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IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: Best of expat fiction 2015

The title of this post is a lie: you didn’t miss anything. It’s we who missed our deadline of publishing, at the end of 2015, a list of books for, by and about expats.

Dare I suggest that our procrastination could prove fortuitous? Most of us have more time to read now that the holidays are over and the doldrums have set in—along with, for some of us (I refer to those on the East Coast of the USA), a spell of blizzardous weather. What better time to curl up with a book that in some way relates to the themes of international adventure and displacement?

Without further ado, allow me to offer my curated list of the best novels by, for, and about expats and other international creatives in 2015. (Nonfiction coming soon, we promise!)

PLEASE NOTE: The books, which include indie as well as traditionally published novels, are arranged in reverse chronological order.

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Year of the GooseYearoftheGoose_cover_400x (Unnamed Press, December 2015)
Author: Carly J. Hallman
Expat credentials: A native Texan, Hallman lives in Beijing. This is her first novel.
Synopsis: A comic novel about China’s era of the instant tycoon, which has been described as “unhinged”, “outrageous”, “deranged” and “hilarious. The oligarchical, tabloid-driven society it portrays is not unlike our own, which may be why the book was listed as one of the BBC’s 10 books to read in December 2015 as well as selected for the December 2015 Indie Next list.
How we heard about: The Anthill blog


TheNavyWife_cover_400xThe Navy Wife (December 2016)
Author: Helena Halme
Expat credentials: Originally from Finland, Halme has lived in the UK with her British husband for many years.
Synopsis: The sequel to Halme’s well-received autobiographical novel The Englishman (reviewed here by Displaced Nation founder Kate Allison), which concerns a long-distance romance between a Finnish woman, Kaisa, and a British naval officer, Peter. We see the couple, despite having tied the knot, facing a number of obstacles and threats to living happily ever after—especially when Kaisa doesn’t take well to the life of a military spouse in a foreign country.How we heard about: Social media, and a comment by Halme on one of our posts.


Seafled_cover_400xSeafled (November 2015), Burnt Sea (August 2015) & Seaswept (April 2015)
Author: Jordan Rivet (aka Shannon Young)
Expat credentials: An American, Young has lived in Hong Kong for the past few years with her half-Chinese husband, a Hong Kong native.
Synopsis: A post-apocalyptic adventure series set on a souped-up cruise ship, featuring a prickly female mechanic named Esther. The series, called the Seabound Chronicles, consists of three books and a prequel.
How we heard about: Young writes the popular “Diary of an Expat Writer” column for the Displaced Nation.


TheJapaneseLover_cover_400xThe Japanese Lover (Atria Books, November 2015)
Author: Isabel Allende
Expat credentials: Born in Lima, Peru, to a Chilean diplomatic family, Allende lived in various countries, including Chile, Bolivia, and Beirut. As an adult she worked in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe; she also lived for over a decade in Venezuela. She currently lives in San Rafael, California.
Synopsis: A cross-cultural love story that sweeps from present-day San Francisco to WWII-era Poland the United States. It explores questions of identity, abandonment, and redemption.
How we heard about it: Who hasn’t heard about it? It was one of the most anticipated books of 2015!


TheDisobedientWife_cover_400xThe Disobedient Wife (Cinnamon Press, November 2015)
Author: Annika Milisic-Stanley
Expat credentials: Born to Swedish and Anglo-German parents, Milisic-Stanley grew up in England and now lives in Rome. She says she based the plot on stories she heard when living in Dushanbe as a humanitarian aid worker for several years.
Synopsis: The story of the friendship that forms between a poor, courageous local woman in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and her employer, a trailing expat wife married to a British diplomat.
How we heard about: An interview with Kristin Louise Duncombe, an American writer who has lived in Europe since 2001.


CrimeRave_cover_400xCrime Rave (The Margins Press, November 2015)
Author: Sezin Koehler
Expat credentials: Koehler is an adult Third Culture Kid who lived in Prague for some years and now lives in Florida. She has written several posts for the Displaced Nation, including a two-part series listing movies that depict the horrors of being abroad or otherwise displaced.
Synopsis: The second installment to her debut novel, American Monsters. Picking up where that one left off while jumping genres, the new book presents an alternate universe in which goddesses have free reign over humans, trauma goes hand in hand with superpowers, and Marilyn Monroe lives.
How we heard about: A Facebook post by Koehler


ADecentBomber_cover_400xA Decent Bomber (November 2015)
Author: Alexander McNabb
Expat credentials: A Brit who has been working in, living in and traveling around the Middle East for some thirty years, McNabb was featured on The Displaced Nation three years ago for his “Levant Cycle” trilogy.
Synopsis: Another political thriller—but this one is set in Northern Ireland and concerns a former IRA bomb maker who is drafted against his will into joining the War on Terror.
How we heard about: He sent us a heads up, and Beth Green reviewed the book in her last column. She found it well researched, well written and an enjoyable read.


ThePalestInk_cover_400xThe Palest Ink (Lake Union Publishing, October 2015)
Author: Kay Bratt
Expat credentials: Bratt lived in China for almost five years, where she “fell in love enough with the people to want to write about them forever.” She has since repatriated to the hills of North Carolina. (She is also the author of a memoir, Silent Tears: A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage. )
Synopsis: A story that depicts the coming-of-age of a sheltered son from an intellectual family in Shanghai, during a tumultuous period of Chinese history: the Cultural Revolution.
How we heard about: Kindle promotion.


Olivia&Sophia_cover_400xOlivia & Sophia (Monsoon Books, October 2015)
Author: Rosie Milne
Expat credentials: A native Brit, Milne has lived all over Asia; she currently lives in Singapore, where she runs the Asian Books Blog.
Synopsis: A fictional account of the lives of the first and second wives of the founder of the British trading post of Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. Set in London, Java, Sumatra and Singapore, against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars—the story takes the form of two fictionalized diaries, one by each of Raffles’s wives: Olivia Devinish and Sophia Hull. Milne “takes us away from the cold, damp confines of Georgian London to the muggy, hostile tropics and to the titillations and tribulations of a life far away from home.”
How we heard about: When Rosie Milne was “wonderlanded” on our site, we published a couple of excerpts from the book.


NowhereChild_coverNowhere Child (Black Dot Publishing, October 2015)
Author: Rachel Abbott
Expat credentials: Abbott fled from the corporate life to Italy, which gave her the opportunity to start writing psychological thrillers. Her first one was a break-out hit on Kindle, and she hasn’t looked back. Currently, Abbott divides her time between Italy (where she lives in an apartment in an old fort, which overlooks the sea) and Alderney, in the Channel Islands (just off the coast of France). But although the expat life gave her a new career as a writer, Abbott sets her books mostly in her native Manchester.
Synopsis: A stand-alone novella featuring the same characters as Abbott’s Stranger Child. Eight months ago Tasha Joseph ran away, and her stepmother, Emma, has been searching for her ever since—as are the police, since Tasha could be a vital witness in a criminal trial.
How we heard about: Lorraine Mace interviewed Abbott for her Location, Locution column in December.


TheHundredYearFlood_cover_400xThe Hundred-Year Flood (Little A, September 2015)
Author: Matthew Salesses
Expat credentials: Salesses was adopted from Korea at the age of two and often writes about race and adoption. This is his first full-length novel.
Synopsis: The mythical and magical story of a 22-year-old Korean-American’s escape to Prague in the wake of his uncle’s suicide and the aftermath of 9/11. He tries to convince himself that living in a new place will mean a new identity and a chance to shed the parallels between himself and his adopted father.
How we heard about: Social media


TheDressmaker_cover_400xThe Dressmaker (Penguin Books, August 2015*)
Author: Rosalie Ham
Expat credentials: Born and raised in Jerilderie, Australia, Ham now lives in Melbourne. Like most Australians, she has had a period of traveling and living overseas.
Synopsis: A darkly satirical tale of love, revenge, and 1950s fashion. After twenty years spent mastering the art of dressmaking at couture houses in Paris, Tilly Dunnage returns to the small Australian town she was banished from as a child. She plans only to check on her ailing mother and leave. But Tilly decides to stay, and though she is still an outcast, her exquisite dresses prove irresistible to the prim women of Dungatar. Note: The book is soon to be a film starring Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times
*Originally published in 2000, this is the film adaptation of the book.


CirclingtheSun_cover_400xCircling the Sun (Ballantine Books, July 2015)
Author: Paula McLain
Expat credentials: None! Her breakout novel, The Paris Wife, was about an expat: Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, whose passionate marriage ended as her husband shot into literary stardom. This time her focus is the Happy Valley set, a decadent community of Europeans in 1920s colonial Kenya. As she told NPR in a recent interview:

You know, I wrote most of The Paris Wife in a coffee shop in Cleveland. I don’t have to tell you that a Starbucks in Cleveland is about as far away from a Parisian cafe as you can possibly get. And I also wrote about Kenya, the wild African frontier, from my home in Cleveland without having ever gone there. You can’t really visit colonial Kenya, can you? You can’t really visit Paris in 1922, except in your imagination.

Synopsis: Based on the real-life story of the fearless and captivating Beryl Markham, a record-setting aviator who became caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, who as Isak Dinesen wrote the classic memoir Out of Africa.
How we heard about: A New York Times review by the expat writer Alexandra Fuller.


TheAmbassadorsWife_cover_400xThe Ambassador’s Wife (Doubleday, July 2015)
Author: Jennifer Steil
Expat credentials: A Boston-born former journalist, Steil is married to a Brit who once served as ambassador to Yemen, where a suicide bomber attacked him. She is also the author of The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, a memoir about her experiences running a newspaper in Yemen. She lives in Bolivia, where her husband is the European Union ambassador.
Synopsis: A harrowing account of the kidnapping of an American woman in the Middle East and the heartbreaking choices she and her husband, the British ambassador to an Arab country, must make in the hope of being reunited.
How we heard about: Shortlisted in the New York Times Book Review as a “marriage plots” novel.


TheStarSideofBurnHill_cover_400xThe Star Side of Bird Hill (Penguin Press, June 2015)
Author: Naomi Jackson
Expat credentials: A Third Culture Kid, Jackson was born and raised in Brooklyn by West Indian parents. After attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she traveled to South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship and earned an MA in creative writing from the University of Cape Town.
Synopsis: The story of two sisters, ages ten and sixteen, who are suddenly sent from Brooklyn to Bird Hill in Barbados after their mother can no longer care for them. The young Phaedra and her older sister, Dionne, live for the summer of 1989 with their grandmother Hyacinth, a midwife and practitioner of the local spiritual practice of obeah.
How we heard about: Shortlisted in the New York Times Book Review as a “coming of age” novel.


