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CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats & TCKs, when the culture shocks pile up, pull out the manual or consult an expert


Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol is back with her first guest of 2017.

Happy February, Displaced Nationers!

Meet my fellow ATCK Diahann Reyes-Lane. You might know her already from Elizabeth Liang’s lovely interview for TCK Talent. If you don’t, Diahann is a former CNN journalist and Hollywood actress who now works as a coach for writers and artists.

In her own creative life, Diahann is a blogger, writer, and performer. In Stories From The Belly, her blog about “the female body and its appetites,” Diahann addresses feminism, body image, identity culture, food and travel. Her poems and essays have been published in WriteGirl anthologies Emotional Map of Los Angeles, You Are Here and No Character Limit. She has written a number of chapbooks: Howl Naked Raccoon the Moon; Moon Goddess; and Basketball Dome of Tears. And she has performed at the Hollywood FringeFestival and read her stories at Beyond Baroque in Venice. Currently, she is working on a memoir as well as a solo show.

Diahann lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their five cats. She kindly took the time to share some of her cultural transition stories with us. Join us as we talk about TCK burnout, courting customs in Manila (just in time for Valentine’s Day!), and various forms of therapy.

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Hi Diahann, welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox! So where on our beautiful blue planet did you grow up?

I was born in the Philippines. I learned to speak my first language, English, with a Kiwi accent at age one when my dad’s company moved us to New Zealand. We lived there for almost two years before moving back to Manila. When I was eight, we moved to Argentina for two years. Buenos Aires is still, to this day, my favorite city where I’ve lived. Two years later, we landed in Pakistan, where I spent the fifth grade. We stayed for a little over a year before migrating to the US. This was supposed to be our final move, but when the Marcos regime was overthrown, my father moved us back “home” to Manila in 1987.

How well did you settle down once you found yourself back in your passport country?

Our repatriation to the Philippines was brief. It was less than a year before my dad’s company moved him to Indonesia. I spent my senior year in Jakarta before moving back to the United States for college. I’ve been here ever since—going on 27 years now. I consider my long stay in this country a far more exotic adventure than moving countries all the time, which had been my norm for so long.

That’s very interesting. You mean you found staying in one place more exotic than travel?

Yes, learning to live in the same place has been a bigger adventure because moving, I knew how to do. Going to a new school, I knew how to do. Moving out/into a new apartment/house/neighborhood, I knew how to do. It was what my family did the whole time I was growing up. Until I turned 18, I moved to a new school, if not country, almost every year. I had no idea what it was like to have friendships that lasted beyond a school year. My sophomore year at UC Berkeley was a challenge because I didn’t know how to have ongoing relationships and I had to learn how to do that as a young woman. I used to think “what if”, mourning the losses of friendships and budding romances that surely would have blossomed if only I didn’t have to move again. I now know that sometimes, even when you live in the same zip code with people, friends drift apart and romances die for reasons beyond geography.
moving-i-knew-how-to-do

I hear you. And that’s a lot of moves. I’m guessing that, for you, like many of us Third Culture Kids, your most difficult re-entry shock occurred when you returned to your birthplace?

Yes, since Manila was “home”, I assumed there would be no transition. I thought I’d be like everyone else, for once, since I was no longer a foreigner. To my dismay, I still was an outsider. I didn’t know the customs or social rules any more than I did when I’d moved to the other countries. I was hard on myself about this because I assumed that I should know because I was a Filipina citizen.

Did you ever put your foot in your mouth when you were back “home”?

One example that springs to mind occurred during junior high school in Manila. A boy from another school was “courting” me. This was the eighties, so I’m not sure if courting is still what kids do nowadays. Basically, he was wooing me to be his girlfriend. But I wasn’t interested in him and I didn’t want to lead him on. I told the guy straight out—nicely, in my opinion—that I just wanted to be his friend. That’s what I would have done had I still been in living in the United States or studying at an international school. When I told my classmates about what happened, they made clear that this was a breach of etiquette. They said I should have allowed him to keep courting me until he finally asked me to be his girlfriend. Only then should I have let him down. Instead, I’d embarrassed him.
courting-in-philippines

Would you handle that kind of situation differently today?

The woman I am today would have handled the situation exactly the way I did then. But at 16, and after so many moves from country-to-country and school-to-school, I just wanted to fit in—especially because the Philippines was my country of origin. After that incident with the boy, I made more of an effort to abide by Filipino etiquette, including never calling guys and not taking the initiative when it came to expressing interest in a boy. Adapt, assimilate, and conform became my way of coping. I wish I could have told my younger self back then: “Just be yourself and honor your values. Who you are is enough. Your perceptions and choices aren’t wrong.”

Any “tools” you can recommend for the rest of us who are feeling some of these emotions?

Reading books about culture shock and re-entry culture shock helped. I discovered I wasn’t the only one having these experiences and my behavior, reactions, and mental and emotional state because of all the moving was normal. Until that point, I thought I was losing my mind. I couldn’t stay grounded in my body or any place or culture. Also, I wrote a college paper about re-entry culture shock, and the research I did for it was eye opening and healing. It also helps to have friends who have also lived the expat life and know what that’s like. Oh—and therapy. I recommend getting a good therapist.

youre-not-going-crazy

I like your recommendation of consulting the experts, whether it’s through books—we might call them operations manuals—or conversations with therapists who understand the TCK and expat mindset. Can you think of any transitions you made that were particularly smooth?

I’m inclined to say my move back to the United States to study at Berkeley was the easiest. I made friends right away and jumped right into college life. I didn’t miss Indonesia at all—probably because I’d lived there only for a year and hadn’t wanted to move there to begin with. (This had nothing to do with Indonesia—more that I was tired of moving.) But what I didn’t realize was that I’d not yet dealt with the accumulation of culture shocks and re-entry culture shocks I’d amassed in my psyche over the years. Inevitably, all of that would catch up with me eventually.

Yes, the compound effects of all those transitions is such an interesting subject! What advice do you have for expats or TCKs who are experiencing expat burnout or change fatigue?

I’d advise expats and TCKs to understand that the psychological and emotional fallout of multiple moves around the world are real. Recognize what is happening to you, proactively rather than reactively. Read and write about it. For me, writing that college paper about re-entry shock was a formative experience. I finally understood the effects that moving so many times while growing up had had on my development.

Lastly, do you have any advice for parents of kids like us?

For parent expats, I’d recommend letting your kids know that they, too, will be subject to culture shock. I’d suggest making space for your children to process their feelings and deal with the losses that can come from moving countries and cultures. Yes, there are plenty of gifts and benefits from being a global nomad, but there are also drawbacks. Ignoring the negative effects can be harmful. Granted, kids generally adapt more easily than adults, but this can also make it harder for them to stay grounded and cultivate a solid sense of self.

Thank you so much for sharing your stories, Diahann. I agree, some of the best advice for those who feel culture shocks piling up is to try to stay grounded: actively engage in activities that make you feel grounded in the place you are right now.

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How about you, Displaced Nationers? What makes you feel grounded? And do you have any “manuals” or “experts” you’d recommend for getting through the difficult cultural transitions and/or their cumulative effect? Let us know!

And if you like Diahann’s prescriptions, be sure to check out her Website and blog. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Well, hopefully this has you “fixed” until next month/year.

Until then. Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox and the newly published Reverse Culture Shock. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin, Goodreads, and, of course, her author site.  

