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TCK TALENT: In response to “Where are you from?” a few more TCKs wax poetic

Columnist Dounia Bertuccelli is back with a second round of poems composed by Third Culture Kids in answer to that vexed “where are you from?” question.

Hello Displaced Nationers, global nomads, expats, Third Culture Kids and other curious travelers! Since the last time my column appeared, I trust you have moved on from an enjoyable summer (or winter, for our friends in the Southern Hemisphere) to a splendid fall (or spring).

In celebration of the change in seasons, I’d like to present the second post in my series of TCK poetry here at the TCK Talent column. If you missed the first, be sure to check it out here. As I explained then, the poems are the work of a group of 11th and 12th graders at an international school in Malta. Their teacher wanted them to think more deeply about what “home” means for them, given that they are all growing up in more than one country.

Perhaps because I never even lived in the country of my ancestry (Lebanon), I find it endlessly fascinating to read what these young people had to say in response to the fundamental TCK question: where are you from? The older I get, the more I realize that, although there are places I feel more connected to and that hold a big piece of my heart, I’m definitely not “from” any of these places. I don’t belong entirely to any of them.

And by now I’ve also grown used to the bittersweet flavor of living in-between. At the same time, I feel confident that, given the choice, I would do it all over again—because the sweet far outweighs the bitter.

See what you think of the poems below, readers. Are the young writers on the road to the place where I am now: can they taste more sweet than bitter?

* * *

Where I’m From
By Arabella Ovesen

I am from the tall coconut tree
towering over a blue sea
where the Rhum Runner runs
under the midnight sun.
I’m from the yellow, luxurious castle
Azzurra where father taught me to dazzle.

But one day we went up north,
back to the Vikings’ home
where they work back and forth
in a frozen zone.
And that day, I lost my
Spice Ilse throne.

I’m from the pure white snow
of the Northern Pole.
From being surprised;  
At the age of fourteen,
they didn’t want to survive.
I’m from time being slow, dark.
A place where Caribbean purity
lost its innocence,
and left a burnt mark.


Arabella is from Grenada; she has also lived in Malta and Sweden.

Where I’m From
By Clarissa Meyringer

I am from trams
From steel and cement
I am from cold, glistening snow,
It feels like whipped cream.
I am from the towering pines,
giants whose evergreen leaves
were sharp like knives.

I’m from horses of stone
From Fabio and Ben
I’m from the jokers
And the loners
From turning and turmoil
I’m from shadows,
Seen, never heard or spoken of.

I’m from the shallow sea, crystalline.
From the late night snacks
of my grandmother,
The dangerous soccer fan tales of my uncle
I’m from lore and religion, Supernatural;
A friendship with Luci, Castiel and an alliance with Crowley.

On a wall in my room is a drawing
Colors bright
A breathtaking sight
A crayon mess
I am from that place—
Chaotic and free—
Everchanging.

Clarissa is Austrian-Italian; she was living in Malta at the time of writing.

Where I’m From
By Gianluca Chincoli

I’m from the mixed sounds of farm animals
The mud, those painful marble stairs, and a giant old farmhouse.
I am from fresh air and immense woods
Extending in all directions like a green ocean.

I’m from those two spiteful creatures
That made my life a horror and a fight since the beginning.
I am from big toothless smiles to every stranger
And all those cheeky jokes we crew of three planned every day.

I’m from the wind of the night and the day,
Warm and cold, strong and weak like a zephyr.
On those plastic crafts with sails it was always a tough adventure
But the prizes were always priceless.

I’m from the screamings of my father
New experiences, like no one else in the world.
I am from the orange porch of golden sunsets,
Where the wolf was acting drama in front of the innocent children.

From Italy, Gianluca has been living in Malta.

* * *

We love to hear from our readers, so please leave any thoughts, questions, suggestions, and yes, poetry in the comments!

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Related posts:

Photo credits:
All photos from Pixabay except:
– Photo of Rum Runner boat in Grenada: 1252 Rhum Runner II in Grenada (19), by Mark Morgan via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
– Photo of Italian football fans: AC Mailand – VfL Wolfsburg (2:2), by funky1opti via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
– NOTE: The final photo (from Pixabay) is of a hiking path in the Garda Mountains, in northern Italy.

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TCK TALENT: The best answer to that pesky “where are you from?” question? A poem!

Columnist Dounia Bertuccelli joins us again—and has something new and exciting in store.

Welcome readers! Today we’re starting something new at the TCK Talent Column—a series of poems from TCKs on where they’re “from”.

If you’re a TCK, global nomad or otherwise displaced individual, you will probably appreciate the complexity of emotions raised when you’re being asked a seemingly simple question like: Where are you from? Where is home?

Spread over several posts, we’ll share the work of these TCKs along with some details on where they’re “from” originally and where they’ve lived.

The poems were part of a project and the students’ teacher is the best person to explain how this theme came up and how they tackled it:

“I teach in an International IB school in Malta, and I have 11th and 12th graders who come from all over the world. Last year I started doing a unit on cultural diversity and I connected it to the idea of being a Third Culture Kid.

As Third Culture Kids, we hear ‘Where is your home?’ a lot. It has always been difficult to answer completely, but we wanted to give it a try. While thinking about how to tackle this identity question, we looked at George Ella Lyon’s unique poem “Where I’m From”. In it, home is not connected to one place. Rather, it is connected to all the diverse images, phrases, memories, neighborhood characters, tastes, scents, sounds, and sensations that make up a reflective person’s foundation and sense of self; and this seemed a fitting way to describe our concept of home as well.”

