The Displaced Nation

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CHUNKS OF DRAGONFRUIT: The story of an expat for whom Burma literally becomes the Tropic of Cancer

Dragonfruit cover and photo of Philippa Ramsden, courtesy Shannon Young. Purple dragonfruit by Mike Behnken (CC BY 2.0).

Dragonfruit cover and photo of Philippa Ramsden, courtesy Shannon Young. Purple dragonfruit by Mike Behnken (CC BY 2.0).

First of all, if How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia isn’t on your Christmas list, it ought to be. As regular Displaced Nation readers will know, Dragonfruit is a new anthology edited by columnist Shannon Young. Shannon has been sharing a few tasty morsels with us over the past couple of months, and we have been repeatedly amazed at the window afforded on Asia by these expat women writers. This is the third installment. The first can be read here; the second, here.

—ML Awanohara

For this month’s excerpt, I’ve chosen a piece by Philippa Ramsden. A Scotswoman, Philippa is a development and humanitarian professional, writing in any leisure time. She had been to Asia only once when she stepped off a plane in Kathmandu in 2000 to take up a new job, with no idea what to expect—and has been in Asia ever since. She has lived and worked in Nepal, Mongolia, India, Sri Lanka, and now Burma/Myanmar.*

Philippa actually submitted more than one piece for consideration in the expat women anthology, but this one stood out because it addresses head-on one of the scariest things an expat can experience: receiving a life-threatening diagnosis abroad. Philippa is a true inspiration for handling such a significant challenge without letting it undermine her sense of wonder and appreciation for the country she currently calls home.

I am honored to share the beginning of Philippa’s story here.

“Moving to the Tropic of Cancer,” by Philippa Ramsden

Rainy season in Burma is spectacular. At night, I love to lie in bed, listening to the torrential rainfall drenching the earth and bringing life and vitality to the land. Between showers, the air is so thick that you can hear the moisture dripping from leaves and branches. And if you listen very carefully, you can almost hear the grass sighing and burbling with delight as it wallows in the rainwater. When the rains come down, they do so thick and fast. Even with an umbrella and raincoat you are quickly drenched. In the intervals between the downpours, it is hot, humid and sticky.

When I arrived in Burma in mid June of 2009 to start a new job, rainy season was in full force. Having lived in Asia for more than a decade, I have become close friends with the monsoons, which bring welcome respite from stifling heat and humidity. Being caught in a sudden downpour, or even listening to the rain from outside, brings energy and feels like a revitalising force. I have many fond memories of standing, drenched to the skin, grinning from ear to ear after only a few moments in an unexpected cloudburst. It helps that the rain is warm! Coming from Scotland, where the rain can be just as heavy but usually accompanied by grey skies and often a biting wind, I have never tired of this warm torrential rain.

When the rains make their first annual appearance, they usually arrive dramatically, and the world is transformed. There is a festive feeling; smiles and laughter return. The sight of children playing in the rain, splashing in puddles and letting the rain soak them through is ubiquitous. And not just children—adults too! The city turns green, mosquitoes hold crowded parties, and the frogs grow to such a size that they sound like male tigers as they croak in the night. The ground and pavements are covered with a layer of slippery, slimy moss in the hidden spaces which have not already turned to mud.

Such was Yangon when we arrived with our suitcases, papers, and a crate of enthusiasm, to take up a new life in this enigmatic country. It is quite an experience looking for a home in such a setting. We had a temporary place to live but were keen to settle and unpack properly. In those first weeks, we tramped round a number of potential homes, the mosquitoes nipping at our ankles and the rain teeming down.

It was not too long before my husband found the perfect place, a simple bungalow within walking distance from work. We made arrangements to view it, and the heavens opened shortly before the visit. The road outside the office flooded, and we had to wade through warm, murky water to get there. It was well worth the effort, though. The bungalow was indeed perfect: modest, but deceptively spacious. The wooden floors gave it a cosy warmth and the large, high windows made it feel light and optimistic. Unusually for Yangon, it had ceiling fans throughout. My fear of earthquakes was assuaged by the fact it was all on one level. The generous garden was gloriously tropical and mature, bounded by bamboo, mango trees, and hedging, and filled with pink, white, and yellow bougainvillea, crimson foliage, pink and purple hibiscus, and scented frangipani. It was ideal. We would share it with several families of geckos, some of which were the tiniest ones I have ever seen. They added to the nighttime chorus with their characteristic chirruping sound.

