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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Expat creatives recommend books for the (not quite) end of summer

End of Summer 2016 Reads

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, has canvassed several international creatives for some recommendations of books that suit the various end-of-summer scenarios those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere will soon be in (if we aren’t already!).

Hello Displaced Nationers!

I’ve traveled quite a bit this summer, and now I’m wondering what I can do, as summer slides into autumn here in Prague, to bask in those prized last few moments of glory before the days get shorter and a chill enters the air.

I decided to canvas fellow international creatives about the books they would recommend for those of us who are:

  • Striving for one last beach read;
  • Stranded at an airport on our way “home”; and/or
  • Getting back to work/school/reality as autumn sets in.

There was just one catch: I asked if they would please recommend books that qualify as “displaced” reads, meaning they are for, by, or about expats or other internationals and so speak to members of our “tribe” (see ML Awanohara’s contribution below).

And now let’s check out their picks (correction: I should say “our” as I’m a contributor this time)—it’s an eclectic mix, but I predict you’ll be tempted by quite a few!

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JENNIFER ALDERSON, expat and writer

TheGoodThiefsGuidetoParis_coverWhen I read on the beach, the story’s got to be light and quirky or it goes back in my tote bag. The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris (2009), by Chris Ewan—or really any of the other four books in Ewan’s popular series of mysteries about a globetrotting thief-for-hire—fits the bill perfectly. I actually dislike the much-displaced Charlie Howard immensely—yet somehow end up rooting for him along the way. An Englishman, he doesn’t feel at home anywhere and travels the world to get inspired to write his next novel—and then ends up involved in criminal activities that mirror his fictitious plots. Each novel revolves around Charlie’s bungled robbery of an artwork or antiquity in yet another famous tourist destination: Amsterdam, Paris, Venice, Las Vegas, Berlin… Ewan’s descriptions of each city are spot on and quite beautiful, in contrast to the wonderfully sarcastic tone of the novels themselves. The capers are silly, absurd constructions involving the shadiest of characters, which inevitably leave a smile on my face. I’ve already finished Paris and Amsterdam. The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice is next.

The City of Falling Angels_coverI actually have two suggestions for books I wish I’d had in my carry-on when stranded en route, both set in one of my favorite countries in the world: Italy! A few days before my husband and I set off for a week-long holiday in Venice, I popped into a local secondhand bookstore and spotted John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels (2005). I absolutely loved Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, so I bought it without even reading the description on the back. Imagine my surprise when I pulled it out of my suitcase and realized it was all about the same magical city I’d just arrived in! It is an absorbing, magnificent novel that effortlessly blends fact and fiction. (Berendt moved to Venice in 1997, just three days after the city’s Fenice opera house burned down during a restoration—accident or arson?) The fabled city and many of her more eccentric residents form the soul of this book; art, opera and architecture are the main ingredients. Let yourself get lost in Berendt’s unique, almost conversational prose and follow along on his deliciously slow journey through one of the prettiest (and most mysterious) places on the planet.

BridgeofSighs_coverMy other pick is the captivating historical novel, Bridge of Sighs and Dreams (2015), by former expat Pamela Allegretto. The story follows one Italian family through the 1930s and 1940s, when Mussolini and later Hitler ruled the land. It is a sometimes gritty, sometimes romantic, tale of betrayal, intrigue and—above all—survival. The author’s beautiful yet compact descriptions of the landscape, people and culture effortlessly transport the reader to this fascinating and complex period in Italian (and European) history. I highly recommend it.

Whichever of these two books you choose, you’ll wish your flight was delayed indefinitely.

The Disobedient Wife_coverI’ve only read the first two chapters of The Disobedient Wife (2015), by Annika Milisic-Stanley, yet I’m already hooked—and would recommend it for anyone trying to get back into work/school mode. It’s such an eloquent description of the expat experience; from the first sentence I felt as if I was reading a soulmate’s description of how it feels to move on to a new destination after building up a life in a foreign country: we say goodbye while wondering what, if any, lasting impact we’ve had on our temporary homes. [Editor’s note: This book also made the Displaced Nation’s “best of expat fiction” list for 2015.]

The official synopsis reads:

The Disobedient Wife intertwines the narratives of a naïve, British expatriate, Harriet, and that of her maid, Nargis, who possesses an inner strength that Harriet comes to admire as their lives begin to unravel against a backdrop of violence and betrayal.

In the first chapter, Harriet is thinking back to her last post in Tajikistan: about the friends she’d willingly left behind and about her home, inhabited by another family only days after her own departure:

“All traces will be erased until the Dutch tulips I laid last September rise above the earth to bloom in April and pronounce that I really was there. The language, learned and badly spoken, is already fading from my dreams…”

These sentences stirred up so many memories for me of people left behind and as well as adventures past. I sometimes wish I could go back—even for a moment—to all of the places I’ve been in this crazy world and just say hello to the people I once knew there and remind them that I’m still around and do think of them once in a while. I cannot wait to finish this book. [Beth’s note: I did NOT mention to Jennifer that Annika is also participating in this column’s roundup—quite a coincidence!]

Jennifer S. Alderson has published two novels, the recently released A Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery and Down and Out in Kathmandu (2015), which cover the adventures of traveler and culture lover Zelda Richardson. An American, Jennifer lives in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband and young son.


ML AWANOHARA, Displaced Nation founding editor and former expat

Inspired by the new BBC One TV miniseries, at the beginning of the summer I downloaded War and Peace (new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) onto my Kindle. And, reader, I finished it! And now I’m having trouble finding any novels that hold my attention. By comparison to Tolstoy’s masterwork, they all seem too narrow in scope, and their characters aren’t as beautifully developed. Sigh!

Tribe_coverI’m thinking I should turn to nonfiction until the W&P spell wears off. Right now I have my eye on Sebastian Junger’s latest work, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging—which I think could serve any of the purposes Beth has outlined above, though perhaps is best applied to the third condition (getting back to reality). Junger has been compared to Hemingway for his adventure non-fiction and war reporting, but this book is more of an anthropological look at the very human need to belong to a tribe. Though we expats have left our original tribes, I don’t think that this decision eradicates our tribal instincts. On the contrary, we are attracted to tribes of fellow expats; and some of us even find new homes in cultures more tribal than ours—where the people value qualities like loyalty and belonging more than we do in the West.

Junger provides an example to which I can personally relate. Recounting the history of 18th-century America, he says that no native Americans defected to join colonial society even though it was richer, whereas many colonials defected to live with the Indian tribes. They apparently appreciated the communal, caring lifestyle of the latter. That’s how I felt after I’d lived in Japan for several years. I really didn’t fancy returning to my native society, which I’d come to see as overly individualistic and centered on self to the exclusion of little else. To this day (and especially during election years like this one!) I struggle with America’s you’re-on-your-own ethos. Wealth doesn’t necessarily translate into well-being: why can’t my compatriots see that? It’s something I can feel in my bones because of the more tribal life I had in Asia. Could this book help me understand the roots of my displacement?

ML Awanohara, who has lived for extended periods in the UK and Japan, has been running the Displaced Nation site for five years. She works in communications in New York City.


BETH GREEN, Displaced Nation columnist and writer

Hotel_Kerobokan_coverI tend to pick beach books by the setting. So if I am going to the Caribbean, I’ll pick something set in the Caribbean. My last beach destination was Bali, and the book I wish I’d taken with me was Hotel Kerobokan: The Shocking Inside Story of Bali’s Most Notorious Jail (2009), a sharply observed account of life inside Indonesia’s most notorious prison, by Australian journalist Kathryn Bonella. Also great is her subsequent nonfiction title, Snowing in Bali (2012), a graphic look at Bali’s cocaine traffickers. Stories that depict true-life crime in unexpected settings (isn’t Bali supposed to be paradise?) automatically go on my to-read list—but I forgot to pick up Bonella’s book when we were at the airport and then wasn’t able to find in the area around my hotel. I know, most people go to the beach for good weather and strong cocktails; but for me, a holiday isn’t a holiday until I can peel back the veneer and peer at something darker underneath.

The Bat_coverWhat I actually ended up reading was in fact very good—Jo Nesbo’s thriller The Bat, in which he introduces his hard-headed detective Harry Hole and sends him to Australia to pursue a serial killer—but I wish I’d planned ahead and got something that blended with the scenery.

It’s a terrible feeling to get to the boarding gate and realize you don’t have enough chapters left in your book to get you through takeoff. (This is one reason I love my e-reader and try to have it loaded with dozens of books at all times.) For air travel especially, I look for the fattest, longest reads possible.

The Mountain Shadow_coverFor my next long flight, I’m hoping to read Gregory David Robert’s The Mountain Shadow, which came out last year and is the sequel to his equally weighty Shantaram (2003). At 880 pages, this book will take even a fast reader like me a while! Set in Mumbai, India, it continues the story of an escaped Australian prisoner who finds a new niche as a passport forger—but also a better self—in the underbelly of the South Asian crime world. Engrossing and beautifully written, I think it’s the perfect companion for marathon flights. Even if you did manage to finish it mid-flight, you can spend the rest of the trip wondering how close the story is to the author’s real-life history as an escaped convict. Roberts spent 10 years in India as a fugitive after escaping a maximum security prison in Australia, and his first novel, at least, is rumored to be autobiographical.

CatKingofHavana_coverFor the goal of channeling our more serious selves as autumn approaches, how about a fun read by the peripatetic Latvian author Tom Crosshill (he spent several years studying and working in the United States, as well as a year learning traditional dances in Cuba). Crosshill will release The Cat King of Havana (2016) this month. The eponymous Cat King is a half-Cuban American teenager who gets his nicknames from the cat videos he posts online. When he invites his crush to Havana to learn about his heritage and take salsa lessons, he discovers Cuba’s darker side…

Beth Green is the Booklust, Wanderlust columnist for the Displaced Nation. Her bio blurb appears below.


HELENA HALME, novelist and expat

Murder in Aix_coverFor a last hurrah on the beach, I’d recommend Murder in Aix (2013), Book 5 in a mystery series by Susan Kiernan-Lewis, an ex-military dependent who is passionate about France, travel and writing. One of my secret pleasures in life is to settle down with a cozy murder mystery; I also have a passion for the South of France. So when I found The Maggie Newberry Mystery Series, consisting of nine books that featured an expat protagonist-sleuth who solves mysteries in and around Aix-en-Provence, I couldn’t wait to download the whole series onto my Kindle. In the fifth book, Maggie Newberry is heavily pregnant but that doesn’t stop her as she finds herself scrambling to prove the innocence of a dear friend arrested for the murder of an abusive ex-boyfriend. Her partner, a ruggedly handsome French winemaker, doesn’t approve of Maggie’s involvement in the case. “It’s too dangerous,” he tells her.

The novel is pure bliss—a feeling enhanced if you can read it by a pool or on a beach, preferably accompanied by a glass of chilled rosé!

TheBreathofNight_coverFor those inevitable airport delays, I’d recommend The Breath of Night (2013), by Michael Arditti, a much-neglected English author. The first book I read by him, Jubilate, said to be the first serious novel about Lourdes since Zola’s, is one of my all-time favorites, so I was delighted when The Breath of Night came out soon after. This is a story of the murder of one Julian Tremayne, a Catholic priest from England who was working as a missionary in the Philippines in the 1970s. Since their son’s tragic death, Julian’s parents have pursued a campaign to have him declared a saint. The story is told partly through letters from Julian to his parents and partly through an account by a friend of the family, Philip Seward, who has gone to Manila 30 years later to find out the truth about the miracles he is said to have performed. Did Julian lead “a holy life of heroic virtue”—one of the conditions for canonization? While telling an intriguing and captivating tale of life in the Philippines, the book provides a broader commentary on love and faith.

TheParisWife_coverWhen the time comes to settle back into your routine, I would suggest a read of The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain (2011). It’s a fictionalized story of Hemingway’s first years as a struggling writer in Paris in the 1920s, told from the point of view of his first wife, Hadley, a naive Southern girl who suddenly finds herself suddenly plunged into a life of drunken debauchery in the French capital. McLain’s writing is precise and beautiful; her background as a poet comes through in her careful choice of words. Her descriptions of Hemingway when Hadley first meets him are particularly ingenious:

“He smiles with everything he’s got…”

“I can tell he likes being in his body…”

“He seemed to do happiness all the way up and through.”

It’s a brilliant read that will take you somewhere completely different and keep the challenges (boredom?) of work or school at bay a little longer.

