The Displaced Nation

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Tag Archives: New York

TCK TALENT: Educational theatre specialist Guleraana Mir uses drama to coax out and channel TCK & immigrant stories

mir-tck-talent
Columnist Dounia Bertuccelli is back with her first Adult Third Culture Kid guest of the new year.

Hello again, fair readers! In this month of dramatic change here in the United States, perhaps you’d like to switch to another kind of drama. My guest this month is writer and educational theatre specialist Guleraana Mir. Among other projects, she has been working on Home Is Where…, an experimental theatre project based on the stories of Third Culture Kids, with Amy Clare Tasker, my very first guest.

Born in London to Pakistani immigrant parents, Guleraana spent the first five years of her life moving between Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UK. She recounts her family’s decision to settle back in the UK with humor, explaining:

“There’s a family joke that I returned home from the American nursery in Riyadh with a mixed-up accent, and my dad, proud of his broad Yorkshire twang, said something along the lines of: ‘No child of mine will grow up speaking like that!’ So we immediately made plans to return to the UK so my brother and I could be educated in England.”

As an adult, Guleraana continues to expand her horizons, traveling around and working in South America for a year and then spending two-and-a-half years in the United States. Currently based in London, she engages in a variety of creative endeavors, from leading theatre and creative writing workshops in community settings and schools in the UK, to developing scripts, to producing content for a London-based digital marketing agency, to writing poetry. Her first full-length play was long listed by the BBC Writersroom team in 2014, which seeks out new writers for possible BBC broadcast.

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Welcome, Guleraana, to the Displaced Nation! Let’s start by hearing a little more about your path once you became an adult. What and where did you choose to study at university, and why?
I completed my BA in English and Creative Studies at the University of Portsmouth, in the south of England. I chose that location because it was far away enough to not be in the immediate vicinity of my parents, but close enough to hop on a train home to London. Four years later I chose to study for an MA in Educational Theatre at New York University’s Steinhart School instead of a comparable course in the UK because the dollar was two to the pound, making the cost of studying in the USA was almost affordable. Plus, I was obsessed with New York after visiting the year before. I would have done anything to be able to return for an extended period.

What made you so obsessed with New York, and how does it compare to London?
I can’t tell you how hard I’ve tried to answer these questions in a succinct and tangible way, but it always comes back to this: my obsession with New York is visceral, not something I can rationalize. New York has an energy that inspires and motivates me. London is wonderful, steeped in history and tradition, but its energy is different. In my first semester at New York University, I found myself on the 7th floor of the Student Union Building. I looked out of the window and realized I could see past Washington Square Park all the way up Fifth Avenue. All the way up! It was so long and straight and brightly lit; it seemed infinite and vast, full of magic and possibilities. In London the streets are small and cobbled and windy and you don’t get that sense of size, even though it is a very big city.

Do you think your love for New York also has to do with going to graduate school in that city?
Yes, my passion for New York ultimately has to do with the fact that I first visited at an extremely pivotal moment in my life. I have since written an essay about becoming a woman and an artist, and I attribute 100% of my current confidence to NYC mostly because of all the empowering experiences I had whilst living there. London is my childhood, my safety net, my current state of success. New York sits in the middle of those two states. It’s the place I ran away to and discovered myself, the place I finally felt comfortable being who I am. Whilst I know that London is the right place for me because I could never really live in the USA, every time I think of New York my heart breaks. It’s like the lover you can never let go of, the one that got away.

torn-between-ny-and-london

“Theatre is the art of looking at ourselves” —Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal

Did growing up as a TCK influence your decision to go into theatre?
I grew up not only as a TCK, meaning I spent my early childhood outside my parents’ culture–but also as a CCK, or cross-cultural kid, as I spent the next portion of my childhood living in England with Pakistani parents. These experiences moved me to want to become a human rights lawyer or a journalist, or else pursue European Studies. All I can ever really remember being passionate about was traveling the world and writing, with a heavy emphasis on “changing the world.” While working on my BA, I explored creative and journalistic writing, but ultimately graduated without a concrete career path. I’ve ended up working in educational theatre because it is a combination of things I am good at, and love. I honestly couldn’t see myself doing anything else. 

