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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Author and part-time expat Susan Jane Gilman, who plunders her life for memoir and fiction

JJ Marsh Susan Jane GilmanWe welcome JJ Marsh back to the Displaced Nation for her first “location, locution” column of the new year, in which she talks to current authors about their methods for portraying place in their works.

My guest this month is the precocious and prolific Susan Jane Gilman. She is the author of three acclaimed nonfiction works:

  1. A travel memoir, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven
  2. A memoir of her upbringing in New York City Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, and
  3. An advice book, Kiss My Tiara.

And now she has a novel, a work of historical fiction called The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, which came out in February of last year.

Gilman has also contributed to numerous anthologies, worked as journalist, and written for many well-known publications including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Real Simple, and Us magazine. And she claims to have opened the Susan Jane Gilman Institute for Advanced Gelato Studies here in Geneva.

Oh, did I mention she is an expat?

Though made, born, and raised in New York City, and educated at Brown University and the University of Michigan (MFA in Creative Writing), Gilman currently divides her time between Switzerland and the United States.

Perhaps she developed her wanderlust through exposure to her high school English teacher (she went to Stuyvesant), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish-American memoirist Frank McCourt. In any event, she holds him accountable for her decision to become a writer.

Now let’s find out how Gilman perceives the connection between location and locution.

* * *

Which comes first, story or location?
Before I sit down to write, I need a sense of narrative, of a who-what-where, but so often, story and location are intertwined. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, for example, is the true story of a disastrous backpacking trip I made through the People’s Republic of China in 1986. To separate the story from the place is simply impossible; so much of what made the trip horrific was the poverty and totalitarianism of China itself; I can’t imagine that my travel companion and I would have disintegrated in the same way at, say, the Canyon Ranch Spa or a luxury resort in the Maldives. Similarly, my novel, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, is a rags-to-riches-to-indictment story that begins with a child immigrating to the USA in 1913. New York City was simply the logical place to have it begin. It is not only my hometown but, of course, the great immigrant gateway to America.

location locution gilman

Lower East Side New York City @1910, credited to the Brown Brothers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; cover art.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
First, I usually describe vivid, visual details so that readers can see a place in their mind’s eye. Then I go for are the smells. Smell is the most evocative of all the senses. It brings a place to life more potently than anything else. Add sounds, and there you are. I’m afraid I’m sounding glib in the way that I’m saying this—”use all the senses”—it sounds easy, and it sounds like a recipe. But it’s not. I really struggle and strive to conjure a place, be it a roadside restaurant, a German city, an abandoned tenement, using incisive, significant details. I’m always on “cliche alert.”

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
Background noises, cooking smells, shadow and light, voices, architecture…there are no given particulars. I try to find what is most unique and evocative and go with it.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
Saul Bellow wrote a whole novel set in Africa, apparently without having set foot once on the continent. I find this presumptuous. That said, I have written about places that I’ve only been in briefly, or glimpsed, or created out as a composites of other places I’ve been. But I like to have a feel for a place; I need to be able imagine it throughly, to exist in it. Often, if a character needs to be in a place that I’ve never been to, I research it as much as possible. The Internet is a godsend; I find old photographs or use Google Earth. I try to travel there in whatever way I can.

Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?
I don’t have any of my books in front of me because I’m on the road, but read the very first paragraph of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street and you’ll immediately find yourself on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1913. Read the first page of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven and you’re on board a plane plummeting into Hong Kong; the next six pages take you right into downtown Kowloon at night, with all its lurid traffic, neon, and squalor. I’ve been told by readers that these sections have utterly transported them…

Gilman Kowloon Undress_medium

“Typical street scene in downtown Kowloon,” by VasenkaPhotography via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); cover art.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I love the way Richard Ford conjures up the American West, John Cheever the Connecticut suburbs, Junot Díaz the Dominican community in New York City and Dominica. That said, I usually don’t admire writers so much as specific books, eg:

And, in a different way, I have always admired Anne Tyler for the way she conjures up so well these cosy, fraught, detailed middle class American households. She is stunning in her ability to make you see rooms, houses, offices—small, intimate tableaux—in such a rich way.

Locations need not be exotic or epic, just alive and relevant.

* * *

Readers, if this interview has piqued your curiosity about Susan Jane Gilman and her writings, I encourage you to visit her author site. You can also follow her on Twitter.

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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3 anti-New Year’s resolutions for expat creatives, courtesy of the Lord of Misrule


“Lord of Misrule,” by _william via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The start of a new year, and I’ve been struggling to think of just the right blessing, words of encouragement or meditation to inspire you (and myself for that matter) in the climb to reach new summits in your creative pursuits of 2015.

But here it is, the last day of Christmas, what some of us refer to as Three Kings Day or Epiphany—and I find myself with, well, no epiphanies.

Rather, my mind seems to have been taken over by the Lord of Misrule, a figure of mischief who presided over medieval celebrations of the 12th day of Christmas, or Twelfth Night—known to the Romans in pre-Christian times as Saturnalia (the Celts had their own version: Samhain).

* * *

Wait just a second… The Lord of Misrule is dragging me into the Feast of Fools and offering me a tankard of wassail. He has invited me to give a speech to the assembly. Well, here goes:

“Lords and ladies of the Feast, I am enjoying this occasion when we all have license to behave as fools.

In that spirit, I’d like you join with me in cursing—you heard it right, CURSING—my compatriot Clement Clarke Moore, who wrote a poem about St. Nicholas. I think it should have ended here:

And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap…

I ask you: Was it really necessary for St. Nick to bound down the chimney just as that poor couple was finally getting some rest?

In that same vein, let us also condemn whoever it was who invented the New Year’s custom of making resolutions!

Surely, what most of us want to do on January 1 is get back to that long winter’s nap and hibernate for a bit?

Where I live, we are now preparing for a second Arctic blast, even colder than the first.

Under these conditions, I would be doing well to get the dog out for a walk and myself to the office—especially as it has just started snowing. Indeed, the last thing I need at this point is one of those lists of 52 goals to accomplish in 2015.

I’ll be lucky if I can remember where I stored my old snow boots.”

* * *

Okay, here I am again. (They gave me a standing ovation, btw. If they ask for an encore, I’ll bring up my new campaign to refer to the Year of the Sheep as the Year of the Alpaca instead, so much cuter!)

But listen, I haven’t completely abrogated my duty of leaving you with some thoughts at the start of the 2015.

At the encouragement of my new best friend, the Lord of Misrule, I present 3 anti-New Year’s resolutions, which you’d do well to heed:

1) There’s nothing wrong with easing in to the new year.

Readers who follow us closely will remember that we recently posted an excerpt from a contribution made by Philippa Ramsden, a Scot who lives in Burma, to columnist Shannon Young’s Dragonfruit anthology. Philippa talks about finding out she has cancer as she reaches the Tropic of Cancer. Well, as her first post of the year to her blog, Feisty Blue Gecko, suggests, she plans not to lean in but to ease in to 2015. I see nothing wrong with that, particularly for those of us, myself included, who found 2014 difficult year because of health issues or losses in their families (not for everyone Facebook’s “Year in Review” app!). Easy, easy, one day at a time. Resolutions can wait.

2) Read what you want to, not what you have to, for a while.

To illustrate this point, allow me to spin a quick travel yarn. My husband and I spent Christmas-into-New Year’s in the arty little town of Hudson, New York, staying in this house with a Parisian-style mansard roof (who knew?):
It was the kind of house that made you want to sit by the window with a good book, but for one problem: I forgot to pack my Kindle! At first I was in despair: what’s a poor Kindle-less girl to do? That was before I discovered that the Hudson Valley has a wealth of abandoned books. In nearby Greenport, I found a regency romance by Georgette Heyer (deliciously frothy) and J.B. Priestly’s novel Lost Empires, which, in telling the story of the early 20th-century English music hall, paints some extraordinarily vivid characters. Reading two books I’d encountered by chance, I was reminded of my grad student days, when I would read widely as a break from writing my thesis. I was also reminded of why I chose to live in England so long: I was, and remain, enamored of the way they write novels.