After a series of one-year postings in different countries in the South and Southeast Asian region, we were very happy at the prospect of a longer posting. We were keen to move into this peaceful space and finally unpack. Particularly back in 2009, Burma had an air of mystery, and were eager to learn about our new environment. We made arrangements to rent this house and moved in as soon as everything was in order. It was a marvelous feeling to be settling at last.

By late September, the rainy season had truly left its mark: the vegetation was lush and vibrant from the rains, clothes seemed to be neither clean nor dry, almost everything was growing a layer of mould, and the humidity made me feel constantly grimy.

One unremarkable evening, as another hot, sticky, and wet day was drawing to a close, I had my usual shower to refresh myself and clean off the day’s grime. It was in the shower that I felt a hard, solid area where one should not have been, in my left breast.

I was instantly transported back in time twenty-six years to when I had found a lump one evening while bathing. I vividly remembered the sensation of sick fear as I checked that I had not imagined it. It had indeed been real all those years ago, and I had had it investigated promptly the next day with my local doctor. It had turned out to be nothing sinister and was shrinking by the time I had a hospital appointment a couple of weeks later. Although the lump at that time was not worrisome, the emotions and fear that I felt at that time were very real.

My reaction was different, however, on finding this lump all these years later. My stomach didn’t sink in quite the same way. In the previous days, I had noticed some changes in my left breast, and was intending to seek medical advice. However, I believed these to be related to my age. When my fingers rested on the hard mass, I knew that the lump plus changes must constitute worrying signs. This really could be sinister this time. I comforted and contradicted myself, focusing on the fact that eighty percent of breast lumps are benign, and moreover, there was no history of cancer at all in my family.

I swallowed the sense of fear and uncertainty. My mind had to absorb the possibility that I might have cancer. And I was living in a new and foreign environment. I had no idea what the implications might be.
*We have chosen to use Burma and Rangoon rather than Myanmar and Rangon.

* * *

Readers, if you enjoyed that morsel, I hope you will at least consider downloading a sample of the Dragonfruit anthology from Amazon or purchasing the book: the e-book and paperback of are available at all major online retailers.

And if this excerpt has made you curious to learn more about Philippa Ramsden, her blog is Feisty Blue Gecko. You can also find her on Facebook and twitter. She has written several meditations on the challenges and joys of life in a foreign environment—and they are all fascinating. She is currently working on a memoir.

* * *

Thank you so much, Shannon! Displaced Nationers, do you have any responses to the opening of Philippa’s moving story?

Before I go, here’s another reminder to purchase a copy of Shannon’s wonderful anthology. What better end-of-year gift for the expat woman in your life (or for yourself, if that is you!).

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with snippets of worldly wisdom, exclusive book giveaways and our nominees for the monthly Alice Awards. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: ‘Tis the season to be jolly—and for that I recommend crunchy sweet potatoes

Crunchy Sweet Potato Collage

Joanna Masters-Maggs portrait; “Pecan Sweet Potato Casserole,” by Vox Efx and “Thanksgiving feast,”  by Star Mama, both 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 “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?”

* * *

Last month I had intended to contribute a pleasant little piece invoking “memories of Thanksgivings past”—but I am afraid I just wasn’t feeling in a terribly thankful sort of mood.

That was a shame, really, as Thanksgiving is one of the few holidays I have been lucky enough to experience overseas that my crabby little heart actually embraces. As a foreigner living in the United States, my experience could be likened to that of a grateful orphan, adopted warmly by a family as a vaguely interesting addition to proceedings.

Really, what is there not to like? Good food, and plenty of it, a lot of wine, usually in the host family’s nice crystal—and ABSOLUTELY NO PRESENT-GIVING other than generous hostess gifts.

Et tu, le shopping?

It was actually the contemplation of present-BUYING that prompted my spell of bad humour. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving—which Americans traditionally spend at pre-Christmas sales, in a frenzy that can take on the appearance of contact sports with credit cards—has now arrived in France, my current home.

France!

It seems that even the French have lost their ability to say non to foreign habits that threaten their own culture.

Le shopping, too. :(

Veggies, glorious veggies!

