When I first returned to the United States after my extended expat journey, I remember humming to myself:
There’s a place for me,
Somewhere a place for me.
But then last month, when I went to see our monthly columnist Elizabeth Liang perform her one-woman show, Alien Citizen, I realized that my displacement, which took place as an adult, does not compare to that of Third Culture Kids. Most expats have been global residents by choice, whereas TCKs had no choice in being dragged around the globe by their parents. They and they alone have earned the epithet of “global nomad”.
Elizabeth has found a place for herself in theatrical circles. And today we talk to another adult TCK, Cinda Crabbe MacKinnon, who has found a place in fiction writers’ groups. Based on the first novel she produced, tellingly entitled A Place in the World, it seems fair to say that Cinda thrives on creating fictional characters whose lives resemble her own in some way, and then placing them in a part of the world where she has fond memories of spending some portion of her formative years, as a TCK.
In brief, A Place in the World centers around a young American woman named Alicia, who marries a Colombian and goes to live on his family’s remote coffee finca in the “cloud” forests of the Andes Mountains. Calamities strike one after another and Alicia ends up running the finca alone.
According to the book description, A Place in the World is a romantic adventure story, with a multicultural cast of characters, in the same vein as Isak Dineson’s Out of Africa.
Unlike Dineson’s work, however, it is not a memoir. Cinda may have loved her time in Colombia, but she didn’t marry a Colombian. And though she always wanted to be a biologist, she became an environmental scientist instead.
Well, enough from me. Let’s find out more about Cinda, why she wrote the book, and the book-writing process. And don’t forget to comment at the end of the interview! As Cinda has agreed to be this month’s featured author, we will be giving away ONE FREE E-COPY of her book to the person who leaves the most interesting comment!
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Cinda, pura vida. Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. Let’s begin at the beginning: what made you decide to write a novel about an American woman who lives in the cloud forests of Colombia?
Well, like all writers the story was simply in my head. Contrary to what I’d been told to do, I wrote for myself, without the idea of publishing—at least when I first got started. But I guess there were also some motivating factors. As you mentioned, I grew up as a Third Culture Kid, or TCK. My family lived in Greece, Germany, Colombia, and Costa Rica because my father was in the United States Air Force and then worked as an attaché to American embassies. I spent my formative years—and by far the longest time—in Colombia and Costa Rica. I wanted to be a rainforest biologist. That didn’t happen, but I’ve been able to live this dream through my protagonist, Alicia. Writing the book gave me an excuse to visit and study tropical nature in several places.
What impact did writing about the experience have on you overall—did it help you process what you’d been through as a TCK?
I love Latin America—the setting and culture are comfortable to me. The book gave me a chance to write about the people in that part of the world who were enormously kind to me. Growing up as a girl without a country, I came “home” for the first time to the States for college and felt totally out of place. Writing gave expression to some of this unanticipated culture shock.
What kinds of books have influenced you as a writer?
When I look at my Goodreads list of top 40 favorite books I see there is a definite multicultural theme: 30 are set in other countries, written by foreign authors or about expats. A few eclectic examples:
- The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
- Crime and Punishment, by F. Dostoyevsky
- Zorba the Greek, by N. Kazantzakis
- Tortilla Curtain, by T.C Boyle
- Small Kingdoms, by A. Hobbet
- How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, by J. Alvarez
- Eva Luna, by I. Allende
- Caravans and Hawaii, by James Michener
- The Thorn Birds, by C. McCullough
- Pillars of the Earth, by K. Follett;
- The Paris Wife, P. McLain;
- Lost in Translation (different from the movie), by N. Mones
- Dreaming in Cuban, by C. Garcia.
A fish out of water…
As you know, we like to talk about “displacement” on this site. When you were growing up as a TCK, what was your most displaced moment?
When I was working in New Zealand as a young adult. I’d lived in four or five different countries and could make myself understood in several languages so wasn’t expecting that to be a problem in NZ. I remember being with a colleague trying to order a milkshake, and the lady behind the counter asked me to repeat myself. “A chocolate milkshake, please,” I said as clearly as I could. She looked at me blankly and said, “Say it one more time dear, I’m trying very hard to understand you, but your accent is so thick.” As we left the shop, I told my work mate, “I don’t know what I got, but it sure isn’t chocolate!” Alistair smiled and replied, “I thought you asked for ‘banahnah’”! Go figure!
Yes, having been to New Zealand, I can kind of imagine that! What was your least displaced moment, when you felt that the peripatetic life suited you, and you were at “home”?
As an eighth grader arriving in Costa Rica from Colombia. My first week I was accepted as part of the class and invited to a party. I spoke Spanish and felt I fit in. Costa Ricans are a hospitable people, but I think I was also especially lucky to have been in that particular class. They were—and are—an exceptionally nice group of people; they still meet every month or so for dinner, and any classmate who happens to be in town is invited to drop in. I found life in Costa Rica to be nurturing.
You mentioned the counter culture shock you experienced when coming back to America for college. What was the biggest challenge you faced at that moment?