3) Be open to finding inspiration in the most unlikely of places.

In the era of social media, there are countless gurus who tell us how to write, offering writing prompts or daily inspiration—when the truth is, the best inspiration usually comes when you least expect it. To continue with my travel yarn: During our stay in Hudson, we decided to visit the Olana State Historic Site, the home of Frederic Church, one of the major figures in the Hudson River School of landscape painting. I went there thinking I would learn something more about this quintessentially American style of painting, only to find that Church was ONE OF US: an early example of an international creative! Yes, he was American and attached to the Hudson Valley, but he also traveled extensively through Europe and the Middle East—Beirut, Jerusalem, and Damascus—with his wife and children and, before marriage, had explored South America. Fittingly, the house he and his wife designed is a mash-up of Victorian, Persian and Moorish styles:

"Olana2006 3 edit1" by Rolf Müller - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Olana2006 3 edit1” by Rolf Müller – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

My goodness, I thought to myself, did they design this place anticipating it would one day be visited by displaced people like us?!

* * *

Okay, the Lord of Misrule is signaling that it’s time to get back to the old wassail bowl and sing a tune for the 12th-night crowd.

Here goes:

With a hey-ho and the snow and the wind,
May you build your own Olana in 2015,
But that’s all one, this post is done.

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Curiosity leads Elizabeth Gilbert’s Victorian heroine to international travel

Booklust Wanderlust Collage

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

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

—ML Awanohara

Hello again, Displaced Nationers! Since I last wrote, summer has slipped by us. The gradual wicking away of days and weeks puts me in mind of the protagonist of the book I have chosen to review this month: The Signature of All Things, a scientific and historical novel by Elizabeth Gilbert (she of Eat, Pray, Love fame).

The story’s heroine, Alma Whittaker, an early Victorian botanist living in North America, thinks of time as running on three concurrent tracks:
1) Human Time, which goes by as quickly and flittingly as a summer’s day.
2) Geological Time, in which the Earth moves.
3) Moss Time, which reflects the events of both Human and Geological time but moves at its own pace, expanding rapidly.

signature_coverAlma regrets that her life is stuck on the track of Human Time in an era that doesn’t favor women of character, intelligence and strength (but not looks). I found her fascinating and think that you international creatives will find her that way as well for these three reasons:

1) She is a Third Culture Kid and a polyglot.

As the daughter of English and Dutch botanists who eloped to start an empire on stolen seeds in the New World, Alma is a delightful fictional example of a Third Culture Kid. She has an unconventional upbringing at a time when most young ladies of her class were strictly bound by convention.

Gilbert writes:

She learned that walking carefully in the mud to save one’s boots or the hems of one’s skirts never rewarded one’s search. She was never scolded for returning home with muddied boots and hems.

At home, Alma speaks English with her British-born father, an old rascal who sailed with Captain Cook and turned himself into a rare plants and pharmaceuticals baron, one of the richest and most powerful men in Philadelphia; and a mix of classical languages with her highly educated mother. As for her nurse:

[The nurse] always spoke Dutch to Alma, and Dutch, to Alma’s ears would forever be the language of comfort and bank vaults and salted ham and safety.

Alma spends her childhood wandering in the breathtaking gardens and fields of her father’s estate, working on French and Latin, and being regaled with tales of far-flung expeditions at her parents’ dinner parties. She grows into a young woman with a wide breadth of knowledge but a constricted life experience.

2) Alma chooses to expand her horizons through international travel, rather like Gilbert herself.

Many novelists would slow down the narrative at this point, bring in a love interest (and a rival or two), and make the story all about the broadening of Alma’s horizons through a courtship followed by marriage. But Gilbert, who first made herself known to the world through the memoir of her solo travels to Italy (to eat), India (to pray) and Bali (where she found love), isn’t the right author for such conventions.

True, Alma’s youth, measured in Human Time, speeds by, but in the world Gilbert creates, one need not be young to have adventures. Indeed, Alma’s true adventures begin only after she believes she’s past her prime, when she enters Moss Time.

The spark that ignites those adventures is a surprise even to her. While contemplating the passage of her middle years, Alma discovers her passion for researching moss and its evolution. Moss, of course, knows no national boundaries. As Gilbert writes:

Moss grows where nothing else can grow. It grows on bricks. It grows on tree bark and roofing slate. It grows in the Arctic Circle and in the balmiest tropics; it also grows on the fur of sloths, on the backs of snails, on decaying human bones.

After Alma’s marriage fails, she sets sail for Tahiti.

As she takes off, so does the book—at least for me: Alma’s voyage across the Atlantic and Pacific was one of my favorite parts of the novel. Experiencing the long, slow sea voyage through the eyes of someone educated but who, at age 48, had barely left the confines of the family estate made for a compelling read.

“The ocean both stunned and disturbed her. Nothing had ever put more of an impression upon her being,” writes Gilbert. “It seemed to her the very distillation of matter, the very masterpiece of mysteries.”

There are also moments when her innocence clashes with her surroundings, as we see in this passage:

Alma offered payment in American coins, but the man attempted to make change for her from a handful of dirty Spanish piastres and Bolivian pesos. Alma could not figure out how he was possibly calculating his currency exchange, until she realized hew as trading in his dull old coins for her shiny new ones.

3) Alma’s insatiable curiosity is the driving force behind her travels.

It is tempting to see Alma as an extension of Gilbert: abandoning a marriage to travel recalls Gilbert’s break-out memoir Eat, Pray, Love. But in that book, along with its sequel Committed: A Love Story, Gilbert’s primary concern is with her ongoing personal evolution as writer, person, friend and romantic partner. In Signature, by contrast, Gilbert has created a character who as a young girl has already surpassed society’s expectations of what she can become. Alma is an intellectual whiz—fluent in languages, adept at math and strategy, precise in science and research—and a sensitive, caring friend. She’s strong. She’s healthy. But most of all, she’s curious—something I think she has in common with those of us who’ve chosen to live in other cultures.

When Alma reaches 16, she is faced with the decision to throw away a pornographic book or hide it. Gilbert writes:

But what about the cankerworm of curiosity that lived within Alma’s belly? What about its desire to feed daily upon the novel, the extraordinary, the true?

Then when Alma is approaching 60, she finally meets the special someone she has been searching for for years and says:

Allow me to tell you something about myself, for it might help you to speak more freely. Implanted in my very disposition—though I do not always consider it either a virtue or a blessing—is a desire to understand the nature of things.

Interestingly, curiosity seems to have become a mantra for Gilbert these days. On recent speaking tours (with Oprah, for example), she has been offering writers this advice:

Foster your curiosity even more than your passion.

To sum up: The Signature of All Things is not always a page-turner and Alma is not always a likable character, but the book held my attention to the end, in large part because I wanted to find out what happened to Alma. Gilbert’s writing, too, is impressive. Certain scenes in the book—the docks and a moss cave in Tahiti, the Spartan kitchen Alma’s abolitionist sister keeps, the crude sea tales of Alma’s father—are portrayed with such cinematic clarity I will never forget them.

Those who have read the book may know that readers have criticized Gilbert for focusing too much attention on Alma’s (mostly unfulfilled) sexual desires. I did not feel that way. Through the force of her sheer intelligence, Alma takes us closer to a period of our history that wasn’t so long ago, at least in Geological Time, when scientific findings were beginning to challenge traditional beliefs. As the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes once said:

Curiosity is the lust of the mind.

What say you, Displaced Nationers? Are you curious about Gilbert’s latest? Until we meet again, may Human Time roll by slowly for a change. (And if it doesn’t, plant some moss on it!)

* * *

Thanks, Beth! Until I read this review, I hadn’t realized that Elizabeth Gilbert, a member of our Displaced Hall of Fame for her travel memoir, had moved on to fiction. Readers, are you familiar with Signature and Alma Whittaker? If so, were you just as smitten as Beth was?

