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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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A valentine to displaced creatives: Let a thousand friendships flourish!

Valentine_Displaced_Friendships

Photo credit: PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay.

In my nearly four years of managing the Displaced Nation, I’ve had about as many face-to-face meet-ups with the creatives I’ve “met” on this site. Let me see…the last one was was about eight months ago, when the delightful Jennifer Eremeeva and I had coffee. Among many other things, we talked about her autobiographical novel based on her two decades of living in Russia: Lenin Lives Next Store: Marriage, Martinis and Mayhem in Moscow (don’t you love the alliteration?).

I suppose it’s not surprising how rare these real-life encounters are, given that, by definition, displaced creatives tend to be on the move and/or opt to live in far-flung corners of the globe. (Jennifer was on her way to her summer home—or dacha, as she jokingly referred to it—in Northampton, Massachusetts, when we met, but would soon be heading “home” to Russia.)

Still, putting a gravatar to a name is one thing, putting an actual face to a name quite another. It cements your friendship in a way that nothing else can.

No doubt that’s why I was so thrilled to learn that another such meet-up has taken place between two writers who first encountered each other here: Cinda MacKinnon, author of the novel A Place in the World, and Rita Gardner, author of the memoir The Coconut Latitudes.

Both Cinda and Rita have kindly agreed to answer a few questions about their flourishing friendship (there’s that alliteration again!). This being February, I offer it as a kind of valentine to the pair of them, who have been great friends not only to each other but to TDN, as well as what they represent about the site’s potential to be a haven from the storm of the displaced life, a “home”.

* * *

Rita and Cinda, welcome back to the Displaced Nation! Why don’t we start by having you recount how you discovered each other on this site?

Cinda&Rita
RITA: I first discovered Cinda when she posted a comment on James King’s interview with me in his delightful “A Picture Says” column for the Displaced Nation. I immediately responded to her and we began our online friendship, which evolved into our discovering we were practically neighbors in the San Francisco Bay Area—and subsequent in-person get-togethers.

CINDA: It is ironic to think that James, who lives in Thailand, is responsible for connecting two writers who now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. James’s blog, Jamorocki, and the Displaced Nation are my two favorites.

Thank you for that lovely compliment, Cinda! We’ll be sure to pass on to James… Tell us, what was the thing that immediately drew you the two of you together?

CINDA: We were both expats who grew up in Latin American and her story reminded me of other foreigners I knew, whose parents exchanged a comfortable life for a more adventurous, exotic one…but sometimes with devastating consequences—have you read/seen Mosquito Coast? Actually, I told Rita that Cocoloco—the name of her family’s coconut finca (plantation) in the Dominican Republic—would have served as an apt alternative title for her book. She said it was her working title but then she changed it to The Coconut Latitudes just before publication.

RITA: Besides the obvious—that Cinda was an expat and a TCK who grew up in Latin America—I was intrigued that she’d written a novel that is set in Colombia.

Cinda, you’ve also been a guest of James King’s photography column. Can each of you tell me what which photo of each other’s you liked best?

Rita & Cinda Fave Pix
RITA: My favorite photo of Cinda’s was “A Profusion of Wildflowers in Arvin.” I liked the subtle angles and composition and it reminded me of the unexpected beauty that can be encountered everywhere flowers bloom.

CINDA: I think the “Wading Chairs.” That is so Latino! You can just picture a couple of islanders lounging there and keeping their feet cool.

By now, I assume you’ve read each other’s books. What were your impressions?

Cinda&Rita covers
RITA: I read the TDN interview with Cinda before reading her book. The first line struck a chord, about how her fiction “was a way to revisit homes she has cherished.” I also appreciated learning about Cinda’s life and her writing process and her list of favorite books, many of which mirrored my own. Once I got to reading the novel itself: I loved so much about it! The first thing was its sensory lushness; I could see, smell, taste, and feel the cloud forest setting and the coffee finca. I felt for Alicia, the main character, as she ached to find her own place in that world amid complicated relationship struggles. It was a satisfying read.

CINDA: I loved reading Rita’s memoir. The honesty—a lot of soul searching went into this work. Although her upbringing was difficult and her entry into adult life harsh, the writing is straightforward. And I have to say, her mother must have done a marvelous job with home schooling. For those who aren’t aware: Rita mostly taught herself to write, I believe. The results are extremely impressive.

One of you chose to write a novel based on your TCK life, whereas the other wrote a memoir. Do you think those were the right choices?

CINDA: If Rita had written this story as fiction, we would have assumed that she was exaggerating any real life background that went in to it. It is a haunting and compelling memoir.

RITA: I wondered of course if Cinda’s novel was autobiographical (which I’ve learned it is not, other than being influenced by her South American roots and her love of botany). I thought it was perfect as fiction. A memoir would not have produced A Place in the World—and since I liked this book just as it is, I’m glad she chose that route. However, I’d love to see her write a memoir, too!

