The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

TCK TALENT: Gene Bell-Villada, literary critic, Latin Americanist, novelist, translator and TCK memoirist

Gene B-V TCK Talent

Professor Gene Bell-Villada (own photo)

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is here with her first column of 2015. For those who haven’t been following: she is building up quite a collection of stories about Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields. Lisa herself is a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about growing up as a TCK, which is receiving rave reviews wherever it goes.

—ML Awanohara

Happy New Year, readers! Today I’m honored to be interviewing Gene Bell-Villada, author of the Third Culture Kid memoir Overseas American: Growing Up Gringo in the Tropics and co-editor of my first published essay in the TCK/global-nomad anthology: Writing Out of Limbo. Gene grew up in Latin America and “repatriated” to the USA for college and beyond; he is a Professor of Romance Languages (Spanish), Latin American Literature, and Modernism at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He is also a published writer of fiction and nonfiction.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Gene. Like me, you’re an Adult Third Culture Kid of mixed heritage. Since you were born in Haiti and grew up in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Venezuela as the son of an Asian-Polynesian mother from Hawaii and a WASP father from Kansas, your identity development was complex and nuanced, as you make clear in your memoir.  Can you tell us how you identify yourself these days?
Like the title of my memoir, I identify myself as an Overseas American, of mixed WASP and Chinese-Filipino-Hawaiian ethnicity, with a Caribbean-Hispanic upbringing. I wrote my memoir in great measure to disentangle and explain that background—for myself and others! More broadly, in my middle 20s, it dawned on me that, by default, I happened to be a cosmopolitan, and that I couldn’t feel “local” even if I wished to. And so, I set out to make the best of that cosmopolitanism and build on it.

OverseasAmerican_cover

Tell us two things you miss about each of your childhood countries.
From my three childhood countries, I miss mostly the Latin informality and warmth…and salsa dancing! From Puerto Rico, I’ve fond memories of the University campus that was next door to my first home in Río Piedras, and where my mother would take us for walks. From Cuba I miss the richness of the music and folk culture. About Caracas, 3,000 feet above sea level, I remember its mild climate and “eternal spring.”

“Puerto Ricans do a lot of hugging, Dickie reflected. His parents and relatives almost never did.”

Your TCK childhood had extra upheaval due to your parents’ divorce and your two years at a military school in Cuba while your parents each lived in other countries. I imagine that affected your feelings about where you lived.
I must admit, I don’t “miss” most of what I lived in my 17 years in the Spanish Caribbean. I had a very difficult childhood, in which I never really “belonged” to any of those countries, had little contact with the expat community, and was leading a painful, dysfunctional family life. Since my brother and I were put away in a military school in Cuba, it’s not a place that I would “miss.” The circumstances of my upbringing have made childhood nostalgia an elusive sentiment for me.

After a young adulthood in New Mexico (briefly), Arizona, California, Massachusetts, and New York—and some trips to Europe—you settled in Williamstown, MA.  When did you come to feel that it was home, inasmuch as any place can be for an ATCK?
My wife and I actually have had homes in two locations in Massachusetts: Williamstown and Cambridge. So we lived both in the city, where we had our home life, and the country, where I taught. And I guess I realized sometime in the 1970s that New England had become my home. The place had enough cultural density, layered history, and overall cosmopolitanism for me to feel at ease in those parts. (I’d also earned my Ph.D at Harvard.) I even turned down a job offer from UCLA in 1976 because by then I felt attached enough to Massachusetts to stay there. Plus, I didn’t look forward to living in my car on the LA freeways, or putting up with Los Angeles pollution, which was fairly serious back then!

“‘Ah, but you speak such good Spanish…'”

Have you returned to any of the Latin American countries in which you grew up? 
I’ve been back to Puerto Rico and to Venezuela, always experiencing those mixed feelings. When I visited my old neighborhood in Hato Rey, PR, in 2012, I found it largely changed. Moreover, during a previous visit to San Juan in 1985, I went for a stroll at the University grounds. At the sight of the palm trees at the entrance and the tower looming above it all, I fell to the ground, crying. It was a reminder that much of my youth there, when I’d believed that I was an “American” boy in the tropics, had been illusory.

As for Cuba, I could only go back under very specific conditions—not because of the regime, which I’m not against, but owing to my painful personal memories of the place. I worry that seeing certain streets and buildings might elicit a wrenching sadness in me.