STAY TUNED for next week/year’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a biweekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits: First visual (collage): Culture shock toolbox branding; photo of Sine & family, her book cover and her blog banner (supplied); View over Stuttgart-South and Stuttgart-Heslach and the “Karlshöhe”, Germany, by MSeses via Wikimedia Commons; and A rainbow over Joburg about two hours ago, by Derek Keats via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
Second visual: Hamburger via Pixabay (moustache vector art from iPiccy).
Third visual: Embarrassed boy, happy faces and wrench via Pixabay; Australia v England Netabll [sic] Test, by Naparazzi via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Traditional protective cup, by Scoty6776 via Wikimedia Commons.
Fourth visual: Great white shark, by Michiel Van Balen via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and tennis player via Pixabay.

TCK TALENT: Benjamin Jancewicz, missionary kid, socially responsible graphic designer and pioneering vector artist

Photo credits: (top row) Kawawachikamach Band (flag) of the Naskapi, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); (middle row) Ben Jancewicz self-portrait (supplied); (bottom row) Lights, Camera, Action (Fed Hill), by Bill Mill via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0), Zerflin logo.

Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang‘s guest this month is an adult Missionary Kid (and Third Culture Kid) who expresses his creativity as a visual artist.

Welcome back, readers. Today’s ATCK interviewee is artist, illustrator, and graphic designer Benjamin Jancewicz. Benjamin grew up in Northern Quebec, on the Naskapi Native American Reservation of Kawawachikamach, to an Irish-American mother and Polish-American missionary father who is a linguist and Bible translator to the Naskapi Native Americans.

His Twitter blurb says he was raised “Native, Interracial, MK” (MK being Missionary Kid).

Benjamin’s parents met tobogganing at a Youth Group in their hometown of Norwich, Connecticut, and Ben was born in Connecticut. He now lives in Baltimore with his wife, Tamika, where he runs his own graphic design company, Zerflin (the name belonged to a cartoon alien Benjamin drew as a kid) and creates original vector artwork, which has been exhibited in galleries, cafes and homes around the United States and Canada. His current show, Who Said What, is, in his own words,

a collection that combines my love for engaging people in the creation of my art as well as my desire to reimagine quotes that move people to live better lives. The creation process begins with a call for quotes to be submitted. I then do careful research and select a unique photograph of the quote’s author, typically in their youth, imagining them as my peer. Using the reference image, I draw the piece itself inspired by 1950s and 60s screenprinting, interior design and album covers. Each piece has a unique color palette and font from an up-and-coming typographer.

You can get a taste of the work, and the vector art process, of which Ben is a pioneer, from this short video:

* * *

Welcome, Benjamin. I understand your family traveled quite a bit before settling in the Naskapi Native American Reservation.
Yes, my family moved to Chicago (where my parents went to school), Texas (where they had training), Mexico (where they had field testing), and Sherbrooke, a city in southern Quebec (where they learned French), all before I was four years old. I remember bits and pieces of that time and I’m told I picked up Spanish, but I ended up losing it and learning Naskapi, French, Innu and English instead.

Those are some very peripatetic early years (not to mention impressive multilingualism on your part). Did the traveling continue after you moved to the Reservation?
To raise support for the work, my parents had to travel to the States almost every summer. So there was a lot of visiting churches and road trips through the states, listening to my Father give slideshow presentations about what our family was up to. He continues that to this day in a blog I built for him: http://bill.jancewicz.com. We also moved quite a bit on the Reservation (we call it “the Rez”) as well. We stayed at people’s houses, either with them or when they weren’t there. Eventually when I was older we moved to the nearby town, but living on the Rez was some of the happiest time of my life. Summers filled with bike riding, exploring the woods, swimming in the lake…it was heaven.

“You never find yourself until you face the truth.” —Pearl Baily

What drew you to art and illustration?
I always drew as a kid. As I got older, life on the Rez got harder. Kids got involved in drugs and alcohol. Their parents being absent for the same reasons took a toll. I began losing friends to suicide, overdose. And as TV crept into the Rez, so did an attitude of treating white people differently. I was singled out because I was different. Bullies began attacking me more and more frequently at school—until my parents pulled me out and homeschooled me for a few years. I ultimately went back to the Rez school for most of secondary school, but drawing, computers and piano were often how I dealt with depression and loneliness.

It’s striking, how many ATCKs’ creative pursuits begin as—or become—coping mechanisms during childhood/adolescence. I’m very sorry you were bullied and am glad you found creative outlets to help you handle it. Did your interest in art and illustration evolve naturally into a career in graphic design?
I never really considered art and illustration to be a viable career, and originally went to school for engineering. After two years, I began to learn more about graphic design and after much deliberation, I switched majors. I didn’t find out until later that my father had done graphic design when he was younger as well. Once I switched, I had to do a lot of extra work to catch up, and started my design company, Zerflin, while still in class.

Creation of Zerflin

Photo credits: (top row) Camp amérindien MANTEO MATIKAP, by Guillaume Cattiaux via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); (middle row) screen shots of Ben; (bottom row) Zerflin logo and banner.

That’s impressive!

“Power & control will never outweigh love.” —Jada Koren Pinkett Smith

In college, did you identify most with a particular culture or cultures, or with people who had cross-cultural backgrounds similar to yours?  
While I was in college, in a small town in the States, I was bullied again, this time in the dormitories, and again for being different. But this time it was because I was Canadian, because I grew up on a Rez, and had perspectives that were considered strange by my white dorm mates. I sought refuge in a place on campus called the Rafiki House, a house dedicated to helping TCK and international students adjust to life in the US (rafiki means “friend” in Swahili). I ended up being the first freshman ever to live in the house. I stayed there all four years, getting involved in the protests and fights for its survival when the college tried to shut it down.

I’m sure many current TCKs and international students at the college are grateful for the House’s existence. What made you decide to move to Baltimore?
Baltimore was only an hour-and-a-half drive from college, so I’d often come down with friends to explore, and Tamika and I would come on dates. We fell in love with the city and decided to stay. Tamika originally wanted to teach in the public school system, and I got a job working at a non-profit in DC. Baltimore is much cheaper to live in, so we bought a house here.

“If you have an opportunity to use your voice you should use it.” —Samuel Leroy Jackson

As an ATCK, do you now have “itchy feet,” or do you prefer to have a home base and only travel for pleasure?
I have a very strong wanderlust, but the Recession pretty much killed any opportunities to travel. I try to travel as much as I can with my business, and now have art shows in L.A. that I frequently travel for. We organized with a group of friends and traveled to South Africa for the first time this past winter, which was amazing. It was the first time off the continent for me. Baltimore is really feeling more and more like home, though. Getting involved in the local social justice movements has given me life, and I’m glad to have a base here.

Per your design agency’s website, Zerflin’s staff “champion underdog clients and believe running a company without being evil is paramount.” This is admirable! Did your TCK background influence this mission/vision/value, or did something else, or were there a combination of influences?
Growing up on a Rez, there’s a certain amount of “wokeness” that just comes with living and experiencing how white people in town would treat my friends differently. And as someone who looks white, it was crazy hearing some of the conversations other white people would have about African Americans and Africans, Natives, Latinos, and Asians. As I got more and more involved in social justice on campus and began reading more and more books from black nationalist, feminist, womanist, and social justice authors, I knew I wanted to be involved in that work in some capacity. I also recognized that most companies (especially in design) are more large-client focused. As a social justice action, I wanted to do something different.