Beth Green is an American writer and English teacher living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes, and she is about to launch a new site called Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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

Booklust Wanderlust Collage

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

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

—ML Awanohara

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

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

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

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

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

A late bloomer

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

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

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

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

A misfit in the expat community

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warts and all

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Beth Green is an American writer and English teacher living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes, and she is about to launch a new site called Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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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Happy Halloween! A cauldron of 6 cautionary tales for the intrepid traveler

Image: Lake View Cemetery /

Yesterday’s Halloween post by Anthony Windram, about the top 5 ghostly settings from literature and film, got us thinking again about the ghostly and ghoulish, the mystical and macabre, the dark and demonic.

Our thoughts, however, did not turn towards the new and original, but to the jaw-clanging skeletons in the Displaced Nation’s very own Crypt.

At which point…someone (Kate Allison?) suggested that we pile all of our Gothic Tales of Old into a cauldron and chant “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.” All was going well until one of us—must have been the American—broke in with:

Stirring and stirring and stirring my brew…

Just as she screeched “O-o-o-o-o, o-o-o-o-o”, 6 apparitions arose from the pot: 6 terrifying tales from the Displaced Nation’s deep dark past. Each said they were there to teach travelers a lesson.

And here is what they told us:

1) The Ghost of the Mysteriously Misplaced Post

I am the ghost the represents the post titled The Displaced Nation’s Halloween post is…mysteriously displaced!, composed on Halloween night two years ago by ML Awanohara, whose blood was curdling because:

Kate Allison was supposed to post today, for Halloween…but then, pouf, she vanished without a trace!

As readers who are paying attention know, Kate has now posted 80+ episodes in the life of a fictional British expat family living in New England, called Libby’s Life. Two years ago she vanished before uploading the latest episode because of a freak snowstorm in Connecticut, her adopted home.

She finally resurfaced on On All Saint’s Day—in a MacDonald’s! (Has she gone native, or what?)

Travelers, here is the lesson I’m here to impart for your sake: Truth is stranger than fiction, where so’er you roam.

2) The Ghost of Quizzing Others on Their Supernatural Sightings

Hello there, I am the ghost that arises from THE DISPLACED Q: On your travels … have you ever seen a ghost?, which was composed by Tony James Slater just over a year ago. He impressed with his self-knowledge when he said: “I’m about as psychic as a cheese.” But then he went on to say:

And then, just occasionally, I have dreams when I’m visited by the spirits of people I’ve lost….

Is there any wonder there were no comments and no likes on his post? He scared the bejeezus out of most of his readers.

Still, point taken, and I’m here to impart an important lesson that you international travelers may not have fully considered: As you traverse the world, bear in mind that any ghosts you meet will be people you know (and left behind), not strangers.

3) The Ghost of Compiling a Master List of Grim Reapers

Greetings, I have emanated from the post called Grim Reapers around the globe: 7 creatures that say “Time’s up!”, composed by Kate Allison just over a year ago. Kate reported on the surprising number of cultures that maintain some version of the mythological conniving female who lures men to their deaths.

As frequent visitors to this site will know, Kate has a way with words. For instance, she described
Sihuanaba of Central America as follows:

Seen from the back, she’s an attractive woman with long hair; from the front, it’s a horse. (No jokes about Sex and the City, please.)

But even Kate’s rather offbeat humor could not dissuade from the freakishness of some of these figures.

As far as lasting lessons, this will have to suffice: Next time you get lost in a canyon, try blaming an ancient ghoul. Depending on where you’ve landed, as well as gender, you may just about pull it off.

4) The Ghost of Delivering a Screed against Princess Diana Dolls

A cheery hello to one and all, I am the ghost of Anthony Windram’s EXPAT MOMENTS: The Doll Collection, which he wrote almost exactly a year ago.

As anyone who came across it may recall, Mr. Windram was most distressed to find himself at a bed-and-breakfast in NEW England (he is from Jolly Olde) where the innkeeper has put her prized collection of “individually authenticated” Princess Diana dolls on display in the sitting room. He tossed and turned all night, even heard scratchings at his door.

Now, as regular visitors to this esteemed site know, Mr. Windram is no fool. On the contrary, he has has a mighty brainbox. Which is why I’m so stunned that he allowed himself to be frightened by a set of Lady Di figurines. I’m sure they were only there to cover up the fact that the house is haunted—by a young and rather vigorous ghost, which is how ghosts tend to come in America (just ask Libby). The real take-away, then, particularly for those who venture into the New World: Avoid American B&Bs like the plague if you want a decent night’s sleep.

5) The Ghost of the Expat Criminals Exposé

ML Awanohara showed some temerity in writing a post entitled What did Agatha Christie know? Expats make great criminals back when this blog first started.

As the ghost that arose from this post, I’m here to say she hit the proverbial coffin nail soundly on the head with this assertion:

Just as we don’t like to think of rats being part of the animal kingdom, we don’t like to think of conmen, pirates, gangsters, and terrorists being part of the group we have loosely defined as “global voyagers” … But trust me, they are a part of it — as are murderers.

Which leads us to the lesson I’ll impart today: Just because you’re in a part of the world where marrows tend to thrive, don’t assume the likes of Hercule Poirot will turn up and save you.

6) The Ghost of Finding Travel Inspiration in Margaret Drabble’s “Red Queen”

Not long ago compared to other posts in this collection, ML Awanohara wrote FOOTLOOSE & FANCIFUL: Margaret Drabble’s “The Red Queen”, explaining how her views of Korea had shifted after reading a book by Dame Drabble depicting a period of bloodshed and horror in the 18th-century Korean court. A real-life tale made more vivid by Drabble’s considerable fictional powers, in which the Prince is a homicidal maniac, and his father, the King, a stern Confucian. The King ultimately decides to murder his son in a style so dramatic that ML couldn’t get it out of her head next time she went to Korea. She remains haunted to this day.

As the ghost of this post about a ghost, I find myself torn. On the one hand, what kind of person would read Drabble—that serious, hip, intellectual British novelist, who likes to come across as one’s brainy, Cambridge-educated best friend—to get a handle on what the Koreans are really like? Apples and oranges—or marmite and kimchi, I should say.

On the other—and this is the lesson I’ve come to deliver: Never hesitate to use a Cambridge-educated Brit as a resource for novel sightseeing ideas.

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Readers, have we got you thinking twice about those travel plans? Do let us know in the ca-ca-comments. Hey, at least we spared you the horrors of Sezin Koehler’s 15 films that depict the horrors of being abroad, or otherwise displaced; Tony James Slater’s 5 travel situations that spell H-O-R-R-O-R!; or Kate Allison’s Global grub to die for, including a rather scrumptious recipe for fried tarantula, which goes down a treat in Cambodia.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation, with our weekly Alice Award, book giveaways, and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!


TCK TALENT: Wendy Laura Belcher, best-selling author, memoirist, and distinguished scholar of her adopted cultures

wendy-l-belcher-tck-collageWelcome to the third installment of “TCK Talent,” Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang’s monthly column about adult Third Culture Kids who work in creative fields. As some readers may recall, Lisa—a Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent—has written and performed a one-woman show about being a Third Culture Kid, or TCK. It debuted in LA in the spring, and I had the pleasure of seeing it during its too-short run in New York City last month. It was stupendous!

—ML Awanohara

Greetings, readers, and thanks, ML, for that vote of confidence in my work. But it cannot compare to the output of today’s guest, a woman of extraordinary talents. Wendy Laura Belcher is a professor of African literature at Princeton University as well as a published memoirist, produced playwright, popular workshop leader, and author of the best-selling Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success.

Wendy grew up in Ethiopia, Ghana, and the USA, and has been a writer since childhood. Her most recent book, Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought on the Making of an English Author, is a finalist for the African Studies Association’s 2013 Ogot Award (to be announced in Baltimore at the end of next month).

