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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Kiwi-Brit author team produce first in eco-thriller series spanning continents where they’ve lived

JJ LN Collage

Columnist JJ Marsh (left) talks to Lambert Nagle, Kiwi/Brit co-writers of international thrillers.

Today we welcome JJ Marsh back to the Displaced Nation for this month’s “Location, Locution.” If you are new to the site, JJ, who is a crime series writer (see her bio below), talks to fellow fiction writers about their methods for portraying place in their works. We’re excited that her guest today is the better half of a husband-wife team who have composed an eco-thriller that takes place all over the world, including places where they’ve been expats.

—ML Awanohara

Lambert Nagle is the pen name of co-authors Alison Ripley Cubitt and Sean Cubitt. They write thrillers set in sunny climes.

Sean’s day job is Professor of Film and Television, Goldsmiths, University of London. He has been published by leading academic publishers.

Alison worked in TV and film production for companies including the BBC and Walt Disney but her passion has always been for writing. She is an author, screenwriter and novelist.

Serial expats, Lambert Nagle have lived in Malaysia, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and are now based in leafy Hampshire.

Now let’s find out how they perceived the connection between location and locution for their debut novel, Revolution Earth. (Alison is answering for the pair.)

* * *

Which comes first, story or location?

We knew that Revolution Earth had to have a circular structure as one of the themes is that an event in one part of the world will have an impact in another. We needed a major global city for the inciting incident as well as the conclusion and we chose the one we know best—London. Sean was once a bicycle courier and he knew what it was like to have to dodge potholes and taxis in Soho and still get the delivery there on time.

We wrote the New Zealand section after we’d reluctantly left my native land and moved to Melbourne. It was a bit of a love letter to a place we adored but needed to leave in order to pursue professional opportunities abroad. In southeast Australia we were thrilled to find that there was an oil refinery—identical to one we had driven past in Cheshire years ago, which inspired the story.

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

For the Antarctica portion of the story, Sean had spent four years in Canada as a post-graduate student. The memory of cold is something that never leaves you, so we drew on that, starting from the physical experience and expanding out into the visual side of things.

Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Kakadu in the Australian outback, by Muireann Ní Cheallacháin via Flickr; book cover with photo of Snowy Mountain region of New South Wales, Australia, taken by Alison Ripley Cubitt; lady bicyclist in London, by Danica via Flickr; Alberta, Canada, by davebloggs007 via Flickr (all Flickr photos CC BY 2.0).

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

Revolution Earth was originally a screenplay. As a screenwriter you have to know a place extremely well before you’d dare use it as a setting. Film is a literal medium and your job is to give very clear instructions about an actual place—as a camera has to be able to film the location exactly as you’ve described it. So we went to extremes: including a trip to a uranium mine in the Outback, thousands of miles from where we lived in Australia.

Eventually we realised we needed to write a novel first, before we could interest film-makers. But by then, we knew we couldn’t get to every location and would have to inhabit some places purely through imagination. The important thing is that the imagined places have to be just as detailed, just as carefully tuned to the physical experience of being there, as the real ones. Something really familiar like a dusty, disorganised office in a backstreet in the East End of London should be as deeply felt as battling a storm in a leaky boat in the Southern Ocean encircling Antarctica. As someone who goes green at the mention of the phrase “rough seas,” this is where the imagination comes in as well.

The liberation of cresting the top of a hill on a bicycle before swooping down towards the valley is the same everywhere, but knowing the twists of the road, the steepness of it, how it burns up your lungs before filling them with joy, is all the richer if you can take your reader into what is special about this road, this time of year, for this character.

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

Whether it’s real or imagined, a place comes as a feeling first. Then you identify the elements of that feeling: what can you hear, smell, see, taste. How do people talk? Hot, cold, windy or still? What plants and animals, how personal or impersonal, what sense of the past, ancient or recent, does it communicate and what are the things that carry that sense—things like the absence of birdsong or the sound of a kettle boiling. Sometimes you reach out to the reader to share an experience, but sometimes you have to lead them into an experience they have never had, and then it’s often the emotion of the characters and scene that drive the description rather than its physical elements.

Can you give an example from Revolution Earth that illustrates place?

Great mountains of blue-white floating in a sea caught between the colour of the sky and the fresh green of young pine forests under mid-summer sun. Between them, smaller floes drifted about aimlessly, as though in some kind of trance. On the horizon she saw, thanks to Novak, a steep rise of endless white cliffs. This must be where the glaciers came down to the sea, where the icebergs calved. It was as alien a place as she had ever seen, more alien even than a science fiction film because it was right there, illuminated for her in the startling clarity of dazzling sunshine.

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

For Sean, Dickens immediately comes to mind: hardly a scene goes by that isn’t redolent of a life lived in it—stuffy banqueting rooms, Essex marshes, debtors’ prison… I admire Tim Winton who writes about his home state of Western Australia in such a way that I just want to jump on a plane and go there. He’s as comfortable describing what life’s like for the struggling poor living in beachside shacks as he is showing the reader what the inside of a wave looks like from a surfer’s point-of-view.

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Readers, if this interview has piqued your curiosity about Lambert Nagle and the Cubitts, we encourage you to visit their 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.

STAY TUNED for next month’s Location, Locution, with Carl Plummer, who lives in China and writes comic thrillers as Robert E. Towsie.

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

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: 2014–2015 books recommended by expats & other international creatives (2/2)

Globe Bookshelf Part TwoHello Displaced Nationers! As those who caught Part One of this post last week will know, we are continuing the party we had at the end of last year in publishing a Best of 2014 in expat books list by soliciting various international creatives and other “displaced” contacts for more recommended books.

In Part One, several of my bookworm friends from a previous blog, Novel Adventurers, along with ML and JJ Marsh (JJ writes the Location, Locution column for Displaced Nation), revealed their favorite 2014 reads.

In Part Two, below, kicking off with yours truly, we talk about releases we’re hotly anticipating this year.

A “forthcoming reads” roundtable, if you will.

—Beth Green

* * *

BETH GREEN: I actively search out books by Elizabeth George, the American author of the Inspector Lynley mystery novels set in Britain, and Elizabeth Gilbert, who achieved fame with her travel memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. 2015 is a great year for me as both Elizabeths have books coming out.

A_Banquet_of_Consequence_300s_coverA Banquet of Consequences (Inspector Lynley Book 19), by Elizabeth George, due out in October.
Synopsis: Lynley and Havers are drawn from Cambridge to London to the windswept town of Shaftesbury during one of their most complex cases yet: the murder of a feminist writer and speaker.
Why I’m excited: Though actually not in the “expat” realm, I have to confess it’s the book I’m most looking forward to reading. I’m a huge fan of George’s diverse characters and elaborate stories.

BigMagic_cover_300Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, by Elizabeth Gilbert, due out in September.
Synopsis: Gilbert digs deep into her own creative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity.
Why I’m excited: As some readers may recall, I reviewed her novel The Signature of All Things last fall for this column. It seems that Gilbert is now turning her hand to self-help/motivational books for us creatives. I’m intrigued, and I figure other international creatives should be as well.

Three other upcoming books, by authors I’ve not come across before, have also caught my eye:

Displacement_cover_300Displacement, by Lucy Knisley, due out February 8th.
Synopsis: A graphic-novel-style/comic-book travelogue reporting on a cruise ship trip to the Caribbean Knisley took with her grandparents.
What interests me: Even though I seldom read graphic novels, I’m curious to pick it up, especially given its title(!). Knisley has two previous travelogues in graphic form: French Milk (her six-week trip to Paris to celebrate a milestone birthday) and An Age of License (her all-expenses trip to Europe/Scandinavia).

Meet_Me_in_Atlantis_cover_300Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City, by Mark Adam, due out in March
Synopsis: A few years ago, travel writer Mark Adams made a strange discovery: everything we know about the lost city of Atlantis comes from the work of one man, the Greek philosopher Plato. Then he made a second, stranger discovery: amateur explorers are still actively searching for this sunken city all around the world, based entirely on the clues Plato left behind. Adams decides to track these people down. He reports on what he learns from scientists and amateur historians who all share his curiosity about the facts and fiction surrounding the “lost city.”
What interests me: Count me in that curious group!