Helena Halme is a Finnish author of Nordic women’s and romantic fiction. She lives with her English husband in London. Her works include the best-selling autobiographical novel The Englishman (reviewed on the Displaced Nation), its sequel The Navy Wife, Coffee and Vodka (about which she wrote a guest post for us) and The Red King of Helsinki (for which she won one of our Alice Awards). The Finnish Girl, her latest novella, is the prequel to The Englishman.


MATT KRAUSE, writer and expat

A Time of Gifts_coverFor any of those circumstances, I would recommend A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1977; reissued in 2011 with an introduction by Jan Morris). At the age of 18, Fermor dropped out of school to walk from the heart of London to Constantinople, and his account of that journey—which started in December 1933, not long after Hitler has come to power in Germany, and ended just over two years later—is hailed as a classic of British travel writing. Hitler’s abuses were not yet evident, and Fermor describes drinking beers with Nazis once he reaches Germany. But I particularly enjoyed his account of a luxurious extended weekend in Geneva (or some city, I don’t remember) with a couple of girls he met along the way. I read this book as part of my research before walking across Turkey in 2012–2013, and really liked it.

Matt Krause is a communications coach based in Istanbul. He is the author of the memoir A Tight Wide-Open Space (reviewed on the Displaced Nation) and is working on a book about his walk across Turkey.


ANNIKA MILISIC-STANLEY, ATCK, expat, painter, campaigner and writer

two more book picks_Aug2016When I am on the beach, I get no longer than half an hour of uninterrupted reading time. For that reason, I took a book of short stories with me this year: Angela Readman’s Don’t Try This At Home (2015), which has stories set in the UK, USA, France and elsewhere. Brilliantly engaging, with an amazing use of language, alternately fun and fantastical, this debut, award-winning collection is well worth a read.

Some of you may not be short story fans, in which case I’d recommend The White Tiger (2008), by Aravind Adiga. The “white tiger” of the book’s title is a Bangalore chauffeur, who guides us through his experience of the poverty and corruption of modern India’s caste society. two book picks_Aug2016_515xThe novel won the 2008 Booker, but don’t let that put you off. It is surprisingly accessible and a real page-turner: funny, horrifying and brilliant.

For an agonizing airport wait, I have two suggestions: Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life (2015) and Sanjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways (also 2015). Both feature immigrants describing their former lives, their motive for departure from their countries of origin, and the harshness of life in a new country as illegals.

CentresofCataclysm_coverAnd once you’re back at the desk, I would recommend giving Centres of Cataclysm (2016, Bloodaxe Books) a try. Edited by Sasha Dugdale and David and Helen Constantine, it’s an anthology celebrating fifty years of modern poetry in translation—full of beautiful gems from poets from around the world. Profits go to refugee charities.

Raised in Britain by Swedish and Anglo-German parents, Annika Milisic-Stanley has worked on humanitarian aid projects in Nepal, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, India, Burundi and Egypt as well as living in Tajikistan for several years. She currently lives in Rome with her family. In addition to writing and painting, she works as a campaigner to raise awareness on the plight of refugees in Southern Europe. The Disobedient Wife, about expatriate and local life in Tajikistan, is her debut novel and was named the Cinnamon Press 2015 Novel of the Year. Annika invites you to like her book page on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.


PAMELA JANE ROGERS, expat and artist/author

Saving Fish from Drowning_coverFor that last trip to the beach, I’d recommend Amy Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning (2005). A group of California travelers decide to go on their planned trip to the Burma (its southern Shan State) without their (deceased) travel director, and in their total ignorance of the customs and religion of that part of the world, create havoc—and commit what is considered a heinous crime. I was directing a travel group in Greece when I read it, which may be why it seemed quite plausible, as well as darkly hilarious.

If you haven’t read it yet (though most on this site probably have), an absorbing read for when you get stuck in an airport is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (1998)The Poisonwood Bible_cover, about a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. Between the evangelical Christian father wanting his converts to “gather by the river” in Africa for their baptisms, to the chapters written by his wife and daughters at different ages—the reader is in for a rollicking, sometimes absurd, sometimes sad and sobering, ride.

And when it’s time to face work again, I recommend the book I’m reading now: Passage of the Stork, Delivering the Soul (Springtime Books, 2015), by Madeleine LenaghPassage of the Stork_cover, an American who has lived in the Netherlands since 1970. This is her life story. [Editor’s note: Madeleine Lenagh and her photography have been featured on the Displaced Nation.]

Pamela Jane Rogers is an American artist who has adopted the Greek island of Poros as her home. She has written a memoir of her adventures, which she recently re-published with a hundred of her paintings as illustrations: GREEKSCAPES: Illustrated Journeys with an Artist.


JASMINE SILVERA, former expat and writer

The Best of All Possible Worlds_coverFor the beach I would recommend The Best of All Possible Worlds (2013), by Barbadian author Karen Lord. It’s what many people call “social science fiction” because the story is less obsessed with technological advances than with their interpersonal ramifications. The book opens after a cataclysmic event destroys the home planet of an entire civilization, rendering everyone who managed to be off-world at the time of destruction displaced. It follows the journey of a leader of a group of survivors, who decides to team up with an “assistant biotechnician” to find a suitable replacement home on a colony planet. I know what you’re thinking: it doesn’t sound like a rollicking good time! But it reads a bit like a “he said, she said” travelogue; and one of the two narrators has delightfully funny moments (I’ll let you decide which one). There is humor and sweetness, a bit of intrigue, and a satisfyingly happy ending.

The Pilgrimage_coverFor an absorbing read suitable for a long wait in an airport lounge, try The Pilgrimage (1987), by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. [Editor’s note: He was once featured on the Displaced Nation’s Location, Locution column.] I’ll be honest, my experience of the Camino de Santiago was nothing like the one depicted in this book (more technical fabrics and guidebooks, less overt mysticism); but I still find Coelho’s account evocative and moving. Like the work considered to be his masterpiece, The Alchemist, it’s part engaging adventure, part allegory—and a wonderful story. It’s a good one to transport you elsewhere when you’re “stuck” in a place you don’t want to be in.

Committed_coverIf the Way of St. James isn’t your thing, then I might recommend Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed (2010) for an absorbing read. I can’t imagine what it would be like to attempt a follow-up to a book that was a huge commercial success, let alone a direct “sequel.” But that’s what Gilbert did with Committed. People love or hate the book for all sorts of reasons. But it’s a good one to stick with, IMHO, because it explores not only the byzantine banalities of bureaucratic regulations (something all displaced persons deal with at some point in their adventures) but also the innermost workings of one’s heart as you navigate knowing when to go and when to, well, commit. And while Gilbert occasionally allows herself to navel gaze in less charming a fashion than in Eat, Pray, Love, overall this book is an honest, thoughtful exploration of what marriage and commitment means in a world of divorce, infidelity, and the “best friending” of one’s partner. The book starts out with a decision made and then backtracks through the process—but it’s the journey that counts, after all. [Editor’s note: Hmmm… Will she write a sequel now that she is divorcing her husband of 12 years?]

Kinky Gazpacho_coverFor getting back into your groove at work, I’d recommend Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain (2008), by Lori Tharps. There are relatively few travel memoirs written by people of color, so a book full of observations around how race is experienced in different cultures is a rare treasure. As a black woman from the United States, I have found race to be an intrinsic part of my experience in traveling and living abroad. From being stared at, to being touched, to stumbling on some unexpected bit of exported racism where I least expect it, I would say it’s an oversimplification to think that race is something we only struggle with in the land of my birth (that said, I’ve known a few African Americans whose decision to live abroad was based in no small part on the gravity of the struggle for racial equality in America). Nowhere is perfect, and Tharp explores what happens when the fantasy and the reality collide during her year of study abroad in Spain, as she attempts to reconcile that country’s problematic past with its present. She also extends her adventures beyond those of a traveler to become an expat (this is not a spoiler: she marries a Spaniard). I enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love, but this book resonated with my personal experience of travel and life abroad much more deeply.

A world traveler and former expat who remains a California girl at heart, Jasmine Silvera will release her debut, Prague-inspired novel Death’s Dancer in October (it was recently selected for publication by Kindle Press). Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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Thanks, everyone, for participating! Readers, what books would you recommend? Let us know in the comments!

Till next time and happy reading!

As always, please let me or ML know if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see reviewed here! And I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

Beth Green is an American writer 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. She has also launched the site 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: In honor of Mother’s Day, three books by and about strong international women

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! For this month’s column, Beth Green has some eclectic picks for displaced reads—all of which feature women who transcend national boundaries.

Hello again, Displaced Nationers!

Mother’s Day is coming up in the United States on May 8 (the UK celebrated its mums in March). As an American who lives abroad, I am marking the occasion by reading the beautiful, intriguing A Mother’s Secret, by Renita D’Silva, which came out in early April.

renita and a mother's secret

Now living in the UK, D’Silva grew up in a coastal village in South India. Reflecting that background, D’Silva’s debut novel, Monsoon Memories, was about an Indian woman who has been exiled from her family for more than a decade and is living in London (it was a Displaced Nation pick for 2014).

Her latest work, A Mother’s Secret, which came out in early April, tells the story of Jaya, the British-born daughter of immigrants. Jaya struggles with the unexpected death of her mother, Durga, followed by the loss of her baby son in a tragic cot death. Looking through her mother’s belongings, Jaya finds diaries that unlock the secrets of her mother’s unhappy past, before she emigrated to England. Part of the story is told by Durga, through diary excerpts, and part by Kali, a mad old lady who, like Durga, was doing her best to survive and succeed in traditional Indian culture.

I haven’t finished A Mother’s Secret yet—and hadn’t even planned on reviewing it—but I’m still willing to recommend it on the strength of D’Silva’s mesmerizing descriptions of India, along with the finely woven mystery connecting Jaya to her mother and to Kali. In D’Silva’s hands, the the India of several decades ago becomes a place of lush, gothic beauty. Take, for instance, her description of a ruined mansion feared by the villagers and rumored to be haunted:

“Oh there’s a curse all right,” the rickshaw driver huffs. “No boy child survives in that family. Everyone associated with that mansion is cursed with unhappiness, insanity, death. You must be out of your mind to go there, and I have warned you plenty. But it’s none of my business, as long as you pay me three times the fare like you promised.” The rickshaw driver’s hair drips with sweat as his ramshackle vehicle brings them closer and closer to the ruin, which looms over the earth-tinged emerald fields, painting the mud below the dark black of clotted blood.

While on the theme of women’s lives, allow me to segue into another book I finished recently, My Life on the Road, by American feminist activist Gloria Steinem. (It was on the Displaced Nation’s Best of 2015 list, and also a pick by fellow Displaced Nation columnist HE Rybol for a 2016 read.)

Gloria Steinem portrait and book

As one doesn’t automatically associate with Steinem with travel, I was surprised to learn how much time she has actually spent “on the road.” Her childhood, I was fascinated to discover, consisted of a series of road trips across the United States with her nomadic parents, who made a living selling antiques. She credits these childhood travels with shaping her later talents as a journalist and organizer. And although she no longer leads a peripatetic life—she bought property and established a home base—she estimates she spends more nights out of her house than in it.

Steinem writes:

Taking to the road—by which I mean letting the road take you—changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories— in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. It’s right up there with life-threatening emergencies and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present.

Notably, one of Steinem’s formative experiences came after her graduation from Smith College, when she won a fellowship to study in India for two years. Living in India broadened her horizons and made her aware of the extent of human suffering in the world. India was also where she learned about the “talking circle”—an intimate form of storytelling “in which anyone may speak in turn, everyone must listen, and consensus is more important than time.”

The book isn’t a chronological history of this 82-year-old iconic figure’s travels in America and abroad, but rather a (sometimes disjointed) collection of thoughts about why she enjoys constant movement, and a series of vignettes about the people—and personalities—she’s met along the way.

One of the biggest personalities is her father—a larger-than-life figure from whom Steinem has inherited a love of the nomadic life:

I can’t imagine my father living any other life. When I see him in my mind’s eye, he is always the traveler, eating in a diner instead of a dining room, taking his clothes out of a suitcase instead of a closet, looking for motel VACANCY signs instead of a home, making puns instead of plans, choosing spontaneity over certainty.

When I first picked up the book, I was a little apprehensive that it would be all about Steinem’s political views. (Given that this is an election year in the United States, I’m getting my quota of political reading from the daily news!)

