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


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

Happy February, Displaced Nationers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would you handle that kind of situation differently today?

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

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

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

youre-not-going-crazy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then. Prost! Santé!

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

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

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

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Expat creatives recommend books for the (not quite) end of summer

End of Summer 2016 Reads

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, has canvassed several international creatives for some recommendations of books that suit the various end-of-summer scenarios those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere will soon be in (if we aren’t already!).

Hello Displaced Nationers!

I’ve traveled quite a bit this summer, and now I’m wondering what I can do, as summer slides into autumn here in Prague, to bask in those prized last few moments of glory before the days get shorter and a chill enters the air.

I decided to canvas fellow international creatives about the books they would recommend for those of us who are:

  • Striving for one last beach read;
  • Stranded at an airport on our way “home”; and/or
  • Getting back to work/school/reality as autumn sets in.

There was just one catch: I asked if they would please recommend books that qualify as “displaced” reads, meaning they are for, by, or about expats or other internationals and so speak to members of our “tribe” (see ML Awanohara’s contribution below).

And now let’s check out their picks (correction: I should say “our” as I’m a contributor this time)—it’s an eclectic mix, but I predict you’ll be tempted by quite a few!

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JENNIFER ALDERSON, expat and writer

TheGoodThiefsGuidetoParis_coverWhen I read on the beach, the story’s got to be light and quirky or it goes back in my tote bag. The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris (2009), by Chris Ewan—or really any of the other four books in Ewan’s popular series of mysteries about a globetrotting thief-for-hire—fits the bill perfectly. I actually dislike the much-displaced Charlie Howard immensely—yet somehow end up rooting for him along the way. An Englishman, he doesn’t feel at home anywhere and travels the world to get inspired to write his next novel—and then ends up involved in criminal activities that mirror his fictitious plots. Each novel revolves around Charlie’s bungled robbery of an artwork or antiquity in yet another famous tourist destination: Amsterdam, Paris, Venice, Las Vegas, Berlin… Ewan’s descriptions of each city are spot on and quite beautiful, in contrast to the wonderfully sarcastic tone of the novels themselves. The capers are silly, absurd constructions involving the shadiest of characters, which inevitably leave a smile on my face. I’ve already finished Paris and Amsterdam. The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice is next.

The City of Falling Angels_coverI actually have two suggestions for books I wish I’d had in my carry-on when stranded en route, both set in one of my favorite countries in the world: Italy! A few days before my husband and I set off for a week-long holiday in Venice, I popped into a local secondhand bookstore and spotted John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels (2005). I absolutely loved Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, so I bought it without even reading the description on the back. Imagine my surprise when I pulled it out of my suitcase and realized it was all about the same magical city I’d just arrived in! It is an absorbing, magnificent novel that effortlessly blends fact and fiction. (Berendt moved to Venice in 1997, just three days after the city’s Fenice opera house burned down during a restoration—accident or arson?) The fabled city and many of her more eccentric residents form the soul of this book; art, opera and architecture are the main ingredients. Let yourself get lost in Berendt’s unique, almost conversational prose and follow along on his deliciously slow journey through one of the prettiest (and most mysterious) places on the planet.

BridgeofSighs_coverMy other pick is the captivating historical novel, Bridge of Sighs and Dreams (2015), by former expat Pamela Allegretto. The story follows one Italian family through the 1930s and 1940s, when Mussolini and later Hitler ruled the land. It is a sometimes gritty, sometimes romantic, tale of betrayal, intrigue and—above all—survival. The author’s beautiful yet compact descriptions of the landscape, people and culture effortlessly transport the reader to this fascinating and complex period in Italian (and European) history. I highly recommend it.

Whichever of these two books you choose, you’ll wish your flight was delayed indefinitely.

The Disobedient Wife_coverI’ve only read the first two chapters of The Disobedient Wife (2015), by Annika Milisic-Stanley, yet I’m already hooked—and would recommend it for anyone trying to get back into work/school mode. It’s such an eloquent description of the expat experience; from the first sentence I felt as if I was reading a soulmate’s description of how it feels to move on to a new destination after building up a life in a foreign country: we say goodbye while wondering what, if any, lasting impact we’ve had on our temporary homes. [Editor’s note: This book also made the Displaced Nation’s “best of expat fiction” list for 2015.]

The official synopsis reads:

The Disobedient Wife intertwines the narratives of a naïve, British expatriate, Harriet, and that of her maid, Nargis, who possesses an inner strength that Harriet comes to admire as their lives begin to unravel against a backdrop of violence and betrayal.

In the first chapter, Harriet is thinking back to her last post in Tajikistan: about the friends she’d willingly left behind and about her home, inhabited by another family only days after her own departure:

“All traces will be erased until the Dutch tulips I laid last September rise above the earth to bloom in April and pronounce that I really was there. The language, learned and badly spoken, is already fading from my dreams…”

These sentences stirred up so many memories for me of people left behind and as well as adventures past. I sometimes wish I could go back—even for a moment—to all of the places I’ve been in this crazy world and just say hello to the people I once knew there and remind them that I’m still around and do think of them once in a while. I cannot wait to finish this book. [Beth’s note: I did NOT mention to Jennifer that Annika is also participating in this column’s roundup—quite a coincidence!]

Jennifer S. Alderson has published two novels, the recently released A Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery and Down and Out in Kathmandu (2015), which cover the adventures of traveler and culture lover Zelda Richardson. An American, Jennifer lives in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband and young son.


ML AWANOHARA, Displaced Nation founding editor and former expat

Inspired by the new BBC One TV miniseries, at the beginning of the summer I downloaded War and Peace (new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) onto my Kindle. And, reader, I finished it! And now I’m having trouble finding any novels that hold my attention. By comparison to Tolstoy’s masterwork, they all seem too narrow in scope, and their characters aren’t as beautifully developed. Sigh!

Tribe_coverI’m thinking I should turn to nonfiction until the W&P spell wears off. Right now I have my eye on Sebastian Junger’s latest work, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging—which I think could serve any of the purposes Beth has outlined above, though perhaps is best applied to the third condition (getting back to reality). Junger has been compared to Hemingway for his adventure non-fiction and war reporting, but this book is more of an anthropological look at the very human need to belong to a tribe. Though we expats have left our original tribes, I don’t think that this decision eradicates our tribal instincts. On the contrary, we are attracted to tribes of fellow expats; and some of us even find new homes in cultures more tribal than ours—where the people value qualities like loyalty and belonging more than we do in the West.

Junger provides an example to which I can personally relate. Recounting the history of 18th-century America, he says that no native Americans defected to join colonial society even though it was richer, whereas many colonials defected to live with the Indian tribes. They apparently appreciated the communal, caring lifestyle of the latter. That’s how I felt after I’d lived in Japan for several years. I really didn’t fancy returning to my native society, which I’d come to see as overly individualistic and centered on self to the exclusion of little else. To this day (and especially during election years like this one!) I struggle with America’s you’re-on-your-own ethos. Wealth doesn’t necessarily translate into well-being: why can’t my compatriots see that? It’s something I can feel in my bones because of the more tribal life I had in Asia. Could this book help me understand the roots of my displacement?

ML Awanohara, who has lived for extended periods in the UK and Japan, has been running the Displaced Nation site for five years. She works in communications in New York City.


BETH GREEN, Displaced Nation columnist and writer

Hotel_Kerobokan_coverI tend to pick beach books by the setting. So if I am going to the Caribbean, I’ll pick something set in the Caribbean. My last beach destination was Bali, and the book I wish I’d taken with me was Hotel Kerobokan: The Shocking Inside Story of Bali’s Most Notorious Jail (2009), a sharply observed account of life inside Indonesia’s most notorious prison, by Australian journalist Kathryn Bonella. Also great is her subsequent nonfiction title, Snowing in Bali (2012), a graphic look at Bali’s cocaine traffickers. Stories that depict true-life crime in unexpected settings (isn’t Bali supposed to be paradise?) automatically go on my to-read list—but I forgot to pick up Bonella’s book when we were at the airport and then wasn’t able to find in the area around my hotel. I know, most people go to the beach for good weather and strong cocktails; but for me, a holiday isn’t a holiday until I can peel back the veneer and peer at something darker underneath.

