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.
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.
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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.
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…)
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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