Greetings, Displaced Nation-ers! Ready for a little more intellectual stimulation?
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Great Thinkers who can help with task of embracing the well-traveled life and teasing out its deeper meaning, in the new year.
And today I will address the needs of those who have resolved to tackle a major writing project in 2013.
It’s a well-known fact that many of us who live in foreign lands aspire to write novels, memoirs and travelogues about our overseas adventures. But many of us also live in isolated situations (by definition).
So who can aid us, provide our inspiration?
Why, the muses of course!
Tell us, O muses, how to tell our stories…
And we don’t even have to look heavenwards to invoke them! The 10 Muses (that’s one more than the ancients got!) of Expat and International Travel Writing are right in our midst. They have already shared the joys, wonders and value of writing with Displaced Nation readers:
- Barbara Conelli, author of the Chique Travel Book series, filled with the charm, beauty, secrets and passion of Italy…
- Martin Crosbie, who is writing a trilogy entitled My Temporary Life; in December of last year, he published Book Two: My Name Is Hardly.
- Helena Halme, author of the novel The Englishman (2012)
- Laura Graham, author of the novel Down a Tuscan Alley (2011)
- Matt Krause, author of the memoir A Tight Wide-open Space: Finding love in a Muslim land (2011)
- Meagan Adele Lopez, author of the novel Three Questions: Because a quarter-life crisis needs answers (2011)
- Edith McClintock, author of the mystery novel Monkey Love and Murder (2013)
- Alexander McNabb, who is writing the Levant Cycle, a trilogy of books about the Middle East; he released the second book, Beirut — An Explosive Thriller, last September.
- Tony James Slater, erstwhile regular at the Displaced Nation and author of a two-book series: The Bear That Ate My Pants: Adventures of a real idiot abroad (2011) and Don’t Need the Whole Dog!, which came out in December.
- Wendy Nelson Tokunaga, author of Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband (2011) and of several novels that explore cross-cultural themes between the United States and Japan.
Over the past year on our site, if you were listening closely, these heaven-sent muses were singing a number of tunes. Here are their five top hits:
SONG #1: “Yes, it’s hard; yes it’s uphill. But you’re living the dream, which makes writing a thrill!”
In one of the Displaced Nation’s most popular posts of the past year, Tony James Slater tried to make it out that the life of an expat writer is far from glamorous. Don’t believe him. He was pulling your leg, as usual — or singing off key, to continue the metaphor.
Alexander McNabb has the more accurate rendition. Here’s his account of the prep for his latest thriller, Beirut:
While writing it, I spent hours walking around the city, along the curving corniche and up into the busy streets that cling to the foothills rising from the coast up to the snow-capped mountains. Walking with friends, walking alone — day and night, spring and summer. From the maze of funky little bars of Hamra to the boutiques of Verdun, from the spicy Armenian groceries of Bourj Hammoud to the cafés overlooking the famous rocks at Raouché…
Barbara Conelli is another inspirational example. She explores every nook and cranny of Milan so as to take the reader on an armchair journey. And now she is doing the same with Rome, which will be the subject of her third book in the Chique Travel series.
Great work, if you can get it!
SONG #2: “It’s time to make your creative debut — so why not make it all about you?”
These days it’s hard to tell the difference between a heavily autobiographical novel and a memoir, though one of our muses, Helena Halme, insists that there is a distinction. When questioned about her decision to write The Englishman as a novel — it’s about a young Finnish woman, Kaisa, who meets a dashing British naval officer, a plot that echoes very closely her own life story — she had the following to say:
I tried to write a memoir, but couldn’t! Much of this story is, however, true — but I didn’t think I could call it a memoir as some things were pure fiction. I am a novelist and just keep making stories up.
Hmmm… By that reckoning, perhaps Tony James Slater should be a novelist, too? As regular readers of this blog will know, his favorite topic consists of his own, rather daring but also bumbling, world adventures.
But did a bear really eat his pants, or is he exaggerating for comic effect?
The mind boggles…
But whatever the form, the point is that quite a few of our muses have found plenty of material in their own life experiences. Besides Halme and Slater, we have
- Martin Crosbie: His protagonist, Malcolm, leaves Scotland for Canada at a formative age, just as he did.
- Laura Graham: Her protagonist, Lorri, arrives in Italy as a forty-something single and finds a younger Italian man, just as she did.