The Bat_coverWhat I actually ended up reading was in fact very good—Jo Nesbo’s thriller The Bat, in which he introduces his hard-headed detective Harry Hole and sends him to Australia to pursue a serial killer—but I wish I’d planned ahead and got something that blended with the scenery.

It’s a terrible feeling to get to the boarding gate and realize you don’t have enough chapters left in your book to get you through takeoff. (This is one reason I love my e-reader and try to have it loaded with dozens of books at all times.) For air travel especially, I look for the fattest, longest reads possible.

The Mountain Shadow_coverFor my next long flight, I’m hoping to read Gregory David Robert’s The Mountain Shadow, which came out last year and is the sequel to his equally weighty Shantaram (2003). At 880 pages, this book will take even a fast reader like me a while! Set in Mumbai, India, it continues the story of an escaped Australian prisoner who finds a new niche as a passport forger—but also a better self—in the underbelly of the South Asian crime world. Engrossing and beautifully written, I think it’s the perfect companion for marathon flights. Even if you did manage to finish it mid-flight, you can spend the rest of the trip wondering how close the story is to the author’s real-life history as an escaped convict. Roberts spent 10 years in India as a fugitive after escaping a maximum security prison in Australia, and his first novel, at least, is rumored to be autobiographical.

CatKingofHavana_coverFor the goal of channeling our more serious selves as autumn approaches, how about a fun read by the peripatetic Latvian author Tom Crosshill (he spent several years studying and working in the United States, as well as a year learning traditional dances in Cuba). Crosshill will release The Cat King of Havana (2016) this month. The eponymous Cat King is a half-Cuban American teenager who gets his nicknames from the cat videos he posts online. When he invites his crush to Havana to learn about his heritage and take salsa lessons, he discovers Cuba’s darker side…

Beth Green is the Booklust, Wanderlust columnist for the Displaced Nation. Her bio blurb appears below.


HELENA HALME, novelist and expat

Murder in Aix_coverFor a last hurrah on the beach, I’d recommend Murder in Aix (2013), Book 5 in a mystery series by Susan Kiernan-Lewis, an ex-military dependent who is passionate about France, travel and writing. One of my secret pleasures in life is to settle down with a cozy murder mystery; I also have a passion for the South of France. So when I found The Maggie Newberry Mystery Series, consisting of nine books that featured an expat protagonist-sleuth who solves mysteries in and around Aix-en-Provence, I couldn’t wait to download the whole series onto my Kindle. In the fifth book, Maggie Newberry is heavily pregnant but that doesn’t stop her as she finds herself scrambling to prove the innocence of a dear friend arrested for the murder of an abusive ex-boyfriend. Her partner, a ruggedly handsome French winemaker, doesn’t approve of Maggie’s involvement in the case. “It’s too dangerous,” he tells her.

The novel is pure bliss—a feeling enhanced if you can read it by a pool or on a beach, preferably accompanied by a glass of chilled rosé!

TheBreathofNight_coverFor those inevitable airport delays, I’d recommend The Breath of Night (2013), by Michael Arditti, a much-neglected English author. The first book I read by him, Jubilate, said to be the first serious novel about Lourdes since Zola’s, is one of my all-time favorites, so I was delighted when The Breath of Night came out soon after. This is a story of the murder of one Julian Tremayne, a Catholic priest from England who was working as a missionary in the Philippines in the 1970s. Since their son’s tragic death, Julian’s parents have pursued a campaign to have him declared a saint. The story is told partly through letters from Julian to his parents and partly through an account by a friend of the family, Philip Seward, who has gone to Manila 30 years later to find out the truth about the miracles he is said to have performed. Did Julian lead “a holy life of heroic virtue”—one of the conditions for canonization? While telling an intriguing and captivating tale of life in the Philippines, the book provides a broader commentary on love and faith.

TheParisWife_coverWhen the time comes to settle back into your routine, I would suggest a read of The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain (2011). It’s a fictionalized story of Hemingway’s first years as a struggling writer in Paris in the 1920s, told from the point of view of his first wife, Hadley, a naive Southern girl who suddenly finds herself suddenly plunged into a life of drunken debauchery in the French capital. McLain’s writing is precise and beautiful; her background as a poet comes through in her careful choice of words. Her descriptions of Hemingway when Hadley first meets him are particularly ingenious:

“He smiles with everything he’s got…”

“I can tell he likes being in his body…”

“He seemed to do happiness all the way up and through.”

It’s a brilliant read that will take you somewhere completely different and keep the challenges (boredom?) of work or school at bay a little longer.

Helena Halme is a Finnish author of Nordic women’s and romantic fiction. She lives with her English husband in London. Her works include the best-selling autobiographical novel The Englishman (reviewed on the Displaced Nation), its sequel The Navy Wife, Coffee and Vodka (about which she wrote a guest post for us) and The Red King of Helsinki (for which she won one of our Alice Awards). The Finnish Girl, her latest novella, is the prequel to The Englishman.


MATT KRAUSE, writer and expat

A Time of Gifts_coverFor any of those circumstances, I would recommend A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1977; reissued in 2011 with an introduction by Jan Morris). At the age of 18, Fermor dropped out of school to walk from the heart of London to Constantinople, and his account of that journey—which started in December 1933, not long after Hitler has come to power in Germany, and ended just over two years later—is hailed as a classic of British travel writing. Hitler’s abuses were not yet evident, and Fermor describes drinking beers with Nazis once he reaches Germany. But I particularly enjoyed his account of a luxurious extended weekend in Geneva (or some city, I don’t remember) with a couple of girls he met along the way. I read this book as part of my research before walking across Turkey in 2012–2013, and really liked it.

Matt Krause is a communications coach based in Istanbul. He is the author of the memoir A Tight Wide-Open Space (reviewed on the Displaced Nation) and is working on a book about his walk across Turkey.


ANNIKA MILISIC-STANLEY, ATCK, expat, painter, campaigner and writer

two more book picks_Aug2016When I am on the beach, I get no longer than half an hour of uninterrupted reading time. For that reason, I took a book of short stories with me this year: Angela Readman’s Don’t Try This At Home (2015), which has stories set in the UK, USA, France and elsewhere. Brilliantly engaging, with an amazing use of language, alternately fun and fantastical, this debut, award-winning collection is well worth a read.

Some of you may not be short story fans, in which case I’d recommend The White Tiger (2008), by Aravind Adiga. The “white tiger” of the book’s title is a Bangalore chauffeur, who guides us through his experience of the poverty and corruption of modern India’s caste society. two book picks_Aug2016_515xThe novel won the 2008 Booker, but don’t let that put you off. It is surprisingly accessible and a real page-turner: funny, horrifying and brilliant.

For an agonizing airport wait, I have two suggestions: Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life (2015) and Sanjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways (also 2015). Both feature immigrants describing their former lives, their motive for departure from their countries of origin, and the harshness of life in a new country as illegals.

CentresofCataclysm_coverAnd once you’re back at the desk, I would recommend giving Centres of Cataclysm (2016, Bloodaxe Books) a try. Edited by Sasha Dugdale and David and Helen Constantine, it’s an anthology celebrating fifty years of modern poetry in translation—full of beautiful gems from poets from around the world. Profits go to refugee charities.

Raised in Britain by Swedish and Anglo-German parents, Annika Milisic-Stanley has worked on humanitarian aid projects in Nepal, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, India, Burundi and Egypt as well as living in Tajikistan for several years. She currently lives in Rome with her family. In addition to writing and painting, she works as a campaigner to raise awareness on the plight of refugees in Southern Europe. The Disobedient Wife, about expatriate and local life in Tajikistan, is her debut novel and was named the Cinnamon Press 2015 Novel of the Year. Annika invites you to like her book page on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.