Since you’re a professor of Latin American literature and have written about the heavyweights in the field, I presume you’ve also visited quite a few countries in the region at this point. What were your impressions?
Inasmuch as I’ve written books and articles about Borges, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and Mexican literature, I’ve been more than once to Argentina, Colombia, Perú, and Mexico. Going to and traveling in those countries brought insight into their literary works that one cannot get simply from reading them in one’s study. On the other hand, my Latin American and Caribbean background proved enormously helpful in accessing the culture and the society of those places. Indeed, García Márquez’s world is the Caribbean coast of Colombia; exploring that area in 1982 and 1988 was a lot like being back in San Juan and Havana! Writing about it was fun, a bit like a return to my childhood, without the pain.

“She was from New York. Didn’t people from New York listen to classical music?”

Although you have always had a passion for classical and Latin music, you ultimately found ways to express yourself through writing fiction and nonfiction. Does music still play a big role in your life? 
Music is my first love. If I hadn’t had a late start at the piano (a fact that unfortunately set me back several years), I might have stayed with it. I turned to literature, in some measure, because it didn’t require advanced hand-muscle skills! But once I got involved with the written word, I strived to make my prose style as artistic, expressive, and fun as music can be, and I worked to give it rhythm and melody. (Someone has remarked that I write like a musician.) I still play piano, though.

Is there a particular work that you are most proud of having written, and if so, why?
I feel equally attached to all of them! Each one has had its role in my life. My books on Borges and García Márquez (which have sold well and gone through second editions) are used in AP courses, and are consulted by general readers, here and abroad. From early on, I had set out to be a “cultural mediator” between Latin American literature and U.S. readers, and those volumes serve that purpose.

My book Art for Art’s Sake and Literary Life, on the other hand, grew out of my cosmopolitanism and my desire to deal with the uses of art as both escape and expression. (In some subliminal way, it’s autobiographical.) The volume covers the phenomenon of aestheticism in Europe, the U.S., and Latin America. I felt vindicated when the thing was a finalist for the 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award (there I was, sharing space with Cynthia Ozick and William H. Gass). It also got translated into Serbian and Chinese! When I asked my two translators just what had drawn them to the book, they both replied that what I’d said about Latin American aestheticism was also applicable to analogous 19th-century movements in Serbia and Taiwan. So my cosmopolitanism had shed light on some corners elsewhere in this world.

My two books of fiction focus in part on TCK issues, plus such cultural-specific matters as American relativism or the seductive influence of Ayn Rand.

But I finally turned to memoir because I felt it was the way to confront head-on the question of my crazy, mixed-up background, to make sense out of it all and give it a living shape. The process of remembering that past, and crafting it and getting it out there, has proved enormously therapeutic. It also led to my meeting Nina Sichel and, then, you, Lisa, via our essay collection, Writing Out Of Limbo!

My latest volume is a kind of experiment, starting with its very title: On Nabokov, Ayn Rand and the Libertarian Mind: What the Russian-American Odd Pair Can Tell Us about Some Values, Myths and Manias Widely Held Most Dear. Besides dissecting the two authors, I tease out my troubled relationship to them, delve once again into my own life history, and finally move on to the larger problem of a rising, spreading libertarianism in this country. There’s even an Appendix in which I throw in a number of spoofs of my own of hard-line libertarians! (I’ve been playing with satires of something or other ever since I was in middle school in Puerto Rico…)
on-nabokov-ayn-rand-and-the-libertarian-mind_cover

You’re a true international creative, with works that run the entire gamut! Tell us, what’s next? Fiction? Nonfiction? Something else?
I have stuff in the works, but am in the process of rethinking my projects in the wake of my wife’s death in 2013. (Widowerhood does things to your mind and spirit, alas.)

Where can people find your works?
All my books are available from Amazon and local bookstores, as well as from any good library!

Thank you, Gene, for sharing your wonderfully inspiring story with the Displaced Nation. So, readers, any questions or comments for Gene? Be sure to leave them in the comments!

Editor’s note: All subheadings are taken from Gene’s book The Pianist Who Liked Ayn Rand: A Novella & 13 Stories.

STAY TUNED for our next fab post.

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21 responses to “TCK TALENT: Gene Bell-Villada, literary critic, Latin Americanist, novelist, translator and TCK memoirist

  1. Pingback: Mixed Race Studies » Scholarly Perspectives on Mixed-Race » TCK TALENT: Gene Bell-Villada, literary critic, Latin Americanist, novelist, translator and TCK memoirist

  2. cindamackinnon January 25, 2015 at 12:18 am

    Prof Bell-Villada…Gene – You are not alone.I wonder why so many expat parents seem to have been negligent or aloof to their offspring. Or am I just hearing from the ones who are not from happy little families?

