The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Expat life as psychological thriller? An unholy appreciation of novelist Shireen Jilla

SPECIAL TDN ANNOUNCEMENT: Dear readers, we have some thrills and chills in store for you: a chance to engage with expat writer Shireen Lilla. She has kindly agreed to respond to our comments and questions on her new novel, Exiled.

Please accept this candle. You’ll need it to light your way to the faux coffin where we’re serving Victorianesque nibbles and “finger” foods in honor of the novelist Shireen Jilla.

Be sure to try our house speciality: fried tartantula. Such an exquisite dish! Or how about some maggoty cheese, imported straight from Sardinia for the occasion? It makes an excellent pairing with our special punch. (Go on, have a sip! It’s only bubbling because we added dry ice to the bowl.)

Our honored guest looks lovely, doesn’t she, in her long black cape with the red-satin collar? But don’t be fooled. Looks are extremely deceiving in her case. Jilla harbors no illusions about the dark side of expat life — and she isn’t afraid to grasp you by the hand and seduce you into entering that netherworld for an adventure.

Many an expat veteran has advised that being stationed overseas isn’t necessarily the life of Riley. But how many of them have ever warned us of the dangers lurking on the other side: everything from psychological breakdown to murder most foul?

Slyvia Plath, the American poet who’d been living in a bucolic a part of the English countryside, put her head in the oven upon returning to London. Nancy Kissel, who was living in an exclusive Parkview high-rise apartment complex in Hong Kong, allegedly killed her husband with a blunt instrument and rolled up his body in an Oriental rug.

But why dwell on real-life cases when Jilla’s imagination can provide us with all the macabre details we need?

Deliciously “exiled”

Shireen Jilla
Let us raise our goblets to Jilla’s debut novel, Exiled, a dark, dysfunctional psychodrama set in New York City.

The novel tells the story of Anna, who is so in love with her husband, Jessie, an ambitious British diplomat, that she can’t wait to start a new chapter of their life together in New York. Jessie is the ticket (quite literally!) for Anna to leave her old life in rural Kent far behind.

At first, New York lives up to its promise. The couple find a brownstone on the Upper West Side and fall into the rhythm of New York life. But then disaster strikes, again and again.

As Anna herself puts it in her Foreword to the story:

I couldn’t imagine that my romantic dream would turn into a dark battle for everything I loved.

In our current gothic mood, we laud the idea of this book (unfortunately, we’ve only read excerpts as it’s not yet available in the U.S.) for:

1) Defying stereotypes: Many outsiders who write about New York are tempted to extol the city’s glitz and glamor a la Sex and the City. Not Jilla. As one critic put it, she gives us a New York that is “a teeming pit of hissing vipers, only just covered with a finely buffed veneer of sophistication.”

Exiled2) Pushing the envelope: Jilla, a Third Culture Kid (she is half English, half Persian, and grew up in Germany, Holland and England) who has also been an expat — in Paris, Rome, and New York — hasn’t simply replicated her experience but has dug deeper to reveal psychological truths about the people she has observed. Anna’s step-mother-in-law is a powerful socialite and philanthropist of precisely the sort seen on The Real Housewives of New York City. In Jilla’s rendering, though, she is further revealed as calculating, manipulative — and evil. As one reader-reviewer on Amazon says:

Imagine the stark terror of Rosemary’s Baby firmly grounded in reality. Shireen Jilla has created the sharp thrill of horror in a world of utterly true and compelling characters.

3) Presenting a heroine who could almost be Libby’s alter-ego: Now who is Libby, you might ask? She is the Displaced Nation’s fictional about-to-be expat wife. Her diary entries appear every Friday on this blog. After hearing about Anna, we can’t help but wonder: will Libby’s life take a sinister turn once she reaches Boston? No, Boston isn’t New York — but how long before Libby encounters a Boston Brahmin…or two?!

Time to break the spell?

Before we blow out our candles, it’s your turn, dear reader:

Has Shireen Jilla also illuminated something for you by exploring the gothic side of our displaced lives? Does she speak to your own experience — to the times when you’ve been face to face with people who seemed evil, or with nefarious doings?

And do you have any questions for Jilla about what motivated her to write such a gloriously dark book?

img: New York Skyline, by plastAnka.

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26 responses to “Expat life as psychological thriller? An unholy appreciation of novelist Shireen Jilla

  1. ML Awanohara May 7, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    Hi, Shireen, and thanks for agreeing to engage with Displaced Nation readers. It’s always struck me that there’s great potential for gothic horror in the expat life. We had a reminder of that this week, when the Amanda Knox case was back in the headlines.