The Porcelain Thief: Searching for the Middle Kingdom in Buried China, by Huan Hsu (forthcoming in March).
The_Porcelain_Thief_cover_300Synopsis: The author, raised in Utah, goes back to his ancestral homeland in China, in part to look for porcelain and other treasures his great-great-grandfather may have buried before the family fled the Sino-Japanese War.
What interests me: As a former expat in China, I love anything about this part of the world, and this displaced family saga sounds particularly fascinating!


ML AWANOHARA: I am always on the lookout for books that could be of interest to the Displaced Nation readership. (Whether I end up reading them or not is a different matter!) I’m sure this is just the tip of the iceberg, but thus far in 2015 I have my eye on one novel and several memoirs.

First, the novel:

The_Art_of_Unpacking_Your_Life_cover_300The Art of Unpacking Your Life, by Shireen Jilla (forthcoming in March)
Synopsis: A million miles away from their daily concerns, on a safari in the Kalahari Desert, two women who were once best friends see if they can reconnect.
What interests me: We featured Jilla’s first novel, Exiled, on the Displaced Nation shortly after we started the site as we were curious to as to why, after her own expat life in New York City, she had produced such a dark, dysfunctional family psychodrama concerning a British expat family living on the Upper East Side of New York. (Her answer was extremely satisfying!)

As to memoirs, here are three that were issued in January:

Leaving_Before_the_Rains_Come_cover_300Leaving Before the Rains Come, by Alexandra Fuller (came out in January)
Synopsis: A child of the Rhodesian wars and daughter of two deeply complicated parents, Alexandra Fuller is no stranger to pain. But the disintegration of her own marriage leaves her shattered. Looking to pick up the pieces of her life, she finally confronts the tough questions about her past, about the American man she married in hopes of being saved from the madness of her early life, and about the family she left behind in Africa.
What interests me: I so enjoyed Fuller’s first memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, about growing up in a white family during the Rhodesian Bush War, I have come to think of her as a modern-day displaced heroine, or goddess: larger than life, an extraordinary mix of beauty and brains, out of this displaced world… (Hmmm… No wonder her marriage to a mere mortal didn’t last.)

Russian_Tattoo_cover_300Russian Tattoo: A Memoir, by Elena Gorokhova
SYNOPSIS: In her first memoir, A Mountain of Crumbs, Gorokhova detailed her life growing up with an iron-willed mother in Soviet-era St. Petersburg. In this follow-up, she escapes both mother and country by entering into an unsuitable marriage with an American. When her husband first brings her to live in Austin, Texas, the culture shock is extreme. He then ships her off to Princeton to live with his psychotherapist mother. There she meets her second husband and a happier future.
WHAT INTERESTS ME: Maybe because I lived abroad for so long and then had to readjust to life in the U.S., I identify very closely with immigrant stories. And for personal reasons, I’m always attracted to stories that revolve around the challenges of cross-cultural marriage.

Whipping_boy_cover_300Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully, by Allen Kurzweil
SYNOPSIS: As a 10-year-old American shipped to a Swiss boarding school, Kurzweil endured a year of torment. Years later he set out to search for the chief bully, Cesar, who, it turned out, had gone to prison twice, having become a professional con man. In circling the globe to find Cesar, Kurzweil stands up for all who’ve been the victim of bullies.
WHAT INTERESTS ME: As we’ve always recognized on this site, some of us who are “displaced” have gothic tales to tell. Thank goodness in this case the villain picked on a man who was destined to become a world-class writer, hence able to exact an exquisite revenge.

Finally, I just now heard about another memoir whose title alone has me panting to know more: The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Ex-Pats and Ex-Countries, by litblog founder and book reviewer Jessa Crispin, who moved to Berlin in 2009. It’s due out in September; no book cover yet.


JJ MARSH, crime series author and Displaced Nation columnist (Location, Locution): I have a novel and a poem on my list, along with one publishing house.

A_Spool_of_Blue_Thread_300A Spool of Blue Thread: A Novel, by Anne Tyler (forthcoming this month).
Synopsis: It’s not an expat story but rather the opposite: a domestic family saga. The family, Whitshanks, have lived in Baltimore for several generations.
What interests me: Tyler wrote The Accidental Tourist (about the ultra-insular Leary family, who also live in Baltimore) and I’m curious.

“Sentenced to Life”, by Clive James (James, for those who don’t know, is an Australian writer and personality who has long lived in Britain.)
Synopsis: It’s one of James’s recent poems, published in May of last year, and can be read in full on her author site.
What interests me: I heard James on the radio talking about writing poetry about facing death and it humbled me.

I also look forward to whatever Galley Beggar Press puts out because they’re exciting and adventurous and try things other publishers will not. This strategy paid off with their Baileys Prize success of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride last year.


The_Tutor_of_History_cover_300HEIDI NOROOZY, adult TCK, translator and author (@heidinoroozy): This year I’ve resolved to read more books in translation and stories from far-flung parts of the world. And, as I enjoy novels set in foreign locations that are told in local voices, I’ve got these two on my list:

The Tutor of History, written in English by the Nepali author Manjushree Thapa
SYNOPSIS: One of South Asia’s best-known writers, Thapa follows the lives of a variety of characters in the lead-up to local and national elections in a small town in central Nepal.
NOTE: This novel came out in 2012, but I haven’t gotten round to reading it yet.

The_Little_Paris_Bookshop_cover_300The Little Paris Bookshop, by the German author Nina George (forthcoming in English in June).
SYNOPSIS: Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. The only person he can’t seem to heal through literature is himself…but will he manage to do that on a mission he takes to the south of France, with an Italian chef as his companion?
NOTE: I already read the novel in German. In Germany it spent over a year on the bestseller lists.


My_Fellow_Prisoners_cover_300KELLY RAFTERY, translator and writer: In 2015, I am looking forward to being able to read Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s collection of short stories entitled My Fellow Prisoners. Already available in Europe, it is due to have its U.S. release in late February. Convicted on thinly disguised, politically motivated charges, Mikhail Khodorkovsky went from being Russia’s richest man to a labor camp inmate in Siberia. In the decade of his incarceration, Khodorkovsky scribbled short sketches of the men he encountered, jailers and prisoners alike.


SUPRIYA SAVKOOR, editor and mystery writer: In the last roundtable, I mentioned having recently read two gripping memoirs: Not My Father’s Son, by Alan Cumming, and A Long Way Home, by Saroo Brierley. In 2015 I’m looking forward to more books that surprise me as these two did, particularly ones in which the new stories are intertwined with the old ones and make me see the grander scheme of things.


Rebel_Queen_cover_300ALLI SINCLAIR, world traveler and novelist (www.allisinclair.com): I’m a huge fan of Michelle Moran’s books and any book of hers is an automatic buy for me. Moran has an interesting story. Born in Southern California, she was a public high school teacher before becoming a writer, using her summers to travel around the world. It was her experiences as a volunteer on archaeological digs that inspired her to write historical fiction. Moran’s upcoming work, Rebel Queen, will be released in March. It’s about Queen Lakshmi—also known as India’s Joan of Arc because she stood up to the British invasion of her beloved Kingdom of Jhansi. The queen raises two armies—one male and one female—and they go into battle against the well-prepared British.

Moran’s books are rich in historical facts but the stories are so enthralling it never feels like a history lesson. Another reason I’m a fan is because she usually chooses the point of view of someone not so well known. For example, in this story the main character is Sita, one of the Queen’s trusted soldiers and companions, a device that serves to paint a less-biased picture of the more famous Queen Lakshmi.

* * *

Thank you, ML, JJ and guests! Readers, do you have any further 2015 recommendations? Please leave a comment below. And then let’s get our noses back into our books!

Finally, please be sure to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has a Recommended Read every week. You can also follow the Displaced Nation’s DISPLACED READS Pinterest board.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation, plus some extras such as seasonal recipes and occasional book giveaways. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: 2014–2015 books recommended by expats & other international creatives (1/2)

Global Bookshelf Part OneHello Displaced Nationers! Looking back at the our popular series Best of 2014 in expat books, published at the end of last year, I decided we should continue the fun at the start of the year—and managed to convince our redoubtable editor, ML Awanohara, that the pair of us should canvass our “displaced” contacts to see what they’d enjoyed reading from last year’s crop of new books, as well as books they’re looking forward to reading in 2015.

A “best reads” roundtable, if you will.

In Part One, which appears below, several of my bookworm friends from a previous blog, Novel Adventurers, along with ML and JJ Marsh (JJ writes the Location, Locution column for Displaced Nation), discuss their favorite 2014 reads.

In Part Two, a similar group of us will talk about releases we’re hotly anticipating this year.