A couple of years ago, I composed my own “where is home” poem, following a prompt on a friend’s blog. It was a fascinating exercise, coming up with the words to express the combination of places, people, sights and smells that make up who I am.

Where I’m From
By Dounia Bertuccelli

I’m from the warm Mediterranean Sea,
And the smell of fresh pines in the mountain.

I’m from lavender fields and vineyards,
And the ochre colored house.

I’m from bahebak, je t’aime,
I love you, te quiero and ti amo.

I’m from islands and continents,
From north to south and east to west.

I’m from all these places that hold my heart,
And from a home that’s rooted in love.

Truth be told, it’s tough to cover everything in a single poem, but at least we can provide a glimpse into the beautiful complexity that makes up the Third Culture Kid life. We are the sum of our experiences, of all our homes, of the blood that runs through our veins, of the people we met throughout our journey, of the foods we tasted, of the smells we breathed in, of the languages we spoke and heard…

All of these make us who we are and tell the story of where we’re truly from.

And now let’s find out how a couple of the TCKs in the Malta class answered this question.

Where I’m From
By Allesia Falcomata

I am from the best cuisine
in a small city of pasta.
I am from fashion shops
and the coffee everyone loves the best.

I am from the south
with hot weather
and the beautiful sea.

I am from the sunset,
when the city lights come on.
I am from November,
‘the cold month’.

I am from tons of pictures,
because the best moments they must be captured.
I am from the black and the white,
and the mystery photo too.

I am also from red,
the warm color.
And from the dreams of
Eiffel Tower love.

From Italy, Allesia was living in Malta at the time of writing.

Where I’m From
By Andy Qiu

I am from the twitter
at five everyday
pushing me to wake up.

I am from the stream
flowing around the mountain
and the sun
lighting up the atmosphere

I am from the golden field,
fragrant with growing rice,
where I spent most of my childhood.
I am from children salivating over
the sausage and ham
hanging on the wooden stick

I am from the town
where everyone provides sincere help.
From the yearly reunion dinner
which includes all the village.

I am from the desire
for a peaceful atmosphere
where it still exists.

Andy (Yuqin) has lived in Malta, China and Costa Rica.

* * *

Readers, I hope you enjoyed this first poetry sampler. And if you’ve written your own version of “where I’m from,” we’d love to have you share it with us in the comments.

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Related posts:

Photo credits:
All photos from Pixabay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

torn-between-ny-and-london

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

coconut-play

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

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

* * *

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

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Related posts:

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

Are we expats on an eightfold path? Poet Robert Peake investigates…

THE DHARMA WHEEL OF EXPAT LIFE

THE DHARMA WHEEL OF EXPAT LIFE

American-born UK-based poet Robert Peake is back, this time with a poem he wrote for HSBC in response to its annual survey of expats.

This year as in years past, HSBC’s Expat Explorer surveyed 16,000 expats about their experience of expat life. But in 2016 they added a new twist: they invited three international creatives to draw on their own expat experiences in interpreting the data.

One of the trio is displaced American poet Robert Peake, who has been on our site before, when we published “Smoke Ring,” one of his poems related to expat life.

Today we are publishing the poem that he wrote for Expat Explorer, with their permission. It’s called “Eightfold Expat” and has eight sections, each of which explores a word that many survey respondents used to describe their lives:

  • great
  • challenging
  • interesting
  • exciting
  • rewarding
  • difficult
  • better
  • different

Notably Robert chose the term “eightfold” for the poem’s title—an allusion to the Buddhist’s eightfold path to nirvana, comprising eight aspects in which the aspirant must become practiced.

This allusion suggests that as we move along the expat path, we are challenged to move beyond conditioned responses, to unlearn what we have learned—and that only then might we reach the “nirvana” of the displaced life.

I like the allusion very much—and am curious to hear what you think!

* * *

Eightfold Expat

I. [Great, the Expanse of an Opened Mind]

selfie-stick_quote_500xWith both hands, take it, this piece
of mind, a gift to yourself, a selfie
taken on a stick that extends into space.
Wave at the dot that was you, a seedling
on the prairie, allotment, or balcony pot,
bursting from husk to sapling, grappling
up, and spreading two leaf-shaped hands
out in the simplest prayer: to grow—
and so you water the one thing depending
on you in this world that was humming
before you arrived, and will hum the day
you depart, planting out and patting down,
packing out a greater part of you in you,
edging grains of dirt from your nails.

II. [A Challenging Chrysalis]

sliding-doors-with-quote_500xThe doors slide open as you pass, the doors
slide shut. Do not take this lightly.
Do not take this personally—the doors
do not know who you are, but who you will
become. Sealed in glass, your beating heart
apparent as your accent, veined to stimulate
the nerve-goo forming its scribbled blueprint,
tunnelling down the spine’s mine shaft,
reclaiming what you thought you knew,
in light, in heat, the gear work whirring
deep inside the leaf-perched skyscraper,
where already cracks are scaling the sides.
You blink. The winds pursue you at this height.
You flex to find your wings are dry now. Go

III. [A Most Interesting Spy]

flat-white-foam-with-quote_500xOrdinary is overrated. But you carry a secret
through the ubiquitous coffee shops, giving
them one of your names to mispronounce
over the hissed disapproval of frothing milk.
You could be one of them; they could be you.
A film as thin as the sheen on your flat white
separates you from the camera-clad throng,
standing like bowling pins on the thoroughfare.
They will ask directions in your native tongue,
and you will pretend that you don’t understand,
the way a lens misunderstands the surface
of places you now inhabit, as if ordinary
could describe the burning pleasure of a sip
that used to scald you, cooling in your mouth.