All of that said, I regret that I never sat down and wrote the column I originally had in mind. Soon after I made that decision, the thought of those cosy Thanksgivings where outdoor grey light gives way to the warmth of candles and fires began to get the better of my jour noir.

Especially when I remembered the BEST THING OF ALL about Thanksgiving: it affords an opportunity for Americans to demonstrate their magical ability to convert healthy, vitamin-brimming vegetables into artery-clogging, heart-stopping not-much-time-left-bombs.

The general principle seems to be to cook out as much of the vegetable’s vitamin content as possible, along with its texture and possibly colour. Next comes the flavour makeover. Those green beans must taste of ham hock and bacon, not bean. The loss of beanly texture is viewed as desirable—and really, who enjoys the blackboard squeak of green beans on teeth?

However, I cannot approve of the makeover given to the sweet potato, whose texture when cooked is always soft. Sweet potatoes require a little more bite—and how!

The joy of this vegetable is that, even after the rather horrifying treatment meted out to it, often involving marshmallows, the B vitamins remain intact allowing it to count as a health food still.

God Bless America indeed.

Let’s talk turkey, or where’s the beef?

If there are to be any complaints about Thanksgiving and, given my heritage, there must be complaints, it would be about the bird. As my own father once said of Christmas lunch in the UK:

If it’s meant to be a fancy there should be proper meat.

For him this means beef, I believe. I’m open to other meats, other birds even, but I agree with my dad’s sentiment that the Turkey is a duffer in pretty much every respect. Even at its most organic, just shot and plucked best, it’s just a stomach filler for crowds. Does anyone, I wonder, ever consider serving two smaller but glorious geese rather than one ho hum turkey?

On the bright side, though, who needs meat at all when you can have sides like green-bean-and-bacon casserole?

Since my mood has lifted somewhat with all this talk of misbehaving veggies, I have decided to share the cheer by offering you the sweet potato recipe I love. It was given to me years ago and involves brown sugar, pecans and cinnamon baked to a crisp and crumble like finish—plenty of crunch and bite!

It’s wonderful for Christmas and it’s wonderful anytime. Bon appétit!

pecan sweet potato casserole

Sweet Potato Casserole

Ingredients:
½ kilo (just over a pound) of sweet potatoes
115g (half a cup) white sugar
2 large eggs
salt to taste
50g (3.5 tbsp) butter
120 ml (half a cup) of milk
1tsp of cinnamon powder

For the topping:
100g (half a cup) brown sugar
40 g (one third a cup) plain flour
40g (one third of a stick) butter
140 g (around one and one third cups) chopped pecans—you can substitute with other nuts if necessary, but I do think pecan is the best for this as it has a pleasing sweetness. (Walnuts, the natural substitute, can be a little bitter.)

Method
Cover sweet potatoes with cold water and bring to boil. Cook gently until tender.

Mash sweet potatoes with the sugar, beaten eggs, salt, butter milk and vanilla extract if desired.

Spread the sweet potato mixture into a casserole dish measuring 22 x 33 centimeters (8.5″ x 13″).

Preheat the oven to 165°C (around 350ºF).

To make the topping, rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar and nuts. Sprinkle evenly over the potato mixture.

Bake for half an hour until golden brown—keep an eye on it, though, as pecans burn easily.

* * *

Fellow Food Gossips,do you have any post-Thanksgiving (or pre-Christmas) food stories & recipes to share? And also please let us know: do you agree with Joanna’s take on the sweet potato?

STAY TUNED for our next fab post!

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And the November 2014 Alices go to … these 3 international creatives

 © Iamezan | Dreamstime.com Used under license

© Iamezan | Dreamstime.com
Used under license

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

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

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

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

1) Becky Ances, American expat in China and creator behind the Moo-Cow Fan Club, an award-winning children’s magazine & book series

For her post: “No I DO NOT Want to Drink F&%#%$ Hot Water,” to her personal blog, Writer Traveler Tea Drinker: Doing all three in China
Posted on: 18 November 2014
Queen Alice Drink CollageAlice Connection:

“Drink more hot water”
This is the most annoying piece of advice you hear ALL THE TIME when living in China. My friend smashed her elbow, the bone, and went to the hospital. Their recommendation? Drink hot water.

