can find. Now I’ve decided to work less and, while I still can conjure the memories, dedicate more time to writing what I like to call a “romanticized memoir,” with characters loosely built on the stories I heard about Egypt and on the memories I have of the places where we lived. I am still at the beginning of the process, and need to speed it up, lest it get buried alongside other writings.

Attempting to “capture all the voices in my head without sounding schizophrenic”

On top of all of this, you are a published poet. Is there a particular poem of yours that expresses your feelings of transience or loneliness or instability—or freedom or curiosity or love of travel—that you are most proud of? If so, could you share it with us?
Two years ago, a poem of mine I like the best, “Voz Ajena” (“Alien Voice”), was published in Spanish in the New England Translators Association’s newsletter. Although I translate other people’s work, I cannot translate my own. I don’t hear it in any other language but Spanish. In that poem, I attempted to capture all the “voices” in my head without sounding schizophrenic. To me, it is interesting to note that I can do this only in Spanish, which was the third language I acquired, after which it became my “go to” language. Even though French is rooted in me, Spanish carries Latin America with its music and colors, which trumps all others! I’ll give you that poem, but for those who don’t read Spanish, I’ll first give you a poem I wrote in English:

Notebook with a Missing Language

Only English is missing
in these familiar lines
that stretch quietly on a
tidy little notebook
filled in French with spatters of Spanish;
scents of places and of people long gone
leaving behind tender thoughts,
silent melodies, objects of desire,
histories of exiles and commencements
of lenities and humiliations,
of successes and exonerations;
tales of lost places, warm embraces,
mute voices, empty houses,
doors shut on bygone worlds.

door_shut_maya_poetry

The last line of “Notebook with a Missing Language,” a poem by Maya Evans

 

And now for those who read Spanish:

Voz Ajena

Le preguntó un día por su acento opaco,
esa manera que tiene ella
de tropezar con las erres,
saltar continentes al azar,
atar letras sin más sabor
en un ritmo extraño, ritmo de blanco.

Son recuerdos de otras voces,
las vivencias de mi memoria
de crêpe georgette y chantilly,
dijo ella con voz de seda, voz de sirena.

Yo no sabía de los fantasmas que te habitan,
No sabía de Egipto, España,
Francia y Hungría,
No sabía que te comían noche y día,
ocultándote la luz, clamando por aire,
y todos con ese afán de ser.

Y más aún le dijo ella,
tocan tambores y hacen ruidos,
se contorsionan en las tinieblas
por estallar en mil estrellas,
dejar arañas y demás vainas,
ser lentejuelas, champaña fino, jamón ibérico,
Ravel de fuego, Maria Callas reencarnada,
vistiendo toga, comiendo astros, tragando mundos.

Maya
Boston, 19 de abril de 2010

* * *

It’s been a pleasure, Maya, hearing about your many professional accomplishments and “romanticized memoir” in progress. And thank you so much for sharing two of your poems! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Maya below.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Tired of constant adjustments? TCKs and expats, just be yourself!

Olivia Charlet for Culture Shock ToolboxIt’s turning into Third Culture Kid Week at the Displaced Nation! Today our newest columnist H.E. Rybol, who has a German dad and a French mom and is a self-described “transitions enthusiast,” interviews a fellow adult TCK, with a French dad and a Belgian mom, about the tools she used to face the inevitable culture shocks during her family’s many moves. Later in the week, TCK Talent columnist Lisa Liang will be interviewing the poet Maya Evans, who was displaced from Egypt as a child. And you know something else? H.E. recently interviewed Lisa on her own blog. Though not a TCK myself, I always learn a lot from this rather tightly-knit group. I expect you will, too.

—ML Awanohara

Hello, Displaced Nationers! This month I am proud to introduce my first guest to the Culture Shock Toolbox column: Olivia Charlet, a fellow adult TCK and the founder of TCK Dating, a site that explores how our multicultural backgrounds influence our relationships. Olivia is fascinated by questions like: Are we TCKs happier with partners who share a similar nomadic background, or do opposites attract and we gravitate towards those who’ve lived in the same place their whole lives?

