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Category Archives: Booklust, Wanderlust

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Jane Fletcher Geniesse’s biography of the passionate nomad (but displaced expat) Freya Stark

Booklust Wanderlust Collage

Left: Oleh Slobodeniuk (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0); right: Beth Green (her own photo).

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, is back. An American who lives in Prague, Beth mixes booklust with wanderlust in equal measures, which gives her just the right background for reviewing book releases on behalf of international creatives.

—ML Awanohara

Hello again, Displaced Nationers! Hasn’t the summer gone by fast? How’s your progress on that reading list you made back in the day when it seemed like the dog days would go on forever?

Well, if you abide by the rule that summer ends with the equinox, then you still have a few more weeks. And if you’re searching for one last read to feed your wanderlust, I would recommend the volume I just now finished: a biography of Dame Freya Stark, one of the most amazing travelers and travel writers of the last century. Called Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark, it’s by former New York Times journalist Jane Fletcher Geniesse.

Passionate_Nomad_coverDays after reading, I’m still in a daze (so to speak), transported by Geniesse’s tale of this intrepid British war-time adventurer.

Stark is one of those people—we’ve all met them on our travels, haven’t we?—who seems to have crammed many lives’ worth of living into one single walk on Earth.

Born to Anglo-Italian-German parents who made their living painting, growing flowers, and managing textile factories (among other pursuits) across Europe, Stark was the original Third Culture Kid. As she traipsed with her parents across Britain, France and Italy, she had no real place to call home. She was further burdened by her parents’ separation and an emotionally manipulative mother, along with numerous illnesses and financial troubles.

A late bloomer

Though she would eventually achieve renown as a witty speaker who could always be counted on to liven up a party, as a young woman Stark despaired of being able to have her own life. She did not make her first trip to the Orient (as it was known in those days) until age 33.

Perhaps because Stark herself told the stories of her travels in the 25 books she published, Geniesse gives most of her attention to the adventures Stark had before being lionized for her travel exploits and writings. (Geniesse covers the last 40 years of Stark’s life—Stark lived to age 100!—in just one chapter.)

For me, Geniesse’s portrait is most brilliant when recreating the straitened times that preceded the period when Stark became fluent in Arabic, gained a reputation for bravery abroad and published her first articles and books on her Middle Eastern travels.

Geniesse relies on her intuition as well as meticulous research to highlight the details of Stark’s upbringing that help to explain her transformation from a penny-pinching flower farmer in Italy to a voracious student of classical literature, a free-spirited wanderer (she was one of the first non-Arabians to travel through the southern Arabian Deserts), and an internationally respected author, speaker, ethnologist and political consultant.

A misfit in the expat community

In tracing Stark’s life journey, Geniesse provides some sense of her struggle to find a place in the expat communities of the interwar years. On the one hand, she had trouble relating to the other Europeans she encountered on her travels, writing in one of her letters:

[The British missionaries in Lebanon] suffer from stagnation of the brain, and that surely produces stagnation of the soul in time. To feel, and think, and learn—learn always: surely that is being alive and young and the real sense. And most people seem to want to stagnate when they reach middle age. I hope I shall not become so, resenting ideas that are not my ideas, and seeing the world with all its changes and growth as a series of congealed formulas.

But during the period she spent within the expat community in Baghdad while researching her next trip, it was clear her fellow expats weren’t clear what to make of her either. As Geniesse writes:

Freya, now 37, was feeling her earlier despair give way to expanding hope. She could change her life; she had watched herself do it—although precisely to what purpose remained as much a mystery to her as the question of what Miss Stark was doing in their midst intrigued the Baghdad community. Freya enjoyed being directionless, learning purely for learning’s sake—and adjusting, if that was her fate, to a spinster’s life.

Geniesse concludes it may have been easier for Stark to explain herself to the tribes and villagers she encountered during her travels as they had no expectations of how she should be behaving. As a European, Christian woman traveling in remote areas of Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Persia, Iraq and Iran, she was accepted as a foreigner, while in the expatriate communities there was some expectation that she should conduct herself as a proper unmarried lady.