TheWolfBorder_cover_400xThe Wolf Border (Harper, June 2015)
Author: Sarah Hall
Expat credentials: Born in northwest England, Hall lived in Wales while attending Aberystwyth. She went on to study in Scotland (St. Andrews) for an MA, where she met and married an American law student. Though the marriage was short-lived, its legacy was substantial: a move to the US proved the catalyst she needed to embark on novel writing. The pair was based in the small town of Lexington, Virginia, after her husband was awarded a scholarship to a nearby law school. At that time, Hall visited the Idaho reservation that appears in this book. She currently lives in Norwich, UK.
Synopsis: About a controversial scheme to reintroduce the Grey Wolf to the English countryside, which brings zoologist Rachel Caine, who has lived a solitary existence in a remote section of Idaho, far away from her estranged family in England, back to the peat and wet light of the Lake District. The novel explores the fundamental nature of wilderness and wildness—as well as the frontier of the human spirit.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times


IntheCountry_cover_400xIn the Country: Stories (Knopf, June 2016)
Author: Mia Alvar
Expat credentials: Born in the Philippines, Alvar was raised in Bahrain and the United States. She now lives in New York City. This is her first book.
Synopsis: A collection of nine short stories about Filipinos living overseas. Alvar has imagined the lives of exiles, emigrants, and wanderers who uprooted their families from the Philippines to begin new lives in the Middle East, the United States, and elsewhere—and, sometimes, turned back again.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times


TheDiversClothesLieEmpty_cover_400xThe Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty (Ecco, June 2015)
Author: Vendela Vida
Expat credentials: Born and raised in San Francisco, Vida is the daughter of two immigrant parents: a Swedish mother and a Hungarian father. She has become known for producing “travel trauma” narratives, exploring the lives of competent women who feel disintegrating marriages for distant lands (i.e., the Philippines, Finland and Turkey). Her latest novel, considered to be her “finest work” to date, was inspired by a trip she took to Morocco where her bag was stolen.
Synopsis: A literary thriller that probes the malleability of identity, told with lush detail and a sense of humor. Robbed of her money and passport in Casablanca, Morocco, an American woman feels free to be anyone she chooses.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times.


ChinaRichGirlfriend_cover_400xChina Rich Girlfriend (Doubleday, June 2015)
Author: Kevin Kwan
Expat credentials: Born and raised in Singapore, Kwan has lived in Manhattan for the past two decades. He says he still craves “craves pineapple tarts and a decent plate of Hokkien mee.“
Synopsis: Follows the story of the culture-shocked Rachel Chu as she searches for her mysterious birth father in Shanghai in hopes he’ll walk her down the isle at her upcoming wedding. The book is a sequel to Kwan’s 2013 bestseller, Crazy Rich Asians, picking up a few years after those events. Both books take place in the world of Hong Kong and Singapore’s super-super elite.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times


TheRocks_cover_400xThe Rocks (Riverhead Books, May 2015)
Author: Peter Nichols
Expat credentials: Nichols grew up partially on Mallorca (while attending boarding school in England), where he got to know other Northern Europeans. He has worked in advertising and as a screenwriter, and a shepherd in Wales. He divides his time between Europe and the United States. In 1997 he produced a riveting memoir, Sea Change, telling of the time when he set off alone across the Atlantic in his beloved 27-foot wooden engineless sailboat, Toad, which he and his (now ex-) wife had lived on for six years, fixing it up, making it into their home, sharing adventures on it.
Synopsis: A tragic double romance, told in reverse, primarily set in a seaside resort in Mallorca and its enduring expat community.
How we heard about: From a book review in the New York Times.


coming-home_cover_400xComing Home (Mira, April 2015)
Author: Annabel Kantaria
Expat credentials: A Telegraph Expat blogger who has been featured on the Displaced Nation, Kantaria has lived in Dubai with her family for several years.
Synopsis: The story of a woman living in Dubai because she wants to flee the pain of her brother’s death but then heads for home upon receiving word of her father’s sudden death. Kantaria says that writing the book helped her “explore that push and pull and sense of displacement you feel when you have a foot in two countries.”
How we heard about: A Telegraph Expat post on expat-themed summer reads, by Rosie Milne


APlaceCalledWinter_cover_400xA Place Called Winter (Grand Central Publishing, March 2015)
Author: Patrick Gale
Expat credentials: Born in the Isle of Wight, Gale was an expat of sorts when his family moved to London. During his misspent youth, he lived at one point in a crumbling French chateau. He now lives on a farm near Land’s End.
Synopsis: The story of a privileged Edwardian man who has a homosexual affair and, for fear of arrest, is forced to abandon his wife and child: he signs up for emigration to the Canadian prairies. He reaches a world as far away as possible from the golden suburbs of turn-of-the-century England. The story is loosely based on a real-life family mystery of Gale’s gentleman great-grandfather. The plot in a nutshell: “To find yourself, you must sometimes lose everything.”
How we heard about: Gale was a featured author at the Port Eliot Festival, which takes place yearly on an ancient estate in Saint Germans, Cornwall, UK.


TheArtofUnpackingYourLife_cover_400xThe Art of Unpacking Your Life (Bloomsbury Reader, March 2015)
Author: Shireen Jilla
Expat credentials: A journalist-turned-novelist who now lives in London, Jilla has been an expat in Paris, Rome, and New York. The Displaced Nation did a feature on her first novel, Exiled, about a British expat wife in New York.
Synopsis: The story of a group of university friends who set out on the holiday of a lifetime, a safari in the Kalahari, only to find they don’t have much in common any more.
How we heard about: Social media and then Beth Green interviewed her.


TheTehranText_cover_400xThe Tehran Text – The Tana Standish Spy Series #2 (Crooked Cat Publishing, February 2015)
Author: Nik Morton
Expat credentials: Morton spent 23 years in the Royal Navy, during which he had the chance to visit (among others) Rawalpindi, the Khyber Pass, Sri Lanka, Tokyo, Zululand, Mombasa, Bahrain, Tangier, Turkey, Norway, Finland, South Georgia and the Falklands. He has also traveled widely in his private life. He and his wife are now retired in Alicante, Spain.
Synposis: Second of Morton’s Cold War thrillers featuring psychic spy Tana Standish (first was The Prague Papers). Iran is in ferment and the British Intelligence Service wants Tana Standish’s assessment. It appears that CIA agents are painting too rosy a picture, perhaps because they’re colluding with the state torturers…
How we heard about: Lorraine Mace interviewed Morton for her Location, Locution column last July.


Outline_cover_400xOutline (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 2015)
Author: Rachel Cusk
Expat credentials: Born in Canada, Cusk spent much of her childhood in Los Angeles. She moved to the UK in 1974 and is a graduate of Oxford University. She now lives in London.
Synopsis: About a divorced writer who lives in London with her two youngish children, covering the several days she spends in Athens, where she has gone to teach a writing class. She ends up spending time with a much older Greek bachelor she met on the plane.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times

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Tell me, what have I missed? I’m sure I’ve missed loads!! Kindly leave your recommendations for novels for, by, and about expats that came out in 2015 in the comments!

ML Awanohara, one of the Displaced Nation’s founders and its current editor, has a section in the weekly Displaced Dispatch where she mentions the latest expat books. Why not subscribe for the new year?

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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Photo credits: All photos via Pixabay or Morguefiles.

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Uprooted from life in the UK, Vanessa Couchman writes novels about people with roots

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

This month’s guest, Vanessa Couchman, was uprooted from her native UK in 1997, when she moved, with her husband (who is Swedish) to an 18th-century farmhouse in the Midi-Pyrénées region, in southwest France. Between the pair of them (he has lived in France twice and in the UK) they have clocked up nearly 60 years of living abroad!

Like many Scandinavians, her better half is fluent in several languages, but Vanessa has done her best to catch up. “My French was hopeless when we first moved here,” she told me, “but, by force of perseverance, I am now almost fluent.”

She still enjoys occasional visits to London for art galleries, bookshops and museums, but in general, she says, England makes her feel like a fish out of water. As she puts it on Life on La Lune, the blog she keeps about her life in France:

I love living here, even if aspects of French life are still unfathomable.

As for work, like my guest last month, Rachel Abbott, Vanessa is a refugee from corporate life in the UK (she worked first in publishing and then in public sector auditing and research). Unlike Rachel, she still has a day job: running her own copywriting business and writing magazine and journal articles about aspects of French life.

But being an expat has also enabled her to become what she calls on her writer’s blog a “young author” of fiction (“young” because she started comparatively late): specifically, historical fiction, which harks back to one of her great passions in life (she read history at Oxford University). She produced her first novel, The House at Zaronza, a year-and-a-half ago with Crooked Cat Publishing.

Thanks to modern technology, Vanessa can live in rural France without being cut off from other English-language writers. She belongs to Writers Abroad, an online community of expat writers based in countries from Nova Scotia to Australia. “This is a great support network and has helped improve my writing no end,” she says. “The members have all become friends, even though I may never meet some of them.”

And these days there are more English-language writers in her local area—enough for Vanessa to help establish, in 2013, an annual Franco-British literary festival in the nearby village of Perisot.

But I mustn’t gloss over an extremely important detail about this expat author’s story. Although she has written short stories set in rural France, Vanessa chose to set her first novel in early 20th-century Corsica. As she told another interviewer:

Corsica is almost a character in its own right in “The House at Zaronza” and a lot of people have remarked that it comes over strongly. I ought to be getting commission from the Corsica Tourist Board!

Vanessa Cushman France and Corsica

Living in one place while dreaming of another. Photo credits: (top row) Midi-Pyrénées region in southwest France, where Vanessa Couchman lives (via Pixabay); the square tower of the Château of Cornusson, in Parisot, by Thérèse Gaigé via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0); (middle row) Vanessa Couchman and Nonza Paoline Tower, Corsica (both supplied); (bottom row) Corsican village and Filitosa IX stern face captured in granite (both supplied).

Corsica?! What’s more, the novel explores a topic that seemingly has not been nearly as important to Vanessa as it is to her characters: “how centuries of Corsican history and culture remain deeply rooted in people, even if they move away,” as she puts it. We see this dynamic in her main character, Maria, when she leaves Corsica to serve as a military nurse on the Western Front during World War I. Unlike her creator, Maria feels displaced.

So what has drawn Vanessa Couchman so powerfully to this particular location? Perhaps there is something about this Mediterranean island’s own displacement that appeals to her? Annexed by France in 1769, Corsica retains a distinctly Italian flavor. Vanessa, too, is some kind of mix: an Oxford-trained historian who feels more at home in the French countryside than in the UK, a “young author” of historical fiction…

But instead of speculating, let’s see what Vanessa herself has to say on the topic of location, locution.

* * *

Welcome, Vanessa, to Location, Locution. I can vouch for the fact that you have a strong sense of place in your writing, but tell us, which tends to come first, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine.

For my first novel, The House at Zaronza, story and location came together, really. As you said, it is set mostly on Corsica. In fact it is based on a true story my husband and I came across on holiday there. The owners of the B&B found some old love letters hidden in a niche in the attic when they restored the house. They were from the local schoolmaster to the daughter of the house in the 1890s. Her parents would have disapproved, so they met in secret. She was required to marry a cousin to keep the family property together, which was common in Corsica into the 20th century.

