Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang starts off 2016 with a guest who has been to the Displaced Nation before, albeit in different guises: as Alice, as film critic, as featured novelist, as repatriate…though never as a TCK Talent.
Happy 2016, readers! I hope your January has been splendid thus far. Today’s interviewee is writer, editor, tattoo collector, and Huffington Post contributor Sezín Koehler, who also calls herself Zuzu (a nickname she picked up when living in Prague). Sezín may already be familiar to some Displaced Nation readers as an early contributor, including a two-part series listing films that depict the horrors of being abroad, or otherwise displaced; a much-commented upon post called “The Accidental Repatriate”; and an Alice-in-Wonderland-themed post on her life in Prague (that was after she had received one of the Displaced Nation’s very first “Alice” awards).
But what some of you may not know is that Sezín is a Third Culture Kid. She was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to a Sri Lankan dad and Lithuanian-American mom. Her mom’s job with UNICEF moved the family from Sri Lanka to Zambia, Thailand, Pakistan, and India.
Sezín went to college in California—and then returned to her family, who were living in Switzerland and then in France (the move again being due to her mom’s job).
Next Sezín moved alone to Spain, where she met her husband, who is American. After living as expats in Turkey, Czech Republic, and Germany, the couple now call Lighthouse Point, Florida, home.
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Welcome, Sezín. What a truly peripatetic life you’ve had! What made you decide to “repatriate” to the USA and come to Lighthouse Point?
This area is where my husband grew up and has family, although his family moved further north just this year. Economics and a series of unfortunate events are what brought me back to the US—my husband and I returned with literally 15 euros between us.
Sounds like a tough reentry. While living as a nomad can also be tough, were you happiest in a certain place?
That’s a surprisingly difficult question! There was a lot of conflict in my family when I was growing up because of the tension between my American mum and conservative Sri Lankan dad—and all the cultural, social, etc., issues that come with having a multicultural and multiracial family before that became something of the norm. Plus, moving all the time was not a lifestyle that worked for me, and it created uncomfortable cycles of depression that were then compounded by having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after witnessing the murder of one of my best friends in our final year of university. The repatriation to Florida was one of the more miserable moves—especially since I had never planned to move back to the United States until they sort out more effective gun-control laws.
That sounds terribly painful. How have you coped since your return to the US?
My first two years back made me completely despondent, and then one day I just decided to make the best of the situation. It was time to choose happiness; otherwise I wasn’t going to survive. So now every day I wake up and I find something—big or small—to be happy about and I focus on that for the day. In that sense, and in a strange reversal, I suppose Florida is where I find myself happiest because this is where I learned that happiness isn’t something that happens to me passively because life is perfect. Happiness is a daily choice. And I actively make the choice to be happy however difficult my surroundings.
“That feeling of being an outsider never quite leaves you…”
Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures, including the very broad “TCK culture”?
You know, I think I identify with aspects of pretty much every culture under the sun—even ones where I didn’t actually live or visit. Being highly sensitive, coupled with having a TCK upbringing, has made it so I can identify with just about anyone who isn’t a bigot or misogynist, even if our backgrounds are nothing alike. I do find myself particularly drawn to other TCKs because, even if we didn’t live in the same places, there is something about the “universal” TCK personality that resonates with me, and it’s far easier to start on the same page rather than having to work hard to build bridges of understanding between myself and people who haven’t traveled or grown up abroad. I also find that many TCKs understand that just because growing up abroad sounds exciting, it might not have actually felt that way when we were getting yanked from place to place, leaving friends and family behind in those pre-social-media Dark Ages.
Did your TCK upbringing inform your career path as a writer?
To be honest, with all the moving around plus PTSD, it’s been hard to develop a career track other than writing. Being a writer means you take your passion with you wherever you go, and no matter where you are, there is always something new to write about. Writing has been my longest-standing support system and therapy through the variety of traumas that ended up shaping my life, and any day now I hope I’ll start being able to make a living doing it. 🙂
Did growing up as a TCK also influence your career as an editor?
As an editor I focus on academic writing by non-native English speakers, and having lived in so many places has definitely helped me understand all the different (incorrect) ways people use English and help them to get published in English-language publications where English fluency is a requirement.
“As a Third Culture Kid, I always related with monsters more than ‘norms.'”
Tell us about your tattoo collection. Any TCK connections there?
Other than my husband, tattoos are one of the great loves of my life. Tattoos for me have been a way to not just express myself creatively, but have also been a way to re-claim my own body after so many traumas. I have a hybrid identity that I often express in fantastical ways. Sometimes when people ask me where I’m from and I don’t feel like having an intimate conversation about my life I’ll say I’m a mermaid and I’m visiting from the ocean. I have a huge jellyfish on my right thigh and I say, “Meet my pet jelly.” Now that my hair is in a pixie cut, I might introduce myself as a fairy and since I actually have tattooed wings on my shoulders as well as often literally leaving a trail of glitter in my wake, I find it easier than getting into my TCK identity—especially when the person I’m talking to might have never left this corner of Florida.
