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

JJ Marsh Clare Flynn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which came first, story or location?

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

Kurinji Flowers Collage

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

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

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

A Greater World Collage

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


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

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

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

From Kurinji Flowers:

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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

Booklust Wanderlust Collage

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

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

—ML Awanohara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what if one must re-start from tragedy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living in not-so-splendid isolation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

—George Bernard Shaw

Till next month!

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

* * *

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

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#1: Parabéns: We’re All Mad Here

Parabens

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

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

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

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

#2: Are Acacia Trees Humans in Disguise?

Acacia Trees

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

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

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

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

#3: Elephant Road Trip

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

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

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

#4: Shanghai Mix

Shanghai Mix

Photo credit: Rachel Kanev.

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

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

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

* * *

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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

 © Iamezan | Dreamstime.com Used under license

© Iamezan | Dreamstime.com
Used under license

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice Connection:

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

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

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

Alice_in_Wonderland_by_Arthur_Rackham_The_Pool_of_Tears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice Connection:

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

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

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

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

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

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

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

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

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

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

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

—ML Awanohara

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Fran Pickering, London-based crime writer and Japanophile

Fran PickeringIn this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Fran Pickering, a London-based crime and mystery writer who has lived and travelled extensively in Japan. Her experiences there provide the inspiration for her Josie Clark in Japan mystery series. She also writes about London art and events with a Japanese connection on her blog, Sequins and Cherry Blossom. Her latest Josie Clark book, The Haiku Murder, has just come out, on 13th October. Find out more at franpickering.com.

Which came first, story or location?

Location. I wanted to share my love of Japan in a way that would be interesting and non-academic, so I started writing murder mysteries about an expat Londoner in Tokyo.

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

I know Japan so well now, I have to think myself back into the mind of a person encountering it for the first time and remember how strange and foreign it seemed to me originally. I go for the little, easily forgotten details – the smell of the drains in Tokyo, the sound of the mechanical cuckoo on the pedestrian crossings in Takarazuka, the complexities of different shoes and socks for different surfaces in a traditional inn. It’s the small things that bring a place alive.

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

Food is very big for me. Japanese people are obsessed with food – they talk about it all the time – but so many people in the West think sushi and noodles is all there is to Japanese cuisine. As Josie investigates the latest murder she needs to ask a lot of questions, and the easiest way to do that is in cafes (she spends a lot of time in Starbucks) or over meals. The sort of meals people eat and where they eat them gives a clue to their character too.

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

Here’s an excerpt from The Cherry Blossom Murder:

It was just after nine o’clock. The streets of Akasaka were crowded and noisy. A gaudily decorated pachinko parlour blasted out an advertisement for their new pinball machines, accompanied by an irritating advertising jingle; inside the parlour Josie could see people staring zombie-like at the pachinko machines as the tiny silver balls spun and fell, spun and fell, endlessly fed from the bowl beside each player.The Cherry Blossom Murder

A group of young men and women passed her, the girls in short skirts, one of them loping along drunkenly as the boys held her upright. Behind them came a group of salarymen, still in their work suits, noisily discussing their golf handicaps. They barged Josie unthinkingly off the pavement.

A fortune teller sitting on the pavement behind a table plastered with pictures of hands called to Josie to come and have her future read. For a moment she was tempted, but then she walked on, past Denny’s and Johnny’s and Cozy Corner, all brightly lit and full of people, to the familiar yellow sign of Doutor’s coffee house.

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

If it’s a real place, then you need to have been there and looked at it carefully. I try and revisit places I write about to make sure I’ve got it absolutely right, and to pick up on aspects I may have overlooked the first time. It’s remarkable how memory can play you tricks, or leave you with a superficial impression. I take photographs of key settings to refer to later.

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

Lee Child. He’s an English writer whose books are set in the States with an American protagonist. He really nails it; the flavour of the country leaps off the page. And Ben Aaronovitch, whose Rivers of London series takes you into every nook and cranny of Covent Garden and makes you almost believe that a building on the south side of Russell Square actually does contain the Folly.