The story kept nagging at me, so I had to write it. I’m very attached to the Mediterranean island of Corsica, with its rugged and majestic scenery—we’ve visited six times! And so it made perfect sense to set the novel there, especially as it has distinct cultural and historical elements that I was able to use in the story. The house and the village of the title are loosely based on real life, which enabled me to visualise the place as I wrote it, although I changed a number of aspects, including the name. The name of the village in the title of my book, Zaronza, is invented.

The House at Zaronza_cover_pm

As you hinted in your introduction, Corsica won’t leave me alone and so my second novel—a work in progress—is set there, too. A third is in my head, also against the backdrop of the island.

That said, I do also want to set novels in southwest France, where I live, one day. As you also mentioned, a number of my short stories are already set here.

What techniques do you use for evoking the atmosphere of Corsica?

I believe it’s important for readers to feel they are there so that they get fully involved with the characters and their surroundings. That means evoking a complete sensory picture of the place. I went to a great workshop about creating a world for your novel. We were told to go outside for 10 minutes and make notes of what we saw, touched, heard, smelled and even tasted. This heightened sensory awareness is very valuable when describing a place.

I also think that using particular objects or landmarks in a novel gives them symbolic significance and helps to add depth to the setting. So, in The House at Zaronza, the front door often catches on the flagstones, a ruined tower on top of a hill is a place the heroine, Maria, always goes to think, and her father’s stylet (a Corsican dagger) becomes a symbol of him.

Which particular features have you used to create a sense of what clearly is to you a special location? Landscape, culture, food?

All of those things are important to me and I try to weave them into my writing. When it comes to Corsica, I am particularly interested in its culture. I’ve been greatly influenced by a wonderful book called Granite Island: Portrait of Corsica, by Dorothy Carrington, who first visited Corsica just after World War II. She was so taken with it that she eventually lived there and became an international authority on its history and culture. I wish I could have met her, but she died aged 91 in 2002.

Despite being French since 1768, and Genoese before that, Corsica has always been a land apart. It has been invaded, conquered and occupied from prehistoric times, so the island was a cultural melting pot, and as you speculated at the outset, I think that appeals to me. Different traditions have overlaid one another, such as Christianity on top of paganism. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up when we visited a megalithic site at Filitosa, where standing stones carved with stern human faces have been excavated.

Until very recently, the Corsicans had strong superstitious beliefs, some of which I am writing into my second novel. The geography of this mountainous island and the isolation of many of the villages also led to the development of solid clan bonds. The concept of honour is very deep-seated and to infringe someone’s honour was a serious matter that could lead to vendettas of long duration. I find all this fascinating, though it’s easy for people to parody it.

Which of your works provides the best illustration of place, and can you give us a brief example?

Here’s a short extract from The House at Zaronza. A young British woman has come to Corsica for the first time to find out more about her Corsican forebears:

She moved to the other window and opened it. A salt-laden breeze wafted in. For a moment, the sight of the purple-tinged mountains on the other side of the bay made her hold her breath. The sun’s lengthening rays tinted the sea with red and gold. Another scent prickled her nostrils, aromatic and dry like sun-baked mud. She closed her eyes and breathed it in. This was the unique aroma of Corsica, that many Corsicans claim they can detect miles out to sea: part of the magic of the island, the Circe that had enchanted many a traveller before Rachel.

VanessaCouchman_quotes_small

Photo credits: (left) Corsica Ferries, by Conan via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); The witch Circe poisons Odysseu’s men, by Alessandro Allori (1580), Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

How well do you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

I wouldn’t advise using a real place as a setting if you don’t know it at all. There are exceptions— the summit of Everest, for example, or the South Pole—which most people are unlikely ever to visit; and there are plenty of descriptions of them to draw on. Having said that, the novelist Rosie Thomas has been to both of those extreme locations and is a distinct example of someone who has visited all the exotic places she writes about. But if you really want your readers to get inside a place, I believe you have to know it yourself. I would feel uneasy trying to describe somewhere I have never been.

Having said that, I do think it’s possible to know a location too well. If you write about the place you live in, there’s a danger that you start taking for granted what visitors see as fresh and new. I try to prevent this by visiting places I know well in SW France, finding out new things about them and then recording them on my French life blog.

I also take many photos, both of Corsica when we are there and of my region in France. These visual prompts help me a lot when I’m writing.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

There are so many! But some stand out for me and have influenced my own writing. Hannah Kent‘s first novel Burial Rites is set in 19th-century Iceland, and she evokes brilliantly the uncompromising landscape and climate, the hard and unforgiving life of the people and the plight of unmarried women at that time. Jessie Burton‘s The Miniaturist is set in 17th-century Amsterdam, a time when the city was wealthy and thriving but stifled by the strict morality that prevailed. They both evoke a strong sense of place in these two very different novels. This is challenging in any novel, but particularly in an historical novel, where you have to describe locations that may have changed significantly over time. Khaled Hosseini‘s novels set in Afghanistan have given me a much deeper insight into that troubled country and its modern history.

Vanessa Inspirational Reads

Vanessa’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Vanessa!

* * *

Readers, any questions for Vanessa Couchman? Please leave them in the comments below before she immerses herself in all things Corsican again…

And if you’d like to discover more about Vanessa, why not visit her site about living in France, Life on La Lune, as well as her author site. You can also follow her on twitter at @Vanessainfrance and Facebook.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

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Photo credits (top of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

Alice in Expatland: Paying tribute as her 150th anniversary year winds to a close

Alice in Expatland

Curiouser and curiouser.

Once upon a time, I found myself chasing a white rabbit with a gloriously old-fashioned pocket watch and falling
d
o
w
n
a hOle into Aliceland, where people stood about in anoraks and talked about the weather.

I was an expat in the United Kingdom.

Next I stepped through a looking glass into a topsy-turvy wonder-world where commuters in suits sporting high-tech timepieces were dashing about, afraid to be late for apparently important dates.

I was an expat in Japan.

In 2015 the world celebrated the 150th birthday of Lewis Carroll’s first Alice story, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and, although I’m no longer an expat—I repatriated back to East Coast USA some time ago—I have spent the year paying tribute to this Victorian heroine for being my role model, or muse, during the period when I lived abroad.

What drew me so powerfully to the Alice stories? Skeptics may surmise that this Alice obsession of mine comes from some childish need to exoticize the adventures that took place during my time overseas. By comparing myself to Alice, I’m implying that my expat life was even more extraordinary than it actually was.

These critics may also think I’m being condescending in implicitly likening the natives of the UK and Japan to talkative animals or mad people.

For anyone who’s not feeling the thing I have for Alice: My point is, being an expat made me feel like a child again, especially when I found myself struggling to communicate basic points or failing to understand what was happening around me.

At moments like those, if someone had told me lobsters could dance, cats could have grins that fade in and out, and men could be shaped like eggs—I would have believed them. (In fact, I did see a lobster dance. That was at a fish restaurant in Tokyo. It hadn’t mastered the quadrille, though.)

“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle…”

Alice is a child on the verge of adolescence—and the expat me could relate to that portion of her story as well. Her statement “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then” echoed in my head throughout my expat life—especially towards the end, when I was an American who spoke with a British accent and, similar to Through the Looking Glass Alice, had lost my first name. (As the only foreigner in a Japanese office, I was always referred to by my last name, with the suffix “-san”.)

Psychologist Eve Hemming addresses what it feels like to lose one’s cultural bearings in her recently published Scatterlings: A Tapestry of Afri-expat Tales. As she tells it, her decision to emigrate from her native South Africa to New Zealand was traumatic. Her arrival in “the land of the long white cloud” of Māori legend was akin to “falling through Alice in Wonderland’s looking glass and waking up an extra-terrestrial in an alien landscape.” Not long after, she had the chance to return to her homeland for a brief visit, and felt as though she has “plummeted down the rabbit hole back into Africa.”

These descriptions make me think of the Cheshire Cat’s advice to poor disorientated Alice:

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

If you stay in the expat world long enough, you feel, and are treated like, an alien wherever you go. I can still recall going home to America and having people refuse to believe I was American because of my credible British accent. They also found it strange I was so apologetic, a trait that had come from working in a Japanese office.

I had become one of those people who are at home everywhere—and nowhere; an adult yet a Third Culture Kid.

“How do you know I’m mad?”

Although I didn’t know it at the time, Lewis Carroll’s wonderland story could be a textbook illustration of the four stages of expat acculturation, as outlined by psychologist Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign in her manual, Living Abroad.

As soon as she lands at the bottom of the rabbit hole, Alice enters Stage One: Elation. She glimpses a “most fabulous” garden and samples a delightful drink that has “a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast.”

It is not long, however, before she enters Stage Two: Resistance. “It was much pleasanter at home,” thought poor Alice, “when one wasn’t always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits.”

At the same time, though, she shows potential for entering Stage Three: Transformation, when, after saying she almost wishes she hadn’t gone down the rabbit hole, she reflects: ”…and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”

And, although Alice never quite reaches Stage Four: Integration (when cultural barriers are bridged)—she leaves Wonderland still feeling a bit displaced—the memories of her adventures clearly have an impact. In the next Alice story, Carroll shows her as being keen for another adventure, why she steps through the looking-glass…

“And yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”

The quality that Alice develops in spades (and hearts, clubs, diamonds) is resilience—which by many expert accounts is the key on a glass plate that opens the door to a successful expat life.

As Linda Janssen puts it in her book The Emotionally Resilient Expat, to have a successful transition into living in another part of the world, we need to know how to adapt, adjust or simply accept what cannot be changed.

Janssen, an American, called the blog she kept while living in the Hague “Adventures in Expatland.” She said the title perfectly expressed her feelings about an experience that was “incredibly exhilarating, challenging, and occasionally maddening.”

I know what she means. There were several instances during my times in the UK and Japan when I needed to believe six impossible things before breakfast… By the same token, though, I knew that after a fall into expatland, I should think nothing of tumbling down stairs—a thought that kept me going through a second expat assignment, and now repatriation, possibly the curious-est wonderland of them all.

Thank you, Alice, for being my heroine, and I hope you enjoyed your big birthday. Now that you’re 150, you shouldn’t be taking any stuff and nonsense from the March Hare. Tell him to pour you that glass of wine! Cheers, kanpai, bottoms up—from one of your top expat fans xoxoxo

* * *

ML Awanohara, one of the Displaced Nation’s founders and its current editor, has been conducting a series of “wonderlanded” interviews with expat authors whose lives, and works, in some way echo Alice’s adventures. If you find her Alice comparisons amusing or even a bit nonsensical, be sure to subscribe to the weekly Displaced Dispatch, which has an “Alice Obsession” feature.

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Photo credits: Top row: Ann Smith – Sleepy Summers Day – Lobster Quadrille, by sea +; Final Tea Party, by Joe Rice via Flickr; and Float in the Tres Reyes parade (Seville, Spain), by Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble. Bottom row: Night cat, by Raffaele Esposito; The Pool of Tears, by sea +; and Have I gone mad (Berlin), by onnola. All photos via Flickr (CC BY 2.0), except last one, which is via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

WORLD OF WORDS: At least know the meaning of “gauche” before you travel abroad

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about words?