Has theatre helped you process your TCK upbringing?
As a playwright I can process my mixed-up identity through my characters. Having the opportunity to explore things I’ve experienced on stage is both triggering and cathartic. Luckily I am surrounded by amazing people who also happen to be extraordinarily talented artists, so working with them makes the whole process easier.

You’re currently based in London—are you settled or do you get “itchy feet”?
I will always dream of New York, and Rio, and all the other places I’ve felt “at home”; but London occupies a special place in my heart. It’s where parents and family are, so as long as they’re here, I’m here. Sort of. The itchy feet are constant—but I hate packing. So, we shall see!

“The worst part of holding the memories is the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.” —ATCK writer Lois Lowry

You’ve been collaborating with Amy Clare Tasker on Home Is Where…, weaving together the true stories of TCKs with a fictional narrative inspired by our post-Brexit political landscape. What has working with other TCKs meant to you?
Meeting Amy and discovering the term “Third Culture Kid (TCK)” for the first time felt like getting into bed after an exciting night out. Through our work on Home Is Where…, I’ve engaged with so many more TCKs. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction and hearing some of the stories that make up Home Is Where… you realize how true this saying is. Some people have been on such great adventures! Also, as our actors are also TCKs, watching them bring a piece of themselves to the project is very humbling. Each of the stories the drama tells is like a special gift.

I know you and Amy have been experimenting with verbatim theatre. I want to ask you the same question I asked her: how has that process been?
Verbatim theatre is an interesting art form. As Amy explained in her interview, the actors listen to the audio recordings of TCK interviews on stage via headphones—and then repeat exactly what they hear. There’s something so raw and honest about it, but there is also the potential for it to be very static and boring. At the moment Amy and I are working on a way to revamp the piece so the interviews take center stage without the audience getting distracted by all the other things we feel we need to add to create an exciting theatrical experience. Watch this space for updates!

Are you working on anything else at the moment?
I am. My play Coconut is about a British-born Pakistani woman called Rumi who identifies as a “coconut”—a derogatory term for someone who is brown on the outside and white on the inside, i.e., who isn’t deemed culturally Asian enough by the community. The play explores Rumi’s relationship with her heritage and her religion, and we see how far she will go to appease her family. The play has been supported on its development journey by the Park Theatre and New Diorama.

coconut-play

Congratulations on that and on being selected as a Pollock Scholar and a speaker for the 2017 FIGT conference, which takes place March 23-25 in The Hague. Is connecting with global communities important for you on a personal and professional level? What do you hope to gain from this experience?
Thank you, Dounia! Amy and I will be doing a short presentation on Home Is Where… followed by an interactive workshop, something that I’m very passionate about. My expertise is in applied-theatre and I want to show the global community that the creative arts are the perfect way to explore the theme of this year’s FIGT conference: “Creating Your Tribe on the Move.” My hope is that everyone who attends our session will be moved to find a way to bring theatre into the way they work with families and individuals who are experiencing, or have recently experienced, migration.

Thank you so much, Guleraana, for sharing your story of how you got started as an international creative. You have so many exciting irons in the fire, it’s a true inspiration!

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Readers, please leave questions or comments for Guleraana below. Also be sure to visit her Website and connect with her on Twitter, where she likes to tweet about theater, global politics and gifs (tweet her your favorites!). And if you’re headed to the FIGT event in March, be sure to attend her workshop on Friday, March 24.

Born in Nicosia, Cyprus, to Lebanese parents, Dounia Bertuccelli has lived in France, UK, Australia, Philippines, Mexico, and the USA—but never in Lebanon. She writes about her experiences growing up as a TCK and adjusting as an adult TCK on her blog Next Stop, which is a collection of prose, poetry and photography. She also serves as the managing editor of The Black Expat; Expat Resource Manager for Global Living Magazine; co-host of the monthly twitter chat #TCKchat; and TCKchat columnist for Among Worlds magazine. Currently based on the East Coast of the United States, she is happily married to a fellow TCK who shares her love for travel, music and good food. To learn more about Dounia, please read her interview with former TCK Talent columnist Lisa Liang. You can also follow her on Twitter.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Photo credits:
Top visual: (clockwise from top left) Guleraana Mir photo, supplied; New Routemaster at Clapton, Hackney, London [mosque in background], by Sludge G via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); “Home Is Where…” performance photo, supplied; and New York University Waverly building, by Benjamin KRAFT via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
New York vs London visual: “Looking across Washington Square Park at Midtown Manhattan, up 5th Avenue,” by Doc Searls via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Back Lane, Hampstead, by Dun.can via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Bottom visual: Coconut rehearsal, performance and promo piece, all supplied.