Citation: Becky, please forgive us for having found your post about what happened when you came down with a “major disgusting, hocking, snotty nose, bleary-eyed” case of flu in your adopted home of China highly amusing. That is actually a compliment, coming from us! We also think, moreover, that you may have overreacted slightly to being told repeatedly by Chinese students and friends to drink hot water. We refer you to the “Queen Alice” chapter in Through the Looking Glass, specifically the section where Alice, having found herself wearing a golden crown, arrives at a party being held in her honor. She is surprised to be serenaded by a solo singer with a shrill voice pretending to be her stand-in. She is even more surprised when the hundreds of looking-glass creatures (animals, birds, even a few flowers) who are attending as guests join in a refrain that proposes concocting drinks full of cats and mice, treacle and ink, etc., for a special toast. Looping back to your situation in China: Be grateful it was only hot water they were prescribing (besides, isn’t hot water safer to drink in China?). Under other circumstances, your Chinese friends might have been foisting snake wine or other therapeutic drinks on you as curatives. You are absolutely right, however, to avoid people who sneeze and don’t cover their mouths. And we hope you are also sensible enough to know that if someone offers you a  bottle labeled 我喝 to pour the contents into a flower pot when no one’s looking. (The flowers will thank you for it!) Get well soon, Becky. We wish to read more of your posts!

2) Ruth Van Reken, Adult Third Culture Kid writer, editor, and lecturer; and author of the memoir Letters Never Sent

For her interview: “Exploring Her Third Culture Through Journaling with Ruth Van Reken,” by Eric for geodip
Posted on: 3 November 2014
Alice Connection:
Alice Cheshire Cat Collage

It is from this frequent changing of worlds and communities that the two main challenges of growing up global form. The question of identity: Which of my many selves am I? and the matter of unresolved grief. With so many cycles of transition, if people don’t process the inevitable losses as they happen, the grief that is inherent in losing things that we love will have to go somewhere deep inside.

Citation: Ruth, reading about your struggle to embrace your multiple identities and channel your grief at saying so many goodbyes at a young age—well, let’s say it makes Alice’s confession of an identity crisis to the Cheshire Cat seem a bit of a cake walk. Alice presumably had only one other self, that of a well-behaved Victorian girl, to reconcile with the adventuresome spirit she’d become in Wonderland. You by contrast have had to deal with multiple selves after spending your first 13 years in Nigeria with your missionary parents. We must say, it was brilliant of you to use journaling as your Cheshire Cat when you found yourself, in your late thirties, suffering from a depression about these unresolved emotions. Translating feelings of loss, grief and confusion into the written word has clearly been a tonic. It has left you with a grin about your cross-cultural life, which you’ve generously shared with others through your memoir and other writings. Kudos, Ruth, and thank you.

3) Hannah Reyes, photographer, travel enthusiast, Filipina expat in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and National Geographic Young Explorer

For her interview: “I Heart My City: Hannah’s Phnom Penh,” in Beyond the Guidebook, a feature of NationalGeographic.com’s Intelligent Travel section.
Posted on: 22 October 2014
Tweedle Dums Collage

The most random thing about my city is the quantity of people going about their workdays dressed in matching, printed pajamas.

Citation: Hannah, our first concern, after reading your engrossing interview post, is whether there’s a way to tell “dee” from “dum” when you see two people wearing identical pajamas—and if not, would they consider embroidering their names on their collars? Also, the concept of wearing pajamas during the workday sounds most unusual to those of us who know Japan, where pajama costumes might be worn to the hot springs bath but certainly not to work. Finally, we are curious about the print on the pajamas. Most uniforms we’ve seen, including those for Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, don’t involve prints (apart, that is, from the stripes on their caps). We hope for your sake that the print is subtle rather than garish. Otherwise, there might be too much “ditto”, as Tweedledum might say, or “ditto ditto” as Tweedle Dee would respond. To sum up, Hannah, your interview has left us curiouser and curiouser. Well done!

*  *  *

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

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

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

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For this former flight attendant turned free-spirited solo adventurer, a picture says…

Svetlana Portrait Collage

Canon zoom lens, photo credit: Morguefiles; portrait of Svetlana Baghawan taken at Golestan Palace, Tehran, Iran.