(In fact she did eventually marry, in her fifties, to a good friend—but the couple separated soon afterwards, when her husband told her he was gay.)

Warts and all

Like all good biographers, Geniesse also highlights Stark’s less flattering qualities. From Stark’s petty rivalry with archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson, to her sharp attitude toward women she felt were prettier than herself, to her irresponsible attitude to money and certain friends, Geniesse shows us the other side of this larger-than-life character. I liked Stark all the more for this mix of traits.

As I got to the end of Genisse’s work, I felt a little bereft. I missed Freya. There is something irresistible about a woman who not only writes her own script for her life but also gives herself a series of challenging parts. As Geniesse says, at the end of her life

Freya had followed her own genius. She had imagined herself as the star in many roles over the years—explorer in Persia and Luristan, Mata Hari at the imam’s court, English plenipotentiary during the war, and humble pilgrim, wandering through Turkey’s ancient ruins.

Next up on my reading list will have to be one of Stark’s own stories, several of which are still in print.

And now, I’ll leave you with a quote from Freya Stark herself, excerpted from a letter to her mother, listing the “7 cardinal virtues for a traveller”:
1. To admit standards that are not one’s own standards and discriminate the values that are not one’s own values.
2. To know how to use stupid men and inadequate tools with equanimity.
3. To be able to disassociate oneself from one’s bodily sensations.
4. To be able to take rest and nourishment as and when they come.
5. To love not only nature but human nature also.
6. To have an unpreoccupied, observant and uncensorious mind—in other words, to be unselfish.
7. To be as calmly good-tempered at the end of the day as at the beginning.”

* * *

Thanks, Beth, for bringing Dame Freya Stark to our attention! And now I would like to offically nominate her for our Displaced Hall of Fame. Readers, had you heard of Freya Stark before reading Beth’s column? What do you make of her? Have you encountered an eccentric like her on your own travels, or does she seem like a product of a previous age?

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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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Peter Hessler’s “Country Driving” is a pleasure cruise for Western expats in China

Booklust Wanderlust Collage

Left: Oleh Slobodeniuk (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0); right: Beth Green (her own photo).

All hail, displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, is back. An American who lives in Prague, Beth is an intrepid traveler and voracious reader, who mixes booklust with wanderlust in equal measures. In other words, she has the perfect background for reviewing recent book releases on behalf of international creatives. Hmmm…but will we enjoy her reviews more than the actual works?

—ML Awanohara

Hello again, Displaced Nationers! As a long-time traveler and reader, I’m drawn to books set somewhere I’ve lived in or gotten to know well. Reading an absorbing travel tale covering ground I once knew intimately, I am lingering again on the streets I once walked, recapturing the taste of meals I once savored, and recalling tiny details about a place that, until that moment, had been lost to memory.

country-driving_cover_pmThis month’s book is the third in Peter Hessler’s award-winning trilogy on China, called Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip. I was excited about reading it as I’ve lived in China twice.

Any of you who are China hands will be familiar with Peter Hessler. Originally from Columbus, Missouri, he initially went to China with the Peace Corps and taught English and American literature at a teachers college located in Fuling, a small city on the Yangtze River. Along with a fellow teacher, he was the first foreigner to be in this part of Sichuan province for 50 years.

After the Peace Corps, Hessler settled in Beijing for about a decade, producing articles and books on the socioeconomic upheavals he observed all around him in China.

I devoured Hessler’s first two memoirs on China: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (based on his Peace Corps experience) and Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China. Peter Hessler CollageI read the first just before moving to China and the second, right in the middle of my stay. Like other China-based expats, I found that Hessler’s descriptions of teaching English in Sichuan Province, along with his detailed portraits of the people he met all across China, helped me understand—and even anticipate—many of the experiences common to Western foreigners in China.

Country Driving follows suit, weaving together stories from the many road trips Hessler took while on assignment for several Western publications: National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker.