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

LordofMisrule

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Olana2006 3 edit1" by Rolf Müller - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Olana2006_3_edit1.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Olana2006_3_edit1.jpg

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

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

* * *

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

Here goes:

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

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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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:

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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.

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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?

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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!

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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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

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Why did the chicken cross an international border? Because this expat told it to!

sharon lorimer chicken hat

Sharon Lorimer graces the cover of Coop du Monde sporting a chicken hat; photo credit: Kim Khan.

Sharon Lorimer is joining us again today. Last time she and I met, she had on her entrepreneurial hat to tell me about the ingredients she used to start up her company, doshebu. We discussed the company’s mission of helping overseas employees become versed in the “art” of being an expat—her knowledge of which is based, in no small part, on her own experience of being a Scottish expat in New York City and of her husband’s experience as an American ATCK (he has lived in London and Singapore).

This time around, however, Sharon is sporting a chicken hat. Why is that, you may wonder? For the simple reason that she has her eggs in more than one basket. She may be a businesswoman but she also loves cooking. She self-published a photo cookbook named Coop Du Monde at the end of last year, which offers suggestions for jazzing up your basic roast chicken recipe ranging from Pilgrim’s Fowl to Nippon Coop to Mi Amore Coop.

And just now she put out The Seasoner’s Handbook, a companion to her very first cookbook, From the Global Scottish Kitchen, in which she reinvented dishes from her native Scotland by adding flavors picked up from her “gastronomic journey.”

Cock a’ Leekie Udon, anyone?

Sharon’s culinary creativity will be our topic today. She tells me that she has always enjoyed experimenting with food, but by now it should be clear that flying the Scottish coop has pushed her in some new directions.

* * *

CoopduMonde_cover_dropshadowHi, Sharon. Welcome back to the Displaced Nation! Tell me, why did you decide to write a book about roast chicken?
I think it grew out of my fondness for the Sunday Roast ritual in the UK. Even when I was growing up in Scotland, I always preferred to spice it up. But since coming to the United States and leading a more international life, I’ve taken these experiments up a level.

But why chicken? When I lived in Britain, I remember having a lot of lamb and beef.
Well, chicken is probably the most popular for the home cook and besides, it’s eaten all over the world.

I’ve had a look at your book and I’m impressed that it offers a step-by-step guide to roasting a chicken and then suggesting a number of variations.
In fact, the point of the book is not so much to give people recipes as to help them be creative when they cook. I explain the process of blending spices and herbs together and choosing vegetables so that you can invent your own Coop du Monde.
TheSeasoner'sHandbook_cover_dropshadow

Which came first, spices or travels?

You seem to be obsessed with spices. In your newest book, The Seasoner’s Handbook, you explain how to use chili peppers, pomegranate seeds, saffron, mole, truffles…
These are some of the flavors I’ve picked up on my gastronomic journey. Take the pomegranate seed, for instance. I first had a dish seasoned with this fruit in London. As I explain in the book, I hadn’t tasted it before but it made the meal so enjoyable that I thought about how I could use it in other dishes. It has a mellow flavor that combines well with stronger and more subtle flavors.

Your Scottish cookbook, to which this book is a companion, reinterprets your native cuisine in light of what you have learned about the cuisines of the US, Mexico, France, Japan and Greece. In a post discussing the book on your blog, you say:

If I had created a cookbook that represented my travels, the contents would be traditional dishes made authentically. Thinking globally about taste lets you use different aspects of cuisines to develop new ideas.

It sounds as though you’re making a case for fusion cuisine, but is that right?
Cuisines are identified by nationality, and fusion means blending two national cuisines. I want people to understand that it’s less about replicating other people’s cuisines, or competing to be the best at a style of cuisine, and more about exploring what you like. Lots of us expats want to find ways of expressing all the influences we’ve picked up on our travels. What better way to blend them than in cooking?