Naturally, Steinem does write about politics—after 40 years devoted to leading a revolution for women’s equality, how could she not? For example, Steinem was at Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and she drops the usual names you’d expect from that era.

But the majority of her stories are what the title suggests—tales about ordinary people she has encountered on the road, such as taxi drivers or people she met at roadside diners or in airports while on her way to conferences or political events. An example:

Our older driver is like a rough trade character from a Tennessee Williams play— complete with an undershirt revealing tattoos, and an old Marine Corps photo stuck in the frame of his hack license. Clearly, this is his taxi and his world.

The friendships she forges with people across the country, particularly with Native American activists, enliven the book and underscore Steinem’s interest in getting to know local communities—though I sometimes got the bittersweet feeling that, given her restlessness, she will never be more than observer of these grassroots circles. In one such passage, Steinem details a trip she once took to a Native American site in Ohio with the author Alice Walker and Walker’s assistant, Deborah Matthews:

That night we join Deborah’s mother, her eighty-six-year-old grandmother, and teachers and neighbors at a community potluck supper in the school gym. It’s a welcome for us. With the slow-paced humor and warmth I’ve come to cherish, they talk about the history of small-town Ohio, and are delighted that we are interested. Deborah’s grandmother has lived her entire life near Adena mounds that may be even older than the one we just saw. They reminisce about everything from romantic outings in the Great Circle Earthworks to the connection they feel to people they just call “the ancients.”

In short, I’d recommend My Life on the Road not only to anyone interested in Steinem herself and the 1960s American feminist movement, but also to anyone with a passion for travel. (That said, if you’re fed up with hearing about American politics already this year, you might wait until after November to start reading!)

Before I sign off for this month, a book I’d like to mention to any readers thirsting for some armchair adventure is Displaced Nationer and current expat Jennifer S. Alderson’s Down and Out in Kathmandu, which came out at the end of last year and was in my to-be-read pile for 2016.

Jennifer Alderson and book cover

The first in a planned series of international thrillers, the book introduces us to protagonist Zelda Richardson, a burnt-out Seattle-based computer programmer who is heading to Nepal for a volunteer teaching gig.

Teaching English in Nepal is nothing like Zelda expects—relationships with her host families are fraught, facilities are limited and the students are less than impressed with Zelda herself. While struggling to deal with the strange culture and her unruly classroom, she crosses paths with Ian, an Australian backpacker who is on a teaching sabbatical and simply searching for the best weed he can find.

And then, of course, as often happens when you link up with backpackers, Zelda finds herself entangled with an international gang of smugglers who believe she and Ian have stolen their diamonds. They also cross paths with Tommy, a shady Canadian in Thailand…

Alderson’s next Zelda book, The Lover’s Portrait, is set in Amsterdam and is due out at the end of next month.

* * *

Until next time, happy reading!

As always, please let me or ML know if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see reviewed here! And I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

Beth Green is an American writer 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. She has also launched the site 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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TCK TALENT: Benjamin Jancewicz, missionary kid, socially responsible graphic designer and pioneering vector artist

Photo credits: (top row) Kawawachikamach Band (flag) of the Naskapi, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); (middle row) Ben Jancewicz self-portrait (supplied); (bottom row) Lights, Camera, Action (Fed Hill), by Bill Mill via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0), Zerflin logo.

Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang‘s guest this month is an adult Missionary Kid (and Third Culture Kid) who expresses his creativity as a visual artist.

Welcome back, readers. Today’s ATCK interviewee is artist, illustrator, and graphic designer Benjamin Jancewicz. Benjamin grew up in Northern Quebec, on the Naskapi Native American Reservation of Kawawachikamach, to an Irish-American mother and Polish-American missionary father who is a linguist and Bible translator to the Naskapi Native Americans.

His Twitter blurb says he was raised “Native, Interracial, MK” (MK being Missionary Kid).

Benjamin’s parents met tobogganing at a Youth Group in their hometown of Norwich, Connecticut, and Ben was born in Connecticut. He now lives in Baltimore with his wife, Tamika, where he runs his own graphic design company, Zerflin (the name belonged to a cartoon alien Benjamin drew as a kid) and creates original vector artwork, which has been exhibited in galleries, cafes and homes around the United States and Canada. His current show, Who Said What, is, in his own words,

a collection that combines my love for engaging people in the creation of my art as well as my desire to reimagine quotes that move people to live better lives. The creation process begins with a call for quotes to be submitted. I then do careful research and select a unique photograph of the quote’s author, typically in their youth, imagining them as my peer. Using the reference image, I draw the piece itself inspired by 1950s and 60s screenprinting, interior design and album covers. Each piece has a unique color palette and font from an up-and-coming typographer.

You can get a taste of the work, and the vector art process, of which Ben is a pioneer, from this short video:

* * *

Welcome, Benjamin. I understand your family traveled quite a bit before settling in the Naskapi Native American Reservation.
Yes, my family moved to Chicago (where my parents went to school), Texas (where they had training), Mexico (where they had field testing), and Sherbrooke, a city in southern Quebec (where they learned French), all before I was four years old. I remember bits and pieces of that time and I’m told I picked up Spanish, but I ended up losing it and learning Naskapi, French, Innu and English instead.

Those are some very peripatetic early years (not to mention impressive multilingualism on your part). Did the traveling continue after you moved to the Reservation?
To raise support for the work, my parents had to travel to the States almost every summer. So there was a lot of visiting churches and road trips through the states, listening to my Father give slideshow presentations about what our family was up to. He continues that to this day in a blog I built for him: http://bill.jancewicz.com. We also moved quite a bit on the Reservation (we call it “the Rez”) as well. We stayed at people’s houses, either with them or when they weren’t there. Eventually when I was older we moved to the nearby town, but living on the Rez was some of the happiest time of my life. Summers filled with bike riding, exploring the woods, swimming in the lake…it was heaven.

“You never find yourself until you face the truth.” —Pearl Baily

What drew you to art and illustration?
I always drew as a kid. As I got older, life on the Rez got harder. Kids got involved in drugs and alcohol. Their parents being absent for the same reasons took a toll. I began losing friends to suicide, overdose. And as TV crept into the Rez, so did an attitude of treating white people differently. I was singled out because I was different. Bullies began attacking me more and more frequently at school—until my parents pulled me out and homeschooled me for a few years. I ultimately went back to the Rez school for most of secondary school, but drawing, computers and piano were often how I dealt with depression and loneliness.

It’s striking, how many ATCKs’ creative pursuits begin as—or become—coping mechanisms during childhood/adolescence. I’m very sorry you were bullied and am glad you found creative outlets to help you handle it. Did your interest in art and illustration evolve naturally into a career in graphic design?
I never really considered art and illustration to be a viable career, and originally went to school for engineering. After two years, I began to learn more about graphic design and after much deliberation, I switched majors. I didn’t find out until later that my father had done graphic design when he was younger as well. Once I switched, I had to do a lot of extra work to catch up, and started my design company, Zerflin, while still in class.

Creation of Zerflin

Photo credits: (top row) Camp amérindien MANTEO MATIKAP, by Guillaume Cattiaux via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); (middle row) screen shots of Ben; (bottom row) Zerflin logo and banner.

That’s impressive!

“Power & control will never outweigh love.” —Jada Koren Pinkett Smith

In college, did you identify most with a particular culture or cultures, or with people who had cross-cultural backgrounds similar to yours?  
While I was in college, in a small town in the States, I was bullied again, this time in the dormitories, and again for being different. But this time it was because I was Canadian, because I grew up on a Rez, and had perspectives that were considered strange by my white dorm mates. I sought refuge in a place on campus called the Rafiki House, a house dedicated to helping TCK and international students adjust to life in the US (rafiki means “friend” in Swahili). I ended up being the first freshman ever to live in the house. I stayed there all four years, getting involved in the protests and fights for its survival when the college tried to shut it down.

I’m sure many current TCKs and international students at the college are grateful for the House’s existence. What made you decide to move to Baltimore?
Baltimore was only an hour-and-a-half drive from college, so I’d often come down with friends to explore, and Tamika and I would come on dates. We fell in love with the city and decided to stay. Tamika originally wanted to teach in the public school system, and I got a job working at a non-profit in DC. Baltimore is much cheaper to live in, so we bought a house here.

“If you have an opportunity to use your voice you should use it.” —Samuel Leroy Jackson

As an ATCK, do you now have “itchy feet,” or do you prefer to have a home base and only travel for pleasure?
I have a very strong wanderlust, but the Recession pretty much killed any opportunities to travel. I try to travel as much as I can with my business, and now have art shows in L.A. that I frequently travel for. We organized with a group of friends and traveled to South Africa for the first time this past winter, which was amazing. It was the first time off the continent for me. Baltimore is really feeling more and more like home, though. Getting involved in the local social justice movements has given me life, and I’m glad to have a base here.

Per your design agency’s website, Zerflin’s staff “champion underdog clients and believe running a company without being evil is paramount.” This is admirable! Did your TCK background influence this mission/vision/value, or did something else, or were there a combination of influences?
Growing up on a Rez, there’s a certain amount of “wokeness” that just comes with living and experiencing how white people in town would treat my friends differently. And as someone who looks white, it was crazy hearing some of the conversations other white people would have about African Americans and Africans, Natives, Latinos, and Asians. As I got more and more involved in social justice on campus and began reading more and more books from black nationalist, feminist, womanist, and social justice authors, I knew I wanted to be involved in that work in some capacity. I also recognized that most companies (especially in design) are more large-client focused. As a social justice action, I wanted to do something different.

Congratulations on your show, which I understand will be at Impact Hub Baltimore for most of May into early June. Are you working on any more big art projects at the moment?
Continuously. I’ve been doing a lot more with art over the past couple years, which is strange for me. I knew some artists in college, and the way they acted really turned me off to art. I already felt looked down upon just being there as a TCK, but artists really seemed to take it to the next level. Tamika greatly encouraged me to pursue art, and as it took off, I’ve been getting more into illustration as a profession. You can see more of my work here.

Ben Jancewicz’s artwork. (Clockwise from top): Trumpeter plays the blues (hand-drawn, digitally rendered); West African Girl, available for purchase at Zerflin (Etsy shop); screenshot of Oprah work at Who Said What exhibition; Fayette Regina Pinkney, commissioned portrait.

* * *

Thank you so much, Ben. Congratulations on your successful business and ongoing artwork! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Benjamin below. Besides checking out his art site, you can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter. You can commission his artwork here and buy select pieces (on paper or canvas), including from the current show, here.

Editor’s note: All quotes are taken from the artwork in Benjamin Jancewicz’s current show, Who Said What.

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is a prime example of what she writes about in this column: an Adult Third Culture Kid 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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TCK TALENT: Mary Bassey, Writer, Storyteller, Advocate and Scientist

Mary Bassey TCK Talent

Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang has invited a member of the up-and-coming generation of talented Adult Third Culture Kids to be her guest this month.

Welcome back, readers. This month’s guest is Mary Bassey, the first ATCK interviewee for this column whose talents extend from writing all the way to biochemistry! Mary is a self-described multiethnic (Efik & Igbo) Nigerian-Canadian-American. She was born in Nigeria, grew up mostly in Canada (the West Coast) and Kentucky, and currently resides in Southern California.

Mary has a talent and a passion for storytelling and writing, particularly when it sparks cross-cultural discussion and helps to effect change. She contributes to The Black Expat, a site that features first-hand accounts, personal narratives and key advice about cross-cultural living from members of the Black Diaspora. She has her own site, Verily Merrily Mary, where she coaches writers in how to have an impact, and she recently started a new blog on the Huffington Post. (Her first post was about the need for millennials to always be hustling, to the detriment of self-care.)

Mary received a prestigious TCK award to take part in this year’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference, in Amsterdam, where she spoke on a panel about storytelling as a means of communicating the experience of a global or Third Culture Kid lifestyle.

I met Mary on Twitter at #TCKchat, a bimonthly Twitter event for which she is one of several co-hosts (@verilymary). I found her so interesting, I decided I had to learn more of her story.

* * *

Welcome, Mary. Please tell us all the places where you grew up and why your family moved.
I was born in Ilorin, Nigeria, a city mostly populated by those from the Yoruba ethnic group. My father is Efik and my mother is Igbo and I fluently spoke both Yoruba and English as a small child, so even before leaving Nigeria for North America, my early childhood was already quite multicultural. My sights were set even further along the global cultural landscape once my father landed jobs as a physics professor in various cities and my mother, siblings, and I moved along with him. Our first move was to Victoria in British Columbia, Canada (on the Southern tip of Vancouver Island), for nearly three years. Then we moved to Kentucky for about seven years. Our last move was to Southern California, which has been my home for over eight years.

Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time, and if so, why?
My life in Victoria was by far the highlight of my life. Growing up, my siblings and I were involved in the activities of the city’s community center, which catered to the needs of kids living in the city, providing parents with time off while giving us the opportunity to play and explore the outdoors. I had my first camping experience in Victoria and actually saw a moose in person at around age six (one of the most Canadian moments of my life!). Hiking, swimming, and wading in the lakes and beaches were normal, nearly everyday parts of my life. Victoria opened up a new world of outdoor life, and I absolutely loved it. I was so carefree.

“Being in a STEM field has given me another avenue to put my mind to use.”

What drew you to studying biochemistry?
I decided to get my bachelors degree in biochemistry because science was something I have always liked, especially the life sciences. I couldn’t choose between biology or chemistry so I decided to pick biochemistry. My task now as a graduate is to figure out how to merge my intellectual curiosity in the sciences with my love of culture and storytelling.

Science and storytelling

The world could use your combination of gifts! Speaking of storytelling, which makes me think of writing, what made you decide to work as a writing coach in California?
When my family moved to California because of my father’s job as a physics professor at a university here, I was entering my second year of high school. I’m now in my early 20s and am still here. I decided to become a writing coach because I knew that I had something to offer to those who are struggling with their writing voice and/or need guidance in order to effectively communicate their message. I have been helping people with their writing since middle school. I decided to make my services more public and created an online platform to do so. It has been a blast working with so many brilliant and smart writers.

“I never thought of myself as a global citizen because I am not a citizen of the globe; I am a citizen of two countries.”

Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures?
I only partially identify with the cultures that I have grown up in. When I say that I am Nigerian, Canadian, or American, there is an invisible asterisk attached to each nationality because they each require a bit more of an explanation. For example, I am Nigerian, but I have spent most of my life living in North America. This may cause some people to question the validity of my Nigerianness because it is inevitably in juxtaposition with my Canadianness and my Americanness. Regardless, I know that my being Nigerian is valid.

Did your TCK upbringing inform your choice to become a writer? 
I think so. With so much of my life in transition and in flux, writing has been one of the few constants. Paper and pen is readily available in every place I have lived, and nowadays, of course, we also have laptops and tablets. When you are living a cross-cultural life, you become introspective by force. As a kid, I had plenty of those moments of introspection—though I may not have taken them to heart or perhaps was not yet able to understand my feelings fully.

Has writing helped you to process your TCK upbringing?
I only found out about the term “TCK” four years ago! It has helped me put words to my childhood experiences and write more about my TCK life. Finding other TCKs in the blogosphere and via social media encouraged me to be more confident in making my stories and experiences public on blogs and other kinds of publications. But even with the various opportunities I have been given to write on public platforms, I do not neglect writing for myself (journaling, etc.). I am such a strong believer in people—writers especially—journaling privately. It’s like the socially acceptable version of talking to yourself.

“How many of us millennials are more concerned with growing our ‘Countries I’ve Been To’ list instead of having in-depth interactions with the citizens of those countries?”

As an ATCK, do you have “itchy feet”?
One thing I like to say is that I find instability in stability. My obsession with wordplay aside, the statement rings so true for me. The fact that I can say I have been in the same spot (here in California) for over eight years is mind boggling—and makes me feel a bit anxious. The idea of being anything close to 100% established and settled in a place is not a source of comfort for me at all. My upbringing was not like that. I liked looking forward to my next plane, ferryboat, or long-distance bus ride during school holidays as a kid. My childhood was indeed nomadic. However, already this year, for the first time in five years, I took two international trips, giving me a whopping total of 10 planes already taken this year. That constant movement has kept me sane. It’s the madness of travel that keeps me centered.

Do you prefer to travel for business, pleasure, or both?
I would not mind a lifestyle that affords my moving frequently. And, while vacations are fun, I would not want all of my travel to be rooted in pleasure alone. My latest trip to Amsterdam was around the middle of March of this year. As you mentioned at the outset, I traveled there to attend the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference and I was one of five ATCKs to be awarded the Pollock Scholarship, which covers our cost of attending. I was also one of the conference presenters! I was on the plenary panel led by Julia Simens, called “Stories You Need to Tell.” There was a strong sense of purpose and duty with my going to Amsterdam. While the city was gorgeous, it was not just a vacation for me. That is the kind of thing that I want to happen regularly in my life: traveling with a purpose beyond pleasure.

The Worlds Within

I can relate and I’m sure it will continue to happen for you. Per your site, Verily Merrily Mary, you’re involved in many worthy causes: you’ve worked with organizations that aim to encourage grade school kids to get excited about STEM fields, especially children from underrepresented groups. You also support and volunteer with organizations that empower cancer patients and cancer researchers. Last July, you received the title Miss Efik USA, and you advocate for the Nigerian Efik people who live in the United States as well as in Nigeria. Congratulations on these contributions and achievements! Is there anything else you would like to share?
I had the absolute honor to be published in the book The Worlds Within: An Anthology of TCK Art and Writing: Young, Global and Between Cultures, which was launched in 2014 as a way of giving children and adolescents a voice regarding their TCK experience.
Editor’s note: The Worlds Within made our Best of Expat Books for 2014.

 

* * *

Thank you, Mary. Readers: you may learn more about Mary, her writing, and her various projects at her Verily Merrily site. If you have any questions or comments for her, please be sure to leave them below.

Editor’s note: All photos were supplied by Mary Bassey or are from Pixabay, with the exception of the two FIGT conference photos, which are from their Facebook page. The quotes are from Mary’s posts on Verily Merrilly.

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is a prime example of what she writes about in this column: an Adult Third Culture Kid 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 more fab posts!

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: 6 writers talk expat- and travel-themed books: last year’s faves, this year’s must-reads

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), has canvassed several international creatives for their favorite expat- and travel-themed books of 2015, along with what’s on their bedside tables in 2016.

Hello, Displaced Nationers!

Last month I wrote to you about my Goodreads Reading Challenge, which, at 34 books and counting, is still proving (ahem) something of a challenge.

For this month’s column, instead of focusing on my 300-book goal, I decided to find out what other international creatives, several of whom have been featured in this column and/or on the Displaced Nation, have been reading.

I asked each of them to answer these two questions:

  1. What were the best books you read last year on displaced/expat/travel themes?
  2. What books are you looking forward to this year in the same or similar genres?  

Their responses are nothing short of tantalizing!

So much so that I’m now wondering…can I squeeze any more in?!

Please take a look:

* * *

MARK ADAMS, bestselling author

For the last several months I’ve been working on a new book about Alaska, so the 49th State has occupied a lot of my reading hours. Naturally, I’ve reread John McPhee’s classic Coming into the Country and Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. But two slightly less well-known books with an Alaska connection have really stuck with me.

John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire_coverThe first is John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire: How a Visionary and the Glaciers of Alaska Changed America, by Kim Heacox (Lyons Press, 2014). This is a great example of history that comes alive by weaving names, dates and events with passion for a cause, in this case environmentalism. Today, Alaska’s shrinking glaciers are viewed mostly by passengers aboard cruise ships who look up while sampling their breakfast buffets. To Muir, though, they were living things, mysteries that held timeless wisdom. Heacox makes a stirring argument that Muir’s early trips to Alaska jump-started the modern conservation movement.

Deadliest_State_coverThe second book is Kalee Thompson’s The Deadliest Sea: The Untold Story Behind the Greatest Rescue in Coast Guard History (Harper-Collins, 2010). When I realized that my book research was going to take me deep into the Bering Sea, which I wasn’t even sure I could place on a map, I reached for a copy of this. I’m not sure it was the right choice for someone who’ll be sailing those frigid and famously turbulent waters soon, but any readers who like tales along the lines of The Perfect Storm or Black Hawk Down will find that Thompson’s tick-tock re-creation of this lifesaving mission really places them amid the freezing chaos of the action.

Sunnys_Nights_coverOne book I’ve already read and loved in 2016 takes place very far from Alaska. It’s Tim Sultan’s delightful Sunny’s Nights: Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World, a memoir that tells the story of a curious young man who lands in Brooklyn in the mid-1990s after a peripatetic and somewhat disorienting youth in Laos, the Ivory Coast and Germany. Sultan finds a home at what must be the strangest tavern north of New Orleans—Sunny’s opens only one night a week and its clientele runs from Mafiosi to nuns—and takes on the bar’s namesake owner as a sort of surrogate father. It’s a stained-glass window offering a nostalgic glimpse of a Brooklyn that has largely vanished.

The Seven Storey Mountain_coverNow, a book I’m looking forward to reading this year: The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton (Harcourt Brace; Fiftieth Anniversary ed., 1998). When I attended Catholic school in the 1970s, there were probably copies of Thomas Merton’s huge bestseller in every classroom, which is a shame, because most grade schoolers would be more interested in reading the phone book. Now that I’m older and no longer required to recite the Lord’s Prayer along with the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, I have the life experience that pushes one to ponder big questions, such as the meaning of life. Merton made that leap much earlier; he was an urbane, Ivy League-educated writer who abandoned a budding career at age 23 to cloister himself in a Kentucky monastery. (As a writer, I’m almost as awed by his decision to donate all royalties to his monastic order.) This is the story of his circuitous path toward embracing a life of pure spirituality.

Mark Adams is the bestselling author of Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City, which was reviewed for this column in May of last year.


JENNIFER ALDERSON, expat and author

Savage Harvest_coverLast year, while researching my third novel, I was lucky enough to come across Carl Hoffman’s Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art (2014) It is simply one of the best nonfiction travel adventure stories I have read in a very long time. An award-winning American journalist, Hoffman recounts his fascinating journey to Papua New Guinea, where he retraces the last art-collecting expedition made by anthropologist Michael Rockefeller. He juxtaposes his own travels through the Asmat region with a fictive reconstruction of Rockefeller’s final days before his mysterious disappearance, based on extensive archival research and new eyewitness accounts. He effortlessly combines mystery, adventure, personal self-discovery and colonial history into one captivating novel.

The Travelers_cover
When reviewing my bookshelf last week, I noticed I’ve bought quite a few international thrillers and mysteries featuring American expat protagonists this past year. So in that vein, I’m most looking forward to reading Chris Pavone’s The Travelers, (Crown, March 2016). Pavone is an American writer whose first novel, The Expats, is set primarily in the capitals of Luxembourg, Belgium and France. That book was a stylish, fast-paced thriller, yet what caught my attention the most was the lyrical and natural way in which he described these cities without slowing the plot down. His latest thriller promises to crisscross South America and Europe. I can’t wait to read it!

Gallery Pieces_coverAnother mystery/thriller I just learned about is Gallery Pieces: An Art Mystery, by Larry Witham (Archway Publishing, 2015). It’s about an American art expert who travels through Europe attempting to track down artwork stolen during World War Two. it sounds like a great story. Editor’s note: Larry Witham is a former journalist and foreign correspondent who became a full-time writer and artist (painting and drawing) around ten years ago.

Jennifer S. Alderson is the author of Down and Out in Kathmandu and American expat in the Netherlands.


MARIANNE BOHR, Displaced Nation columnist and memoirist

TheRentCollectorOf the travel/expat books I read in 2015, three come to mind immediately. The first is The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright (Shadow Mountain, 2013). This gritty yet heart-warming story is set in the largest municipal dump located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a country about which I knew little. A couple with a chronically ill son live in a hovel in the dump, surviving day-to-day from what they can salvage and sell. They struggle to pay the titular rent collector, a bitter, alcoholic woman, every month. Books play a key role in this tale of perseverance.

Wright was inspired to write the book by his son Trevor’s 2012 documentary, River of Victory, who in turn was inspired by the people he met when volunteering as a humanitarian aid worker for the Cambodian Children’s Fund.

A Sport and a Pastime_coverLast year I also enjoyed reading the classic novel A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter, which was originally published in 1967. (it was republished by Open Road Media in 2012). It’s an erotic tale told in tight prose that takes place in a small town in France. I couldn’t put it down.
Editor’s note: James Salter, who died last year, had a passion for European culture and particularly for France. Though he eventually became a full-time writer, he started his life as an officer in the United States Air Force, just after the end of World War II, and was stationed overseas, in Korea, Germany and France.