IV. [Exciting, the Strapped-In Ride]

tuk-tuk-with-quote_500xYou never saw it coming—the pothole, cobble,
pavement crack that sends you to the roof
of the clattering rickshaw. Can you remember
the word for aspirin? How much to tip?
Remember to duck when the lights go amber,
wear your backpack, like armour, on front.
This will force you to be flexible, if your bones
can take it and the frame (yours, its) holds up,
adapting to vibration, mole in an earthquake,
fish in tsunami’s wake-wall, you are the whirl
in whirlpool now, swirling whatever way it goes
this part of the grid-parted, shrinking globe.
Close your eyes, clutch both hands in your lap.
Press down, tuck in, and mind the closing gap.

V. [Rewarding Yourself with Yourself]

martini-with-quote_500xWho wants to be just whelmed? Who wants
to find the golden ticket in the wrapper
whipping down pavement strewn with trash?
Late, over drinks, in a clean and crowded
metropolitan hide, you’ll strain your eyes
in the black-glossed window, trying to make
out anything besides your own reflection,
freckled with lights from the harbour.
What the hell are you doing here?, you’d
like someone to ask above the clink
and chit-chat, emphasising you as if
familiar. And so, you ask, and ask yourself.
In the glint of your martini, constellation.
You’ve come so far to find out who you’re not.

VI. [Difficult Beauty]

airport-lounge-daisies-with-quote_500xIf it were easy, we would all be doing it—
hauling up on a humid red-eye, surrendering
to the body scans and stale sandwiches,
slumping deeper into a crumpled suit at signs
of a fourth delay, getting it wrong, then wrong-
er, our knuckles out for the endless raps,
unwitting child in a full-grown body, stepping
on every hidden crack, and yet—no-one else
can see the daisies growing there, hear music
in the language stripped of meaning, take in
what’s taken, like spare change to a stranger,
for granted, for grounded, given like air.
Notice the air. How it wants to fill your lungs.
Invisible, pervasive. A second world un-sung.

VII. [Better, with a Catch]

mail-flap-with-quote_500xThe stairs have flattened, the step
beneath you precisely that, how could
you have been that other person,
narrow enough to fit a mail flap?
Home is a stream you can never two-
step in. Home is a rain-washed flat.
This is more than a phase, this is
the new you, smiling benignly
at the new recruits, hazing them gently
with your song, a medley of tales
in which you finally see unclouded light,
changeling having shed your winter coat.
And yet, a phrase on Skype, familiar
and remote—catches in your throat.

VIII. [Different Like Narnia]

girl-on-bed-with-quote_500xNot this dust, but a different dust
clung to the sides of your shoes,
and the light in the sky was different—
more yellow, more pale, more or less
savagely warm to the skin. More or
less is not the same as same, degrees
quicker, more shallow the currents,
more guarded or friendly, the streams,
passers-by, and you a passer among—
chin-up to the skyline, jagged or flat
by comparison, and when you undress,
the light switch flipped, the sounds
of the room gently restless, you sleep
halfway between this world and home.

* * *

So tell me, readers: are the eight “folds” Robert suggests in his poem the tools the expat needs to construct a raft that moves them to a more enlightened place? I for one appreciate that Robert catches so many of the nuances of the expat life.

On the one hand, there’s the raw excitement of being in a brand new place, along with the burgeoning self-knowledge that perhaps can only come from being so far away from the familiar. On the other, there’s the realization that living somewhere different isn’t always better, and that one can easily fall victim to arrogance. In other words, the path to enlightenment doesn’t simply come from the thrill and the novelty of being elsewhere; it also comes from an awareness of the limits on how much one can grow in a foreign environment. We expats will only ever be halfway between our new worlds and home…

But the brilliance of Robert’s writing is that it’s open to interpretation. What was your reading of his poem? Do tell in the comments!

The Displaced Nation would like to thank HSBC Expat Explorer for granting permission to republish Robert Peake’s poem here. Please note: You can also listen to Robert reading the poem on the HSBC site.

Robert Peake grew up on the U.S.–Mexico border, in the small desert farming town of El Centro, California. He is now living near London. He created the Transatlantic Poetry series, bringing poets together from around the world for live online poetry readings and conversations. He also collaborates with other artists on film-poems, which have been widely screened in the US and Europe. Robert is a tutor for the UK Poetry Society and writes reviews for Huffington Post. A computer programmer by training, his current pet project is Poet Tips—a crowd-sourced poetry recommendations website designed to help you find your next favourite poet. Robert’s collection, The Knowledge, deals with expat themes and is available from Nine Arches Press.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a biweekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and much, much more! NOTE: Robert Peake is a Dispatch subscriber: that’s how we met!! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Opening visual: Created using Dharma Wheel, courtesy Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Visuals for poem:
I. Selfie Stick in Rome[https://www.flickr.com/photos/30478819@N08/23950053839], by Marco Verch via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
II. Departures at Midway, by Daniel X. O’Neil via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
III. Fractal coffee/milk, by Nick Ludlam via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
IV. Motor Rickshaw, by Jeff Warren via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
V. Martini, by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
VI. Airport lounge via Pixabay. Insert: Flowers via Pixabay.
VII. E5 colored glass, by Sludge G via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
VIII. Sleeping woman via Pixabay.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Charles Lambert draws on his displaced life to produce psychological thrillers

location-locution-charles-lambert
Tracey Warr is here with fellow displaced Brit Charles Lambert, a master writer of literary thrillers. He was born in England, lives in Italy, and describes himself as deeply enjoying the status of being a foreigner.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is the writer Charles Lambert, who was born in Lichfield, UK, a cathedral city in the Midlands, but who has lived in Italy for most of his adult life. After graduating from Cambridge, Charles worked as an EFL teacher in Milan and Turin in the mid-1970s—one of the most tumultuous periods in post-war Italian history, which he has written about in his psychological thriller, The View from the Tower.

