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“We read to know we’re not alone”: 1st-ever litfest for expats & random nomads

The displaced writer Hazel Rochman once said that reading “makes immigrants of us all”:

Reading takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.

That must be why author interviews have played such an important role in the entertainment mix provided by The Displaced Nation since our founding one year ago.

A book that enables us to escape to a new world without buying a plane ticket? Bring it on!

A book that makes us feel at home in another part of the world? There’s nothing we crave more.

We’ve also taken authors into our confidence who, as St. Augustine once advised, treat the world as their book, rather than staying put and reading only one page. Because of their own peripatetic ways, these writers have much to say to the rest of us nomadic types about how to make sense of feelings of isolation, ennui and displacement.

As C.S. Lewis once said:

We read to know we’re not alone.

In honor of The Displaced Nation’s first anniversary, as well as in the spirit of World Party Month, I would like to propose the first-ever Displaced Nation literary festival featuring authors who have been interviewed or in some way featured on the site during the past year.

“We read to know we’re not alone”: THE FIRST-EVER LITERARY FESTIVAL FOR EXPATS AND RANDOM NOMADS
Note: The following is a tentative line-up. It includes previews of the kinds of insights we can expect to glean from such an extraordinary gathering of expat literati.

We anticipate the festival to extend from a Sunday night to a Thursday morning, with an opening night gala and a couple of closing events. Click on the headlines to go to the event descriptions for each segment:

OPENING NIGHT GALA EVENT

It seems only fitting that we offer something totally mad on our opening night. We will screen Alice in Wonderland, the 1903 British silent film directed by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow, which was partially restored by the British Film Institute and released in 2010. (NOTE: You can see portions of the film in a video specially made by Anthony Windram during The Displaced Nation’s “Alice in Wonderland” theme month.)

The film is memorable for its use of special effects: Alice’s shrinking in the Hall of Many Doors, and then growing too large in the White Rabbit’s home, getting stuck and reaching for help through a window.

The film matches our theme of “We read to know we’re not alone” — could anyone ever feel lonelier than Alice did at such moments?

But here’s the new twist: the screening will feature a live accompaniment by Seremedy, the displaced Swedish visual kei band this is now making such a sensation in Japan, reacting musically and without any rehearsal beforehand, to the silent film in front of them. Unique, spontaneous — and perhaps even terrifying, given that the band’s (male) lead guitarist, Yohio, looks like an anime version of Alice.

DAY ONE: “We’re not alone” — We have each other

Iranian Childhoods, Inspiring Stories

TONY ROBERTS and ASHLEY DARTNELL each spent portions of their childhood in Iran. Roberts has produced a novel based on his memories of that time, Sons of the Great Satan, which we featured on this blog about a year ago. Dartnell, who has yet to be featured (we hope she will!), released her memoir, Farangi Girl, last year (it was recently issued in paperback).

Roberts and Dartnell have in common the status of being so-called third culture kids — growing up in a third culture not common to their parents (Roberts’ parents were American and Dartnell was the product of an American mother and British father). They also have in common that they were enjoying their lives in Tehran until something terrible happened — the memory of which affects them to this day.

In Dartnell’s case, it was the sudden collapse of her father’s business (her parents subsequently split up), whereas for Roberts, it was the experience of being evacuated because of the American hostage crisis — suddenly, he was back at the family’s small farm town in Kansas, having no idea of where his friends had gone.

TCKs experience such traumas in isolation (Roberts continued to feel isolated well into his adulthood). Roberts and Dartnell, who have never met before, welcome the opportunity to forge a new connection over their common displacement.

PERFORMANCE: “The White Ship,” by Ethan Kenning

Ex-folk singer Ethan Kenning — known as GEORGE EDWARDS when performing with the former psychedelic rock band H.P. Lovecraft — will give a special performance of “The White Ship,” a song based on a mystical tale by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (from whom the band took its name), about a vessel sailing on a sea of dreams. Critics have described it as “baroque, Middle Eastern-flavored psychedelia at its finest.”

Multicultural Marriage Boot Camp

Two Wendys — WENDY WILLIAMS and WENDY TOKUNAGA — will answer questions about the benefits as well as challenges involved in marrying someone from another culture.

Wendy Williams is the author of The Globalisation of Love and has coined a term, “GloLo,” to refer to this phenomenon. She was last week’s Random Nomad and has also been a contributor to The Displaced Nation with the post: “Why expat is a misleading term for multicultural couples” — a topic big enough to be a festival theme in its own right!