  3. cindamackinnon January 25, 2015 at 12:19 am

    There are two lines above that caught my attention… and perhaps captures your personality. The first is “Someone has remarked that I write like a musician.” I love that – even if I am not sure what they meant; but to write musically sounds beautiful… to savor the sound of each word and phrase). The second is “I had set out to be a “cultural mediator” between Latin American literature and U.S readers.” That alone makes me want to read more.

    • Gene H. Bell-Villada January 26, 2015 at 11:31 pm

      DEar Cinda,

      Many thanks for your two very heart-warming comments. Re. your first message: I’ve read in the TCK literature that, if anything, expatriate families tend to stick together more precisely because they lack any organic ties to the surrounding culture. Dysfunctional families abroad seem to be more the exception than the rule. At least that’s what the experts say! Of course, it’s the unhappy ones who choose to write books about their experience. Those who have had a happy, predictable, linear sort of life don’t have any conflicts to evoke and make sense out of. Hope you find OVERSEAS AMERICAN a good read, and not too depressing…

    • Gene H. Bell-Villada January 26, 2015 at 11:34 pm

      P.S. Cinda, where did you grow up? Not clear from your comments.

  4. Rita M. Gardner January 25, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    I’m so glad to have read this interview! Prof. Bell-Villada – your story uncannily echoes mine; I grew up in Dominican Republic in the 1950s-60s – also in a dysfunctional family, also confused about where I fit, etc etc! I will get your book to read…I see that Cinda MacKinnon also commented on this post; she and I met each other through The Displaced Nation, found out we are practically neighbors here in California, and both have written books set in Latin America. My memoir is “The Coconut Latitudes: Secrets, Storms and Survival in the Caribbean.” (about my gringo parent’s decision to abandon a “normal” US life and go off the grid (go native, basically) and grow coconuts. I’ve visited Puerto Rico and Cuba; I can truly relate to your emotional response in PR; I’m looking forward to more info when I read your book!

    • Gene H. Bell-Villada January 26, 2015 at 11:26 pm

      Dear Ms. Gardner, How delightful to receive your comment. It made my day. I looked up your book on Amazon, and, yes, I too found uncanny parallels with my own life. I’m amazed also that your parents chose to move to the DR at the height of the “Trujillato.” (Have you read Vargas Llosa’s and Junot Díaz’s novels about that era?) My teaching duties are about to begin, so my reading for fun will be put on hold for a while. But I’ll put in an order for your book soon!

      • Rita M. Gardner January 27, 2015 at 12:36 pm

        Gene – thanks for your note! Oh yes, I’ve read Junot Diaz’s books, and Julia Alvarez’s, and “The Feast of the Goat”. and anything else I can get my hands on re: DR..indeed we were there in the fullness of the “Trujillato” – not all is explainable – especially since I was a child and couldn’t really understand the “why” of my parents electing that life – other than (to be fair) we were way far away from the tumult, and on a most beautiful stretch of beach, so it was a paradise in many ways when you didn’t focus on the “hell of it all”!.

  5. Gene H. Bell-Villada January 26, 2015 at 11:33 pm

    Am slightly confused: The site announced “4 Comments,” but I can only find three of them–2 by Cinda McKinnon and 1 by Rita Gardner. Is this a glitch, or am I missing out on something?

  6. Lisa January 27, 2015 at 12:28 am

    Cinda and Rita, thank you for your comments! Cinda, I think there are many expat parents who are great parents on the whole (mine were far better than a lot of my classmates’, both nomadic and stationary), but the thing that many parents don’t consider is how the nomadic lifestyle adds more stress to the entire family’s lives, including the kids’, even though the kids aren’t dealing with the logistical nightmare of hiring the moving co, reserving the flights, finding the new apartment/house, figuring out where the gas stations and grocery stores and hospitals are, etc. I think many parents, nomadic or stationary, believe “kids bounce”–as long as the kids have the structure of school and don’t become addicts or hoodlums, “everything’s fine.”
    In Gene’s case, the family dynamic was much worse than what I’m describing, of course.
    Hopefully we’ll hear/read/see more stories about TCK childhoods in which the family dynamic is healthy, but I wonder if those folks don’t feel the need to express themselves as much?