Coconut Latitudes_coverAnother book I enjoyed was The Coconut Latitudes: Secrets, Storms and Survival in the Caribbean, by Rita M. Gardner. It’s a coming-of-age memoir set in the Dominican Republic, where Gardner’s father transplanted his young American family. What begins as a dream of life in paradise soon takes a few wrong turns. The book, which came out a year before mine with She Writes Press, was a Gold Medal Winner for Autobiography/Memoir at the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards. Editor’s Note: Rita Gardner is a Displaced Nationer who was interviewed for A Picture Says… and featured for Valentine’s Day. Her book was on our “Best of 2014” list.)

Things Can Only Get Feta_coverThis year, I’m looking forward to reading Things Can Only Get Feta: Two journalists and their crazy dog living through the Greek crisis, by Marjory McGinn (2nd Ed.; Pelagos Press, 2015)
I’ve read many memoirs about expats on the isles of Greece, but this one by a transplanted Scottish couple intrigues me because of its location on the Mani Peninsula of the Peloponnese. The rugged landscape and fierce independent people of this part of Greece has always been on my list to visit for an extended period of time, and I can’t wait to delve into this volume. Editor’s note: Marjory McGinn’s sequel, Homer Is Where the Heart Is, made the Displaced Nation’s Best of 2015 nonfiction expat books.

TheDiscoveryofFrance_coverAnother volume on my bedside table is The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography, by Graham Robb (W.W. Norton & Company, 2008). I have owned this book for almost eight years, ever since it was published. I am a Francophile through and through and yet, the book keeps getting pushed aside for others. A history of France from the perspective of its provinces, it received outstanding reviews when it was published, and I am determined to read it in 2016. Editor’s note: For those who like stories of displacement, the author, Graham Robb, is originally from Manchester, UK, but took his Ph.D. in French literature from the University of Tennessee. He married an alumna of Vanderbilt University, and they live in Oxford, UK.

Peanut Butter and Naan_cover Another book on my to-read list is Jennifer Hillman-Magnuson’s Peanut Butter and Naan: Stories of an American Mom in the Far East, which came out with She Writes Press in 2014. This story by a woman whose husband is transferred from the US to India intrigued me the moment I read a review. They uproot their family of five children from their pampered existence in Nashville, Tennessee, to India, where they encounter extreme poverty, malaria, and no conveniences. I’m particularly interested in reading about how the children reacted to the move.

Marianne C. Bohr is the author of Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, which came out last year with She Writes Press. It was on the Displaced Nation’s Best of 2015 list for expat nonfiction. She also contributes an occasional column, World of Words, to the Displaced Nation.


JESSICA PAN, expat and memoirist

TheUnbecoming_coverThe best book I read last year about displaced/expat/travel themes was The Unbecoming, by Rebecca Scherm (Viking, 2015). It’s about a first-class jewel thief Julie from California, who’s really Grace from Tennessee. She makes her way to Paris, where she works for a shady antiques restorer, turning out objets d’art that are exquisite fakes. I loved how the protagonist re-invents herself in Paris—and yet, of course, her past comes back to find her. Gripping and inventive, with an unpredictable love story.

This year I’m looking forward to reading Cities I’ve Never Lived In: Stories, by Sara Majka, which came out with Graywolf Press in January. Cities_Ive_Never_Lived_In_coverOnce again, these linked short stories are about reinvention, which is one of my favorite things about living abroad (and I like to think about the many versions of myself I’ve formed and perhaps left in Beijing, Melbourne and now London).

Majka’s is the second book to come out in a collaboration between Graywolf and the journal A Public Space, to which Majka has contributed (they are also promoting her book). She made her debut in the journal seven years ago with the short story “Saint Andrews Hotel”; you can read it here.

Jessica Pan is the co-author of the 2014 memoir Graduates in Wonderland: The International Misadventures of Two (Almost) Adults. A graduate of Brown University, she worked as an editor of an expat magazine and a TV report in Beijing, earned a journalism degree in Melbourne, Australia, and now makes her living as a London-based writer.


H.E. RYBOL, Displaced Nation columnist, adult TCK and author

Write_This_Second_coverOne of the best books I read last year was Write This Second, by Kira Lynne Allen (Prashanti Press, 2015). Written in verse, the book tells the author’s story about overcoming trauma and reclaiming her life. Allen searingly chronicles a childhood blown apart by racism, incest, and rape, and a young adulthood marred by addiction, domestic violence and post-traumatic stress—but then she finds redemption in the recovery process and healing in her art. A sense of displacement permeates part of the book. Like other readers, I found the experience of this book life changing.

Thank You for Being Expendable_coverAnother book I enjoyed reading last year was Thank You For Being Expendable: And Other Experiences, by Colby Buzzell (Byliner, 2015). Buzzell is an Iraq War veteran, and he wrote these stories, 36 in total, over a decade of making his way back home. Though there were aspects of his adventures I didn’t appreciate, I really took to his style. Like Kira Lynne Allen, he is honest and unfiltered. I also liked that he takes his readers to China, England and other places exploring underground culture while he attempts to return to civilian life and the sense of being expendable.

Florence_and_Me_coverMy last pick for top 2015 reads is Florence and Me: The story of how the city of Florence befriended an American girl from Brooklyn, by Elaine Bertolotti (self-published, 2014). Bertolotti is a proud Italian American whose grandparents were born in Italy. She moved to Florence in the 1970s and taught English while also somehow managing to start up her own art studio and sustain an artistic career. She took pains to master the Italian language as well. Bertolotti says she likes to think of herself as one of the pioneers who paved the road for all the Americans who’ve followed her into the expat life in Italy. Her book is a short, fun read.

My Life on the Road_coverThis year I’m looking forward to reading Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road (Random House, 2015). Can’t wait!
Beth’s note: I’m also reading this, this month. It’s great so far!
Editor’s note: Steinem’s book, her first in 20 years, is on the Displaced Nation’s Best of 2015 expat nonfiction list. We gave her the status of honorary expat for her extensive travels within and outside the United States.

HE Rybol is the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and contributes the Culture Shock Toolbox column to the Displaced Nation.


SHANNON YOUNG, expat, author, and Displaced Nation columnist

Here Comes the Sun_coverOne of the best books I read last year was the memoir Here Comes the Sun: A Journey to Adoption in 8 Chakras, by Leza Lowitz (Stone Bridge Press, 2015). Lowitz is an American woman who travels to Japan and falls in love with a Japanese man and begins a life with him in Tokyo. Together they pursue adoption and start a yoga studio. What I liked: Lowitz writes about her experiences with heartfelt vulnerability. Her prose is often poetic as she gets at the heart of the displaced experience and explores a longing for motherhood that took her by surprise. Editor’s note: Leza Lowitz still lives in Tokyo with her husband and son. She calls herself an “accidental global citizen.” She is the author of 17 books in several different genres.

Seafaring Women_coverAnother book I enjoyed was Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors’ Wives, by David Cordingly (Random House, 2009). It’s an account of the lives of women during the golden age of sail. These are true stories of women who left their homes to go to sea and settle in port towns all over the globe. What I liked: This book is a different take on the displaced theme. It explores the lives of real women who had a unique kind of expat experience in the great seafaring days. As with modern expats, some went to sea for adventure, some were pursuing employment opportunities (occasionally but not always disguised as men), and some were accompanying spouses. One thing’s for sure: nothing is better than real-life female pirates!

The Expatriates A Novel_coverThis year, I’m most looking forward to The Expatriates, by Janice Y.K. Lee (Viking, January 2016). Lee’s novel follows the lives of three expatriate women in Hong Kong. Why I’m interested: Lee’s first novel, The Piano Teacher, was one of the first books I read about Hong Kong. In fact, I bought it on the plane after visiting my now-husband several months before moving to Hong Kong to be with him. I’m looking forward to reading her new novel about the expatriate experience and comparing it to my own life as an expat here.

Shannon Young is a Hong Kong-based expat, Displaced Nation columnist (she contributes the bimonthly column Diary of an Expat Writer) and author of the new release Ferry Tale.

* * *

Thanks, everyone, for your contributions!

Still not seeing the right book for your next armchair adventure? Browsing ML’s great posts about fiction and nonfiction reads for 2016 is an excellent place to start. And, if you’re interested in Asia, I’d also recommend this blog post by Australian-born British novelist and writer Renae Lucas Hall, who writes about Japan. She’s listed some very intriguing books about Japan that she read in 2015 or will be reading in 2016.

So, readers, what’s on your bedside tables, and are you planning to add any of the above books?

Till next time and happy reading!

As always, please let me or ML know if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see reviewed here! And I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

Beth Green is an American writer 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. She has also launched the site 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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TCK TALENT: Sezín Koehler, multimedia artist, tatoo collector, editor and prodigious writer

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.

* * *

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.

Keep Calm & Be a Mermaid

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.
Crime Rave Marilyn
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.

* * *

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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TCK TALENT: Donna Musil, Writer-Director, Lawyer, Activist & Proud Army Brat

The uber TCK-talented Donna Musil. Photo credit: Ray Ng.

The uber TCK-talented Donna Musil. Photo credit: Ray Ng.

Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her latest interview guest.

Welcome back, readers! It’s been awhile. But I think the wait will be worth it as my latest interviewee is the super-talented writer, filmmaker and social change agent Donna Musil. Donna is also a fitting choice for the month when America celebrates Veteran’s Day. She made the award-winning documentary BRATS: Our Journey Home, narrated by Kris Kristofferson, about what it is like to grow up in a military family and the long-term impact it can have on a person’s adult life.

She is also the founding director of Brats Without Borders, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing awareness and support for military brats and other Third Culture Kids.

Donna’s interest in the subculture of military brats is personal. Born into a career Army family, she went to 12 schools by the time she was 16 and never had a hometown. Her family moved almost every year until she was seven, from Fort Benning, Georgia, to two other bases in Georgia (Athens and Macon, the latter when her father was serving in Korea and Vietnam); then to the enormous Army installation in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and to Charlottesville, Virginia, where her father was doing something at the university. They moved overseas twice: to Germany (Bad Kreuznach), followed by Fort Mason in San Francisco; and to South Korea—Yongsan Garrison in Seoul and then Camp Walker in Taegu (now Daegu), after which they were stationed in Fort Knox, Kentucky. Donna’s father died in the summer of 1976, two months after she turned 16, and her family had to leave base housing. They moved to Columbus, Georgia.

Talk about talent! BRATS was Donna’s very first directing effort. I had the privilege of getting to know her as one of my fellow authors in the TCK anthology Writing Out of Limbo.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Donna. Even though I’ve met and have interviewed plenty of Adult TCKs, my head is still spinning at the number of moves you experienced as a youngster. Once you reached young adulthood, did you settle in one spot or keep moving?
I stayed in Georgia for college, earning a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a law degree a few years later (the time in between I traveled and worked as an on-air radio newscaster). After law school, I practiced union-side labor law in Washington, DC and Atlanta. In the late 1980s, I quit practicing law to pursue a writing career, my childhood dream. After a few years in Atlanta, I moved to Los Angeles to “pay my dues” in the film business, but when the 1994 Northridge earthquake struck and destroyed half of my possessions, I stored the other half at my sister’s and moved to Dublin, Ireland, for two years to write. When I ran out of money, I returned to Georgia and began making the BRATS film. I lived in a crooked, old family lakehouse, which became my “base.” During the ten years it took to make and distribute the BRATS film, I also worked as a technical writer and/or attended writer’s residencies in Denmark, Spain, Paris, Taos, and Port Townsend (Washington).

Where do you live now?
In 2010, I moved to Denver to be near my sister and her family, and have lived there ever since, except when I’ve been on writer’s residencies—in France, Chicago, and San Francisco. (I’ll be living at a writer’s residency in Chiang Mai, Thailand, this coming winter.)

Donna Musil, already displaying her talents in Korea, 1975. (Photo supplied.)

Donna Musil, already displaying her talents in Korea, 1975. (Photo supplied.)

Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time?
I was happiest when we lived at Fort Mason in San Francisco when I was 11 to 13 years old. Interestingly enough, it was one of the least “military” of all of our assignments, just a block away from the famed Ghirardelli Square, overlooking the bay. I attended public schools, populated by an eclectic array of children, whose parents were everything from authors to restaurant owners to ballerinas. The racial makeup of the student body was about a third Chinese, a third white, and a third black and brown. I loved it!