    I have a couple of questions:
    1) What inspired you to create such a horrible step-mother-in-law for Anna…and are you Anna?
    2) Why is it that women tend to be the evil ones in these gothic tales? Perhaps it’s just mirroring reality: Amanda Knox and Nancy Kissel being two recent examples?

    • Shireen Jilla May 7, 2011 at 2:07 pm

      Hi ML Awanohara

      I am not Anna! As I have said even though I was an expat in New York, this is not my story.

      Anna is an artist from a very safe, comfortable country background, craving adventure. She has a certain naivety and an inability to know what is really going on. I wanted her to be that type of character so that I could pitch her against Nancy, who really represents everything complex, fragile and strong about wealthy New Yorkers.

      Nancy didn’t start out as evil as she ended up being. But I took all the controlling elements of the average Upper East Sider and really took them to their logical consequences. And this is where I ended up!

      I was very influenced by the film Gaslight. And it was the husband who was manipulating his wife (famously played by Ingrid Bergman) in that film.

      If there are more Gothic women out there, perhaps it’s because women can be more controlling and manipulative, just as men can be more violent. Though I try and prove that the cliche can be wrong sometimes.

      • K Allison May 7, 2011 at 2:33 pm

        I am so pleased you mentioned Gaslight. As I read the synopsis of Exiled, I kept thinking about that Ingrid Bergman film – one of my favorites – so to hear you compare the two was very satisfying. Looking forward to the US publication!

        A question – were you shocked or surprised at how dark this story eventually turned out? So much of what I write starts out light and turns dark, although I don’t consider myself a particularly dark or depressive person. It does make you wonder at the skeletons in the psyche that are hidden most of the time…where did they come from?

  2. Shireen Jilla May 7, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Hello everyone at Displaced Nation and its fans,

    I’m so chuffed to be ‘coming in’ on a damp London evening, at the end of brunch time on the East Coast.
    Just to let you know, Exiled hopefully will hopefully be published in the States soon as my NY agent has just sent it out to editors.

    New York is a material fantasy that most wannabe expats have had. People imagine it to be an adventure laced only with IPad2s and lychee martinis.

    But, as many of you know, stepping outside your own cultural comfort zone is never as straight forward as those people, longing for it from the comfort of their three-piece sofa in the suburbs, imagine.

    So I choose to write about Anna, an eager expat looking for experience, but finding she sucked into a cultural nightmare that she neither could control, or understand.

    I spotted a woman in the Neue Galerie cafe on Fifth Avenue, who eventually became Nancy, the competitive stepmother, a powerful American philanthropist and socialite, who pitches herself against Anna. I wrote in my notebook. ‘She was the thinnest person I had seen who didn’t have cancer’.

    And that was the start of Exiled.

    The first draft of the novel wasn’t nearly as dark as the final version. In fact, the very scary and surprising scene, which has been much talked about in the British press, I only added towards the end. I just knew it was the truth about my story.

    I believe Mark Twain: ‘Truth is stranger than fiction.’

    Though I was an expat in New York for three years when my husband was the BBC’s North American Business correspondent, this isn’t a true story. Though the NYPD did abseil down onto my terrace, armed and wearing flack jackets!

    However, many of the crazy stories of New York control freakery are based on people I knew, and stories I heard. I spent hours chatting to a psychiatrist in my street before I created the therapist, Mary, in Exiled.

    I am an ex-journalist, so my approach has a lot in common with Johnny Depp, only I don’t have the facial hair. I obsess about my types of characters, watching them and taking endless notes before I even start writing.

    I think of ‘Exiled’ as meaning outside your comfort zone. Many of you reading these many feel Exiled abroad, and I would love to hear your thoughts.

    Look forward to hearing from you.
    All the best.

    • ML Awanohara May 7, 2011 at 2:52 pm

      Thanks, Shireen, for providing this background, which has made me even keener to read your book. I just now went into Amazon (US) to see if we could at least download it into our Kindles, but no dice. One would think the electronic version could be released regardless of one’s position on the globe. Amazon — or is it the publishing industry? — clearly doesn’t have us global voyagers in mind! Boo.

  3. Kristin Bair O'Keeffe May 7, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    Hello Shireen…Sounds like one of those deliciously frightening books I can only read in daylight when someone else is in the house with me. Look forward to it!