Congratulations on your show, which I understand will be at Impact Hub Baltimore for most of May into early June. Are you working on any more big art projects at the moment?
Continuously. I’ve been doing a lot more with art over the past couple years, which is strange for me. I knew some artists in college, and the way they acted really turned me off to art. I already felt looked down upon just being there as a TCK, but artists really seemed to take it to the next level. Tamika greatly encouraged me to pursue art, and as it took off, I’ve been getting more into illustration as a profession. You can see more of my work here.

Ben Jancewicz’s artwork. (Clockwise from top): Trumpeter plays the blues (hand-drawn, digitally rendered); West African Girl, available for purchase at Zerflin (Etsy shop); screenshot of Oprah work at Who Said What exhibition; Fayette Regina Pinkney, commissioned portrait.

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Thank you so much, Ben. Congratulations on your successful business and ongoing artwork! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Benjamin below. Besides checking out his art site, you can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter. You can commission his artwork here and buy select pieces (on paper or canvas), including from the current show, here.

Editor’s note: All quotes are taken from the artwork in Benjamin Jancewicz’s current show, Who Said What.

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is a prime example of what she writes about in this column: an Adult Third Culture Kid working in a creative field. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she is an actor, writer, and producer who created the solo show Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey, which has been touring internationally. And now she is working on another show, which we hope to hear more about soon! To keep up with Lisa’s progress in between her columns, be sure to visit her blog, Suitcasefactory. You can also follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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TCK TALENT: Mary Bassey, Writer, Storyteller, Advocate and Scientist

Mary Bassey TCK Talent

Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang has invited a member of the up-and-coming generation of talented Adult Third Culture Kids to be her guest this month.

Welcome back, readers. This month’s guest is Mary Bassey, the first ATCK interviewee for this column whose talents extend from writing all the way to biochemistry! Mary is a self-described multiethnic (Efik & Igbo) Nigerian-Canadian-American. She was born in Nigeria, grew up mostly in Canada (the West Coast) and Kentucky, and currently resides in Southern California.

Mary has a talent and a passion for storytelling and writing, particularly when it sparks cross-cultural discussion and helps to effect change. She contributes to The Black Expat, a site that features first-hand accounts, personal narratives and key advice about cross-cultural living from members of the Black Diaspora. She has her own site, Verily Merrily Mary, where she coaches writers in how to have an impact, and she recently started a new blog on the Huffington Post. (Her first post was about the need for millennials to always be hustling, to the detriment of self-care.)

Mary received a prestigious TCK award to take part in this year’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference, in Amsterdam, where she spoke on a panel about storytelling as a means of communicating the experience of a global or Third Culture Kid lifestyle.

I met Mary on Twitter at #TCKchat, a bimonthly Twitter event for which she is one of several co-hosts (@verilymary). I found her so interesting, I decided I had to learn more of her story.

* * *

Welcome, Mary. Please tell us all the places where you grew up and why your family moved.
I was born in Ilorin, Nigeria, a city mostly populated by those from the Yoruba ethnic group. My father is Efik and my mother is Igbo and I fluently spoke both Yoruba and English as a small child, so even before leaving Nigeria for North America, my early childhood was already quite multicultural. My sights were set even further along the global cultural landscape once my father landed jobs as a physics professor in various cities and my mother, siblings, and I moved along with him. Our first move was to Victoria in British Columbia, Canada (on the Southern tip of Vancouver Island), for nearly three years. Then we moved to Kentucky for about seven years. Our last move was to Southern California, which has been my home for over eight years.

Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time, and if so, why?
My life in Victoria was by far the highlight of my life. Growing up, my siblings and I were involved in the activities of the city’s community center, which catered to the needs of kids living in the city, providing parents with time off while giving us the opportunity to play and explore the outdoors. I had my first camping experience in Victoria and actually saw a moose in person at around age six (one of the most Canadian moments of my life!). Hiking, swimming, and wading in the lakes and beaches were normal, nearly everyday parts of my life. Victoria opened up a new world of outdoor life, and I absolutely loved it. I was so carefree.

“Being in a STEM field has given me another avenue to put my mind to use.”

What drew you to studying biochemistry?
I decided to get my bachelors degree in biochemistry because science was something I have always liked, especially the life sciences. I couldn’t choose between biology or chemistry so I decided to pick biochemistry. My task now as a graduate is to figure out how to merge my intellectual curiosity in the sciences with my love of culture and storytelling.

Science and storytelling

The world could use your combination of gifts! Speaking of storytelling, which makes me think of writing, what made you decide to work as a writing coach in California?
When my family moved to California because of my father’s job as a physics professor at a university here, I was entering my second year of high school. I’m now in my early 20s and am still here. I decided to become a writing coach because I knew that I had something to offer to those who are struggling with their writing voice and/or need guidance in order to effectively communicate their message. I have been helping people with their writing since middle school. I decided to make my services more public and created an online platform to do so. It has been a blast working with so many brilliant and smart writers.

“I never thought of myself as a global citizen because I am not a citizen of the globe; I am a citizen of two countries.”

Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures?
I only partially identify with the cultures that I have grown up in. When I say that I am Nigerian, Canadian, or American, there is an invisible asterisk attached to each nationality because they each require a bit more of an explanation. For example, I am Nigerian, but I have spent most of my life living in North America. This may cause some people to question the validity of my Nigerianness because it is inevitably in juxtaposition with my Canadianness and my Americanness. Regardless, I know that my being Nigerian is valid.

Did your TCK upbringing inform your choice to become a writer? 
I think so. With so much of my life in transition and in flux, writing has been one of the few constants. Paper and pen is readily available in every place I have lived, and nowadays, of course, we also have laptops and tablets. When you are living a cross-cultural life, you become introspective by force. As a kid, I had plenty of those moments of introspection—though I may not have taken them to heart or perhaps was not yet able to understand my feelings fully.

Has writing helped you to process your TCK upbringing?
I only found out about the term “TCK” four years ago! It has helped me put words to my childhood experiences and write more about my TCK life. Finding other TCKs in the blogosphere and via social media encouraged me to be more confident in making my stories and experiences public on blogs and other kinds of publications. But even with the various opportunities I have been given to write on public platforms, I do not neglect writing for myself (journaling, etc.). I am such a strong believer in people—writers especially—journaling privately. It’s like the socially acceptable version of talking to yourself.

“How many of us millennials are more concerned with growing our ‘Countries I’ve Been To’ list instead of having in-depth interactions with the citizens of those countries?”

As an ATCK, do you have “itchy feet”?
One thing I like to say is that I find instability in stability. My obsession with wordplay aside, the statement rings so true for me. The fact that I can say I have been in the same spot (here in California) for over eight years is mind boggling—and makes me feel a bit anxious. The idea of being anything close to 100% established and settled in a place is not a source of comfort for me at all. My upbringing was not like that. I liked looking forward to my next plane, ferryboat, or long-distance bus ride during school holidays as a kid. My childhood was indeed nomadic. However, already this year, for the first time in five years, I took two international trips, giving me a whopping total of 10 planes already taken this year. That constant movement has kept me sane. It’s the madness of travel that keeps me centered.

Do you prefer to travel for business, pleasure, or both?
I would not mind a lifestyle that affords my moving frequently. And, while vacations are fun, I would not want all of my travel to be rooted in pleasure alone. My latest trip to Amsterdam was around the middle of March of this year. As you mentioned at the outset, I traveled there to attend the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference and I was one of five ATCKs to be awarded the Pollock Scholarship, which covers our cost of attending. I was also one of the conference presenters! I was on the plenary panel led by Julia Simens, called “Stories You Need to Tell.” There was a strong sense of purpose and duty with my going to Amsterdam. While the city was gorgeous, it was not just a vacation for me. That is the kind of thing that I want to happen regularly in my life: traveling with a purpose beyond pleasure.