Wendy Tokunaga, who was one of The Displaced Nation’s 12 Nomads of Christmas, recently published Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband, consisting of interviews with 14 Western women involved in cross-cultural relationships.

GloTinis will be served — those in particularly challenging unions may wish to order theirs straight up.

Romance Across Borders: Fairytale or Myth?

JANE GREEN, a prolific writer and one of the founders of chick literature, will interview MEAGAN ADELE LOPEZ and MICHELLE GORMAN — both of whom have produced first novels exploring the idea of looking for romance in other cultures. Lopez is the author of Three Questions: Because a quarter-life crisis needs answers (self-published, October 2011), about a cross-cultural romance that blossoms through the asking of three questions; and Gorman, of Single in the City: One girl, one city, one disaster waiting to happen (Michael Joseph, 2010), about an American who goes to London in search of love and the perfect life.

The Displaced Nation recently featured Lopez on our site and will feature her tomorrow in a guest post. We have yet to interview Gorman but would like to — especially as she recently self-published Misfortune Cookie, about a young woman who moves to Hong Kong to be with her boyfriend.

Both women relied heavily on their own autobiographies to produce these first novels. As Lopez said in her interview with Tony James Slater:

Hey — they always say to write about what you know, so that’s what I did!

But is it the stuff of chick lit? No one is better placed to judge this than the displaced author Jane Green (she is now an expat living in Connecticut). As early readers of The Displaced Nation will recall, Green “came in” for a chat during our coverage of last year’s Royal Wedding — she had just produced a multimedia book celebrating the young royals as an example of a “modern fairytale.”

Though Kate and Will aren’t from different cultures, they might as well have been since Kate — unlike the Prince’s mother, Diana — does not come from a royal lineage. But from Green’s point of view, this is what is makes the couple modern — and why their marriage is likely to last:

I loved discovering just how unusual William and Kate are: grounded, humble, and thoroughly modern, eschewing much of the pomp and circumstance that surrounded the wedding of Charles and Diana.

One Person’s Home — Another Person’s Nightmare?

BARBARA CONELLI, who lives in Manhattan for half of the year and Milan for the other half, will interview SHIREEN JILLA, whose first novel was set in the Big Apple.

Thanks in large part to the influence of her Italian grandmother, Conelli qualifies as the ultimate Italophile. Last year she published Chique Secrets of Dolce Vita last year — her first book in a three-part series about the Italian grasp of the “good life.” When asked by Kate Allison to explain the differences between her two homes of Milan and New York City, Conelli said that New Yorkers need to learn the Italian art of taking the time to actually live:

We need to stop and smell the roses more often.

On this point, Jilla would certainly concur. After spending three years in New York as an expat when her husband was BBC’s North America correspondent, Jilla came away thinking that “New York is a city populated by control freaks.”

But, unlike Conelli, Jilla found this control freakery sinister — which was what inspired her to write a novel that depicts the city as, as one critic said, “a teeming pit of vipers, only just covered with a finely buffed veneer of sophistication.”

In the online discussion we hosted of Exiled, Jilla commented on how culturally different New York and London are — despite New York not being seen as a particularly adventurous posting among the expat crowd. She went on:

New York in fact reminds me a lot more of Rome than London. Passion is lived out on the street, for good and bad.

Hmmm… It will be interesting to see what Conelli, whose series includes a book on Rome’s joyful idleness, makes of that!

Are Expats Defined by Their Boundaries — or the Lack? James Joyce Unplugged

One of The Displaced Nation’s founders, ANTHONY WINDRAM, and the novelist JOANNA PENN will join forces to discuss the topic of whether being an expat necessarily entails producing “expat” literature. In a post published last year on The Displaced Nation, Windram noted that although James Joyce spent most of his adult life in continental Europe, he continued to write about his home, Ireland:

If we were to be glib, we might say that Finnegans Wake was conceived in Dublin, but Paris was its midwife.

Likewise, Joanna Penn, who has been a TCK and an expat, does not self-identify as an expat writer and sets her novels at least partly in Oxford, the city she calls home. She does feel, however, that wanderlust is a big part of what fuels her to write thrillers set in various countries, as she explained in a comment on a post deconstructing a post of hers on what “home” means to writers.