    As a writer, I’m especially interested in place, so I’m curious to find out why you set this book in New York City. What special characteristics does NYC have (as opposed to Paris or Rome or a town in Holland) that make it the perfect setting for “Exiled”?


    • Shireen Jilla May 7, 2011 at 2:16 pm

      Hi Kristin

      Well, a reader did say to me it disturbed her as much as Iain McEwan’s Enduring Love. A friend also said that she was glad I had got all those dark thoughts out onto the page.

      Though as I said initially I never set out to write a dark novel. Indeed my two other unpublished books were more stridently about people outside their comfort zones, but not terrified!

      The reason I set the book in New York wasn’t just that I was living there. A blogger in New York described Exiled: ‘The story itself moves at the frenetic pace of a New York cab ride.’

      I wanted it to feel like that, because that is the nature of New York life. A frantic and public ride played out on the streets.

      New York is a city populated by control freaks. A woman once refused to shake my hand because she had no hand sanitizer. I still remember a runner in a shop in Amsterdam Avenue hurling shoes at the assistant because she didn’t have any that would fit over the brace on her torn tendon. Where children’s laminated therapy timetables include session for better co-ordination on the monkey bars.

      In London, or Paris or a town in Holland, personal angst isn’t played out in the streets. I heard a woman in Central Park having a loud therapy session in the playground.

      In London like other Northern European cities, we hid out angst behind a burka of self-deprecation and secrecy. Not so the New Yorker who shouts and celebrates every aspect of her control freakery and madness.

      Let me know what you think.

      All the best

      • Kristin Bair O'Keeffe May 7, 2011 at 8:34 pm

        Hi Shireen,

        Love your answer, most especially, “I wanted it to feel like that, because that is the nature of New York life. A frantic and public ride played out on the streets.”

        I’m giving a talk next weekend at the Pennwriters Conference in Pittsburgh called “The Geography of a Novel,” and one aspect I’ll be talking about is the importance of the psychological geography of a novel…in particular the relationship between the psychological and physical geographies of a place (and how those play out in the story). Sounds like you were well aware of those as you wrote “Exiled.” Very compelling.


    • Shireen Jilla May 8, 2011 at 11:42 am

      Well thank you. It sounds like you know a lot more about the psychological aspects of geography that I do.

      I just knew I wanted to replicate the streets of New York almost cinematically.

      Fingers crossed US publishers feel as excited as you do by Exiled.

      Good luck at your conference

  4. K Allison May 7, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    Libby here.

    This is really very disturbing. I’m coming to America to get away from my psychotic mother-in-law and playgroup leaders, not become one of them on steroids. The process of moving is stressful, I grant you, but will it be me or Oliver who ends up in a straightjacket? That’s what I want to know.

    • Shireen Jilla May 7, 2011 at 3:27 pm

      Hi K Allison
      Gaslight is a great, great film. What I love about the ‘Gaslighting’ phenomenon as it’s called is the subtlety of the manipulation – all the time the ‘victim’ thinks that they are imagining things, going slowly mad, as Anna does. But in fact, all along someone else is pulling the destructive strings.
      I personally don’t feel at all bad that my stories tend to be dark. The most interesting sides of life are dark. And to be honest, you only have to watch a chat show to realise that truth is definitely darker than fiction.
      On your other point about you turn out in New York. I can’t presume to know the answer! I certainly rebelled and feel that I became less of a control freak in New York than I had been in London.
      Good luck anyway.

      • ML Awanohara May 7, 2011 at 8:57 pm

        Ironically, I just now noticed that HuffPo is doing a tribute to these “control freak” mothers you’ve described so well, owing to the fact that it’s Mother’s Day over here:

        In honor of Mother’s Day, we bring you five Beautiful Moms who do it all…run successful businesses, hold down the fort at home, steal alone time with their partners, as well as play time with their kids, and, as if that weren’t enough, stay fit and look fabulous.

        The only thing is, I don’t think HuffPo means it tongue in cheek! I have to hand it to you, and your novelist’s imagination, for seeing that control freakism can be the stuff of gothic nightmares.

        What’s more, given that I now live in NYC after stints in the UK and Japan, I find your honesty refreshing. So interesting to hear of an expat version of The Nanny Diaries! And one that pushes the envelope further by using a novelist’s craft to reveal truths.