After two years, he moved to Setúbal, Portugal, a smallish town south of Lisbon—and found himself, once again, at the heart of a political situation he struggled to understand (see his novella, The Slave House). After six months and a disastrous love affair, he returned to the UK to “get a proper job.” He ended up working as an assistant editor at a medical publisher’s on Euston Road.

Fifteen months later, desperately unhappy, he turned down a promotion and headed back to Italy, where he has lived ever since—initially in Modena (northern Italy) and then in Fondi, about halfway between Rome and Naples.

As I’ve already indicated, all of these backings and forthings have provided rich fodder for Charles’s imagination. Even his current work, as a language teacher in Italian universities, a job he has done since 1982, “makes up in the endless variety of human contact what it lacks, signally, in career opportunities,” as he puts it. Charles has also worked as a journalist for the news agency ANSA, translated for academic presses in the UK and the USA, edited for international agencies, and written critical essays on, among other things, George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, in which he confesses a unashamedly nerdish interest.

But his true passion is fiction writing—in particular, the psychological literary thriller. In addition to his many blog posts, the afore-mentioned novella, The Slave House, the occasional poem, and his acclaimed short story collection, The Scent of Cinnamon (for which he won an O. Henry prize), he has written four novels:

  • The Children’s Home (Scribner, 2016): An inversion of a modern fairytale, the story centers on a disfigured recluse living on his family estate, with a housekeeper as his only companion. His solitude is disrupted when stray children start showing up on his doorstep.
  • The View from the Tower (Penguin Random House, 2013): A psychological thriller and second in a planned trilogy about the darker side of Rome, the story centers on Helen, who has been having an affair with her husband’s best friend, Giacomo, an ex-terrorist, for 30 years. She is in a hotel room in Rome with Giacomo when she receives the news that her husband, a high-level politician, has been murdered. She simultaneously becomes a suspect and suspicious of everyone around her—forcing her to examine her own past and peel back the years of secrets and lies.
  • Any Human Face (Picador, 2011): The first in a planned trilogy about the seamier side of Rome, the story concerns what happens when Andrew, a quirky gay bookstore owner and sometime art/antiquity dealer in Rome, stumbles into a political vipers’ nest involving high-level politicians and Vatican officials while also struggling to overcome heartbreak from his past and learning to love again. When the book first came out, the Guardian called it a “sophisticated literary thriller set on the seamier fringe of Rome’s gay scene, a magnet for the lonely and displaced located a long way off the tourist trail.”
  • Little Monsters (Picador, 2008): Lambert’s début novel and the first of his books set in modern Italy, this is the story of Carol, a young teenager who, having witnessed her father killing her mother, is put into the care of her aunt, who hates and resents her, and her uncle, whom she eventually marries. The story is told in two time frames: Carol as ward and Carol as an adult, when she finds herself drawn to a boat-refugee child in Italy (the child reminds her of her unwanted teenaged self).

charles-lambert-oeuvre-525x
He also recently produced a fictionalized memoir, With a Zero at Its Heart, capturing moments from his life in a unique, experimental format.

Charles says he has no plans to return to the UK, and Brexit is unlikely to persuade him to change his mind:

I don’t define myself as an expat. If I had to define myself, I’d probably go for “economic migrant” or, more simply, “foreigner”, a status I deeply enjoy.

For entirely pragmatic reasons, he is currently in the process of becoming an Italian citizen.

And now let’s hear from Charles about what techniques she uses to conjure up the Italy he knows so well as a long-time resident while also cherishing his status of outsider.

* * *

Welcome, Charles, to Location, Locution. Which tends to come first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

Every book is different. My first novel, Little Monsters, began with a sentence and, within seconds, the sentence had found a home in the Peak District, where I spent most of my adolescence. That place, and my memories of it, dictated much of the narrative. The other half of the book was set in contemporary Italy, where I live, although the story took me to a part of Italy I didn’t know that well and I had to use my imagination. So, one novel, half story-led, half place-led. The next two novels I published were both set in Rome, and I can’t imagine them being set in any other city. Rome’s a city with a uniquely composted history of beauty and blood-letting, high ideals and dirty low-down dealings, and the novels dig into that humus with relish. My most recent novel, on the other hand, The Children’s Home, is set in an undefined place and time and the lack of temporal and geographical definition is an integral part of the story.

What is your technique for evoking the atmosphere of these places?

When I’m writing I have a strong sense of where I am. It’s in my mind’s eye, so to speak, so all I need to do is look around and report on what I see. If the place is a real place, then memory is involved. If it isn’t, the details come as I need them. A shop, a street, a tree… As a general rule, though, I’d say less is more. It’s what I call the “Bakelite-ashtray fallacy”—the idea that obsessively name-checking historical materials and brands gives a sense of period. It doesn’t. It gives a sense of working too hard to create a sense of period, and is inevitably counter-productive. The same is true with a sense of place. Too much description draws attention to itself and to the writer’s eagerness to be believed, not to the place it’s supposed to be describing.

