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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: In Shireen Jilla’s second novel, a group of old friends go on safari and unpack their lives

Booklust Wanderlust column for the Displaced Nation

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

Hello Displaced Nationers! Do I have a treat in store for you this month! Shireen Jilla, whose 2011 psychological thriller, Exiled, was previously featured on the Displaced Nation, is with us again. She has written a new novel, The Art of Unpacking Your Life, which came out in March, and has graciously agreed to answer my questions about her latest work.

Shireen Jilla author photo and book cover for her second novel, The Art of Unpacking Your Life

Shireen Jilla author photo, by Francesco Guidicini (from her author site); cover art.

The book made our list of anticipated “displaced reads” for 2015. For those not in the know, it tells the story of what happens when an Englishwoman named Connie decides to celebrate her 40th birthday by organizing a group of her old university friends and their partners to go on an African safari.

But if Connie is the main character, she is not the only point-of-view character. She functions as the heart of the group—but, as we soon learn, doesn’t seem to manage her own affairs very well. To quote one of my favorite lines from the book:

“Connie was brilliant at life’s details, particularly other people’s life details.”

We all know someone like that, don’t we?

Many authors stick to similar genres and even similar stories but in her two books, Jilla has explored very different places and themes. Where Exiled is a thriller akin to Rosemary’s Baby—it centers on Anna, a British expat leading a privileged life in New York—Unpacking is The Big Chill set in an exotic landscape. Anna may feel isolated within the bustle of the Big Apple, but Unpacking‘s characters are faced with the Kalahari Desert, the kind of place where one must unpack one’s life, finding strengths as well as weaknesses.

Both stories are informed by Jilla’s own travels. An adult TCK and former expat, she has lived in Paris, Rome, and New York as an adult; and in Germany, Holland and England as a kid. (She is now back “home” in London.) And as a traveler, she has experienced firsthand the dry, unusual beauty of the South African bush she describes in Unpacking.

But enough introduction! Time to give Shireen Jilla the floor.

* * *

Hi, Shireen, and welcome back to the Displaced Nation. When we discussed your previous novel, you told us about how the cityscape of New York lent itself to writing a thriller. What made you go from New York’s hustle bustle to the stark, sparse landscape you describe in The Art of Unpacking Your Life? Why the Kalahari?
I had the characters in my mind for a long time. I wanted to explore my generation’s surprisingly disparate lives: single, divorced, gay, with children, successful, jobless. I needed them to be away from home, from their daily lives, unnerved and unsure and therefore open to exploring their issues. I tried setting the book in Sardinia because I know it well. But it wasn’t remote or dramatic enough to force them to “unpack” their problems. When I stepped out of an eight-seater plane into the vast orange heat of the Green Kalahari, I knew I had found my setting.

“Everything in Africa bites—but the safari bug, worst of all.” —Brian Jackman

Tell us more about that moment. I understand from another of your interviews that you went to the Kalahari with your brother?
Yes. My brother generously took me on what can only be called a trip of a lifetime to a private reserve, Tswalu, in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, bang near the border of Botswana. I had never been to Africa before. So my own experience of this extraordinary trip coloured my story in Unpacking. I was surprisingly drawn to the Kalahari.

Connie and her friends started out in the same place—in a shared house at university—but when the book takes place, they’re all at different places in their lives and don’t appear to have much in common any more. One is a happy housewife, or so she thinks, another feels like success has passed her by both professionally and romantically, others want to start a family, while still others are recuperating from seeing their families crumble. Many books are written from the point of view of a single character, but you give us a glimpse into the thoughts of six multi-layered characters. Was it difficult to imagine how all these people would react to the same events—how they would react to travel?
Thank you for asking this question. It touches the heart of the novel. I wanted to tell this story from the point of view of each of the main six characters because I am fascinated by how differently people read, and react to, the same events. I was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which roams from character to character, from paragraph to paragraph. That said, I wasn’t keen to jump around that much, so each chapter in Unpacking is told from a different character’s point of view. I loved writing the same scene from different points of view. It gave me a great sense of freedom.