Welcome to our monthly series “A picture says…”, created to celebrate expats and other global residents for whom photography is a creative outlet. The series host is English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King, who thinks of a camera as a mirror with memory. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

My guest this month is 33-year-old Svetlana Baghawan, who says she is a “cloud gypsy” or “maverick bird” (that’s what she calls her blog) because she likes to fly and explore—she also hikes, treks and daydreams. On her blog’s Home Page, Svetlana declares:

“When I’m not traveling physically my mind wanders in loops and whirls across open space.”

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

The way she described the self-portrait she sent to me for “A Picture Says…” (see above) helped set the scene for my interview with her:

By the time I left Tehran, I was a far cry from the shaky, nervous girl who had landed there two weeks before. The photo (above) was taken by the Tehran moral policeman who pulled me up for wearing tight jeans. When I told him I was from India, he revealed a fascination for Bollywood and I glibly lied about being a professional Bollywood dancer. He happily let me go after taking this photo and a few others. Not only did my response save me from harassment but I’d surprised myself with my new-found confidence. It was a turning point in my life. That’s why I love the photo.

* * *

Welcome to the Displaced Nation, Svetlana. I have been looking forward to discussing your photo-travel experiences ever since I discovered your blog, Maverickbird, some months ago. The first thing that caught my eye was the unusual title which, as I now know, describes you perfectly. Let’s start with where you were born. And when you spread your wings (an apt metaphor in your case!) to start travelling?
I was born in Calcutta, India, and spread my wings at the age of 17 when I was selected as a flight attendant by an international airline.

I think I can put you in the seasoned traveller category now as you have been travelling for work and pleasure for 16 years. Tell us, what is it like to be a solo female traveller?
My travels could be described as falling into three categories. Initially they were only what I would call city centric and absolutely touristy. You know, the places where flight crews get night halts and have limited time to relax. So there is little else to do except take selfies, shop, eat and sleep. Then came the phase when I travelled with my family, which, apart from the touristy fun bit, also involved taking on a lot of responsibilities. Then finally, at the age of 30, I started traveling solo. Since then my journeys have been challenging but also more fulfilling and enriching.

So at last you are, how shall I say, awakened perhaps? And living a dream. I can appreciate how uplifting that must be so I would love to know what inspired you to travel and what countries you have visited?
It may sound a bit melodramatic, but one day I was happily tied to my role of the traditional Indian married lady, and the next I was suddenly alone: a blow was dealt to my secure little world. I struggled to come to terms with my loss, but grief and depression, coupled with the suffocating social taboos that are dumped on bereaved ladies in India, nearly drove me over the edge. I was still a flight attendant at the time so used my free airline ticket facility and took off. I craved an escape. It was my way to survive. Iran was my first stop. It was tough—but soul touching and completely healing. I returned from Iran with a new-found zest for life, secure in my own identity and confident to take on the world once again.

How many countries in all have you visited?
If I include all the places which I have visited since I started flying then the list would run to nearly 60 countries. As a solo traveller, I have visited and engaged with 13 countries in depth.

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,/The world offers itself to your imagination…” Mary Oliver

Recovering from a tragedy takes courage, and the fact that you didn’t dwell on your loss for too long shows your resilience. I firmly believe that we learn more from adversity than we do from triumph or success. You have good reason to be proud. So where are you now, how did you end up there and what is life like in a new place?
I am in Sri Lanka where I came to help a friend on a whaling project. I have found Sri Lanka to be very unsettling and unexpectedly tough to handle especially for a single woman of Indian origin. Although it’s a breathtakingly beautiful country with amazing people, culture and history, I have a sense of “alien familiarity” here, which I’m finding difficult to handle. It’s similar to home yet so very different. I am constantly oscillating between feeling at home and being displaced. Sri Lankans only seem to be able to associate with Southern India—hence the dazed reactions of nearly everybody I meet to my descriptions of Calcutta. This is slowing wearing me out.

A whaling project sounds pretty exciting—I hope you don’t let the other issues get you down. Let’s have a look now at some photos that capture a few of your favourite memories and hear your stories about what makes these memories so special.
It is a very arduous trek to reach the Himalayan blue poppies at the Valley of Flowers National Park, in Uttarakhand, a state in the northern part of India. But the beauty at the end of the journey is mind blowing. I still clearly remember how my first sight of the rare blue poppies took my breath away:

Svetlana_blueflowers

Singing a gorgeous blues in the Himalayas; photo credit: Svetlana Baghawan.

