Maya Evans (own photo)
Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her column featuring interviews with 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, called Alien Citizen, which premiered nearly two years ago and is still going strong. In fact, she is now raising funds to take the production to Valencia, Spain, and Capetown, South Africa, later this year.
Greetings, readers. Today’s interviewee is Maya Evans, a poet and writer, transition facilitator, international education consultant, and translator based in Boston, Massachusetts. She is also my fellow ATCK author in the anthology Writing Out of Limbo, in which her poem “Le Français” appears. Currently, she is working on a memoir about her extraordinary life, which took her from the Middle East to Europe to South America and finally to her current home of the United States.
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Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Maya. I understand that you were born to a Francophone Jewish Egyptian-Hungarian family in Alexandria, Egypt, and that you grew up there and in Caracas, Venezuela. Please tell us why your family moved.
My family moved from Alexandria, Egypt, in 1958 after what history termed the Suez Crisis, which is to say the nationalization of the Suez Canal. Built by the French in 1869, and jointly controlled by the British and French until 1956, the Canal was of strategic importance to Western powers. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser‘s actions to nationalize it provoked a brief war—a lot like the wars carried out presently in the Middle East. Nasser wanted to end Egypt’s colonization. We left because Jews were no longer welcome in Egypt. The revolutionary government confiscated Jewish properties and bank accounts, even expelling some Jewish people holding French or British passports. My father was demoted, the bank where he worked was taken over by the authorities, and clearly his career was finished. His brothers, sisters, and their families mostly went to Brazil, although some ended up in France, but none in Hungary, where they’d come from originally. (At the time, Hungary was occupied by the Soviet Union.) When we left, I was 12-and-a-half—and still have vivid memories.
Did your mother’s family leave as well?
My mother’s family, rooted in the area for generations, did not leave. My grandmother refused to leave her house. My uncles and one of my mother’s sisters, who were very close, all stayed, not daring to contradict their mother.
Where did your family end up going?
For a brief time we lived in Paris, scattered among relatives. We also stayed in Genoa, Italy, for a couple of months waiting for my father to clear his affairs and obtain a visa for emigrating to Venezuela. We were “stateless” at the time, having left Egypt with a travel document valid for one trip with no return. My father had managed to “transfer” money out of Egypt to Switzerland, which was needed to buy our passages to South America. This is a story on its own, one I’m attempting to describe in my memoir.
Achieving happiness in the midst of displacement
I find your story moving as it’s about exile, not the usual voluntary migration for TCK families (voluntary for the parents at least). Still, your moves from North Africa to Europe to the Americas is very relatable for this ATCK. Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time?
I can recall the exact time when I realized I was truly happy. It was at Brenau College (now Brenau University), in Gainesville, Georgia. It took one year to convince my father to allow me to go to college in the U.S. He thought that a girl had to stay home and go to the university nearest to where her family lives which in my case would have been the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), a 15-minute ride from our home in Caracas. The problem was that the Venezuelan government did not recognize my high school degree from Colegio Internacional de Caracas (CIC)—the school is only accredited in the United States. Besides, my Spanish was not at a high enough level for the entrance exam. A solution would be to transfer to the UCV from an accredited school in the U.S., after a year of university-level courses. Reluctantly, my father agreed as long as I went to a “girls only” school, properly chaperoned during my trip to the States. I was fortunate enough to meet a trustee of Brenau College at a tea sponsored by the American Association of University Women. She traveled with me from Caracas to Atlanta, and drove me to her college. For a variety of reasons, among them the lack of money, neither my father nor mother could have made the trip at that time.
What was it like being in a small southern town after living in Caracas?
At Brenau, I was one of a handful of international students. Besides Venezuela, there were also girls from Norway and Taiwan. Luckily, two Hungarian sisters from Venezuela, in their third and last year of college respectively, took me under their wing. Both were intelligent and poised, which made me a “cool girl” by association. Suddenly, there was no need to explain why French was my native language but I wasn’t French, etc. It was easy to say: “I am from Venezuela.” Period. I had a distinct identity, foreign but also exotic. It was also wonderful to be far from the dramas of home. I had postponed the moment of reckoning, which would occur upon my return to Venezuela, when I would find out what it would be like to be a university student in Caracas who had attended an American high school full of students with tenuous ties to the country.
From studying at Brenau in Georgia to getting a degree at Universidad Central Caracas Venezuela to working at Harvard…
Eventually, though, you moved back to the United States. Why was that?
I was just starting to feel Caraqueña (from Caracas)—finding my bearings as a journalism student at the UCV by night and as a bilingual assistant in an export company by day, enjoying 80-degree Fahrenheit weather year-round, living in a beautiful apartment facing the mountain—when I met my husband, an American. (We met in Caracas.) We moved to the States in the early 1970s. His job moved us to Boston; then to Stanford, Connecticut, where our first child was born; and then back to Boston.
Allow me to bridge cultures, people and dreams…
At what point did you start your career…or careers I should say, as I know you’ve had more than one.