Having already shared my 2014 faves in last year’s series, I’ll concede the floor to others, beginning with ML.

—Beth Green

* * *

ML AWANOHARA: Thanks, Beth. These days, I seem to be more of a collector than a reader (I simply can’t keep up with all the titles I hear about!). If you’ll allow me to bend the rules, I’d like to highlight five more 2014 books I’ve discovered since our Best of 2014 in expat books went live. While I can’t personally recommend any of these titles, I feel justified in presenting them as an addendum to our series.

I’ll start with these four “displaced” novels, listed from most to least recent:

IHaveLivedToday_cover_300x200I Have Lived Today (October 2014)
Author: Steven Moore
Synopsis: Having barely survived his Dickensian childhood in 1960s Britain, Tristan Nancarrow sets out on a journey that will take him through the alleys of London and New York, to the rocky shores of ancient islands, and on pub crawls in dark and gloomy ports. The book is a classic coming-of-age adventure.
Expat creds: Originally from England, Moore is a writer, photographer, traveler and part-time ESL teacher who splits his time between Mexico, Korea and the world.
How we learned about: From his blog, Twenty-first Century Nomad.

SleepwalkersGuide_cover_300x200The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing (Random House, July 2014)
Author: Mira Jacob
Synopsis: This debut novel takes us on a journey that ranges from 1970s India to suburban 1980s New Mexico to Seattle during the dot.com boom. It follows the fortunes of the Eapens, an Indian American family dealing with tragedy and loss. Alternating between past and present, it shows the family’s transition from India to the United States. As one Indian critic writes, the story is “firmly rooted in an immigrant home, its peculiar methods and madness.”
Expat creds: Jacob is an Adult Third Culture Kid, whose Syrian Christian parents came over from Kerala, India, to New Mexico, in the 1960s. She now lives in Brooklyn with her Jewish American husband and son.
How we found out about: Recommended by Condé Nast Traveler as a book to read on a plane.

SummerattheLake_cover_300x200Summer at the Lake (Orion, June 2014)
Author: Erica James
Synopsis: An Oxford Tour guide, Floriana, a property developer, Adam, and Esme, an elderly woman who lives next door to a recent purchase by Adam, meet by chance and develop a lovely friendship, which takes them from the glittering spires of Oxford to the balmy shores of Lake Como. The story blends the tale of an old romance with a modern love affair.
Expat creds: James divides her time between living in Cheshire, UK, in a small rural hamlet and Lake Como, Italy, giving her plenty to draw upon in her books.
How we heard about: Pinterest.

TheBalladofaSmallPlayer_cover_300x200The Ballad of a Small Player: A Novel (Deckle Edge, April 2014)
Author: Lawrence Osborne
Synopsis: Lord Doyle decamps from the stuffy legal courtrooms of London to the smoky back-alley casinos of Macau, where he tries to capitalize on the ill-gotten gains that forced his flight from his homeland. But can he game the system at the island’s glitzy baccarat tables? With its expat angst and debauched air of moral ambiguity set amid the sinister demimonde of the Far East’s corrupt gambling dens, the book is an introspective study of decline and decay.
Expat creds: Lawrence Osborne was born in England and lives in New York City. A widely published and widely traveled journalist, he has lived a nomadic life in Mexico, Italy, France, Morocco, Cambodia and Thailand, places that he draws on in his fiction and non-fiction. His first novel was The Forgiven, which Beth Green reviewed for the Displaced Nation last year.
How we learned about: From Amazon.

Lastly, I have another expat memoir that was issued in 2014 and I think deserves a spot on our shelves:

FallinginHoney_cover_300x200Falling in Honey: How a Tiny Greek Island Stole My Heart (Sourcebooks, March 2014)
Author: Jennifer Barclay
Synopsis: Barclay first visited the tiny Greek island of Tilos, in the south Aegean, with friends, including a lover with promising prospects. In her mid-thirties when those prospects fell apart, she decides to reconnect with herself by returning to Tilos for a month and immersing herself in Greek culture, food, language, and dance. Emotionally healed and recharged, she returns to England, where she meets a man who wants what she wants, only to discover… (I won’t ruin it for you.)
Expat creds: Born in Manchester, UK, Barclay subsequently grew up on the edge of the Pennines—but has lived in Greece, Canada and France, with longish stays in Guyana and South Korea. She now lives mostly on Tilos. Notably, she previously produced a memoir about life in South Korea, amusingly titled Meeting Mr. Kim: Or How I Went to Korea and Learned to Love Kimchi.
How we learned about: Barclay’s “Gathering Road” podcast interview with Elaine Masters.


TheShadowoftheWind_coverJJ MARSH, crime series author and Displaced Nation columnist (Location, Locution): My best book of 2014 is The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Luis Záfon. All booklovers will fall hopelessly in love with this tale of a boy and a book he swears to protect after he is taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his bookseller father. Which of us could resist doing the same? Readers know how a story can act as a portal to otherwhere. This is the most perfect example, not to mention illuminating Barcelona in addition to the Franco dictatorship, love, loyalty and growth.


TheLie_coverHEIDI NOROOZY, adult TCK, translator and author (@heidinoroozy): One of the most remarkable and memorable books I’ve read recently is The Lie, by Hesh Kestin. Set in Israel, it features a Jewish human rights lawyer whose commitment to her principles is put to the test when her soldier son is kidnapped by Arab militants and whisked over the border to Lebanon. I love stories that explore the human spirit and are set against a backdrop of real-life events. The heart of this novel is the question of how far a mother is willing to go to save her child. Very chilling at times, heartbreaking at others and masterfully told overall.


PointofDirection_cover_300x200KELLY RAFTERY, translator and writer: In 2014, I loved Point of Direction, by Rachel Weaver. A starkly beautiful tale set in the Alaskan outback, it reads like a cross-cultural adventure. Most expats will recognize the feelings of culture shock, disorientation and unreality that haunt Anna, a woman on the run from her own ghosts. The sharp writing style perfectly mirrors the jagged mountains and rough seas that inhabit the novel as surely as another character.


SUPRIYA SAVKOOR, editor and mystery writer: I haven’t read many memoirs, but in recent months, I read two that blew me away. The first, Not My Father’s Son, by Alan Cumming, is a must-read, even if celebrity memoirs aren’t your thing or you don’t know much about this Scottish actor, now a dual American-British citizen based in New York City. NotMyFathersSon_cover_300x200Cumming, it turns out, is a genius storyteller, and he takes us on an extraordinary journey through two juicy family mysteries across four countries and three time periods. It is, in turns, emotional, tragic, exciting, suspenseful, and funny. The colorful cast of characters, with names like Tommy Darling and Sue Gorgeous, are real people. Along the way, you’ll learn all kinds of fascinating little tidbits, much of it cross-cultural, about genealogy, history, pop culture, language, psychology. Even Cumming’s anecdotes about his life as a TV and film star are surprisingly interesting, largely because of the author’s clear-eyed, honest wisdom. (I also highly recommend the audiobook, narrated by Cumming himself. Alongwayhome_cover_300x200 His lovely Scottish accent and intonations are an additional treat.)

A Long Way Home: A Memoir, by Saroo Brierley, is another great read. The story is simple but powerful: a five-year-old boy in rural India gets lost, is ultimately adopted to a family in Australia, then, as an adult, tracks down his birth family and reunites with them. How he pieces together his past and finds his roots is one of several beautiful mysteries in this small book. Loss and identity are obvious themes, but not just for the author. A truly unique story. (Side note: Modern technology is one of this book’s heroes.)


ASuitableBoy_coverALLI SINCLAIR, world traveler and novelist (www.allisinclair.com): I recently re-read A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. It was released way back in 1993 and caused quite a stir in the literary world as it was one of the longest novels ever to be published in English (1,349 pages hardcover). I first read it then, and, while it’s highly unusual for me to give a book a second or third read, every few years I return to this wonderful novel rich with Indian history, family saga, and a heartbreaking romance. It’s set in post-partition India and explores the political issues at the time (1950s), along with the Hindu-Muslim issues and the caste system. It’s quite an undertaking to read this book but I enjoy revisiting the characters I love. I am very fond of stories written by Indian authors as there is a beautiful style and interesting points of view I find appealing. There’s a sequel in 2016—I can’t wait!

* * *

Thank you, ML, JJ and guests! Readers, have you read any of the above or do you have further 2014 recommendations? Please leave a comment below. And stay tuned for Part Two of this post, books to look forward to in 2015!