Meeting huskies in Lovozero, a village in Northern Russia, was a dream come true for me. Their puppy love floored me completely. It was extremely heart-warming to see the way those tough little dogs did the usual doggy tricks, like yapping away in happiness on being taken out for a run, making cute puppy eyes to get their way and cuddling on one’s lap like big babies.

Svetlana_huskies

Floored by puppy love in Northern Russia; photo credit: Svetlana Baghawan.

The third photo is of my daughter during Diwali. We had gone for a drive and I loved the way her eyes lit up with happiness at the prospect of quality mommy-baby time. It was fresh after our little world had gone awry, and it was magical to see how fast children rebound from losses and find happiness in every moment and in smallest of things:

Svetlana_daughter

A daughter’s delight in Diwali; photo credit: Svetlana Baghawan.

Diwali, for those who don’t know, is the biggest festival celebrated in India. Held around November, it signifies the victory of good over evil and is celebrated with a lot of festivities: spring cleaning, new clothes, home makeovers, auspicious purchases of substantial things like gold, cars, house etc, starting of new ventures, exchanging gifts, sweets and finally with lots of lights and fireworks. The whole country gets lit up in millions of lights as every Indian irrespective of caste, religion and social standing, decorates their house with lamps/lights.

This is a beautiful photo which captures a child’s joy and innocence. I can see she is very precious to you.

“I love the freedom of my wings.” —Banani Ray

Tell us, where were (or are) your favourite places to take photographs?
Shiraz, Iran, is a favourite of mine because of its stunning landscape, spectacular architecture, feast of archaeological wonders, and photogenic people who are also genuinely friendly. I loved the playful rainbows created inside this mosque. To me it truly represented Iran, which I have found to be a friendly, delightful and safe country. Unfortunately, it is shrouded under an unfortunate pall of cruel myths.

Svetlana_mosque

Somewhere over the rainbow…is this gem of an Iranian mosque; photo credit: Svetlana Baghawan.

How interesting and not the general Western perception of the place, I’m sure.

Siberia would be another favourite place to photograph. The sheer amount of unexplored open natural beauty is very freeing and of course the landscape is breathtaking. These wild Altai horses say Siberia to me, with its staggeringly expansive land mass and incredible, wild beauty.

Svetlana_horses

Wild horses in the wilds of Siberia’s Atlai mountains; photo credit: Svetlana Baghawan.

Last but not the least would be Hampi, a village in Karnataka, a state in South West India, famed for being located within the ruins of Vijayanagara, an empire that came to prominence at the end of the 13th century. Although it was tough to decide between Hampi and Kashmir, I love Hampi more for its surreal mix of a tangible ghostly civilization lying scattered amidst one of the most beautiful landscapes in India (think balancing boulder, rice fields, forests and obscure rivers) and little pockets of villages. The enchanting blend of the dead and living is breath-taking and the last photo represents Hampi’s larger-than-life beauty. You have to see it to believe it.

Svetlana_Hampi_India

Contemplating the former glory of a ruined empire (Hampi, India); photo credit: Svetlana Baghawan.

I believe you (I doubt I will ever get the opportunity to see it!). You have clearly been touched by the places you’ve visited, which should be an inspiration to other wannabe solo travellers. I’d like to know if you feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious that you are doing so?
I love to take people’s photographs but at times do feel a bit conscious about photographing elderly people. This stems from the fact that they belong to a completely different era and might not at all like the idea of getting clicked. Photographing members of the religious fraternity, like monks, also makes me a bit nervous. I almost always ask permission before taking a person’s photo and in case of a language difference, bow, smile, greet and point to my camera to seek permission.

“It’s impossible to explain creativity. It’s like asking a bird, ‘How do you fly?'” —Eric Jerome Dickey

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?
I would like to think so because I see beauty in almost everything and love to capture it to share those moments with others. I believe that looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses is a gift I received from my mother. When I was growing up, she instilled in me a love for life’s beauty in how she would react to the world around us. She would spot a photogenic army of marching ants, play of sun and shade, curls of flower petals, waving strings of lights, etc., and share those moments with me in such an inspiring way. That said, it took me some time to get in touch with this inborn gift. I first realized it in Delhi while photographing a man selling neon-coloured balloons in front of India Gate. The detailed neon glow against the brooding monument in the dark inspired me, and those photos were very well received by my friends and family. Since then, I’ve been alert to beautiful details and while it was once a conscious effort, it is now a seamless habit, one that has made me much happier and contented. Discovering beauty at every step does make the world a less threatening place.