- Matt Krause: He has written a memoir on the portion of his life that involved meeting a Turkish woman on a plane and following her back to Turkey. (Reader, he married her!)
- Meagan Adele Lopez: The protagonist of her debut novel, Del, is offered three questions by her British fiancé (just as Lopez was offered three questions by hers).
- Edith McClintock: Her protagonist, Emma, works as a researcher in the very Amazonian rainforest where she once conducted her own research.
To conclude, the old adage is alive and well, even (especially?) in expat and travel writing: “Write about what you know and care for…”
SONG #3: “Looking for inspiration from above? The answer lies in cross-cultural love.”
Another theme running through the works of several of our muses is the love that takes place across cultures, usually resulting in marriage. I just now referred to the cross-cultural love stories at the heart of the books produced by Helena Halme (Finnish woman, English man), Laura Graham (Englishwoman, Italian man), Matt Krause (American man, Turkish woman) and Meagan Adele Lopez (American woman, Scotsman).
To this list should be added Wendy Nelson Tokunaga, who has written about Western women getting involved with Japanese men — one of the stranger of all possible unions, to be sure! 😉 — in both fiction and nonfiction (the latter being a bit of a self-help book).
SONG #4: “As your brainstorming proceeds apace, never forget the appeal of place.”
Since travel is a constant for all of us, it should come as no surprise that particular places can become a pull for certain expat writers. They cannot rest until they’ve depicted a place they’ve experienced so that others can live vicariously. Several of our muses represent this principle:
- Barbara Conelli and her love for “capricious, unpredictable” Milan. To quote from her book: “When the streets of Milan ask you to dance, there’s nothing else to do but put on your ballet shoes and surrender…”
- Alexander McNabb and his obsession with Beirut. “There can be few places on earth so sexy, dark, cosmopolitan and brittle…,” he writes in his Displaced Nation post.
- Edith McClintock and her preoccupation with the rainforest and a place called Raleighvallen in the Central Suriname Nature Reserve. As her main character, Emma, says:
I fell completely and irretrievably in love with the rainforest that week — the deep rich smells of dirt and decay and teeming, thriving life; the warm soft light of the rocky moss-covered paths hidden beneath layers of climbing and tumbling lianas and roots; soaring tree trunks wrapped in colorful bromeliads, orchids, moss, and lichens; and the canopy of leaves of every conceivable size and shape….
SONG #5: “Growing weary of fruitless writing sessions? Time to take some acting lessons!”
Four of our ten muses could double as the muses of acting and entertainment:
- Tony James Slater and Meagan Adele Lopez trained as actors (Lopez actually starred in a bad horror film!) before embarking on their world travels.
- Laura Graham enjoyed a long career as a stage actress in Britain, working for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Young Vic, and on television, before setting herself up as an expat in Tuscany.
- Wendy Nelson Tokunaga first went to Japan because she won a prize in a songwriting contest sponsored by Japan Victor Records. She is an accomplished karaoke artist who can sing jazz as well as j-pop and enka, a type of sentimental ballad.
Why are so many of the Muses of Expat Writing multi-talented, you may ask? Does a former acting/singing career work to one’s advantage when it comes to overseas travel and writing? I like to think so.
Just as Dickens used to act out the dialogue of his characters, I like to think of Tony James Slater reenacting his wild adventures on the road, in the confines of his flat in Perth…
And sometimes this versatility can add a further dimension to the writing. Last we heard from Lopez, she had created a trailer for her book and was trying to convert it to a screenplay. Tokunaga composed and sang an enka to accompany her novel Love in Translation. (It’s impressive!)
Plus these four could always hew to the tradition of wandering minstrel, one of the oldest careers in the book, if their works don’t sell. (Hey, it’s never a bad idea to have a fallback option when you’re a long ways away from family and friends…)
* * *
So, writers out there, did our 10 Muses sing to you? And will you listen to some of their songs again as you face the blank page in 2013? Let me know in the comments. (Only, be careful of criticizing the Muses — they have been known to be vengeful!)
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another installment in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)
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Images: Our Ten Muses (left to right, top to bottom) — Edith McClintock, Barbara Conelli, Tony James Slater; Laura Graham, Martin Crosbie, Helena Halme, Alexander McNabb; Meagan Adele Lopez, Wendy Nelson Tokunaga, Matt Krause.