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about French words?

Columnist Marianne Bohr, whose first book, Gap Year Girl, came out in September with She Writes Press, recounts some of the bad elements she and her husband encountered during their travels.

When living in or even just briefly visiting a country not your own, bad behavior often involves words. Or sometimes, the lack of them.

Over the course of the adult gap year I took with my husband to explore Europe, we frequently witnessed what we considered bad behavior by expats or tourists. There’s no excuse for being in a country without learning the basics of its culture and at least a modicum of words for pleasantries. To do otherwise selfishly places you and your mother tongue at the center of the language universe and disrespects the country and the people you’ve chosen to visit.

Rude Americans in the City of Light

Our 365 days of travel began with a month in Paris. In the space of two evenings, we observed very different, yet equally disappointing, back-to-back dining experiences. The food was terrific but our neighbors were not. Both incidents involved Americans in the City of Light for long stays.

Parisian cafe bad elements

Photo credit: Parisian bistro at night, by La Citta Vita via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The first took place in a bright busy bistro where we were seated next to a retired married couple from Reno, Nevada. They had been coming to Paris for six weeks at the end of every summer for several years.

The second was in a dim crêperie where we sat across from a middle-aged man and woman from U.S. parts unknown (although her accent gave her away as coming from the deep south). He taught something somewhere to students in Paris and she stated indignantly as we ordered our drinks that she, “could not take another year over here—twelve months was more than enough.” Everyone has a story.

Some of the two couples’ background they shared with us and other bits we overheard. What absolutely amazed me—in fact made me wince—was that none of these four Americans even attempted to speak French to the wait staff.

I completely identify with not knowing a language; we traveled through multiple countries whose languages eluded me, yet we always learned to say hello, please, thank you and you’re welcome.

But all four of these people had spent significant time in France. Would it have been so difficult to read off the menu and say, “la salade” and ”le poulet” instead of “the salad” and “the chicken?” Could the guy who’s been teaching here for a year at least have learned to say, “l’addition, s’il vous plaît” instead of “the check, please?” Might they all have been able replace, “Thank you—goodbye,” with “Merci—au revoir?”

I’m sympathetic towards tourists who travel for brief visits, but after six weeks every year and a full twelve months in Paris, there’s simply no excuse. That’s behaving badly in my book.

Blatant bad behavior in Aix

Well into our sabbatical year having traveled through 20 additional countries, we were back in the pleasures of France. And yet again, we found ourselves observing a more blatant brand of bad behavior.

We had settled in the stylish university town of Aix-en-Provence at the height and in the heat of a south-of-France summer. One of our favorite pastimes was sitting for long mornings under the dense shade of sycamores—les platanes—their green canopies arching over appealing squares filled with tiny bistro tables. The unique mosaic of the sycamores’ peeling bark intrigued us—uneven patterns of pastel yellows, tawny russets, avocado greens and dull grays—and we never tired of studying the colors.

Aix plantanes

But on one morning, our idyllic interlude under royal sycamores was marred by the manners of plebeians.

Enjoying cafés au lait, croissants, and the daily chatter of French summer school students in the outdoor shade, we were startled when an Eastern European quartet of two tanned Moms and their Mini-Me daughters, each one more rude than the other, unceremoniously marched onto the terrace.

There were no “bonjours” and no smiles in response to the sweet greetings of the waitress. The women’s bravado more than upset the drowsy morning ambience.

All were similarly clad in skinny jeans, patent leather stilettos and Jackie-O shades with “spoiled” plastered across heavily made-up faces. Distressed that the cafe served no food for breakfast and when politely urged, as we had been, to run up the street to the local boulangerie for croissants, the most vocal of the four retorted brusquely and loudly in accented English, “What, the French don’t eat breakfast? Ridiculous.”

We so wanted to see her wobble up the cobblestoned hill in search of pastries in those heels.

stilettos in Aix

Rather than rebuke the vocal twenty-something for bad behavior and creating a scene, however, her mother barked an order for orange juice—“freshly squeezed.” The OJ not forthcoming, they settled loudly for espressos, plopped down in their chairs and insolently picked up their Blackberries with identical pouts.

Bad-mannered people come from all corners of the world, and, unfortunately, they sometimes chose to sit next to us.

* * *

Thank you, Marianne, for sharing these horror stories! I agree, more people need to join your world of words!

Readers, have you ever met the tourists from hell, and were they using English in a non-English-speaking country at the time? We’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Marianne C. Bohr is a writer, editor and French teacher whose book, Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, was published in early September (She Writes Press). She married her high school sweetheart and travel partner, and with their two grown children, follows her own advice and travels at every opportunity. Marianne lives in Bethesda, Maryland, where after decades in publishing, she has followed her Francophile muse to teach French. She has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Rachel Abbott, proof positive it’s never too late to become a best-selling novelist—and expat

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

My guest this month, Rachel Abbott, did not start out as a writer, though she claims she always had a novel in her head. Born in Manchester, she trained as a systems analyst but then ended up founding her own interactive media company, where, as managing director, she wrote everyday but mostly board reports, user manuals, and creative treatments for clients.

Around 15 years ago, she sold the company and moved with her husband to Le Marche, in central Italy. The pair set to work on renovating a ruined small monastery, where they lived for several years.

When six-foot snowdrifts prevented her from leaving the house for a couple of weeks, Rachel started writing and found she couldn’t stop. She self-published her first novel just over four years ago, a psychological thriller called Only the Innocent, which is set very briefly in Italy but mostly takes place in rural Oxfordshire.

Only the Innocent reached the number 1 spot in the Kindle store just over three months later and went on to become the second highest selling self-published title in 2012. It was subsequently published by Thomas and Mercer in the USA, where in just a few months it achieved number 1 in the US charts, making Rachel’s debut a number one bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Guardian newspaper dubbed Rachel “the e-publishing sensation of 2012” while The Observer stated “self-published authors such as Rachel Abbott are the trade’s hottest property.”

That’s how this Mancunian fell into a brilliant new career. Two years after her break-out success, Rachel released her long-awaited second novel, The Back Road—which quickly reached number 2 on the UK Kindle chart and has over 450 five-star reviews. (The back road of the title is in a made-up village called Little Melham, in the heart of the English countryside.)

Rachel's first two psychological thrillers, both international bestsellers.

Rachel’s first two psychological thrillers, both of which rapidly became international bestsellers.

Her latest works, Sleep Tight (partially set in Anglesey, one of the Channel Islands, which Rachel visited as a child), Stranger Child and Nowhere Child have followed the same pattern of success. All of them take place mainly within Rachel’s hometown of Manchester.

Rachel's latest three books. Stranger Child, a stand-alone novella but featuring the same characters as Stranger Child, came out in October.

Rachel’s latest three books. The very latest, Nowhere Child, came out in October. It’s a stand-alone novella but features the same characters as Stranger Child.

As far as the expat life goes, Rachel now divides her time between Italy (where she lives in her second property, an apartment in an old fort, which overlooks the sea) and Alderney, in the Channel Islands, which is just off the coast of France. She explains her decision to spend time on this beautiful island as follows:

“There are so many wonderful aspects of living in another country—not least getting to understand their culture. Italians are extreme in their emotions, and that—for me—was a joy to watch, even when they are shouting at each other (because it usually doesn’t last). I did, however, struggle with the language. I can now speak reasonable Italian, but as a writer I found it difficult not to be speaking English all the time! I discovered that from time to time I struggled to remember the correct English words, and I felt it was time to move back to an English-speaking country if I was to continue to write. So I moved to Alderney. Not quite the UK, but close. It’s a wonderful island, and life here is as perfect as it gets.”

Despite her new-found worldliness, Rachel insists she remains a Lancastrian at heart.

Photo credits: Rachel Abbott (inset); Whitworth Street, Manchester, by Mikey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) ; Montalto delle Marche, by Sgobbone via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Braye Beach (Alderney, Channel Islands), by TheOnlyMoxey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

Photo credits: Rachel Abbott (inset, supplied); Whitworth Street, Manchester, by Mikey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Montalto delle Marche, by Sgobbone via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Braye Beach (Alderney, Channel Islands), by TheOnlyMoxey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

* * *

Welcome, Rachel, to Location, Locution. It seems your writing career and your expat life developed in tandem, but which comes first when you are writing, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine.

In all cases, my story has come first. My most recent books are set in Manchester, but the locations within Manchester are determined by the story. My concern is that I am going to run out of spooky places for the strange goings on that I need in my stories!

What techniques do you use for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

I have a very visual imagination, and in every major location in any of my books, I know exactly what it looks like. That’s my starting point. I can wander the halls of houses, or creep along canal banks at night. So I know what I can see. I then start to think about what it might smell like—and much of that is determined by what is happening. A house can smell of baking cakes, or of rotting food—so I imagine myself there, and think how it might smell. Finally, I listen. What will the sounds be like? Where is the location—outdoors or indoors? What are the surroundings like—are there trains nearby, or a distant motorway? I close my eyes, and I am there—feeling what my characters are feeling.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

It depends on the stage in the story. The character might be walking along a country lane, but if she is scared, the overhanging trees, dripping with rain from the recent storm would be the features to focus on. If it’s a happy day, it might be the cows munching contentedly on the grass in the fields. With this in mind, any feature can help to create that sense of the location.

Which of your works provides the best illustration of place, and can you give us a brief example?

Here’s a passage from my latest, Nowhere Child:

The freezing November wind is bouncing off the damp walls, hitting us in icy blasts as if someone keeps opening and closing a door. But there isn’t any door—just a gaping black hole. There are four or five groups of us down here, sitting in twos and threes huddled around our feeble fires. We keep to ourselves mostly. I can see the odd face, lit from below by the weak yellow flames, features hovering, disembodied, against the black walls, the eyes hollow pits. I can hear the occasional murmur of conversation but mostly I listen to the steady drip from the roof. It is relentless, and I’m not surprised when Andy says that dripping water is used as a form of torture. Another drop joins in, this time with a slightly different tone. There is a pause, and for a second I wonder if it’s stopped. But of course it hasn’t. Drip-drop. Drip-drop.

Nowhere_child_quote

How well do you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

Some settings exist in my imagination. Others have to be realistic. I am currently writing a story about an area of Manchester that I didn’t know existed—even though I lived there for a large proportion of my life. I have been unable to visit it myself in time to write the first draft of the book, but my sister lives nearby. So she has been out on research trips for me, taking photos and videos. I have used to map to pinpoint the places that I want her to take pictures of, and I’ve also used Google Maps—in walkabout mode—to get me close enough. I have studied this place in as much detail as possible without an actual visit, and I will visit it myself before the final version is written.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

I love the sense of location in Daphne Du Maurier’s books—in particular, Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. One is set in a magnificent, if malevolent old property, the other a run down and gloomy inn, which is never open to the public. The locations are so vivid in these books that a mental image is formed even before seeing them on the big screen!