Your mother clearly had a great influence on you and especially the way you interact with natural scenery. Moving on to the technical aspects of photography: some of our readers may be curious to hear what kind of camera and lenses you use.
I use a Canon 550D although have recently upgraded to 600D and most of the time use 18-200mm lens. I prefer not to use post-processing software, but at times I have tried my hand at Picasa.

That’s a coincidence. I have the 600D as well! But unlike you I spend a lot of time learning and using post-processing. I believe, if you have the time, that learning about and improving photographic skills can add enormously to a blog. Having said that, I love at lot of your photo compositions and the subject matter is really good. Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
Traveling abroad is both extremely tough and fulfilling at the same time. To leave your comfort zone for unknown territories and cultures is difficult but once you start coming to terms with the culture’s uniqueness, you will fall in love with it. Accepting the way a new place is in a non-judgmental way will help the transition process and slowly reveal its unfamiliar yet unique beauty, which you can photograph. Respect for the local culture comes first.

Thank you, Svetlana, for taking the time to tell your heart-warming and fascinating story. The late great American actress Anne Baxter once said:

It’s best to have failure happen early in life. It wakes up the Phoenix bird in you so you rise from the ashes.

You strike me as living proof of that statement. You have overcome adversity and grown as a person: a true triumph!

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Svetlana’s experiences and the photos she has produced? Please leave any questions or feedback in the comments!

Want to get to know her better? I suggest that you visit Svetlana’s blog, maverickbird. She can be contacted by email.

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Clare Flynn, a well-traveled novelist who specializes in geographical displacement

JJ Marsh Clare Flynn

LOCATION, LOCUTION columnist JJ Marsh (left) talks to the novelist Clare Flynn.

In this month’s LOCATION, LOCUTION, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Clare Flynn, the author of A Greater World and the just now published Kurinji Flowers.

Born in Liverpool, the eldest of five children, Clare Flynn read English Language and Literature at Manchester University, although spent most of her time exploring the city’s bars and nightclubs and founding the Rock ‘n’ Roll Society.

For many years she worked in consumer marketing, serving as the international marketing director for big global companies selling detergents, diapers, tuna fish and chocolate biscuits. This included stints in Paris, Brussels, Sydney and Milan.

She began her novel A Greater World, which is set in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, in 1998, after the first of many visits to Australia. When Clare had almost completed the first draft, burglars stole her computer. Determined that they would not get the better of her, she sat down and wrote it all again.

Her second novel, Kurinji Flowers, is set in a tea plantation in South India in the 1930s. The inspiration for the book came during a sleepless night in a hotel in Munnar in Kerala. The kurinji flowers of the title grow across this region and are renowned for flowering only once in every 12 years.

Both novels are about people being displaced. In A Greater World Elizabeth Morton and Michael Winterbourne are unwilling emigrants from England for Australia, driven away by tragic events. Ginny Dunbar in Kurinji Flowers, following a scandal that wrecks her future, is catapulted from her life as a debutante into the world of colonial India. None of these people is equipped to deal with what lies ahead.

Which came first, story or location?

Definitely location. My latest book, Kurinji Flowers, is set in a small hill town in South India. While on holiday in Kerala, in 2011, the plot came to me one sleepless night. By morning I’d mapped out the basic elements although, as always when writing, it’s changed radically since then. It’s set in the 1930s in a fictional hill town called Mudoorayam, loosely based on Munnar. After I’d finished the first draft I went back, alone, to the area and stayed in a former plantation manager’s bungalow in the midst of the tea gardens. As well as writing, I sketched and painted (then decided my main character would paint, too).

Kurinji Flowers Collage

Photo credit: Kurinji flowers by Suresh Krishna (CC BY-SA 2.0); book cover art.

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

Definitely being there. I try to walk in my characters’ steps. A Greater World is set mainly in the Blue Mountains and Sydney. I was lucky enough to work there for six months—the perfect opportunity to imbibe a place. I went back after the first draft was written—again, alone, and just went everywhere, taking photographs and making notes. I do a lot of research as well—and gather pictures, both online and in books. As my novels are historical, old photographs are invaluable.