“Reading ten thousand books is not as useful as traveling ten thousand miles.” — Chinese proverb

Country Driving is divided into three sections. In the first, which was also my favorite, Hessler chronicles his 7,000-mile trip across northern China, following the Great Wall all the way from the East China Sea to the Tibetan Plateau, in a rented two-wheel-drive SUV he’s not supposed to take out of Beijing. The reader accompanies him through rush hour traffic, dings and scrapes with other drivers, roadside scams, rutty roads and the wide-open desert leading to the Tibetan Plateau.

As he introduces the reader to the chaos of Chinese roads, he quotes the often bizarre multiple choice questions Chinese driving students are forced to answer, e.g.:

When overtaking another car, a driver should pass
a) on the left.
b) on the right.
c) wherever, depending on the situation.

When passing an elderly person or child, you should
a) slow down and make sure you pass safely.
b) continue at the same speed.
c) honk the horn to tell them to watch out.

When he picks up hitchhikers, who are a common sight on rural highways where there’s often a shortage of direct buses, he tells us their ages, describes their appearances, and reports what their occupations and, often, aspirations are. For instance, in a passage about taking a hairstylist and her grandfather to a city near or in Shaanxi province, Hessler writes:

The old man wore a weathered cap and rough blue cotton clothes. He was mostly toothless: a wispy beard hung from his chin. His traveling companion was the most strikingly pretty woman I ever saw in the north. She was twenty years old, with hair that had been dyed a light red; her lipstick was bright pink and a tiny beauty mark had been tattooed between her eyebrows.

About halfway through the first section of the book, I realized I was reading unusually slowly. Country Driving is a meaty 400 plus pages but Hessler’s prose is smooth enough to make those pages zoom by like one of the tinted-window “cadre cars” he avoids on the highway.

What was happening?

I started paying more attention—and realized that, instead of focusing on Hessler’s descriptions, I was busy daydreaming about China stories of my own. This passage, for instance, really rang home for me:

…(We) continued on foot to the gridlock, where drivers explained what had happened. It all started with a few trucks whose fuel lines had frozen. The trucks stalled…truckers had crawled beneath their rigs, where they lit road flares and held them up to frozen fuel lines. The tableau had a certain beauty: the stark snow-covered steppes, the endless line of black Santanas, the orange fires dancing beneath blue Liberation trucks.

Except in my story it’s not a truck that has the frozen fuel line, it’s a bus. And I’m not admiring the beauty of the landscape; I’m on the bus. And the flares were straw, the bus caught fire, and soon I (and my parents, who were visiting) had to hitch a ride on a different bus.

“If you want happiness in a lifetime, help someone else.” — Chinese proverb

In the second section of the book, “The Village,” Hessler zooms in on Sancha, a rundown village north of Beijing near the Great Wall, where he and a friend end up renting a small house. Whereas before, Hessler was entertaining us with road rules, now he is regaling us with stories of small-town politics. Hessler becomes good friends with his entrepreneurial landlord, and we hear all about this man’s business ventures and political campaigning.

The landlord has a sickly son, to whom Hessler is “Uncle Monster.” At the time Hessler’s rented car is the only reliable transportation in the village, and at one point the story becomes more emotional, when Hessler helps to save the boy’s life in a medical emergency.

Hessler is particularly good at illuminating tiny nuances of Chinese culture and life for the sake of us clueless Westerners. He provides literal translations of road signs and propaganda slogans for our amusement, and he is careful to let us in on passing conversations that point to larger issues.

“Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.” — Chinese proverb

The third part of the book, “The Factory,” loses some of the intimacy built up in the first two sections. We go from travelogue to investigative reporting as Hessler ventures down into the mountainous coastal region of Zhejiang to observe a newly industrialized area, one virtually unknown to the outside world, where single cities produce single products.

What he loses in personal perspective, he makes up with research, interviews, and some great anecdotes. It’s only one third of the book, but could have stood alone.

The stories Hessler tells of the individuals working in this province are some of the most memorable in the whole book: stories whose subjects range from migrants seeking their fortune—at pennies an hour—on the East Coast, to the 50,000 residents of a river valley about to be dammed, to bosses under pressure to build a viable business. One entrepreneur he meets is planning to make his fortune by manufacturing the tiny rings that appear on every bra strap.