Today she has kindly agreed to answer my questions about the culture shocks she has experienced, along with tools she has used to overcome the feeling of not belonging. Here’s what she had to say…

* * *

Hi, Olivia. Thanks for joining me. First, can you tell us a little more about your background: which countries you’ve lived in and for how long? 

Sure! I was born in Tokyo, Japan and lived there for my first four years. I then lived in Düsseldorf, Germany for two years. We later moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, for six-and-a-half years. Finally, I spent middle school in Vienna, Austria, for almost four years. I completed my last two years of high school in Hamburg, Germany, and then went to university in Boston, Massachusetts, for three years, after which I lived in Auckland, New Zealand, for six months. I have now been living in London for around five years. 

That’s a lot of moving! And now we should move on to the topic of my column: cultural transitions. Can you recall any memorable occasions where you “put your foot in,” so to speak, during your many moves?

I still feel like I’m doing that, as an adult TCK here in London, especially when spending time with people who grew up in this part of the world. When I’m with a group of internationals, who are often my friends, this doesn’t happen as often since there’s this shared understanding that we all have slightly different cultural backgrounds. Let’s see… I think it mostly happens when I’m simply being outspoken—when I say things like “I love this!” or “This is amazing” or “It was terrible.” I picked up these expressions from American schools, I think. British people tend to be more understated. They’re more likely to say things like “Yeah, it’s alright” or “She’s nice.” It’s not so intense. 

How do you tend to handle those inevitably awkward situations when you feel people may have misinterpreted you?

When I was younger I would have tried to mold into what they believed to be “normal” or “appropriate” behavior. But unfortunately (or fortunately?), I’ve become less and less likely to do this as I’ve gotten older. I want to be able to me. And express my difference. I don’t like pretending and I need to be authentic. If I’m trying to please them by saying what they want me to say, I won’t be genuine. Growing up outside of my passport country, I spent years learning how to adapt quickly and meet new friends. However, every year that goes by in London, I realise I can find people in the city that won’t expect me to be something else. They’re just fine with me being me (crazy mix of customs and all!).

Looking back, can you recall any situations that you handled with surprising finesse? Why do you think that was? 

Well, that’s really my point. Having grown up moving around so much, I became really good at mimicking customs and behaviours—but not because of any natural ability. I just wanted to fit in. For instance, I played on a German football team in high school, and none of the girls spoke a word of English. They saw me as one of them after only a couple of months. Likewise, while attending university in the United States, I honed in on what the American students and professors needed to see for me to blend into their culture.

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

Strangely, I don’t think I would have said this six months ago, but basically my advice is to truly know yourself. Who are you? What do you love to do? What do you not like to do? How do you like to behave? Are you loud? Are you soft-spoken? Extroverted? Be you. Because really, as much as we try to fit into another world, the truth is you’ll find people in no matter what culture who “get” you and understand you just the way you are. The more you try to change and adapt to what other people want you to be, the more you’ll lose a sense of who you are. And the most important thing (at least for me) about living in a different country is to not lose your core of self. What are your goals? What is your purpose? Who are you? That’s what should matter. And with that will follow meeting people who match that.

Thank you so much, Olivia, for sharing your stories and reminding us that, regardless of where we are, we’ll meet others who “get us.” In a sense your tool consists of putting away the toolbox when it’s a question of remaining true to ourselves.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Olivia’s advice? Hopefully, it 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 Lisa Liang’s interview with Maya Evans.

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For this up-and-coming visual storyteller and lover of travel, a picture says…

Jamie March 2015 collage

Canon zoom lens, photo credit: Morguefiles; Jamie in Bangkok, Thailand, for the Loy Krathong festival (November 2013).

James King is back with his ever-popular “A picture says…” column. English by birth, James is now semi-retired in Thailand. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

My March guest is 22-year-old Singaporean Jamie Chan. She shares stories and images from her travels on her blog, No Foreign Lands, while shooting or writing for clients in the photography, lifestyle or travel genres.

Ever since she started photography in 2009, Jamie is rarely seen without a camera. Named one of Singapore’s 10 Best Young Photographers, she is an ardent traveler and enjoys documenting local cultures and lifestyles.

A specialist volunteer for Singapore International Foundation and various animal welfare groups, Jamie also finds time for good causes.