A Greater World Collage

Photo credit: The Three Sisters, Katoomba, New South Wales, Australia, by JJ Harrison (CC BY-SA 3.0); book cover art.


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

I think they all do. Plus sounds and smells—when the heroine of Kurinji Flowers, Ginny Dunbar, arrives in Bombay from England, the scene is evoked with six different sounds, eleven smells and loads of colours. I also use trees, flowers, birds, architecture—anything that makes the place special and takes you there. Writing about London is hard for me as it’s so familiar—but the fact that my plots are historical helps: I have to do a bit of time-travelling. I try to use place as part of the narrative, not as add-on description—it has to have a fundamental impact on the plot.

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

From Kurinji Flowers:

We went back to England and a bungalow on the downs outside Eastbourne, where after a while I started to become fond of the sheep, the curving contours of the landscape and the grey-green, chalky sea. But I missed Muddy. I missed the warmth of the late afternoon sun, the intensity of the rains, the bustle of the market, the vast undulating expanse of the tea plantations, the gentle cry of the Nilgiri pigeons, the sluggish, murky river, the blue of the morning glory, and the patchwork of the tea gardens in more shades of green than my palette could do justice.

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

You don’t need to know it well, but you have to feel strongly enough about it to bring it to life on the page. There are people who write beautifully about places they’ve never visited—finding inspiration in other literature, in photographs and art. Shakespeare never left England as far as I know and it didn’t stop him writing about distant places real and imagined. And you can always use some artistic licence if you rename the place, as I did with my hill town.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
So many—but I’ll pick Dickens and Chapter 1 of Bleak House, which gives a fabulous evocation of smoggy, muddy, London in “implacable November weather,” with a whole page devoted to describing the fog. Read that and you can’t help but be there trudging through those streets and coughing up that filthy air. And what’s great about it is that the depiction of the fog is also an extended metaphor for the impenetrable fog that is the Court of Chancery.

* * *

Next month’s Location, LocutionThe Rucksack Universe series author Anthony St. Clair, with his travel fantasy books set in Hong Kong, India and Ireland.

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

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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

DiaryExpatWriterAs regular readers of the Displaced Nation will know, Shannon Young* recently took the decision to quit her day job to become a full-time writer in Hong Kong, where she lives with her half-Chinese husband. She joins us today to update the diary of this new phase of her life—and this time has brought along Jordan Rivet, her alter-ego. Hmmm…should be interesting!

—ML Awanohara

Dear Displaced Diary,

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

There are writers in Hong Kong!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Priorities, priorities

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

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

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

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

It’s not New York City, but…

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

Then this crazy, wonderful expat life happened.

Shannon Young at HKILF

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

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

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

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

Thanks for continuing to follow my expat writing journey.

Yours,

Shannon (& Jordan)

www.shannonyoungwriter.com

* * *

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

*Shannon Young (not Jordan Rivet!) has edited an anthology, How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia (2014), from which she is sharing some excerpts. We’re calling them “chunks” of dragonfruit—they taste delicious!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Nina Sichel_TCK TalentElizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her monthly column about Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields, Lisa herself being a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about growing up as a TCK, which she has taken all over the country. In fact, she turned up as the convocation speaker at Carleton College on October 31st, where my niece, now a Carleton freshman, had the pleasure of watching her perform some excerpts!

—ML Awanohara

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Booklust Wanderlust Collage

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

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

—ML Awanohara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what if one must re-start from tragedy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living in not-so-splendid isolation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

—George Bernard Shaw

Till next month!

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

—ML Awanohara

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Andrew Couch (October 2014).

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

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

The costumes were a treat

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

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

I had fun watching both groups.

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

SteampunkParade

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

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

A real-life fantasy simulation

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

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

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

Of Mice and Comics

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

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

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

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

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

FreibergMinster

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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And the October 2014 Alices go to … these 3 international creatives

 © Iamezan | Dreamstime.com Used under license

© Iamezan | Dreamstime.com
Used under license

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

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

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

Today’s post hono(u)rs our three Alice recipients for October. They are (drumroll…):

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

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

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

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

Alice Connection:

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

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

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

Alice_in_Wonderland_by_Arthur_Rackham_The_Pool_of_Tears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice Connection:

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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