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

Gene B-V TCK Talent

Professor Gene Bell-Villada (own photo)

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

—ML Awanohara

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

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

OverseasAmerican_cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STAY TUNED for our next fab post.

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An Italian with a passion: How to live the Dolce Vita, with Barbara Conelli

Barbara Conelli is a woman on a mission — a mission to bring, as she puts it on her website, “Fantastic Fearless Feminine Fun into women’s lives.”

A prolific writer, with one book already published (Chique Secrets of Dolce Vita, a journey through Italy), another coming out in May, and other writing credits galore, Barb “invites women to explore Italy from the comfort of their home with elegance, grace and style, encouraging them to live their own Dolce Vita no matter where they are in the world.”

While many of you will be familiar with her writing and blog, others will know Barb from her popular Chique Show at Blog Talk Radio, where she interviews authors and talks about life in and her passion for Italy.

Today, though, it’s Barb’s turn to be interviewed.

Thank you, Barb, for agreeing to be interviewed! Can you tell us a bit about your background — where you were born, where you grew up, where you studied?
I was born in London to an Austrian mother and an Italian father. My background was incredibly multicultural and the fact that I had relatives in different countries who spoke different languages encouraged me to start learning the languages they spoke, and when I did, I realized some of the relatives were much nicer when I didn’t understand them. But it was too late; at that time I was already speaking eight languages and traveling around the globe, a passion that turned out to be totally incurable. I tried hard to be a homebody but it never worked.

A chronic gatherer of knowledge, I studied at several universities in Spain, Portugal, Italy and the US, and when I got my second PhD I realized the academic career was totally killing my creativity and my soul. (As you can see, realizing important stuff too late was a pattern in my 20s.)

Although I’ve had many homes away from home, Italy has always been my real home. Grandma Lily, my paternal grandmother, made sure I grew up to be a real Italian – food-loving, high-spirited, untameable, capricious and addicted to shoes. I frequently visited my cousins in Italy already when I was a kid, and when I got my heart-broken by an Italian at the age of sixteen, I knew there was no turning back. I was an Italian. Until today I’m not sure whether it’s a blessing or a curse. (Thanks, Grandma Lily!)

You split your time between New York and Milan, correct? When did you move to Milan, and why there in particular?
That’s right! Grandma Lily was born in Milan. She left the city and the country with her parents when she was a little girl and she never went back. However, the city stayed in her heart. I visited Milan many, many times, but I decided to actually get a place there and make it my home when I started to think about writing a book about the city. I wanted to really live it, breathe it, be it. I couldn’t live in Tuscany and write about Milan. That would have made me a tourist, not a Milanese. And I wanted to be one with the city and become familiar with its many faces.

Your first book, Chique Secrets of Dolce Vita, was published last year, and your second, Chique Secrets of Dolce Amore, is due to be published in May. Can you tell us a little about your new book?
Yes, I’d love to! I’m so excited because my editor has just sent me the final version of the manuscript, and I’m totally in love with the book! In Chique Secrets of Dolce Amore, I share my unexpected encounters with the capricious, unpredictable and extravagant city of Milan, its glamorous feminine secrets, the everyday magic of its dreamy streets, the passionate romance of its elegant hideaways, and the sweet Italian art of delightfully falling in love with your life wherever you go. This book is very informative and contains lots of factual information about the city, but at the same time it’s very poetic, lyrical and romantic. It shows that Milan is the perfect city to have a love affair with.

And what happens after Dolce Amore? Another book? Can you give us any hints?
There are several exciting projects I’m working on. Later this year, I’m planning to publish a collection of selected articles and essays I’ve written about Milan and published in magazines and on my blog. I’m also putting together a travel anthology that’s going to be released in the fall, with travel essays and short stories written by sixteen amazing, wonderful authors.

As far as my Chique Book series is concerned, with Chique Secrets of Dolce Amore I’m leaving Milan and venturing into Rome. The next book is titled Chique Secrets of Dolce Far Niente, and in this book I’m going to reveal the hidden face of Rome and share with my readers the Roman art of pleasant, carefree idleness.

My books always have a deeper message and I love using the city I write about as “the stage of life”, a creative space where we can learn, grow and get to know ourselves. Milan is about loving your life and finding beauty in simple, everyday things. Rome is about being fully present in your life instead of exhaustingly focusing on doing, doing, doing.