Both of you grew up as Third Culture Kids, which gives you something in common right away, though not all adult TCKs become fast friends, of course. What are the closest parallels you’ve discovered?

RITA: Goodness—the parallels are uncanny: We both grew up in families that roamed the world before settling in Latin America. We both love nature, writing, photography, many of the same authors and books. We both wrote our books as ways to revisit our own past. We both arrived in the U.S. as teens, wearing “the wrong clothes” and struggled to basically “become” North Americans. I could go on!

CINDA: I could immediately relate to this line in Rita’s author bio: “She continues to dream in Spanish and dance the merengue.” Like many TCKs we are multilingual and have a tolerance for and interest in other cultures. Both of us had parents that were somewhat negligent and we were on our own by the time we were 18 (maybe 17 for Rita—and I did have some encouragement elsewhere).

You almost sound like the Bobbsey Twins, but I guess you also have some differences?

CINDA: One major difference is that as children, Rita lived in a very isolated village, home-schooled and restricted to certain contacts, whereas I went to international schools with a mélange of teachers and friends. My siblings and I didn’t see our parents as often as most kids, but they were stable individuals. Also, between the ages of 6 and 12, I spent a month every summer stateside with my cousins and affectionate aunts; this helped me both emotionally and gave me a glimpse of American life.

RITA: Also in terms of our adult lives: Cinda pursued a life as an environmental scientist and has had a successful academic career. She possesses a deep knowledge of botany and geology I’ll never have. I’m sure there are a lot of other differences—and look forward to continuing our friendship and discovering more about each other, whether differences or connections.

Finally, can you each tell me something about the other you think might be interesting to Displaced Nation readers?

CINDA: Rita is not just as a writer but has had a big job reporting to the Vice Chancellor of Administration at UC Berkeley. She also garnered a good review from the acclaimed Dominican American author/professor Julia Alvarez, who declared her an “honorary Dominicana”. Rita is an accomplished artist as well; supporting the TDN theory of the creativity of expats .

RITA: Cinda has a generous heart—evident both in person and through her blog posts. For example: Through her blog I’ve learned about a Cuban musician who defected to the US and now is in the San Francisco Bay Area; she did an excellent interview with him and included links to his music. In ways like that, she expands everyone’s horizons. Likewise, she has gotten the word out to friends and readers about my book, and has introduced me to other writers in the area. Oh, and she loves Burmese food!

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Thank you, Cinda and Rita! Readers, be sure to check out their books if you haven’t already! Any further questions for these two writers and adult third culture kids? Any of your own meet-ups to report?! Let a thousand friendships bloom!! As usual, please let us know in the comments…

STAY TUNED for PART 2 of our 2014-2015 reads!

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TCK TALENT: Gene Bell-Villada, literary critic, Latin Americanist, novelist, translator and TCK memoirist

Gene B-V TCK Talent

Professor Gene Bell-Villada (own photo)

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is here with her first column of 2015. For those who haven’t been following: she is building up quite a collection of stories about Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields. Lisa herself is a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about growing up as a TCK, which is receiving rave reviews wherever it goes.

—ML Awanohara

Happy New Year, readers! Today I’m honored to be interviewing Gene Bell-Villada, author of the Third Culture Kid memoir Overseas American: Growing Up Gringo in the Tropics and co-editor of my first published essay in the TCK/global-nomad anthology: Writing Out of Limbo. Gene grew up in Latin America and “repatriated” to the USA for college and beyond; he is a Professor of Romance Languages (Spanish), Latin American Literature, and Modernism at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He is also a published writer of fiction and nonfiction.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Gene. Like me, you’re an Adult Third Culture Kid of mixed heritage. Since you were born in Haiti and grew up in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Venezuela as the son of an Asian-Polynesian mother from Hawaii and a WASP father from Kansas, your identity development was complex and nuanced, as you make clear in your memoir.  Can you tell us how you identify yourself these days?
Like the title of my memoir, I identify myself as an Overseas American, of mixed WASP and Chinese-Filipino-Hawaiian ethnicity, with a Caribbean-Hispanic upbringing. I wrote my memoir in great measure to disentangle and explain that background—for myself and others! More broadly, in my middle 20s, it dawned on me that, by default, I happened to be a cosmopolitan, and that I couldn’t feel “local” even if I wished to. And so, I set out to make the best of that cosmopolitanism and build on it.

OverseasAmerican_cover

Tell us two things you miss about each of your childhood countries.
From my three childhood countries, I miss mostly the Latin informality and warmth…and salsa dancing! From Puerto Rico, I’ve fond memories of the University campus that was next door to my first home in Río Piedras, and where my mother would take us for walks. From Cuba I miss the richness of the music and folk culture. About Caracas, 3,000 feet above sea level, I remember its mild climate and “eternal spring.”

“Puerto Ricans do a lot of hugging, Dickie reflected. His parents and relatives almost never did.”