PAMELA JANE ROGERS, expat and artist/author

Saving Fish from Drowning_coverFor that last trip to the beach, I’d recommend Amy Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning (2005). A group of California travelers decide to go on their planned trip to the Burma (its southern Shan State) without their (deceased) travel director, and in their total ignorance of the customs and religion of that part of the world, create havoc—and commit what is considered a heinous crime. I was directing a travel group in Greece when I read it, which may be why it seemed quite plausible, as well as darkly hilarious.

If you haven’t read it yet (though most on this site probably have), an absorbing read for when you get stuck in an airport is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (1998)The Poisonwood Bible_cover, about a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. Between the evangelical Christian father wanting his converts to “gather by the river” in Africa for their baptisms, to the chapters written by his wife and daughters at different ages—the reader is in for a rollicking, sometimes absurd, sometimes sad and sobering, ride.

And when it’s time to face work again, I recommend the book I’m reading now: Passage of the Stork, Delivering the Soul (Springtime Books, 2015), by Madeleine LenaghPassage of the Stork_cover, an American who has lived in the Netherlands since 1970. This is her life story. [Editor’s note: Madeleine Lenagh and her photography have been featured on the Displaced Nation.]

Pamela Jane Rogers is an American artist who has adopted the Greek island of Poros as her home. She has written a memoir of her adventures, which she recently re-published with a hundred of her paintings as illustrations: GREEKSCAPES: Illustrated Journeys with an Artist.


JASMINE SILVERA, former expat and writer

The Best of All Possible Worlds_coverFor the beach I would recommend The Best of All Possible Worlds (2013), by Barbadian author Karen Lord. It’s what many people call “social science fiction” because the story is less obsessed with technological advances than with their interpersonal ramifications. The book opens after a cataclysmic event destroys the home planet of an entire civilization, rendering everyone who managed to be off-world at the time of destruction displaced. It follows the journey of a leader of a group of survivors, who decides to team up with an “assistant biotechnician” to find a suitable replacement home on a colony planet. I know what you’re thinking: it doesn’t sound like a rollicking good time! But it reads a bit like a “he said, she said” travelogue; and one of the two narrators has delightfully funny moments (I’ll let you decide which one). There is humor and sweetness, a bit of intrigue, and a satisfyingly happy ending.

The Pilgrimage_coverFor an absorbing read suitable for a long wait in an airport lounge, try The Pilgrimage (1987), by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. [Editor’s note: He was once featured on the Displaced Nation’s Location, Locution column.] I’ll be honest, my experience of the Camino de Santiago was nothing like the one depicted in this book (more technical fabrics and guidebooks, less overt mysticism); but I still find Coelho’s account evocative and moving. Like the work considered to be his masterpiece, The Alchemist, it’s part engaging adventure, part allegory—and a wonderful story. It’s a good one to transport you elsewhere when you’re “stuck” in a place you don’t want to be in.

Committed_coverIf the Way of St. James isn’t your thing, then I might recommend Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed (2010) for an absorbing read. I can’t imagine what it would be like to attempt a follow-up to a book that was a huge commercial success, let alone a direct “sequel.” But that’s what Gilbert did with Committed. People love or hate the book for all sorts of reasons. But it’s a good one to stick with, IMHO, because it explores not only the byzantine banalities of bureaucratic regulations (something all displaced persons deal with at some point in their adventures) but also the innermost workings of one’s heart as you navigate knowing when to go and when to, well, commit. And while Gilbert occasionally allows herself to navel gaze in less charming a fashion than in Eat, Pray, Love, overall this book is an honest, thoughtful exploration of what marriage and commitment means in a world of divorce, infidelity, and the “best friending” of one’s partner. The book starts out with a decision made and then backtracks through the process—but it’s the journey that counts, after all. [Editor’s note: Hmmm… Will she write a sequel now that she is divorcing her husband of 12 years?]

Kinky Gazpacho_coverFor getting back into your groove at work, I’d recommend Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain (2008), by Lori Tharps. There are relatively few travel memoirs written by people of color, so a book full of observations around how race is experienced in different cultures is a rare treasure. As a black woman from the United States, I have found race to be an intrinsic part of my experience in traveling and living abroad. From being stared at, to being touched, to stumbling on some unexpected bit of exported racism where I least expect it, I would say it’s an oversimplification to think that race is something we only struggle with in the land of my birth (that said, I’ve known a few African Americans whose decision to live abroad was based in no small part on the gravity of the struggle for racial equality in America). Nowhere is perfect, and Tharp explores what happens when the fantasy and the reality collide during her year of study abroad in Spain, as she attempts to reconcile that country’s problematic past with its present. She also extends her adventures beyond those of a traveler to become an expat (this is not a spoiler: she marries a Spaniard). I enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love, but this book resonated with my personal experience of travel and life abroad much more deeply.

A world traveler and former expat who remains a California girl at heart, Jasmine Silvera will release her debut, Prague-inspired novel Death’s Dancer in October (it was recently selected for publication by Kindle Press). Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

* * *

Thanks, everyone, for participating! Readers, what books would you recommend? Let us know in the comments!

Till next time and happy reading!

As always, please let me or ML know if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see reviewed here! And I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: Best of expat fiction 2015

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

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

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

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

* * *

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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Photo credits: All photos via Pixabay or Morguefiles.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Trish Nicholson, a writer whose talents have blossomed in unusual places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmmm… sounds a little like Trish?

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

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

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

* * *

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

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m losing all sense of “normal”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Until next month!

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

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

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: When what happens in a third culture refuses to stay there: Allen Kurzweil’s “Whipping Boy”

Booklust Wanderlust Collage

Left: Oleh Slobodeniuk (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0); right: Beth Green (her own photo).

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), is back with a rather unusual selection: a memoir that reads like crime fiction. The author, but of course, is an international creative. Enjoy!

—ML Awanohara

Hello again, Displaced Nationers!

Our Booklust, Wanderlust roundtable series left me with such a wide selection of books to read that I’m only just now coming up for air. This month I’d like to tell you about Whipping Boy: My Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully, by the bestselling novelist Allen Kurzweil—which our own ML named as one of the books on her radar in early 2015.

Well, Whipping Boy is out, and it’s a cracking (so to speak) read!

"Allen Kurzweil Wiki2007," by Allen Kurzweil - an image provided by Allen Kurzweil. Transferred from en.wikipedia by SreeBot. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

TCK author Allen Kurzweil & his memoir. Photo credits: “Allen Kurzweil Wiki2007,” by Allen Kurzweil – an image provided by Allen Kurzweil. Transferred from en.wikipedia by SreeBot. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Kurzweil has produced a memoir that deals with deep emotions dating back to his displaced youth—but that still manages to flow fast and fun like an international thriller. As marketing whiz Kat Gordon put it in a recent tweet:

Hanging on every word of @AllenKurzweil memoir “Whipping Boy.” A whodunit + fairytale in one.

In the fairy tale portion, we watch as our hero, age ten, attends a British-style boarding school perched on an alpine meadow high above Geneva. All goes well until he meets the dastardly Cesar (full name Cesar Augusto Viana), who torments him mercilessly. When our hero grows up, he resolves to track down and confront his childhood nemesis, however long it takes…

The whodunit starts the moment Kurzweil discovers that Cesar has become a leading figure in an international fraud scheme. At that point he converts into an investigative journalist, leaving no stone unturned in his quest to find out how many victims the adult Cesar has racked up.

Before saying anything more about the book, I should point out that Kurzweil is an adult Third Culture Kid. His parents were Jewish émigrés from Vienna to New York City. The family relocated to Milan, Italy, when Kurzweil was young, but he spent his teen years back in New York. He got his education at Yale and the University of Rome and then worked for ten years as a freelance journalist in France, Italy, and Australia before settling back in the United States with his French wife and son.