So in a way, the tattoos serve as both explanation and protection.
For my entire life I’ve operated under an assumption of otherness—when I’m in the US people ask me where I’m from, and when I’m in Sri Lanka people ask me where I’m from. Being mixed race can be really complicated—and I get a lot of aggression from strangers who try to figure out “what” I am. In a way tattoos are a shield between me and curious eyes, as is much of my performance-of-the-fantastical-self art and being.
Have any of these careers/interests helped you to process your nomadic upbringing?
Writing, definitely! Writing has been my most effective and longest-standing therapeutic tool. Not just my non-fiction, but also my short stories and my novels have most certainly helped me situate my cultural self in lots of different ways that have been helpful and healing. As a writer I’m also an avid reader, and reading is another huge help in figuring out where my strange background and I fit in the grander scheme of culture and society.
“I revel in my boundaryless self…”
As an ATCK, do you have “itchy feet,” or would you prefer to have a home base and only travel for pleasure?
I have always hated moving and I might be the only TCK to say I have never had itchy feet. Ever since I was a little girl all I wanted was to stay in one place and even now at 36 I feel that way. But because of how I grew up moving around, I’ve also come to a point where everywhere seems pretty much the same—I always see the same kinds of people in disparate places, it’s weird—and yet nowhere ever feels like home. So now my concept of home has shifted and simply means being somewhere with people I love.
Moving is one thing, but how do you feel about traveling in general, including for pleasure?
After a lifetime spent on airplanes and traveling, I absolutely hate traveling now. I have crippling aerophobia, and if I’m forced to travel somewhere by plane, everything about the experience is miserable and I end up getting really ill before, during, and after. I find going to new places more stressful than enjoyable. My dream is one day to have a house with a beautiful view and some rescue dogs and never go anywhere ever again. Except through books, of course.
Speaking of books, you published your first novel, American Monsters, four years ago, and I understand the sequel has just come out!
Yes indeed! My second novel, Crime Rave, came out in October 2015, and I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of one of my creations in my life. Going back to your question about how being a TCK has shaped my writing, this book is a perfect example. The story itself defies genres—it has crime noir, supernatural, horror, and feminist themes just to name a few—and most of my characters are either mixed race or people of color who are not only TCKs themselves or ethno-cultural hybrids, but they’ve all gone through traumas that resulted in superpowers. If there was a label of Third Culture Fiction, my book would totally fit the bill.
The number of novels you have in progress, on top of what you’ve had published, is wildly impressive! Please tell us about them.
Thank you so much, Lisa. I’m currently working on my third, fourth, fifth, and potentially sixth novels—the third is a zombie tale set in Prague, the fourth will find recurring Crime Rave characters on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Lighthouse Terror will be a grindhouse horror novel set in a gated community in southeast Florida, and finally I’m toying with the idea of an entire novel about Marilyn Monroe.
Yes, I know you are a big Marilyn fan. I believe she makes an appearance in Crime Rave?
Yes, in Crime Rave she not only lives but has a daughter.
What else are you working on?
As a HuffPost freelancer I’m working on a number of pieces featuring interviews with some badass individuals—authors, activists, artists, scientists, and more. I’m also in the process of starting my own publishing label that will focus on works by women and other marginalized writers who create genre-bending works in which women play all the major roles.
You’re so prodigious!
The one benefit of being an accidental shut-in who works from home here in Lighthouse Point is that I have nothing but time to work on all the creative projects I want, which is another dream come true.
Where can we find your work and follow your progress?
At sezin.org, my HuffPost column, my American Monsters site, and sezinkoehler.com. I’ve also recently revamped my Etsy store, Zuzu Art, with its gallery of sparkly-strange multimedia Alice in Wonderland and Frida Kahlo-inspired pieces. I have a Tumblr cabinet of curiosities called Hybrid/Monster that I continue to update with oddities of the visual nature, and I am rather fond of my Instagram account, where I post pics of my own art, my performance art, and snapshots of life in the tropics. Whew! I didn’t realize how much I produce online until this very moment.
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Thank you so much, Sezín! I’m inspired to know that your artistic path has led to your healing, and that you’ve found daily happiness since the painful reentry to the United States. Congratulations on your many creative, career, and personal accomplishments! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Sezín below.
Editor’s note: All photos are from Koehler’s Hybrid Monsters site (apart from her book cover and the photo of one of her Etsy works) or from Pixabay. The quotes are from her “About the Curatrix” page.
Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is a prime example of what she writes about in this column: an Adult Third Culture working in a creative field. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she is an actor, writer, and producer who created the solo show Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey, which has been touring internationally. And now she is working on another show, which we hope to hear more about soon! To keep up with Lisa’s progress in between her columns, be sure to visit her blog, Suitcasefactory. You can also follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!
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