Your TCK childhood had extra upheaval due to your parents’ divorce and your two years at a military school in Cuba while your parents each lived in other countries. I imagine that affected your feelings about where you lived.
I must admit, I don’t “miss” most of what I lived in my 17 years in the Spanish Caribbean. I had a very difficult childhood, in which I never really “belonged” to any of those countries, had little contact with the expat community, and was leading a painful, dysfunctional family life. Since my brother and I were put away in a military school in Cuba, it’s not a place that I would “miss.” The circumstances of my upbringing have made childhood nostalgia an elusive sentiment for me.

After a young adulthood in New Mexico (briefly), Arizona, California, Massachusetts, and New York—and some trips to Europe—you settled in Williamstown, MA.  When did you come to feel that it was home, inasmuch as any place can be for an ATCK?
My wife and I actually have had homes in two locations in Massachusetts: Williamstown and Cambridge. So we lived both in the city, where we had our home life, and the country, where I taught. And I guess I realized sometime in the 1970s that New England had become my home. The place had enough cultural density, layered history, and overall cosmopolitanism for me to feel at ease in those parts. (I’d also earned my Ph.D at Harvard.) I even turned down a job offer from UCLA in 1976 because by then I felt attached enough to Massachusetts to stay there. Plus, I didn’t look forward to living in my car on the LA freeways, or putting up with Los Angeles pollution, which was fairly serious back then!

“‘Ah, but you speak such good Spanish…'”

Have you returned to any of the Latin American countries in which you grew up? 
I’ve been back to Puerto Rico and to Venezuela, always experiencing those mixed feelings. When I visited my old neighborhood in Hato Rey, PR, in 2012, I found it largely changed. Moreover, during a previous visit to San Juan in 1985, I went for a stroll at the University grounds. At the sight of the palm trees at the entrance and the tower looming above it all, I fell to the ground, crying. It was a reminder that much of my youth there, when I’d believed that I was an “American” boy in the tropics, had been illusory.

As for Cuba, I could only go back under very specific conditions—not because of the regime, which I’m not against, but owing to my painful personal memories of the place. I worry that seeing certain streets and buildings might elicit a wrenching sadness in me.

Since you’re a professor of Latin American literature and have written about the heavyweights in the field, I presume you’ve also visited quite a few countries in the region at this point. What were your impressions?
Inasmuch as I’ve written books and articles about Borges, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and Mexican literature, I’ve been more than once to Argentina, Colombia, Perú, and Mexico. Going to and traveling in those countries brought insight into their literary works that one cannot get simply from reading them in one’s study. On the other hand, my Latin American and Caribbean background proved enormously helpful in accessing the culture and the society of those places. Indeed, García Márquez’s world is the Caribbean coast of Colombia; exploring that area in 1982 and 1988 was a lot like being back in San Juan and Havana! Writing about it was fun, a bit like a return to my childhood, without the pain.

“She was from New York. Didn’t people from New York listen to classical music?”

Although you have always had a passion for classical and Latin music, you ultimately found ways to express yourself through writing fiction and nonfiction. Does music still play a big role in your life? 
Music is my first love. If I hadn’t had a late start at the piano (a fact that unfortunately set me back several years), I might have stayed with it. I turned to literature, in some measure, because it didn’t require advanced hand-muscle skills! But once I got involved with the written word, I strived to make my prose style as artistic, expressive, and fun as music can be, and I worked to give it rhythm and melody. (Someone has remarked that I write like a musician.) I still play piano, though.

Is there a particular work that you are most proud of having written, and if so, why?
I feel equally attached to all of them! Each one has had its role in my life. My books on Borges and García Márquez (which have sold well and gone through second editions) are used in AP courses, and are consulted by general readers, here and abroad. From early on, I had set out to be a “cultural mediator” between Latin American literature and U.S. readers, and those volumes serve that purpose.

My book Art for Art’s Sake and Literary Life, on the other hand, grew out of my cosmopolitanism and my desire to deal with the uses of art as both escape and expression. (In some subliminal way, it’s autobiographical.) The volume covers the phenomenon of aestheticism in Europe, the U.S., and Latin America. I felt vindicated when the thing was a finalist for the 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award (there I was, sharing space with Cynthia Ozick and William H. Gass). It also got translated into Serbian and Chinese! When I asked my two translators just what had drawn them to the book, they both replied that what I’d said about Latin American aestheticism was also applicable to analogous 19th-century movements in Serbia and Taiwan. So my cosmopolitanism had shed light on some corners elsewhere in this world.

My two books of fiction focus in part on TCK issues, plus such cultural-specific matters as American relativism or the seductive influence of Ayn Rand.

But I finally turned to memoir because I felt it was the way to confront head-on the question of my crazy, mixed-up background, to make sense out of it all and give it a living shape. The process of remembering that past, and crafting it and getting it out there, has proved enormously therapeutic. It also led to my meeting Nina Sichel and, then, you, Lisa, via our essay collection, Writing Out Of Limbo!