Kurzweil’s previous works include two novels and a children’s book inspired by his son’s preschool bully. The Whipping Boy has also been excerpted and condensed in the New Yorker.

“In 1971, I met a boy who changed my life forever.”

Kurzweil roomed with Cesar—a burly Filipino rumored to be the son of Ferdinand Marcos’s head of security—at the exclusive Aiglon College, in Villars, Switzerland, for the better part of a year, while Kurzweil’s mother was “test-driving her third husband.” (Kurzweil’s father died of cancer when he was five.)

Kurzweil loved the idea of the school—his deceased father had adored the Alps and mountaineering. But he hated boarding, particularly at night, when Cesar and his stooges would subject him to all manner of hazing. They forced him to eat hot pepper sauce, stole his things (including his most prized possession, his father’s Omega Seamaster watch), taunted him with anti-Semitic slurs, and at one point whipped him with a belt while playing “The 39 Lashes” from Jesus Christ Superstar (Kurzweil was Jesus).

Some form of bullying in schools is universal, but when the kids are internationals, and boarders—dealing with the losses of worlds they have loved (which in Kurzweil’s case was tied to the loss of his dad)—things can get even more intense, something non-TCKs may not appreciate.

Fortunately, though, Kurzweil has a sense of humor. In this book he never misses a chance to point out that life, even when traumatizing, has its comic moments.

“It didn’t take long to shed the habits I’d picked up in Switzerland.”

After a year at the school, Kurzweil moves back to New York City, and quickly re-acculturates:

“[My mother and I] returned to New York, where the plimsolls, anoraks and rucksacks I wore at Aiglon reverted to sneakers, parkas and backpacks. I no longer had to address my teachers as sir and ma’am.”

But while Kurzweil displays the TCK’s resilience in adjusting back to life in the U.S., happy to get rid of the crossbars on his “7s” and scuttle his schooner-sail “4s”, he cannot let go of his memories of Cesar so easily. He harbors an obsession, which grows worse with the years, even (especially?) after he finds success as a writer.

When he learns that his boyhood enemy is most probably a con man working for a shady “royal”-family-led corporation named Badische (pronounced “Baddish,” Kurzweil notes slightly gleefully) that runs investment “schemes” for hard-up New York one-percenters, Kurzweil becomes unstoppable:

Obsessives tend to have obsessions. Cesar wasn’t my first fixation, and I’m sure he won’t be the last. Baseball cards, Matchbox cars, Pez dispensers—I’ve always been a collector…my point is I tend to go overboard. I investigated Cesar and Badische the same way I collected Lincoln pennies—intent on filling every void.

“…I began to acknowledge the obvious: Cesar had taken over my life.”

His investigations span decades and continents, and throughout it all he is haunted by memories of Cesar:

At the back of a dingy bar in Alice Springs, a pair of drunks playing foosball recalled my ex-roommate’s unstoppable bank shot. In Vienna, hanging on the wall of the Kunsthistoriches Museum, a Flagellation of Christ reinvoked the musical whipping. Hot sauce, Andrew Lloyd Weber tunes, Ferdinand Marcos, Montblanc fountain pens, and more than anything else, vintage Omegas, had me reaching for the journal.

The Ubiquitous Cesar. Photo credits (clockwise from left): “Flagellation-of-christ-Rubens” by Peter Paul Rubens (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons); foosball, byrev via Pixabay; Omega watch, ephotographythemes via Pixabay.

Kurzweil shares with the reader his mixed emotions when he at last finds Cesar, wondering what to say to someone who may not even remember him. And then the fear returns—the fear that he experienced as a shy boy being whipped with a belt in his dorm room…only now it is morphing into an adult fear as Kurzweil realizes he has tracked down an actual criminal:

Fake knights. False banks. Imaginary kingdoms. These guys travelled on bogus passports. They hosted lavish dinner parties at five-star hotels. They performed knighting ceremonies. (When I interviewed the assistant U.S. attorney who filed the initial charges, he summed up the crime as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels meets Clue.)

“So, basically, I’m being blamed for your memories?”

Whipping Boy was a quick, satisfying read. I loved the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction details that Kurzweil unearths about Cesar and his company’s schemes.

I loved his humor.

I also enjoyed the quiet pauses when Kurzweil would describe personal moments having nothing to do with the hunt for Cesar: for example, when he met his wife in outback Australia:

A French anthropologist named Françoise Dussart spotted me wandering toward a sacred site off limits to visitors. Concerned for my safety, she drove up and warned me away. She was sitting in the cab of a Toyota Land Cruiser and cradling a baby kangaroo. How could I not fall in love?

And then:

She flew west, from Alice. I flew east, from New York. We met each other halfway, in Paris, broke and in love.

Juanchito via Pixabay[http://pixabay.com/en/kangaroo-australia-jump-creature-250873/]; talitaraquel via Pixabay[http://pixabay.com/en/eiffel-tower-paris-france-tower-350453/]. License: CC0 Public Domain[http://pixabay.com/en/service/terms/#download_terms]

From kangaroo love to love in the City of Light. Photo credits: Australian kangaroo, Juanchito via Pixabay; Eiffel Tower, talitaraquel via Pixabay. License: CC0 Public Domain

I further appreciated his candor in admitting that two people can remember the details of an event differently, particularly when one of them is a psychopath with a chip on his shoulder. As Cesar puts it when they finally meet up again for the first time:

“I recall a lot… But just in bits and pieces. There are some things that people have told me about that I really don’t remember. You might need to prod me a bit.”

I would particularly recommend the book to those who like stories about heists or con artists—the movie American Hustle has some parallels—as well as to anyone who has harbored a fantasy of facing down a childhood bully.

Kurzweil may be beaten but he isn’t conquered, and that’s an inspiration to victims everywhere.

But most of all I appreciated Kurzweil’s understanding that for us TCKs, what happens in a third culture doesn’t always stay in a third culture. Some readers may wonder why Kurzweil couldn’t leave his bullying experience behind, particularly as it happened overseas, in a country to which he had limited personal ties. But for Third Culture Kids, the floating world of the expat is as real as it gets. And, as Kurzeil’s story shows, what happens there can have a life-long impact.

* * *

Fellow TCKs, do you have a Cesar or other skeletons in your cupboard dating back to your school days, at an international school or boarding school? Do tell!

Till next time!

Editor’s note: All subheds are quotes taken from Allen Kurzweil’s New Yorker article.

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!

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

Gene B-V TCK Talent

Professor Gene Bell-Villada (own photo)

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

—ML Awanohara

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

* * *

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

OverseasAmerican_cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And the July 2014 Alices go to … these 4 international creatives

 © Iamezan | Dreamstime.com Used under license

© Iamezan | Dreamstime.com
Used under license

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

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

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

Today’s post honors July’s four Alice recipients. They are (drumroll…):

1) STEVE LUNT, British barrister and expat in the Far East (first Hong Kong and now the Philippines)

For his post: “My invitation to paradise was printed on a T-shirt,” on Telegraph Expat
Posted on: 25 July 2014
Snippet:

The tidal rhythms of island life seem to suit the mind and body. After a week in Boracay, you might forget that other world, where you have to strive more, earn more and worry more.

Small wonder then that so many expats forget to leave.

Citation: First off, Mr. Lunt QC, we’d like to pass judgement on this little adventure of yours. Let’s see. According to your testimony, you were having a “chilly winter” in Hong Kong when you happened to notice someone wearing a T-shirt promoting Boracay, the Philippines’ most popular tourist destination. It read:

Quit your job. Buy a ticket. Fall in love. Stay forever …

—and you decided to do just that. Now, does the defendant plead guilty or not guilty of barmy behavior? Off with your head… (Sorry, this is the first chance we’ve had to use that line in an Alice citation, and we simply couldn’t resist.) Moving right along to your observation about expats who are guilty of staying forever: we note that in your own case, you left the white sands of Boracay for the bright lights of Manila after 10 months. While this is a healthy sign, the jury is still out on your long-term intentions. All we can say is that forgetfulness is surprisingly common among us displaced types. Take Alice for instance. After stepping through the looking-glass, she enters the wood where things have no names and immediately forgets her own name:

“What do you call yourself?” the Fawn said at last. Such a soft sweet voice it had!