“Ain’t nobody here but us chickens” – Louis Jordan

How big a role does cooking play in your everyday life?
My husband and I make very simple food during the week. He is a good cook, too, and we take turns cooking for each other. One thing that makes it on to the table every month is Anthony Bourdain’s recipe for whole roasted fish Tuscan style, which essentially means baking it in salt. Bourdain just talks about it in his book Kitchen Confidential. We tried replicating it from the description. It’s really easy. You just stuff herbs, garlic and lemon it to the belly of the fish. Pour olive oil on the fish and encrust in lots of Kosher salt and bake for 45-60 minutes at 375°F.

Mmmm…sounds good. Fish has been one of my staples ever since I lived in Japan.
Well, don’t overlook the beauty of chicken. My new favorite easy meal is a Cook Yourself Thin recipe for butterflied chicken breast marinated in olive oil, rosemary and lemon juice. It only takes 30 minutes to marinate and 10 minutes on the grill. Delicious.

Struttin’ her stuff on Blurb

Moving back to the two books: Why did you choose to publish them on Blurb?
Blurb makes self-publishing easy, and it’s ideal for coffee-table-style books that feature photography.

Yes, I know you’re a keen photographer, but was there a learning curve for taking photos of food?
I’m a professional photographer, but there’s a learning curve with any new project. The most important thing to remember when you start to make books is that printers need higher-resolution shots than websites. You have to print a hard copy with Blurb, even if you don’t want to sell it. Make the shots good enough so that you can display it in your home or give it to family and friends. The other thing I had to learn is that I have to shoot with the book in mind. I had some old chicken shots I wanted to use for the Coop du Monde, but the resolution was wrong and they looked out of place. In the end we had to work from the concept to create a cohesive book. In fact, my husband shot the front and back covers.

I see you’re getting into video more and more these days, and that Coop du Monde includes a teaching video.
I always find it easier to replicate a recipe if I have watched someone else do it first, don’t you? Yes, the video is embedded in the ebook.

What’s the biggest challenge in putting together a cookbook?
My biggest challenge is writing down recipes. I cooked for years without documenting any of it and even today, I still forget to write down what I’ve done. I have an app but it hasn’t really helped me solve the problem. I never cook to a recipe and I don’t really want to. It spoils the experience for me.

What audience do you have in mind for your photo cookbooks, and are they reaching those people?
The most popular post ever on the Art of the Expat blog is “Indian Meat and Potatoes” (it centers on a keema recipe that’s from From the Global Scottish Kitchen, which, believe it or not given that keema is Indian, includes pomegranates!). Food tends to be more accessible than other topics. People are always looking for ways to incorporate and understand other nations’ cuisines, especially ones they usually can’t have unless they eat out. I thought the Brits would like Coop du Monde because of their love of roast chicken, but most visitors to my blog are Americans. More recently, we’ve had a lot of Swedish visitors…but presumably they are also fans of chicken.

What’s next—more cookbooks? Other creative projects?
My husband and I are planning lots more live broadcasts at doshebu.tv focusing on news events and expat topics. On the creative side, I’ve started to write another screenplay. I think this will give me the outlet for creativity that I need when I get depressed about troubleshooting code!

* * *

Thank you, Sharon! Readers, don’t be too chicken to leave questions or comments for Sharon. Or perhaps you’d like to suggest a roast chicken recipe that you’ve enhanced with spices or other exotic ingredients? Just think, if Sharon were to include it in her next Blurb book, what a coup it would be…

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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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.

 * * *

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: Amanda Hodgkinson, author of “22 Britannia Road” and “Spilt Milk”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Author photo – Amanda Hodgkinson

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Amanda Hodgkinson, author of 22 Britannia Road and Spilt Milk.

Born in Somerset but raised in a village on the Blackwater estuary in Essex, Amanda has childhood memories of  shingle beaches and mudflats, grey-green heather, salt marshes, messing about in boats, gangs of rowdy kids playing all day along the sea-walls, and the ever-present cries of seagulls.

As an adult, she moved inland to Suffolk. She took an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and after the MA, she and her husband, with two young daughters, upped sticks and bought a property in south west France. She intended to write a novel but spent the first few years of their new life mixing concrete to fix their house. She also had to learn French, settle her daughters into school and deal with the ups and downs of living in a country miles away from friends and family. Finally though, the family made a home in France. And she finished the novel…

22 Britannia Road became an international bestseller. Spilt Milk came out in February 2014 (Penguin Books) and a novella Tin Town (Grand Central Penguin US) will be published this summer. Meanwhile Amanda has begun work on a third novel. You can find out more about Amanda at her website, www.amandahodgkinson.com

Which came first, story or location?