Well, it wasn’t one thing but all the little things: I was dressed “wrong”, didn’t know the music, had never been to a football game… I just really felt like a fish out of water and wanted to go back to Costa Rica—so, after a couple years, I did! (For a while…)
Clearing the writing & publishing hurdles
Moving on to A Place in the World: what was the most difficult part of the book-writing process?
Beginnings are the most difficult for me, as well as writing synopses for agents and publishers. In general, however, the answer is: time. Finding time to write while I was still working; finding time to meet my indispensable writing critique group; and once edited and published, finding time to speak at bookstores, do interviews, and write posts for my own blog!
What was your path to publishing?
Like any previously unpublished author, I had a difficult time. I had one agent hold onto my novel for six months as we discussed strategies and then (with the downturn in the markets) told me they had decided not to handle unpublished writers anymore. This has become a mantra with traditional publishers. (J.K. Rowlings was turned down dozens of times before finding a publisher for Harry Potter.) After a couple of years (during which time I was polishing the manuscript with my critique group), I decided to “indie” publish. There is a range of providers between traditional publisher and self publishing; and my publisher, VirtualBookworm, is one of those in the middle. I paid for my own editor (she was great—an expat who married a Latino) and a very small fee towards printing; but I get a bigger percentage per book than with a big publisher. I’ve been happy with all the support they have given me and would do it again.
What audience did you intend for the book? Has it been reaching those people? Can other kinds of expats, who haven’t lived in Latin America, relate to Alicia’s story as well?
I think of it as “mainstream” fiction that will appeal to anyone who likes to read about other places and cultures; but yes, it has been popular with expats. I rather thought that alumni from the overseas schools I went to would be interested, and that has been the case. I’m heartened and amazed at the support and e-mails I’ve received from adults of all ages.
Are you working on any other writing projects?
Yes (she says hesitantly). Hesitantly because, as you might guess from what I’ve already told you, I’m working pretty much FT—and finding time for creative writing is harder than usual! I do have several ideas that I’ve started: one set in Hawaii, another in Costa Rica, and a third in Europe. This last might be of interest to your followers, as it will be about a group of kids in an international school in Switzerland written from the point of view several different characters, taking their experiences into adulthood. And then my writers group thinks I should do a memoir. So I don’t know which of these schemes will “win”, but I intend to set priorities before the New Year.
10 Questions for Cinda MacKinnon
Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, comes to mind, but how great is great? I could go back to Zorba the Greek, by Nikos Kazantzakis.
2. Favorite literary genre: Literary and mainstream—especially multicultural or historical.
3. Reading habits on a plane: Anything—even the airline magazine in a pinch, but I usually take my Kindle with a good novel. Also, planes provide great down time to write!
4. Book(s) you would recommend to other TCKs, expats: Other than my “multicultural” fiction list above, it would be two books: Tales of Wonder, a fascinating autobiography about growing up in China almost a century ago, by Huston Smith; and I’m a Stranger Here Myself—Bill Bryson’s funny take on coming home after years abroad.
5. Favorite books as a child: Fairy Tales, by Brothers Grimm. When I was a little older, the Nancy Drew mysteries and I enjoyed reading Dr. Seuss to my little brother.
6. Favorite heroine: In fiction: Nancy Drew? In real life: There are too many to choose just one.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Barbara Kingsolver and John Steinbeck.
8. Your reading habits: I take a break every afternoon and I get a little reading in, and then my husband and I always read before turning out the light.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: A Place in the World! Seriously, two fans have suggested this and I love the idea. I visualize the opening as the cloud forest seen from the air and then zooming in to the tiled roof house with the veranda and bougainvillea. (This is actually a possibility! A colleague of mine is a script writer and mentioned that it would make a good movie.)
10. The book you plan to read next: I just started Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver. Then I’ll probably read The Old Way: A Story of the First People, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, or Cristina García’s new novel, King of Cuba.
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Thanks, Cinda! Though I’ve never been to Colombia, I find myself enamoured of the idea of finding a place for myself in a cloud forest. It’s actually an apt metaphor for how many of us “displaced” types live: with our heads in the clouds, pretending we are somewhere else half the time.
Readers, how about you? Is your head in the cloud (forest) after listening to Cinda? BTW, if you’re as new to Colombian cloud forests as I am, I suggest that you check out Cinda’s Pinterest boards. You can also get to know her better by visiting her author site and blog, and liking her Facebook page.
And don’t forget to comment on this post! Extra points, as always, if you’re a Displaced Dispatch subscriber!
The winner will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch on November 2, 2013.
NOTE: If you can’t wait to read the book, you can always get a softcover copy here and the e-book version in various formats on Smashwords or Amazon.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, when monthly columnist JJ Marsh talks “location, locution” with best-selling Brazilian author Paulo Coelho.
If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!
Images (left to right): Valle de Cocora in Columbia, with wax palms towering over the cloud forest, courtesy McKay Savage on Flickr (Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0); Cinda MacKinnon as a child in Colombia; Cinda MacKinnon now (she lives in northern California); and Cinda with her husband in front of Monserrate, a mountain that dominates the city center of Bogotá, Colombia, taken just this past summer.