The Worlds Within

I can relate and I’m sure it will continue to happen for you. Per your site, Verily Merrily Mary, you’re involved in many worthy causes: you’ve worked with organizations that aim to encourage grade school kids to get excited about STEM fields, especially children from underrepresented groups. You also support and volunteer with organizations that empower cancer patients and cancer researchers. Last July, you received the title Miss Efik USA, and you advocate for the Nigerian Efik people who live in the United States as well as in Nigeria. Congratulations on these contributions and achievements! Is there anything else you would like to share?
I had the absolute honor to be published in the book The Worlds Within: An Anthology of TCK Art and Writing: Young, Global and Between Cultures, which was launched in 2014 as a way of giving children and adolescents a voice regarding their TCK experience.
Editor’s note: The Worlds Within made our Best of Expat Books for 2014.

 

* * *

Thank you, Mary. Readers: you may learn more about Mary, her writing, and her various projects at her Verily Merrily site. If you have any questions or comments for her, please be sure to leave them below.

Editor’s note: All photos were supplied by Mary Bassey or are from Pixabay, with the exception of the two FIGT conference photos, which are from their Facebook page. The quotes are from Mary’s posts on Verily Merrilly.

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is a prime example of what she writes about in this column: an Adult Third Culture Kid working in a creative field. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she is an actor, writer, and producer who created the solo show Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey, which has been touring internationally. And now she is working on another show, which we hope to hear more about soon! To keep up with Lisa’s progress in between her columns, be sure to visit her blog, Suitcasefactory. You can also follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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TCK TALENT: As 2016 approaches, Lisa Liang dares to dream big for her one-woman show, “Alien Citizen”

LisaLiang_onFilm

Photo credit (top right): Lights, camera, action! by Portable Antiquities Scheme via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

In a year that took her to Spain and South Africa for performances of her play Alien Citizen, columnist Lisa Liang is already making big plans for 2016. You go girl!

Hello, dear readers. This month’s column is devoted to my recent experience filming my one-woman show, Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey, in Los Angeles, California. The show is about growing up a TCK of mixed heritage.

Two years ago, I had Alien Citizen video-recorded so that I could

I had no budget and will be forever grateful to my friend, filmmaker Rod Bradley, for giving the video such high-caliber image quality. For readers who may be unfamiliar with my show, here is what we produced:

Taking it up a level

This year I wanted to film the show at an even higher level in order to…well, that’s the thing: I have many dreams for it. I want to sell it to individual customers and institutions. I also want to send it to the Sundance Channel, IFC, and PBS on the chance that they might like it enough to want to reshoot it as a “special” with a much higher budget. I would love for it to catch the attention of an off-Broadway producer who would give it a proper several-weeks run in Manhattan. I would love for it to inspire a studio to hire me to draft a screenplay or TV pilot based on it. I would love to get great stage and screen acting jobs from it. I would love for it to entice professional producers to come on board for my next solo show. I would love for it to get me great writing gigs.

I want a lot. I’m not sure how to pursue any of it. But I will try.

This all means that I need a filmed version that looks and sounds really good. So I took my ridiculously meager budget (at least I had a budget this time!) and rented a venue where years ago I was in the audience for the greatest live performance of a solo show I’ve ever seen.

Last month, at this tiny theatre, I produced as professional a film shoot as I could under the ultra-low-budget circumstances. We shot over two nights with two extremely high-end digital cameras on both nights—I got great deals on the cameras and equipment, largely thanks to my friend Rod again. I hired a DP (director of photography), a camera operator, and a professional sound recordist (who set up five microphones, including the lavalier attached to my sternum, for truly good sound quality).

My husband, Dan, ran the projections and sound cues, and I hired a stage manager to also hang lights, program the light board, and run lights.

My director, Sofie Calderon, worked tirelessly with the crew and me, having to “slate” the clapboard herself because we had no PA (production assistant) to do the job for her. She was wonderful.

Taking direction Alien Citizen

Director Sophie Calderon puts her all into helping Lisa Liang with the filming of Alien Citizen in November (photos supplied).

We had no audience on the first night when we shot close-ups and medium shots; we had a full audience on the second night of close-ups and wide shots.

This is what I’ll say about performing a solo show for cameras but without an audience, starting and stopping for technical and performance adjustments: it’s utterly exhausting. We were at the venue for a good eight hours that night and we must have shot for at least four-and-a-half of those hours. This meant that I had to perform alone for close to five hours. No costar to work off of, no audience to bounce off of, nobody but the silent cameras, the silent crew, and me. Mind you, doing the 80-minute show nonstop is already a tremendous workout. I always say it’s like doing a sprint triathlon while emoting—and I would know because I’ve done a sprint tri. So now imagine doing it for 270 minutes.

Gah!!!

Drama needs an audience

The next night’s shoot was much more fun, thanks to the warm, enthusiastic audience. They were mostly friends and friends-of-friends who were happy to be there, which made all the difference. I enjoyed myself and the performance felt “full.” We had to “hold” a few times due to sirens passing just outside the theatre—the bane of filming in a big city. But the audience was good humored and supportive throughout.

Afterward we had a Q&A moderated by one of my associate producers, Karen Smith, and people asked smart questions. I’ll include the Q&A on the DVD as an “extra” and maybe put it on YouTube as a promo. People stuck around for wine and goodies after that, and it was absolutely lovely to continue receiving support and enthusiasm well into the evening.

Alien Citizen Talkback

Associate producer Karen Smith conducts a talk back with Lisa and Sophie for a DVD “extra”; the lobby is decked out before the public show with an Alien Citizen backdrop for interviews later (photos supplied).

Have I mentioned that I performed with four injuries? I accidentally hurt my lower back in January, and the problem has flared up intermittently throughout the year. My left shoulder/neck area started bothering me over the summer. My right clavicle was injured accidentally at a chiropractic session for the first two injuries (!). And I hurt my right leg during a performance of an excerpt of the show in September. I’ve been doing all I can to take care of these problems: chiropractor, massage, acupuncture, cupping, at-home physical therapy, hot tub, you name it.

Stress with a capital “S”

So I can only think that the reason they all flared up (especially my back) with a vengeance in the weeks leading up to the shoot was: stress. It’s stressful to produce a film, even when it only shoots over two nights. If you’re the only actor in it, and it’s your “baby,” and you’re literally recording it for posterity, then the stress increases exponentially. So I felt more wrecked than usual on the mornings after both performances, and I laid low for a few days afterward. Luckily, Thanksgiving was soon upon us, so I used the holiday weekend as an excuse to stay in.

I look forward to editing the digital version of the show with my director’s input, and then sending it out into the world. The world has been very kind to Alien Citizen so far, so I’m allowing myself to hope for its future.

Meanwhile, my next live performance will be at Smith College on January 30, and my Asia-Pacific debut will be in Singapore in late April. The show still has legs and I’m so grateful to every single person who has supported it.

Since I’ve posted several entries about the show’s adventures in 2015, and you’ve been very indulgent of that, I’m pleased to announce that the first TCK Talent posting of the new year will be an interview of a wildly impressive creative ATCK. Happy holidays, all, and stay tuned!