With Spilt Milk, I was inspired by a location. I was visiting friends in rural Suffolk. It was late October, that lovely, damp time of year when the smell of leafmould is everywhere in the country. We went walking and ended up on the banks of a small river. I knew there and then that I wanted it to be the location for my next novel. I was amazed by the stillness of the place. The river had a timelessness to it. I suppose the slow moving waters suited the themes I was interested in writing about – the passing of time in families, the stories we keep and the ones we allow to slip away from us. By the time we’d walked back home, I had the beginnings of the novel in my head.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

When I am writing about a time and a place I find evoking colour, smell and the sounds of that place help create mood. I know it’s considered old-fashioned to use landscape to create mood and emotional intensity but I not only love writing which evokes emotion in that way, I also believe there is a strong connection between our identities and the geographic landscapes we inhabit.

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

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.

Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?

In the following passage set in 1970, Nellie, who is a very old lady, watches her family as they picnic together by the river that she has known since she was a small child.

SpiltMilkNellie sat in the shade of summer-green willows, watching the procession of men, women and children making their way down to the riverbank, one after the other, their hands drifting through the day’s fragile bloom of field poppies, all the new-born crimson petals falling at their touch.

Slowly, the murmur of voices, the greetings and talk turned to seasons remembered, harvests and ploughing, days long gone. They discussed winters whose legendary harshness were in retrospect to be marvelled at and even doubted a little, particularly this deep in the year when the barley fields were pale gold and in the distance beyond the farm, the village with its church spire shimmered into the vagueness of a heat haze.

Black and white farm dogs lay low, eyeing Tupperware boxes of sandwiches and sausage rolls. The transistor radio announced cricket scores. A tartan rug was spread out by the bulrushes, and a baby in its frilly white knickers and matching bonnet wriggled and laughed while the women cooed over her. Sunburnt men sprawled in the grass with bottled beers, straw hats tipped low across their brows. Oh, heavens, Nellie thought, eyeing the new baby. And how did I get to be so old?

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

A place can inspire a novel but I don’t think it is necessary (at least not for me as a writer) to know a place intimately before I begin a story. It is a starting point and as both my books have been set in the past, my research has also been looking at photographs, old films and reference books.

It feels liberating to be able to know a landscape physically and than allow it to become a place of the imagination. I recently wrote a historical novella for an anthology and spent a day exploring an old World War Two airfield which I then used as the basis for the story. While I stuck very closely to the layout of the airfield in the story, I still had to imagine how it must have been back in the 1940s. As in my novels, the landscape was a starting point for my fiction.

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

Lots! Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence, Toni Morrison, Annie Proulx, Paul Harding, Marilynne Robinson, John Steinbeck, Robert Macfarlene, Tracy Chevalier, Jane Smiley, to name a few.

Author bio and photograph from Amanda’s website

Next month’s Location, Locution:  Jill interviews Andrea Cheung, whose Hungarian/Chinese heritage informs her multicultural prize-winning children’s stories.

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_(75_of_75)JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Chris Pavone, author of “The Expats”, on why story and location are inseparable

Cover art "The Accident; Author photo Chris Pavone; Author photo JJ Marsh

Cover art “The Accident; Author photo Chris Pavone; Author photo JJ Marsh

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews author Chris Pavone, whose  first novel, The Expats, was published in 2012, and was a New York Times and international bestseller, with nearly twenty foreign editions and a major film deal.

The Expats was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a Macavity, and awards from the Strand Magazine Critics Circle, the Mystery Booksellers Association, and the International Thriller Writers. It received the 2013 Edgar Award and the 2013 Anthony Award for Best First Novel.

Pavone’s new book, The Accident, will be published in March 2014.


Which comes first, story or location?
For some books I think the story and location are inextricably intertwined: the story is about the location. My thriller The Expats is one of those, defined by taking place in a country that’s not the protagonist’s home. The plot is driven by this situation, by her sense of disassociation and isolation, by the necessity of her reinvention.