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

All three, to a greater or lesser degree, and I’d add language to the list—but, as I said above, with parsimony. It can be hard to resist the temptation to describe in detail every dish your characters are eating—especially if you love food as much as I do and the scene is set in Italy, as scenes in my work often are—but if the purpose of the scene is, well, non-gastronomic, you just need to do your best to keep the detail pared down. My agent, with exemplary dedication, once counted the number of bottles of red wine consumed in one of my novels (Any Human Face, if you’re curious). It was frighteningly high but, we both agreed, integral to the narrative, although it may have contributed to creating, for my characters at least, a serious sense of dislocation!
red-wine-bottles
More seriously, I think descriptions of place need to serve a double purpose. They provide a location, but that location must also give the reader something else, something about the characters’ relationship with that place, for example, or about the way the place might have shaped the characters, who they are, what they think, why they behave the way they do. Without that, it’s window dressing.

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

From Any Human Face (Picador, 2010):

Thirty years ago, Andrew lived just round the corner from Campo de’Fiori, in a two-room garret above the latteria. The latteria still sells its large white bowls of caffelatte and rusk-like biscuits, but Andrew moved on when the intensifying effect of a picturesque tiled roof on winter cold and summer heat became too much for him. Since then, like some bobbing object impelled by a centrifugal force he can neither understand nor halt, he has lived in a series of rented flats, each one a half-mile further from the centre than the one before. By an equally mysterious process, his worldly goods have accumulated as their worth has diminished; each time he moves, the boxes and plastic sacks into which he has stuffed his life seem more forbidding, more intractable. He shuttles between the old flat and the new in whichever car he has borrowed, just one step above a bag lady pushing an overloaded supermarket trolley, front wheel askew, his whole world teetering on a metaphorical wonky castor. He used to think corridors were wasted space. He doesn’t think that now.
roman-roof-tiles

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

Intimately, fairly well, hardly at all. Once again, in other words, it depends. In the passage above, I’m describing a part of Rome I lived in for many years. I had breakfast in that latteria, I ate those biscuits, I sweated and shivered in the kind of garret Andrew lived in. In another novel, on the other hand, long sections are set in a town I spent four days in some years ago and have never revisited. I’m hoping no one will notice. I need to have “felt” the place in some way but that doesn’t necessarily require years of research (although Google Street View can come in handy) or lived, physical presence. Sometimes, a single word might be enough to evoke what’s needed. One of the most potent descriptions of place for me comes at the beginning of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis: “His room, a proper human room although a little too small…”, where the two words “proper” and “human” are enough to mark out the extraordinariness of what’s occurred. His room becomes our room, and yet not our room.

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

In their very different ways, Cormac McCarthy and Penelope Fitzgerald. In works like the Border Trilogy, McCarthy’s vision of the world and of the lives of its inhabitants (both human and animal) make up a single vision: harsh, numinous, both indifferent and interwoven, a wonder of observation and lyricism. The settings in Fitzgerald’s last four novels range from 1950s Italy to pre-revolutionary Moscow, and there isn’t a moment when the world of the novel isn’t entirely believable. Once again, the trick is to reduce the detail to a bare—and convincing—minimum. There’s a moment in Innocence where children go to Upim (an Italian Woolworth’s) before school starts to buy their exercise books. I don’t know how Fitzgerald knew this, but it was all that was needed to persuade me of the authenticity of the novel’s world.

a-few-of-cls-fave-books

Charles Lambert’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Charles, for your answers. It’s been a great pleasure.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Charles? Please leave them in the comments below.

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Charles Lambert and his body of work, I suggest you visit his author site. You can also follow him on Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Charles! I found this discussion fascinating. —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She just now published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her new historical novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in October.

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Photo credits: Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo, photo of Setúbal graffiti and of Italian cafe scene were supplied by Charles Lambert; A view of Lichfield Cathedral from the north West, by Roger Robinson via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0). Visuals that accompany the two quotations: Empty wine bottles via Pixabay; Roof Tiles (Rome), by Stewart Butterfield via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Upon moving to UK, American poet Robert Peake sees his verse takes flight


The last time I engaged in poetry—I mean, truly engaged in it, as in reading and trying to write some—was when I lived in Japan. I learned about haiku all over again and even adopted the local custom of composing renga (a chain of haiku poems, from which the stand-alone haiku was born) on New Year’s Day (in English, of course—there are limits!). It made me feel like a kid again.

Thus when American-born UK-based poet Robert Peake sent me a book of his poetry called The Knowledge, I was thrilled 1) to be reading poetry again (a habit I soon dropped upon repatriation) and 2) find it includes a sequence of poems, titled “Smoke Ring,” that reminds me of renga.

When I mentioned this to him, Robert said “Smoke Ring” is in a linked form similar to renga; it borrows loosely from the Western tradition of the crown of sonnets—though in the case of this poem, it’s “not a full crown but more of a tiara.” He added that many cultures have some type of inter-woven speech as a means to perhaps memorize, or at least come to terms with, shared experience.

But while “shared experience” conjures up an image of sitting around a campfire, “Smoke Ring” reports on an experience that is common to people who are living in countries where they might not be welcome at the fire. It begins in the immigration office and then takes us through the Big Smoke from the poet’s displaced perspective.

Thanks so much, Robert, for agreeing to share your work before our virtual campfire of Displaced Nation readers.

Readers, I invite you to be a kid again; as one reader says, Robert’s poems are about things “known in your heart and in your bones as much as in your mind.” Enjoy.

* * *

Smoke Ring

Home Office, Croydon

Beneath the surface, darker matter stirs,
steaming up my third latte this hour,
gasping into the air-conditioned lounge
of what could be an airport terminal.
The man wearing a topi beside me
forgets to breathe, then gasps, repeats,
while his daughters in the play area
build homes from coloured bricks.
The clerks shuffle paperwork cheerfully
red passport, blue passport, green passport,
brown, jobsworth elves who know the list
of who gets Christmas, who gets coal.
My number up, I flash a tight-lipped smile,
Should I stay or should I go? Stuck in my mind.