* * *

Thank you, Lisa! It’s been quite a year for you and your solo show. I’m amazed you still had energy for a film shoot, especially given your injuries. You’re amazing! I think I speak for all the Displaced Nation readers in wishing the brightest of futures for Alien Citizen, in 2016…and beyond! —ML Awanohara

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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And the October 2014 Alices go to … these 3 international creatives

 © Iamezan | Dreamstime.com Used under license

© Iamezan | Dreamstime.com
Used under license

If you are a subscriber to our weekly newsletter, the Displaced Dispatch, you’re already in the know. But if you’re not, listen up. (Hey, why aren’t you? Off with your head!)

Every week, when that esteemed publication comes out, we present contenders for a monthly “Alice Award,” most of whom are writers or other kinds of international creatives who appear to have a special handle on the curious and unreal aspects of being a global resident or voyager.

Not only that, but this person tries to use this state of befuddlement as a spur to greater creative heights.

Today’s post hono(u)rs our three Alice recipients for October. They are (drumroll…):

2) Maya Kachroo-Levine, New Yorker in Los Angeles

For her post: “5 Things an East Coast Transplant Misses on the West Coast,” in Thought Catalog
Posted on: 15 October 2014

"But I'm not used to it!" pleaded poor Alice in a piteous tone. And she thought of herself, "I wish the creatures wouldn't be so easily offended!" "You'll get used to it in time," said the Caterpillar; and it put the hookah into its mouth and began smoking again. Photo credit: Arthur Rackham [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

“But I’m not used to it!” pleaded poor Alice in a piteous tone. And she thought of herself, “I wish the creatures wouldn’t be so easily offended!”
“You’ll get used to it in time,” said the Caterpillar; and it put the hookah into its mouth and began smoking again. Photo credit: Arthur Rackham [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Alice Connection:

[Y]ou occasionally find yourself feeling that your sarcasm is falling flat, and you want someone to appreciate it. Or better, you want them to argue with you. I miss that.

Citation: Maya, if you think navigating between East and West Coasts is bad in terms of sarcasm and irony, try the UK versus the USA. The former is a lot more irreverent, a difference can cause misunderstanding and even offense (not to mention homesickness for the perpetrator). You have our deepest condolences. What’s more, your point about having to drive two hours merely to go apple picking reminds us of Alice repeatedly trying to reach the garden at the top of the hill at the start of Through the Looking Glass. Likewise in your case it seems reasonable to ask: how hard can it be to reach a deciduous fruit tree? Thank you for your thoughtful (no pun or irony intended!) post. We wonder if the best way to endure this domestic culture shock would be to seek out a Caterpillar equivalent, who in the current California context would most likely manifest itself as a mindfulness guru. Until then, deep breathing; and, as one of that state’s more renowned self-help proponents used to say, try not to sweat the small stuff!

2) Sarah O’Meara, former lifestyle editor for Huffington Post UK turned China expat

Alice_in_Wonderland_by_Arthur_Rackham_The_Pool_of_Tears

It was high time to go, for the pool was getting quite crowded with the birds and animals that had fallen into it: there were a Duck and a Dodo, a Lory and an Eaglet, and several other curious creatures. Alice led the way, and the whole party swam to the shore. Photo credit: Arthur Rackham [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

For her post: “The art of swimming in China,” for Telegraph Expat
Posted on: 27 September 2014
Alice Connection:

Many young Chinese men prefer to conquer, rather than swim, in the water. They thrash their arms around, causing enough splash to choke fellow lane users, yet never quite enough to move them forward. While underneath the surface, their legs flail, neither acting as propellers or buoyancy aids.

Citation: Sarah, we have to say that after reading your wonderfully amusing post, we are still processing the image of women wearing pencil skirts walking very slowly on running machines in heels. Still, we commend your decision to focus not on Chinese sports centers but on the risks one faces “of being half-drowned by frothing waves, or hit in the face” when venturing into China’s public swimming pools. And, just as Alice concludes she may be better off swimming to shore, we applaud your solution to the problem. Joining a private pool, where, as you say, the proportion of non-swimmers is lower, must be much safer, even if you can never quite escape the young men who have adopted the walking and thrashing style of Mao crossing the Yangzte. (My, my. That Mao has a lot to answer for…)

3) Jenny Miller, NYC-based food and travel writer

For her post: “I Ate Tarantulas In Cambodia. And Liked It,” for Food Republic
Posted on: 23 September 2014

'—then you don't like all insects?' the Gnat went on, as quietly as if nothing had happened. 'I like them when they can talk,' Alice said. 'None of them ever talk, where I come from.' Photo credit: John Tenniel.Slatifs at en.wikipedia [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

“—then you don’t like all insects?’ the Gnat went on, as quietly as if nothing had happened.
“I like them when they can talk,” Alice said. “None of them ever talk, where I come from.” Photo credit: John Tenniel.Slatifs at en.wikipedia [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

Alice Connection:

We might have gone on sampling this towering insect buffet, but Megan made our excuses in Khmer and we walked down the road for an ice cream instead.

Citation: Jenny, we’ve got to hand it to you. What kind of traveler knows exactly what to say when, bumming around Southeast Asia, they find themselves on a bus sitting next to a Peace Corps volunteer named Megan who says she lives in Skuon, Cambodia? Only one who has read her Lonely Planet Cambodia guide from cover to cover! And then, as though being able to conduct a lively conversation with Megan about Skuon’s insect-eating habits were not enough, you take her up on her offer to visit and eat some tarantulas! Now that takes some guts, as you appear to realize once you reach “Cambodia’s spider central.” For sure, you show greater courage than poor Alice, who, upon being informed by the Gnat that a bread-and-butterfly is crawling at her feet, draws her feet back “in some alarm”. She certainly doesn’t think about eating it, even though, compared to your spiders, a bread-and-butterfly meal doesn’t sound half bad:

“Its wings are thin slices of bread, its body is a crust, and its head is a lump of sugar.”

Hmmm… Perhaps you should have read Lewis Carroll more thoroughly?

*  *  *

So, readers, do you have a favorite from the above, or have you read any recent posts you think deserve an Alice Award? We’d love to hear your suggestions! And don’t miss out on the shortlist of Alice contenders we provide in each week’s Dispatch, which are sources of creative thought if nothing else! Get on our subscription list now!

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

Writers and other international creatives: If you want to know in advance the contenders for our monthly Alice Award winners, sign up to receive The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with news of book giveaways, future posts, and of course, our weekly Alice Award!. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: JJ Marsh looks back on a year with TDN

jill 3One year ago, Displaced Nation asked me to conduct a series of regular interviews with writers on their use of location. Place is vitally important to my writing and that of my colleagues at  Triskele Books . It’s our USP. After a year of interviews with authors from Brazil, America, South Africa, Ireland, France, India, Hungary/China, I’m looking back.

First, I’ve selected ten of favourite answers, on how these writers approach weaving literary magic carpets to transport readers to Bombay or Berlin, Syria or Odessa.
Secondly, I’ve added five of the most books that held me spellbound; works which make place a character in its own right.

Happy Anniversary!

Which came first, story or location?

 Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis:
“I knew Narcopolis would be set in Bombay. I started with that city and that period in mind. It was about telling a story that hadn’t been told before, in a way that Indian fiction doesn’t really tell stories. Unsentimental, brutal and beautiful. When I realised that was what the book would be like, it revealed itself to me.”

Charlotte Otter, author of Balthasar’s Gift:
“The two are intertwined. When the first images began to flash in my head more than eight years ago, the setting was immediately clear: my home town in South Africa, Pietermaritzburg. BV is a post-apartheid novel and PMB is struggling to become an effective post-apartheid city. It was the natural setting for the story that was starting to unspool before me.”

 

How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?