How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I love walking around cities, looking around at the architecture and the shops and the restaurants, at the people and their pets. 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…

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
On the written page, I think the clearest evocation is via the physical landscape, especially when it echoes the culture. New York is the big brashness of skyscrapers and noise; London is the polite order of elegant uniformity; Rome is cheerful dilapidated chaos.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
As much as my characters. If they’re only in a city for a day, they don’t know that much about the place, and I don’t need to either. Both The Expats and my next book, The Accident, use a variety of locations, and the amount of time the characters spend in placesLuxembourg, Paris, the Alps, Amsterdam, London, Zurich, Los Angeles, etc.is roughly proportionate to the amount of time I’ve spent there.

Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
This is the final sentence of The Expats . . .

Kate watches them merge into the flow of the dense crowd, all the streetlights and lamplights ignited in the Carrefour de l’Odeon, a little red Fiat beeping at a bright green Vespa that’s weaving in the traffic, the policeman oblivious while he continues to flirt with the pretty girl, cigarette smoke wafting from the tables filled with wineglasses and tumblers and carafes and bottles, plates of ham and slabs of foie-gras terrine and napkin-lined baskets of crusty sliced baguette, women wearing scarves knotted at the neck and men in plaid sport jackets, peals of laughter and playful smirks, hand-shaking and cheek-kissing, saying hello and waving good-bye, in the thick lively humanity of early night in the City of Light, where a pair of expats is quickly but quietly disappearing.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Hemingway was not only a master of evoking location, but also of using physical atmosphere as emotional metaphor. Empty barges on the Seine can represent a lot more than just boats.

Next month on Location, Locution:  award-winning author Amanda Hodgkinson.

 * * *

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

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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Jackie Townsend’s novel examines a cross-cultural relationship up close, imperfections and all

Jackie_Townsend

Jackie Townsend in Rome (photo used with her permission)

As a veteran of cross-cultural relationships (I am now on my second marriage to someone from another country), I tend to fancy myself as something of an expert on the topic. On the one hand, I know the joys of living in an intimate relationship with someone from another culture. On the other, I am only too aware of the pitfalls, a few of which I listed in an early post that still gets lots of hits: “Cross-cultural marriage: Four good reasons not to rush into it.”

I was therefore delighted to come across the novel Imperfect Pairings, by Jackie Townsend. From the outset of the book, I could see that here is a writer who understands that marrying someone from another country not only means marrying the family—but marrying the culture, by which one means the REAL culture, not the tourist version.

The imperfect pairing at the center of Jackie’s novel are Jamie, an American career woman, and Jack/Giovanni, who received his education at MIT but is from an old Italian family. The reason he has two names? Because, when he gets to Italy, he “literally turns into another person with another name,” as Jamie informs her mother at one stage.

Unsure of the relationship at first, Jamie finds herself powerfully drawn to Jack/Giovanni. Not only is he physically attractive, but he’s a man of hidden depths, who seems to understand her better than anyone else.

Eventually, the pair get married—but it’s not a fairytale wedding in the Italian countryside. Rather, it happens in city hall—Jamie has offered to help Jack get his green card. But despite this rather unromantic beginning, the couple grow close, and Jamie gradually immerses herself in Giovanni’s life, especially after he quits his job in the United States to help out with resurrecting the vineyards on his family’s estate.

As one reviewer said of Jackie’s novel:

It’s a brilliantly-written small gem, with exquisite detail and equally exquisite crafting of language, by an American author with her own Italian husband and her own Italian experience. It’s a guidebook to Italy, and a guidebook to how Italians really live their lives.

So can love cross borders? Fortunately, Jackie has agreed to answer some questions about her own life and the book. And she has kindly offered to GIVE AWAY ONE FREE E-COPY to the person who leaves the most interesting comment!

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ImperfectPairings_cover_pmHi / ciao, Jackie. Thanks so much for agreeing to be our featured author this month. First can you tell us what made you decide to write a novel focusing on a cross-cultural relationship between an American woman and an Italian man?
I am 16 years married to an Italian who came to the U.S. for university and stayed.

And you called the novel “Imperfect Pairings”–why?
I got tired hearing all the oohs and ahs: “Oh you’re married to an Italian, how wonderful!” It’s so much more complex than that, and I wanted to dispel the notion of the romantic Italian love story, but in a real and true way, which means also dispelling the romanticism of relationships. The novel is about a couple dealing with real issues and real life, and learning to love each other even more in the midst of all that.