DAY TWO: “We’re not alone” — Global activism

Travel for a Purpose

For this event, we hope to engage the world-famous novelist BARBARA KINGSOLVER to interview ROBIN WISZOWATY, who is Kenya program director for the Canadian charity Free the Children and the author of a memoir targeted at young adults on her own experience of living in Kenya, My Maasai Life.

Kate Allison interviewed Wiszowaty during the month when The Displaced Nation explored the topic of global philanthropy.

Around the same time, Allison also wrote a post on Kingsolver, exploring the idea that her novel The Poisonwood Bible was intended an allegory for what happens when you barge into someone else’s culture thinking you know everything and they know nothing.

Notably, Wiszowaty could almost have been a Kingsolver character in the following incident that occurred during her initial two months in Nairobi, as reported to Allison:

One street man nearby…said in Swahili, “What are you doing in Kenya, if you can’t help us?”

Despite my halting comprehension of the language, I understood his question. What was I doing here? Was I here to help Kenyans? I couldn’t remember any sort of altruistic impulse as my reason for being me here. I only pictured myself three months earlier, curled up on my family room couch reading books on cultural sensitivity, or shopping in neighborhood department stores for appropriate clothing, thinking this was a chance for me to enlarge my experience and pick up others’ points of view. I’d been driven simply by a desire to escape, not to improve the lives of these poor people.

Wiszowaty, of course, came around and now thinks constantly about what she can do for Kenya. We expect that Kingsolver, who funds a prize for authors of unpublished works that support social change, will approve; but will she also offer a critique?

PERFORMANCE: “The Boy with a Thorn in His Side,” by Pete Wentz

Fall Out Boy’s PETE WENTZ will do a performance in which he puts passages from his 2004 book, The Boy with a Thorn in His Side, to music. The book chronicles the nightmares he had as a child.

Wentz is a supporter of Invisible Children, Inc., an organization dedicated to helping the cause of child refugees in Uganda. He once participated in an event called “Displace Me,” in which 67,000 activists throughout the United States slept in the streets in makeshift cardboard villages.

(Notably, Wentz has also earned his chops as world traveler. Before Fall Out Boy went on hiatus in late 2009, it made an unsuccessful bid to the only band to play a concert on all seven continents in less than nine months — unfortunately, weather conditions prevented them from flying to Antarctica.)

Why Feisty Heroines Need Not Always Be Named Pollyanna, Calpurnia or Hermione

Melbourne-based author GABRIELLE WANG writes books under the Penguin label targeted at young adults in Australia. Her heroines are always non-white, Chinese or some mix. They are culturally marginalized.

Wang, who fell into writing accidentally — she had planned to be a book illustrator — loves to use her imagination to create characters who are historically plausible yet never show up in history books. One such character is Mimi, who feels ashamed of being Chinese until she has a magical, transformative experience that makes her proud of her cultural heritage.

Another such character is Poppy, a half-Chinese, half-Aborigine girl who lived in the 19th century.

Wang told us she was able to draw on her own background to portray how Poppy might have felt:

I think I was able to imagine the Aboriginal child’s situation quite easily because I know what it feels like to be an outsider, and to suffer racial prejudice. I was the only Asian child in my school in Melbourne and I only saw white faces in the street.

The Search for Paradise

The search for paradise has been underway for as long as human history. Understood as an idyllic realm located at an exact spot somewhere on the earth, and yet as a place separated from the world, the possibility of reaching paradise has aroused the curiosity of travelers over many centuries and continues to do so.

MARK DAMAROYD, who has lived in Thailand for the past several years, subscribes to the idea that paradise is indeed what many men have claimed it to be since time immemorial: life on an exotic island, with sandy beaches, coral reefs and coconut trees, and with an exotic, much younger girlfriend. That is why, as he told us in an interview last summer, he had Koh Samui in mind when creating the island setting for his first novel — the aptly named Pursuit to Paradise.

Coming from a somewhat different direction is JACK SCOTT, whose memoir — Perking the Pansies: Jack and Liam Move to Turkey — was reviewed at the end of last year by Kate Allison.

In it, Scott tells the story of how he and his civil partner, Liam, left the rat race in London behind to live in Bodrum, Turkey. A picturesque spot on the Mediterranean with a temperate climate, the city was their vision of paradise.