Chris Pavone, author of The Expats and The Accident:
“I love walking around cities, looking around at the architecture and the shops and the restaurants, at the people and their pet. My characters do the same, using all their senses to inhabit the world around them. Of course walking around, in and of itself, isn’t the type of action that does much to drive a plot forward, so characters should also be doing something else while walking around. Something such as spying.”

JD Smith, author of Tristan and Iseult, and The Rise of Zenobia:
“With great difficulty. In writing Tristan and Iseult I evoked the wet and wind the British know only too well. I’ve always lived on the coast, though in the north, not Cornwall (Kernow), but those salt winds and perpetually grey skies are the same. The Rise of Zenobia is based in 3rd century Syria, and I’m finding that much harder. I didn’t grow up with the atmosphere ingrained in me. I haven’t spent years of my childhood visiting the remains, the palaces and the fortifications. I rely on films a lot. Being a designer I’m an incredibly visual person, and seeing it played out, filmed in the locations I’m trying to conjure on the written page, helps immensely.”

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

Amanda Hodgkinson, author of Spilt Milk:
“All those but also I find the light is important. I adore Edward Hopper’s paintings for his use of light and I find writing can experiment in a similar way with light, creating mystery or clarity and deepening character.”

Janet Skeslien Charles, author of Moonlight in Odessa:
“For me, it is how characters react to situations. Odessa is the humor capital of the former Soviet Union, which means that my characters use humor as a shield to ward off painful situations. Odessans are capable of laughing at things that would make me bawl. Their mental toughness is impressive. So for me, the sense of city is the sense of self.”

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

Steven Conte, author of The Zookeeper’s War:
“With skill, only moderately well, though it’s probably wise to minimise the difference between your characters’ supposed knowledge of a setting and your own. This aside, the best fiction implies more than it states (Hemingway’s iceberg principle), and a few vivid details can be enough to evoke an entire town or city or region. I’d recommend not writing about famous landmarks, since locations such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Eiffel Tower and the Brandenburg Gate will remain clichés of place however brilliantly they might be described.”

AD Miller, author of Snowdrops:
“You need to know it, and then you need to unknow it. A novel isn’t a travelogue or an encyclopaedia; you enlist only those aspects or details of a place that serve the narrative.”

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

James Ferron Anderson, author of The River and the Sea:
“Charles Dickens in Chapter Three of Great Expectations uses the weather to bring alive his location when Pip runs in the morning to meet Magwitch. ‘The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me.’ Wonderful stuff that took me to that location so effectively I still picture it. Anton Chekhov is marvellous for both countryside and city. Yalta is so alive, so liveable-in, in Lady With a Lapdog. W.G. Sebald, not a favourite writer of mine, is nevertheless someone whose ability to put me in his location I much admire.”

Share an extract from your work which illustrates place.

Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist and Eleven Minutes, on Geneva’s Water Fountain:

“Our body is almost completely made of water through which electric charges pass to convey information. One such piece of information is called Love, and this can interfere in the entire organism. Love changes all the time. I think that the symbol of Geneva is the most beautiful monument to Love yet conceived by any artist.”

Books I’d recommend for use of location:

* * *

In next month’s Location, Locution, our guest will be Jessica Bell, an Australian expat living in Greece, who writes fiction, advice for authors, and makes music too.

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

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Author photo: J J Marsh

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Charlotte Otter – South African expat and crime writer living in Germany

charlotte otter

Author photo: Charlotte Otter

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Charlotte Otter, a South African crime writer who lives in Germany.

Charlotte has worked as a writer since leaving university. Balthasar’s Gift is her first novel. It was published in Germany in 2013 as as Balthasars Vermaechtnis, by Argument Verlag mit Ariadne, a Hamburg publisher that focuses on crime fiction by women. It is also available as an e-book, published by Culturbooks. The English version will be published in June 2014 by South Africa’s Modjaji Books.

Charlotte blogs at Charlotte’s Web and takes coffee breaks on Twitter (@charlwrites). She is presently working on her second novel – an eco-conspiracy called Karkloof Blue.

When she is not thinking up ways to kill people, Charlotte is a corporate hack, mother of three, reader, traveller, feminist and optimist. She is happily married to the love of her life.

Check out her author site.

* * *

Which comes first, story or location?
The two are intertwined. When the first images for Balthasars Vermaechtnis began to flash in my head more than eight years ago, the setting was immediately clear: my home town in South Africa, Pietermaritzburg, often informally abbreviated as PMB. BV is a post-apartheid novel and PMB is struggling to become an effective post-apartheid city. It was the natural setting for the story that was starting to unspool before me.

How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I wrote a blog post a few years ago called I am from, and someone said to me they would love to read a novel with those elements in. I realised that my childhood memories of monkeys in the garden, chameleons on a bush and eating granadillas off the vine were not everyone’s memories and that some of them could be put to good use in landscaping a novel.

Which particular features create a sense of location? You’ve mentioned animals and fruits. Is it landscape, culture, food, all of the above?
All of the above. However, as I’m sure all writers say, they have to serve the story. The elements of location have to be sprinkled through the story with a light hand, serving to shine a light on the narrative and not distracting from it. Huge chunks of location, just like huge chunks of ill-disguised research, serve to pull the reader out of the story and that’s the last thing a writer wants. I try to be sparing and frugal with my detail, but at the same time apt. Location details are highlighters or amplifiers of the core narrative, never the story itself.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
In my case, I knew it very well. I would never be brave enough to set a novel in a place I didn’t know, because I would be nervous about making mistakes and looking like an idiot. For me authenticity is everything.

Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?

The city centre hummed with Saturday shoppers carrying glistening bags full of summer bargains from the fashion palaces on Church Street, gangs of teenagers flirting with each other, pavement hairdressers giving people their weekend dos. Radios blared, taxis hooted and added to the chaos by swerving across lanes, risking the lives of their passengers and all pedestrians. She dodged one self-styled ‘Road Warrior’ and swore. The driver leant out of his window and winked at her. ‘Calm down.’ Was this a message from the universe? Or had all the town’s taxi drivers ganged up to irritate her with their insistence on her remaining serene and tranquil?”

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I think Barbara Kingsolver is a master of location. She is the best nature writer I know and she mostly sets her novels in rural surroundings. She does an incredible job of evoking a sense of place through her deep, abiding love of nature.

I Am From
I am from Africa. I am from blue skies, tropical breezes, and sunshine on my back. I am from tall trees that throw great shadows. I am from monkeys in the garden and a chameleon on a bush. I am from mountains that rarely see snow, beaches with huge waves, sharks behind the shoreline. I am from banana plants, sugar-cane and mealies. I am from huge moths and flying ants. I am from humidity, from thunderstorms that build up as black towers in the sky, and rain so hard it hurts my skin.

I am from eating outside. I am from the intense smell of a slightly under-ripe naartjie that I pick from its tree, dig open with dirty fingernails, and devour despite the sourness. I am from plucking granadillas off the vine and greedily sucking the juice. I am from braai meat, salad and crunchy white rolls. I am from mussels gathered from the sea.

I am from lucky beans. I am from a hoary old magnolia tree that bursts forth luscious, vanilla-scented blooms that decorate the Christmas table. I am from a red-brick house that looks out over trees and a hot town. I am from black and white tiles that cool hot summer feet. I am from the smell of dogs being washed. I am from the sound of Zulu hymns as I fall asleep.

I am from Marmite sandwiches. I am from a schoolbag digging into my shoulder as I walk home. I am from the smell of an over-chlorinated swimming-pool in my wet hair. I am from giggling. I am from eating all the cookie mixture. I am from marathon card games. I am from the thwack of tennis balls. I am from kissing boys.