* * *

Next month’s Location, Locution: Clare Flynn, whose books are set in Australia and India.

_(75_of_75)

 

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

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Lawrence Osborne’s haunting tale of expats and travel in the Moroccan desert

Booklust Wanderlust Collage

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

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

—ML Awanohara

Thanks, M.L.! And, hello again, Displaced Nationers. With the arrival of fall in the Northern hemisphere, I find myself in the mood to dig into some darker, heavier—more Halloweeny, shall we say?—material.

As a long-term traveler, third-culture kid, current expat, or all of the above in some cases, each of us has at some point or another faced a cultural divide we’ve found it difficult, if not impossible, to cross. Maybe it came down to a clash of religious or political beliefs. Or was it something to do with wealth? There are privileges that come with being an expat—and that, ironically, can cause discomfort.

But perhaps one of the most harrowing breaches of trust occurs when people possess differing concepts of justice.
TheForgiven_colorcoverLawrence Osborne’s novel, The Forgiven, wraps all three of these tough-to-tackle subjects into a compelling tale centered around one darkly beautiful “what if”:

What if you accidentally committed a crime in another country?

Every traveler’s worst nightmare

Osborne’s protagonists, David and Jo Henniger, are a wealthy middle-aged London couple who have grown frustrated with each other and jaded about life in general. David is a society doctor in Chelsea who has just lost a malpractice suit and is also beginning to lose patients. Jo is a children’s book writer who hasn’t written a book in some time.

To get a change of scene, and perhaps a new lease on life, the couple sets off to attend a lavish party being thrown by one of David’s school friends, Richard, and his partner, Dally, at their ritzy retreat in the Moroccan desert. It’s a wild weekend-long affair tony enough to have photographers from the New York society pages chronicling it.

Now, that doesn’t sound like my travel scene, but Osborne makes it clear that what happens to Henningers could happen to any of us who dare to venture into unknown lands, where the inhabitants have different religious beliefs to ours, are poorer, and possess an unfamiliar sense of justice.

Jo to David: “I shouldn’t let you, Stumblebum.”

Overriding Jo’s objections, David decides to do the drive from Tangier through the desert in the night even though he has just consumed a bottle of wine.

Jo sulks but lets him drive.

Long after dark, while the Hennigers are trying to navigate the unfamiliar desert terrain, two Moroccan boys leap into the road ostensibly selling fossils though possibly intending to highjack the vehicle. David runs in to one of the young men, killing him. The other boy runs away.

Osborne sets up an unforgettable scene as David and Jo make their entrance to an extravagant expat party with a dead body on the back seat of their car. Not knowing what to do or how the Moroccan police will respond, the Hennigers have taken the corpse with them.

For the hosts, the situation is an embarrassment and a source of annoyance. For their Western guests, it’s a rude interruption and a source of gossip. For Moroccans like Hamid, the head servant of Richard and Dally’s estate, it’s a tragedy that brings out his deep loathing of Western values. For the family of the boy, who arrive the following day to collect the body, it’s both tragedy and crime.

But for David and Jo, it will prove life changing.

Jo to Day (another guest): “It’s like going through the Looking Glass.”

This story, rather than showing how travel erases our differences, puts the notion of “otherness” into high relief. The couple who host the party and many of their friends see Moroccans as as objects of curiosity, wisdom, servitude, and lust. David, less cosmopolitan than his hosts, falls back on traditional colonial values, regarding Morocco and Moroccans as inscrutable and inferior.

By the same token, the Moroccans in the story can’t fathom the Westerners’ lifestyles or motives. They are “unimaginable human beings,” infidels—people who don’t eat with their fingers, who don’t believe in God.

Driss, the young man who is struck and killed by David, wants desperately to break away from the life his father had. He comes from a Berber family that lives in a remote outpost of the Sahara, where children must slave away hacking out Trilobites all day long, with the hope of selling them to Western millionaires.