      • Shireen Jilla May 8, 2011 at 11:45 am

        ML Awanohara
        I am so glad you’ve mentioned Nanny Diaries as my wonderful US agent Beth Davey thinks that is very like Nanny Diaries in certain ways.
        I have always been interested in our modern controlling tendencies because we are all more controlling that previous generations.
        However, New York is unique. Nowhere else would they get away with weighing down their children in weighted jackets….I’m afraid you need to read Exiled for the full story!!
        Thank you so much.

  5. Awindram May 7, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    Shireen, You mention Enduring Love. If you haven’t already read it, you should check out Bellow’s The Victim. Clearly very influential on McEwan but set in New York over a summer in the city. The heat and madness of NY making for a compelling setting.

    • Shireen Jilla May 8, 2011 at 11:46 am

      I haven’t. And I must. Will order today. Sounds like my kind of book.
      Thank you for the recommendation.

      • ML Awanohara May 8, 2011 at 3:21 pm

        @Anthony Windram
        A few weeks ago, you wrote about Salmon Rushdie’s novel, Fury, saying you could relate to some of the passages describing the main character’s “Gulliveresque” excitement and fear at listening to the locals talking. You said it was how you often felt as a Brit trying to negotiate New York City for the first time.
        I guess Rushdie wasn’t one of your inspirations, although the passage @awindram cites — when Professor Solanka feels overwhelmed by the “sheer immensity of his ignorance of the engulfing melee of ordinary American life” — does communicate a powerful sense of feeling “exiled.”
        @Anthony & @Shireen
        All of this leaves me wondering: do you think you’d have the same sense — or even more of a sense — of “exile” had you tried to negotiate small town America instead of NYC? To what extent is NYC America? That’s a question we repatriates often ask ourselves — and we usually answer it by saying: “It’s not really America at all; thank goodness for that.”

  6. ML Awanohara May 8, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    I don’t mean to “hog” the stage but I wanted to make sure I asked one more question while The Displaced Nation still has the honor of your attention.

    I’d love to explore this idea of feeling “exiled” a little more as I think it speaks to a number of TDN readers, myself included. A couple of thoughts:
    1) I’m interested in your choice of that word to describe the “expat” life. Obviously, it’s a self-imposed exile vs. a banishment, but does it amount to the same thing in one’s head? I used to refer to my own time abroad by saying “I’ve done nine years in England and seven in Japan” — as though I had been a prisoner for all that time. I remember thinking it was an odd elocution, but that’s what tended to come out of my mouth. Can you relate?
    2) I’m also interested in the idea that one can feel even more exiled in cultures that are similar to one’s own, where you’re meant to blend in. People often assume that I felt more of a fish out of water in Japan than I did in the UK. While that was true superficially, I actually found it harder to cope with my “outsider” status in England — precisely because I was supposed to fit in. After all, I looked like the people and spoke their language (more or less — more than less, the longer I stayed). But inside I knew I was different. Strangely, I also found it difficult to befriend English women — and usually gravitated towards other foreigners who were married to British men (which I was at that point) versus to natives. They seemed like such a different breed from the American women I’d grown up with, and I didn’t sense much common ground (though I eventually managed to bridge this perceived chasm).

    Grateful for any further thoughts you can offer on the “exiled” concept as it relates to expats.

    • Shireen Jilla May 8, 2011 at 3:12 pm

      No thank you for your interesting thoughts.

      I don’t think that all expat life is life in exile. But due in the dramatic transatlantic differences Anna experiences, her expat life turns into Exiled.

      But your second point about being Exiled in a culture seemingly close to your own is really at the heart of my book. I say at the very beginning the Foreward: how different or exciting could life in New York be? Because it didn’t feel to Anna as adventurous a posting as say Jo-Burg. But what fascinated me was how culturally different London and New York are. In fact, New York reminds me a lot more of Rome than London. Passion is lived out on the street, for good and bad.

      I am taking part in a transatlantic debate in a few weeks hosted by a cultural TV editor and on the opposite side is a New Yorker, based in London. The thesis is we share a common language but do we really understand each other?

      Probably because of the stark differences from nursery education onwards. New Yorkers believe what they feel is most important. In pre-school in New York, they ask all the time what does your four-year-old feel? In London, they ask them what they know.

      So New Yorkers have a huge sense of the importance of their emotions., which makes them more friendly than Londoners, but somehow less intimate. It makes them less cynical, but more serious. But it also makes them passionately sure about their emotional rights and righteousness, and often blunt to the point of being caustic.