The locations of these two Daphne du Maurier classics are so vivid, you don't even need to see Hitchcock's films!

The locations of these two Daphne du Maurier classics are so vivid, you don’t even need to see Hitchcock’s films!

Thanks so much, Rachel!

* * *

Readers, any questions for Rachel Abbott? Please leave them in the comments below before she jets off to one of her exotic locales…

And if you’d like to discover more about Rachel, why not visit her author site. You can also follow her on twitter at @RachelAbbott.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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Photo credits (top of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Giving thanks for expat and repat writers whose novels have an international flavor

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), is back with several recommended reads!

Hello again, Displaced Nationers!

This week is Thanksgiving in the USA. Many Americans abroad skip this holiday for one reason or another—one main reason being the cost of frozen turkey (a friend in Thailand recently posted a picture of one selling for $200 at the expat grocery store!).

But I always try to do something a little bit special. The way I see it, there can never be enough occasions to sit down with friends to a table full of good food!

In addition to planning for Thanksgiving and the holiday season, I’ve been cruising through the rest of my 2015 To-Be-Read list. This month, I’ve been feasting, so to speak, on three books by current or former expats who write fiction set against international landscapes. Two of them are first-time novels and the other is a thriller. One came out with a small press, and the other two are self-pubbed. Take a look!

1) Summer on the Cold War Planet, by Paula Closson Buck (Fomite, 2015)

Summer Cold War Buck

A first novel about expats in late 1980s Berlin, written by a former Fulbright fellow who has written poems and short stories about her travels? Sounds like a perfect choice for the Displaced Nation! Paula Closson Buck directs the creative writing program at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, and is currently at work on a novel set in Venice—keep your eyes open for a review of that book, too, when it publishes.

Summer on the Cold War Planet tells the story of Lyddie, a young American woman who is living in Berlin a few years before reunification and studying architecture. She encounters a trio of German artists/activists and also meets her future husband, an American botanist named Phelps.

Most of the action takes place, as the title suggests, the summer before the Berlin Wall falls. At that time, Phelps disappears while conducting botanical research in Kurdistan and so Lyddie, now pregnant, returns to Berlin to examine her feelings for the absent Phelps—and rediscover who she is.

Buck brings the period to life through gorgeous details such as:

In the simple way the young East German at the border touched Lyddie’s face, tipping her chin this way and that as he scrutinized her features in relation to her passport, Lyddie felt she understood the meaning of Cold War. He returned her passport with a hint of a smirk and nodded her release.

But, although I was transported to the intense atmosphere of 1989 Berlin, I often felt at arm’s length from Lyddie, I think because, especially in the flashback scenes, she seemed to be letting others make choices for her.

Later, when the action shifts to the Cycladic Islands in Greece, Lyddie becomes more relatable. My favorite character in the novel, I’d like to add, is another point-of-view character, a Greek painter who learns to paint canvases underwater. A new thing to try next time I go scuba diving!

2) A Decent Bomber, by Alexander McNabb (November 2015)

McNabb Decent Bomber

This book also ticked two boxes for inclusion in this column—an expat author and an internationally relevant plot. Alexander McNabb is a former journalist who has lived abroad—mostly in the Middle East—for about 30 years. He is author of several other international thrillers, including the “Levant Cycle” books, all three of which were featured on the Displaced Nation.

The action of McNabb’s previous international thrillers centers on the Middle East, but he sets A Decent Bomber in Europe, mostly in Ireland.

Now, I find it fun to read thrillers (“fun” in that kind of macabre sense), and this one has an enjoyable premise. A retired, reformed bomb-maker for the Irish Republican Army reluctantly agrees to build new bombs, this time for African terrorists—and then tries to save the day before his bombs explode. McNabb keeps the pacing tight, the action scenes believable, and the violence just on this side of gruesome.

Perhaps because of recent current events, I was also impressed with how delicately he handles the multiculturalism of present-day Ireland, as well as the long, contentious history between the English and Irish. Take, for example, the following scene, set in a mosque in Northern Ireland:

“Welcome. I am Abdelkader Ul-Haq.”

“Hello, Father. My name’s Pat.”

Abdelkader hobbled to behind the desk and lowered himself into the wooden armchair. “I am not your father. May I sit?”

“Of course. I’m not holding you up. And father is we call our priests.”

“I know. I was joking with you. It is always best to joke with men who have guns, I am finding.”

“What gun?”

“I know the shapes guns make in clothes, Mister Pat. I come from a troubled place.’

“Well you’ve certainly hopped out of the frying pan into the fire.”

“Belfast? It is peaceful now. Before, there were troubles. No more. How may I be of assistance to you?”

Lest you be put off by the idea of following the adventures of a lone cowboy (indeed, Pat is such a cowboy that he actually owns cows), I should mention that our hero is rarely alone. He is joined on the chase by his college-student niece along with a group of police officers and politicians from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, all of whom provide moments of comic relief. As we know from the Displaced Nation’s previous encounters with McNabb, he has a sense of humo(u)r.

3) I Have Lived Today, by Steven Moore (October 2014)

I have lived today Moore

I included this book in this particular round-up because of the author’s international credentials, and because it has received 130+ five-star reviews on Amazon. Steven Moore is the man behind the visually stunning travel blog, Twenty First Century Nomad (he also has an author site). He has been working and traveling abroad for at least twenty years. He now lives in Mexico, and one suspects his adventures aren’t over yet!

But, now, let’s burrow into the pages of Moore’s book, his first. Although the novel does have scenes both in the UK and in New York City, it is principally a coming-of-age story about a boy whose travels have to do with discovering his own conscience. I Have Lived Today takes place in the 1960s and follows the turbulent journey of Tristan Nancarrow, a boy so badly treated by his alcoholic father that he was never allowed to attend school.

Tristan’s mother is forced to run for her life, and not long after, Tristan makes his escape from the isolated island where the family lives. He spends the bulk of the book trying to reunite with his mother—having plenty of adventures, along with his share of small triumphs and bitter tragedies, along the way.

I especially enjoyed the parts of the novel when Tristan discovers what he was missing out on while under his father’s control. One of the first things he does after escaping is go to a bookstore and buy an atlas:

Tristan turned the pages delicately, as if he was looking at a priceless and ancient manuscript. To him it was an object of beauty, a treasure from a museum, and indeed the musty old store had a museum feel about it, or at least that’s how Tristan imagined a museum would seem, having never been to one.

There are times in I Have Lived Today when the tone takes on a moralistic edge and the pacing becomes steady and unrushed in a manner reminiscent of a Grimm’s fairy tale (though, to be sure, without any witches or other supernatural beings).

Our hero, Tristan, despite his father’s brutal abuse, remains an innocent who chooses to embrace a white-knight moral code even as the world shows him how cruel it can be. Through switches in point of view, Moore lets the reader peek into other characters’ motivations, but the focus is always on Tristan and his choice to reject his personal demons. This hero has resilience—the quality that we expats need—in spades.

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, if you’re lucky enough to have a few moments to yourself over Thanksgiving or before the holiday season gets into full swing, you might want to check out these three books. They’re as different as the sides at a potluck Thanksgiving, and no less delicious for that!

p.s. And, since it’s Thanksgiving, may I say a hearty thank you to my readers! Please keep in touch and let me or ML know if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see reviewed here! Last but not least, 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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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Trish Nicholson, a writer whose talents have blossomed in unusual places

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

My guest this month, Trish Nicholson, is something of an exotic plant—the kind one discovers flowering profusely in a far-flung part of the world.

Trish’s birthplace, the Isle of Man, sounds remote to many of us—but not so for Trish, who, despite being half Manx (a mix of Celtic and Nordic), wasn’t able to bloom where she was planted. Following in the footsteps of some of her intrepid ancestors, she left her birthplace and hasn’t looked back.

Her first destination was the UK, in pursuit of higher education and a career. Trish is also half-Scottish, but, though she lived in Scotland for 12 years, her roots did not prove deep enough and she moved on to Europe and much further afield…transplanting herself to Papua New Guinea!

Yes, Trish was stationed in the West Sepik (Sandaun) Province of Papua New Guinea for five years working on aid and development projects while also serving as Honorary Consul for the British High Commission. Rest assured, conditions here were exotic enough for Trish not only to put down roots but to blossom and thrive. As she attests in the travel memoir she published last month, PNG contains the wildest places in the tropics. Among other challenges, she had to contend with crocodiles (the book is titled Inside the Crocodile), sorcery and near-fatal malaria.

Photo credits (clockwise from upper left): Mooragh Park Lake, Ramsey (Isle of Man), by Tony Hisgett via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Trisha Nicholson (supplied); Explosions (in PNG), by Taro Taylor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

Photo credits (clockwise from upper left): Mooragh Park Lake, Ramsey (Isle of Man), by Tony Hisgett via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Trisha Nicholson (supplied); Explosions (in PNG), by Taro Taylor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

The so-called Land of Surprises must have been a hard act to follow, but Asia Pacific being Trish’s most nurturant habitat, she soon found other challenges—the next one being to direct the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) operations in the Philippines while completing her doctorate in social anthropology. After the Philippines, she obtained a research grant to study indigenous tourism in Vietnam and Australia.

And I mustn’t forget to mention that along the way there have also been frequent trips to South America and Africa, along with treks in Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal.

Trish did return to England eventually—only to decide the time had come to try transplanting herself to the “winterless” far north of New Zealand, where, as she says in her blog:

native trees grow even more in winter than summer because they have more moisture.

Hmmm… sounds a little like Trish?

And now let’s talk about Trish’s body of works. A compulsive scribbler, she has produced plenty of what she calls “creative nonfiction”—from articles for mainstream media to a book on responsible travel tourism—as well as short stories during her twenty years of wandering the globe.

More recently, since moving to New Zealand, she has published a series of e-books on her travels—one of the most popular of which is the illustrated travelogue Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. And now there is the aforementioned Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals.

Trish’s nonfiction output also includes a volume on creative reading/writing as well as a guide to becoming a non-fiction author. And let’s not forget the historical anthology of storytelling, which she intends to sit down and write now that she’s settled on a quiet New Zealand hillside. That’s when she’s not hiding in her tree house or blogging. Her blog is called, appropriately enough, “Words in the Treehouse.”

* * *

Welcome, Trish, to Location, Locution. I know that your travels have led to much of your writing, but which tends to come first, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine.

It depends on what kind of writing I’m doing, of course. For short stories it’s usually character that comes first for me, but it’s close because characters are an integral part of their setting. In building up the story, character and setting feed upon each other. Location can affect a character’s mood, sometimes their whole outlook on life, and a change of location can be a turning point. But, as I said, it’s a two-way influence; people can also have an impact on their surroundings.

For my travelogues, experience of location came first, but the same principle applies: people feed off setting and vice versa. In this case, of course, the “characters” are actual people I met along the way.