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Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Wendy, and thank you for joining us. I’ve known you for years and yet don’t know as much as I should about your TCK childhood, so am happy to take this opportunity to learn more. You are the daughter of an American dad and a Canadian mom. What’s the story behind why your family moved to Ethiopia and Ghana?
My father is a physician and my mother always loved to travel, so she convinced him to move to Ethiopia. Her idea was that he would teach and do clinical work at a public health college in Gondar, and she would be the college librarian. My first memories are of Ethiopia. I moved back to the US when I was 14. But my specific geographical trajectory is as follows: Philadelphia (birth), Boston, Seattle, Gondar (Ethiopia), Seattle, Accra (Ghana), Seattle, and South Hadley (Massachusetts). After that I lived in Tamale (Ghana). Then back to Washington DC, Accra, Los Angeles, Princeton, Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), and now Princeton again.

That’s an impressively peripatetic life! When and where were you happiest while growing up?
As a child, I loved Ethiopia the best, perhaps because it was the first place my family went and perhaps because, as a child who loved reading, it seemed like a magical place. There was a castle in my backyard as well as oxen threshing grain like in the Bible. On the throne was a descendant of King David. From a child’s perspective, it was like living in a book.

How did you find your first “repatriation” to the United States, at age 14?
I never got used to Seattle, it was very parochial in the 1970s when we moved there, and the weather was too gloomy for someone who had spent a significant part of her childhood in the tropics.

At home, but without a role, in Africa

Has your relationship to Africa evolved as an adult?
As an adult, I settled in the US and not Africa, returning to Africa only a few times until 1997, after which I started going every third year or so. Since 2009, I’ve gone every year to Ethiopia. I thought I might settle in Africa, but as an adult my relationship with Africa was more vexed.

That is, what could my role in Africa be as a white American woman?

I wasn’t particularly interested in “helping,” as it seemed to me that Africans were perfectly adept at solving their own problems and only didn’t do so because of all the “help” they received from the West.

But also, I was in a bind. In the US I often didn’t feel a strong sense of calling in my work, but I felt more satisfied emotionally. In Africa, I felt a strong sense of calling in my work, but I was often lonely.

The problem for me as an adult in Africa as a single woman without children was the lack of female friendships. In the 1980s and 1990s I found it difficult to find in Africa other career women like myself with whom I would have something in common.

One of the reasons I’ve found it easier to return to Ethiopia and have done so regularly in the recent past is that I’ve found some good Ethiopian female friends.

Where do you think of as “home” these days?
My mother always thought that my father never really had a sense of home as a particular place, because he had an identical twin brother. It was the presence of one other human being from the beginning that meant home was someone to him, not somewhere. He didn’t really know what loneliness was, she thought.

I may be somewhat similar albeit for different reasons. I don’t think of anywhere as home.

I lived in Los Angeles for 20 years and loved many things about it, but I mostly think of it as a place where my network of affection is. It isn’t the place so much but the people who make it a kind of home.

At the same time, I still have good friends in Seattle, and my family of origin is still there, so it is also a kind of home.

Are you like many TCKs in finding yourself drawn to people of similar backgrounds?
Almost all my friends are people who live straddling some boundary: either geographically, being from elsewhere or spending significant time outside the US, or racially (growing up as minorities). I am almost never in a room with people who mostly look like me.

Writing calls from an early age

I often wonder if TCKs who pursue writing careers do so because the story is entirely in their hands as opposed to the experienced upheaval of their itinerant childhoods. Did your TCK upbringing influence a) your desire to be a writer and b) what you wrote about?
Growing up in Africa, I was surrounded by literary culture. In Ethiopia, a country with a 3,000-year-old written civilization, people read illuminated manuscripts on sheepskin bound with wood. In Ghana, hand-written epigrams adorned most vehicles, and my father’s Ghanaian colleagues traded bon mots in Latin. At school, I would pick a promising library shelf and work my way through it from left to right. I wrote my first novel when I was nine, titled Shipwrecked at Silver Lagoon. I had set myself the task of writing the best title for a book ever and, after I came up with this, decided it was too good to go unwritten. It was about two English girls in the 17th century who, after their ship is wrecked off the American coast, go on to discover what happened to the disappeared colony of Roanoke: it had moved into an underground, underwater kingdom. The book ground to a halt on page 40, perhaps because, as I tried to articulate issues that were all too real to me (the loss of home and the entry into the hybrid colonial world), my imagination foundered on the demands of the adventure form.

After that, I wrote for my middle school and high school newspapers, where I was the editor.

I was shy, partly due to all the moving and not being sure how to fit in, so I spent most of my time reading. Reading allowed me to immerse myself in a world where I could watch and not be watched (or judged). It also allowed me to develop skills in “reading” people and situations, which is essential to surviving so much moving.

HoneyfromtheLion_coverTell us what drew you to write your memoir, Honey from the Lion: An African Journey, when you were in your twenties.
I had enough credits to graduate from Mount Holyoke in three years so I spent my junior year back in Ghana. While working for a nonprofit organization that was spreading literacy and translating the Bible into local languages, I spent a weekend in a village with an Irish Bible translator. A series of events transpired, the impact of which was so powerful I decided I wanted to write about it. It was a gift: the story was so fascinating that I didn’t worry about writing it. Even if I wrote it poorly, I thought people would find it compelling.

Do you ever go back to the memoir now, and if so, does it resonate very differently due to the passage of time?
I can’t bring myself to read the book now. It seems like a different self wrote itsomeone who was more religious for one.

Congratulations on Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson being selected as a finalist for a prestigious academic award. Please tell us what inspired you to write the book.
Belcher_AbyssiniaSamJohnson_coverIn 2002, I was talking with an Ethiopian friend about reading Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, an eighteenth-century fiction he wrote about an Ethiopian prince. This Ethiopian friend surprised me by saying that he had read the book and quite liked it. When I asked him why, he said the book was “very Ethiopian.” I started to correct him, but then I began to wonder if he could be right, if a book written by a European could be Africanin particular, if it could be animated by African discourse. It’s my hope that my book will be convince others about the importance of African thought to the European canon.

From offering TCK courses at Princeton to helping junior faculty

At Princeton you teach courses that I wish had been offered when I was in college, like “Growing Up Global: Novels and Memoirs of Transnational Childhoods” and “Model Memoirs: The Life Stories of International Fashion Models.” You also teach workshops around the world to aid faculty in publishing academic articles. Please tell us the countries in which you’ve taught the workshops.
The workshops have taken place in Norway, Sudan, Malawi, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Canada and all over the USA.

What led you to teach academics about how to write for publication?

belcher_writingyourjournalarticle_coverI did two master’s degrees in the early nineties and I struggled in writing my classroom papers. What did these professors want and why did some papers succeed and others didn’t? I decided not to go on for a doctorate and when people asked me why, I said I just didn’t feel like I got the hang of being a graduate student and in particular about how to write in graduate school.

To my surprise, I found that most other graduate students felt the same way and were as confused and uncertain as I had been. Then UCLA Extension asked me to teach a writing class. I had always sworn I would never teach, but I think you grow when you do things you are terrified of, so I agreed and found that three of my first six students were academics looking for help with their writing.

UCLA Extension agreed to let me restructure the next class around writing for academic journals. The restructured class was a massive success and changed my life.

Within a few years I was teaching “Writing and Publishing the Academic Article” twice a year at UCLA to graduate students, where the class was in great demand, as well as at other universities and institutes around the world. I wrote the workbook Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success for people who could not take the workshop.