Did writing the book help you to process your own experience of getting into a cross-cultural relationship?
My own experience of being married to a foreigner exposed me to the parallels between cultural differences and marital differences. Entering a foreign country can be like entering a relationship and vise versa. To get to know someone, to understand them, you need the cross the border into their country, the country of their mind and soul. But even if you do eventually learn their “language,” you will never speak their native tongue, not really anyway. Which leaves the question, “Is it possible to ever really know the person you love?”

How much of the book is autobiographical?
Only about thirty percent of the story is autobiographically based. It took me much longer than Jamie to truly open myself up to my Italian family. Part of my writing the book, is homage to that, and them.

The Italian wine-making industry figures large in the novel. Did that emerge from an actual experience?
My husband’s family lives outside Turin, in Northern Italy, not far from the Barolo region. They did once have a summer villa there, where they made wine, and this is what inspired me to use wine and the resurrection of the family vineyard as a catalyst for the story. I love the way Italians treat wine, casually, like a member of the family, an old friend. Wine is a relationship. It requires love and care and tending to if it’s going to survive and grow, and, still, you don’t know what that wine will ultimately be, how it will taste. It became the perfect metaphor for the book.

Why a novel and not a memoir?
I’ve always written fiction, that’s the genre that comes naturally to me. I like the freedom, the idea of letting the characters take the story where they want to go, as when Jamie and Giovanni head to Southern Italy, to Napoli, at the end of the story.

Staying on the theme of your own life and travels, how and where did you meet your Italian husband?
My husband grew up in Italy, Australia, and Bangkok. He moved to the United States for college. We met four years later at business school in Berkeley. I had no idea he was Italian. He was raised in international schools and learned English very early on and worked hard to fit in, to have no Italian accent. But in Italy, he’s the opposite, staunchly Italian and working hard to rid himself of his American accent because he needs this sense of heritage, of home.

The inner nuances of Italian life

In the book you describe Jamie’s many displaced moments: her initial discomfort at being thrown into a physically demonstrative family that loves sitting down to home-cooked meals; her surprise at discovering that her American values of self-reliance and a can-do spirit do not really register with Giovanni’s people; and, perhaps most shockingly of all, her perception that her husband’s allegiance to football trumps all else. At one point she actually wonders if she and he have been “raised on different planets.” What was your most displaced moment when visiting Italy with your husband?
In the beginning of our relationship, it was knowing that he might be embarrassed my me, and my rather bawdy Americanism.

That reminds me of the first time Jamie and Giovanni visit Italy, not long after they’ve met, and she suggests that he sleep in her room. He gets angry and says: “It’s just not something you do here.” I know that you and your husband live in New York City. Have you ever considered moving to Italy?
Early on we had lofty dreams about living in Italy. The idea sounded romantic, but the reality was that the more and more we visited, the more and more I realized that moving to Italy would mean essentially moving in with his family—more disconcertingly his mother, a lovely kind woman, but also, well, I’ll let you imagine. The other reality was that it’s not easy to move to Italy and work. Job opportunities there just can’t compete with those in the States. Will we give it all up some day and move there? We’ll see.

What was your least displaced moment, when the Italian way of life made sense, and you felt as though you belonged in that part of the world—or as Jamie puts it when she comes to tolerate football, “accidentally entered some alternative universe”?
Three years ago our Roman cousin (the inspiration for the character Silvestro) asked me to be the godmother to his third child. Italians take this duty seriously, and I was very touched that he asked me, for Romans can often be all about Rome, and yet he skipped over all these other family members, even my husband, for the Americana. I’ve never felt so naturally a part of things (this, after 12 years)—standing in this magnificent church in the center of Rome, holding his baby in my arms as the priest christened him, trying not to shake or trip or fumble, surrounded by all of our Italian family, those who had so easily and truly made me part of their lives. I think I finally let myself believe it. It takes time, years, for cultural barriers to fall down, to really get to know someone from another country. But what I’ve learned is that you can. It’s something I would never have believed earlier on in my relationship with my in-laws.