“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno…” —Beryl Markham

Many of our readers are international creatives, so I’m asking this with them in mind: how do you capture inspiration while you travel? 

“Instead they snapped away, looking up periodically from their cameras, as if undecided whether photo memories or physical ones were more powerful.”

This line in Unpacking reflects my own feelings. While in Africa, I kept a detailed diary and took hundreds of photos, a selection of which are on my author’s site. Having started life as a journalist, I also bought books and talked extensively to the guides. I used all of this material for Unpacking, which I believe is faithful to the actual setting.

In the book, Connie and her group have a very dramatic encounter with one of the animals in the park and the friends’ various reactions reveal their state of mind. Did you have any big-animal encounters during your Africa adventure? 
Thankfully not! The scene was imagined.

Giraffe & Namibian sand Collage

A silent, self-contained Kalahari giraffe and blood orange sands make it into Shireen Jilla’s novel about a group of friends on an African safari. Photo credits: Male giraffe, by Charles Sharp, and Silhouettes in Sossusvlei, by Monica Guy, both via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

“The more I traveled, the more I realized, fear makes strangers of people who should be friends.” —Shirley MacLaine

As I mentioned in the introduction, you grew up a Third Culture Kid and you’ve also been an expat. Is there anything from your experiences living abroad as a child and an adult that worked its way into this book?
From own experience, I am acutely interested in how people react to being outside their comfort zone. Living or traveling abroad is a very visceral way of exploring this theme. With Unpacking, I wanted to place a group of close friends, who haven’t traveled extensively, into a remote, unnerving location. For me, it gives the novel its heartbeat.

I’m an Adult Third-Culture Kid, too (and an expat currently), and one of the things that I found remarkable in this book is the close cohesion of a group of people who met at an early stage of their adult lives—not always something we TCKs can find! I’m curious. Do you have a group of friends like Connie’s?
Actually, I have a varied and disparate group of old friends from many places and stages in my life. What I drew on in Unpacking is the notion that one can still feel intensely loyal to old friends, despite growing in different directions. But no, I’ve never planned a big trip with old friends as Connie does.

I noticed that within the group of friends you’ve created, there are two cross-cultural relationships. I enjoyed watching the conflicts from their opposing cultures arise in their relationships. Was this something you set out to capture from the beginning?
This is an interesting question. I haven’t consciously created two cross-cultural relationships. But I am clearly fascinated by and drawn to them. I loved writing both relationships, particularly exploring the cultural misunderstandings between the English friends and New Yorker Katherine.

“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” —Seneca

So far you’ve given us two great books based on interesting locations—New York and South Africa. What’s next? Will you follow up with Connie and her friends in another novel? Take your readers on a new adventure somewhere else?
I’m normally adverse to sequels, but I would actually love to write another novel based on the same characters. I’m not ready to let any of them go. I am deeply attached to them all. And I would also enjoy the challenge of another new setting abroad. It’s like moving country. Always exciting.

Lastly, my favorite question for everyone—what are you reading at the moment? Any suggestions for good books that might appeal to the Displaced Nation audience?
I am currently reading New York writer Hilary Reyl’s Lessons in French. The novel is an absorbing coming-of-age story about an American girl who does work experience with a demanding photographer in Paris. It’s an evocative, lyrical read for all expats. Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, is another addictive page turner that lights up a poor working class community in fifties Naples.

Thanks, Shireen, I’ll check those out! And readers, if you’re selecting books for your summer reading list, I suggest you pack Unpacking in your beach bag! Or on your Kindle, more likely… 🙂

Beach bag via Pixabay.

Don’t go to the beach without Shireen’s book and at least one of her recommended reads! Beach bag via Pixabay; book cover art.

* * *

And now Displaced Nationers, it’s your turn to answer some questions. And have you ever tried traveling with friends? Did you pick up any insights about them and/or about yourself? Do let us know in the comments!

