The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: In Shireen Jilla’s second novel, a group of old friends go on safari and unpack their lives

Booklust Wanderlust column for the Displaced Nation

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), is back with her latest recommended read.

Hello Displaced Nationers! Do I have a treat in store for you this month! Shireen Jilla, whose 2011 psychological thriller, Exiled, was previously featured on the Displaced Nation, is with us again. She has written a new novel, The Art of Unpacking Your Life, which came out in March, and has graciously agreed to answer my questions about her latest work.

Shireen Jilla author photo and book cover for her second novel, The Art of Unpacking Your Life

Shireen Jilla author photo, by Francesco Guidicini (from her author site); cover art.

The book made our list of anticipated “displaced reads” for 2015. For those not in the know, it tells the story of what happens when an Englishwoman named Connie decides to celebrate her 40th birthday by organizing a group of her old university friends and their partners to go on an African safari.

But if Connie is the main character, she is not the only point-of-view character. She functions as the heart of the group—but, as we soon learn, doesn’t seem to manage her own affairs very well. To quote one of my favorite lines from the book:

“Connie was brilliant at life’s details, particularly other people’s life details.”

We all know someone like that, don’t we?

Many authors stick to similar genres and even similar stories but in her two books, Jilla has explored very different places and themes. Where Exiled is a thriller akin to Rosemary’s Baby—it centers on Anna, a British expat leading a privileged life in New York—Unpacking is The Big Chill set in an exotic landscape. Anna may feel isolated within the bustle of the Big Apple, but Unpacking‘s characters are faced with the Kalahari Desert, the kind of place where one must unpack one’s life, finding strengths as well as weaknesses.

Both stories are informed by Jilla’s own travels. An adult TCK and former expat, she has lived in Paris, Rome, and New York as an adult; and in Germany, Holland and England as a kid. (She is now back “home” in London.) And as a traveler, she has experienced firsthand the dry, unusual beauty of the South African bush she describes in Unpacking.

But enough introduction! Time to give Shireen Jilla the floor.

* * *

Hi, Shireen, and welcome back to the Displaced Nation. When we discussed your previous novel, you told us about how the cityscape of New York lent itself to writing a thriller. What made you go from New York’s hustle bustle to the stark, sparse landscape you describe in The Art of Unpacking Your Life? Why the Kalahari?
I had the characters in my mind for a long time. I wanted to explore my generation’s surprisingly disparate lives: single, divorced, gay, with children, successful, jobless. I needed them to be away from home, from their daily lives, unnerved and unsure and therefore open to exploring their issues. I tried setting the book in Sardinia because I know it well. But it wasn’t remote or dramatic enough to force them to “unpack” their problems. When I stepped out of an eight-seater plane into the vast orange heat of the Green Kalahari, I knew I had found my setting.

“Everything in Africa bites—but the safari bug, worst of all.” —Brian Jackman

Tell us more about that moment. I understand from another of your interviews that you went to the Kalahari with your brother?
Yes. My brother generously took me on what can only be called a trip of a lifetime to a private reserve, Tswalu, in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, bang near the border of Botswana. I had never been to Africa before. So my own experience of this extraordinary trip coloured my story in Unpacking. I was surprisingly drawn to the Kalahari.

Connie and her friends started out in the same place—in a shared house at university—but when the book takes place, they’re all at different places in their lives and don’t appear to have much in common any more. One is a happy housewife, or so she thinks, another feels like success has passed her by both professionally and romantically, others want to start a family, while still others are recuperating from seeing their families crumble. Many books are written from the point of view of a single character, but you give us a glimpse into the thoughts of six multi-layered characters. Was it difficult to imagine how all these people would react to the same events—how they would react to travel?
Thank you for asking this question. It touches the heart of the novel. I wanted to tell this story from the point of view of each of the main six characters because I am fascinated by how differently people read, and react to, the same events. I was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which roams from character to character, from paragraph to paragraph. That said, I wasn’t keen to jump around that much, so each chapter in Unpacking is told from a different character’s point of view. I loved writing the same scene from different points of view. It gave me a great sense of freedom.