Turning back to your writing, can you tell us what you are working on at present?
I have several writing and translation projects; here are the top three:
1) The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Translation of the Earliest African Biography of an African Woman. Thirty years after the death of a revered African religious leader who led a successful nonviolent movement against European incursions, her Ethiopian disciples (many of whom were women) wrote this vivid book, full of dialogue and drama. The original text, which was written in 1672 by Africans for Africans in an African language, is unknown in the United States (Walatta Petros does not have a Wikipedia entry, for instance). Thanks to the Fulbright US Scholar Award that I held during my third year at Princeton, I was able to spend ten months in Ethiopia devoting myself to archival research. I worked on the translation with Michael Kleiner, a leading scholar and translator of Ge’ez. We believe it will electrify the fields of early modern and gender studies.
2) The Black Queen of Sheba: A Global History of an Ethiopian Idea. Those familiar with the sixth century BCE biblical tale of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon may be surprised to hear that there is also an Ethiopian version, variations on which have in fact circulated for centuries, far beyond the Ethiopian highlands. According to the medieval text Kəbrä Nägäśt, the biblical Queen of Sheba was an Ethiopian woman—the wisest, the wealthiest, and the most powerful woman in the world. Tricked by Solomon into sleeping with him, she gives birth to their biracial son, who later takes the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia forever. My book traces how the Ethiopian tale came about and the impact it had on not just literature but the world. The emergence of the religion of Rastafari is one of its most far-reaching effects…
3) A Wardrobe of Selves: The Literature of Transnational Childhoods. Based on my life experiences, observing those of my TCK friends, and reading lots of memoirs, I am thinking of writing a book about memoirs by those who have spent their childhood crossing boundaries (in terms of culture, nation, state, language, gender, school, etc.). It would attend to how the narrators like Barack Obama, John McCain, Edward Said, Eva Hoffman, Gloria Anzaldua, Diana Abu-Jaber, Alice Kaplan, Gene Luen Yang, and Mohsin Hamid construct meaningful identities through narrative. These writers—usually considered separately, as part of American ethnic literatures like Arab American, African American, Asian American, or Latino—often negotiate the intricacies of identity in similar ways and should be considered together. That is, this would be a broad comparative project on diasporic memoir in the context of American ethnic literature.

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Thanks, Wendy! You are so prolific, it’s an inspiration to all of us creatives! If we could accomplish just a fraction of what you’ve already done, what a life we’d be leading! Readers, any questions or comments for the amazing Wendy? Please leave them below. And…see you next month!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, when we hear from an international traveler who has started up her own business in New York City, catering to expats.

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: Wendy Belcher; Wendy with her brother in front of a castle in Gondar, Ethiopia; detail from the cover of Wendy’s latest book, Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson.

Talking with author Sonia Taitz about home, abroad, and the healing properties of travel

Today we welcome Sonia Taitz to The Displaced Nation’s interview chair.  Sonia is an author, playwright, and essayist; her writing has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, The New York Observer, and O: The Oprah Magazine. She is also a regular guest on NBC’s TODAY show, CNN, and National Public Radio.

The Watchmaker’s Daughter is Sonia’s third book, published today. A memoir of growing up as the child of European holocaust survivors, The Watchmaker’s Daughter has already received glowing reviews, such as this from New Yorker and Vanity Fair cultural critic James Wolcott:

A heartbreaking memoir of healing power and redeeming devotion, Sonia Taitz’s The Watchmaker’s Daughter has the dovish beauty and levitating spirit of a psalm…A past is here reborn and tenderly restored with the love and absorption of a daughter with a final duty to perform, a last act of fidelity.

Intrigued? So were we. You’ll be happy to hear that Sonia has agreed to participate in this month’s prize draw, and has let us have a copy of The Watchmaker’s Daughter for October’s giveaway. See the end of this interview for details of how to enter the draw!

But now, over to Sonia.

Sonia, welcome to TDN. Could you tell us a little about your early life?
I was born in New York City. My parents had emigrated here from Germany, where they lived as displaced people after World War II.

And what was your parents’ reaction when they first arrived in America? How did the country make them feel?
They felt they had found refuge and harbor at last. When they saw the Statue of Liberty, they understood, for the first time in their adult lives, that they could be safe in the world.

Growing up in America must have been full of cultural contradictions for you. As a TCK and child of Holocaust survivors, did you feel at home in or removed from American culture?
Both. I felt American in contrast to my parents, to whom I had to translate things big and small (various cultural revolutions; why you don’t wear socks with sandals). At the same time, I felt different from American children whose parents were not from somewhere else. There was a deep rift between the “light” attitude shown on television (my strongest link to the culture) and the serious and weighted way my parents tended to see the world. I lived on both sides of that rift. Sometimes it was tiring; sometimes it was exciting.

You helped your parents get over their trauma of being in the concentration camp through travel. Where did you go, and how did you react to the other cultures?
I left my safe milieu in NY (we lived in a cozy Jewish immigrant neighborhood) and crossed the Atlantic to the Old World, Europe. My parents had experienced deep and savage hatred in Lithuania, under the Nazi regime, and both had survived ghettos and concentration camps. They had seen neighbors turn their backs on them, or even turn against them. To my parents, America was free of these horrors. Here, everyone had a chance. Here, no one could ever round you up and kill you. Europe, they felt deeply, was a checkerboard of blood-hatreds, and they had rejected it as much as it had rejected them. So that’s where I went at 21, sure that the world was no longer as bad as they had thought – that it was, in a sense – safe to trust again.

Although I traveled to Germany (and later, to Lithuania), my journey centered on Oxford, England, where I studied for two years. And while I made many close friendships there, I did feel displaced. I was frightened by the depths of snobbery, prejudice, and even hatred that I sometimes felt – not only directed toward Jews like myself but toward blacks, “Asians” (as they indiscriminately called anyone from Pakistan to Polynesia), and even Southern Europeans. I particularly remember the phrase “the wogs start at Calais.” And the student I fell deeply in love with had parents who rejected me as a “Jewess.”

You might be wondering how all this was helpful to my parents. The story is told in my memoir, The Watchmaker’s Daughter, but the upshot is, I married the Englishman, and everyone ended up happy ever after.

You say your journey centered on Oxford, England — in fact, you did a degree at Oxford University. How did you find living in the UK, and what were the biggest adjustments you had to make?
I loved it and I hated it. There was no place more seductive, in the sense of misty fog, the flowing river Isis on which proud swans drifted, dreamy willow trees and – on the inside – fireplaces, hot mulled wine, the tinkling sounds of poetry and a golden sense of age. But it was all very foreign to me. My culture (not only Jewish but American) was louder, franker, more ambitious, less resentful. Where I came from, you openly tried to succeed, and could crow about how and what you did to “make it.” In fact, we cheered the rags-to-riches hero. England liked to dampen this enthusiasm. I got in over my head sometimes, and I remember feeling lost and bereft. My currency wasn’t worth the same in this place. But learning to adapt to another culture was intriguing. Travel can make you feel rootless and alone – but it can also make you soar. Best of all is when you come to feel at home in somewhere you once thought so strange. I did, eventually, come to that place.

I think everyone at this site knows what you mean by that. So — do you still like “soaring”? Do you still like to travel? 
I love to travel, and still feel that it is the best way to understand the world – and the world inside you. Wherever I go, I try to be porous, to float, to leave my safety zone and almost pretend I live somewhere new. I eat the food, listen to the music, even try to speak the language. Being comfortable is not my main goal in life – it is to experience and learn. So I feel exhilarated as a traveler, even with the physical or emotional discomforts that come with it.

Where is your home now — and where do you feel most “at home”?
I feel most at home in my hometown, Manhattan, where all cultures are enthusiastically represented (it’s a world tour in itself). I also love to go to a small lakeside cabin, less than an hour from the city. You don’t need to be in Switzerland or Kenya to feel the overall majesty of the world.

You married a non-Jewish man, an Englishman. How did you both adjust to the religious differences, as well as the cultural ones?
When we met each other, it felt less like a culture “gap” than opposites attracting. The man in question had always been interested in the Jewish Bible, which he knew better than most. He confessed that he had always had “envious aspirations” towards the Jewish people. But in a real sense, even after more than 25 years of marriage, he is still very English (in attitude and accent), and his sense of being Jewish feels different to him than my own. He doesn’t have the weight of being “of immigrant stock,” or of being the child of refugees, castaways. After all, Americans tend to be intimidated by English people, and not the other way around. My husband has been embraced by this culture.