After the birth of my second child, I was determined to find a job that would link me to the Latino community, or better yet, send me on frequent trips to Latin America. I found that job at Harvard, in a department facilitating studies in the United States for professors and business executives from Latin America. I traveled all over Latin America, and in the mid-90s, was assigned to a project in Venezuela sponsored by Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) to train a cadre of executives for studies in the United States. I left Harvard shortly after and worked directly as a consultant for PDVSA. I also trained as an interpreter, working for the Massachusetts courts, and taught Spanish at the University of Massachusetts.
Consultant, trainer, interpreter, teacher: your careers seem to have been influenced by your peripatetic upbringing…
True. I would slide in and out of professions just as I slid in and out of countries, and adjust like the chameleon I’d become. I was always being uprooted but then would find ways to adapt. This in turn led me to my life’s “calling”: to facilitate transitions for others. Whether working with foreign students at American universities, or with international researchers trying to find the right department to pursue their research, or with companies wanting to train their personnel to live somewhere else, I would bridge cultures and languages in an effort to help others ease into their new surroundings.
Who am I? Where am I from?
Have you found that “your people” tend to be Adult TCKs or other cross-cultural people?
Undoubtedly, I feel comfortable with other Adult TCKs as well as multicultural people. I am actually uncomfortable with monocultural, monolingual people, regardless of their education level or accomplishments. I find that I have little in common with them, or that I have to “explain” myself again—and at a certain stage in life, it gets tiresome. I also feel a kinship with artists and people who are a bit out of the mainstream. Like Adult TCKs, they tend to look at the world from the outside. For the longest time, I felt outside, looking in. Even now, that feeling hasn’t left me completely.
Not only for your sake but for the rest of us ATCKs, I’m happy you are now working on your memoir, a few parts of which I was privileged to hear you read. What inspired you to start writing it, and how far along are you in the process?
Thank you for your kind words. It’s been a long and tortuous road. For the longest time, from my days as a journalism student, I wanted to tell stories. Stories I heard around the world, and stories of my relatives who happen to be an eclectic bunch of multinational people. But I am always escaping into work, travel, poetry writing, whatever other excuse I can find. Now I’ve decided to work less and, while I still can conjure the memories, dedicate more time to writing what I like to call a “romanticized memoir,” with characters loosely built on the stories I heard about Egypt and on the memories I have of the places where we lived. I am still at the beginning of the process, and need to speed it up, lest it get buried alongside other writings.
Attempting to “capture all the voices in my head without sounding schizophrenic”
On top of all of this, you are a published poet. Is there a particular poem of yours that expresses your feelings of transience or loneliness or instability—or freedom or curiosity or love of travel—that you are most proud of? If so, could you share it with us?
Two years ago, a poem of mine I like the best, “Voz Ajena” (“Alien Voice”), was published in Spanish in the New England Translators Association’s newsletter. Although I translate other people’s work, I cannot translate my own. I don’t hear it in any other language but Spanish. In that poem, I attempted to capture all the “voices” in my head without sounding schizophrenic. To me, it is interesting to note that I can do this only in Spanish, which was the third language I acquired, after which it became my “go to” language. Even though French is rooted in me, Spanish carries Latin America with its music and colors, which trumps all others! I’ll give you that poem, but for those who don’t read Spanish, I’ll first give you a poem I wrote in English:
Notebook with a Missing Language
Only English is missing
in these familiar lines
that stretch quietly on a
tidy little notebook
filled in French with spatters of Spanish;
scents of places and of people long gone
leaving behind tender thoughts,
silent melodies, objects of desire,
histories of exiles and commencements
of lenities and humiliations,
of successes and exonerations;
tales of lost places, warm embraces,
mute voices, empty houses,
doors shut on bygone worlds.
The last line of “Notebook with a Missing Language,” a poem by Maya Evans
And now for those who read Spanish:
Le preguntó un día por su acento opaco,
esa manera que tiene ella
de tropezar con las erres,
saltar continentes al azar,
atar letras sin más sabor
en un ritmo extraño, ritmo de blanco.
Son recuerdos de otras voces,
las vivencias de mi memoria
de crêpe georgette y chantilly,
dijo ella con voz de seda, voz de sirena.
Yo no sabía de los fantasmas que te habitan,
No sabía de Egipto, España,
Francia y Hungría,
No sabía que te comían noche y día,
ocultándote la luz, clamando por aire,
y todos con ese afán de ser.
Y más aún le dijo ella,
tocan tambores y hacen ruidos,
se contorsionan en las tinieblas
por estallar en mil estrellas,
dejar arañas y demás vainas,
ser lentejuelas, champaña fino, jamón ibérico,
Ravel de fuego, Maria Callas reencarnada,
vistiendo toga, comiendo astros, tragando mundos.
Boston, 19 de abril de 2010
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It’s been a pleasure, Maya, hearing about your many professional accomplishments and “romanticized memoir” in progress. And thank you so much for sharing two of your poems! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Maya below.
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!
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