Naturally, though, things were not that simple. The couple soon encountered another rat race — the expat one. To quote directly from Scott’s book:

Sad people, bad people, expats-in-a-bubble people. They hate the country they came from; they hate the country they’ve come to. This was my social life. This is what I gave everything up for. This was Liam’s bloody Nirvana. We were the mad ones, not them.

PERFORMANCE: “Red Right Hand,” by Nick Cave

NICK CAVE is a distinguished musician and songwriter from Down Under. He took the title of this song from a line in John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, referring to the vengeful hand of God. According to the lyrics: “You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan.”

Cave has also occasionally dabbled in literature. As one reviewer put it, his first novel “reads like a logical extension of the dark world his music has already created.”

Ghosts of Nations Past and Future

In honor of Dickens’ bicentenary, Displaced Nation contributor ANTHONY WINDRAM will give a spirited reading of his favorite passages from A Christmas Carol (already explored in a post), followed by a discussion of whether Scrooge’s displacement could inspire the planet’s wealthiest people to behave more humanely. To quote from one of the comments made on Windram’s original post:

If such a man as Scrooge can displace his lust for money with a love of humankind — and an awareness of other people’s suffering — then does that mean there’s hope for the 1%?

Through the Looking Glass: Delhi & Bangkok

JANET BROWN, author of the travelogue Tone Deaf in Bangkok, and DAVE PRAGER, author of the travelogue Delirious Dehli, will discuss the need for travelers to do more than the usual amount of preparation when entering cultures that are very different from one’s own, on a par with Alice’s Wonderland.

As Brown explained in her interview with us, travelers to Thailand can be “tone deaf” because Thai is a tonal language and it’s easy to make mistakes. But they can also be “tone deaf” when it comes to figuring out the Thais’ communication style:

“You looked so beautiful yesterday” probably means today you resemble dog food and ought to go home and rectify that at once.

Whereas for Prager, one of the points about living in Dehli is that you may end up deaf as there are always people, animals and vehicles around.

In conversation with Anthony Windram, Prager admitted that getting used to America again — he and his wife now live in Denver — hasn’t been easy:

What’s struck me is that the US just seems so empty. It’s not that India is always intensely crowded; rather, it’s that India you’re never completely alone.

WRITING LAB: What (Not) to Write

Expat writing coach par excellence KRISTEN BAIR O’KEEFFE will explore techniques to develop your writing skills and help you find which world, of your many worlds, you want to write about, and how to get started.

Last summer’s post “6 celebrated women travel writers with the power to enchant you” was officially dedicated to O’Keeffe for delivering these pearls of writerly wisdom during her “Expat Writing Prompts” series:

Writing a multi-volume treatise is NOT the answer. Of this, I am sure.
Instead find a nugget. A moment. A single object. One exchange. One epiphany. One cultural revelation.
Find one story and tell it.
Just it.

DAY THREE: “We’re not alone” — Eat, drink, be merry & look good

Classy and Fabulous: French Style as Universal Norm

The French may be under fire for how they treat immigrants, but expats continue to thrive there. For this event, the classy and fabulous JENNIFER SCOTT, author of Lessons from Madame Chic: The Top 20 Things I Learned While Living in Paris — which has been a runaway success (it’s now under contract by a major publisher!) — will set out to prove, as she did last month in an interview with us, that no one can edit down their clothes and belongings as well as the French can.

The equally classy and fabulous ANASTASIA ASHMAN, co-editor of The Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey — and participant in our “Cleopatra for a Day” series last month — will serve as discussant. Two of the cultural influences for Ashman’s wardrobe are Southeast Asia (she once lived in Malaysia) and Turkey (she was an expat in Istanbul for several years). She does, however, adore French perfume!

Which Came First, Story or Recipe?

It’s food — so that means France again! ELIZABETH BARD, an American who lives in France with her French husband, and her opposite number, CORINE GANTZ, a Frenchwoman who lives near LA with her American husband, will explore why food is so central to the works each of them produces.

Bard is the author of the best-selling Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes. So did she ever think of writing it the other way around: recipes with a love story? Here’s what she told ML Awanohara in their conversation last autumn:

When I sat down to think about the moments that really helped me discover French life, I kept coming back to the dinner table, the markets, the recipes — so it seemed natural to structure Lunch in Paris around those experiences.

Gantz can no doubt relate. When we featured her novel, Hidden in Paris, last summer, here’s what she said when the topic of food came up:

For me, writing a novel is a barely disguised way for me to talk about food — the novel being a vehicle for food just as grilled toast is a vehicle for foie gras.