After your own experience, what do you now see as the biggest challenge facing someone who is marrying into a different culture?
The problem usually manifests in the broader family sense. Between the man and woman, there may be only perfect love, but you do have to add parents and, later, children to the mix. My parents were as horrified as his by our romantic “exogamy.” Although they came to love my husband, he was not the “nice Jewish boy” they had dreamed of. And then, when there are children, new questions arise — how do you raise them? That seemed easier in my case; my husband was now Jewish and wanted, as I did, to raise them in that tradition. But even so, his parents had to deal with the fact that we did not celebrate Christmas. Our children have to deal with the paradox that while they are Jewish, their English family is not.

Our October theme is based around the tales of regret by those who travel. Do you have any regrets about traveling or studying abroad? What would you do differently — if anything?
Unlike Edith Piaf, I regret so much. While my parents grew to love my husband, and – most movingly – his parents and mine grew to love each other, my going away caused immediate hurt. I still can feel guilty about my taking that step away. My parents were immigrants with a tiny remnant of a family. Yet, I had sailed off to explore the world, leaving them far behind. On the other hand, that is what children do. Mine are beginning to do the same, and I try not to hold them back.

I also wish I had been more sensitive to my husband’s parents. They didn’t want me for their son, and I thought that made them prejudiced and “bad.” I mixed them up with those who had hurt my parents and millions of other Jews. Now that I have raised children, worried about whom they dated and how it would impact our family, I understand both sets of parents better. Youth makes us callous and cocky, and now, I hope, I am neither.

Could you tell us about your memoir being published today, The Watchmaker’s Daughter? Is this always something you’ve wanted to write?
The memoir is something I had wanted to write since my parents died. For many years after they were gone, I couldn’t put pen to paper about anything. Still, thoughts about our odd and interesting lives began to form. Death gives a shape to existence – a beginning, middle, and a punctuated end – and I began to see a story coming through. A circle away and back home. The classic Ulysses story, but seen from the eyes of a little girl in a Jewish ghetto in New York City, and the larger world she longs to understand. After the voyage, the return.

What made this book almost impossible to write was the duty I felt to be fair to everyone in the story, while doing justice to the story itself. This wasn’t my personal journal either – I wrote it as a coherent work that would resonate with others, regardless of their background. I needed to transmit what I had experienced and learned. I wanted to give the reader a tale of suffering, love, redemption, and renewal.

You have also published a novel, In the King’s Arms, about an American Jewish woman who goes to England and marries into the aristocracy. How much of this was based on your own life? Did you find it easier to write the memoir or the novel, and why?
The novel takes my real trip to Oxford and enhances it with far more dramatic plotlines. Many characters are invented, others are conflated from different people. Much of the drama that happens in that book never happened to me (although funnily, many people assume it did).

I found both the novel and memoir enjoyable to write. Novels are fun; you can play with your characters and make them say or do anything you want. I love this freedom to create a new world. Memoirs are deeply rewarding in that emotional chaos is translated, ideally, into art. It’s a darker assignment, but a deeply satisfying one. Notice that I didn’t respond to the question of which was “easier.” I guess I enjoy intense engagement, which may be why I like travel, or the difficult task of writing.

What audience did you have in mind for In the King’s Arms? Did you end up attracting those sorts of readers, and to which part of the story had the audience responded the most ?
I felt the novel had a universal theme — young love, Romeo and Juliet, the sorrows of the broken heart. All sorts of people have responded to it in all kinds of ways. Some find it very English, comparing it to Evelyn Waugh. Some find it as Jewish as Philip Roth. Some treat it as a satisfying read, and others as a moral fable.

Were you surprised at the book’s reception?
The biggest surprise was that people responded to it at all. The book had almost been published 25 years ago, but the contract had fallen through, and I had thought it would never see the light of day. To see it come back to life, be read, and even garner critical praise, was the biggest and happiest surprise.

Do you hope to attract another kind of audience with The Watchmaker’s Daughter?
I hope to attract a bigger and more diverse audience than a small literary novel tends to. I am now decades older than the author of the novel, and I hope this book reflects that.

You’re a very diverse writer, and have had some theatrical works produced at the Oxford Playhouse and at the National Theatre in Washington, DC. Could you tell us a little about them?
The Oxford experience was one of the greatest ones of my life; I was given license to write a play that would be seen not only by the sophisticated body, but also by the London press. My husband-to-be acted in it (he was part of the Oxford University Dramatic Society), and it was an incomparable experience to watch him onstage giving life to my work. It was my first full-length play, my first public experience as an artist.

The play at the National Theatre was part of a series that took place on Monday nights, when theatres are typically dark. Our troupe – author, actors, director — took the train down from New York, rehearsing all the way. The audience was great — the play was a farce about jealousy, kind of madcap and packed with complicated jokes and stage business – and they responded well to all of it. People who go to see new plays are adventurous, and people who’d go on a Monday night to see one they’d never read about are even more so.

And finally: what next? Are you working on another book or play, and if so, can you tell us anything about it?
My next book is a tragicomic novel based on a real public figure (a very famous actor), but the story is largely invented. Starting with his childhood, I create the background that made this man become an unbalanced anti-Semite. His father abuses him mentally and physically, and is a nightmarish tyrant. As a teenager, the boy falls in love with a Jewish girl from a good family, but something happens that affects both their lives. The novel is called DOWN UNDER, and it’s been a real treat to bring this story to life.

We’re already looking forward to it! Thank you, Sonia, for being so honest and giving us such an insight into your life and your writing. We wish you and The Watchmaker’s Daughter every success.

To win a copy of The Watchmaker’s Daughter, you can:

We will announce all the winners in a couple of weeks!

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, Anthony Windram’s musings on films, horror and the displaced life!

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: Sonia Taitz author photo; The Watchmaker’s Daughter book cover.

The opening ceremony of the London Olympics — from an expat who witnessed Beijing’s spectacle firsthand

As regular readers will know, The Displaced Nation has some special connections to Britain. We therefore held our collective breath when the Olympic ceremony opened on Friday evening in London. How would the Brits measure up to the Chinese extravaganza of four years ago? Britain is after all a declining power — which is not exactly true of China! Today we turn to guest poster Shannon Young, an expat in Hong Kong who has written a book about her firsthand experience of attending the Beijing Games, for a verdict.

Four years ago, 2,008 drummers opened the Summer Olympics in Beijing with a thunderous rhythm heard ’round the world. Spectacular feats of coordination, drama and energy followed, wowing the world with the precision and ambition of the production.

Heralded as the greatest live performance in history, Beijing’s opening ceremony was a tough act to follow.

It was a tough act for me to follow as well. I’d been in the stands as the rumble of the drums swelled through Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium. But as the opening ceremony of the London Games was about to begin, I found myself at the kitchen table of my grandparents’ home in Oregon (I am back in the United States for a visit) watching a live stream on my computer.

Oh we can be heroes…just for one day

A landscape that looked rather like a shire appeared, complete with sheep and idyllically dressed country folk. The agrarian scene was quickly replaced with the frenetic energy of the Industrial Revolution, but the contrast was obvious: London was not trying to “beat” China.

Quirky, funny and nuanced. Those three words characterize the July 27th, 2012, ceremony. It displayed the heart and humor for which the British are famous — especially in the form of Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), whose rendition of “Chariots of Fire” completely stole the show.

London brought the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics back down to a human level. It was no Beijing, but it was the kind of show that speaks to people.

Famous for such films as Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, director Danny Boyle infused the London ceremony with a cinematic flare.

Like many other spectators around the world, I loved the short film in which James Bond picked up Queen Elizabeth in a helicopter, which they (or their stunt doubles) proceeded to jump out of, for their “entrance” into the stadium.

There were other nods to cinematography throughout the production, including to Boyle’s own films, mixing the mediums of live performance and cinema. The costumes were intricate when viewed through a zoomed-in camera, but I had to wonder how much of this was for the camera and not the live audience. The spectators in the stands may not have been able to enjoy the details.

Only rock ‘n roll (but I like it)

There was a rock-and-roll feeling to the show. The dance numbers were more like big parties than expertly timed performances. They were full of mini-storylines and surprises.