My latest volume is a kind of experiment, starting with its very title: On Nabokov, Ayn Rand and the Libertarian Mind: What the Russian-American Odd Pair Can Tell Us about Some Values, Myths and Manias Widely Held Most Dear. Besides dissecting the two authors, I tease out my troubled relationship to them, delve once again into my own life history, and finally move on to the larger problem of a rising, spreading libertarianism in this country. There’s even an Appendix in which I throw in a number of spoofs of my own of hard-line libertarians! (I’ve been playing with satires of something or other ever since I was in middle school in Puerto Rico…)
on-nabokov-ayn-rand-and-the-libertarian-mind_cover

You’re a true international creative, with works that run the entire gamut! Tell us, what’s next? Fiction? Nonfiction? Something else?
I have stuff in the works, but am in the process of rethinking my projects in the wake of my wife’s death in 2013. (Widowerhood does things to your mind and spirit, alas.)

Where can people find your works?
All my books are available from Amazon and local bookstores, as well as from any good library!

Thank you, Gene, for sharing your wonderfully inspiring story with the Displaced Nation. So, readers, any questions or comments for Gene? Be sure to leave them in the comments!

Editor’s note: All subheadings are taken from Gene’s book The Pianist Who Liked Ayn Rand: A Novella & 13 Stories.

STAY TUNED for our next fab post.

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And the nominees for best expat/travel film are…seeking your vote! Welcome to the 2013 Displaced Oscars

Don’t miss our 4 polls below! Results to be announced in March 2nd Displaced Dispatch! Enjoy!

When I first repatriated to the United States, I relished the chance to watch the Oscars again. For some reason — I’m not sure why, particularly as I was never a big movie buff — I regretted missing out on the pinnacle of Hollywood glamour during my years of living overseas, first in England and then in Japan.

It did not take long, however, before the novelty wore off. I grew bored with the dresses — they all seemed so same-y. And a tux is a tux is a tux.

I also grew bored with the selection of films. Typically, Oscar-nominated films take place within a single country’s borders — and when people cross these borders, it is in the service of maintaining them (IT’S WAR!!!). Apart from when Sofia Coppola was singled out for her Lost in Translation screenplay, the plots do not exactly speak to me and my prior situation of displacement.

Case-in-point: 2013 Oscar nominees

A great example of what I’m talking about are the two historical — or, more accurately, historically informed — movies that are up for this year’s Oscars:

  1. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln — the quintessential American biographical period piece that the Academy loves (it is predicted to win five Oscars, including best director for Spielberg).
  2. Les Misérables, the film of the musical theatre adaptation — which in turn is based on an historical novel by Victor Hugo (1862), depicting life in the aftermath of the French Revolution. (Les Mis is likely to win for its score, sound mixing, makeup and hair styling, and best supporting actress for Anne Hathaway.)

Actually, make that three historical films, as Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (up for best picture, cinematography and best original screenplay) can come under that rubric as well. The first half is a mock Western and the second, a mock-revenge melodrama about slavery. At least, though, it has one foreign character: German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Posing as a dentist, he gallivants around Texas, speaking perfect English. And you’ll never guess what? He’s a villain. He does have manners — but does that mitigate or enhance his villainy? One can never tell with Mr Tarantino…

Likewise, Argo (likely to win best picture along with some other prizes) and Zero Dark Thirty (likely to win for best original screenplay) depict epic events in the — albeit much more recent — American past. And although each of these films portrays Americans abroad, it shows them acting in the service of president and country — with the aim of protecting other Americans. Nothing too displaced about that.

The comedy-drama Silver Linings Playbook (likely to win Best Actress for Jennifer Lawrence) is about two people who bond over shared neuroses — could anything be more American? Not to mention their common love of pro-football (no, Andy, not the soccer kind!).

Perhaps the best of this year’s films for anyone with a proclivity for venturing across borders is Life of Pi (likely to win for best original score and visual effects). The story is about an Indian family that is emigrating to Winnipeg, Canada. Yet, as even those of us who haven’t seen the film know by now, Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) gets stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific with a Bengal tiger. (That’s after the steamliner carrying his family’s zoo is pulled underwater during a freak storm.)

Over the course of months, the two unlikely castaways must depend on each other to survive — a scenario that provides an occasion for reflecting on cross-spiritualism, not cross-culturalism. (Pi, who was born a Hindu, loves Jesus and practices Islam.)

It also provides an occasion for displaced Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee to try his hand at 3D storytelling.

Why are we trying so hard to fit in when we were born to stand out?

WELCOME TO THE 2013 DISPLACED OSCARS. If we don’t fit into the Hollywood version, we may as well host our own event. We invite you to vote on your favorite films in the four categories we have created below. Preliminary results were announced in the Displaced Dispatch that came out on Saturday, February 23rd. Final results will appear in the Dispatch that comes out on Saturday, March 2nd. Be sure to sign up if you haven’t already!