    • Rita M. Gardner January 27, 2015 at 12:38 pm

      Lisa, I think your comment about “functional” families perhaps not needing to express themselves as much. But of course there are the delightful memoirs that do – I’m thinking of Frances Mayes’ stories about France, and others. But certainly many of us write to find the sense of our messy lives! Or to “find home” again – whether an emotional home or a real one…

      • Lisa January 27, 2015 at 8:54 pm

        Yes, agreed, and I want to read Frances Mayes…after I get through the stacks of unread books in my living room.🙂

      • Gene H. Bell-Villada January 29, 2015 at 3:56 pm

        Rita, I’ve put in an order for PINEAPPLE LATITUDES at the Williams College library. (I purchase very few books for myself these days; at my age, I’m more in the process of donating or selling them. Have to think of the future, as they say…)

      • Gene H. Bell-Villada January 29, 2015 at 3:59 pm

        Rita, Forgot to mention: there’s a fairly good scholarly book, “GOD AND TRUJILLO,” by Ignacio López-Calvo, that examines several dozen novels dealing with the Trujillato. (The author is a friend of mine; I wrote the Foreword.) But I mention the study because it might give you a panoramic look at that literature.

  7. Rita M. Gardner January 30, 2015 at 12:29 pm

    Thank you so much for mentioning the God and Trujillo book; I will get it! I don’t know if you knew of Alastair Reid, he was a translator of many Latin American authors (Neruda, Borges, etc.) and I had the pleasure to meet him in the D.R. (where for years he spent winters in a little 3-sided shack on a mountain side with a pile of books to work on and crashing surf below. He introduced me to some early books on the era: “Trujillo: The Life and Times of a Caribbean Dictator”, and “Trujillo: The Little Caeser of the Caribbean” – and others written in the 1960s. Reading them gave me a perspective on my own past I’d never had before. Alastair was an enthusiastic champion for my memoir and provided an endorsement. Sadly, he passed away late last year. An amazing gentleman.

    • Gene H. Bell-Villada January 30, 2015 at 12:41 pm

      Dear Rita. Yes, I used to read Alastair’s fine essays and translations in THE NEW YORKER (he was their in-house expert on the Hispanic world), and he even gave me advice by letter when I was seeking a publisher for my first book, on Borges. I was aware that he’d lived in the D.R., so it’s an amazing bit of synchronicity that you actually knew him there! Glad to know that he endorsed your memoir. I had read Crassweller and other such books in the past, when I was getting ready to write on Gabo’s AUTUMN OF THE PATRIARCH and, later, on MVL’s THE FEAST OF THE GOAT. The stories about TRujillo’s inhumanity and his sexual obsessions seem stranger than fiction…

      • Rita M. Gardner January 30, 2015 at 2:51 pm

        So wonderful you had connections to Alastair. I share here an essay I wrote about him and how he influenced my decision to write about my life:
        http://www.ritamgardner.com/blog/perilous-footing-on-the-path-home/
        I hope you enjoy it!
        Regards,
        Rita

        • Gene H. Bell-Villada January 31, 2015 at 12:52 am

          Rita: That is a powerful story! It must have been a shock to you to find out so late in life about the brutality and sadism of the regime that you had been raised under! (What must your parents have been thinking?)

          The contrast between the peace and tranquillity of Samaná Bay and the horrors of the Trujillato must have been dramatic. I don’t know the Ornes book; was it written in Spanish originally? Also, when you were being home schooled, how much contact did you have with the local people? I’ll find out when I eventually read your memoir.

          • Rita M. Gardner February 1, 2015 at 10:37 pm

            Gene – thanks; appreciate the interest in my story, and yes, a lot will be answered in the book. I’m happy to answer your questions, but would rather do this via email if that’s Ok with you. My email is rita@ritamgardner.com. Thanks!
            As to much contact I had with the local people – oh my goodness; they were a huge part of my early life; my friends, my entire world beyond the family of 4 Americans. They were the bright parts of my childhood; I’m still friends today with several of my Dominican chums; some live in US, some in DR. In 2013 I went back to DR for one of my local friend’s mother’s 100th birthday. It was wonderful and several of us who grew up together in the fishing village of Miches went “home” to reconnect to our past.

      • Rita M. Gardner February 6, 2015 at 8:56 pm

        Hello again – I just wanted to let you know that I got my copy of “God and Trujillo” and read your excellent foreword. Since I’ve read both The Feast of the Goat and pretty much all of Julia Alvarez’s books, I know this will be an interesting (and sadly enlightening) read. Reading it from the lens of today (rather than my experiences of that era), there is no way to shield oneself from the realities of Trujillo’s reign. Thank you again for referring me to the book. Also, I’d be delighted to send you a signed copy of The Coconut Latitudes, if you wish – I’d just need your mailing address. As I noted in an earlier email, my email is rita@ritamgardner.com, and we can continue this correspondence more easily that way.
        Sincerely, Rita

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