Finally, please be sure to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has a Recommended Read every week. You can also follow the Displaced Nation’s DISPLACED READS Pinterest board.

STAY TUNED for PART 2 of this post: 2015 reads!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation, plus some extras such as seasonal recipes and occasional book giveaways. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, did I mention she is an expat?

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

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

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

* * *

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

location locution gilman

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

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

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

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

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

Gilman Kowloon Undress_medium

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

LordofMisrule

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Here goes:

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

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Curiosity leads Elizabeth Gilbert’s Victorian heroine to international travel

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 book releases on behalf of international creatives.

—ML Awanohara

Hello again, Displaced Nationers! Since I last wrote, summer has slipped by us. The gradual wicking away of days and weeks puts me in mind of the protagonist of the book I have chosen to review this month: The Signature of All Things, a scientific and historical novel by Elizabeth Gilbert (she of Eat, Pray, Love fame).

The story’s heroine, Alma Whittaker, an early Victorian botanist living in North America, thinks of time as running on three concurrent tracks:
1) Human Time, which goes by as quickly and flittingly as a summer’s day.
2) Geological Time, in which the Earth moves.
3) Moss Time, which reflects the events of both Human and Geological time but moves at its own pace, expanding rapidly.

signature_coverAlma regrets that her life is stuck on the track of Human Time in an era that doesn’t favor women of character, intelligence and strength (but not looks). I found her fascinating and think that you international creatives will find her that way as well for these three reasons:

1) She is a Third Culture Kid and a polyglot.

As the daughter of English and Dutch botanists who eloped to start an empire on stolen seeds in the New World, Alma is a delightful fictional example of a Third Culture Kid. She has an unconventional upbringing at a time when most young ladies of her class were strictly bound by convention.

Gilbert writes:

She learned that walking carefully in the mud to save one’s boots or the hems of one’s skirts never rewarded one’s search. She was never scolded for returning home with muddied boots and hems.

At home, Alma speaks English with her British-born father, an old rascal who sailed with Captain Cook and turned himself into a rare plants and pharmaceuticals baron, one of the richest and most powerful men in Philadelphia; and a mix of classical languages with her highly educated mother. As for her nurse:

[The nurse] always spoke Dutch to Alma, and Dutch, to Alma’s ears would forever be the language of comfort and bank vaults and salted ham and safety.

Alma spends her childhood wandering in the breathtaking gardens and fields of her father’s estate, working on French and Latin, and being regaled with tales of far-flung expeditions at her parents’ dinner parties. She grows into a young woman with a wide breadth of knowledge but a constricted life experience.

2) Alma chooses to expand her horizons through international travel, rather like Gilbert herself.

Many novelists would slow down the narrative at this point, bring in a love interest (and a rival or two), and make the story all about the broadening of Alma’s horizons through a courtship followed by marriage. But Gilbert, who first made herself known to the world through the memoir of her solo travels to Italy (to eat), India (to pray) and Bali (where she found love), isn’t the right author for such conventions.

True, Alma’s youth, measured in Human Time, speeds by, but in the world Gilbert creates, one need not be young to have adventures. Indeed, Alma’s true adventures begin only after she believes she’s past her prime, when she enters Moss Time.

The spark that ignites those adventures is a surprise even to her. While contemplating the passage of her middle years, Alma discovers her passion for researching moss and its evolution. Moss, of course, knows no national boundaries. As Gilbert writes:

Moss grows where nothing else can grow. It grows on bricks. It grows on tree bark and roofing slate. It grows in the Arctic Circle and in the balmiest tropics; it also grows on the fur of sloths, on the backs of snails, on decaying human bones.

After Alma’s marriage fails, she sets sail for Tahiti.

As she takes off, so does the book—at least for me: Alma’s voyage across the Atlantic and Pacific was one of my favorite parts of the novel. Experiencing the long, slow sea voyage through the eyes of someone educated but who, at age 48, had barely left the confines of the family estate made for a compelling read.

“The ocean both stunned and disturbed her. Nothing had ever put more of an impression upon her being,” writes Gilbert. “It seemed to her the very distillation of matter, the very masterpiece of mysteries.”

There are also moments when her innocence clashes with her surroundings, as we see in this passage:

Alma offered payment in American coins, but the man attempted to make change for her from a handful of dirty Spanish piastres and Bolivian pesos. Alma could not figure out how he was possibly calculating his currency exchange, until she realized hew as trading in his dull old coins for her shiny new ones.

3) Alma’s insatiable curiosity is the driving force behind her travels.

It is tempting to see Alma as an extension of Gilbert: abandoning a marriage to travel recalls Gilbert’s break-out memoir Eat, Pray, Love. But in that book, along with its sequel Committed: A Love Story, Gilbert’s primary concern is with her ongoing personal evolution as writer, person, friend and romantic partner. In Signature, by contrast, Gilbert has created a character who as a young girl has already surpassed society’s expectations of what she can become. Alma is an intellectual whiz—fluent in languages, adept at math and strategy, precise in science and research—and a sensitive, caring friend. She’s strong. She’s healthy. But most of all, she’s curious—something I think she has in common with those of us who’ve chosen to live in other cultures.

When Alma reaches 16, she is faced with the decision to throw away a pornographic book or hide it. Gilbert writes:

But what about the cankerworm of curiosity that lived within Alma’s belly? What about its desire to feed daily upon the novel, the extraordinary, the true?

Then when Alma is approaching 60, she finally meets the special someone she has been searching for for years and says:

Allow me to tell you something about myself, for it might help you to speak more freely. Implanted in my very disposition—though I do not always consider it either a virtue or a blessing—is a desire to understand the nature of things.

Interestingly, curiosity seems to have become a mantra for Gilbert these days. On recent speaking tours (with Oprah, for example), she has been offering writers this advice:

Foster your curiosity even more than your passion.

To sum up: The Signature of All Things is not always a page-turner and Alma is not always a likable character, but the book held my attention to the end, in large part because I wanted to find out what happened to Alma. Gilbert’s writing, too, is impressive. Certain scenes in the book—the docks and a moss cave in Tahiti, the Spartan kitchen Alma’s abolitionist sister keeps, the crude sea tales of Alma’s father—are portrayed with such cinematic clarity I will never forget them.

Those who have read the book may know that readers have criticized Gilbert for focusing too much attention on Alma’s (mostly unfulfilled) sexual desires. I did not feel that way. Through the force of her sheer intelligence, Alma takes us closer to a period of our history that wasn’t so long ago, at least in Geological Time, when scientific findings were beginning to challenge traditional beliefs. As the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes once said:

Curiosity is the lust of the mind.

What say you, Displaced Nationers? Are you curious about Gilbert’s latest? Until we meet again, may Human Time roll by slowly for a change. (And if it doesn’t, plant some moss on it!)

* * *

Thanks, Beth! Until I read this review, I hadn’t realized that Elizabeth Gilbert, a member of our Displaced Hall of Fame for her travel memoir, had moved on to fiction. Readers, are you familiar with Signature and Alma Whittaker? If so, were you just as smitten as Beth was?

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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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Jane Fletcher Geniesse’s biography of the passionate nomad (but displaced expat) Freya Stark

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 book releases on behalf of international creatives.

—ML Awanohara

Hello again, Displaced Nationers! Hasn’t the summer gone by fast? How’s your progress on that reading list you made back in the day when it seemed like the dog days would go on forever?

Well, if you abide by the rule that summer ends with the equinox, then you still have a few more weeks. And if you’re searching for one last read to feed your wanderlust, I would recommend the volume I just now finished: a biography of Dame Freya Stark, one of the most amazing travelers and travel writers of the last century. Called Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark, it’s by former New York Times journalist Jane Fletcher Geniesse.

Passionate_Nomad_coverDays after reading, I’m still in a daze (so to speak), transported by Geniesse’s tale of this intrepid British war-time adventurer.

Stark is one of those people—we’ve all met them on our travels, haven’t we?—who seems to have crammed many lives’ worth of living into one single walk on Earth.

Born to Anglo-Italian-German parents who made their living painting, growing flowers, and managing textile factories (among other pursuits) across Europe, Stark was the original Third Culture Kid. As she traipsed with her parents across Britain, France and Italy, she had no real place to call home. She was further burdened by her parents’ separation and an emotionally manipulative mother, along with numerous illnesses and financial troubles.