I am from little brothers playing cricket on the lawn. I am from long car journeys. I am from beach holidays. I am from sand in my hair, from fairy gardens and dreaming I can fly. I am from blonde people. I am from children go to bed early. I am from fragrant grandmothers and laughing aunts. I am from a funny dad. I am from a little brother who shared my nightmares. I am from a mother who said, “You can do anything.”

Where are you from?

* * *

Next month’s Location, Locution:  Incredibly, it is now a year since Jill wrote her first “Location, Locution” column! In next month’s post, Jill will pick some of her favorite responses from her interviewees.

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

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Author photo: J J Marsh

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: James Ferron Anderson, weaver, glassblower, soldier – and award-winning novelist

Author photo – James Ferron Anderson

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews James Ferron Anderson, author of  The River and The Sea.

James was born in Northern Ireland, and worked there as a weaver, glassblower and soldier. He eventually had children, moved to Norwich, UK, studied at UEA, and began to write in different forms, including poetry, short stories, plays and, more recently, novels. One of his first short stories, The Bog Menagerie, won the Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award. He won an Escalator Award winner for I Still Miss Someone, and a Writers’ Centre Free Reads Award winner. The River and The Sea won the Rethink Press New Novels Award in 2012, and was published in November 2012.

The River and The Sea is set in British Columbia. James is currently working on Terminal City, set in Vancouver. While he’s visited British Columbia and Vancouver many times (his once estranged brother lives there, but that’s another story) he has never lived there.

Visit his website at jamesferronanderson.com.

Which came first, story or location?
Location, and more so as I continue to write. I’ll stick with Terminal City, the novel I am currently working on, but it applies equally to The River and The Sea. I was already studying the history of British Columbia, and focusing on Vancouver, when I read that Errol Flynn had died there. It was the human touch that caught my attention: once flamboyant athletic actor reduced, much against his will, to selling his last possession of any worth, his yacht. Shattered, riddled with diseases, looking like seventy instead of the fifty he actually was, he dies. But if my head had not already been filled with images of Vancouver from its lumber town days in the early 1900s to its evolution into the city of glass it is today I may not have found myself, I would say unintentionally, making up stories based around a Flynn-type character.

Politics and mores are as an integral part of a location as are its streets or hills. It was what I knew of the political aspects of this West Coast city in the 30s and 40s that determined that Terminal City would be a crime story. I wanted that mixture of danger and timidity that noir provides: the lure of the forbidden and the pulling back from it. I’d say location determined the form, feel and nature of the book. The rest was my regular desire to tell stories of how people need each other, hate each other, love each other and dispense with each other.

Simply put, it begins with location, finding an interesting event and/or person in that location when I’m not knowingly looking, and getting hooked.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I think finding myself writing a story set in Vancouver (and it felt like finding more than choosing) was a just a wonderful gift. For a start, almost no one in the book was born in the city. They have a past at variance with their present, having come there from across the world for their own purposes. They are testing it, examining it, seeing what they can get from it. Will they be satisfied with what they’ve found? With the people they become over the twenty years of living there from 1939 to 1959? It makes the city, like the Thompson River in The River and The Sea, a protagonist in the book.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
Vancouver is a mild-weather city with plenty of rain. For noir it knocks LA into a cocked hat. It’s a city on a great bay so there are beaches, ships pass in and out visibly and constantly, there are well-forested and, for large parts of the year, snowy mountains rearing up just across Burrard Inlet. The wild and magnificent outdoors is no more than half an hour away, even in 1959.

Vancouver is a port, and more culturally mixed than an interior city. It’s in the far west of the continent: the final destination, like it or not, for the drifter or seeker after a better life. A large Asian presence leant, certainly in the period of which I am writing, a feeling of tension to nightlife, whether justified or not. My desire to use all that shaped the story.

Buildings matter. I have old all-wood housing from when Vancouver first laid down its streets side by side with the rise of its first multi-storey offices: a city in flux, home to people from elsewhere, also in flux, looking for roots and stability, looking for meaning too in the aftermath of a war.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
I couldn’t imagine locating a story in a place I didn’t know well. I was relishing knowing Vancouver more and more anyway. To set a novel there was an excuse to know it better again, from visiting, diving into the City Archives on-line, to examining Google Earth Street View for hours. Plenty, then. I want to make what I write correct as well as relevant to the story. That doesn’t mean that very much of what I know has to go on the page. I read a comment that Colm Toibin in writing his novel on Henry James, The Master, wore his learning lightly. I want to know everything that’s relevant, and more, and use it lightly. The tip of the iceberg theory.

There are tricks also. Why would a local person wonder or remark on anything like the view or the tram tracks in the streets? I feel description has to grow out of incident and dialogue in the narrative. The first person narrator of Terminal City has, in the 1939 scenes, only lived in Vancouver for a year and is still coming to terms with it. He can wonder and notice and remark a little more freely and yet, hopefully, realistically. In 1959 he can reflect on changes, good and bad.

Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?

The River and The SeaFrom The River and The Sea:

‘Snow was falling and visibility down to a few feet. We stopped in the afternoon and managed to light a fire and had tea and sugar. In a break in the snow Harry saw a raven. That meant there were caribou, and on the move.’

‘It did, did it?’

‘For a certainty, Harry said. We crossed a frozen lake, for easier walking, and came back onto the river. The wind was unrelenting. Even on the lake it took us four hours to make a couple of miles.’ Edward drank his tea. This was the most talking any of us had done for a long time. ‘We found a little clump of spruce. We ate some of the hide matting for the first time, but neither of us slept from the cold and the need to keep the fire going.’

It’s a narrative told to inform someone else and, almost incidentally, informs the reader. The intention was to convey their location as a site of cold, hunger and desperation, but it had to be an integral part of the story, not a piece of description standing to one side.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Charles Dickens in Chapter Three of Great Expectations uses the weather to bring alive his location when Pip runs in the morning to meet Magwitch.The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me.’ Wonderful stuff that took me to that location so effectively I still picture it. Anton Chekhov is marvellous for both countryside and city. Yalta is so alive, so liveable-in, in Lady With a Lapdog. W.G. Sebald, not a favourite writer of mine, is nevertheless someone whose ability to put me in his location I much admire.

 

Next month’s Location, Locution:  Jill interviews Charlotte Otter, South African author – now living in Germany, whose homeland provides fertile fictional soil.

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

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Author photo: J J Marsh

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Andrea Cheng, award-winning children’s author

Author photo: Andrea Cheng

Author photo: Andrea Cheng

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Andrea Cheng, award-winning author of  books for children and young adults.  

Cheng’s first novel, Marika, was selected by the city of Cincinnati for “On the Same page,” a citywide reading program.  Honeysuckle House, Anna the Bookbinder, and Shanghai Messenger received Parent’s Choice Awards.  Grandfather Counts was featured on Reading Rainbow. Where the Steps Were, the first book that Cheng has both written and illustrated, received starred reviews in both Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus. The Year of the Book, a Junior Library Guild selection, was reviewed in the NY Times and was followed by The Year of the Baby (2013 May). Cheng’s most recent title is Etched in Clay.

Some of Cheng’s books draw on her background as the child of Hungarian immigrants as well as the background of her husband, the son of immigrants from China. Others draw on the lives of her children growing up in inner city Cincinnati where she and her husband now live.  Andrea studied Chinese at Cornell University where she received a Masters degree in linguistics.  She and her family have traveled to both Budapest and Shanghai to get to know their extended families.