Driss’s father, Abdellah, more than anything else wants to avenge “the fact that he simply had never known his son at all.”

When Abdellah and his brothers arrive to pick the body up for burial, they demand to meet David. They ask that he travel with them to make atonement. Richard and Dally, keen to get on with the party, assure him that it will be for the best.

Jo to herself: “Who knew what here was artificial and what was indigenous?”

The Forgiven is a tribute to Osborne’s roots as a world-class travel writer and chronicler of the expat life. He takes us behind the scenes and into the inner lives of Moroccans as well as of the expats who choose to live in that part of the world.

Take, for instance, Osborne’s account of Moroccan versus British pessimism:

“The men of the desert know everything,” Hamid said once, like a quote out of Lawrence of Arabia. But they didn’t, really. They were just efficient pessimists, and therefore astute readers of human nature. They always assumed the worst, and that made them correct nine times out of ten. Their pessimism, however, was not like David’s. David was someone who believed that the past was superior to the present, and that was a different sort of pessimist. It was not the entire past that was superior, of course; it was mostly just the British nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century.

Or this passage about how the Moroccan villagers tend to regard Richard and Dally and their wild parties:

It was admitted that they were wealthy and that they spent their money in an exceedingly unwise and profligate way, and that this was much to the advantage of the people.

Jo to Richard: “I dare say I won’t be the same again…”

The story maintains momentum by swinging between Western and Moroccan cultures, leaving the reader almost breathless, not always sure of their footing.

As readers, we guess but aren’t sure if the lumpish David, who is clearly an alcoholic, is still drunk on his midnight drive. Did he mean to hit the young man? And, the victim of the accident—can we say he’s a victim? Flashbacks to the youth’s bravado-filled conversations with a younger, impressionable friend paint him as an unstable character, full of hatred, with a shady past…

Jo, David’s long-suffering wife, is also an enigma. An aging beauty, she feels isolated from the young, frivolous women at the party. Does she love David, or want to leave him? Does she care if justice is exacted? Or does she care only that she be, as the title suggests, forgiven?

* * *

Not wishing to give away any more of the plot, I’ll end by reiterating: Displaced Nationers, in your own experience, which topics tend to open up the widest cultural divides?

Let me also leave you with the epigraph from the novel:

“Many roads do not lead to the heart.” —Moroccan Proverb

Until next time—oh and please drive safely!

* * *

Thanks, Beth! I’ve read The Forgiven and am still haunted by it. Lawrence Osborne is a contemporary writer with a deep understanding of what it means to feel “displaced” by one’s travels. Reading the book gave me thrills and chills, not just for the story but for the beauty and precision of his prose. Readers, does this sound like a book for you?

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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And the September 2014 Alices go to … these 2 international creatives

 © Iamezan | Dreamstime.com Used under license

© Iamezan | Dreamstime.com
Used under license

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

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

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

Today’s post hono(u)rs September’s two Alice recipients. They are (drumroll…):

1) DANIEL ROUSE, Shropshire-born expat living in Toronto, Canada, and Telegraph Expat blogger

For his post: “Class doesn’t matter in Toronto,” for Telegraph Expat
Posted on: 19 September 2014
Snippet:

Back in Shropshire…it wasn’t uncommon to have friends with nicknames deriving from their occupation; that’s how they are identified. It can be to the extent where a job is married with a first name without pause for breath: “you know my mate Ronnie-the-plumber.” I am guilty of this….

Over here it doesn’t matter what people do for a living, so people from all walks of life socialise together. Being worth a decent conversation is all that matters.