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

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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Photo credit (top of page): “Notebook in hand,” by Oleh Slobodeniuk via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

RANDOM NOMAD: Jennifer Lentfer, International Aid Consultant, Writer & Blogger

Born in: Bruning, Nebraska USA
Passports: USA
Countries, states, cities lived in: Zimbabwe (Mutare & Harare): 1999 & 2002-04; Michigan (Detroit): 1999-2000; Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh): 2000-2002; Namibia (Windhoek): a few months in 2001; Malawi (Lilongwe): 2004-05; California (Santa Cruz): 2005-10; Washington, DC: two weeks ago-present.
Cyberspace coordinates: How Matters | Aid effectiveness is not what we do, but HOW we do it (blog); @intldogooder (Twitter handle)

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
I grew up on a pig farm in Bruning, Nebraska, population 248. The graduating class of my secondary school had 16 people. Every time the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is uttered, I think “If only they really knew…” Thinking back, there were two very important teachers, one in high school, and another at university, who were extremely influential in shaping and expanding my world view. And my parents certainly raised me to cultivate a curiosity about life. This, along with my insatiable, youthful desire to get as far away from Nebraska as possible, was a combustible mix that shaped my career and life path.

Is anyone else in your family a “displaced” person?
I was the first person in my family to go or live abroad. I don’t think I even knew anyone who had been to Africa before my first trip abroad, at age 19.

Describe the moment when you felt most displaced.
On the bustling Nelson Mandela Avenue in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2003. I always hated driving to city centre, but a colleague and I had to go to the immigration office to update our work permits. When we came out of the office, our car was blocked by another on the street. So we just got into the car and waited.

Eventually a man came up my driver’s side window and tapped on the glass. Not knowing him, I rolled the window down a couple of inches. This seemed to anger him and he walked away to talk to another man, a companion of his, who started yelling out to walkers-by that this white woman [me] would not roll down my window — I must think Africans are “stinky,” on and on… Luckily people didn’t engage him. There was a dynamic going on that I didn’t understand — apparently, I had parked in the man’s space, and he felt justified in scolding and harassing me for that.

After a few more minutes, the original man came back to my window, pulled out his wallet and his War Veterans identification card, placed it up against the glass and menacingly dragged it across. And then it made sense. The card, along with the man’s demeanor, indicated that he was probably one of the veterans of Zimbabwe’s war for independence, who’d been recruited by the Mugabe government for help in brutally suppressing opposition demonstrations, in murdering and torturing opposition leaders, and in seizing land on behalf of the government elite.

Eventually, the man had had enough with me. He motioned for the car behind me to move, and I backed out and drove away very quickly.

Obviously, my experience that day was nothing compared to the very real and severe political violence and torture experienced then and now by Zimbabwe’s opposition supporters. If I felt displaced, imagine how black and white Zimbabweans felt who were violently displaced from their lands on behalf of so-called fast-track land resettlement. And on another level, my experience was nothing compared to the everyday torments of living in a country where in a sense everyone (war veterans included) has been displaced from a state of personal dignity and safety, through subtle yet deliberate expressions of power.

Describe the moment when you felt least displaced.
Also in Zimbabwe — when talking with a group of local leaders in 2008. We were sharing stories about the issues women face in their struggles to raise families and improve their communities. One woman shared a brilliant story of triumph from being a physically and emotionally abused wife to now owning her own hairdressing business. She cried as she bravely told us about her life, and many others shared her tears.

Because I was there as a visitor, I was expected to respond (through a translator), and I took a chance in trying to break the tension and make the moment a bit lighter. I told her that I could tell she was a hairdresser because her plaits [braids] looked so perfect.

After the pause in which the translator shared what I had said, the room erupted in laughter. We were all reminded, no matter where we were from, of the sweetness of laughter through tears.

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of your adopted countries into the Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
I had quite the African basket collection going for a while until they were stolen from my storage unit in Santa Cruz. That’s all the thieves got since I was in the process of moving at the time. Their house probably looks really cool now.