1) Best Film Exploring Themes of Interest to Expats & International Travelers

This category honors the films that put cross-cultural themes right at the center. And the nominees are:

ShanghaiCalling_pm1) Shanghai Calling (2012, dir. by Daniel Hsia)
SUMMARY: Manhattanite Sam (Daniel Henney), an arrogant young lawyer, is transferred to his firm’s Shanghai office. He bungles his first assignment and finds his career in jeopardy. With the help of his beautiful relocation specialist, among others, he just might be able to save his job and learn to appreciate the wonders that Shanghai has to offer.
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: How often do we get to see Shanghai on the big screen? That said, the plot is somewhat shallow and fails to make the most of Sam’s background as a Chinese American.

 

TheBestExoticMarigoldHotel_pm2) The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012, dir. by John Madden)
SUMMARY: A group of British retirees — played by British acting greats like Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy — have outsourced their retirement, attracted by the less expensive and seemingly exotic India. They are enticed by advertisements about the newly restored Marigold Hotel and given false dreams of a life with leisure.
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: At the 2012 Mumbai Film Festival, the film was honored for showcasing Indian filming locations — a view not necessarily shared by viewers outside the subcontinent. Some of us feel that India was slighted by being treated as the shimmering background to a story about retirement-age self-renewal.

TheImposter_pm3) The Imposter (2012, dir. by Bart Layton)
SUMMARY: Thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his home in San Antonio, Texas, in 1994. Three and a half years later, he is allegedly found alive, thousands of miles away in a village in southern Spain with a story of kidnapping and torture. His family is overjoyed to bring him home. But all is not quite as it seems. The boy bears many of the same distinguishing marks he always had, but why does he now have a strange accent? Why does he look so different? This British documentary concerns the 1997 case of French serial imposter Frédéric Bourdin.
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: By common consensus, The Imposter is one of the year’s most provocative pictures. Certainly, Displaced Nation writer Anthony Windram found it that way. In one of our most popular posts of last year, he mused that Bourdin’s story is not entirely unfamiliar to expats, all of whom have chameleon-like qualities.

CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!

2) Best Foreign Displaced Film

This category honors films about displacement that take place in non-English speaking countries and therefore require English speakers to read subtitles while learning about other cultures. And the nominees are:

Tabu_pm1) Tabu (2012, dir. by Portugal’s Miquel Gomes)
SUMMARY: The action in this experimental fiction ranges from contemporary Lisbon to an African colony in the distant past, in what was Portuguese Mozambique. First we are introduced to a cantankerous elderly Portuguese lady with a gambling addition. Then we flashback to her youth as a beautiful young woman living a kind of White Mischief existence at the foot of Mount Tabu, where she falls in love with a handsome adventurer…(Notably, the film’s title references the 1931 German silent film of that name, which took place in the South Seas.)
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: The film shows what happens to expats who live too long — there are no remnants of “paradise” left. But some — e.g., A.O. Scott of the New York Times — have faulted the director for glossing over the issues of colonialism in the film in favor of simple aestheticism.

ClandestineChildhood_pm2) Clandestine Childhood (2011, dir. by Benjamín Ávila)
SUMMARY: A cinematic memoir drawn from Ávila’s own experiences, the film paints an unsettling portrait of families affected by military dictatorships. The year is 1979, five years after Perón’s death, and the family of 12-year-old Juan, who have been living in exile in Cuba, returns secretly to Argentina. Juan’s parents are members of an underground organization and for sake of their cover, he must assume the name of “Ernesto” and pretend to be a newcomer from northern Argentina.
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Juan’s parents aren’t fleeing the law because of their past misdeeds but are trying violently to overthrow a current dictatorship. The film therefore raises the question: do urban guerrillas make good parents? After all, they are asking their son, a Third Culture Kid, to act the part of a native in the homeland he never knew, for the sake of their political ideals. But while this question is intriguing, the story is driven almost entirely by clichés. As one critic remarked:

[T]he writing needs to be sharper to avoid feeling like a generic coming-of-ager.

LetMyPeopleGo_pm3) Let My People Go (2011, dir. by Mikael Buch)
SUMMARY: French immigrant Reuben (Nicolas Maury) is living in fairytale Finland — where he got his MA in “Comparative Sauna Cultures” — with his gorgeous Nordic boyfriend Teemu (Jarkko Niemi). He works as the mailman in a neighborhood whose colorful houses look like Scandinavian Skittles. Then, after a misunderstanding involving a parcel full of Euros, Teemu casts his lover out of Eden, sending him back to where he came from: Paris.
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Ruben’s return to Paris — where he finds his family weathering various crises as well as emotional instability — demonstrates why he left in the first place. (Aren’t most expats escaping something?) However, the scenes with his wacky, feuding family members soon become tedious. As one critic puts it:

The movie’s labored attempt at creating comedy mostly means lots of scenes with Ruben cringing as relatives shout.

CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!