“I wish I knew!” thought poor Alice. She answered, rather sadly, “Nothing, just now.”

Suffice it to say that the moment you hear a Palawan Bearded Pig cry out, “I’m a Palawan Bearded Pig! and dear me! You’re an English barrister!”, it will be time to get the heck out of there. We rest our case.

2) LUCILLE CELANO, indie author and New Zealander in New Caledonia

For her post: The downsides of living in a Pacific paradise on Stuff.co.nz
Posted on: 15 July 2014
Snippet:

International contracts in mining and development bring in [to New Caledonia] entire families who must cope with a life not their own. Kids are thrown into school wondering what planet they’ve arrived on. No allowances are made for these children in the local system and the French syllabus of reading, writing and mathematics (and nothing else) seems alien to parents used to school rooms full of colour and creativity.

Citation: Lucille, we’ve long suspected that Paradise has many downsides, so thank you for writing this post. But, as to this business of expat children receiving a French-style education, are you sure that’s not an upside? Maybe we’ve been drinking the Pamela Druckerman Koolaid for too long (has her book, Bringing Up Bébé, reached New Caledonia yet?), but Drukerman, an American expat in Paris, pretty much has us persuaded that if your bébé isn’t doing well in school, it’s a sign of bad parenting. According to Druckerman, the French have a knack for getting the balance right between good parenting and good teaching, the evidence being the kids themselves. French kids are much better behaved than—while also being just as boisterous, curious and creative as—kids elsewhere. That said, it sounds as though you’ve got enough toxic matter in the air from that nickel smelter, and we wouldn’t want Druckerman’s thesis to add any more. The way things are going with that New Calendonian expat crowd, we predict it won’t be long before a Mock Turtle stands up and says he’s had the “best of educations,” far superior to anyone else’s in the room. And just think, if said Mock Turtle held sway, all expat offspring would be forced to study the “different branches of Arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.” On the other hand, his idea of classes taking place in the sea might have a certain appeal. Isn’t New Caledonia one of THE diving spots in the South Pacific? Yes, yes, we know it’s no paradise, or if it is, it’s a paradise with flaws. Actually, now that you’ve gotten us thinking about French-style learning, we’re remembering a line of Victor Hugo’s that you may wish to use on the expat crowd, next time things get on your nerves:

An intelligent hell would be better than a stupid paradise.

3) BARNABY EALES, freelance journalist and director of a translation service, former expat but now living in East Sussex, UK

For his post: A return to my beautiful, mad school in Paris, on Telegraph Expat
Posted on: 7 July 2014
Snippet:

Madame Boulic, the mother of my second host French family, dropped me off at the [British School of Paris]’s anniversary party and reunion. To her amusement, a banner at the entrance to the school read: “We are all mad here.”

Ahead of the evening BBQ party, the theme of the summer fête was Alice in Wonderland, and in the cultural sense, living in this part of France is all about being in wonderland: exposed to French culture and language while receiving a British education. An outsider within.

Citation: Barnaby, thank you for sharing this charming story of your misspent youth at a school for (predominantly, at the time you went there) British expats in France. And we’re head over heels for the idea of an Alice-themed summer fête being thrown by such a displaced institution. In our book, that’s calling a spade a spade, or should we say, a heart a heart? We have just one item in need of clarification, though, after reading your post. You mention beer and Jägermeister being enjoyed. But what about wine? We are recalling, of course, this exchange between Alice and the March Hare:

“Have some wine,” the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. “I don’t see any wine,” she remarked.

“There isn’t any,” said the March Hare.

That would not be terribly civil, to use Alice’s word, especially in light of the growing numbers of French students at BSP. À la vôtre!

4) EMMA THIEME, fifth-generation Maine girl living off-the-grid in Washington County, Matador Network contributor and MatadorU faculty member

For her post: The First Time I Felt Independence, on Matador Network
Posted on: 4 July 2014
Snippet:

I wish I could say that this worry gene didn’t pass on to me, but I too have felt myself hugging a loved one too tightly when saying goodbye. I’ve saved countless voicemails as if they were soon-to-be artifacts. I’ve even gone so far as imagining the minute details of myself, distraught, at a funeral. What would I wear? Who would bring me? How soon would I return to work?

Citation: Listen, Emma, “worry” is Alice in Wonderland’s middle name! Honestly, has there ever been a bigger fretter in the history of English literature? Don’t even think about competing with her. But the nice thing about Alice, and we suspect you have this gene as well, is that despite her aversion to nasty predicaments, she handles them with aplomb. How about the time when she eats the cookie in the White Rabbit’s house and grows to the point where her arms and legs are sticking out the windows and doors, yet still has the presence of mind to conduct a little conversation with her extremities:

“Good-bye, feet!” (for when she looked down at her feet, they seemed to be almost out of sight, they were getting so far off). “Oh, my poor little feet, I wonder who will put on your shoes and stockings for you now, dears? I’m sure I shan’t be able! I shall be a great deal too far off to trouble myself about you: you must manage the best way you can;—but I must be kind to them,’ thought Alice, “or perhaps they won’t walk the way I want to go!”

And, while we don’t wish to be too literal, perhaps your worrying nature has kept your feet, which are clearly itching to travel and have adventures, from fulfilling their true potential. Had you thought of talking to your feet, as Alice does, and reassuring them of your intention to let them lead the way? We feel certain they appreciated your outburst at the Denver airport: “Wow, I’m alive!” (Hmmm…and now that you’re a domestic expat, having moved from Maine to Washington State, are they getting ideas about moving abroad? It would not surprise us.)

*  *  *

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

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

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

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For this Filipina with a passion for immersive escapades, a picture says…

Jean Alaba Collage

Canon zoom lens; photo credit: Morguefiles. Jean Alaba in front of moat surrounding Osaka Castle, Osaka, Japan. Photo credit: Jean Alaba.

Welcome to our monthly series “A picture says…”, created to celebrate expats and other global residents for whom photography is a creative outlet. The series host is English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King, who thinks of a camera as a mirror with memory. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

My February guest is 20+ Filipina Jean Alaba. An extrovert who describes herself as a “God-fearing human being” and a “firm believer of living vividly,” Jean is, without a doubt, fulfilling her passion in life: TO TRAVEL. As she explains on the About page of her blog, The Eager Traveller, travel affords her an opportunity to move outside her comfort zone and grow as a person.

Jean was motivated to start up her blog just over a year ago, as a space to record the re-collections of her travels—which she modestly calls “my humble escapades”—in hopes of inspiring others to “nurture their zeal for new adventures” and of promoting the joy of immersing yourself in “the vibrant cultures across the globe.”

Why am I not surprised that Jean has gathered a considerable following in just over one year? My interview with her may provide a few clues as to why other avid travellers are drawn to Jean and her suggested itineraries.

* * *

Hi Jean. I know it has taken us a bit of time to connect, but I’m glad we finally managed to find some time to discuss your photo-travel experiences. Firstly, I see that you are 20+ (I am also 20+: 20 + 50!!), and for one so young you have travelled a fair bit. Can you tell us where you were born and when did you spread your wings to start travelling?
I was born in the Philippines. This may sound like a cliché but my first source of inspiration for travelling was a National Geographic magazine I saw in our school library.