The segment that began with a nightmare of the villains of children’s literature ended with the raucous defeat of a gigantic Lord Voldemort by none other than Mary Poppins.

The soundtrack was fun and familiar, liberally paying homage to Britain’s many contributions to culture.

A high-octane production like the Olympics opening ceremony needs to have quiet moments, too.

In Beijing there were eerie performances, such as a single dancer gliding across a glowing scroll.

In London, the quiet moments were solemn. There was a moving dance performance dedicated to the victims of the July 7th bombings on London transport, and a moment of silence for those who fell in the two world wars.

New takes on old classics

The Parade of Nations was faster than usual, bringing 204 teams into the stadium in record time.

The production culminated in the lighting of the torch, which was done in a particularly elegant fashion. David Beckham delivered the torch to retired British rower Sir Stephen Redgrave in a neon speedboat on the Thames.

In a touching act, Britain’s venerated Olympian then delivered the torch to seven promising young athletes, who lit the torch together. The torch itself was composed of many copper petals which rose together on long stems to create the Olympic cauldron.

London’s opening ceremony drew many laughs and perhaps a few tears. There weren’t as many breathtaking moments as in Beijing, but the show was like the British: quirky, personable, and utterly self-assured.

Shannon Young is an American writer currently living in Hong Kong. She is the author of The Olympics Beat: A Spectator’s Memoir of Beijing. She writes a blog called A Kindle in Hong Kong and tweets @ShannonYoungHK.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We will be giving away several copies of Shannon Young’s mini travel memoir of the Beijing Olympics this month. The first will go to a commenter on this post — please share your favorite moment from London’s opening ceremony, or a memorable moment from a previous Olympics.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s Expat Moment with Anthony Windram!

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Images: A London Olympics sign courtesy e-costa on Flickr; author Shannon Young and two of her photos from the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

5 reasons why American aviatrix Amelia Earhart could be an expat heroine

The American aviatrix Amelia Earhart has been propelling her way into the news headlines this week. Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of her Lockheed Electra disappearing over the Pacific Ocean.

And today marked the beginning of an expedition, led by an American nonprofit group, to locate the wreckage from her plane. The group plans to scan the depths of the Pacific Ocean near a remote island where they believe Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, died as castaways.

With America’s most famous aviatrix back on our horizons, it seems a timely moment to nominate her for our Displaced Hall of Fame, where we put all of our expat heroes and heroines.

What, was she an expat, too? I can hear you asking. In fact, she was an expat briefly — during World War I, when she went to visit her sister in Toronto and ended up staying on as a nurse’s aide in a military hospital.

But I’ll admit that Earhart seems more of a domestic heroine — as American as apple pie, you might say. Born in Atchison, Kansas, in America’s heartland, Amelia grew up tall and willowy like the corn in the fields. As the Reigning Queen of the Air, she became the nation’s sweetheart and to this day retains a special place in the hearts of young American women.

What’s more, recruiting her to serve as a heroine for global nomads, many of whom have hybrid nationalities, might not fly with my fellow Americans. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has endorsed the expedition to hunt for Earhart’s plane, saying that Earhart embodies the “spirit of America coming of age and increasingly confident, ready to lead in a quite uncertain and dangerous world…”

But in reviewing the main facts of Earhart’s life, I have found plenty of aspects that show how “displaced” she actually was — “displaced” in the sense of being “removed from the usual or proper place” (see definition on our About page) — and hence belongs in our orbit. Here are five of my top reasons:

1) She was born with wings.

Veteran expats and long-term travelers cannot afford to have fear, or dislike of, flying. Should we incline at all in this direction, it may help to lie back in your airplane seat (or pretend you have a seat where it’s possible to lie back) and think of Earhart, who took to the skies without hesitation, as though the airplane wings were her own. Legend has it that she first caught the aviation bug while an expat in Canada. She went to see an exhibition of stunt flying at a fair in Toronto and later wrote about the sensation she’d felt as a pilot began diving at her and her friend:

I remember the mingled fear and pleasure which surged over me as I watched that small plane at the top of its earthward swoop. I did not understand it at the time, but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.

From then on, it was all she could do to keep her feet on the earth. Of her first airplane flight she said: “As soon as we left the ground, I knew I had to fly.” In 1921 she took her first flying lesson, and soon saved enough money to buy a second-hand plane.

Of course it helped that in the early days, flying was a romantic sport for the lucky few, not a form of transport where everyone from pilot to passenger feels as though they’re herding or being treated like cattle. Earhart named her first plane “Canary” because of its bright yellow color. Perhaps she felt like a canary when setting her first women’s record: rising to an altitude of 14,000 feet.

By the time she became the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic solo (Charles Lindbergh was first to do so), she had her own little red airplane — a cherry-colored Lockheed Vega, reputed to be the world’s fastest aircraft and therefore favored by pioneering aviators. Hmmm… Did it make her feel like a cardinal?

2) Always restless with the status quo, she let it drive her adventures.

What’s the litmus test for being a travel or expat type? A person who is always upping the ante. We’re a gang of permanent malcontents!

No sooner had Earhart become the first woman to cross the Atlantic (as a passenger) — a flight that made headlines because three women had died within the same year in trying to achieve it — but she sought to become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic (1932) and the first person to fly solo across the Pacific, from Honolulu to Oakland (1935), among other achievements.

At that point, there was nothing for it but to make a bid to become the first person to fly around the world (1937).

One wonders what Earhart might have done next, had she not gone down in her plane on the very last leg of the journey. Perhaps she would she have concluded that she’d peaked out too early? (No doubt many of you serial expats and repats can relate…)

3) She had no qualms whatsoever about the risks involved in an adventuresome life.

In the lore surrounding Earhart, great emphasis is placed on her early feminism. Much of it is said to be due to her mother, who had very little interest in bringing up Amelia and her younger sister as “nice little girls” — she even allowed them to wear bloomers!

Clad in this comfortable attire (Amelia would later design a clothing line for women who wanted comfort), the Earhart sisters climbed trees, hunted rats with a rifle, and “belly-slammed” their sleds downhill.

The young Amelia also kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about successful women in predominantly male fields, including film direction and production, law, advertising, management, and mechanical engineering.

Although she did marry eventually — to the publisher George Putnam — she always referred to the marriage as a “partnership” with “dual control,” and did not change her last name.

When she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, Earhart said it proved that men and women were equal in “jobs requiring intelligence, coordination, speed, coolness and willpower.”

(No doubt she would be knocked out to learn that women’s boxing will be included in the London 2012 Olympics for the very first time.)

But to me, what’s even more impressive about Earhart’s life is that she knew about the risks involved in her chosen occupation — but decided not to let them hold her back. That same kind of risk-taking is at the heart of the overseas travel enterprise, which goes against the grain of most people’s common sense. (“You want to go THERE? And FOR HOW LONG?” Expats and global nomads know the drill of fielding constant questions and doubts from the people back home.)

When Earhart set out on her second attempt to circumnavigate the world (the first had ended in a crash when a tire blew out on take-off), she wrote to her husband: “Please know I am quite aware of the hazards.” And then she went ahead and packed a jar of freckle cream. (I say that because a jar of freckle cream was found on the Pacific Island that’s now being searched.)

4) She was never more in her element than when out of her element (quite literally).

There is something that draws all of us to the displaced life. Since it’s a life of challenges, I have to assume that for most of us, it’s that feeling of being a pioneer, of going the way no one else in our circles has gone before…

In Earhart’s case, the displacement was quite literal: she loved being in the empty sky and facing the unknown. In that sense she was like a character out of Greek myth — a female Icarus. As she once said of an early flight:

The stars seemed near enough to touch and never before have I seen so many. I always believed the lure of flying is the lure of beauty…

Jane Mendelsohn was inspired to write her first novel, I Was Amelia Earhart, after reading that a piece of what may have been Earhart’s plane had been recovered on an atoll in the Pacific. Imagining the life that Earhart and Noonan might have led as castaways, Mendelsohn shows Earhart coming into her own in the desert-island setting, and finding peace of mind.