Citation: Daniel, we had rather assumed that the British class obsession would be fading by now. It’s been quite a few years since Maggie-the-Grocer’s-Daughter assumed power, followed by John-the-Circus-Performer’s-Son. Then there was Tony-the-Grandson-of-Actors-&-Grocers. And let’s not forget Kate-the-Party-Planners’-Daughter. But it seems that with the ascendance of David-the-Descendant-of-William IV (albeit via an illegitimate line), class considerations are permeating the land again—having now reached Shropshire. Some may say it’s a good thing—long may class distinctions flourish! A society can’t function if people don’t know their place. And besides, as Downtown Abbey has taught us, upper and lower classes have always been the best of friends. We must confess, however, that we do not find this very sensible. Rather, we think that names, rather than being associated with professions or parents’ professions (and therefore educations, incomes, and class profiles), should be reminders of what a person looks like. The source of our wisdom is the redoubtable Humpty Dumpty, in this exchange with Alice:

“MUST a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully.

“Of course it must,” Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: “MY name means the shape I am—and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.”

Now some may think Humpty Dumpty has prosopagnosia, but surely he’s just being practical? We also believe that expats would do well to employ this kind of mnemonic device when they first go abroad and are immersed in a phantasmagoria of new faces, body shapes, clothing, hair styles… In your part of the world, for instance, we could imagine epithets like “Big-Boots-xxx” or “Bushy-Beard-xxx” coming in handy. (Listen, you say you know your Canadian friends really well, but we still don’t advise using these nicknames to their faces, just in case…) Congrats on this fine post, Daniel, and we look forward to re-encountering some of this material in your short stories!

2) LINDA RUBRIGHT, former expat in Europe and the Caribbean, and founder of the travel and lifestyle blog the delicious day

For her post: “8 Secrets No One Tells You about Being an Expat,” for Sherry Ott’s new career break site, Meet Plan Go
Posted on: 25 September 2014
Snippet:

Secret #4: You are the punch line to a lot of jokes.
…The tiny differences are enormous differences, and what can you do about it? Expect a lot of laughs—in your direction.

Citation: Linda, you are so right, and have such a good way of putting it: how truly strange a culture can look when you are stuck in its “deep catacombs” (see Secret #2). For sure, “catacombs” are a telltale sign of having fallen down a rabbit hole. And we agree with your premise that exploring said catacombs without a compass can induce “profound loneliness and feelings of complete incompetence” (#2 again) not to mention homesickness (#8). We’d further like to point out that even on Alice’s through-the-looking glass adventure, when she stays above ground, such feelings of discombobulation continue, especially when she repeatedly tries to climb the hill near the house to the beautiful garden—only to find herself back at the house. Did an encounter with the Red Queen shed light on her frustrations? Hardly:

“Well, in OUR country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, HERE, you see, it takes all the running YOU can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Still, at least the Red Queen was kind enough to attempt an explanation of basic cultural differences. She didn’t laugh at Alice. Which is more than we can say for you that time when you witnessed your Spanish boyfriend’s first attempt to pump gas in the United States and apparently found it uncontrollably funny that, being from Spain, which is 100% full service, he was also not used to gallons, credit cards, or zip codes, and kept fumbling with the machine. But we have news for you, Linda: the joke may be on you in the end. Little did you realize that the most successful expats are gluttons for punishment, and the eight points you list as drawbacks to the expat life in fact don’t perturb us all that much. Why do you think your BF is now your husband, living with you in Colorado? He loves being the object of your humor! In any case, thanks for this great post, and good luck to the pair of you with your travel advice site.

*  *  *

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

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

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For this TEFL teacher with a strong Cornish identity but a compulsion for travel and the expat life, a picture says…

Cornish Kylie Collage

Canon zoom lens; photo credit: Morguefiles. Kylie Millar (self portrait).

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

My guest this month is 27-year-old Kylie Millar who was born and bred in Cornwall, England, and, though she now finds herself in Thailand, just like me, she remains proud of her Cornish heritage, having branded herself on her travel blog as Cornish Kylie.