In addition, she sings in Schola Cantorum Singapore and plays the cello. She has clearly been allotted more hours than me in a day!

* * *

Hi, Jamie, and welcome to TDN. I’ve been looking forward to this interview since I first saw your street photography. For one so young you have travelled a fair bit and captured some great images. Can you tell us where you were born and when you spread your wings to start travelling?
I was born and raised on the sunny island of Singapore. My first solo trip was to Indonesia, when I was selected to be a photojournalist delegate of Singapore for the ASEAN Cultural Youth Camp of 2011, held in Yogyarkarta. At the time I was doing my final year project for my degree in Visual Communications (I majored in photography). After the camp finished, I decided to spend an entire month travelling around and documenting the culture and lifestyle of the peoples of Central Java. It was a big learning curve and stretched my photographic skills. I did not have the luxury of an editor to tell me what to look out for, and it was hard to get feedback from my lecturers because getting a wifi spot with Internet was like hitting the jackpot. The experience taught me to reflect, make decisions and work with what I had. I had to figure out how to shape and edit down my stories.

You were only 19 then. How did your parents feel about your decision to travel solo?
They were of course worried sick but came around eventually and even joined me for some parts of the trip. After all, what better way to spend time with your parents than on the back of a motorcycle going at God-only-knows what speed—’cause the speedometer was broken!

That must have been some trip! So once you caught the travel bug, where else did you go?
As a visual storyteller, I am always on the lookout for subjects that would make interesting photo essays. My blog, No Foreign Lands, started as a way to tell my mother that I was still alive while on the road. It has now become a platform for me to tell my stories and share my images with the world. Asia is one of my favourite places to travel. There is an incredible amount of interconnected history among the various countries. I am always learning.

I agree. Asia is a treasure trove for us storytellers and photography buffs. I only wish I had started my travels at an earlier age. So which countries have you visited so far?
There is a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson that goes:

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. The great affair is to move.

When I got back to Singapore after my Indonesia trip, I could not keep still. I was hooked on travelling, exploring and waking up to something new every day. I needed to move; soon after I graduated I booked my next trip—and I’ve never looked back since. Off the top of my head, I’ve been to Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Nepal, Indonesia, India, China and Australia.

That’s eight countries in less than four years; a lot more than most people visit in a lifetime. So tell us about where you are right now and why.
I’m actually back home in Singapore! I’ll mostly be based here for the remainder of 2015. That said, I can never stay put for long—I’ve taken three trips out of the country this year and it is only March! I am in the midst of getting a certification for my Japanese-language studies which I hope to finish by next year. Once that’s done, I intend to work and stay in Japan if possible.

“As a person who deals with visuals before words…”

I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you. I do believe Japan is a beautiful country which offers photographers some great opportunities. So now let’s see a few of your photos that capture some of your favourite memories.
One of the first stories I did in Indonesia involved visiting various “home industries” for a glimpse of what villagers do for a living. This man was performing a rather mundane job cranking out tiles with this old machine. It requires so much strength (I tried turning it and it barely budges):

Indonesia_machine

This Central Javenese man makes 500 tiles by hand every day using a cranky manual machine; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

I photograph Thaipusam, a Hindu festival celebrated by Tamil communities, almost every year in Singapore; I took this picture in 2014. There is something about the spirit of the festival that never ceases to amaze me each time I document it:

The unforgettable Chetty Pusam in Singapore; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

Singapore’s unforgettable Chetty Pusam; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

I was very fortunate to be able to make it down to the final few performances of the Melbourne Docklands Blues Festival and photographed a set by Jimi Hocking.He is an incredible musician and performer and this image just reminds me of Guitar Gods and their worshippers:

Can Jimi the Human be real? Photo credit: Jamie Chan.

Can Jimi the Human be real? Photo credit: Jamie Chan.

