Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her monthly column about Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields, Lisa herself being a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about being a TCK, which will be the closing keynote at this month’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference, “The Global Family.”
Today I’m excited to introduce Heidi Durrow, the author of the New York Times best-selling novel The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (Algonquin Books), which received writer Barbara Kingsolver’s 2008 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Heidi grew up in Turkey, the USA, and Germany. She and I first met at the Mixed Roots Literary & Film Festival that Heidi co-founded, which celebrates storytelling of the Mixed racial and cultural experience.
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Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Heidi. As the TCK child of an American Air Force dad and a Danish mom, you’ve lived in North Carolina, Turkey, Washington state, and Germany. Can you tell us a little more about the chronology of the moves?
I was born in Seattle and moved to Turkey at the age of six months. The next years until I was 11, I was in North Carolina and Germany, with summers and holidays in Denmark. Since college, which was at Stanford, I have lived in NYC for grad school, Connecticut for law school, and now I split my time between the East and West Coasts.
Do you remember being happier in one place in particular?
I was pretty happy in all the places where I grew up—I was still very young. I never felt out of place or unwelcome.
Repatriations can be the hardest moves of all for TCKs, and repeated repatriation can be particularly tough, so I’m curious to know if this was true for you whenever you returned to the United States.
I had never thought of the moves as “repatriations” but that’s interesting. I think when I was very young I wasn’t aware of a lot of difficulties. But when we finally moved back to the States when I was 11, it was very difficult. I was at an age of awareness. I felt more like an immigrant. It was so interesting to me that I had an idea of what America was when I lived overseas, and I learned quickly that America didn’t operate the way I’d imagined it from far away.
“We family.”—African-American proverb
Tell us about your summers and holidays in Denmark with your mom’s family.
It was awesome for me—in particular because my mother raised us speaking Danish and English. I am forever grateful that I have both languages. It made me infinitely closer to my aunts and cousins, whom I adore. As an adult, it’s been interesting to see how Denmark is changing. I remember going back when I was in college. I hadn’t been in ten years. My cousins had Copenhagen boyfriends, and they’d laugh whenever I talked. It wasn’t because they didn’t understand what I was saying, but they found my country accent strange. I guess I sounded like someone from Birmingham, Alabama, visiting NYC. It’s English, but it sounds very different. For years after that visit, I have often wondered whether certain traditions or sayings I learned were in fact Danish or just my mom’s own quirks.
Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures? Or are you like many TCKs who are more likely to identify with people who have similar interests and perhaps similar cross-cultural backgrounds? (And of course it’s not a given that we’ll identify with them, either.)
I identify myself as an Afro-Viking—that is a small but growing demographic, by the way! In terms of who I am most likely to identify with—well, I think for many years in my adulthood I was very interested in finding other “mixed” friends. I wanted to know how they negotiated being multiracial and multicultural. I have found that I still have that affinity, but now I am more drawn to people who have the same career interests, who are moving on the same path at the same rate.
Studies have shown that TCKs have similar identity issues and struggles to children of mixed heritage. You and I are TCKs of mixed heritage, which makes our identities more layered than most, and makes for quite an identity struggle during adolescence. And sometimes there are shifts. I was culturally Guatemalan when I was very little, but that hasn’t been my main identity for decades.
I haven’t shed any of my identities—I feel like I’ve added on to them over time. I remember in college I was essentially “passing” as Latina. I lived in the Hispanic-theme dorm, took Spanish classes and became the second-vice-chair of the Latino Electrical Engineering Society. I liked the idea that in latino culture they had already thought about the idea of the mestizo. So I added that on to my identity. And then when I moved to NYC I found that people thought I was what they were. Bangladeshis thought I was Bangladeshi, Puerto Ricans thought I was Puerto Rican, Greeks thought I was Greek. I’m not any of those things, but I feel like the fact that people see me as part of their own tribes has added another layer to my identity: a layer of belonging.
“He hath need of his wits who wanders wide.”—Old Norse proverb
I can relate: I was very pleased to be mistaken for Turkish when my husband and I honeymooned in Turkey. As an adult TCK, do you ever suffer from “itchy feet,” which make you want to move (locations, jobs, etc.) frequently?
You got me. I actually live on two coasts—flying back and forth every few days. I fly more than 100,000 miles per year. I can’t stay still. The same has been true for my career: I’ve been a Hallmark greeting-card writer, a journalist, a lawyer, a life skills trainer to NFL and NBA players, a podcaster, a festival producer and now a writer. Who knows what’s next?!
I often wonder if ATCKs who pursue writing careers do so because the story is entirely in their hands as opposed to the experienced upheaval of their peripatetic childhoods. Meanwhile, a peripatetic childhood fosters so many incredible experiences and thus stories to tell! Did your TCK upbringing influence your desire to become a writer?
My TCK upbringing has been great fuel for my writing, but it’s not the reason I wanted to become a writer. I do remember having a special feeling about writing as a child because of my upbringing—I loved to write letters. I’d write letters to the friends I moved away from and to my family—they were always far away. I was the kid who would save money to buy stationary and stamps.
But isn’t it fair to say that your choice of topic for your debut novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, was influenced by your TCK upbringing and mixed-race heritage?
The story is autobiographical only insofar as it is about a biracial and bicultural girl growing up in the Northwest. I guess that is to say: the confusion of the character is a confusion I experienced. But the story—about a girl who survives a family tragedy—well, that was inspired by a real story I’d read in the news many years ago.
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky was fantastically well received. Did you learn something pivotal about yourself and your TCK upbringing in the process of writing it?
Oh gosh. I learned so much. I am still learning—in particular as the book reaches students in high school and college as required reading. I’m always so interested in the ways in which readers identify their own “displacement” with that of the main character, Rachel. I think the TCK experience is one of being an outsider in all places—and, strangely, that feeling is universal, familiar even to those who have grown up in one place their whole lives.
On your author site and your blog, Light-Skinned-ed Girl, as well as on your Mixed Experience Podcast, you mention that you’re working on a second novel. Can you tell us anything about it?
The new novel is still a work in progress. I’m on the verge of finishing a good complete draft at last! All I can say about it is that it’s about my obsessions again—about identity, and race and culture and grief; it’s about beauty and connectedness. Hopefully it’s something folks can relate to.
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Thank you, Heidi! I wish you all the best in your endeavors, and feel confident you’ll soon be repeating your amazing successes. I understand you’ve got the Mixed Remixed Festival coming up in mid-June here in LA, which will celebrate the stories of the Mixed experience through films and books—something Displaced Nationers would love to hear more about. Readers, please leave questions or comments for Heidi below.
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!
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