Notably, you were right in saying that my travels led to my writing. I did not set out to write a book at the beginning of either of the two travelogues I have produced. I was inspired to visit Bhutan by an article in a 1914 National Geographic magazine my aunt had left me in a box of dusty old books. It was full of the most amazing photographs of mist threaded mountains, exotic architecture, and distinguished looking men wearing what appeared to be navy blue dressing gowns with broad white cuffs… Papua New Guinea, as you explained in your introduction, was a five-year work assignment, fulfilling a teenage dream to work overseas. Only afterwards did these locations compel me to write about them.

What techniques do you use for evoking the atmosphere of a place? After all, you’ve faced the challenge of describing places very few of the rest of us have visited.

I’m not sure if it’s a technique because it’s not something I do consciously as I write, but your question made me think about it. It’s not so easy to explain, but I seem to identify a feature that is characteristic of a particular place and use my senses to link to it emotionally—trying to recreate in words what I felt when I was there. It’s not simply “place” though, but more a series of “moments-in-place.” The atmosphere of a place changes depending on time of day, seasons and events. It’s possible to keep track of these changes if you maintain a detailed journal as I always do—scraps of information about everything I see, hear, smell and feel. With buildings and landscapes, for example, I record how light and weather affect them. A grey stone wall, for instance, may look hard and forbidding in Scotland, but under a tropical sun it feels surprisingly soft and warm. I note sounds and snippets of overheard conversation, clothes, colours, rhythms of people’s movements—all of which suggest place. Scribbling is a bit of an obsession with me, perhaps a way of hanging on to something I don’t want to end. My other obsession is photography, probably for the same reason. In my early travelling days I used Kodachrome but film was expensive; now you can take large memory cards and click away without a thought. When I’m writing, I scroll through my images and they recall whole scenes for me. The jottings and photographs aid my memory for those sensuous details that I believe evoke atmosphere.

Two of Trish's tools for capturing the details of places. Photo credits: (top) Notebook collection, by Dvortygirl via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Kodachrome, by Pittaya Sroilong via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Two of Trish’s tools for capturing the details of place. Photo credits: (top) Notebook collection, by Dvortygirl via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Kodachrome, by
Pittaya Sroilong via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

They all can, of course, depending on the story and a writer’s personal interests. I’m certainly no foodie, but even I can feel the tropical heat of Papua New Guinea when recalling drinking kulau (Tok Pisin for “juice from a young green coconut”) straight from a young coconut—the rough, dry shell on my lips, the smooth sweet coolness dribbling down my chin. Language, too, has always been a significant feature for me. Many writers avoid using dialect or foreign words in dialogue so as not to stress the reader, but there are ways of making it easier, and readers enjoy a little challenge. I write dialect or local language in short stories and in travelogues because it draws readers closer to people. And if I want to create the sense of a very specific location, I focus on whatever features are found only in that one place—for example, in Bhutan, the painted red bands around a building that tells you there are sacred relics inside, or in Australia, the surreal landforms of the Bungle Bungles that seem to stride across the landscape enacting their own primordial drama.

Which of your works provides the best illustration of place, and can you give us a brief example?

From Inside the Crocodile, a jungle moment on the hair-raising trek from Oksapmin to Lake Kopiago:

The heavy shower was reduced to drizzle under the canopy and it invigorated the forest; every shade of green was intensified, glistening and vivid. Lazy drops of water glided along leaves, dripping silently onto moss beneath. Fine hairs on the ribs of fern fronds, usually invisible, were lit-up by tiny twinkling water droplets like miniature fairy lights. And the air was filled with the fecund mustiness of moist earth seasoned with the tang of wet foliage … the forest stood in strange, expectant silence, muffled by the press of growing, spreading vegetation all around us. Yet every surface, especially the dark underside, was teeming with life we could not see, or would not recognise if we did, and we couldn’t see beyond the next tree trunk or veil of hanging moss. The sense of being enclosed, entrapped within an unknowable multitude, was overpowering.

Photo credits: (top) A frog inside the papaya tree, one of many critters found in PNG; one of many disintegrating bamboo bridges in PNG (by Trish Nicholson, supplied).

Photo credits: (top) A frog inside the papaya tree, one of many critters found in PNG; one of many disintegrating bamboo bridges in PNG (by Trish Nicholson, supplied).

And if I’m allowed another little one, from Journey in Bhutan, my journal entry the evening after we visited the ancient temple of Kyichu Lhakhang:

… I want to remember how it felt when I first entered the lhakhang – the dark wooden floor, polished and worn into grooves by centuries of calloused feet; distant chanting heard through a haze of incense; Buddhas lustrous in the flickering light of butter lamps – thirteen centuries of reverence are distilled in that room creating an almost palpable sanctity. I feel the balm of its atmosphere as I write – it’s almost like a presence.

Photo credits: (clockwise from top left) Rinpung Dzong, a large dzong (Buddhist monastery and fortress) found in Paro District, Bhutan; book cover art; ancient religious relics inside the lhakhang (all photos supplied by Trish Nicholson).

Photo credits: (top) Rinpung Dzong, a large dzong (Buddhist monastery and fortress) found in Paro District, Bhutan; book cover art; ancient religious relics inside the lhakhang (by Trish Nicholson, supplied).

How well do you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

This is a particularly interesting question because I believe one can be in a location too long. The point is not how much time is spent in a place, but how well we “see” it. In an urban setting, I can spend an hour leaning against a wall on a street corner, or a day walking the streets at random, and gather a huge number of impressions and factual details. In remote areas it takes longer because the changing elements have a greater affect on atmosphere. But this may be enough for the setting of a single story. Obviously, for a travelogue, longer immersion is necessary to reach a depth of understanding across time and seasons. But it depends also on how one writes about a place, the scope of the account. I was in Bhutan for a month, much of that time trekking, so although I included monasteries and temples, and carried out a lot of research on cultural and historical background, Journey in Bhutan focuses on the trek rather than trying to cover the whole country superficially. So, how long is too long? After a few years in Papua New Guinea I noted in my journal:

I’m losing all sense of “normal”.

I began taking for granted what seemed extraordinary to a visitor. Fortunately, I had recorded early events that revealed my astonishment and joy and alienation as a greenhorn during those first months. Without the journals, Inside the Crocodile would have lacked that perspective on the location because, after a while, we cease to “see” so clearly.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

Hard to pick a few from so many: Vikram Seth for his depiction of India—but his first book, From Heaven Lake, was a vivid travelogue of Sinkiang and Tibet; he was still a student but the novelist is already burgeoning in those pages. Khaled Hosseini, who so cleverly weaves his characters into the texture of place in The Kite Runner, and Nikolai Gogol, especially in Dead Souls, where his detailing of personal possessions in a room reveals not only a distinctly Russian steppes atmosphere, but also a character’s past and present. And one more: Ruth Rendell appears to break all the “rules” in The Keys to the Street by opening with almost two pages describing London’s ornamental iron railings—but in such a way that with the first paragraph we are already anxious about those spikes.

Trish's picks for writers who have mastered the art of writing about place.

Trish’s picks for writers who have mastered the art of writing about place.

Thanks so much, Trish! I can easily see why one reviewer described you as “full of humour, adventure, and iron determination…”

* * *

Readers, any questions for Trish Nicholson? Please leave them in the comments below before she disappears back into her treehouse.

And if you’d like to discover more about Trish, why not visit her author site. She also chirps on twitter at @TrishaNicholson.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

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Photo credits (top of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

WORLD OF WORDS: She spoke in Italian to me, I spoke in English to her, and we had a perfect conversation

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about words?

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about French words?

Columnist Marianne Bohr, whose first book, Gap Year Girl, came out in September with She Writes Press, has a story for us about one of the pleasanter linguistic surprises that occurred during year-long travels. Naturally, it happened on an Italian train!

Sometimes the basics of another language are all you need.

For this month’s post, I’d like to share a story about the time when my husband, Joe, and I were on a train from Naples to Sicily.

* * *

All aboard!

We board the train in Naples behind a pack of uniformed, fully armed carabinieri—images of the Italian Wild West, Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano dancing in our heads. We picture the potential for some seriously illegal transactions on this particular itinerary: Naples bound for Sicily.

Photo credits: Train station sign, by jm3 via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/jm3/960186/ (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/; La Muerte Tenía un Precio, by jablagu via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en; Man with shotgun in Sicily[https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Man_with_shotgun_in_Sicily.jpg], by archer 10 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/.

Photo credits: Train station sign, by jm3 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); La Muerte Tenía un Precio, by jablagu via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0); Man with shotgun in Sicily, by archer 10 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Our train travels down the boot to its toe and eventually on to Taormina, our Sicilian destination. The trip will take seven hours including the two-mile ferry trip to the island across the Strait of Messina. We discuss the merits of building a tunnel but it makes no seismic sense, our guidebook says; the earthquake-prone region categorically rules out the possibility. But then we read the real reason is that organized crime controls the crossing—and they like the status quo.

Next station stop: Villa San Giovanni (after which the train will board a ferry to the island of Sicilia!)

We stop at Villa San Giovanni, the town at the western tip of mainland Italy. She, Italian, 30-something, boards the train with great flourish and an oversized valise.

Joe and I are in deep conversation about the logistics of our arrival in Taormina and simply say, “Buongiorno,” after helping her hoist her bag onto the rack overhead.

We finally arrive at the terminal where they split the train into two and roll the cars onto rails in the ferry’s cargo hold. This impressive engineering feat can take some time and during the process, our carriage loses power (no lights or air conditioning), adding an element of the sinister to the experience.

Photo credit: Train ferry to Sicily[https://www.flickr.com/photos/comprock/5292490503/], by Michael Cannon via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/.

Photo credit: Train ferry to Sicily, by Michael Cannon via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).


Joe, a ship engineer, ever interested in anything marine, goes off to observe the transfer logistics. I stay in our darkened train compartment to chat with the young woman sitting across from me.

Once it’s just the two of us, she asks brightly, “Dove alloggia lì Sicilia?” She wants to know where we’ll stay once we arrive on Sicily.

“We have a hotel in Taormina,” I reply, “the Bel Soggiorno.” And just like that, we establish an understanding for the conversation that ensues. She will speak in her melodic Italian and I will respond in English, each of us knowing just enough of the other’s language to understand but not speak.

She gushes that she loves the Bel Soggiorno, telling me the views of Mount Etna are spectacular and the terrace looking over the sea is so romantic.

“I’m happy to hear that,” I respond, “because our room is only $80 and I was afraid it would be a bit dumpy.”

“Oh no,” she tells me in Italian. “It’s just that it’s early March and rates are very low.”

Her name is Carolina, the Italian version of our daughter’s name, so I like her right away. She’s of that breed of seriously overweight women who don’t behave like they’re heavy: she’s confident, has perfect makeup, is dressed to the nines in bright colors, wears high-heeled suede boots, and carries herself with panache. She knows what to do with what she has, maximizing her assets, as the Italians like to say, in true Italian bella figura style.

Photo credit: Untitled[https://www.flickr.com/photos/lovemaegan/4532998717/], by Maegan Tintari via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/].