You’re invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other Displaced Nation members. What’s on the menu?
Peanut butter vegetable stew is what I crave — from Zimbabwe. Let me know which of these recipes you fancy:

You may add one word or expression from the countries you’ve lived in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
Zvakaoma. This is a phrase in Shona that means, “it’s tough” or “it’s difficult.” It also roughly translates to “shucks” in English or “c’est la vie” in French. It was a phrase I heard often in Zimbabwe because of the severe economic downturn and the unavailability of basic commodities and cash during my time there. To my ears, it was a very compassionate phrase. Zvakaoma — I lament with you; I feel your frustration and pain. Sometimes a well-timed zvakaoma can get you through your day.

This month we are looking into “philanthropic displacement” — when people travel or become expats on behalf of helping others less fortunate than themselves. Do you have a role model you look up to when engaged in this kind of travel — whose words of advice you remember when you find yourself in a difficult situation?
Great question — one that we aid workers should always be asking themselves as well, because how we go about developing our role or calling can have an impact on our effectiveness as helpers. Helping is hard. Unfortunately, there aren’t any simple solutions to aiding the poor.

Having worked in international aid and philanthropy for over a decade, I’ve come to admire the people who have managed not to totally lose their idealism and commitment to the work. So many aid workers become jaded and cynical — I can’t help but wonder if this hinders their effectiveness in the field.

In addition, I really look up to the leaders of local nonprofits and grassroots organizations in the countries where I’ve worked. I’ve had the privilege of working with over three hundred such groups in southern and eastern Africa during my career. Most were linked to local churches, schools, or clinics though some were also independent. They extend support and services into areas that are not reached sufficiently by government or international agencies.

The web of local initiatives in the developing world is still largely undocumented, unrecognized and under-resourced. conservatively estimates there well may be over a million such groups around the world! In my experience, these local leaders are there for kids, families and communities, whether funding or support from outsiders is available or not. Watching them and their persistence keeps me going.

Voluntourism is said to be the fastest growing segment of the travel industry (itself one of the world’s fastest growing industries). Do you think this kind of travel can help the uninitiated understand the problems our planet is facing?
Aid workers easily get frustrated when we see harm being done by well-meaning but naive tourists. Though if we are honest, that is how many of us got our start in this work. A great article by writer J.B. MacKinnon, entitled “The Dark Side of Volunteer Tourism,” provides a reality check. He wrote:

First, nothing is likely to stop the increase in person-to-person contact between people of the richer nations and people of the poorer. Second, there is much to be gained on both sides from this exchange. Third, those gains will be made through a series of small, personal, humbling errors.

To anyone considering voluntourism, I can recommend PEPY Tours in Cambodia. It’s doing voluntourism responsibly, thoughtfully, and respectfully — and has a great blog to follow, Lessons I Learned.

In general, I’d advise volun-tourists to ask critical questions of whatever project or trip in which they’re involved. Link the big issues to what you’re trying to do locally. It’s important to be curious about the root causes of poverty and vulnerability and what is needed for long-term change. Commit yourself to this learning process and never stop asking the deeper questions, whether it’s your first trip abroad or you’ve been working “in the field” for decades.

It’s also vital to recognize that every community has important non-monetary assets. When we come from a perspective of “we have so much, they have so little,” it’s easy to miss this. So the question becomes: “Who are the local leaders who are already doing great work who need the resources I have to offer?”

Finally, don’t let your good work become all about you. Place local people’s efforts before your own, in order to foster ownership and sustainability. Remember that whatever you do will always be secondary to the relationships you build.

Readers — yay or nay for letting Jennifer Lentfer into The Displaced Nation? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Jennifer — find amusing.)

img: From corn to cassava — Jennifer Lentfer talking with farmer and local leader Jones Pilo in Zomba, Malawi (2007).

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, who is hoping that Oliver’s visit back to Milton Keynes doesn’t result in any surprise guests (Sandra, for instance!) at their first Thanksgiving. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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