Not only that but Kylie informs me that the Cornish were granted official minority status earlier this year. Being born and bred in Cornwall now means, technically, that a person is identified as Cornish first, British secondwith the latter identity being confined largely to one’s passport. Well, it is true that Cornwall was its own Celtic nation before the Norman Conquest, and they have their own language, Kernewek, which is distinct from Welsh.

After the Scottish vote for independence, can a bid by the Independent Republic of Kernow be far behind?

How times have changed!

* * *

Hi Kylie. It’s good to see you at the Displaced Nation. As the name of your blog implies, you are a proud Cornish lass—rightly so! You have also travelled a fair bit. But since Cornwall is a place close to my heart, can you reminisce for a bit about your childhood in that part of the world?
I was born in Truro, the main hub of Cornwall, which has a cathedral and is therefore designated a city as opposed to a town. But I was raised in the hilly seaside town of Falmouth, known for its lovely beaches, fishing port and docks. To some, it may seem like an aging coastal town, but the recent influx of art students to its expanding university has given it a new lease on life and a nice arty vibe. My dad is a fisherman so I grew up living a typical Cornish life: summers on the beaches, the smell of a crab being boiled on the stove top (which to this day I cannot abide—the curse of being a fisherman’s daughter and not liking fish or seafood!). But I really do appreciate how lucky I am to have grown up in such a wonderful place and fully intend to return one day.

Gwrys yn Kernow (made in Cornwall)

As you know I spent my last year in the UK before emigrating to South Africa (1994/5) in Falmouth, so it’s interesting to hear about the changes. How long after I left did you spread your wings and start travelling abroad?
I actually didn’t spread my wings all that much growing up. Family holidays consisted of trips to Butlin’s holiday camps and a few package holidays to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. I didn’t even move away from Cornwall to go to university, I just commuted the 75 miles east to Plymouth. Why would I want to move away from somewhere like Cornwall?

I agree. It’s a magnetic place even for those of who weren’t born there. Carry on, please.
As part of my degree I had the opportunity to go to China for a few weeks to do a little bit of English teaching and a cultural exchange with Chinese university students. This was my first time to experience a culture completely different from my own. I was only 19 and in a constant state of “culture shock”. It wasn’t until after I completed my degree and had a few years’ work under my belt that the urge to explore really kicked in.

Please tell me a little more about your travels.
Aside from the trip to China, I have holidayed in Egypt and Morocco. Then my next big trip was a month backpacking around Thailand with one of my best friends. That’s how I first caught the Thailand bug.

You certainly don’t intend to let the grass grow under your feet, Kylie. I foresee you becoming a seasoned traveller before long. I know there is a lot more to your story, but let’s start with the reasons that drove you to travel.
I’m not a fan of people traveling purely to “find themselves” or even to “make the world a better place”. Actually, I have changed a lot since coming to Thailand, and I’m sure that, as a TEFL teacher, I’m contributing in some small way to the education of Thailand’s future leaders. But that’s not the sole reason I came here. I had a job in the UK that I loved, but I sensed I was stagnating. So I followed my instincts (very scary but it felt right) and quit, upped sticks and came to Thailand, got a TEFL certificate and started teaching English to Thais.

“Life is so short, you must move very slowly” – Thai proverb

You say you’ve got the Thailand bug, which in my experience can be difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t lived here. So let’s leave it at that and talk about where, precisely, are you right now and what are you up to.
I spent my first 18 months living in the city of Hat Yai, in southern Thailand, near the Malaysian border. I was teaching English at a government high school, with classes of fifty students and few resources apart from those I conjured up myself. Later I went to Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, to work as a teaching assistant in an international school. The two posts and their locations were poles apart.