Photo credit: Untitled, by Maegan Tintari via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Our conversation is a particularly satisfying lopsided exchange because we manage to share so much in spite of our Italian-English volley. I fill her in on Joe’s and my gap year traveling through Europe, she teaches me the lovely, lilting Italian pronunciation of Sicily (Sicilia–See-CHEE-lya) and I explain the geography of the States.

Like many Europeans, the two places she is most anxious to visit are New York City and California. She asks if she can see them both in a week. I smile, draw a map on the back of her ticket and explain just how far apart they are, suggesting she needs at least three weeks to see them properly.

“It’s almost 3,000 miles from New York to San Francisco,” I tell her and California is a big state.

She responds with a laugh, “Allora, mi prendo tre settimane!” Then I’ll take three weeks!

Passengers may now go on deck to view Straits of Messina…

We leave the train for a quick look at our passage across the water, but the wind is fierce, kicking up whitecaps, and we quickly return to the dim warmth of our compartment. I learn that Carolina lives in Naples—she’s a native Neopolitana—and works in an art gallery. She is headed for a long weekend in Taormina to visit her boyfriend. She makes the trip once a month and he travels north with the same frequency to see her.

I ask if she thinks she’ll marry him and she tells me with a wink that she hopes they’ll get engaged this weekend.

“Bravo,” I respond with a giggle and a clap and then ask about a luna di miele—a honeymoon.

Before I finish asking, she says, “Capri,” accent on the first syllable. “Andiamo a Capri.”

I mentally say a quick thank you to my French and Spanish teachers over the years. Knowing these two Romance languages paved the way for this delightful conversation in Italian.

Photo credit: More gossip[https://www.flickr.com/photos/duncanh1/5893263199/], by DncnH via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/].

Photo credit: More gossip, by DncnH via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Next stop: Taormina, Sicily

Joe finally returns to his seat once the train is reconnected in Messina for the last leg of our all-day journey. After another twenty minutes, we descend with Carolina onto Taormina’s platform as she drags her bright pink, hard-shelled suitcase, the travel of choice of so many young Italian women, behind her.

She kisses my cheeks, turns and waves, warbling, “Goodbye,” and I call, “Arrivederci!

She embraces her beloved and then ducks into his red sports car.

I follow Joe to the taxi stand, imagine a honeymoon on the horizon, and soon we’re winding up the hill to the Bel Soggiorno.

Photo credits: Wedding (inside restaurant on Capri)[https://www.flickr.com/photos/aigle_dore/20298529790/], by Moyan Brenn (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/;Waving goodbye[https://www.flickr.com/photos/wherearethejoneses/1341937768/], by The Jones via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/; Volcano Etna at sunset[https://www.flickr.com/photos/gnuckx/4692956069/], by gnuckx via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/].

Photo credits: Wedding (inside restaurant on Capri), by Moyan Brenn (CC BY-SA 2.0); Waving goodbye, by The Jones via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Volcano Etna at sunset, by gnuckx via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

* * *

Thank you, Marianne, for this enchanting story! I must say, I admire the way you reach across linguistic barriers and find words in common. In situations where others might give up, you are undaunted. I guess that’s the advantage of living in a world of words?

Readers, have you ever, like Marianne, enjoyed a conversation with someone even though you were both speaking in different languages? We’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Marianne C. Bohr is a writer, editor and French teacher whose book, Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, was published in early September (She Writes Press). She married her high school sweetheart and travel partner, and with their two grown children, follows her own advice and travels at every opportunity. Marianne lives in Bethesda, Maryland, where after decades in publishing, she has followed her Francophile muse to teach French. She has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: In “The Porcelain Thief,” ATCK and expat writer Huan Hsu assembles shards of his Chinese heritage

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), is back with a new recommended read!

Hello again Displaced Nationers!

After a long absence (in which I got to satisfy some wanderlust, go me!), I’m resuming my column just in time for the crisp autumn weather that is conducive to some serious reading.

This month I’m excited to tell you about one book in particular I uploaded to my Kindle since we last met: The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China—a memoir of a journey through Mainland China and Taiwan by Chinese American journalist Huan Hsu.

Photo credits: Top third of an antique Chinese vase (Pixabay); cover art; Huan Hsu's author portrait by Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen.

Photo credits: Top third of a Chinese antique porcelain vase (Pixabay); cover art; Huan Hsu’s author portrait, by Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen.

Hsu currently lives in Amsterdam and teaches creative writing at Amsterdam University College, but he grew up in Utah. His parents had immigrated to the US from China via Taiwan. Hsu had never set foot in Asia until, as an adult, he started investigating the family legend that sparked this book.

I think one of the reasons Hsu’s account of his travels within China resonated with me so much is that I returned to the United States this summer after a two-year absence and, as usual, felt disoriented. In my case, of course, it was reverse culture shock. I just couldn’t get over the novelty of understanding everything. I started eavesdropping on conversations not because I wanted to but just because I could! Sometimes when people asked me questions, I would stare at them blankly before realizing I could understand what they were saying and respond. I found all the signs and labels, which I often tune out in my life in Prague, distracting. Man, counter culture shock can be tiring!

But whereas I was going home again, Hsu was recounting his very first journey to his homeland, another kind of (and more challenging, I think) Through-the-Looking-Glass experience.

Hsu goes to Shanghai ostensibly to work in an uncle’s semiconductor chip business, but really he wants to interview his grandmother to see what she knows about the family tale of his great-great grandfather having buried a vast collection of prized antique porcelain just before he and his family fled the town of Xingang, on the Yangtze River, to escape the Japanese occupation.

In a place he’s never been—but which many people expect him to regard as “home”

In Shanghai, Hsu finds himself in a place he’s never been—but which many people expect him to regard as “home.” Coming to China without fluent Mandarin, he’s just as much at-sea as many other American expats; but the people he encounters treat him differently than they do other foreigners. In fact, they don’t really consider him an “expat”; rather, they see him as “Chinese”—as much as he would have been if his family had never left that part of the world.

Invisible foreigner in Shanghai

Photo credits: “Just a ‘Small Crowd,'” by Kyle Taylor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); invisible man (via Pixabay); middle third of Chinese antique porcelain vase (via Pixabay).

This honorary insider status frequently works to Hsu’s advantage as he tries to uncover the truth—if any is to be found—about the complicated events that led to his ancestor burying his precious porcelain pots before taking flight and becoming displaced.

To be honest, I would have been perfectly happy if Hsu’s entire book had been about his experiences as an American-born Chinese exploring China. As Hsu himself says in an essay published earlier this year just before The Porcelain Thief came out, “while books about the Chinese-American experience in America are plentiful, … the story of Chinese-Americans in China remains unstudied.”

It is a story that interests me personally as my now-husband, who is half Chinese, and I once lived in China, where he could pass for Chinese as long as he didn’t talk too much, whereas I was the visible foreigner. (Now that we live in Prague, our “visibilites” are reversed.)

Hsu talks about the times he had it easier adjusting to China because of his ancestry (fewer stares, more acceptance in some areas), but I was happy to see him also address the down side of this situation:

“…(F)etishization of Westerners was perhaps the most exasperating part of being an ABC [American-Born Chinese] in China…the Chinese still regarded laowai [foreigner] as an ethnicity, not a nationality, so we lacked the necessary skin tone and hair color.”

Likewise, other expats fail to see him:

“…I felt wounded when a fellow expat’s gaze passed over me without acknowledgment. Non-Chinese foreigners seemed to always notice one another on the street, sharing a knowing, conspiratorial glance, and when I tried to catch their eyes, they probably regarded me as just another impolite, ogling local. Though I stood out to the local Chinese, I was also invisible to many of my countrymen.”

Hsu’s refreshing honesty about the difficulties of living in China

One of the dangers of many travel memoirs (one that I sometimes fall prey to in my own writing) is to only write about the trip’s highlights. But perhaps because of his journalist background, Hsu is refreshingly honest. He calls it as he sees it:

“To face the absurdities of daily life, expats in Shanghai keep a mantra: This is China. The Middle Kingdom was not so much a foreign country as it was a parallel universe that managed to offend all five senses plus one more—common.”

Hmm… As I can attest from my own experience, it’s not only expats in Shanghai who feel that way!

And if he is honest about the difficulties of living in China, Hsu is also honest about the difficulties of studying Chinese. Anyone who has signed up for language classes after a move abroad will identify with this passage:

“Their Mandarin sounded familiar, and their speech didn’t seem fast to me, and sometimes I could even understand a good number of the words. But I couldn’t comprehend a thing because I was missing all the important ones, so I would hear something like, ‘Okay, and now we’re going to talk about [blank] and why you [blank] and [blank] because [blank] [blank] [blank] [blank] [blank] [blank] otherwise [blank] [blank] [blank]. Any questions?’”

Good memoirs are a little raw; this one is. Just as Hsu doesn’t pull any punches when describing China, he is equally blunt about owning up to his family’s quirks and talking about his own difficulties surmounting culture shock. Regarding this last, he writes about people having “the same personal space as puppies” on public transportation, and about his cringing embarrassment when he sees people drying their laundry on telephone poles in less-affluent areas of the city. I think anyone who has been an expat in China has made a similar list of initial observations. I can remember doing so after moving to China in 2006.

So much more than just a TCK-experiencing-Culture-One memoir

But in the end, the book is so much more than just a TCK-experiencing-Culture-One memoir. Tsu also introduces the reader to the art of Chinese porcelain, which serves in turn as a kind of symbol of modern China, a nation of fragments.

Photo credit: Chinese antique porcelain vase (Pixabay).

Photo credit: Chinese antique porcelain vase (Pixabay).

In fact the bulk of the book is devoted to Hsu actively searching for any remaining pieces of the family treasure. He flies to Taiwan and Hong Kong to locate the heart of the old porcelain industry. He finally visits the old family property that his great-greats had fled and in so doing turns up long-forgotten shirttail relations.

In the course of this quest, Hsu pieces together beautifully imagined scenes of his family’s escape from the Japanese into the Chinese diaspora.

I enjoyed The Porcelain Thief on all kinds of levels: as memoir, travelogue, art history, and social history. I’d particularly urge anyone who has lived as an expat in China, or who is thinking of doing so, to give it a try.

* * *

So, readers, have you ever had the experience of being an “invisible” expat or know someone who has felt that way? Let us know in the comments. And if you have ideas for books to review for this column, please leave a comment or let me know on Twitter! Last but not least, 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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For this peripatetic Sardinian writer who has settled down (for now) in Rome, a picture says…

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAGreetings, Displaced Nationers who are also photography buffs! “A Picture Says…” columnist James King is still away, so I am filling in again.

My guest this month is Angela Corrias, a well-traveled freelance writer who was born in the Italian island of Sardinia.

There’s a lot about Angela’s story that captivates me. For a start, there’s this photo of her on her Chasing the Unexpected blog’s About Me page, where she’s wearing a head scarf and looks Middle Eastern.

I had seen her “I heart my city” article on the National Geographic Traveler‘s site, which was all about Rome (where she now lives), so I assumed she was Italian… But was my assumption incorrect?