Fans of Hidden in Paris, please note: Gantz has just now released a playful cookbook featuring 20 delicious dishes that were described in mouth-watering details in the novel.

Moderating the discussion between Bard and Gantz will be the well-known novelist JOANNE HARRIS. Harris, who was born over a sweet shop in Yorkshire to a French mother and an English father, rarely misses an opportunity to bring food and drink into her novels — the most famous example being Chocolat.

Displaced Storytelling Circle

Verbal antics, stories, music and more. Highlights include readings by

  1. Displaced Nation contributor TONY JAMES SLATER, from his highly entertaining travelogue, That Bear Ate My Pants! Adventures of a Real Idiot Abroad.
  2. Displaced Nation interviewee ALLIE SOMMERVILLE, from her wry memoir Uneasy Rider: Confessions of a Reluctant Traveller. (Allie, please read the passage about the campervan being too wide for one of the Spanish streets!)
  3. Displaced Nation nomad KAREN VAN DER ZEE, from her collection of expat stories. (Miss Footloose, please tell us the ones about the crocodile and the couple in the Roman restaurant!)
  4. Founder KATE ALLISON, from The Displaced Nation’s weekly fiction series, Libby’s Life, which as you may have noticed, is now up to 46 episodes. (Kate, be sure to read the one where you introduce Sandra, Libby’s MIL from hell!)

The Art of Drink: Ian Fleming

One of The Displaced Nation’s founders, ANTHONY WINDRAM, will talk about the role of food (and especially drink) in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, on which he did a post last year:

The Bond of the novels isn’t solely a martini drinker. He’s always one to try anything local that’s on offer. In Jamaica he’ll drink a glass of Red Stripe, in the US he’ll have a Millers Highlife beer. Throughout the novels Fleming uses food and drink to convey an alien culture, demonstrate social status, show Bond’s mood and his sophistication and ease with the world.

An array of drinks — not only shaken martinis but also bottles of Heineken!– will be served. Green figs and yogurt, along with coffee (very black), will be made available to anyone who is still suffering from jetlag.

Enchanted by Wisteria: Elizabeth Von Arnim Unveiled

Displaced Nation founder (and the author of this post!) ML AWANOHARA will read her favorite passages from the collected works of travel writer Elizabeth von Arnim, on whom she wrote a post last year. As she pointed out then, Von Arnim was fond of the idea of a woman escaping her marital, motherly and household duties in the pursuit of simple pleasures such as gardens and wisteria. A magical Italian castle — such as the one featured in her best-known novel, The Enchanted April — can also be a tonic.

CLOSING NIGHT + BONUS EVENT

To close the festival, we will screen both the Swedish and Hollywood versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, followed by a critique from CHRIS PAVONE, author of the new novel The Expats. Pavone will discuss whether:

  1. it was really necessary for Hollywood to produce its own (non-subtitled) version; and
  2. all the female-perpetrated violence cropping up in film and on TV of late presages a “fourth wave” of feminism.

Pavone is well qualified to judge the latter as his novel (not yet featured on TDN!) is an offbeat spy story with a female protagonist — a burned-out CIA operative who moves to Luxembourg. Apparently, this was the kind of thing Pavone thought about when he was trailing his spouse in that cobblestoney old town.

And, just when you thought it was all over, we bring you a final treat: a chance to hear from the historian SUSAN MATT, who recently published Homesickness: An American History to much fanfare in the thinking media. Matt disputes the stereotype of Americans as westward wanderers by showing that Americans are returning to their homeland in greater numbers — that’s if they ever leave at all. (Our ancestors must be turning over in their graves!)

* * *

So, shall I sign you up? And can you think of any additional topics/authors/performers who ought to be featured? I look forward to reading your suggestions in the comments.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s guest post from Meagan Adele Lopez, on the differences between American and British wedding celebrations.

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Channeling business guru Peter Senge for lessons on spiritual travel

The Displaced Nation has dedicated most of its January posts to the kind of heart-opening, life-changing pilgrimages that enlighten and renew the spirit.

We’ve gathered tips from expat and travel experts on where to go and steps to take.

We’ve spoken with a former expat in India and a woman who dreams of making acupuncture available to one and all in the Midwest.

We’ve talked about our own (admittedly rather limited) experiences with uncovering spiritual wisdom:

And we recruited some guest bloggers for their insights:

Yet as eye opening as all of this discussion has been, my sense is, we haven’t quite reached the sublime and heavenly heights that this blessed topic deserves.

Maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. After all, the quest for higher truths entails pondering the imponderable.

Still, I think we’ve forgotten something rather basic: namely, the need for a mentor, guru, safe, wise person, sensei, or elder — someone who has reached an advanced state of spiritual enlightenment so can tell us when we’re veering off course while offering an overarching framework for why, in heaven’s name, we’re doing this.

Today I’m “recruiting” leading business expert Peter Senge to play this role for The Displaced Nation — a service for which he will be awarded a place in our Displaced Hall of Fame.

Though he’s never lived overseas for an extended period, Senge leads a displaced life within the United States by somehow managing to be, at one and the same time, an MIT management guru and an avid disciple of Zen Buddhism (as well as other Eastern religions such as Taoism).

Through his writings, teachings, and lectures on the human face of business and sustainabilty, Senge essentially promotes the idea that Eastern religion has a great deal to offer the West.

Channeling Senge on behalf of The Displaced Nation, I have devised the following Zen mondō — or question-and-answer exchange with the master — for our illumination. NOTE: Senge promises to keep the kōan (riddles) — eg, what is the sound of one hand clap — to a minimum. (Was that applause I heard?)

ZEN MONDO WITH PETER SENGE ON SPIRITUAL TRAVEL

Master, isn’t an expat or international traveler already on a kind of spiritual quest?
Meh. In my experience, a spiritual quest isn’t meant to be a retreat from one’s native country. It’s also not a vacation. The attainment of enlightenment entails hard work — you have to chop wood and carry some water. Seriously,  you have to study, and make sure that your study is in line with your meditation practice, or whatever method you use to connect body and mind. And then you need to have a reason for it all: how you are trying to be of use to the world. My own “working-zen” is institutions: how business works, how schools work, how government works, how collectively we do our work, and how the world can move away from the model of relentless growth towards something more sustainable. What’s yours?

Master, is the quest for spiritual enlightenment something I can do on my own?
Strange question to pose to a teacher! But I’ll refrain from giving you a boot to the head as I can relate to your struggle. In fact, it didn’t dawn on me how much I needed a teacher until after I finished my book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, which became a bestseller and earned me the title of “management guru.” My ego was out of control, and I asked my friends to refer me to a therapist. But then I met this man in China around 1996 and started to realize that meditating isn’t enough. He taught me that I have to be more disciplined in my study and practice, and in linking them to service. “Study, practice, serve” has become my mantra.

Master, will I need to travel to China and India?
Look around you. With the gorilla gone, will there be any hope for man? The Western model is basically bankrupt. We’ve failed to give attention to the human side of economic development. We’ve also lost touch with indigenous knowledge and wisdom. By contrast, the intellectual sophistication of the philosophical traditions of China and India are extraordinary. The next stage of human development — focusing on sustainability — will be about bringing back the interior to be in balance to the exterior. I think that has to come from China or India and maybe to some degree from the indigenous peoples.

Of course it may not be necessary to travel all the way to these countries, especially if you’re lucky enough, as I was, to grow up in California. Many of my friends were Japanese and I was always interested in Asian cultures. I made my first visit to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center just before I went at Stanford. I knew immediately that meditation was very important and did continue to meditate afterwards.

That said, since turning 40, I’ve been thinking about spending the second half of my life in China and India. I may actually go and do that with my wife once our kids are in college.

Master, once I pursue this recommended course, do you think I’ll find the answers of what I want to do in life?
Ah, the inescapable question! I advise you to think about what’s really needed in the world, then work back to what your own role might be. It requires a continuous process of reflection. My own decision-making process has never been oriented externally, even when I was young. I almost always knew what I wanted to do and almost never knew how. It was always this process of deciding the next thing I want to do — and then doors would open!

Master, do you believe in Zen leaps?
Back in the 1980s, I was meditating 2-3 times a week. One day, all of a sudden, clear as a bell, three things popped into my head:

  1. The idea that learning organization is a big fact.
  2. The work I was doing with several others was original and would make a contribution.
  3. I had to write a book now so that as the fact cycle developed, that would be one of the first books to become a point of reference.

It happened in an instant. I was very clear and I decided to write a book. It’s how the process works: continuous reflection informed by what’s important to you and informed by your sense of where the world is at and what’s needed. If you leap under those conditions, the net will appear.