Random House editor Kristin Fritz commends Mendelsohn for creating a whole new iteration of Earhart as

a woman who had perhaps “taken this journey in order to escape the madness of the world,” a woman who “didn’t give a damn if she was alone” and finally a woman who would “live the rest of her long and brilliant life on this wild and desolate island.”

Now that’s displaced! And if Fritz is right and Medelsohn captured the essence of Earhart in her novel, then we should not feel too bad that she perished on an island out in the middle of nowhere. That’s how she would have wanted it…

5) Last but not least, she appears to have known the value of chocolate.

Here we come to the true test of an expat or international traveler: do they like chocolate? Are they addicted to that sudden charge of energy, the little lift, one gets from the sugar and the caffeine? Most seasoned expats and international travelers know that we could never have prevailed during the inevitable moments of loneliness and displacement the life entails without a chocolate supply of some sort.

When Earhart embarked on her 2,408-mile solo flight across the Pacific in 1935, she packed a thermos of hot chocolate in case she felt chilled. As she later observed:

Indeed, that was the most interesting cup of chocolate I have ever had sitting up eight thousand feet over the middle of the Pacific Ocean, quite alone.

* * *

Now that we’re touching down, I feel the need to quote from Mendelsohn’s recent op-ed for the New York Times:

We still wonder what happened to Amelia Earhart — perhaps soon we may even find out — but do we know what to do with her? Do we know how to make not just her mysterious disappearance but also her miraculous life relevant and inspiring to our global society? And could she matter across the globe, that ball around which she tried to fly that feels so much smaller today but is in fact exactly the same size as it was then?

For me there’s an easy answer to all three of Mendelsohn’s questions: YESSSSSSS!!! It’s time Amelia Earhart went global, and not just literally…don’t you agree?

STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post, another in our Expat Moments series by Anthony Windram — and yes, it does have to do with the 4th of July!

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THE DISPLACED POLL: Which of these 4 travel champions deserves an Olympic gold medal?

Hi there, folks! In keeping with our summer theme — we’ve been talking up the Olympics, in case you haven’t noticed — today I’ll be taking a look at some travely-types who have performed what can only be described as Herculean endeavors.

Which one of these travel worthies would you vote onto the gold medal podium for their efforts? Register your choice in our poll below.

1) THE SPRINTER: Gunnar Garfors

The 30-something Norwegian Gunnar Garfors (he’s a tech and new media guy as well as an avid traveler and former footballer) will never forget where he was on June 18th, 2012. Because he was in Istanbul (Asia), Casablanca (Africa), Paris (Europe), Punta Cana (North America) and Caracas (South America). Yup — all of ’em! He managed to create a new world record by visiting five different continents in one day!

Although the “day” was quite a long one, as Gunnar used the advancing dateline to squeeze a few more hours into his schedule.

It’s hard to believe that something like this is possible… I’m guessing he didn’t use Qantas for any of the flights. (Okay, that little dig was meant for Australians!)

Seriously, he makes me tired just thinking about it! Can you remember what you did on Monday? I think I got a hair cut…

Definitely an Olympian achievement.

2) THE MARATHONER: Jean Béliveau (no, not the ice hockey icon; we’re talking summer Olympics!)

Montrealer Jean Béliveau took a little longer to accomplish his feat than Gunnar Garfors — because Jean walked all the way around the word. No, really! 47,000 miles… It took him 11 years — and 53 pairs of shoes!

At 45, Jean went through a mid-life crisis with the failure of his neon sign business. In his own words:

“I played the game. It left me empty.”

Jean liked the idea of sailing around the world, but ocean-going yachts cost too much. Instead, he began to imagine running away as far as he could.  He started jogging and working out but told no one of his plans — not even his life partner, Luce Archambault. When he finally told Luce, she gave him her blessing — but insisted that he do it for a cause. Jean chose world peace and the safety of children, something no one could disagree with (at that point, he was after some peace of mind).

He began by running south, but by the time he’d reached Atlanta, his knees had started bothering him, so he switched to walking. He waked through the rest of America, Mexico, Latin America, Africa, Europe and Asia — six continents and 64 countries.

His interest in promoting peace didn’t stop him from being mugged, as well as imprisoned (the latter in Ethiopia). But he carried on and eventually even came to embrace his cause, telling people that to achieve peace, we must see the world through “eyes of love.”

It’s an achievement so staggering it begs the question: what can he possibly do next? Where do you go from there?

“Hey honey, let’s celebrate with a holiday…”

“NO! Already been there.”

Another record, of course, belongs to Luce, who has remained loyal to Jean despite his absence of 11 years from their home in Montreal and his falling for a woman in Mexico. Once a year, she would come to him and they would spend three weeks together, in one place.

Jean walked back into Montreal in October of last year. How does the couple find it being under one roof again? Rumor has it, they’re writing a book together! Talk about Olympian challenges…


Brendan (Benny) Lewis is a polyglot who hails from Cavan County in Ireland. (No, “polyglot” isn’t a type of glue; it’s a person who speaks four or more languages fluently.) Benny earned this title — he is also a vegetarian and a teetotaler — after nine years on the road, during which he taught himself to speak eight languages fluently (with more than a smattering of half a dozen more).

I know nothing about Benny’s musculature, but it’s clear his tongue has gotten plenty of exercise.

Benny now considers himself to be a “technomad” — a full-time technology-enabled globe-trotter. His Web site, Fluent in Three Months, is a treasure trove of tips and tricks for picking up languages (called “language hacks”), as well as a tribute to his mind-boggling achievement. (I’m actually surprised that his head hasn’t exploded from the pressure of all that knowledge.)

According to him, it is no big deal — anyone can do what he has done. All they need is dedication, hard work…and more of the same. (Times a million!)

You know, I have to hand it to Benny, he’s the very essence of — sorry, I can’t resist — a cunning linguist. (Well, I said I was sorry! Please stop throwing things at me.)


The British novelist and travel writer Ben Hatch is the author of a hugely popular (and very entertaining) book about a recent adventure of his: driving 8,000 miles around Britain in a cramped Vauxhall Astra, while researching a guidebook for Frommers.

“But why is that worthy of an Olympics gold medal?” I hear you ask. “Novelists usually aren’t athletes. And he only traveled around his own neck of the woods, Britain.”

Well, there are lots of reasons I could pick: because he practically lived in his car for five months, because he purposefully inflicted dozens of tourist attractions on himself every week, because he had a car crash en route, or because he stayed in a haunted Scottish castle.

But the one I like best is the fact that he did all this with his wife and two children — aged four and two! — in tow.

Can you imagine? While the family was attempting fine dining in a posh hotel restaurant, his children engaged in food fights and eating mashed potatoes with their bare hands. There were tears and tantrums in the car — every single day. For months. It sounds like my worst nightmare! And I don’t even have kids…

The resulting trauma became his best-selling book Are We Nearly There Yet? 8,000 Misguided Miles Round Britain in a Vauxhall Astra — which I can only assume was written cathartically, in a desperate attempt to cling on to what remained of his sanity after such a grueling experience. I think he deserves a medal just for surviving the first week. And of course, once the kids are old enough to read what he’s written about them, he’ll be in for a whole new world of trouble…

* * *

Right! There’s my suggestions. What do think. folks? I just know there are loads of people out there making epic journeys, achieving the unachievable, and generally making the rest of us look like couch potatoes in comparison. Do you know of any? (Olympians, I mean, not couch potatoes — I’ve got enough of the latter in my house.) BTW, I toyed with the idea of including an older traveler, as unlike sport, there seems to be no real age limit on world travel, especially with all the recent growth in the international cruise-ship industry (see photo above).

In any event, I’d love to hear from you — let me know in the comments, or hit us up on Twitter: @DisplacedNation and/or @TonyJamesSlater

And don’t forget to vote in our poll!

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post on a historical traveler worthy of a gold medal or two.

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Image: MorgueFile

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