A late bloomer

Though she would eventually achieve renown as a witty speaker who could always be counted on to liven up a party, as a young woman Stark despaired of being able to have her own life. She did not make her first trip to the Orient (as it was known in those days) until age 33.

Perhaps because Stark herself told the stories of her travels in the 25 books she published, Geniesse gives most of her attention to the adventures Stark had before being lionized for her travel exploits and writings. (Geniesse covers the last 40 years of Stark’s life—Stark lived to age 100!—in just one chapter.)

For me, Geniesse’s portrait is most brilliant when recreating the straitened times that preceded the period when Stark became fluent in Arabic, gained a reputation for bravery abroad and published her first articles and books on her Middle Eastern travels.

Geniesse relies on her intuition as well as meticulous research to highlight the details of Stark’s upbringing that help to explain her transformation from a penny-pinching flower farmer in Italy to a voracious student of classical literature, a free-spirited wanderer (she was one of the first non-Arabians to travel through the southern Arabian Deserts), and an internationally respected author, speaker, ethnologist and political consultant.

A misfit in the expat community

In tracing Stark’s life journey, Geniesse provides some sense of her struggle to find a place in the expat communities of the interwar years. On the one hand, she had trouble relating to the other Europeans she encountered on her travels, writing in one of her letters:

[The British missionaries in Lebanon] suffer from stagnation of the brain, and that surely produces stagnation of the soul in time. To feel, and think, and learn—learn always: surely that is being alive and young and the real sense. And most people seem to want to stagnate when they reach middle age. I hope I shall not become so, resenting ideas that are not my ideas, and seeing the world with all its changes and growth as a series of congealed formulas.

But during the period she spent within the expat community in Baghdad while researching her next trip, it was clear her fellow expats weren’t clear what to make of her either. As Geniesse writes:

Freya, now 37, was feeling her earlier despair give way to expanding hope. She could change her life; she had watched herself do it—although precisely to what purpose remained as much a mystery to her as the question of what Miss Stark was doing in their midst intrigued the Baghdad community. Freya enjoyed being directionless, learning purely for learning’s sake—and adjusting, if that was her fate, to a spinster’s life.

Geniesse concludes it may have been easier for Stark to explain herself to the tribes and villagers she encountered during her travels as they had no expectations of how she should be behaving. As a European, Christian woman traveling in remote areas of Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Persia, Iraq and Iran, she was accepted as a foreigner, while in the expatriate communities there was some expectation that she should conduct herself as a proper unmarried lady.

(In fact she did eventually marry, in her fifties, to a good friend—but the couple separated soon afterwards, when her husband told her he was gay.)

Warts and all

Like all good biographers, Geniesse also highlights Stark’s less flattering qualities. From Stark’s petty rivalry with archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson, to her sharp attitude toward women she felt were prettier than herself, to her irresponsible attitude to money and certain friends, Geniesse shows us the other side of this larger-than-life character. I liked Stark all the more for this mix of traits.

As I got to the end of Genisse’s work, I felt a little bereft. I missed Freya. There is something irresistible about a woman who not only writes her own script for her life but also gives herself a series of challenging parts. As Geniesse says, at the end of her life

Freya had followed her own genius. She had imagined herself as the star in many roles over the years—explorer in Persia and Luristan, Mata Hari at the imam’s court, English plenipotentiary during the war, and humble pilgrim, wandering through Turkey’s ancient ruins.

Next up on my reading list will have to be one of Stark’s own stories, several of which are still in print.

And now, I’ll leave you with a quote from Freya Stark herself, excerpted from a letter to her mother, listing the “7 cardinal virtues for a traveller”:
1. To admit standards that are not one’s own standards and discriminate the values that are not one’s own values.
2. To know how to use stupid men and inadequate tools with equanimity.
3. To be able to disassociate oneself from one’s bodily sensations.
4. To be able to take rest and nourishment as and when they come.
5. To love not only nature but human nature also.
6. To have an unpreoccupied, observant and uncensorious mind—in other words, to be unselfish.
7. To be as calmly good-tempered at the end of the day as at the beginning.”

* * *

Thanks, Beth, for bringing Dame Freya Stark to our attention! And now I would like to offically nominate her for our Displaced Hall of Fame. Readers, had you heard of Freya Stark before reading Beth’s column? What do you make of her? Have you encountered an eccentric like her on your own travels, or does she seem like a product of a previous age?

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

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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Happy Halloween! A cauldron of 6 cautionary tales for the intrepid traveler

Image: Lake View Cemetery / MorgueFile.com

Yesterday’s Halloween post by Anthony Windram, about the top 5 ghostly settings from literature and film, got us thinking again about the ghostly and ghoulish, the mystical and macabre, the dark and demonic.

Our thoughts, however, did not turn towards the new and original, but to the jaw-clanging skeletons in the Displaced Nation’s very own Crypt.

At which point…someone (Kate Allison?) suggested that we pile all of our Gothic Tales of Old into a cauldron and chant “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.” All was going well until one of us—must have been the American—broke in with:

Stirring and stirring and stirring my brew…

Just as she screeched “O-o-o-o-o, o-o-o-o-o”, 6 apparitions arose from the pot: 6 terrifying tales from the Displaced Nation’s deep dark past. Each said they were there to teach travelers a lesson.

And here is what they told us:

1) The Ghost of the Mysteriously Misplaced Post

I am the ghost the represents the post titled The Displaced Nation’s Halloween post is…mysteriously displaced!, composed on Halloween night two years ago by ML Awanohara, whose blood was curdling because:

Kate Allison was supposed to post today, for Halloween…but then, pouf, she vanished without a trace!

As readers who are paying attention know, Kate has now posted 80+ episodes in the life of a fictional British expat family living in New England, called Libby’s Life. Two years ago she vanished before uploading the latest episode because of a freak snowstorm in Connecticut, her adopted home.

She finally resurfaced on On All Saint’s Day—in a MacDonald’s! (Has she gone native, or what?)

Travelers, here is the lesson I’m here to impart for your sake: Truth is stranger than fiction, where so’er you roam.

2) The Ghost of Quizzing Others on Their Supernatural Sightings

Hello there, I am the ghost that arises from THE DISPLACED Q: On your travels … have you ever seen a ghost?, which was composed by Tony James Slater just over a year ago. He impressed with his self-knowledge when he said: “I’m about as psychic as a cheese.” But then he went on to say:

And then, just occasionally, I have dreams when I’m visited by the spirits of people I’ve lost….

Is there any wonder there were no comments and no likes on his post? He scared the bejeezus out of most of his readers.

Still, point taken, and I’m here to impart an important lesson that you international travelers may not have fully considered: As you traverse the world, bear in mind that any ghosts you meet will be people you know (and left behind), not strangers.

3) The Ghost of Compiling a Master List of Grim Reapers

Greetings, I have emanated from the post called Grim Reapers around the globe: 7 creatures that say “Time’s up!”, composed by Kate Allison just over a year ago. Kate reported on the surprising number of cultures that maintain some version of the mythological conniving female who lures men to their deaths.

As frequent visitors to this site will know, Kate has a way with words. For instance, she described
Sihuanaba of Central America as follows:

Seen from the back, she’s an attractive woman with long hair; from the front, it’s a horse. (No jokes about Sex and the City, please.)

But even Kate’s rather offbeat humor could not dissuade from the freakishness of some of these figures.

As far as lasting lessons, this will have to suffice: Next time you get lost in a canyon, try blaming an ancient ghoul. Depending on where you’ve landed, as well as gender, you may just about pull it off.

4) The Ghost of Delivering a Screed against Princess Diana Dolls

A cheery hello to one and all, I am the ghost of Anthony Windram’s EXPAT MOMENTS: The Doll Collection, which he wrote almost exactly a year ago.

As anyone who came across it may recall, Mr. Windram was most distressed to find himself at a bed-and-breakfast in NEW England (he is from Jolly Olde) where the innkeeper has put her prized collection of “individually authenticated” Princess Diana dolls on display in the sitting room. He tossed and turned all night, even heard scratchings at his door.

Now, as regular visitors to this esteemed site know, Mr. Windram is no fool. On the contrary, he has has a mighty brainbox. Which is why I’m so stunned that he allowed himself to be frightened by a set of Lady Di figurines. I’m sure they were only there to cover up the fact that the house is haunted—by a young and rather vigorous ghost, which is how ghosts tend to come in America (just ask Libby). The real take-away, then, particularly for those who venture into the New World: Avoid American B&Bs like the plague if you want a decent night’s sleep.