StrangeStones_bookcovrCountry Driving was excellent. It captures a lot of the aspects of China I enjoyed while living there—the plucky optimistic people I met, the amazing scenery and some of the wacky, like-nowhere-else experiences I had—but it also shines a light on many of the reasons I decided that my second time living in China would be my last: pollution, decisions made based on “face” or convenience rather than practicality or legality, arbitrary and changing rules.

Last year Hessler has published a fourth book, a collection of previously published stories, called Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West, and although I’ve already read a few of the stories, I’ll be picking it up for a browse soon.

* * *

Thanks, Beth, for another fascinating column! I almost feel as though I’ve been on a whirlwind trip to China, which is saying a lot, given the vastness of the territory. Readers, are you like Beth: do you like to read about places where you’ve lived as an expat? Why or why not?

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!

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series is made in the shade for expats and Third Culture Kids

Booklust Wanderlust Collage

Left: Oleh Slobodeniuk (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0); right: Beth Green (her own photo).

Today we welcome brand new columnist Beth Green to the Displaced Nation. An American who lives in Prague, Beth is an intrepid traveler and voracious reader, who mixes booklust with wanderlust in equal measures. In other words, she has the perfect background for reviewing recent book releases on behalf of international creatives. Hmmm…but will we enjoy her reviews more than the actual works?

—ML Awanohara

Thanks, ML! Displaced Nationers, for my first column we’ll be plunging into the world of crime fiction in which a city plays a major role. As I’m sure you know, many popular crime novels are set in Los Angeles, New York, London, or Chicago, where that setting is as important as the crimes committed there.

So, let me introduce another city with an underbelly you might enjoy: Dublin.

In contrast to the shamrock-and-Guinness tourist propaganda, Dublin can have a grittier, noir aspect, at least in the hands of skilled writer Tana French.

If you’re looking for a nice read where setting bolsters plot, and where some of the themes related to the experiences of those who lead the international creative life, French’s series about the Dublin Murder Squad is a fine place to start. The series, currently consisting of four books, features the members of Ireland’s fictional homicide unit, each of whom is given narration duties for one of the books—a device by which we constantly get new perspectives on the other detectives in the team as well as a chance to see the Irish Republic’s capital city through a new pair of eyes.

Various Dublins

For example, when the narrator is an experienced cop who was born to a poor family, the city doesn’t get a glossy treatment. He describes, with equal honesty, the run-down parts of town where members of his family live and the middle-class suburb where his ex-wife now resides.

Another detective, who has lived abroad, describes Dublin with more of a tourist’s eye when it’s her turn to narrate a novel.

Yet another is obsessed with appearances; and the fourth alternately seems to love and hate the city.

Cultural challenges

Though born in the USA, Tana French grew up as a Third Culture Kid. Her father was a development economist, and she spent her childhood in Ireland, Italy, the USA, and Malawi. She went to university, and ultimately chose to settle, in Ireland. Perhaps reflecting this early experience, French has each of her main characters navigate some kind of cultural shift in addition to playing his or her role in the solving (or making) of a murder.

IntheWoods_cover_pmIn the Woods is French’s debut, Edgar-winning novel. The action centers on homicide detective Rob Ryan and his partner, Cassie Maddox, both of whom feel culturally conflicted. Ryan, who grew up in the same village he must now investigate, was sent away to school after a horrifying childhood experience. He returns to Ireland as an adult but retains a carefully learned prep-school accent and manner of dress that marks him as an outsider even while standing in front of his childhood home.

Maddox, on the other hand, spent part of her childhood with relatives in France. She speaks French fluently and readily adapts to new surroundings and diverse situations. While this chameleon-like quality often comes in handy, it also gives her a sense of alienation in her home country. As Maddox says in The Likeness, the next book in the series:

I take after the French side. Nobody thinks I’m Irish, till I open my mouth.