National Geographic is a wonderful publication. I love it.
But I didn’t spread my wings until I made my first trip to West Coast USA. The Strip struck me the most because everyone there seemed to be having the time of their lives. There was such a lot to experience and yet the time was way too short. After that, I developed a passion to immerse myself in new cultures, interact with unfamiliar nationalities and engage in overseas adventures.

To a fearless person, no fence is high enough.—Filipino tagalong proverb

I assume you mean the famous Sunset Strip that has featured in so many movies over the years? I want to know more about your travels, but let’s start with what it’s like to be a solo female traveller.
So far I’ve travelled for pleasure and for business but as yet have never travelled alone. That’s a hurdle I hope to cross this year. I realize it can be risky, but from the inspiring articles I’ve read online, it’s clear it can also be rewarding.

Even though stepping into the unknown by yourself can sometimes be difficult, even for seasoned travellers, I believe preparation is the key. I’m sure you will be fine. Next I would love to know what what countries you have already visited?
So far, I’ve only been to the United States, India, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, China and Taiwan. I lived in Singapore as an exchange student for four months, which gave me a a sense of independence and responsibility. Another highlight was my six-week business trip in India, where I had the opportunity of visiting Mumbai, Agra, New Delhi and Jaipur. Here are two photos I took on that trip:

Q9-Taj-Mahal

The Taj Mahal in all of its intricacy. Photo credit: Jean Alaba

The first is of the Taj Mahal. I immediately fell in love with its intricate design. By pure luck, a bird flew across at the moment when I snapped this shot. It was only when I was viewing my photos on my laptop that I realized I had captured such an amazing moment. For me, the bird is special: it symbolizes freedom from all the worries in one’s life and from whatever is holding you back from achieving your dreams.

Q9-Bhawani

The jolly Jaipur driver Bhawani. Photo credit: Jean Alaba

The second is of Bhawani, the driver assigned to my group during our two-day outing to Jaipur. It reminds me of his kindness and positive disposition in life. He had to take us around Jaipur in the burning hot summer, but never once did he become irritated or impatient. He always had a smile on his face, and that kept us all in a good mood during the trip. In fact, the following week when we went to New Delhi, the company driver assigned to us was totally rude and inconsiderate. At one point he left us in the car sleeping (engine shut off!) while he had his dinner. Worse, when we lightly honked the car to signal that we were awake and frankly not amused, he completely ignored us.

I loved your photo of the Taj Mahal when I first saw it on your blog’s Home Page, but I have to be honest, I never noticed the bird until you pointed it out just now. Maybe that’s good as I was able to appreciate the intricate carvings. Now I’m worried I’ll miss the building and concentrate on the bird!! You’ve captured Bhawani exactly as you describe him; perfect.

One finds a way, or finds a reason to do something.—Filipino tagalong proverb

You are very modest to say you’ve been to “only” eight countries. That’s a lot more than most people visit in a lifetime. So tell us about where are you right now and why.
Well, as you know, James, I am currently in my country of birth, the Philippines, but I’m working out a deal that will hopefully pave the way for life in a new place. I’ll keep you posted.

Q9-Baler

Baler, nicknamed the Philippines’ surfing capital. Photo credit: Jean Alaba

So you are keeping the secret for now, but I’m sure your blog will be give the game away when you are on the move again. The Philippines is a beautiful country and I see you have included one picture in your selection.
Yes, I’ve included this photo of Baler, which is in Aurora province. I like it because it reminds me of my first time attempting to surf and for someone not sporty, I didn’t do too badly. This was also my first time to go beyond my comfort zone in my own part of the world: I travelled for six hours just to catch the waves. It was a spontaneous weekend that proved to be pretty rewarding.

For me, the Baler surf lapping the shore looks just like a welcoming carpet in someone’s lounge.

If you plant, you will harvest.—Filipino tagalong proverb

I know you take a lot of photos but where, so far, are your favourite places to do so? and Can you explain why these places inspire you and how it shows in your next three photos?
My favourite places to take photos so far are India, Japan and Hong Kong. I’ve included one photo of each.

Q10-India

Indian women in colorful saris. Photo credit: Jean Alaba

I like taking photos in India because Indians are very proud of their heritage. This was apparent everywhere we went in India, regardless of the people’s social status.

Q10 Japan

Portraits of Japanese people. Photo credit: Jean Alaba

Japan is a favorite of mine because the people are so organized, disciplined and polite. I never run out of things to see and admire.

Q10-Hong-Kong

A Hong Kong eatery. Photo credit: Jean Alaba

Hong Kong inspires me because of the food! I should think its vast array of local dishes are enough to inspire anyone!

I like that you manage to get a handle on people from the different countries you visit, without actually living in that place. You are clearly a good observer of people, as well as a keen researcher. Tell me, do you feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious you are doing so?
Not really unless I see they’re offended. But so far, no one has reacted angrily when they see me taking their photo. This is a good thing since I like shooting people. Capturing their unique expressions enables me to glimpse who they are and the kind of lives they lead. I must have taken a thousand portrait shots while in India. Perhaps I’ll get some of these printed and make it my wall art.

I’m the same. I hate to take “posed” photos so never get into a discussion with my subjects. I either take the pic or I don’t. So you like shooting people? Don’t worry; I know what you mean! I think the wall art is a great idea. I know this is a similar question but do you ever ask permission before taking people’s photographs. And how do you get around any language barriers?
Most of the time, I don’t ask but when I was in Japan, where permission needs to be secured for taking photographs of infants and kids, I would politely approach one of the parents and ask them in Japanese—of course with the help of sign language (pointing to my camera and their kids).

Thanks to you, I won’t get into trouble if I ever go to Japan. Would you say that you are motivated by the possibility of capturing something unique, which will never be seen again?
Definitely. You always have to live in the moment, and there is nothing more rewarding than being able to capture the special moments that, unless you have a time machine, you’ll never be able to bring back. Those photos may give you inspiration just when you need it most.

I have to agree, as I think most photographers would. So when did you first realize the power of photography, and how has it changed you?
I first realized it after borrowing a decent SLR for my trip to Hong Kong in 2008. I was able to take high-quality photos to serve as a memento. Ever since, I’ve made it a point to capture moments with my camera, whether during a vacation or simply at a gathering of family or friends—moments I’ll be wanting to view when I get old and grey.

I know what you mean. The picture for me is like a diary of an event in visual form. The photographer can write about it but no one else could.

When the sheets are short, one needs to make do.—Filipino tagalong proverb

Most readers will know by now that I’m not too good on the technical stuff but some of our readers will want to know what kind of camera and lenses you use.
I’m still using the borrowed camera; it’s a Canon 450D. I use the kit lens and a prime lens. It’s outdated equipment now.

You sound a bit like me except that I haven’t managed to borrow any equipment yet. And you aren’t asking me for technical advice. That’s great!! Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
I don’t feel I’m in a position to give advice since I haven’t really achieved anything noteworthy. But I would say from my experience, don’t hesitate to take as many pictures as you can while travelling. Before embarking on a journey, research and learn from the professionals online. You can try copying them, using a trial and error process.

I actually think that is very good non-technical advice, Jean. I’d like to thank you for taking the time to tell your story so far in this interview. On your blog you say:

It has been a spectacular life so far but there is so much more to be seen! I have yet to find that life-changing opportunity which will allow me to do my passion for travelling and blogging as a living.

I have no doubt you will find that opportunity. I’m booking you in for a follow up interview next year to check your progress!!

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Jean’s experiences and her photography advice? And do you have any questions for her on her photos and/or travels? Please leave them in the comments!

And if you want to know more about Jean, don’t forget to visit her excellent blog, The Eager Traveller. You can also follow her on social media:
Twitter: @eagertraveller
Instagram: theeagertraveller
Google+: Jean Alaba

(If you are a photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s fab post!

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TCK TALENT: Diahann Reyes is in her element as writer, actor & storytelling coach

DiahannReyes_headshot_pmWelcome to the second installment of “TCK Talent,” Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang’s monthly column about adult Third Culture Kids who work in creative fields. As some readers may recall, Lisa—a Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent—has written and performed a one-woman show about being a Third Culture Kid, or TCK. (It debuted in LA in the spring and is coming next week to NYC!)