5) The Ghost of the Expat Criminals Exposé

ML Awanohara showed some temerity in writing a post entitled What did Agatha Christie know? Expats make great criminals back when this blog first started.

As the ghost that arose from this post, I’m here to say she hit the proverbial coffin nail soundly on the head with this assertion:

Just as we don’t like to think of rats being part of the animal kingdom, we don’t like to think of conmen, pirates, gangsters, and terrorists being part of the group we have loosely defined as “global voyagers” … But trust me, they are a part of it — as are murderers.

Which leads us to the lesson I’ll impart today: Just because you’re in a part of the world where marrows tend to thrive, don’t assume the likes of Hercule Poirot will turn up and save you.

6) The Ghost of Finding Travel Inspiration in Margaret Drabble’s “Red Queen”

Not long ago compared to other posts in this collection, ML Awanohara wrote FOOTLOOSE & FANCIFUL: Margaret Drabble’s “The Red Queen”, explaining how her views of Korea had shifted after reading a book by Dame Drabble depicting a period of bloodshed and horror in the 18th-century Korean court. A real-life tale made more vivid by Drabble’s considerable fictional powers, in which the Prince is a homicidal maniac, and his father, the King, a stern Confucian. The King ultimately decides to murder his son in a style so dramatic that ML couldn’t get it out of her head next time she went to Korea. She remains haunted to this day.

As the ghost of this post about a ghost, I find myself torn. On the one hand, what kind of person would read Drabble—that serious, hip, intellectual British novelist, who likes to come across as one’s brainy, Cambridge-educated best friend—to get a handle on what the Koreans are really like? Apples and oranges—or marmite and kimchi, I should say.

On the other—and this is the lesson I’ve come to deliver: Never hesitate to use a Cambridge-educated Brit as a resource for novel sightseeing ideas.

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Readers, have we got you thinking twice about those travel plans? Do let us know in the ca-ca-comments. Hey, at least we spared you the horrors of Sezin Koehler’s 15 films that depict the horrors of being abroad, or otherwise displaced; Tony James Slater’s 5 travel situations that spell H-O-R-R-O-R!; or Kate Allison’s Global grub to die for, including a rather scrumptious recipe for fried tarantula, which goes down a treat in Cambodia.

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 the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation, with our weekly Alice Award, book giveaways, and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

 

TCK TALENT: Wendy Laura Belcher, best-selling author, memoirist, and distinguished scholar of her adopted cultures

wendy-l-belcher-tck-collageWelcome to the third installment of “TCK Talent,” Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang’s monthly column about adult Third Culture Kids who work in creative fields. As some readers may recall, Lisa—a Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent—has written and performed a one-woman show about being a Third Culture Kid, or TCK. It debuted in LA in the spring, and I had the pleasure of seeing it during its too-short run in New York City last month. It was stupendous!

—ML Awanohara

Greetings, readers, and thanks, ML, for that vote of confidence in my work. But it cannot compare to the output of today’s guest, a woman of extraordinary talents. Wendy Laura Belcher is a professor of African literature at Princeton University as well as a published memoirist, produced playwright, popular workshop leader, and author of the best-selling Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success.

Wendy grew up in Ethiopia, Ghana, and the USA, and has been a writer since childhood. Her most recent book, Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought on the Making of an English Author, is a finalist for the African Studies Association’s 2013 Ogot Award (to be announced in Baltimore at the end of next month).

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Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Wendy, and thank you for joining us. I’ve known you for years and yet don’t know as much as I should about your TCK childhood, so am happy to take this opportunity to learn more. You are the daughter of an American dad and a Canadian mom. What’s the story behind why your family moved to Ethiopia and Ghana?
My father is a physician and my mother always loved to travel, so she convinced him to move to Ethiopia. Her idea was that he would teach and do clinical work at a public health college in Gondar, and she would be the college librarian. My first memories are of Ethiopia. I moved back to the US when I was 14. But my specific geographical trajectory is as follows: Philadelphia (birth), Boston, Seattle, Gondar (Ethiopia), Seattle, Accra (Ghana), Seattle, and South Hadley (Massachusetts). After that I lived in Tamale (Ghana). Then back to Washington DC, Accra, Los Angeles, Princeton, Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), and now Princeton again.

That’s an impressively peripatetic life! When and where were you happiest while growing up?
As a child, I loved Ethiopia the best, perhaps because it was the first place my family went and perhaps because, as a child who loved reading, it seemed like a magical place. There was a castle in my backyard as well as oxen threshing grain like in the Bible. On the throne was a descendant of King David. From a child’s perspective, it was like living in a book.

How did you find your first “repatriation” to the United States, at age 14?
I never got used to Seattle, it was very parochial in the 1970s when we moved there, and the weather was too gloomy for someone who had spent a significant part of her childhood in the tropics.

At home, but without a role, in Africa

Has your relationship to Africa evolved as an adult?
As an adult, I settled in the US and not Africa, returning to Africa only a few times until 1997, after which I started going every third year or so. Since 2009, I’ve gone every year to Ethiopia. I thought I might settle in Africa, but as an adult my relationship with Africa was more vexed.

That is, what could my role in Africa be as a white American woman?

I wasn’t particularly interested in “helping,” as it seemed to me that Africans were perfectly adept at solving their own problems and only didn’t do so because of all the “help” they received from the West.

But also, I was in a bind. In the US I often didn’t feel a strong sense of calling in my work, but I felt more satisfied emotionally. In Africa, I felt a strong sense of calling in my work, but I was often lonely.

The problem for me as an adult in Africa as a single woman without children was the lack of female friendships. In the 1980s and 1990s I found it difficult to find in Africa other career women like myself with whom I would have something in common.

One of the reasons I’ve found it easier to return to Ethiopia and have done so regularly in the recent past is that I’ve found some good Ethiopian female friends.

Where do you think of as “home” these days?
My mother always thought that my father never really had a sense of home as a particular place, because he had an identical twin brother. It was the presence of one other human being from the beginning that meant home was someone to him, not somewhere. He didn’t really know what loneliness was, she thought.

I may be somewhat similar albeit for different reasons. I don’t think of anywhere as home.

I lived in Los Angeles for 20 years and loved many things about it, but I mostly think of it as a place where my network of affection is. It isn’t the place so much but the people who make it a kind of home.

At the same time, I still have good friends in Seattle, and my family of origin is still there, so it is also a kind of home.

Are you like many TCKs in finding yourself drawn to people of similar backgrounds?
Almost all my friends are people who live straddling some boundary: either geographically, being from elsewhere or spending significant time outside the US, or racially (growing up as minorities). I am almost never in a room with people who mostly look like me.

Writing calls from an early age

I often wonder if TCKs who pursue writing careers do so because the story is entirely in their hands as opposed to the experienced upheaval of their itinerant childhoods. Did your TCK upbringing influence a) your desire to be a writer and b) what you wrote about?
Growing up in Africa, I was surrounded by literary culture. In Ethiopia, a country with a 3,000-year-old written civilization, people read illuminated manuscripts on sheepskin bound with wood. In Ghana, hand-written epigrams adorned most vehicles, and my father’s Ghanaian colleagues traded bon mots in Latin. At school, I would pick a promising library shelf and work my way through it from left to right. I wrote my first novel when I was nine, titled Shipwrecked at Silver Lagoon. I had set myself the task of writing the best title for a book ever and, after I came up with this, decided it was too good to go unwritten. It was about two English girls in the 17th century who, after their ship is wrecked off the American coast, go on to discover what happened to the disappeared colony of Roanoke: it had moved into an underground, underwater kingdom. The book ground to a halt on page 40, perhaps because, as I tried to articulate issues that were all too real to me (the loss of home and the entry into the hybrid colonial world), my imagination foundered on the demands of the adventure form.

After that, I wrote for my middle school and high school newspapers, where I was the editor.

I was shy, partly due to all the moving and not being sure how to fit in, so I spent most of my time reading. Reading allowed me to immerse myself in a world where I could watch and not be watched (or judged). It also allowed me to develop skills in “reading” people and situations, which is essential to surviving so much moving.