3) Most Displaced Director

This category honors the director who has shown the most chutzpah in raiding the literature of other cultures to make a commercially successful movie (note: they do not cast the natives!). This year’s nominees are:

AnnaKarenina_pm1) Joe Wright for doing a British version of Anna Karenina (2012), casting his muse (Keira Knightly) in the titular role
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Some enjoyed Wright’s bold new interpretation of this classic Russian novel, while others felt that he did Tolstoy a terrible injustice — for instance, New Yorker critic Richard Brody had this to say:

Wright, with flat and flavorless images of an utterly impersonal banality, takes Tolstoy’s plot and translates it into a cinematic language that’s the equivalent of, say, Danielle Steel, simultaneously simplistic and overdone.

LesMiserables_pm2) Tom Hooper for casting a bunch of Aussies, Brits and Americans in Les Misérables
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Since Hooper previously won the Best Director Oscar for the terribly English drama The King’s Speech (historical drama, yay!), many found it odd that he would choose to take on this sprawling French story, and beloved musical, to create what he calls “an oil tanker of a picture.” But for what it’s worth, Hooper had no qualms about directing a film having to do with French history instead of his own. He is persuaded that Victor Hugo’s story speaks to issues of concern today:

Hugo’s story of populist uprising in 1832 Paris resounds in an era of the Arab Spring, the Occupy protests and general frustration over economic inequality.

DangerousLiaisons_pm3) Korean director Hur Jin-ho for making an Asian version of Dangerous Liaisons (2012) — which was originally an 18th-century novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclosset — and setting it in 1930s Shanghai
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Many have complimented Hur Jin-ho’s decorous adaptation, saying it was clever of him to swap the insular, decadent world of de Laclos’ book, which takes place pre-French Revolution, with the similarly gilded cage of Chinese aristocrats just prior to the Japanese invasion. But the film isn’t particularly sophisticated on a political or historical level. As one critic writes: “It’s all just window-dressing: pretty, but substance-free.”

CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!

4) Most Displaced Actor/Actress

This category honors the actor who has performed this year’s greatest feat of playing a role that requires them to take on a whole new nationality. We’re talking Versatility Plus! And the nominees are:

Daniel_Day-Lewis_pm1) Daniel Day-Lewis, the Anglo-Irish actor who portrayed Abe Lincoln in Lincoln
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Apparently, there was no American actor good enough to play one of the most exceptional presidents the nation has ever known as critics have had nothing but praise for Day Lewis’s performance. Here is a sampling:

His Lincoln is tall and tousled and bent over with the weight of melancholy responsibility in the fourth year of the Civil War.

[Day-Lewis] manages to inject so much quiet humour into what could have been a very reverential portrait.

[The actor] inhabits the ageing figure of the 16th President of the United States with exquisite poise, intellect and grace.

AnneHathaway_pm2) Anne Hathaway for playing saintly prostitute Fantine in Les Misérables
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Many find it impressive that Hathaway, cast as the tragic Fantine, sings the show-stopping “I Dreamed a Dream” in one take. (Tom Hooper’s contribution to the genre was having the actors sing rather than lip synch.) And some say that her willingness to have her locks shorn off on screen shows her commitment to her craft. That said, her performance is not to everyone’s taste. “Rarely have the movies seen such an embarrassingly naked plea for applause,” writes Australian film critic Jake Wilson — the implication being the Victor Hugo’s Fantine would have had more dignity.

Alicia_Vikander_pm3) Swedish actress Alicia Vikander for taking on two non-Swedish roles: Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (she served as Queen of Denmark and Norway in the 18th century) in A Royal Affair (2012); and Kitty in Anna Karenina (2012)
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Vikander’s “moxie” is apparently what landed her both of these parts. According to A Royal Affair director Nikolaj Arcel, every actress in Denmark wanted the role of Mathilde, but only Vikander had the requisite “regal quality.” She even went to Copenhagen two months before shooting began to learn to speak Danish fluently. Likewise, Anna Karenina director Joe Wright saw in her the qualities to play Kitty, a flirtatious young woman who believes the dashing Count Vronsky is her Prince Charming, only to find love with a kind-hearted farmer named Levin. It is not uncommon for movie-goers to remark that she outshines Kiera Knightly’s Anna.

CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!

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Are we missing out on any films/categories? Please leave your suggestions in the comments below.

Longing for even more expat and international travel films? Please go to our Displaced Oscars Pinterest board.

As for me, I’m going in search of a displaced after-party! Let’s hope I don’t have to travel too far to find one! 🙂

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another installment in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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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Images: Oscar statuette courtesy Dave_B_ on Flickr; actor pix from Wikimedia.

Talking with former expat Meagan Adele Lopez about travel, romance & novel/screenplay writing

Earlier this week I caught up with Meagan Adele Lopez, actor, world traveler, blogger and now a first-time author. She self-published her novel, Three Questions: Because a quarter-life crisis needs answers, in October of last year. It was featured on The Displaced Nation’s post Best of 2011: Books for, by and about expats.