—ML Awanohara

My guest today is Diahann Reyes, a professional writer/actor who is launching a new blog, writing a memoir, and beginning an additional career as a writer’s editor/coach. Diahann grew up in six countries, worked as a journalist for CNN before becoming an actor, and currently lives in Los Angeles, California.

Growing up here and there and everywhere

Greetings, Diahann, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. I understand you’re the TCK child of Filipino parents. Can you fill us in a little more: why did your family move around and which countries did you live in as a kid?
My dad was a marketing expat. I learned how to speak English with a Kiwi accent in New Zealand, discovered my love for books in Argentina, rode my first camel in Pakistan, went through puberty in the US, attended junior prom in the Philippines, and graduated from high school in Indonesia.

Of all those cultures, did you identify with one in particular?
Like you, I’m a “mash up” of the different cultures I’ve lived in. Living in America for most of my life now, I feel most at home here, which is its own kind of cultural mishmash. In my twenties, I realized that I had to pick one of my “home” cultures as my main one or I’d continue to feel ungrounded. I also identify with particular subcultures that aren’t necessarily considered mainstream, such as the artist culture.

Where and when were you happiest while growing up?
My family’s two years in Argentina were some of my happiest, probably because my mom, dad, sister, and I were all so excited to be living in a new country together. Moving to a different culture was still an adventure of which I had yet to grow weary. Also, at age 8, I was still very much myself and hadn’t been impacted yet by the pressures of puberty and the need to fit in.

What lies beneath the surface…

Speaking of puberty and the female body brings me to the launching of your new blog, Stories from the Belly: A Blog About the Female Body and Its Appetites. What inspired you to begin it and what can followers look forward to from the blog?
For women especially, there are so many truths, emotions, and desires that we tend to suppress: they get buried deep down in our bodies. My blog is my way of excavating this buried inner emotional landscape. I want to talk about the female body in ways not normally touched upon in mainstream media. My blog will include personal stories as well as commentary on relevant current events.

You’ve been working on a memoir. Is it specific to a time and place in your life?
Yes. My memoir is about my latest “move,” only this time rather than going to live in a new country, I’ve spent the last decade “moving into” and learning how to fully inhabit my own body. Location-wise, I take the reader across the globe to some of the places I’ve lived growing up, but the main action takes place in my body.

What themes are you exploring?
The story I tell is absolutely personal, but it does touch on a lot of bigger ideas involving the female body and its objectification and how this can impact a woman’s relationship to herself and others. Desirability, cultural assumptions, sexuality, power, pleasure, and wholeness are some of the through-lines in the book.

Owning who she is

On your website you describe how you fell in love with reading and acting. Did you always know you would pursue both of these interests as careers, or did you struggle with the decision?
I knew I wanted to be a writer from the time I could read, but it took me a long time to own that this is who I am, in part because the grownup me couldn’t imagine that my younger self could just “know” this. Still, writing has been the primary way I’ve made a living—as a TV news writer, an editor, a ghostwriter, and now a blogger, so I guess I didn’t need to know I was a writer to be one.

The decision to act was tougher. I didn’t start to pursue acting until my 30th birthday, and by then I had established a pretty good career in journalism and online media, so I was giving up a lot to change focus. But acting was like this siren calling to me, saying “act, act, act.”

You and I grew up reading many of the same (mostly American and British) authors: Ingalls Wilder, L’Engle, Cleary, Blyton… I remember the day I realized I would never get cast as Jo in any theatrical production of Alcott’s Little Women because I was a girl of color. Did you ever have a moment like this, and if so, which beloved character(s) and book(s) or play(s) did you realize you wouldn’t get to explore as an actress?
I always thought I could be anyone because while growing up I’ve had to be a chameleon. “Adapt and assimilate and fit in” was one of my mantras as a global nomad. But when I got to LA and started auditioning, I realized that I would never be able to play certain characters because I was the wrong ethnicity or type. I was primarily limited to not even Asian parts but Latina roles because I look more Hispanic than Southeast Asian. This meant that I was likely never going to play Maggie from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Caroline Ingalls in any future Little House on the Prairie remake, and parts that were for people of my actual ethnicity were out, too. Fortunately, the industry has changed, and more minorities are getting cast outside of ethnicity and stereotype.

What sorts of roles are you attracted to now?
I love parts that call for emotional depth and angst.

I wonder if one of the reasons we’re writers is that we have more autonomy to tell stories than we do as actresses?
I love that I can write what I want—I don’t need anyone to “cast” me first. And I can create characters that aren’t limited by ethnicity or type. I am thinking of creating a solo show that would probably require me to write and play different characters.

I understand you also write poetry. What drew you to that?
I kept diaries growing up and would process my feelings through poetry. With both nonfiction and poetry, I can just be myself. After so many years of working hard at adapting and assimilating to fit in, getting to just be me on the page is a relief.

Helping others to own their stories

You’re about to begin a new endeavor as a writer’s editor/coach. What inspired you to follow this new path?
I know what it is like to have something to say and to struggle with fully expressing my truth—especially when the fears come up—and I want to help other writers overcome these obstacles so they can get their stories out there. I want to work with people who are just as engaged in their process as they are in having a finished product.

What are you looking for in a student/client?
I work with nonfiction writers, bloggers, storytellers, and essayists, and other people with writing and online content projects. Healers and people with unusual business ideas like to work with me, too.

Do you have any other projects coming up?
I hope to publish my memoir next year. The film Out of Her Element, in which I play a therapist with a pill addiction, will premiere soon.

* * *

I must congratulate Diahann on her exciting new ventures, which I believe will resonate with people working in creative fields—and with female travelers and TCKs, especially! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Diahann below.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, when Andy Martin will talk to Mark Hillary about his new book, Reality Check: Life in Brazil through the Eyes of a Foreigner.

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img: Diahann Reyes

Living La Dolce Vita with Food Writer and World Explorer Robyn Eckhardt

Veteran travel and food journalist Robyn Eckhardt is here. A few months ago, she shared some insights on Southeast Asian cooking with Displaced Dispatch subscribers, but for this post I’ve asked her to supply a recipe for La Dolce Vita, or the Sweet Life — drawing the ingredients from her extensive world travels and their sensory delights — along with an easy version anyone can try!

Robyn Eckhardt’s Personal Recipe for La Dolce Vita

Mix together the following:

3 heart-stopping sights

1) The Bund, Shanghai, in 1990 before the city underwent its construction boom. It was of those moments when you realize that a place you know by heart from books (I studied Chinese history in college and grad school) is actually real.
2) Istanbul’s Blue Mosque from a taxi at 1:00 a.m. on a crisp, clear February night. It was my first time in Turkey; I’d just arrived from Shanghai, where I was living at the time. The combination of jetlag and being somewhere so foreign and utterly different to the place that I called home was like a slap in the face, in a good way.
3) When I was 17 I saw the Statue of Liberty up close on a Circle Line tour. Even though I was your typical cynical, jaded teenager, my jaw kind of dropped. I imagined the thousands and thousands of immigrants to the US arriving by ship and having that same view. It’s still a pretty amazing sight, I think.