My favourite places to take photos so far are India, Nepal and Australia—but picking three pictures to illustrate this was really hard as each of these countries has so many amazing places to shoot… Anyway, let me start with the Great Ocean and its apostles. While it may seem like a tourism pilgrimage, when you actually stay and watch the light, you will see that every moment reveals a new side to the gorgeous apostles:

The Great Ocean Road in Australia; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

A couple of the Twelve Apostles along Australia’s Great Ocean Road; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

This is a stunning picture, Jamie. You have made a simple composition with no clutter and very imposing subjects. I love it.
Moving on to Kathmandu. Where do I begin? Within the valley wherever you are, the Himalayan mountain line is always watching you. I felt a sense of peace throughout my stay in Nepal. It is kind of hard to describe the feeling. I recommend you go there yourself. Here is one memento:

Kathamandu; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

One of Kathamandu‘s peaceful oases; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

Ayuthaya in Thailand is incredible. I was fortunate enough to gain access to its inner chambers to photograph some of the world’s oldest paintings—an incredibly humbling moment. Here’s an external shot of the ruins that were left after the Burmese invasion:

Ayuthaya; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

The ancient Siamese kingdom of Ayuthaya; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

The more-than-a-thousand-year-old Khmer temples of northeast Thailand are really impressive and give us a glimpse of how the Khmer Empire stretched from Cambodia into what is now a large area of Thailand. Tell me, do you feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious of you doing so?
I try my best to observe and read a person’s body language. My camera is always with me and there is always a silent communication of sorts whenever I lift it to my eye. But there is actually nothing to feel reserved or shy about as the most that can happen is that your subject will say no or even hit you(!) if you are really obnoxious.

“I also happen to speak two and a half languages. The half language is Mandarin.”

I mainly do landscape but when I do shoot people I am the same. I hate to take “posed for” photos so I hardly ever get into a discussion. I take the pic or I don’t. Do you ever ask permission before taking people’s photographs? How do you get around any problem of language?
Since I am always reading a person’s body language before I shoot, I generally do not ask for permission. If I do ask and do not speak their language, I rely on improvised sign language—pointing to my camera and nodding with a big smile on my face. It’s worked so far.

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?
Yes, most definitely. As cliché as this may sound, the camera allows us to stop time for a split second and record the moment, preserve a memory.

So when did you realise the power of photography, and how has it changed you?
It happened by accident, like so many things in life, while I was looking through old photos of my family. I realised then that if no one had taken these photos, I would never have remembered how my mum looked like all those years ago.

“Who says the iPhone can’t photograph the moon!”

I know what you mean. For me, a picture is a diary of an event in visual form. The photographer “writes” about it in a way no one else could.Now for the technical stuff. What kind of camera and lenses you use?
I work with a rangefinder, the Leica M-E. My 35mm Summilux lens is stuck to the camera body most of the time as it is just such a beautiful focal length which allows me to respond quickly to different situations. On certain occasions, maybe twice a year, I will use the 50mm Summilux just to get a tighter shot. Other than that, my iPhone 5s takes wicked macro shots.

That’s interesting because although I have become attached to the versatility of my 18–55mm Canon lens there are times when I can’t get in close enough, so I need to add say a 70–200mm to my kit. And now I need an iPhone 5s!!!!! And which software do you use for post-processing?
I use Lightroom for post processing as I shoot entirely in raw image format.

“The perfect camera is the one with you.”

Join the club. Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
I’m not sure what advice I can give for wannabe photographers, though that hoary old chestnut “Don’t quit your day job” has just now floated into my mind. I say that because I sense that the golden age of photography is mostly over. Having said that, if you have the passion and perseverance to live, breathe and eat photography, press on and live it. But also remember that technology has made it so much easier to learn a new creative skill. Try your hand at video, writing or music. Use your creativity, mash them all together, and see what you come up with. At the end of the day, as long as your art moves someone and you are able to live comfortably with what you have, you know you are on the right track.

I actually think that is very good non-technical advice Jamie and I’d like to thank you for taking the time to tell your story so far in this interview. I am sure you will, undoubtedly, inspire other young and maybe not so young people.

Editor’s note: All subheds are excerpted from Jamie’s blog.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Jamie’s experiences? If you have any questions for her on his travels and/or photos, please leave them in the comments!

If you want to get to know Jamie and her creative works better, I suggest you visit her photography site and check out her posts on her photography/travel blog, No Foreign Lands. You can also follow her on twitter and Instagram and/or like her blog’s Facebook page.

(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.)

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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