Something that comes across loud and clear in the reviews of Dolce Vita is your talent for writing descriptive prose and storytelling. What made you decide to write non-fiction rather than a novel?
A good question! I’ll be honest with you: I am working on a novel (okay, looks like I’ve just come out of the closet and admitted I’m a shadow novelist). However, I find writing fiction much less appealing. I love exploring the real world, I love talking to people, I enjoy discovering their stories, understanding what makes them tick. I’m incredibly curious and inquisitive, and I always look deeper, beyond the obvious, the visible. My readers often say that when they read my book, they feel they’re actually there with me, experiencing the same things, tasting the food, submerging themselves in the atmosphere. My books are like a magic carpet that takes you to beautiful places enabling you to live a beautiful adventure sitting in an armchair and wearing your jammies. I truly believe that being able to give this to the reader through the pages of my book is a miracle, and it makes me endlessly happy.

What audience did you have in mind for Dolce Vita when you first wrote it, and did you end up attracting those sorts of readers?
It’s an interesting question. I write primarily for women and I wanted my book to appeal to experienced, avid travelers as well as to those who dream of Italy and desire to explore this beautiful country. I definitely succeeded in connecting with my audience and I’m very grateful for my fabulous readers and fans from all around the world who give me lots of love, support, encouragement and wonderful feedback. However, I was very surprised to see that my book attracted also many male readers who totally enjoyed my writing. I just love that.

To which aspects of your writing have readers responded the most?
When you read the reviews, there seems to be one strong common denominator: “I felt I was really there with the author.” I’ve been so touched by this, and I feel very blessed because it means I’ve been able to get my message across and bring Italian beauty, charm and grace into the lives of many women. This is my definition of success – doing what you love and touching other people’s hearts by sharing your passion with them.

Have you written anything else?
I have two previously published books on relationships and self-love, based on my coaching career. I have also written screenplays for TV shows and scripts for TV talk shows. And I’m a movie translator – I have translated and subtitled over 800 feature films, shows and documentaries for major movie studios, TV channels and distribution companies. I have also translated several fiction and poetry books. Yes, I’m a typical “slasher” – a multi-talented person with many careers. But if you ask me who I truly am, my answer is I’m a writer and traveler. That’s my soul’s calling.

I first heard you — and heard of you! — on your blog talk radio show, the Chique Show. How long has the Chique Show been running?
Chique Show has been broadcasting for about a year. It has gained incredible momentum and today, just 12 months later, we have over 5,500 listeners, recently adding more than one hundred new listeners every week.

Is a radio talk show something you have always wanted to do?
When it all started, it really wasn’t my goal or dream to be a radio hostess, although I had always found this medium fascinating. Chique Show was meant to be just another platform to promote my new book but I immediately fell in love with it, and today it’s much bigger than I ever imagined. Chique Show is a great connector, a wonderful opportunity to meet new people, and my way of giving back and bringing authors closer to their readers.

How would you like to see it evolve?
I would love Chique Show to become a featured, branded show that would broadcast every day on a variety of topics. You know, one of my mottos is the words of Donald Trump: “If you’re going to think anyway, think big.” And Eleanor Roosevelt’s: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” I’m a visionary, and there’s not just a branded radio show on my vision board, but also a magazine and TV channel. I love challenging myself and pushing my own boundaries. My mum says I decided I was going to be a success story already as a toddler. I’ve always been stubbornly creative and free-spirited.

You’ve had a lot of guests on the show. Have there been any particularly memorable moments?
You know, I really love those moments when my guest and I totally click. When we find a topic we’re both fascinated about, we chat, we laugh. There’s a fantastic vibe and irresistible energy that totally fill the radio waves, and our listeners can feel it. We are just wonderfully connected.

I’ve also had deeply moving moments on the show when my guests opened up and talked about their life experiences, their struggles, their pain, and how they managed to overcome adversity and follow their dreams.

One of my favorite shows is the interview with author Lyn Fuchs that you featured here on Displaced Nation a couple of months ago. I love smart, talented, open-minded and humble people who are not afraid to do their thing and stand out from the crowd. Lyn is one of those people and having him on the show has been a real pleasure.

Is there anyone you would *love* to interview on your show — a “fantasy” interviewee, as it were, be they alive or dead?
Leonardo da Vinci: the most fantastic “slasher” in history. I wrote about his years in Milan in Chique Secrets of Dolce Vita, and I find him fascinating. I believe his genius is still undervalued. Madeleine Albright, a lady who epitomizes feminine power and wisdom. And Grandma Lily — the sage of my family.