That’s a touching story. Does having a non-American husband make you look at life in the United States any differently? In the book, Jamie comes to reappraise her sister and brother-in-law’s values after being exposed to a different part of the world.
Absolutely. It gives me perspective. My husband’s view is always global, from the outside in, sometimes infuriatingly so. While my view, the view of most Americans, will be from the inside out. We are the center of the world. But in fact, we are not. You can’t get this perspective, I don’t believe, unless you are intimately involved with another country, you “marry” them. I feel so lucky to have this experience and perspective in my life.

Self-publishing, a Writer’s Digest prize & praise from Italian Americans

Moving on to the book: What was the most difficult part of the book-writing process?
My writing is very subtle. I want my readers to read between the lines, to feel what’s going on in the quiet places. In as such, bringing out the romance between Jamie and Giovanni proved difficult. Because I believe that love is very personal and private, between two people only, and so to expose Jamie and Giovanni’s love felt like I was tainting it. I had to get past this. Knowing when to let love surface, getting the balance right, was difficult. It took a lot of time, and many of rewrites.

What was your path to getting it published?
I self-publish my novels through my own imprint, Ripetta Press. It’s a decision I came to a few years back when my first novel, Reel Life, came close but ultimately had no success in finding a publisher. When Imperfect Pairings came along, I didn’t even bother trying to find a publisher. I became accustomed to the freedom of being able to do what I wanted with the book. And I was going to have to market it myself anyway.

Are you comfortable with indie publishing—is it working for you?
It’s become relatively easy to self-publish, though it might not be for everyone. In my case, I’m able to garner enough press and sales to sustain myself and find inspiration. Speaking of self-publishing, Imperfect Pairings just won an honorable mention award for literary fiction in the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book awards, which of course I was very pleased about. My plan is to have the book translated, first in Italian, and work to find an international distributer.

Wow, congratulations! And well deserved. I must say, was impressed by how elegantly and lyrically you write. So what audience did you have in mind for the book? Has it been reaching those people?
Some people from the pure Romance genre got a hold of my book early on, and were wildly disappointed. This is not your typical Italian love story, and far from your steamy romance. It’s an adult romance, and people who get that really enjoy it.

The best reception of the book has been from the Italian American community, people who have some connection with Italy, second or third generation transplants. Many of those readers can really relate to the idea of an Italian’s displacement and the differing cultural dynamics between America and Italy.

I noticed your first book was about sisters, and this book has a sister relationship at its heart. Are you working on the next book now? What is about, and will it have a pair of sisters?
Funny you should ask. Yes, my next book has a sister theme. Two young adult women from different countries and cultures—one is Italian and one is American—will discover that they have the same father.

I presume you have a sister or sisters in real life?
Yes, I have two sisters (and a brother) who drive me crazy. But I love them. They provide inspiration for a lot of material!

10 Questions for Jackie Townsend

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Hologram for a King, by Dave Eggers.
2. Favorite literary genres: Fiction, novels and short story collections, both classical and contemporary.
3. Reading habits on a plane: I travel frequently, and often far. Planes are my excuse to spend uninterrupted hours getting lost in a novel. I travel with my Kindle. It gives me this sense, tucked into my purse, that I’m traveling with all my books.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: 1984, by George Orwell but only because I couldn’t think of anything else.

5. Favorite books as a child: To Kill A Mockingbird; Catcher in the Rye.
6. Favorite heroine: Dorothea in Middlemarch
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Joan Didion
8. Your reading habits: At night, before bed, but I will also sometimes get up and read in the morning, for inspiration. I am always inspired to write when I read great fiction.

9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: Mine.

10. The book you plan to read next: The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri

* * *

Thank you, Jackie! As mentioned, I loved the book—everything from the big picture of the cross-cultural relationship to the little details, like Jamie having to get used to the fact that Italians don’t snack between meals. I also love something you said just now: “Entering a foreign country can be like entering a relationship and vise versa.” I believe there’s something in this book for every expat or serious traveler.

Readers, how about you? Any further questions for Jackie, or comments? Remember that if you leave a comment, you’ll be eligible to receive a free e-copy of the book! So, comment away! Extra points, as always, if you’re a Displaced Dispatch subscriber!

The winner will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch on November 30, 2013.

Can’t wait to read the book? You can always order a copy at Amazon.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Images: Jackie Townsend in Rome; book cover art.

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