      Add to that the fact that most people living in Manhattan must be earning at least $500,000 means, particularly on the Upper East Side, they are spoilt. If you get a Chanel goodie bag when you leave your private hospital, you don’t have awful lot in common with an average Brit. In a culture in Manhattan, where everyone pays for a multitude of services, it isn’t such a leap to farm out the obvious uncontrollability of childhood to a therapist.


  7. Awindram May 8, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    For personal reasons I’m biased to New York. My wife is a New Yorker, my American family are all from the city. It’s my default America. It’s when I get out of the north east corridor that I find this country confusing. It’s not a coincidence that it was only when I moved to the West Coast that I felt the need to start a blog documenting my cultural discombobulation.

    I think the Rushdie passage depicts a thrilling confusion. A city that sweeps you along. So much more preferable to the mundane suffocation of small town America that I feel now. I could be here the rest of my life and never feel American. As soon as I step out at JFK I feel like a New Yorker.

    • ML Awanohara May 8, 2011 at 6:11 pm

      Okay, but what you just said contradicts what Shireen is saying in this book. Her heroine, Anna, finds New York culturally discombobulating. She goes into the experience thinking it will be familiar in some ways (who doesn’t have an image of NYC from TV and film?) as well as thrilling (it’s the city that never sleeps, famous for its energy).

      Maybe it’s the difference between visiting NYC and living here? I used to visit NYC a lot for work when I lived in Tokyo, and I don’t even think of the city I knew then, as a short-term visitor, has almost nothing in common with the city I know now, as a long-term resident. In that earlier stage, I thrived on the city’s incessant pace, whereas now I have to take long breaks from it…rather like Anna, I suspect…

  8. Lara Sterling May 9, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    I love this idea: “Many outsiders who write about New York are tempted to extol the city’s glitz and glamor a la Sex and the City.” New York City has this affect on many Americans and definitely on foreigners. They think that if they travel there, or, even better, actually live there, then their lives are only going to be filled with glamour and fashion and haute culture.

    What they don’t realize is that that life, which they usually only see in movies, is saved for the rich. The regular traveler or transplant is going to find themselves relegated to some tiny hovel, if they want to be anywhere near Manhattan.

    I am also reminded of an excerpt from a book of essays written by Truman Capote on life abroad, Answered Prayers. In Answered Prayers , Capote referred to expat life in Europe, and, since I am American, and used to completely idolize Europe as the perfect paradise (before living there), I identified so much with it. Capote spoke about the facade of beauty and history, of gorgeous old buildings and beautiful people, only to pull aside that tapestry and to find everything, dark, evil and deteriorating about the place. Might Jilla be channeling this same idea about New York?

    • ML Awanohara May 10, 2011 at 11:11 pm

      Lara, thanks for mentioning Truman Capote. I love the quote from Saint Teresa of Ávila to which the title of his book refers: “Answered prayers cause more tears than those that remain unanswered.” This could almost be the tagline of the Displaced Nation’s series on gothic expat tales! In fact, I think I might tweet it! 🙂

  9. Yumiko Shimada May 10, 2011 at 5:53 am

    Hi Shireen,

    I’m looking forward to reading your book, since I’m a Japanese who went to school in London and lived in the Upper East Side for several years. I found that living in Manhattan is exciting if you have money and the right connections, but I can understand people going for therapy. Somehow you have to always feel ‘great’ if anyone asks you . In London or Tokyo, life is less stressful and easy-going. Maybe Anna felt excited but at the same time confused by what’s expected of you in the City.

    However I never felt ‘exiled’ while living in NYC or London. I felt that because I’m an expat and different, I can express myself freer than living in Japan where I have to conform to the customs here. The point about ‘exiled in cultures similar to one’s own’ is interesting.

    I like Jhumpa Lahiri ‘s short stories where ‘exiles’ straddle two cultures .

    • ML Awanohara May 10, 2011 at 11:06 pm

      Hi, Yumi. Thank you for your comment! Shireen seems to have vanished(!) for the time being, but I just wanted to say how much I appreciate your point about finding greater freedom of expression in NYC than you would in Japan. Likewise, and also speaking from experience, I think an American can feel freer in Tokyo than they can in London — because it is just so different, and they aren’t expected to conform.

      The gaijin experience of Japan is in stark contrast to those of other Asians (from Korea, Taiwan, China, etc.) who live there. Unlike us, they have pressure to learn the language and conform — while continuing to feel different inside. I suspect they could relate to Shireen’s Anna!

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