“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno…” —Beryl Markham

Many of our readers are international creatives, so I’m asking this with them in mind: how do you capture inspiration while you travel? 

“Instead they snapped away, looking up periodically from their cameras, as if undecided whether photo memories or physical ones were more powerful.”

This line in Unpacking reflects my own feelings. While in Africa, I kept a detailed diary and took hundreds of photos, a selection of which are on my author’s site. Having started life as a journalist, I also bought books and talked extensively to the guides. I used all of this material for Unpacking, which I believe is faithful to the actual setting.

In the book, Connie and her group have a very dramatic encounter with one of the animals in the park and the friends’ various reactions reveal their state of mind. Did you have any big-animal encounters during your Africa adventure? 
Thankfully not! The scene was imagined.

Giraffe & Namibian sand Collage

A silent, self-contained Kalahari giraffe and blood orange sands make it into Shireen Jilla’s novel about a group of friends on an African safari. Photo credits: Male giraffe, by Charles Sharp, and Silhouettes in Sossusvlei, by Monica Guy, both via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

“The more I traveled, the more I realized, fear makes strangers of people who should be friends.” —Shirley MacLaine

As I mentioned in the introduction, you grew up a Third Culture Kid and you’ve also been an expat. Is there anything from your experiences living abroad as a child and an adult that worked its way into this book?
From own experience, I am acutely interested in how people react to being outside their comfort zone. Living or traveling abroad is a very visceral way of exploring this theme. With Unpacking, I wanted to place a group of close friends, who haven’t traveled extensively, into a remote, unnerving location. For me, it gives the novel its heartbeat.

I’m an Adult Third-Culture Kid, too (and an expat currently), and one of the things that I found remarkable in this book is the close cohesion of a group of people who met at an early stage of their adult lives—not always something we TCKs can find! I’m curious. Do you have a group of friends like Connie’s?
Actually, I have a varied and disparate group of old friends from many places and stages in my life. What I drew on in Unpacking is the notion that one can still feel intensely loyal to old friends, despite growing in different directions. But no, I’ve never planned a big trip with old friends as Connie does.

I noticed that within the group of friends you’ve created, there are two cross-cultural relationships. I enjoyed watching the conflicts from their opposing cultures arise in their relationships. Was this something you set out to capture from the beginning?
This is an interesting question. I haven’t consciously created two cross-cultural relationships. But I am clearly fascinated by and drawn to them. I loved writing both relationships, particularly exploring the cultural misunderstandings between the English friends and New Yorker Katherine.

“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” —Seneca

So far you’ve given us two great books based on interesting locations—New York and South Africa. What’s next? Will you follow up with Connie and her friends in another novel? Take your readers on a new adventure somewhere else?
I’m normally adverse to sequels, but I would actually love to write another novel based on the same characters. I’m not ready to let any of them go. I am deeply attached to them all. And I would also enjoy the challenge of another new setting abroad. It’s like moving country. Always exciting.

Lastly, my favorite question for everyone—what are you reading at the moment? Any suggestions for good books that might appeal to the Displaced Nation audience?
I am currently reading New York writer Hilary Reyl’s Lessons in French. The novel is an absorbing coming-of-age story about an American girl who does work experience with a demanding photographer in Paris. It’s an evocative, lyrical read for all expats. Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, is another addictive page turner that lights up a poor working class community in fifties Naples.

Thanks, Shireen, I’ll check those out! And readers, if you’re selecting books for your summer reading list, I suggest you pack Unpacking in your beach bag! Or on your Kindle, more likely…🙂

Beach bag via Pixabay.

Don’t go to the beach without Shireen’s book and at least one of her recommended reads! Beach bag via Pixabay; book cover art.

* * *

And now Displaced Nationers, it’s your turn to answer some questions. And have you ever tried traveling with friends? Did you pick up any insights about them and/or about yourself? Do let us know in the comments!

Beth Green is an American writer and English teacher living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes, and she is about to launch a new site called Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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Photo credit (top of page): “Notebook in hand,” by Oleh Slobodeniuk via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

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