Meagan — who is also known as MAL and the Lady Who Lunches (after her blog of that title) — may have just three questions, but I had quite a few more! I wanted to find out what inspired her to write her book, which she is now attempting to turn into a screenplay — the story behind the story…

Here’s what she had to say.

Meagan, I think it’s fair to say that you’ve been around a bit — I mean that in the nicest possible sense! Would you mind telling us a bit about your background — where you grew up, what you studied?
Do you mean I’ve been around as in I’ve lived for a long time, or do you mean I’ve traveled loads? (I won’t bother going to the other possibility!) Actually, I am getting up there in age — just six more months of my twenties; but there’s no need to rub it in, Tony! Just kidding. I think I’ll be relieved to be out of my twenties. What a crazy ride they were!

No, of course I wasn’t referring to your age — I’m an English gentleman, remember? I meant, you’ve lived in quite a few places — and that was before you moved abroad.
By the time I was 12 years old, I had lived in 12 different houses, and four different states. I pretty much grew up in a suburb of Baltimore called Towson. I say “pretty much” because I also lived in Tennessee and New Jersey for two years in between. But Towson is where I call home.

You have a passion for acting. When did you develop it?
Since I was eight years old, acting was all I wanted to do. For high school, I auditioned for a conservatory arts school called Baltimore School for the Arts (it boasts Jada Pinkett, Josh Charles and Tupac as students), where I was lucky enough to be trained by professional actors everyday.

Funnily enough, I wanted to be an actor, too. What drew you to the profession?
I had this fear that my life would pass too fast, and acting was somehow a way to slow down time, and be “in the moment.” Nowadays I find that writing is what does this for me. I am able to record thoughts and moments forever. Very existential, I know.

But you haven’t completely lost your passion for acting — I see you’ve instilled it in your main character, Adele (“Del”), in Three Questions. And I noticed there’s a mention of a horror film in your author’s bio — could you tell us a bit about that?
About the horror film? Oh no, you really don’t want to know about that (wink). But okay, my first starring role was in a horror movie called Sleepy Hollow High, about students who believe that the legend of Sleepy Hollow is real. It’s one of those films that is so cheesy and kitschy that it might be considered entertaining at some level. At the time, I was just excited to be in something, but it certainly wasn’t Oscar-worthy — ahem — at all. 

And you also got into some major motion pictures?
My first speaking role in a big Hollywood movie was as a cocktail guest in Traffic, with Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas — now there’s an Oscar worthy film. Unfortunately, my lines got cut — but you can still see me shaking Michael Douglas’s hand. I got my Screen Actors Guild card from acting in small parts in Enemy of the State, a spy-thriller starring Will Smith, and The Replacements, a college football film starring Keanu Reeves. Numb3rs was my first TV show.

Wow — you gave all that up to become a writer?
I got disillusioned with acting after working in casting for four years. I saw how completely random and superficial some of the choices can be for who gets cast. I’d gotten into acting for a much more altruistic goal — I wanted to make a difference in how people see the world — but ultimately realized that the place where I could make a real difference, because I have control over my own success, was with writing. Without great content, after all, actors couldn’t do their job!

Well you’re having plenty of success with writing. In addition to the book (which we’ll come to, don’t worry!), you started up a popular expat blog, A Lady Who Lunches, while you were living in the UK. Now that you’ve repatriated, and are living in Chicago, are you still keeping it up?
When I got to Chicago, the blog went through a bit of an identity crisis. Even though I’d never lived in that city, writing about the adventures of a newbie Chicagoan didn’t really interest me. Especially since I was no longer lunching — I was working, hard. Though I still have the same URL and twitter handle (@theladylunches), I now call the blog by my own name, and I’m glad I’ve kept it up. It’s a built-in fan platform that has helped me to sell my novel.

You’re also something of a social media guru. Are there any secrets you can impart to other bloggers about building an audience?
I didn’t set out for the blog to become popular (and thank you for saying so). It was a lot of ground work, as well as trial and error. You can’t expect results from a blog unless you’re updating it frequently, creating a community with other similar, like-minded people, and engaging with them on a consistent basis. My biggest piece of advice to other bloggers is to take a course in SEO. I never really paid attention to SEO, and it wasn’t until I took a course that I realized the importance of knowing the basics. Simple things like: are people even searching for the topics that you’re writing? Are you wasting two hours of writing time on a topic that gets only 100 hits per month?

Now let’s turn to Three Questions, which follows the developing love between two young people — who have only met each other once, by chance, on a night out in Las Vegas. The love interest, Guy, is from England, as is your real-life boyfriend, Jock. So what I’d like to know is, just how much of the book is autobiographical?
This is a question that Jock and I dodge quite often! I would say that about sixty percent of the book is autobiographical. There are many similar personality characteristics between Guy (Del’s boyfriend) and Jock, and between Del and me, Even the outline of the story conforms quite closely to what happened to Jock and me. Jock and I did meet in Las Vegas before his trip to Africa, and we did write letters back and forth to get to know each other. Hey — they always say to write about what you know, so that’s what I did! However, “how” things happened — and obviously the ending — are all very different.