Can you say a little about that for the sake of readers who don’t know Thailand?
In Hat Yai I was one of a handful of farangs (Caucasian foreigners) living in a village on the outskirts of the city. On my daily commute to the school, I would meander through rubber plantations, passing water buffalo. At first people would stare, but their stares quickly turned into smiles and shouts of “hello!”. Nobody spoke English beyond that one word, so I had to learn to speak Thai very quickly to be able to order food. In Phuket, by contrast, I am one of thousands of farangs and when Thai people see me they assume that I am a tourist and treat me accordingly. It’s harder to win over the locals here because tourists are their meal ticket. You have to convince them that you aren’t a tourist; you live here like they do. That said, life in Phuket is a lot easier. It has familiar things like pizza and sandwiches (I haven’t got used to eating rice three times a day yet). And of course the island’s beaches are stunning, which reminds me of Cornwall and makes me feel at home.

Ah, I think I detect something of the home bird in you, alongside the intrepid traveller… And now let’s see some of your favorite photos and hear the stories behind them.
When I was in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, I couldn’t resist taking pictures of the many beautifully decorated doorways. This picture was accidental as the boy emerged from the doorway just as I pressed the shutter release. Then I realised how people can add an extra dimension and started to include people in more of my photographs. This trip to Morocco was special: it opened my eyes to a very different part of the world.

Kylie_BoyinMoroccanDoor

A boy in a Moorish door; photo credit: Kylie Millar.

I love this. Dirty, dusty, old and full of intrigue. A great shot. What else do you have for us?
Songkran is the festival held in mid-April to celebrate traditional Thai new year’s. It’s probably the most famous of all the Thai festivals because it’s the scene of the world’s biggest water fight. Determined to join the festivities, I locked away my main camera and went out to the streets. I got this shot when the water fighting stopped to let a convoy of vehicles, carrying Buddha statues, pass to the temple. Songkran is absolutely insane, and if you ever find yourself in Thailand at this time of year, prepare to get wet—or hide!

Kylie_ThaiNewYear

Happy New Year, Chiang Mai style; photo credit: Kylie Millar.

And here’s one more of Thailand. As you know, anti-government protests took place from November 2013 through May of this year. I live close enough to Bangkok that I was able to come in and take photos. Having a big camera was useful as it made it obvious I was an observer, not a participant. Foreign involvement in the protests was a big no-no. On the day I took this shot, anti-government protesters had made progress, spirits were high and the atmosphere was unlike any other I have experienced. People were happy to have their picture taken, and this lady was my favourite, standing proudly in traditional yellow to signal her support for the King. For some reason, the scene made me think of the crowd around the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury music festival in England—not what you’d expect at an anti-governmental protest. I’m glad I was able to see it all firsthand.

Kylie_yellowlady

A sunny presence at the Bangkok protests; photo credit: Kylie Millar.

Getting to the zuggans (Cornish for “the essence”)

Now could you show us the kinds of places that tend to bring out your shutterbug instincts?
One of those places was Jemaa el-Fnaa, a bustling square in Marrakesh that offends all of the senses. Said to be the busiest square in Africa, it is hot and dusty, and the air is full of the smell of tagine spices and roasting meats. The sounds of hawkers and snake charmers mix with the buzz of the crowd, punctuated by the call to prayer that reaches every corner of the souks—it’s the largest traditional market in Morocco. Rugs, lamps, cushions and fabrics in deep oranges, luscious reds and striking purple line the narrow lanes of the souks. Rusty tin roofs let in shards of light that make this a photographer’s dream. But cameras can only capture so much…

Kylie_souk

The wonders of the Marrakesh souks; photo credit: Kylie Millar.

You captured the smells as well as the intrigue. Well done. What’s next?
I visited George Town, in the northeast corner of Penang island, twice recently. It’s famous for being one of the main destinations for visa runners and backpackers alike. I was drawn to its hodgepodge of cultures: mosques, churches, Hindu and Buddhist temples all sandwiched together. Ethnic Chinese and Indian communities live alongside each other, and traditional clan families can still be found living on stilt houses on the jetties. In this photo I tried to capture some of that:

Kylie_bikeforrent

The back streets of George Town, Penang; photo credit: Kylie Millar.