I can imagine you thriving on the diversity. Was there anything else that made that time special?
Yes, swimming! I joined the Presidio Swim Club after watching Mark Spitz bedazzle the tragic 1972 Olympics, and began dreaming of my own (albeit unlikely) Olympic run. I walked to school every day and to swim practice every afternoon. I think I still hold the Marina Junior High School record for the most pull-ups for a 13-year-old girl—12! I loved everything about San Francisco—the culture, the diversity, the hippies on the beach. It was also the last year before my father got sick, so I suppose it was the end of my innocence. The next year, we moved to Seoul, Korea, for six months and then to Taegu, where there was no swim team, and my dreams of Olympic glory evaporated. My freshman class had ten students, total. We were surrounded by jaded, war-struck soldiers on their way to or from Vietnam, bars, prostitutes, and easy access to drugs and alcohol. You can imagine the results.

Because everybody needs a place to call home…

Let’s talk about BRATS. For readers who aren’t familiar, here is the trailer:


Were you surprised by what a hit BRATS has been with adult military brats and ATCKs? 
The reaction to BRATS: Our Journey Home has been interesting. I initially made the movie to figure out “who I was and where I was from,” but it quickly became apparent that it was less about me and more about the brat/TCK culture in general. I had been separated from the military life for twenty years when I began filming so was somewhat surprised to discover that most of the issues the movie discusses are just as relevant today as they were when I was a child—particularly the emotional and trauma-related issues.

In your essay in Writing Out of Limbo, you mention a teenaged boy who loved the documentary because it was the first time he had seen a family like his portrayed on film. You state: “I would do it all over again to hear that one comment. To make a difference in just one child’s life—no honor, award, or monetary compensation could ever compare.” That’s tremendous! But let’s also talk about your goal of affecting change within the military itself. How has the military responded?
To be honest, I would have to say that the military-as-a-whole has not welcomed the film or the research of Brats Without Borders (or any other “brat” groups) with open arms, nor have they helped us implement programs or provide resources to current and retired families that address the emotional needs of military brats/TCKs. There have been pockets of institutional and corporate support for a related art exhibit and workshops, as well as the film distribution costs, and Armed Forces Network has broadcast the film multiple times. The reactions have always been universally positive, but we could be doing so much more (with so very little).

So there are no military groups who have interpreted the film as a call to action?
In general, the military clergy and soldiers have been most supportive of our work and the military educational system and spouses the least supportive. It took me a while to realize that it must be hard to hear that the life you’ve chosen for your family (often a life better than your own childhood) also has its flaws. Many (high-powered) spouses are willing to hear and promote the positive legacies of growing up brat/TCK but tend to gloss over the painful legacies and attribute them to bad parenting instead of institutional pressures, traditions, or combat trauma. As a result, nothing much changes, and (as it has always been), brats/TCKs are forced to take care of their own emotional needs. Nowadays, people talk a little bit more about the sacrifice of military kids and groups give them free “stuff”; but they’re still not addressing their emotional needs (among other things) or considering what institutional changes might be made to ease their transitions and difficulties.

You must find that frustrating.
It’s particularly frustrating when I hear the institution and the media talk about the “lack of research” in this area, because it’s simply not true. We have the research. We’ve had it for 25 years. They just don’t always like what the research says. The military wants to downplay the negatives and the media wants to downplay the positives. Meanwhile, millions of dollars are being thrown into programs for military kids that are designed by people who haven’t walked the walk, or whose loyalties lie more with the institution or perpetuating their own existence than they do with the children. That may seem harsh, but I think it’s the truth. Perhaps one day actual brats and TCKs will be invited to the table and given substantial support, but I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, we’ll just keep helping ourselves!

“Like many brats,…I could talk to, but didn’t trust, anyone.” —Donna Musil in Writing Out of Limbo

Let’s move on to talk about the TCK experience. Many of the sections in your essay for Writing Out of Limbo resonated with me; for instance, when you said: “There are lessons each of us has to learn in our lives, and the more we avoid learning a particular lesson, the harder God will knock us down, until we have no choice but to learn it (and move on to the next lesson….). Still I didn’t learn.” You mention trust issues, inability to handle disagreement or confrontation, and more traits that are common among ATCKs, for which you needed to learn healthier coping mechanisms. Has making and touring BRATS helped you deal with this? Or do your old TCK survival mechanisms still crop up from time to time (like mine do even though creating Alien Citizen helped me a lot)?
For good or ill, I think all of my TCK survival mechanisms are alive and well! I’ve just learned to manage them better, with experiences from the BRATS film, my new film projects, some very good therapy, a lot of reading, and a very kind, understanding, and patient fiancé.

Has making and touring BRATS helped Donna to deal with some of the TCK issues Donna describes in Writing Out of Limbo? (Cover art; poster art, supplied.)

Has making and touring BRATS helped Donna to deal with some of the TCK issues she describes in Writing Out of Limbo? (Cover art and poster art, supplied.)

Are you tempted, for example, to run away from confrontation/disagreement?
Yes, I’d rather flee, move, break up or leave. I’ve learned to temper that impulse by isolating myself and dealing with it after I’ve calmed down. I also still have a visceral reaction to mean-spirited, unjust, authoritative, or self-centered people, but instead of confronting them like I used to, I try to avoid them. I’m much less black-and-white about things—but perhaps that’s just the wisdom of age. I do make people earn my trust instead of instantly bestowing it, and vice versa. There are so many ways “growing up brat/TCK” still affects my life today; it probably shapes almost everything I do. As I get older, though, I try to build on the positive aspects of my youth and temper the less-than-positive legacies, which is often much easier said than done!

Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures, or with people who have similar interests and perhaps similar cross-cultural backgrounds?  
I don’t identify with any particular culture or ethnicity, other than the brat/TCK culture. I don’t even have any real nationalistic tendencies. I don’t think America is “the best country in the world.” I think all countries and all people have their good points and not-so-good points; it just depends on what you’re most comfortable with. That said, I am definitely the quintessential American—independent, strong-willed, feisty, rebellious. Daniel Boone was my (great-great) uncle, his oldest brother Samuel my (great-great) grandfather, so I come by that spirit honestly. But my political sensibilities are more Scandinavian, like my grandmother’s side of the family. I enjoy being around other curious, open-minded “outsiders,” many of whom tend to have cross-cultural backgrounds. I try very hard not to consider myself, or any group to which I feel I might belong, “special.” That kind of thinking is the source of most of the world’s ills.

Do you have “itchy feet,” which still make you want to move frequently? Or would you prefer to have a home base and only travel for pleasure?
My poor fiancé. He was an educator brat—but basically grew up in one town in Germany. When we first started dating, I’d tell him all of the places I dream about living in: Vancouver, Canada; Austin, TX; San Francisco, CA; Chiang Mai, Thailand; Asheville, NC; and Paris, etc. Like any man, he wanted to give me what I wanted, but he couldn’t pin me down on what I actually wanted (one of the banes of being a brat/TCK). I was born and raised to be geographically and intellectually curious (the best legacy of growing up brat/TCK!). I like to stay somewhere until I want to go somewhere else—and my fiancé is okay with that, too. I don’t have any children, and his are grown, so it’s possible for us to live this way. Perhaps we’ll settle down in one place in the future. Denver is a nice town. We like it—for now.

Donna’s next act(s)

Returning to your work: I believe you are making another documentary? Tell us about it.
Yes, the film is called Our Own Private Battlefield. It’s the first documentary about the intergenerational effects of combat PTSD on military children, and how one Marine family is using art to help heal the long-term wounds of the Vietnam War. I still have a few more interviews to shoot. I’m hoping the lessons learned from this family will help generations of current and future military families deal with the traumas of war, both here and abroad.

Battlefield sounds amazing.
It’s actually a byproduct of the combined efforts of Brats Without Borders and Marine brat Lora Beldon’s organization, Military Kid Art Project, which teaches customized art classes to military children.

Your mention of art reminds me: I think an art exhibit is one of your other projects?
Yes, Lora and I founded the BRAT Art Institute this year and will host our first Military BRAT Art Camp in 2016, in conjunction with Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, VA. Right now we have a museum exhibit currently touring the country, called “UNCLASSIFIED: The Military Kid Art Show.” It won a Newman’s Own Award in 2012 and features over fifty years of military brat and veteran art from around the world, historical artifacts, and films about using art to heal trauma. The art camps will be part of a larger research effort to study how art can help military children deal with the traumas of war and multiple deployments.

Do you have any projects that don’t relate to the military?
Yes, my personal projects are much more eclectic. Besides a TV show based on brats in Korea in the 1970s, I’m also shopping a children’s animated film script based on African folktales (with a producer from Ghana) as well as a feature film screenplay about a modern-day union campaign at a small-town nursing home. My current writing efforts are focused on a murder mystery, based on (what I believe) is an unjust incarceration of an innocent man for over thirty years.

How can we follow your progress?
People can see my brat/TCK projects at www.USAbrat.org. Later this year, I will be putting up a personal page, donnamusil.com, for my non-brat/TCK projects.

* * *

Thank you so much, Donna! I think I can speak for the entire Displaced Nation in asserting that you’ve blown us all away with all the important and necessary work you do for military brats, veterans, and TCKs. Congratulations on your many extraordinary achievements! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Donna below.

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 more fab posts!

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Two expats in Senegal spin “wax” into Western lifestyle brand

6 Bougies Collage Drop Shadow

Clockwise from top: Six Bougies logo; Kim at the fabric market in Dakar; Megan at a craft fair in Dakar. Photo credit: Six Bougies.

Having repatriated some years ago to the United States, I occasionally still crave the adventure of living abroad. But then I console myself by recalling the Internet journeys I make every week on behalf of the Displaced Nation, in search of international creatives. Those virtual journeys can open my eyes to whole new worlds full of breathtaking color—rather literally in the case of Six Bougies, a siteI landed on from Pinterest several weeks ago.

It turned out to be the companion blog for a business of the same name, run by two American expats in Senegal, the equally bedazzling Kim Rochette and Megan Carpenter.

Kim and Megan are my guests today and will talk about how they came to a life of spinning Western clothes, accessories and home wares out of gorgeous West African fabrics.

In addition, Kim and Megan have kindly agreed to GIVE AWAY A SIX BOUGIES DUFFEL BAG (see photo below) TO THE PERSON WHO LEAVES THE BEST COMMENT! (Wow, a non-book giveaway, a first…)

And one more: Displaced Dispatch subscribers will receive a discount code for use in the Six Bougies Etsy shop. How cool is that? (What, not a subscriber yet? SIGN UP NOW!!)

But before we proceed, I want to make sure you know how to pronounce “bougie.” I initially made the mistake of pronouncing it with a hard “g”—which led to a vision of two American women in colorful garb boogying down the streets of Dakar, Senegal’s capital city.

Outlandish, I know. (Besides, who were the other four?) So take my advice and start practicing now practicing how to say “bougie” with a soft “g”: boo-gee boo-gee boo-gee boo-gee boo-gee boo-gee.

As for why there are six boo-gees, read on. Almost needless to say, it’s a colorful story!

* * *

Greetings, Kim and Megan. Before we get to the meaning of “Six Bougies,” something we’re all curious to know, let’s cover a few of the basics. How long have you been running the business?
KIM: For a little under a year. And don’t forget: it’s “boo-gee.”

In your Etsy shop you describe Six Bou-GEES as “a lifestyle brand that fuses West African textiles, colors and patterns with a Western aesthetic.” What do you mean by a “lifestyle brand”?
MEGAN: We’ve conceived of Six Bougies as a brand that appeals to people who yearn for travel and love to surround themselves with beautiful objects from around the world. Our pillows, neckties and bags can add a little of that spice to everyday life.

I understand that you have a blog that supports this brand?
KIM: Yes, as I try to show with the Six Bougies blog (I’m the the writer of our team, while Megan is the artist), the concept goes far beyond a selection of home wares and accessories for sale. I post about fashion, expat life in Africa, local decor, cultural events in Senegal, and related topics. A few months ago I did a post full of tips on how to have Western clothing made by African tailors. Dakar, where we both live, has affordable tailors at every street corner and a wealth of vibrant textiles for sale at the fabric market. Soon I will write about my attempt to commission furniture for my apartment with local materials from Senegalese artisans, but with a Western aesthetic.