One of my favorite aspects of the book was the use of the three questions in each email between Del and Guy, which the couple used to get to know one another during their long separation. It’s genius! Where did the idea for that come from?
Thanks, Tony! It came from Jock, actually. He used to play a questions game with his mates in England when they were out at the pubs. They were quirky questions like “If you were an animal, what would you be?” When Jock went traveling through Africa and we had only met that one night, he decided to take a slightly different spin on it, and ask me three VERY different questions to get to know me. It was such a great way to get to know someone, and build up the intensity and connection. I highly recommend it for anyone who has a long-distance relationship.

Tell us about the screenplay for the novel.
At the end of last year, I raised some money through a Kickstarter campaign to take the novel to the next level, which hopefully will include turning it into a movie. I’m working on the screenplay now, and then I’ll pitch it to Hollywood. What they do with it after that is up to them.

To give you a taster, Meagan has just released this movie-style trailer for the book, which is awesome!

Right, here’s something your fans will be keen to know the answer to: are you writing another book, and can you share any juicy details with us? Is it about travel again?
I’m now working on a second novel, which — particularly as a citizen of The Displaced Nation — you’ll be interested to learn is about someone who is forcibly, not voluntarily, displaced. It’s about a Cuban teenager who was torn from her homeland and true love in the early 1960s — and the struggles, ghosts and eventual success she faces in the United States leading up to today.

Love is a recurring theme in your writing, and one we’ve been looking into recently at The Displaced Nation. So, post Valentines Day, do you have an advice for the singletons out there, wherever they are?
My only advice is to figure out who you are first, and what you want before worrying about finding someone. I really believe that the right man or woman will come when you finally decide that you’re the most important person in your life, and you are taking care of you.

And I have to ask this of someone who has written such a beautiful and memorable love story; tell me about True Love. Does it exist? Is there one person for each of us?
Wow — that’s the kind of question that years ago, I always used to ask everyone else. I never thought I’d be on the receiving end. (Maybe I am getting old?!) I come from a family where love comes multiple times in their lives, so for a long time I never believed that there could be only one person for me. What I’ve come to learn is that with a mixture of timing, chemistry and hard work, true love can certainly be created. How else do I explain running into Jock in a bar in Vegas on Easter Sunday, and thus creating a life out of it, despite our different backgrounds, cultures and nationalities?

Yes, how does a girl from Towson get together with a bloke from Portsmouth? Can I ask, how is Jock coping with the transition to life in Chicago?
Ah… besides the constant yelling at the way we drive, the lack of manners that Americans have when opening doors, and absolutely hating the egos and pompous attitudes of our politicians and media? I would say he’s adjusted much better than I did when I was in England! (I did a lot better in Paris!) Luckily, Chicago has a variety of cultures. He has actually started a business with another Englishman, and found another good friend who’s English. Plus, I think he secretly loves the attention that his accent brings him.

And will your love story have a traditional ending — any plans to tie the knot?
He has one more year before he has to get down on his hands and knees. I gave him five years not thinking he would take the entire five! But we’ve had a few cross-continental moves in the past four years, which has made it challenging to find the right moment.

In Three Questions, Del describes her perfect future as “living by the water in a big city, traveling as much as possible.” You’ve traveled and lived in France and England, and now you’re living in the Windy City, presumably somewhere near the lake… Have you found that perfect future yet? Or is your dream different from Del’s?
Perhaps when I first started writing the book, that was my dream. But success is very important to me as well. I want to leave this life with a feeling that I have left a significant mark on people’s lives. I don’t think I will feel satisfied until that happens, which means I may always be striving to better myself, to make a difference… On a more practical note, I can see myself back in SoCal or having a flat in Paris eventually. That’s not too much to ask for, is it??

Thanks very much, Meagan! It was great chatting with you.

* * *

So, what do you all think? I loved Meagan’s book Three Questions and I’m not normally a fan of love stories and chick lit. I strongly recommend you all give it a read. Three Questions is available now on Amazon.com for the Kindle and, most excitingly of all, is now in paperback!
Three Questions on Amazon Kindle
Three Questions in Paperback

And luckily for you lot, Meagan has also agreed to participate in a giveaway, just for Displaced Nation readers!!!

She’s agreed to give a free ebook to the first 15 people who tweet: I want a free copy of @theladylunches’ new romance from afar novel, #ThreeQuestions via @displacednation

AND, she’s offered to give away a free copy of the paperback to the best comment in the comments section.

So what are you waiting for? Let’s chat 🙂

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s episode from our long-running expat soap, Libby’s Life. You can look forward to a battle with tiger-mums, a three-hour glucose tolerance test, one suspected case of galloping dandruff, and the crowning glory of a Valentine’s Day party for three-year-olds. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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Images: Meagan Adele Lopez; Three Questions book cover (designed by Kathleen Bergen).

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