Master, do you have any final words of advice for us?
Don’t be afraid of suffering even though it’s not easy. Sadness is sadness, fear is fear, and anxiety is anxiety. Don’t kid yourself. But recognize that it is very important developmentally and will really assist you in having a rich life with rich relationships. You’ll be able to open your heart to others, and offer your compassion. Oh — and one more:

Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.

Readers, so much mondo mumbo jumbo, or are you at last glimpsing the road to nirvana?

[Sources for Senge’s non-humorous remarks: Prasad Kaipa’s interview with Peter Senge for DailyGood; Jessie Scanlon’s interview with Senge for Businessweek about his latest work: The Necessary Revolution.]

STAY TUNED for one more post in this vein exploring the ideas of Lyn Fuchs, who has written a book about spirituality and travel.

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CONTEMPORARY DISPLACED WRITING: Marías — The Man of Feeling

NOTE: Our review of Wendy Williams’ The Globalization of Love has been postponed until this Friday, December 16. In the meantime we’d like to share with you one of our favorite displaced writers, Javier Marías.

At school, an English teacher told my class that good writing should be like a scalpel. Quite what he meant by this was not entirely clear to me, but he said it with such intensity and with an accompanying, ever so disturbing stabbing gesture that I felt I should really take note of what he said. However, on first reading the work of Javier Marías, I finally understand something of what my teacher was trying to explain to my doltish teenage self. Marías’s ability to expertly set up a scene and then dissect the thought processes of his protaganists is a joy.

If you haven’t read any of Marías’s work you really should. Without a doubt he is one of the finest writers currently living and though he has a loyal readership in the English-speaking world, it should be much larger than it is.

When reading his novella The Man of Feeling , I came across one passage that struck me as being perfectly appropriate for featuring as a Contemporary Displaced Writing post. The narrator of The Man of Feeling is a young opera star who is constantly traveling as he tours the world. For the most part, this is not a glamorous life; it is, in fact, a stultifying life spent in rehearsal rooms and hotel bars — they are all different but yet they are all the same, too.

The extract I want to share has our opera star narrator relating his feelings when he first visits a new city:

… I enjoy the feeling that I am in a new and unfamiliar city; getting into public places and being aware that the people there speak a language I know only imperfectly or not at all; studying the clothes and hats (though nowadays one sees fewer of the latter) that the good citizens choose to wear in the streets; finding out if shops are full or empty during office hours; seeing how the news is treated in the newspapers; looking at certain examples of domestic architecture that one can only find in that particular part of the world; noting the typefaces that predominate in shop signs (and reading these like a savage, understanding nothing); scrutinizing the faces in the metro and on the buses which I frequent for that very reason; picking out particular faces and wondering whether I might or might not meet them elsewhere; deliberately getting lost in parts of the city where I have already learned to find my way, that is, with map in hand if I need it; observing the inimitable passing of each languishing day at each point on the globe and the uncertain and variable instant when the lights are lit; setting foot in places where our feet leave no trace, on the luminous asphalt of the morning or on some dusty, ancient stone pavement illuminated by a single street lamp as evening falls; visiting bars full of indistinguishable, blithely insignificant murmurings that cover and erase everything; mingling with the people in the white streets of the south or in the grey avenues of the north at the declining hour when people are going out for a stroll or coming home from work, that brief respite, seeing how the women go out in the evening or perhaps at night, all dressed up, and seeing the cars in their many colors waiting for them; imagining the parties they are going to; wasting time.

And in each city I visit I would like to meet people, to meet those smartly dressed women, who are perhaps climbing into their glossy, impleccable cars to drive to the opera to hear Leon de Napoles: to go and see me.

Extract from Margaret Jull Costa’s translation published by New Directions, available here. You should read it, you know. You really should.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a review of the new expat autobiography Perking the Pansies, by Jack Scott.

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Image: MorgueFile

CONTEMPORARY DISPLACED WRITING: David Foster Wallace – A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

A few weeks ago I found myself in Claremont, California. I hadn’t intentionally planned to stop there, it was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I’d been at a wedding in Southern California the day before, and as I made the long drive back home the next day my stomach began to rumble, and there were signs on the highway for Claremont. That name rang a bell with me, but I couldn’t quite recall why. Possibly, being not the world’s greatest driver, I was too busy concentrating on the road, and the suicidal, kamikaze driving of the locals, to really stop and think on why the name Claremont was so familiar to me. My wife told me that it was probably because I’d heard of Ponoma College, a liberal arts university, which is based in downtown Claremont. That certainly sounds familiar. Yep, it must be that, I thought. And being a college town, it seemed like the perfect place to stop for lunch on a Sunday afternoon.