HoneyfromtheLion_coverTell us what drew you to write your memoir, Honey from the Lion: An African Journey, when you were in your twenties.
I had enough credits to graduate from Mount Holyoke in three years so I spent my junior year back in Ghana. While working for a nonprofit organization that was spreading literacy and translating the Bible into local languages, I spent a weekend in a village with an Irish Bible translator. A series of events transpired, the impact of which was so powerful I decided I wanted to write about it. It was a gift: the story was so fascinating that I didn’t worry about writing it. Even if I wrote it poorly, I thought people would find it compelling.

Do you ever go back to the memoir now, and if so, does it resonate very differently due to the passage of time?
I can’t bring myself to read the book now. It seems like a different self wrote itsomeone who was more religious for one.

Congratulations on Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson being selected as a finalist for a prestigious academic award. Please tell us what inspired you to write the book.
Belcher_AbyssiniaSamJohnson_coverIn 2002, I was talking with an Ethiopian friend about reading Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, an eighteenth-century fiction he wrote about an Ethiopian prince. This Ethiopian friend surprised me by saying that he had read the book and quite liked it. When I asked him why, he said the book was “very Ethiopian.” I started to correct him, but then I began to wonder if he could be right, if a book written by a European could be Africanin particular, if it could be animated by African discourse. It’s my hope that my book will be convince others about the importance of African thought to the European canon.

From offering TCK courses at Princeton to helping junior faculty

At Princeton you teach courses that I wish had been offered when I was in college, like “Growing Up Global: Novels and Memoirs of Transnational Childhoods” and “Model Memoirs: The Life Stories of International Fashion Models.” You also teach workshops around the world to aid faculty in publishing academic articles. Please tell us the countries in which you’ve taught the workshops.
The workshops have taken place in Norway, Sudan, Malawi, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Canada and all over the USA.

What led you to teach academics about how to write for publication?

belcher_writingyourjournalarticle_coverI did two master’s degrees in the early nineties and I struggled in writing my classroom papers. What did these professors want and why did some papers succeed and others didn’t? I decided not to go on for a doctorate and when people asked me why, I said I just didn’t feel like I got the hang of being a graduate student and in particular about how to write in graduate school.

To my surprise, I found that most other graduate students felt the same way and were as confused and uncertain as I had been. Then UCLA Extension asked me to teach a writing class. I had always sworn I would never teach, but I think you grow when you do things you are terrified of, so I agreed and found that three of my first six students were academics looking for help with their writing.

UCLA Extension agreed to let me restructure the next class around writing for academic journals. The restructured class was a massive success and changed my life.

Within a few years I was teaching “Writing and Publishing the Academic Article” twice a year at UCLA to graduate students, where the class was in great demand, as well as at other universities and institutes around the world. I wrote the workbook Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success for people who could not take the workshop.

Turning back to your writing, can you tell us what you are working on at present?
I have several writing and translation projects; here are the top three:
1) The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Translation of the Earliest African Biography of an African Woman. Thirty years after the death of a revered African religious leader who led a successful nonviolent movement against European incursions, her Ethiopian disciples (many of whom were women) wrote this vivid book, full of dialogue and drama. The original text, which was written in 1672 by Africans for Africans in an African language, is unknown in the United States (Walatta Petros does not have a Wikipedia entry, for instance). Thanks to the Fulbright US Scholar Award that I held during my third year at Princeton, I was able to spend ten months in Ethiopia devoting myself to archival research. I worked on the translation with Michael Kleiner, a leading scholar and translator of Ge’ez. We believe it will electrify the fields of early modern and gender studies.
2) The Black Queen of Sheba: A Global History of an Ethiopian Idea. Those familiar with the sixth century BCE biblical tale of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon may be surprised to hear that there is also an Ethiopian version, variations on which have in fact circulated for centuries, far beyond the Ethiopian highlands. According to the medieval text Kəbrä Nägäśt, the biblical Queen of Sheba was an Ethiopian woman—the wisest, the wealthiest, and the most powerful woman in the world. Tricked by Solomon into sleeping with him, she gives birth to their biracial son, who later takes the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia forever. My book traces how the Ethiopian tale came about and the impact it had on not just literature but the world. The emergence of the religion of Rastafari is one of its most far-reaching effects…
3) A Wardrobe of Selves: The Literature of Transnational Childhoods. Based on my life experiences, observing those of my TCK friends, and reading lots of memoirs, I am thinking of writing a book about memoirs by those who have spent their childhood crossing boundaries (in terms of culture, nation, state, language, gender, school, etc.). It would attend to how the narrators like Barack Obama, John McCain, Edward Said, Eva Hoffman, Gloria Anzaldua, Diana Abu-Jaber, Alice Kaplan, Gene Luen Yang, and Mohsin Hamid construct meaningful identities through narrative. These writers—usually considered separately, as part of American ethnic literatures like Arab American, African American, Asian American, or Latino—often negotiate the intricacies of identity in similar ways and should be considered together. That is, this would be a broad comparative project on diasporic memoir in the context of American ethnic literature.

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Thanks, Wendy! You are so prolific, it’s an inspiration to all of us creatives! If we could accomplish just a fraction of what you’ve already done, what a life we’d be leading! Readers, any questions or comments for the amazing Wendy? Please leave them below. And…see you next month!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, when we hear from an international traveler who has started up her own business in New York City, catering to expats.

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

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Images: Wendy Belcher; Wendy with her brother in front of a castle in Gondar, Ethiopia; detail from the cover of Wendy’s latest book, Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson.

Talking with author Sonia Taitz about home, abroad, and the healing properties of travel

Today we welcome Sonia Taitz to The Displaced Nation’s interview chair.  Sonia is an author, playwright, and essayist; her writing has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, The New York Observer, and O: The Oprah Magazine. She is also a regular guest on NBC’s TODAY show, CNN, and National Public Radio.

The Watchmaker’s Daughter is Sonia’s third book, published today. A memoir of growing up as the child of European holocaust survivors, The Watchmaker’s Daughter has already received glowing reviews, such as this from New Yorker and Vanity Fair cultural critic James Wolcott:

A heartbreaking memoir of healing power and redeeming devotion, Sonia Taitz’s The Watchmaker’s Daughter has the dovish beauty and levitating spirit of a psalm…A past is here reborn and tenderly restored with the love and absorption of a daughter with a final duty to perform, a last act of fidelity.

Intrigued? So were we. You’ll be happy to hear that Sonia has agreed to participate in this month’s prize draw, and has let us have a copy of The Watchmaker’s Daughter for October’s giveaway. See the end of this interview for details of how to enter the draw!

But now, over to Sonia.

Sonia, welcome to TDN. Could you tell us a little about your early life?
I was born in New York City. My parents had emigrated here from Germany, where they lived as displaced people after World War II.

And what was your parents’ reaction when they first arrived in America? How did the country make them feel?
They felt they had found refuge and harbor at last. When they saw the Statue of Liberty, they understood, for the first time in their adult lives, that they could be safe in the world.

Growing up in America must have been full of cultural contradictions for you. As a TCK and child of Holocaust survivors, did you feel at home in or removed from American culture?
Both. I felt American in contrast to my parents, to whom I had to translate things big and small (various cultural revolutions; why you don’t wear socks with sandals). At the same time, I felt different from American children whose parents were not from somewhere else. There was a deep rift between the “light” attitude shown on television (my strongest link to the culture) and the serious and weighted way my parents tended to see the world. I lived on both sides of that rift. Sometimes it was tiring; sometimes it was exciting.

You helped your parents get over their trauma of being in the concentration camp through travel. Where did you go, and how did you react to the other cultures?
I left my safe milieu in NY (we lived in a cozy Jewish immigrant neighborhood) and crossed the Atlantic to the Old World, Europe. My parents had experienced deep and savage hatred in Lithuania, under the Nazi regime, and both had survived ghettos and concentration camps. They had seen neighbors turn their backs on them, or even turn against them. To my parents, America was free of these horrors. Here, everyone had a chance. Here, no one could ever round you up and kill you. Europe, they felt deeply, was a checkerboard of blood-hatreds, and they had rejected it as much as it had rejected them. So that’s where I went at 21, sure that the world was no longer as bad as they had thought – that it was, in a sense – safe to trust again.

Although I traveled to Germany (and later, to Lithuania), my journey centered on Oxford, England, where I studied for two years. And while I made many close friendships there, I did feel displaced. I was frightened by the depths of snobbery, prejudice, and even hatred that I sometimes felt – not only directed toward Jews like myself but toward blacks, “Asians” (as they indiscriminately called anyone from Pakistan to Polynesia), and even Southern Europeans. I particularly remember the phrase “the wogs start at Calais.” And the student I fell deeply in love with had parents who rejected me as a “Jewess.”