11 intoxicating scents

1) In most any neighborhood in Chengdu (capital of China’s Sichuan province) at around 5:00-6:00 p.m., the scent of dried chilies hitting hot rapeseed oil.
2) Just-off-the-boat anchovies grilling in Sinop, on the Turkish Black Sea.
3) Chicken barbecuing anywhere in Thailand.
4) Chòu dòufu, or “stinky beancurd,” in Taipei — funky yet beguiling.
5) Jasmine flowers in bloom on a hot summer ‘s (which is actually in September or October) evening in the San Francisco Bay Area.
6) On winter evenings in Santa Fe, burning piñon tree branches in a hundred fireplaces.
7) The seafood section in the market in Butuan, Mindanao in the Philippines, which smells like nothing but seawater — it smelled so good we didn’t mind eating kinilaw (the Philippine “ceviche”) prepared by a fish vendor, right smack in the middle of the market.
8) In any Turkish town or city very early in the morning, the first whiff of rising dough and baking bread from any bakery.
9) The enveloping, almost chokingly overwhelming scent of spices freshly ground in huge quantities at an old, Indian-run spice shop in George Town, Penang.
10) The dining room at a tiny osteria in Calosso, Piemonte, which my husband and I frequented four years in a row. It didn’t matter what was on the menu that day, as soon as I walked in the I knew that I was going to eat wonderful foods, drink good wines and leave very, very happy.
11) Last but not least, the smell of China. You smell it as soon as you get off an airplane. What is it? I’m not really sure. It’s certainly not magnificent but it is intoxicating to me because it never fails to transport me in a single second to my 21-year-old self, abroad and on her own for the first time, arriving in Chengu. Lots of emotions there.

4 dreamy sounds

1) The call to prayer one late afternoon as I sat on a hill overlooking the ruins of the theater at Aspendos, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. One muezzin started, then another from the opposite direction began, then another and another, from mosques in nearby villages. Their voices alternately intertwined and competed — one of those incredible moments that leaves you almost gasping for breath.
2) The sound of calling/singing/chanting vendors at wet markets. Especially when they get into a groove, sing-songing the same phrase over and over again. Like at Pudu Market in Kuala Lumpur: satu ringgit satu ringgit satu ringgit satu ringgit satu ringgit satu ringgit! When I hear a great call from a market vendor I just stop and listen while the market frenzy continues around me.
3) The sound of the rain forest waking up on Langkawi Island from the vantage point of the top of a hill, above the forest canopy. I arrived to perfect stillness; as the sky began to lighten there was movement in the trees — creakings and squawks and chirps and rumbles and knocks and grinding noises. Just before I left, ten or so hornbills simultaneously rose from their perches, making a tremendous, wonderful racket with their wide wingspans. It sounded like a jet flying low overhead — whoo whoo whoo whoo. I could feel that noise in my gut. Incredible.
4) A trio of genggong (Jew’s harp) players on the front porch of a cottage on the edge of a rice field in northern Bali. Bali is magical to begin with. This was an unexpected treat.

A particularly delicate flavoring

Normally, I’m attracted to bold flavors, but as this is La Dolce Vita, I’ll probably throw in the sap from the cut flower of an aren palm, which I tasted when I went out at dawn with a palm sugar maker in northern Sumatra to get the sap he was collecting in bamboo tubes from dozens of trees. It was sweet and flowery but in a very, very restrained way — what’s incredible is that after just three hours of boiling it becomes one of the most intensely flavored sugars in the world.

An extraordinary physical sensation

For this recipe I’ll include the most amazing physical sensation I can remember: riding an elephant bareback and solo, which I did last year in northern Thailand near the border with Burma. Grabbing its leathery ear to pull myself up, palming the spiky, hair-sprinkled knobs of its massive forehead to keep my balance, feeling its shoulders move under me when it walked — something I will never, ever forget.

A memorable encounter with strangers

My husband and I ended up eating lunch with an elderly Turkish couple in their traditional timber farmhouse on the Black Sea. The experience sticks with me, for many reasons. Rather than retell the story here, let me point you to the relevant post on our blog, EatingAsia.

A place that stimulates all five senses

For me, this can be anywhere unfamiliar, or where I haven’t visited for a long time. Right now, especially, it’s eastern Turkey, which I’ve been getting to know in bits and pieces over the last two years.

The food is new (to me) and surprising — interesting twists on familiar Turkish dishes and curve balls out of nowhere, like dolma made with cherry tree leaves(!) or dough spirals seasoned with copious amounts of ground poppy seeds that taste like cacao.

I love the way the Turkish language sounds; I speak enough to get by but am nowhere near even half-fluency. I desperately want to be better at it, so when I’m traveling there my ears and brain are hyper alert to conversations around me; I’m constantly trying to understand what I hear, writing down unfamiliar words, trying (and often failing) to communicate well with strangers. That’s fun in a certain way, though ultimately exhausting — but it’s a level of engagement with everything that is going on around me that I don’t always have.

Outside Turkish cities the sky is big and the population sparse. To me — a resident of Southeast Asia — that is incredible and wonderful. When my husband and I go, we rent a car and do long, long road trips. I’m always eager for what’s around the next bend in the road or over the next pass because in two or three hours the terrain can change tremendously.

I can never get over the scent of air in that part of the world: nothing but air, clean fresh air! We make it a point to go once or twice a year when it’s cold; this past February temperatures in Eastern Anatolia averaged about 10 degrees Fahrenheit and there was lots of snow. It was that kind of cold where the hairs in your nose freeze as soon as you walk outdoors and ice cracks under foot and snow crunches with an especially hard “c”. I loved it.

And I’ve had so many great people experiences there — strangers opening their homes and kitchens to me. Even though I’m always a wee bit tentative in that way that you get when you are among strangers somewhere unfamiliar, eastern Turkey is probably the place where I travel with my heart the most open. When I arrive there I take a deep breath and just relax and let whatever is going to happen, happen. I can’t and don’t always let my guard down like that when I travel, so it’s lovely to be somewhere where I can.

Art by 2 artists who understand La Dolce Vita

1) Well, I am biased, but this recipe definitely calls for my husband Dave Hagerman‘s portraits and people-focused street photography because they often capture, I think, that moment when a subject decides to just let it go. Those sorts of photographs only come when a photographer is willing to extend his or herself, take a risk and show utmost respect to his or her subject.
2) I also love the work — paintings especially — of California realist John Register. The empty-room paintings, the diners-at-night paintings. I can’t say much about his heart or his soul when he was painting them, but to me they show that mundane things can evoke emotion. That is beautiful.

An inspiring travel quote

“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.”
– Rudyard Kipling

As one who travels most of the time on her stomach, I can especially identify with this sentiment.

* * *

After adding a pinch of salt to all of the above, Robyn is living the sweet life. And if you’re not as well traveled as she is, not to worry. Robyn offers this simple recipe to try at home.

Robyn’s recipe for living La Dolce Vita at home

You don’t have to physically get on a plane or train or bus to travel. Do something unfamiliar in the place you know best, your home:
1) Go to a neighborhood you don’t usually frequent, go to a museum if you are an outdoors person or to a park if you’re an indoors type.
2) If you are not an early riser, go out before dawn and watch your town or city or neighborhood wake up, or if you’re an early-to-bed sort of person, take a nap in the evening and then go out late and see what where you live looks and sounds and feels like when you’re usually asleep.
3) Ride a bus or some other form of public transport if you’re always in your car.
4) Try a new restaurant or bakery or cafe, or shop at a farmer’s market if you usually buy your food at the big box or grocery store.

Penang-based freelance food and travel journalist Robyn Eckhardt is a contributing writer at Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia, a contributor at ZesterDaily and to publications like The New York Times Travel Section, Saveur and SBS Feast. With her photographer husband David Hagerman, she publishes the food-travel blog EatingAsia. As this interview hits interwebs, the two are hiking village-to-village in far northeastern Turkey, learning about beekeeping and cow-herding and tasting lots of honey and cheese.
Final note from ML Awanohara: Extra points will be awarded to anyone who recalls Robyn’s husband, David, being featured in the series I ran at the end of last year: “The 12 Nomads of Christmas.” He’s just as extraordinary as Robyn says!

STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post, an interview with Laura Graham, author of Down a Tuscan Alley, a semi-autobiographical novel about her mid-life move to Tuscany. (Ah, la dolce vita!)

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Img: Robyn Eckhardt writing in Tokat, Turkey (by David Hagerman).

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