Should I stay Clapham Junction

Clapham Junction

Should I stay or should I go? stuck in my mind,
the doors tweet shut with a rubbery thud.
I’d beg for forgiveness, but begging’s
not my business as the train glides away,
to float its fanning delta of branch lines.
Too little, too late, in the middle of a place
never meant to be anyone’s final destination.
Here it all comes together, here it splits
wide apart. One more change, explains a dad
to son, tugging him across the platform.
Crowds weave together, and people disappear.
I step back from the edge, into the slipstream.
The train is gone, the moment past, but still
the ghosts remain, black shadows cast.

The ghosts remain

Soho

The ghosts remain, black shadows cast
on brick, mist over neon-lit cobblestones.
Hard Road is playing the bar next door
There must be something in the air…
The exhaust pipe of a Hackney carriage
respires to the beat of its diesel drum.
In from the glowing tip, it lulls
then curls from a working girl’s nostrils.
Visibly at east, the smoke lounges
in all directions, spreading its arms.
Here is the city’s grit-flecked embrace.
…been dying since the day I was born.
Part your lips, and breathe in slowly,
drawing up the sweet, unhealthy air.

Brick Lane Market

Drawing up the sweet, unhealthy air
from sizzling woks, flat bubbling crepes
we ogle falafel, smirk at t-shirt slogans,
finger the dyed silks and leather bags.
Huguenot chapel turned Russian synagogue,
now a Bangladeshi Mosque, the moon and star
wink down at our worldly commerce
from the smokestack of a silver minaret.
Every brick a different shape and shade,
pecked by the acrid air, specked with colour
from a rattling can, even graffiti is for sale—
Street art area: pay up or close your eyes.
Burning ghee and mustard oil, hissing paint.
Close both eyes, and follow the scent.

Close both eyes

Canary Wharf

Close both eyes, and follow the scent
of marsh grass, salt rope, barnacled wood.
Oil lamps puff, pipe down their leaden light.
Tusk-like, whale ribs embrace a building site.
Spire of Narwhal, great barge upended, now
sea monsters rise up smooth, in cubic glass—
the streets scrubbed clean of tidal mud,
the Thames runs clear as lymph without its blood.
New brick, poured cement, tarmac’s dull sheen,
cranes pick the horizon where gulls pocked the sand.
Shoe black, suit cleaners, flower shop for guilt,
security guards aim mops where coffee is spilt.
From a top-story balcony, an underwriter plans his grave
while admiring the skyline, its rich amber haze.

While admiring the skyline

Blackheath

While admiring the skyline, its rich amber haze,
sun scalds the mist in an oil slick of light
reminding us the ocean is never far, reminding us,
like Turner, like Messiaen, in saturated tones.
Street lamps peer over us, considering our gait, where
the gibbet posts once dangled a peepshow of bodies,
betraying flesh to bake and rot its carmelised smell,
the gloaming air turned treacherous, picking rag from bone.
Beneath our dew-spotted feet, the earth grinds its teeth.
Sealed away like embers in the furnace of the heath,
plague pits chew ancestors’ memories to tar,
the pocked bodies smelt, give off obsidian heat.
Over the vale, the mist descends, sherbet and blue.
Beneath the surface, darker matter stirs.

Beneath the surface

Published with the permission of Nine Arches Press.

Robert Peake is an American-born poet living near London. He created the Transatlantic Poetry series, bringing poets together from around the world for live online poetry readings and conversations. He also collaborates with other artists on film-poems, and his work has been widely screened in the US and Europe. His newest collection, The Knowledge, is now available from Nine Arches Press.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation—and much, much more! NOTE: Robert Peake is a Dispatch subscriber: that’s how we met!! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits:
Collage at top of page: (top row) Maggie Taylor – Blue Caterpillar (Alice in Wonderland, 2007), by cea + via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); (bottom row) Smoke Rings, by David~O via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). The two photos of Robert Peake at the English Falconry School, supplied, were taken by John Eikenberry. Should I stay…: Clapham Junction yard (2), by Les Chatfield via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). “The ghosts remain…”: Soho Smoke, by konstantin via Flickr (CC BY 2.0. “Drawing up the sweet…”: Food stalls at Brick Lane’s Sunday Upmarket, by Brick Lane Food via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). “Close both eyes, and…”: Reflections on Canary Wharf, by Gordon Joly via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). “While admiring the skyline…”: Blackheath sunset, by rip via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). “Beneath the surface…”: The UK Border at Heathrow Airport, by Danny Howard via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

TCK TALENT: Neil Aitken, Computer Gaming Whiz Kid Turned Award-Winning Poet

Neil Aitken Poet

Neil Aitken (photo supplied)

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her column featuring interviews with 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, called Alien Citizen, which premiered nearly two years ago and is still going strong. In fact, she will soon be taking the production to Valencia, Spain, and Capetown, South Africa!

—ML Awanohara

Welcome back, readers! Today’s interviewee is poet Neil Aitken: winner of the prestigious Philip Levine Prize for Poetry for his book of poems, The Lost Country of Sight and founding editor of Boxcar Poetry Review. Neil and I met at the Mixed Roots Literary & Film Festival in 2009. I am so pleased to have the chance to interview him this month for TCK Talent.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Neil. I understand that you’re a multi-ethnic ATCK like me! Please tell us about your heritage.
My father was born in the Okanogan Valley in British Columbia, Canada, of Scottish and English descent. My mother was born on Hainan Island, south of China, in the midst of the conflict between the Nationalists and the Communists in China. Shortly after her birth, her parents—her father was a high-ranking officer in the Nationalist Army and her mother, the daughter of one of the elite island families—fled to Taiwan to escape the Communists. Despite growing up a world apart, my parents met in the middle, Hawaii, while both attending university there.