Ah, that sounds like a good example of “African-Western fusion”—true of your product line as well?
KIM: Yes. We use fabrics purchased (and mostly made) in Africa and rely on the expertise of local tailors to execute Megan’s Western-influenced designs, with an international audience in mind. The duffel bags Megan designed are a perfect example of this African-Western fusion, as is our line of neckties in wax.

6 Bougies Merch collage

Six Bougies products: cushion, tie, and duffel bag (we’re giving one away!). Photo credit: Six Bougies.

Please tell me what “wax” is.
KIM: “Wax” is short for “wax print,” which is similar to batik printing. In Africa, these prints are made on colorful cotton cloths, which are mostly industrially produced.

When life gives you scraps…

So, where did the idea for Six Bougies originate?
MEGAN: I had been teaching in Senegal for about a year, acquiring (stockpiling?) wax fabric, beads, and other locally produced goods. It was everywhere, in just about every room and closet of my apartment. But I never had anything made because I was nervous as to how my vision would be executed. But at the end of my first year, I decided to bite the bullet and have 15 pairs of size 8 shorts made in wax. Most of my friends and family (females) are the same size-ish, and I would just give them out as gifts when I went home. They were a huge hit: some friends and family actually wanted more than one pair! That gave me the confidence to start making more products, and eventually transition this into a business.

KIM: About a year ago, I felt the itch to start my own blog on life in Senegal—but beyond the travel blog I had previously updated for family and friends, I wanted to create a space for telling the story of what it’s like for a young, international woman to live in West Africa and travel the region for work, trying to carve out a place in this sometimes crazy and always invigorating place. I also have a great love for design and textiles, which has grown exponentially living in such a tactile, sensory locale. Megan and I decided to join forces and build a brand that melds our passion for West African textiles while also empowering women in the process.

Before we get to the topic of women’s empowerment, it’s high time we learned how you got that unusual name…as I think it relates to that goal?
KIM: We named the business “Six Bougies” after an iconic African pattern by Vlisco that depicts six bougies (spark plugs). A person would wear this fabric to signal that they had a six-cylinder car, a sign of wealth. Eventually, the fabric came to symbolize female empowerment in Africa. Thus “Six Bougies” perfectly marries our passions for design and women’s rights.

Tailors Penda and Adji at work in Dakar

Tailors Penda and Adji at work in Dakar. Photo credit: Six Bougies.

Please tell me that I’m not the only one who mispronounces “bougie”?
KIM: People do mispronounce it sometimes, but it was a risk we were willing to take!

Moving over to your decision to donate a portion of your business’s profits to support and empower women: why that cause in particular?
KIM: In Senegal, tailoring is traditionally a male-oriented career path. Honestly, there aren’t a lot of jobs out there for women, especially single women and/or mothers. So when I meet a female tailor, I try to help them out by giving them business because I know how hard it is to branch out and do something different. And, as Megan and I are both involved in education, we hope to steer our business efforts to this cause as well. We are both very inspired by Della, a similar business based out of Ghana and LA which has really taken off in the past year, partnering with Apple, Urban Outfitters, and Vans to build a veritable social enterprise in Hohoe, Ghana.

“Sew” very happy in Dakar!

Moving on to your expat life in Senegal. What brought you to Dakar originally?
KIM: I first studied abroad in Dakar when I was a junior in college and returned after I graduated. I’ve been living here for nearly four consecutive years. I had always been drawn to African literature, film, and history; and then when I had the opportunity to live in Africa for a semester, I was drawn to Senegal for its complex history with France (I am half-French) and role as as a hub for development in West and Francophone Africa. After studying in Dakar, I was hooked.

MEGAN: I was working at an inner city charter school is Los Angeles as a teacher and decided it was time to teach in a different part of the world to have more access to places that would otherwise be difficult and expensive to reach. There were lots of offers for the Middle East and one for my current school in Senegal. I chose Senegal because the school is highly regarded as a stand out in the region and the country seemed like a fascinating mix of modern yet traditional ideologies. I’ve been here three years and am so happy I took the leap.

What do you like most about life in Dakar?
KIM: I love so much about it! I love the inspiration at every turn—the textiles and local arts, the warm and embracing people, the ocean and cliffs, the music scene. I also love living outside all year round in this coastal, tropical climate, especially after growing up on the East coast with such frigid and long winters! I love how nearly every experience, even and especially the challenges I encounter as an outsider, lead to personal growth. But in many ways, Dakar is also easy; as an expat, I am able to live a comfortable life, eating out, living in a spacious apartment, enjoying all the cultural events the city has to offer, and escaping much of the patriarchy to which most Senegalese women are subject. I am privileged in Dakar and I try not to take that for granted.

MEGAN: Even after three years, there is still so much to discover in this city. I am constantly finding new inspiration in the culture and the people.

Do you ever feel “displaced”?
KIM: I know what you’re saying: what’s a nice girl like me doing living in a boisterous, developing African capital?! It has taken four years, but I have definitely found my niche in Dakar—sometimes to the surprise of friends and family back in the U.S. and France. But there are inevitably moments I feel “displaced,” especially as women living in a patriarchal society. I encounter sexism on a daily basis and there are still cultural nuances that boggle my mind. I’ve written about Dakar’s “Bottom Ten” on the blog.

I also travel throughout West Africa for my “day job,” which entails working extensively in the male-dominated commercial sector. I’ve fielded many advances that might border on sexual harassment in the U.S., and sometimes I don’t feel taken seriously as a woman. In certain settings, I have to be very aware of how my “Western” actions (like direct eye contact!) might be interpreted by men and women of vastly different backgrounds. But learning how to carry myself and to pick up on cultural cues in these extremely diverse settings has also become some of my greatest strengths. I wouldn’t trade these formative experiences for the world!

MEGAN: I’m not going to lie, the first year was tough. The Air France flight I was on landed in the middle of the night, which is when most flights arrive and depart from Dakar. The director of my school picked me up from the airport, which is probably one of the most depressing ones I’ve ever seen, and then drove me through the main thoroughfare, La Corniche, to my apartment, which, in the dead of night, looked like block after block of deserted burnt-out buildings. I thought to myself, “I think I’ve made a terrible decision and how the $@&*% can I get out of here!?” Luckily, my impression of the city has changed dramatically. Getting to know a bit of the culture and cultivating meaningful friendships with locals as well as the expat community has helped me feel at ease.

Do you sometimes feel more comfortable in Dakar than you do back in the U.S.?
KIM: For now, Dakar is home to me. I have a solid group of friends, a real sense of community, and I live here with my boyfriend. But I’m able to travel back to the U.S. two to four times per year for work and holidays, and I relish these opportunities. To be honest, I feel comfortable in both countries. I grew up living between countries—France and the U.S.—and I think this has conditioned me to adapt easily to new environments and transitioning between them. That being said, I do plan to “settle” in the United States eventually, and suspect that reintegrating into American life will be challenging as I moved to Dakar right after graduation and haven’t really lived a typical adult life in the U.S. I’m sure it will be more difficult to build the kind of community you find easily with fellow expats living abroad. We’ll see if life goes according to plan!

MEGAN: When I first moved to Senegal I was in the downtown area people watching and spotted two young talibé boys, probably around seven or eight years old, having an argument. It escalated into blows but then was quickly broken up by a passerby, who was only a few years older than the boys. Watching this teenager mediate the fight instead of walking by like nothing was happening (or worse yet recording and posting it on YouTube) made me feel good about being here. The way people treat each other feels a little more humane, a little more civilized.

Words to sew by…

Was opening up your own business something you always wanted to do?
KIM: Honestly, its not something I had ever really considered! I studied Political Science and envisioned working in the development sector. And now I’m doing both… building a creative business while working as a consultant on various development initiatives.

MEGAN: Being an entreprenuer is in my blood. My dad has started several companies and family dinner conversations often included new business ideas. When I went to Summer Art Camp in high school I used my fake ID to sell cigarettes. I had a streak of badass in me back then 😉 I also set up a impromptu face-painting stand with my friends at an art festival, donation based. Between those two enterprises I made a killing that summer and was able to afford…you guessed it…more art supplies!

During college I studied fine art, mostly drawing and painting, which I now teach. Making paintings for example can be extremely consuming (time and otherwise) and has the possibility to take over your life, while making jewelry is instantly gratifying as well as therapeutic. So I really enjoy making jewelry and designing totes and accessories in my spare time.

What has been the biggest challenge?
KIM: With a demanding “day job,” it has been challenging giving Six Bougies the time and dedication the company really needs to get off the ground. I’m transitioning to pursuing freelance projects so as to devote a lot more time to Six Bougies in 2014—which I’m very excited about!

From a business perspective, it has also been very challenging developing reliable systems to support our creative pursuits. For example, it can be difficult to find tailors who are consistently available for work or willing to teach other women the skills necessary for making our products. In Senegal, most tailors are men so we are still trying to develop the most sustainable system for training women that we can work with longer term.

MEGAN: Kim summed it up pretty well. We are working on sustainability and exposure!

The most fulfilling aspect?
KIM: As the primary blogger in the duo, I absolutely love connecting with people through my posts, especially women who are moving to Dakar or are interested in following a similar path. And as Six Bougies’ social programs develop, I really look forward to the deeper connections and impact we will hopefully make in our Senegalese community.

MEGAN: I love it when people buy my products and really LOVE them. When I see customers wearing the products I make, it makes my heart smile 🙂

“Sew” much fabric, “sew” little time!

If you could do anything else, what would it be?
KIM: I already feel rather stretched, so for now I’d just like to work on Six Bougies and my other professional endeavors to my best ability and see the fruits of that labor!

MEGAN: I think I have the best of both worlds right now, but I would love to be able to be in my studio more and really dedicate time to my personal artistic pursuits.

What’s on your bucket list?
KIM: I have always wanted to live in Madrid and become fluent in Spanish—need to brush up on those high school courses! And I want to attend graduate school in the next couple of years. Let the applications begin…

MEGAN: Actually taking the leap and traveling for a year…or longer.

Do you have any advice for others who are thinking about setting up their own lifestyle brand and selling fashion/homewares? For instance, you’re selling your merchandise through an Etsy shop. Is that working for you?
MEGAN: Etsy is great for where we are at right now, very small scale. I think if business continues to grow and we need to do more shipping overseas, we may have to change our distribution system.

Do you have any big plans, travel or business wise, for 2014?
MEGAN: I’m traveling to Nigeria next month for a volleyball tournament with my students. Then the trifecta of New York, Texas, and California to see family and friends later this summer. As far as the business goes, I’d like to focus on perfecting the quality of our goods and hopefully getting them into boutiques in Dakar and New York.

KIM: I miss traveling for pleasure! I have a trip to South Africa planned for April with my mom and I’m thrilled. I also look forward to growing Six Bougies and pursuing my professional passions more freely. 2014 is going to be good, inshallah 😉

* * *

Inshallah, indeed. Readers, has this interview boo-gee-ed, I mean sparked, any thoughts or questions? Make your comments colorful, why don’t you…there’s an African-Western-fusioned duffel bag on offer!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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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TCK TALENT: Why do so many Adult Third Culture Kids gravitate toward acting, and is that the best use of their talents?

Com & Trag Collage

Tragedy and Comedy, Scarborough Hotel, Bishopgate, Leeds. Photo credit: Tim Green via Flickr.

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her monthly column about Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields, Lisa herself being a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about being a TCK, which will be the closing keynote at this year’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference, “The Global Family.”

In my last column, I interviewed Laura Piquado, a professional actress based in New York who grew up in six countries, including Egypt, where we were drama classmates in high school. As a result of the interview, Laura, editor ML Awanohara, and I had a lively discussion about Laura’s career change from education/activism to acting.

ML said she was puzzled as to why so many intelligent, well-educated Adult Third Culture Kids feel so at home in the acting world. She expressed concern that acting might cultivate a narcissistic outlook on life, which is the opposite of a TCK’s worldly upbringing. She said she found it particularly jarring that Laura could go from go from almost doing a PhD on women’s education in post-conflict societies, to enrolling in acting school—and not look back.

Laura’s response was so eloquent that I am posting it here.

Before you read it, I recommend watching this TED Talk by British actor Thandie Newton:

Born to a Zimbabwean mother and English father, Newton always felt disconnected or “other” while growing up in the UK:

“From about the age of 5, I was aware that I didn’t fit. I was the black, atheist kid in the all-white, Catholic school run by nuns. I was an anomaly.”

Acting gave her a chance to play with her different selves.