I’m not generally a fan of black-and-white photos but this subject lends itself so well. And finally?
Many of the things that make Thailand unusual are seeming more normal the longer I live here—like the bright orange monk’s robes in this picture, the turquoise sea, the towering Buddha statues, multicolored long boats, the outrageously decorated temples and colourful tuk tuks. It’s home now but, as I think this photo shows, I still like to play the tourist and explore:

Kyli_ThaiOfferings

A novice Thai monk and spirit house; photo credit: Kylie Millar.

I like the way you captured Thailand’s vibrancy. Tell me, do you feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious that you are doing so?
Actually, I like to try and get natural photographs without the person knowing at all. I want to capture moments and events not someone posing. People generally enjoy having their picture taken, so if they spot a camera they will smile or pull a face and the obligatory peace signs come out. Not quite what I’m looking for… Driving an old banger of a car helps because Thais will sometimes take our picture—because we farangs are assumed to be rich and usually drive smart cars.

“Today I’m going to shoot someone…and they will love me for it!”

It can be annoying, this Asian misconception that all Westerners are rich, but I guess we all get used to it in time. So you don’t ask permission unless you need to before taking people’s photographs—but how do you get around any problem of language?
If I am unable to be stealthy, then I use the universal “can I take a picture?” sign consisting of pointing to my camera. I have learned how to ask in Thai but the words sometimes escape me. The big camera is usually a clue! When I was in a mountain village in Morocco, getting some shots of the decorative doors as mentioned above, an old lady smiled at me and gestured that she’d like to have her photograph taken. As I released the shutter button, she held out her hand, demanding payment. Not wanting to cause a scene, I forked out some change. Although not too happy with my offering she took it—if only she knew I only wanted a picture of her back door, not her face!

Kylie_Atlas Mountain lady

People shots for a price; photo credit: Kylie Millar.

Would you say that photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique that will never be seen again is a powerful force for you?
My mum always says that I take so many photographs but I am hardly ever in them. And that is very true. I know that when I am older I will wish I had more pictures of myself having adventures. But for now photography is a means of capturing what I see and feel. If I think the photos are worth sharing, they will end up on my blog. Photography is changing with the times, though. When I studied A-level photography we used film, processed by hand after spending hours in the darkroom. Filters had to be slotted into the machine; now they are just options on an iPhone app. When my mum was younger she went on a trip to Israel and Jerusalem, and she has two rolls of film from that trip—around fifty photographs. Nowadays people will take more than fifty photographs on a single night out. The technology has evolved so much that nearly everyone has a camera in their pocket on their phone, which is great. It makes photography more accessible to all, with no wasted film. But it does mean that photos are not so special and precious as they once were.

Some of our readers may want to know what kind of camera and lenses you use, as well as any post-processing software.
I’ve got a Canon 600D with standard lens, and a 75-300mm telephoto lens (perfect for those stealthy pictures of people, and for animal shots). I’ve also got a Panasonic Lumix point and shoot for the days when a bigger camera isn’t practical. If I am going to edit, I use Adobe Lightroom, which I am still finding my way around. Having never been taught how to use digital post-production software, I have to rely on trial and error—but that was also what it was like in the darkroom. It’s more fun that way!

Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
Take more pictures than you think you need. Bring spare SD cards and back them up—you will lose one or one will break. Don’t keep your camera locked away in a bag, keep it to hand, it needs to become a natural extension of yourself, not this big cumbersome thing you have to get out every time you want to take a picture.

Even though we are more than 40 years apart, we both left Falmouth and ended up in Phuket with the same camera (Canon T3i 600D). No wonder your pics are so good! Thank you for taking the time to tell your fascinating story.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Kylie’s experiences and her photography advice? And do you have any questions for her about her photos or her travels? Please leave them in the comments! And don’t forget you can follow Kylie on her blog, Cornish Kylie. You can contact her by email at info@cornishkylie.com, and you can also find her on social media: Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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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!

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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

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