Where were you born, and where did you live growing up?
I was born in Vancouver. My father’s bachelor’s degree was in Linguistics & ESL. His first job took us to Dhuhran, Saudi Arabia, where he taught English in the oil universities. But then my mother developed severe asthma due to the extreme heat and dust, and the doctors warned her that if she stayed any longer, she would be putting her life in peril. So she took my younger sister and me (I was four, my sister two-and-half) to Taiwan to live with relatives while my father completed the last nine months of his teaching contract. While in Taiwan, my sister and I forgot all our English, switched completely to Mandarin Chinese, and attended a Chinese-speaking pre-school. When my father finally arrived to pick us up, apparently we were so frustrated in our inability to communicate with him, we refused to speak Chinese until we relearned English. By the time we returned to Canada, we’d made the switch—but lost our Chinese in the process. My father returned to school in Vancouver, concluding that it was too hard to raise a family as an ESL professor. He completed a Masters in Library Science degree at the University of British Columbia and, when I was eight, we moved to North Battleford, Saskatchewan, a small city surrounded by farmland in the northern part of the province. Later we moved to Regina, the province’s capital and a much more vibrant multicultural center, where my father took his dream job as the supervisor over a special book collection focused on local, regional, and family histories of the Central Plains and Prairie Provinces. I completed elementary school and high school there.

“It is dark always, then someone opens a door./Then another. Then another.” —Neil Aitken from “Prodigal”

Fascinating! Did you stay in Canada for college?
No, I moved to Provo, Utah, to attend Brigham Young University, but I took a two-year break from school to serve as a missionary in Taiwan, relearning Mandarin in the process and re-immersing myself in culture, family, and place. When I returned, I completed my studies and then returned to Canada—to Calgary, Alberta. I looked for work for a year and eventually landed a job in Los Angeles.

I understand that just as your background spans two very different cultures, your academic background spans two very different disciplines?
Yes, as an undergraduate I studied Computer Engineering with a minor in Mathematics. I also took a number of graduate courses in Creative Writing. My first job was working in the computer games industry, but after five years, I left programming to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing and then returned to Canada for a year to look for work and to care for my father, who was in rapid decline from ALS. I also spent that year writing and finishing my first book of poetry and then applying to PhD programs. I received a number of excellent offers from all over the US, but in the end chose to return to Los Angeles and pursue a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. I’ve been here in Los Angeles ever since, but now, on the threshold of graduating, am likely to be packing up and moving again to somewhere as yet undetermined.

Binary code via Pixabay; cover art.

Binary code via Pixabay; cover art.

What has the transition been like, going from computer programmer to poet?
In truth, I’ve been writing poetry almost as long as I’ve been programming. I started writing poetry in earnest when I was around 10, about the same time my father brought home an IBM PC Jr with GW-BASIC on it. One of my very first original programs was a haiku generator that produced pretty awful haiku. Even as an undergraduate studying computer science, I sought permission to take creative writing classes at the graduate level. For a long time, I thought I could juggle writing poetry with computer programming. Eventually, however, programming lost its luster and I stopped loving the work, despite still being good at what I did. I knew at some point I needed to jump ship—I couldn’t bear the thought of spending my life in a field that no longer held my attention or affection. Working full time as a computer games programmer, I found myself putting in 60-, 70-, 80-, and occasionally 94-hour weeks. It was just too much. It was time to find a way out. At the same time, it was important to me that I avoid going into debt for my poetry degree, so I had to wait for the right offer. All the while, I continued programming and when possible, spent my evenings at open mic poetry venues, listening to all sorts of poets read their works. Eventually, I received a call from UC Riverside offering me a generous full-ride MFA scholarship, which made the transition possible.

“I wake already longing for those whom I soon will leave—” —Neil Aitken, from “Kundiman”

One of the judges for the Philip Levine Prize said that “Traveling Through the Prairies, I Think of My Father’s Voice” struck him as being a “perfectly made poem.” Was your family close?
I have many fond memories of time spent as a family together, whether it was picking through a coal seam at the side of a mountain highway with my father searching for fossils, or gathering together as a family on the eve of my graduation—the photo of which is the only family photo where we’re all smiling naturally, unrehearsed, unburdened by life’s later challenges and sorrows—or just simply lazing around the house at Christmas, listening to my father read Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales to us with his usual gusto and dramatic flair.

Where have you been happiest as an adult?
My happiest moments in recent years have been tied to my friends and fellow poets whom I met through Kundiman, an organization dedicated to the creation and cultivation of Asian American literature. The three years I attended the Kundiman Poetry Retreat set in motion lifetime friendships and bonds with people that, to this day, I count as my closest poetry kin—I was unprepared for how deeply and completely I would fall in love with the community, and how this group of Asian American poets would come to be a second family. When I showed up for my first Kundiman retreat in 2005, I was convinced that there had been an error—how had they let me in? What use could they have for a Chinese-Scottish-English Canadian poet who rarely wrote about identity, at least not directly? But on the first day, as we made our introductions in a classroom at the University of Virginia, I soon realized that many of the other participants felt the same way I did. We had all arrived convinced that our lives and our writing were somehow outside of what was expected and permitted—only to discover that what was happening on the front lines of Asian American literature was much more diverse and vibrant, much more compelling and dynamic, much more inclusive than whatever we had been led to believe from the anthologies we’d read and the classes we’d taken. To this day, I love running into a fellow Kundiman and can’t wait to hear about their work and discover what they have to offer to the conversation.