With March being Fashion Month, many of our recent posts have been fashion- and style-related. Now, if you’ve actually read any of those posts, you’ll have realized that three of us anyway are the last people on earth who should be advising on fashion. I poke fun at haute couture, Anthony’s fashion advice begins and ends with chinos and a shirt, and Tony’s staple apparel is shorts and T-shirts. As someone who has made her home in two of the world’s fashion capitals, can you give us any tips about where a couture-challenged person can start?
Okay, my fantasy’s running wild here. Chinos make me think of Indiana Jones (a.k.a. Harrison Ford at his best). And shorts and a t-shirt? Matthew McConaughey. Hot, sexy, juicy! (May I join your team like right now?)

I love fashion because to me it’s yet another expression of creativity and art. It’s also one of the easiest ways to say who you are. You can use fashion to make a statement and I’m totally non-judgmental when it comes to people’s choices.

The best piece of advice is, be yourself. You don’t need to choose one style or color palette and stick with it forever. Fashion is a game and it’s meant to be played and enjoyed. Fashion is not created by designers, it’s created by you, every single morning.

In my closet, you’d find little black dresses and faded jeans, pantsuits and colorful skirts, white shirts and t-shirts with wild patterns. Lots of scarves and hats and other accessories. My wardrobe has as many faces as I do because I may be different every day but I always insist on being myself.

To sum it up, stop flipping through fashion magazines and show the world how beautifully unique you are!

OK, so we’re following your advice and doing a bit of retail therapy in two continents. Where would you suggest as first stop for shopping in Milan?
I suggest you leave your Lonely Planet Guidebook in your bag and start exploring. I love Milanese vintage stores, visiting them is a real adventure. I can recommend “Cavalli e Nastri” in Via Brera, or Oplà in Via Vigevano. For original jewelry, Vigano in Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle. And a Borsalino hat is a must!

And then we take a transatlantic flight and go shopping in New York…where’s our first stop there?
Tiffany & Co., of course! Okay, just kidding. The Tiffany store in both Milan and New York plays a very important role in the last chapter of Chique Secrets of Dolce Amore where it turns into a spicy matchmaker. Plus, I love Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

I almost never shop for clothes in New York but I love New York bookstores. I live on Broadway and I’m addicted to the Strand Book Store at the corner of Broadway and 12th Street.

And on Saturdays, I love going to the Greenmarket at Union Square, the most wonderful outdoor market in New York whose atmosphere reminds me of Italy.

Splitting your time between two countries as you do, do you find it difficult to settle into the ways of one country after a length of time in the other?
Actually, it’s funny because when I come to Milan, my friends usually tell me: “Stop being so American!” It takes me a few days to slow down and return to the spirit of la dolce vita. It always reminds me how fast we actually live in the States, and how we allow life to just pass us by.

When I return to New York, it takes me about a week or two to get used to the bustle of the city. I love New York, it’s an incredibly vibrant city, but it can truly wear you down. You need to manage your energy really well and set your boundaries. Although New York is said to be the city that never sleeps, a New Yorker needs to get some sleep at least every now and then.

What aspect of Italy would you like to transplant to New York life — and why?
The art of taking the time to actually live. Experiencing life with gratitude and a sense of awe. The sweetness of human experience. Achieving great things is wonderful, but your life needs to be balanced, and that’s what New York sometimes misses. We need to stop and smell the roses more often.

What about vice versa? Any aspect of New York life you would like to transplant to Italy?
The glitz, the flashiness and the flamboyance. New York is a self-confident brat and it would be fun to see more of that in the easy-going, laid-back Italian way of life.

You’ve traveled extensively — have you discovered any other places where you’d like to live for a while?
After living in Middle East, Africa, in the Australian outback, in stunning European cities and wonderful metropolises of this world, I would like to create one more home-away-from home in French Polynesia. Sleep, eat, dance, swim in the ocean and write books. My idea of writer’s heaven.

Your suggestion about joining the TDN team? Yes — on condition we can all descend upon your new home in French Polynesia… Heaven indeed. Thanks, Barb, for talking so honestly to us!

We will hear more about Barbara Conelli in a few weeks, when we review her new book, Chique Secrets of Dolce Amore, and subscribers to the Displaced Dispatch can look forward to another exciting giveaway!
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Image: Barbara Conelli

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