Which came first, story or location?
I think character comes first in my writing, followed by location, atmosphere, etc.  Plot or ‘story” come later.  I usually start with a character at a particularly salient moment in a specific place, and go from there.

Year of the Book

Cover art: The Year of the Book, by Andrea Cheng

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I have to have spent a fair amount of time in a place before I can evoke the atmosphere.  I have to know how it smells and tastes and looks and feels.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
Everything!  I think I focus a lot on language, the way people talk. I think it would be very hard for me to write a story that takes place in a location in which I cannot speak the native language of the people who live there.

Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?
This is from my chapter book called THE YEAR OF THE FORTUNE COOKIE, coming out with Houghton Mifflin in May 2014.  It is for grades 3-6.  The main character, Ana Wang, is in Beijing:

It starts to rain.  The sky is almost dark, and the air smells like gasoline and charcoal.  We turn down an ally and wind our way behind some buildings.  “This is my home,” Fan says finally, opening a door with her key.

Inside the light is dim.  Her brother is watching television and her mother is cooking on a hot plate.  “This is my friend from America,” Fan says.  

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
I have to have spent time in the place and I have to understand the language of the people there.  The more time the better.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I just read Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel, Lowland.  Although I think the book has some problems, I love her sense of place.

Next month’s Location, Locution:  Jill interviews James Ferron Anderson – weaver, glassblower, soldier, and now writer.

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

_(75_of_75)

Author photo: J J Marsh

STAY TUNED for our next post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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TCK TALENT: Lisa Liang performs “Alien Citizen” before fellow aliens

Alien Citizen Collage_dropshadowThis month Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang takes a break from interviewing fellow Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields, to tell us about what it was like to perform her one-woman show about being a TCK as the closing keynote at last month’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference.

Hello again, Displaced Nationers! I was excited and anxious about performing my solo show, ALIEN CITIZEN: An Earth Odyssey, as the closing keynote at the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference, held March 21-23 in Virginia.

Excited because the FIGT audience comprises ATCKs, global nomads, TCK parents, and various professionals (cross-cultural experts, therapists, school administrators, etc.) who help expat families with issues specific to their lifestyles—in other words, my target audience. I hoped that if conference participants liked the show, it could lead to more bookings.

But if I was excited, I was also anxious. What if my work didn’t resonate with the FIGT crowd? That would signal a massive failure on my part as performer/writer.

On the other hand, what if it resonated with them too much? Maybe the FIGT participants would be looking for something light-hearted by the end of two-and-a-half days. While my show uses humor, it also goes to some dark places. Would it make people uncomfortable?

Of course I never know how my shows will be received, but I felt more was at stake at FIGT. As with other performances, I wanted people to laugh, but I also wanted them to be moved.

* * *

Here’s what happened:

1) The audience was quiet at first. I couldn’t tell if they were bored or listening intently—we were in a ballroom and I was on a platform, not close enough to see anyone’s expression. But I didn’t want to lose sight of the storytelling so charged ahead as usual.

2) To my relief, they started laughing at the right places, including lines I like but that don’t always get laughs, such as:

“So I sit in the back until I make friends with another misfit. Also known as an Australian.”

3) They listened intently. I began to realize this about twenty minutes in, which gave me the confidence to tweak some lines. The majority of the audience were my generation and older, so I sensed that if I said “I first fell in love with [Clark Gable] when I saw Judy Garland sing to him in THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT on our Betamax,” they would laugh. Normally I say “on video” because anyone younger than I am has no idea what a Betamax is.

4) I got a standing ovation as soon as the lights came up at the end. It felt warm and sincere and lasted a while.

The keynote of my keynote: Special effects

I hoped the FIGT audience would be pleasantly surprised by the show’s video projections and sound effects, since those are unusual elements in a conference setting.

Everything I attended at the conference was fascinating and of excellent quality. But my piece was something else, something purely theatrical. At the show’s beginning, the room fades to darkness as you hear David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and then see a projection of the moon flashing past the Earth. The lights come up and I’m standing on the platform with kooky headgear and a bobbly alien headband, grinning at you.

Showtime!

One of my favorite memories of the whole experience was the Q2Q (or cue-to-cue) rehearsal the day before. The hotel staff were busy setting tables and preparing for the following day’s events. Several of them seemed bemused as they watched me performing excerpts so that the projections and sound cues could be rehearsed.

My brother John was my techie, running the cues off of my laptop in the back of the room while telling the hotel’s A/V technician when to fade down/up the lights.

John hadn’t worked in a theatre booth in something like 25 years, but you would never have guessed. And as my brother was taking on the mantle of stage manager/techie, the A/V guy started telling us how he could do some sound mixing during a tricky part of the show.

Then another hotel staffer offered to give me some background lighting to enhance the effect, until the A/V guy told him it wouldn’t be possible to run light cues, so the staffer said he could at least set up the lights to have a nice glow for me from the start.

To our delight, there were showbiz folks among the hotel staff. They loved having something to do other than give people mikes and set tables and were jazzed about what they saw, which boosted my confidence.

After the show, shows of emotion and gratitude

My brother said that when the lights came up there were people who were trying to compose themselves before they stood for the ovation. For the next half hour, people came up to thank me. Some talked at length about how the show affected them, while others just gave me big hugs. A few ATCKs with swollen eyes lodged a complaint: they felt it should have been mandatory to have a box of tissues at every table!

I recall one woman thanking me for “coming out” with my painful adolescent experiences, saying she had experienced the same when growing up in a foreign country.

Another one said the show had changed her mind about theatre—she had no idea it could be moving and transformative. That’s a compliment to my director, Sofie Calderon, who made the show far more dynamic than I could on my own.

Several parents of TCKs told me the show had given them a lot to think about, and one said she could now appreciate some of the issues she ought to be dealing with on behalf of her kids.

To my relief given my initial trepidations, the response was overwhelmingly positive. I also felt, and continue to feel, gratified that people have continued discussing their impressions on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and email. This confirmed what I’ve learned since the world premiere and through the show’s international tour: the story is relatable and interesting; it’s a testament to TCKs’ strength; and if a story is told with humor, people will listen to the darker side of it, and empathize.

As I had hoped, FIGT has led to a new booking: I’m performing excerpts at the gala dinner for the World Bank Family Network, to be held in Washington, DC, on May 13. That’s right after my San Francisco premiere at the United States of Asian America Festival, sponsored by the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center, on May 10.

Hey, if the show has antennae, it also has legs!

Also, since I posted about ALIEN CITIZEN: An Earth Odyssey a year ago on the Displaced Nation, my dream of taking it Off Off Broadway came true this past September. And my goal to take it on the college circuit has come to fruition: I’ve performed the show or excerpts at Princeton, M.I.T., and CSULA, and today, April 10th, I’m taking it to my alma mater, Wesleyan University.

Another desire of mine was to perform the show at international schools, and this, too, is beginning to be fulfilled: right after FIGT, I performed excerpts at two international schools and the U.S. Embassy in Panama.

I’ve also led workshops on how to create a solo show / memoir / personal essay at Princeton, CSULA, FIGT (in 2013 and 2014), and in private classes in Los Angeles.

I’m astonished, thrilled, and humbled by the show’s life and hope to take it all over the world.

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Thank you, Lisa! Your experience at the FIGT conference sounds out of this world (figuratively as well as literally), and it’s wonderful to hear news of all the progress you’ve made since this time last year, when we first “discovered” your talent! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Lisa below.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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