You might be wondering how all this was helpful to my parents. The story is told in my memoir, The Watchmaker’s Daughter, but the upshot is, I married the Englishman, and everyone ended up happy ever after.

You say your journey centered on Oxford, England — in fact, you did a degree at Oxford University. How did you find living in the UK, and what were the biggest adjustments you had to make?
I loved it and I hated it. There was no place more seductive, in the sense of misty fog, the flowing river Isis on which proud swans drifted, dreamy willow trees and – on the inside – fireplaces, hot mulled wine, the tinkling sounds of poetry and a golden sense of age. But it was all very foreign to me. My culture (not only Jewish but American) was louder, franker, more ambitious, less resentful. Where I came from, you openly tried to succeed, and could crow about how and what you did to “make it.” In fact, we cheered the rags-to-riches hero. England liked to dampen this enthusiasm. I got in over my head sometimes, and I remember feeling lost and bereft. My currency wasn’t worth the same in this place. But learning to adapt to another culture was intriguing. Travel can make you feel rootless and alone – but it can also make you soar. Best of all is when you come to feel at home in somewhere you once thought so strange. I did, eventually, come to that place.

I think everyone at this site knows what you mean by that. So — do you still like “soaring”? Do you still like to travel? 
I love to travel, and still feel that it is the best way to understand the world – and the world inside you. Wherever I go, I try to be porous, to float, to leave my safety zone and almost pretend I live somewhere new. I eat the food, listen to the music, even try to speak the language. Being comfortable is not my main goal in life – it is to experience and learn. So I feel exhilarated as a traveler, even with the physical or emotional discomforts that come with it.

Where is your home now — and where do you feel most “at home”?
I feel most at home in my hometown, Manhattan, where all cultures are enthusiastically represented (it’s a world tour in itself). I also love to go to a small lakeside cabin, less than an hour from the city. You don’t need to be in Switzerland or Kenya to feel the overall majesty of the world.

You married a non-Jewish man, an Englishman. How did you both adjust to the religious differences, as well as the cultural ones?
When we met each other, it felt less like a culture “gap” than opposites attracting. The man in question had always been interested in the Jewish Bible, which he knew better than most. He confessed that he had always had “envious aspirations” towards the Jewish people. But in a real sense, even after more than 25 years of marriage, he is still very English (in attitude and accent), and his sense of being Jewish feels different to him than my own. He doesn’t have the weight of being “of immigrant stock,” or of being the child of refugees, castaways. After all, Americans tend to be intimidated by English people, and not the other way around. My husband has been embraced by this culture.

After your own experience, what do you now see as the biggest challenge facing someone who is marrying into a different culture?
The problem usually manifests in the broader family sense. Between the man and woman, there may be only perfect love, but you do have to add parents and, later, children to the mix. My parents were as horrified as his by our romantic “exogamy.” Although they came to love my husband, he was not the “nice Jewish boy” they had dreamed of. And then, when there are children, new questions arise — how do you raise them? That seemed easier in my case; my husband was now Jewish and wanted, as I did, to raise them in that tradition. But even so, his parents had to deal with the fact that we did not celebrate Christmas. Our children have to deal with the paradox that while they are Jewish, their English family is not.

Our October theme is based around the tales of regret by those who travel. Do you have any regrets about traveling or studying abroad? What would you do differently — if anything?
Unlike Edith Piaf, I regret so much. While my parents grew to love my husband, and – most movingly – his parents and mine grew to love each other, my going away caused immediate hurt. I still can feel guilty about my taking that step away. My parents were immigrants with a tiny remnant of a family. Yet, I had sailed off to explore the world, leaving them far behind. On the other hand, that is what children do. Mine are beginning to do the same, and I try not to hold them back.

I also wish I had been more sensitive to my husband’s parents. They didn’t want me for their son, and I thought that made them prejudiced and “bad.” I mixed them up with those who had hurt my parents and millions of other Jews. Now that I have raised children, worried about whom they dated and how it would impact our family, I understand both sets of parents better. Youth makes us callous and cocky, and now, I hope, I am neither.

Could you tell us about your memoir being published today, The Watchmaker’s Daughter? Is this always something you’ve wanted to write?
The memoir is something I had wanted to write since my parents died. For many years after they were gone, I couldn’t put pen to paper about anything. Still, thoughts about our odd and interesting lives began to form. Death gives a shape to existence – a beginning, middle, and a punctuated end – and I began to see a story coming through. A circle away and back home. The classic Ulysses story, but seen from the eyes of a little girl in a Jewish ghetto in New York City, and the larger world she longs to understand. After the voyage, the return.

What made this book almost impossible to write was the duty I felt to be fair to everyone in the story, while doing justice to the story itself. This wasn’t my personal journal either – I wrote it as a coherent work that would resonate with others, regardless of their background. I needed to transmit what I had experienced and learned. I wanted to give the reader a tale of suffering, love, redemption, and renewal.

You have also published a novel, In the King’s Arms, about an American Jewish woman who goes to England and marries into the aristocracy. How much of this was based on your own life? Did you find it easier to write the memoir or the novel, and why?
The novel takes my real trip to Oxford and enhances it with far more dramatic plotlines. Many characters are invented, others are conflated from different people. Much of the drama that happens in that book never happened to me (although funnily, many people assume it did).

I found both the novel and memoir enjoyable to write. Novels are fun; you can play with your characters and make them say or do anything you want. I love this freedom to create a new world. Memoirs are deeply rewarding in that emotional chaos is translated, ideally, into art. It’s a darker assignment, but a deeply satisfying one. Notice that I didn’t respond to the question of which was “easier.” I guess I enjoy intense engagement, which may be why I like travel, or the difficult task of writing.

What audience did you have in mind for In the King’s Arms? Did you end up attracting those sorts of readers, and to which part of the story had the audience responded the most ?
I felt the novel had a universal theme — young love, Romeo and Juliet, the sorrows of the broken heart. All sorts of people have responded to it in all kinds of ways. Some find it very English, comparing it to Evelyn Waugh. Some find it as Jewish as Philip Roth. Some treat it as a satisfying read, and others as a moral fable.

Were you surprised at the book’s reception?
The biggest surprise was that people responded to it at all. The book had almost been published 25 years ago, but the contract had fallen through, and I had thought it would never see the light of day. To see it come back to life, be read, and even garner critical praise, was the biggest and happiest surprise.

Do you hope to attract another kind of audience with The Watchmaker’s Daughter?
I hope to attract a bigger and more diverse audience than a small literary novel tends to. I am now decades older than the author of the novel, and I hope this book reflects that.

You’re a very diverse writer, and have had some theatrical works produced at the Oxford Playhouse and at the National Theatre in Washington, DC. Could you tell us a little about them?
The Oxford experience was one of the greatest ones of my life; I was given license to write a play that would be seen not only by the sophisticated body, but also by the London press. My husband-to-be acted in it (he was part of the Oxford University Dramatic Society), and it was an incomparable experience to watch him onstage giving life to my work. It was my first full-length play, my first public experience as an artist.

The play at the National Theatre was part of a series that took place on Monday nights, when theatres are typically dark. Our troupe – author, actors, director — took the train down from New York, rehearsing all the way. The audience was great — the play was a farce about jealousy, kind of madcap and packed with complicated jokes and stage business – and they responded well to all of it. People who go to see new plays are adventurous, and people who’d go on a Monday night to see one they’d never read about are even more so.

And finally: what next? Are you working on another book or play, and if so, can you tell us anything about it?
My next book is a tragicomic novel based on a real public figure (a very famous actor), but the story is largely invented. Starting with his childhood, I create the background that made this man become an unbalanced anti-Semite. His father abuses him mentally and physically, and is a nightmarish tyrant. As a teenager, the boy falls in love with a Jewish girl from a good family, but something happens that affects both their lives. The novel is called DOWN UNDER, and it’s been a real treat to bring this story to life.

We’re already looking forward to it! Thank you, Sonia, for being so honest and giving us such an insight into your life and your writing. We wish you and The Watchmaker’s Daughter every success.

To win a copy of The Watchmaker’s Daughter, you can:

We will announce all the winners in a couple of weeks!
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STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, Anthony Windram’s musings on films, horror and the displaced life!

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

Related posts:

Images: Sonia Taitz author photo; The Watchmaker’s Daughter book cover.

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