Love of disguises

TheLikeness_cover_pmIn The Likeness, Maddox narrates the story of how she must go undercover impersonating someone—a foreigner, it turns out, who in turn is impersonating an undercover role (that of a college student) Maddox had previously assumed.

Controlling these layers of identity becomes intoxicating to Maddox (and to the reader, I might add) while also putting her career, and that of her superior officer, Frank Mackey, at risk.

Reading The Likeness, I was impressed by how much detail French provides to show that Maddox undergoes a believable transformation.

The domestic expat

In French’s third book, Faithful Place, Maddox’s boss, Mackey, gets his chance to prove himself in navigating the shifting subtleties of Irish culture and society.

Set in an area of Dublin known as The Liberties— not far from the tourist highlights in terms of distance but miles away in terms of economic progress and commitment to law and order—Faithful Place requires Mackey to return to the home he grew up in and attempt to solve the disappearance of his high school sweetheart, who he had always thought simply dumped him.

FaithfulPlace_cover_pmThough Mackey is thought of as down-to-earth and street-smart by his colleagues (one of the joys of the Dublin Murder Squad books is seeing different characters from inside and out over the course of several books), his time as a cop has not endeared him to his family or neighbors. He also married “up”, and there’s a great minor plot line concerning his decision to introduce his young daughter, Holly, to his “lower-class” relations.

At the beginning of the novel, Mackey says:

Both Jackie and Olivia have tried hinting, occasionally, that Holly should get to know her dad’s family. Sinister suitcases aside, over my dead body does Holly dip a toe in the bubbling cauldron of crazy that is the Mackeys at their finest.

No safe harbors

Broken Harbor_cover_pmIn the latest book in the series, Broken Harbor, a minor character from Faithful Place, Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy, takes the lead in investigating a gruesome crime committed in a rundown (yet half-finished) housing development on the same site his family used to vacation when he was a child.

Kennedy introduces the housing site to us as follows:

I used to know Broken Harbor like the back of my hand, when I was a skinny little guy with home-cut hair and mended jeans. Kids nowadays grew up on sun holidays during the boom, two weeks in the Costa del Sol is their bare minimum. But I’m forty-two and our generation had low expectations.

Why French speaks to international creatives

Though common plot and character threads hold a detective series together, there’s always a danger the author will fall back on the same formula to help her main characters solve the crimes in question. French succeeds in weaving common themes throughout the four books while also treating these themes afresh in each work. Most excitingly for us expats, she visits and revisits the feeling of being out-of-place in a culture (or subculture) not your own as well as the clashes that can occur when working with someone from a different background. Another favorite theme of hers, which also aligns with some expat experiences, is the stress of being evaluated on one’s exterior appearance.

But one of the most important common themes in Broken, Faithful and Woods is the power that a special place from one’s childhood can have—to which French’s fellow ATCK readers can surely relate. In Woods, Ryan must solve a crime in the very forest a crime was committed against him as a child—a crime he cannot remember but desperately wishes he could. In Faithful, Mackey discovers the ties to the past can last fast and strong, even years after he thought he’d broken them. And, in Broken, Kennedy’s memories from his childhood make the seaside scenery both delightful and sad, while the importance of the spot to the victims is equally powerful and alluring albeit for different reasons.

Moreover in Likeness, perhaps my favorite of the series so far, the main character doesn’t return to a place that’s important to her, but it’s just as important for her to realize that she—like the victim—doesn’t have a particular place on Earth to call her own in memory or deed.

French’s next novel, The Secret Place, will continue the Murder Squad series but with a new set of protagonist detectives drawn from the supporting characters of the first four novels. It comes out in August.

* * *

Thanks, Beth, for such a fascinating column! I felt completely transported to the noir underbelly of Dublin. BTW, I noticed that in an interview with French that is posted on Amazon, she says she can’t imagine herself setting her books anywhere other than Dublin as she knows the city like the back of her hand. Hard to imagine she started life as an American! And I must say, her crime series sounds like perfect summer reading. What do others think? Have you read French, and if so, do you concur that her books would suit expats and TCKs?

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!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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