I also knew from her NatGeo article that she has traveled extensively and been an expat several times.

Hmm…that still doesn’t explain why she’s wearing a head scarf.

As I read more about Angela, I became even more intrigued. “[W]hat I like the most when I travel,” she writes on her About page, “is to dig deep into other countries’ culture, traditions, social customs and explore them in all their idiosyncrasies. I’ve always tried to avoid filling my posts with the basic information available by performing a simple Google search, and strived to publish more personal impressions instead.”

Something new I learned from her blog was that she is also a “wannabe photographer.”

It was at that point I knew that we had to feature Angela in “A Picture Says…,” and luckily she was “angel” enough to oblige!

Angela Corrias in Jiasalmer, India, one of the many stops in her travels (photo supplied)

In front of India’s Golden City, Jaisalmer, stands Angela Corrias, the woman who finds gold in all her travels. (Photo supplied)

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Hi, Angela, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. I’d like to start by asking: where were you born, and when did you spread your wings to start traveling?
Hi, ML, and thank you for inviting me to take part in this column. And just to clear up your confusion, no, I’m not Middle Eastern. I was born in Sardinia, Italy’s second biggest island off the coast of Rome, and while my first international trip was to nearby France to visit relatives when I was just three years old, I’ve always considered my travel initiation to have been the first time I crossed the equator at the age of 13 to go to Brazil. It was my first long-haul flight and very first immersion in a culture different from mine. Maybe that’s why I’ve always had a soft spot for Brazil.

Now, I know from reading that Nat Geo article that, since reaching adulthood, you’ve traveled far and wide and also been an expat. What are some of the countries you’ve been to, and which have you actually lived in?
I’ve traveled extensively around Europe, living for two years each in Dublin and London. I’ve visited countries like Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Finland, Romania, Turkey and even Monte Carlo (once). In the Middle East, I’ve been to Lebanon, the UAE and Iran (many times). I’ve also spent a great deal of time in Asia. I lived for one year in China (Shanghai) and was able to travel around visiting countries like India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Singapore and Cambodia. And I mustn’t forget Brazil. I’ve traveled there many times with a quick jaunt to Argentina once—the only two countries I’ve visited in South America so far.

Ah, so THAT explains the head scarf! All those trips to Iran… Where are you living right now and why?
After almost ten years of the expat and nomadic lifestyle, I decided two years ago to come back to Italy and live in Rome. While I’m not ruling out completely another expat/nomadic experience, I’m liking it here so far. The city is extremely lively and constantly inspires me for writing and taking pictures. And it has an international airport, which makes it easy for me to book flights to any destination.

“To one that watches, everything is revealed.” —Italian proverb

Moving right along to the part we’ve all been waiting for: a chance to appreciate a few of your photos. Can you share with us three photos that capture some of your favorite memories of what has clearly been for you a “displaced” life of global travel? And for each photo, can you briefly tell us the memory that the photo captures, and why it remains special to you?
I’ll start with a photo that I took last year at the beautiful Imam Square at the center of Isfahan, Iran, a city that boasts an amazing history, impressive architecture and one the world’s most beautiful bazaars. Recently Iran has become for me one of the countries where I feel most at home—not just because locals actually mistake me for an Iranian and refuse to believe that I don’t speak Persian, but because I feel I can just unwind and enjoy what the country has to offer, from its stunning art to its beautiful and diverse nature to the warmth of its people.

The vast Iman Square in Iran, an important historical site. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

The vast Iman Square, an important historical site in Iran. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Another place where I feel at home is my actual home, Sardinia. I left it some 17 years ago and go back far less than I would like to. I took this photo in the lovely coastal town of Bosa this past August, when I treated myself with a full 12-day stay after years of never visiting for more than a week. Sardinia is actually the kind of place where many people, including foreigners, can easily feel comfortable, and eventually settle down. A quiet, laid-back and relaxed lifestyle, its own cuisine, and a hospitable atmosphere—these are just a few of the features that can make anyone feel at home.

Fishing plays an important role in the economy of Basa, Sardinia. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Fishing plays an important role in the economy of Basa, Sardinia. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

I took this third photo at a tea market in Shanghai, when living in China. For me it represents a truly traditional Chinese moment. Before moving to China, I had lived in Dublin for two years and in London for another two years, but neither of these cities made me feel I wanted to stay, and from the beginning I knew I would leave once I’d had the experience I was looking for. This changed in China. Despite the initial culture shock, once I started Chinese-language classes and began to speak with the locals, who are always very happy to see foreigners making the effort to learn their extremely difficult language, I instantly felt comfortable and as though I could settle for some time.

Sampling Chinese tea culture in Shanghai. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Sampling Chinese tea culture in Shanghai. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Wow, you’ve taken us from a vast square in Iran to an intimate setting of a tea house in Shanghai, which gives me a clear idea of the breadth of your travels. And that photo of the insides of a fishing boat in your native Sardinia—it seems so intimate. I can tell how much you know and love your homeland, or should I say “homeisland”?

“It all ends with biscuits and wine.” —Italian proverb

Having seen these first three photos, I expect it’s a bit of a tough choice, but which are the top three locations you’ve most enjoyed taking photos in—and can you offer us an example of each?
Everywhere I go, one of the first places I visit are the local markets. I took this photo at a market in the town of Roulos in Cambodia, near Siem Reap, where most vendors lay out their products and merchandise on the ground. Witnessing this feast of fruits, veggies and different local fish being sold by locals to locals was a great way to soak up the local atmosphere and sense of community.

The market in Roulos, Cambodia. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Roadside market in Roulos, Cambodia (not far from Ankor Wat). Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Iran is also a place where I very much enjoy taking photos. First of all, the people are always willing to be photographed and they often take it as a chance to strike up a conversation, which is the best possible outcome of a day out as a traveler. Secondly, it’s not very hard to take nice photos thanks to the beauty of its historical landmarks, architecture, parks and bazaars. Finally, Iranian style has a certain opulence, which translates into lavish meals, sophisticated art and loud gatherings. I took this photo at my friend’s house in the city of Lahidjan, in Gilan Province, Iran (on the Caspian Sea). Her mother had prepared some traditional dishes so that I could sample the local cuisine.

An Iranian feast. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

A sumptuous feast of traditional foods in Lahijan, Iran. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Maybe because I live here now, but Rome is also one of my favorite places to capture with my camera. It offers many diverse subjects and situations, ranging from ancient Roman baths and villas to the traditional life of the Garbatella area, the industrial archaeology of the Ostiense neighborhood or the urban pop art that is gradually turning Rome’s suburbs into open-air museums. The photo I chose is from an area called Quadraro, once mainly considered a working-class district and now revamped thanks to a street art project that has taken over most walls around the neighborhood.

Street art livens up Quadraro, a neighborhood in Rome’s southeast periphery. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Street art livens up Quadraro, a neighborhood in Rome’s southeast periphery. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Wow, that last one makes me think of an Italian Alice in Wonderland! And the two food photos were amazing, each in their own way.

“When in Rome…” —early Christian proverb (now universal)

I wonder: do you ever feel reserved taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious of your doing so? How do you handle it?
Yes, I do feel I need to be cautious when taking photos of people as I’m essentially capturing a moment of their life. I must admit, I love taking photos of the locals as they add to the value of the image and give a great sense of place, but obviously if I’m close and have the chance to converse, I always try to get familiar and make them feel more at ease. I also try not to point my lens directly in anyone’s face.

In Cambodia, for example, I had the opportunity to visit two floating villages, Kompong Khleang near Siem Reap and Phsar Krom on the way to Phnom Penh, and while I understand that tours are organized to make visitors experience life on the water and show them how Cambodians live, I sometimes felt as if we were invading their private space. I could imagine the locals wondering why tourists were so interested in their daily life—a life that seemed to me a never-ending struggle for survival.

Here is a photo from that trip, which perhaps helps to demonstrate my point:

Kompong Khleang, considered the most authentic of the three floating villages around Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Kompong Khleang, a floating village near Siem Reap, Cambodia, and home to around 1,800 families. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

“Take pleasure in your dreams…” —Giotto di Bondone

When did you become interested in photography?
Ever since I decided to work as a freelance writer, I’ve taken photos to accompany my articles. Gradually, however, especially after I took a course on reportage photography in Rome, photography has became more of a passion and a source of inspiration, so much so that I’m starting to think about focusing on photography alone and having an exhibition one day. I enjoy devoting a whole day to taking pictures. And of course, the more I take photos the better I do with my writing. It gives me ideas for blog posts.

What is it about this art form that drew you in?
Sometimes with a camera you can capture moments, looks, colors that maybe you don’t notice and you realize only afterwards, when looking at the photos. I also like the way images can be interpreted differently depending on the viewer’s perspective. We need words, too, to avoid misunderstandings, but when it comes to art forms, an image can convey emotions and a kind of poetry that speaks to other people.

And now switching over to the technical side of things: what kind of camera, lenses, and post-processing software do you use?
After seven years of Nikon D50, I upgraded my photo gear with a Nikon D7100 last year, and I love it. I have four lenses: the normal 18-55 that I bought with my first camera and that I’m about to replace with one with bigger aperture; a Nikon 70-200; a Sigma 10-20; and a Nikon 50mm. While I started as a self-learner, I eventually felt the need to take a course, during which I improved a lot, especially when it comes to choosing the appropriate lens for particular subjects and situations. For post-processing software I use Adobe Photoshop—an early version, though, which I might need to upgrade.

“Either learn, or leave.” —Roman proverb

Finally, can you offer a few words of advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling the world or living abroad?
My advice would be to take time to interact with locals as much as possible. Understanding the host culture is crucial in order to take the pictures that will capture the essence of a place. Another piece of advice that I always try to follow myself, even though I know it’s not as straightforward as it may sound, is to get out of your comfort zone, even if this means feeling confused at first. You will adapt eventually; human beings always do. Finally, never be so arrogant to travel with the idea of imposing your own lifestyle and values on others, because it’s hardly ever the case that one culture is superior. It’s always better to travel with the idea of learning rather than teaching.

Thank you, Angela! I appreciate your sharing a selection of photos that show us how deeply you connect with the local scenery and people on your travels into various parts of the world. You seem to take the opposite approach to that of the Roman statesman Julius Caesar, he of veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered) fame. At the same time, you clearly feel a strong connection with your native Sardinia and your new home of Rome. Your travels appear to have made you appreciate Italy’s own brand of beauty. Thank you again for doing this interview. Essere uno stinco di santo.

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Readers, what do you make of Angela’s peripatetic life and her photography advice? Please leave any questions or feedback for her in the comments!

If you want to get to know Angela Corrias and her creative works better, I suggest you visit her author site, where if you sign up for her e-newsletter, you’ll receive a free photo ebook on the Venice Carnival. Going to Rome any time soon? Visit Angela’s other site, Rome Actually, about her Roman adventures. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

NOTE: If you are a travel-photographer and would like to be interviewed for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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