And now from Laura Piquado:

I had a similar reaction to yours, Lisa, in seeing acting described by ML as a narcissistic endeavor. While I can certainly understand that reputation (indeed, the Golden Globe awards), I have always idealized what theatre can be: life-changing, hopeful, inspiring, and necessary. It’s the worst to be onstage with someone who’s “masturbating” their way through a show (and equally as painful for an audience member).

I was in Maine a few years ago at a craft school (I’m a potter), and I sat next to a visiting artist at dinner (the amazing Hungarian-born sculptor Gyöngy Lake). She asked me what I did. When I told her I was an actor she said:

“We love you! We need you! You tell the stories of our lives!”

Now while that sounds uber-maudlin, I was completely overwhelmed. I had known this woman for less than two minutes, but she had described, for me, what the essence of art is.

On the other hand, I don’t want to get beaten over the head with social and political commentary every time I go to the theatre. I mean, I love Brecht, but can you imagine if that’s all theatre was? Mother Courage after Mother Courage, after The Caucasian Chalk Circle, after Arturo Ui…ugh. People would stop going. There’s room for pomp-y, wacky, ridiculousness (all hail The Book of Mormon), and everything in between. But I do think theatre at its best, the stories that stay with you, are the ones that connect to a deeper human context.

I was reading an interview with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in the New York Review of Books where he recounts a story he heard while a law student:

At the turn of the last century, the court was called upon to decide a case on prices for theater tickets—could they be considered basic necessities, and could they be regulated as such? The majority thought the theatre was not a necessity. The great Justice Olive Wendell Holmes Jr. replied in his dissent: “We have not that respect for art that is one of the glories of France. But to many people, the superfluous is the necessary.”

The interview was a larger discourse on France and Proust, but the point Holmes made about the necessity of art resonates.

ML also made the comment:

An interest in international affairs implies that you care about effecting positive social change on behalf of less fortunate people… Do you foresee bringing those two strands of your life together at some point?

The notion of “effecting positive social change” is what I’ll respond to. Again, it’s what I believe theatre can be, from Winter Miller‘s In Darfur to Moisés Kaufman‘s The Laramie Project. Being a part of that kind of theatre is deeply gratifying and something I always seek out. (Or as a potter: being able to go to communities to work with local artisans to make pots that filter clean, potable water falls into that same category.)

The leap from one discipline (social justice through academia) to another (theatre) wasn’t so quantum for me. And while they are vastly different on so many practical and actual levels, “effecting positive social change,” for me, lies at the heart of both.

* * *

So, readers, do you have anything to add to the debate? Are we ATCKs doing ourselves, and the world, a disservice by turning to acting, or can acting be one of our more profound contributions?

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Beth Geglia’s calling to make films on Central American human rights stories

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Beth Geglia (photo supplied by Beth and used with her permission)

Since the Displaced Nation began billing itself as a “home for international creatives,” we have covered plenty of fiction writers, memoirists, and foodies, as well as a few entrepreneurs (I contributed to the latter with an interview with Alison McGowan about her tourism-related business in Brazil).

But there are also expats whose creativity is expressed in political activism: they work for the causes within (and across) the countries they visit.

Today I talk to one such activist, Beth Geglia, an American who, having dedicated her life to human rights issues in Central America, has now developed filmmaking skills and released a feature-length documentary on the resilience displayed by an extraordinary group of Afro-Hondurans.

* * *

Buenas, Beth, and thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed. Let’s start by having you tell us a bit about yourself. What first awakened your interest in human rights?
I got involved in high school, after the September 11th attacks. I was adamantly against war in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and participated in student walk-outs, teach-ins—all the big mobilizations. Next I volunteered with the Indigenous People’s Council of Oaxaca in Mexico and the Movement of Worker-Occupied Factories in Argentina, which got me working on issues of economic justice and alternative economies as part of the student fair trade movement.

Guatemala has figured large in your life. What led you there in the first place?
As a student activist, I worked closely with a local fair trade coffee-roasting cooperative in Madison, Wisconsin, called Just Coffee. They sent me to Guatemala to do work with a coffee cooperative of former revolutionary combatants and returned refugees from the country’s internal conflict, known as Santa Anita La Unión. Later we organized a delegation of student activists from Wisconsin to meet with Guatemalan producer cooperatives, and I went back a few times.

Making a life in Guatemala

I understand you ended up living in Guatemala?
I became overwhelmed with the history of Guatemala, the U.S.’s interventionist role there, and the movements to restore the memory of the violence that had taken place. I felt I was learning and changing an incredible amount, so I moved there ten days after graduating college. I stayed for two years.

I assume you speak Spanish, but were there any moments when you felt displaced, in the sense of being alienated from your surroundings?
Yes, I spoke Spanish so language was not much of an issue. However, many communities in Guatemala speak their indigenous languages, none of which I was able to learn. There were definitely moments of struggle, but I wouldn’t necessarily relate them to feelings of displacement. After all, I was working with communities who were trying to defend their rights against gold mining and other resource extraction companies—it was they who were facing displacement. Some had been forcibly displaced, while others were threatened with displacement from environmental destruction, militarization, and loss of land. The communities were still healing from the violence of the internal conflict, and some people were experiencing the threat of being locked up or assassinated. Seeing this kind of suffering close up was the hardest, most painful part of my experience. Then there’s always the challenge of understanding your role as a foreigner: what’s appropriate, what’s helpful—fully aware of the privilege of being there by choice and able to leave.

I usually tell people that living in Guatemala was the hardest thing I ever did—and, at the same time, the most important and dearest to my heart. It truly transformed me.

So, for the most part, living in war-torn Guatemala felt right to you?
Things make sense to me whenever I am surrounded by good people doing good work. The people I lived and worked with in Guatemala City, for example, are still some of the people I most respect. Cooking meals with them, hanging out on the roof or patio with a few chelas (beers)—these things really felt like home.

Practicing the filmmaking craft

At what point did you decide to become a filmmaker?
It wasn’t until I moved back to the United States and quit my job with a human rights organization a year later that I began to study documentary filmmaking. Video and film are one of the most useful tools for helping people who are struggling to get their voices heard. It’s an important skill.

RevolutionaryMedicine_poster

Poster for the film screening at Columbia School of Social Work

You have just now released a documentary, Revolutionary Medicine: A Story of the First Garífuna Hospital, a collaboration with journalist Jesse Freeston. The film is set in Honduras and tells the story of the Garífuna people and the community hospital that they built. Can you fill us in a little more?
Sure. Garífuna history has been rife with forced displacement and resistance, from the slave trade to expulsion by the British from the island of St. Vincent. Most Garífunas in Honduras live on the northern coast, on lands their people have occupied for 216 years. They continue to face many pressures, such as a lucrative foreign tourism industry, the expansion of African palm production by the country’s largest landowners, resource extraction, and foreign investors wanting to build charter cities. In addition, they face ongoing discrimination and neglect from the state, which has failed to provide them with medical services. This film is about the community coming together to build their own hospital, while fighting for their human right to health care. It’s a story about self-organization and persistence, but also about a different model of medicine having to do with community survival. According to this model, improving the health of the community is a first step in addressing structural and political issues in need of change.

It really is the “first” Garífuna Hospital?
Yes. It’s the first hospital to exist in the Garífuna’s territory.

“For the health of our people…”

How did the making of the film come about?
I was still in Guatemala when the military coup in Honduras happened in June of 2009. The people around me were remembering Guatemala’s internal conflict, which lasted 36 years and amounted to genocide: it been sparked by a CIA-orchestrated coup. Everyone was feeling the weight of that history, and there was a sense of urgency around what Honduras could suffer as a result of the coup. Upon returning to the U.S., I got involved in local activism that was exposing the DC-based lobbyists who’d been hired by Honduras’s interim coup government to essentially whitewash the coup and restore normal relations with international institutions and the Organization of American States.

That’s when I met Dr. Luther Castillo, one of the founding doctors of the First Garífuna Hospital. He was on a speaking tour denouncing the political violence and repression taking place in Honduras. I took up his invitation to come visit the hospital.

Jesse Freeston and I knew each other from DC. He had been working as a journalist in Honduras and other parts of Central America for a few years and had also gotten to know the story of the Hospital and what Garífuna communities were working to create.

It was great working with Jesse. He had years of documentary experience under his belt and in fact is now finishing up a feature-length film called Resistencia, about land-occupying farmers in the Aguán Valley of Honduras. It should be released in the spring. I think we made a good team, and I learned a lot from the collaboration.

When was the film released, and what has been the reaction amongst the Garífuna people?
We started screening the film in August. Jesse took it down the West coast of the U.S. and I went to screen it in Honduras. The Garífuna community of Ciriboya reacted very positively. You know when you make a film, you can’t cover nearly everything you’d like to, but I think the doctors in particular felt it presented a balanced version of their story. They’re now using it to raise awareness and educate others. Actually, the most gratifying thing was to see the reaction of medical students who attend the public university in the capital city, Tegucigalpa. They were so excited, they ended up organizing their own screening of the film and have entered into a longer-term relationship with the Garífuna Hospital.

What about in the United States?
In the U.S. we’ve screened for lots of different audiences, including activists, organized medical professionals, social work students, med students, and youth. We’ve worked with the Garífuna Health and Education Support Institute in New York to reach Garífuna diaspora audiences, mainly in the Bronx, and the response has been phenomenal. It’s been exciting to help connect diaspora communities with what’s going on back in their homeland. Generally, people seem to come away feeling proud and/or inspired to act. I think the best compliment we received was: “This is a great organizing tool.”

If our readers are interested in watching the film how can they go about it?
Very soon anyone will be able to order a copy of the documentary online. Until then, I suggest you follow our Facebook page to find out about screenings and distribution. You are also welcome to contact Jesse and me directly by email: me@jessefreeston.com or bgeglia@gmail.com.

What further hopes do you have for the film?
Besides the documentary being used as an educational and network-building tool—that’s why we’ve been focusing on community-based and university screenings—we hope it will give ideas to people who are working on related projects. Particularly in the U.S. I would like for it to make people think about our own health care system and what might be possible.

Having already lived in Guatemala, did making the film help you to connect with Central America in any new ways?
I learned a ton about a part of Central America I knew very little about. One thing that continuously inspired me was the resilience of communities—in particular, their ability to construct alternatives that challenge our assumptions of how society can be organized. Also, the idea of doctors playing the role of protagonist in the process wasn’t something I’d anticipated. Now I’m learning that there is a long history of health workers playing a central role in social movements, to which I’d been largely oblivious.

What are your plans for the future, both with the film and your activism?
I’m actually back in school now in DC, studying for a Ph.D. in Public Anthropology. It’s an interesting program because it leaves room to use documentary film as opposed to simply writing academic papers that will have little reach. The program promotes activism as well as embedded and participatory research, so I feel it’s a good home for me. I don’t have much free time, but when I do, I like to volunteer with a local documentary project called Lessons from the ’60s. It’s an oral history project organized by a group of older activists who want to document memories of the movements that took place in DC in the 1960s and ’70s before they are lost forever. Preserving historical memory was one of the reasons I wanted to do documentary film, so it’s great to be able to participate in this kind of a project in my hometown.

10 Questions for Beth Geglia

Finally, we’d like to ask a series of questions that we’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Golden Gulag, by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, on the prison system in California (being in school means I only read non-fiction).
2. Favorite literary genre: Science fiction.
3. Reading habits on a plane: It’s actually really hard for me to stay awake on planes! I’m usually passed out, and when I’m awake I listen to music to calm my nerves because I’m scared of flying.
4. The one book you’d require Barack Obama to read, and why? Am I allowed to say Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillaging of a Continent? Maybe The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.
5. Favorite books as a child: I was a huge fan of Roald Dahl books when I was a kid. The Witches was my favorite one. I also loved The Chronicles of Narnia.
6. Favorite heroine: Itzá in The Inhabited Woman, by Giaconda Belli.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Audre Lorde.
8. Your reading habits: Since I’m in school, I read all the time and I skim a lot. Coffee in hand is usually a necessity.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: The Inhabited Woman, by Giaconda Belli.
10. The book you plan to read next: Pathologies of Power, by Paul Farmer.

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Readers, did you find Beth’s story as inspiring as I did? Be sure to check out her documentary if you get a chance. And feel free to leave further questions or comments for her below.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, some species of Halloween confection by Anthony Windram.

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images: Beth Geglia; poster for the film screening at Columbia School of Social Work.

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