It was only as after lunch as I was getting back into my car – already dreading the thought of getting back onto the highway, staying on it for another 6 hours, and sharing it with mad men – that I realised why the name Claremont and Ponoma College had seemed so familiar. It wasn’t through a synapse suddenly working, finally passing a neuron to that part of my brain that stores all my thoughts on Claremont. No, it was my wife googling Ponoma College on her iPhone. Reading its Wikipedia entry, she said, “Oh, David Foster Wallace was a professor here. You must have known that, surely?”

David Foster Wallace had taught at Ponoma College, and it was in Claremont that he had sadly taken his life in 2008. You probably already know about him, so I won’t waste time repeating things here that you already know. What I will note is what an important writer he has been for me. Foster Wallace was not, as far as I know (or as far as I can remember, and as we have established, it’s not clear if we can really trust my synapses) an expat, which is what this blog focuses on. His writing does, at least to me, convey better than any other writer of his generation a sense of displacement with himself and with his America.

Moving to the U.S. in 2007, Foster Wallace’s essays were something I eagerly reconsumed. I’d read them early, but that was from the position of being a young Englishman in his early 20s who had never been to the U.S. Somehow, it didn’t count as much. Now with an I-551 visa stamped in my passport, Foster Wallace’s essays, along with de Tocqueville were the first books off my shelf as an American resident. Like de Tocqueville, Foster Wallace, though American, gave me an outsider’s perspective on my new homeland.

So this week’s displaced writing is David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” It was first published in Harpers and has since been republished in book form along with other Foster Wallace essays. It’s the Harpers version that I’m going to link to as it’s still available for free on the web. The essay details an assignment Foster Wallace had, trapped and displaced, on a Carribean cruiseliner and which is the supposedly fun thing he’ll never do again.

Click below to read.

“I have seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue. I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels. I have smelled what suntan lotion smells like spread over 21000 pounds of hot flesh. I have been addressed as “Mon” in three different nations. I have watched 500 upscale Americans dance the Electric Slide. I have seen sunsets that looked computer-enhanced and a tropical moon that looked more like a sort of obscenely large and dangling lemon than like the good old stony U.S. moon I’m used to. I have (very briefly) joined a Conga Line.”

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, when we explore next month’s theme: “An Enchanted August.”

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CONTEMPORARY DISPLACED WRITING: Fury — Salman Rushdie

Continuing with our look at writing concerned with expat experiences, when I first moved to the US, spending my time in New York and Philadelphia, I found myself often thinking about the following extract from Salman Rushdie‘s novel, Fury.

There’s just something about this piece that sits absolutely right with me. It conveys so well the Gulliver-esque excitement and fear that I felt when first having to navigate New York; and how, when listening to the locals talking, their inflections and pronunciations sounded to my ears so utterly confusing, and thrilling, and also…oddly bovine.

When he left the apartment nowadays he felt like an ancient sleeper, rising. Outside, in America, everything was too bright, too loud, too strange. The city had come out in a rash of painfully punning cows. At Lincoln Center Solanka ran into Moozart and Moodama Butterfly. Outside the Beacon Theatre a trio of horned and uddered divas had taken up residence: Whitney Mooston, Mooriah Carey and Bette Midler (the Bovine Miss M). Bewildered by this infestation of paronomasticating livestock, Professor Solanka suddenly felt like a visitor from Lilliput-Blefuscu or the moon, or to be straightforward, London. He was alienated, too, by the postage stamps, by the monthly, rather than quarterly, payment of gas, electricity and telephone bills, by the unknown brands of candy in the stores (Twinkies, Ho Hos, Ring Pops), by the words “candy” and “stores”, by the armed policemen on the streets, by the anonymous faces in magazines, faces that all Americans somehow recognized at once, by the indecipherable words of popular songs which American ears could make out without strain, by the end-loaded pronunciation of names like Farrar, Harrell, Candell, by the broadly spoken e’s that turned expression into axpression, I’ll get to the check into I’ll gat that chack; by, in short, the sheer immensity of his ignorance of the engulfing melee of ordinary American life….

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