Your Kundiman experience sounds like a quintessentially good TCK experience. In general, do you find that “your people” tend to be other ATCKs, or cross-cultural people, or creative folk?
It varies quite a bit, but generally speaking I’ve found myself most at home with other Asian American writers (especially those I’ve met through Kundiman), other editors of literary journals, and other people who negotiate the fragile yet fertile space between faith, science, and compassion. On a broader level, I find my people are those who share a love of language and literature, whose eyes are on the forgotten spaces and figures of the world, and whose efforts and desires pointed outwards, with the ambition to make more room at the table. I love surrounding myself with people who are building bridges and tearing down arbitrary walls, who are not afraid to speak against the structures of oppression and forgetting, and who challenge themselves to do more and be more than who they were yesterday.

“There is always something that refuses to be contained…” —Neil Aitken in “Encapsulation”

On top of working toward your PhD, you won the DJS Translation Award for your co-translations of poetry from Mandarin to English. How do you feel about your two “native” languages? Do you prefer one to the other?
I love the strange and omnivorous nature of English. English is constantly devouring other languages, incorporating new terms into its lexicon, and expanding with each passing year and succeeding social revolution. In terms of tone, music, and range, very few languages can compete with English. That being said, I also have a big place in my heart for Mandarin Chinese, a language I learned once when I was very young, forgot, then relearned at 19.

What is it like to translate from Chinese into English?
The two languages could not be more different. Chinese is a language traditionally learned by the memorization of classical and literary texts. It relies heavily on allusion, each word and phrase carrying with it a wealth of cultural association and literary reference. It moves not just sonically but also visually, evoking the elements—fire and water, air and earth—and connecting words and ideas that share some common philosophical history. The act of translation is a humbling experience—I’m constantly reminded of how fluid concepts and relationships are between ideas once they are unshackled from one’s mother tongue. And yet, there is great pleasure in it as well. I enjoy puzzles—I enjoy this bit of creative play where the translator searches for a way to create an equivalent experience and gesture in a new language for something that they have encountered in the original. My childhood experiences with Chinese left a deep imprint in my mind that manifests itself now as a type of intuition when it comes to finding the right equivalent phrase or understanding the cultural impact or resonance of the original line. It’s an imperfect intuition, but one that nevertheless guides me through tricky places in the poems and helps me feel still a part of the Chinese culture.

Finally, I’d like to congratulate you on winning of the prestigious Philip Levine Prize for Poetry for The Lost Country of Sight. Is there a particular poem from that collection that expresses your feelings of transience or loneliness or instability—or freedom or curiosity or love of travel—that you are most proud of, and could you share it with us?
In many respects, my entire first book of poetry, The Lost Country of Sight, grapples with these themes and, therefore, it’s actually pretty hard to settle on just one poem. I’m going to suggest two, if I may:

In the Long Dream of Exile

You are counting the dark exit of crows
in the rear view mirror, or from the top of an overpass
looking back into the last flames of cloud.
Your car, steel to the world of flint, rests listless
with its windows wide, the stars slipping in
and settling down for the night.
Now, what you could not leave rides in boxes
heavy with numbers and places you’ve already
turned into poems. There is nothing left
in your pockets, your clothes worn down
to this list of miles taking you out of the known earth.
Outside your open window, the dark repeats
like the wind in late fall, twisting the names
of familiar back roads into a long rope of sighs.
You could lower yourself down with such longing.
It could be a woman or a young girl, the way the light
clings to that body like a sheet of immaculate heat,
invisible to the eye, but something, you are certain,
something that must be on the verge of love.

driving_abstractly

In the Country I Call Home

I have two countries, Cuba and the night.
~ José Marti

There is no Cuba, no other half of night.
No dark woman in her deep robe of grief,
no wooden doors flung open to emptiness. Nothing
of music. No city in flames. All this absent.

In me, there are as many countries as names.
As many versions of the world.

If there is a country, it is a white-limbed tree,
a wind-drifted plain of snow. It is a country buried.
Or a man holding a camera to his eye. Or a silence.

If there is a country, there are two countries.
A double exposure. The other world ghosting the first.
The second full of dark-haired strangers. Ink ground
from charcoal pressed to stone. Hard as raw rice.

If there are two countries, a third always rises.
Life preserver on the waves. A ship without reference.
Anywhere. Everywhere. A nation of one.

If there are three, there must be a fourth.
I will find it in your skin. Hear it resonate in your bones.
A ringing echo. Something of sound. It will be small.
Almost a hut. A thatched roof shack in the wilderness.
A hermitage for two. A boat in a river. Almost a home.

snowdrift

“Wind shapes,” by John Holm via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

* * *

Thank you, Neil, for these two lyrical offerings. Again, congratulations on your numerous accomplishments in poetry and translation, and best of luck with post-PhD life! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Neil below.

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TCK TALENT: Maya Evans, Poet, Writer, Teacher, Translator, Consultant & Transition Facilitator

Maya Evans for TDN

Maya Evans (own photo)

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her column featuring interviews with 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, called Alien Citizen, which premiered nearly two years ago and is still going strong. In fact, she is now raising funds to take the production to Valencia, Spain, and Capetown, South Africa, later this year.

—ML Awanohara

Greetings, readers. Today’s interviewee is Maya Evans, a poet and writer, transition facilitator, international education consultant, and translator based in Boston, Massachusetts. She is also my fellow ATCK author in the anthology Writing Out of Limbo, in which her poem “Le Français” appears. Currently, she is working on a memoir about her extraordinary life, which took her from the Middle East to Europe to South America and finally to her current home of the United States.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Maya. I understand that you were born to a Francophone Jewish Egyptian-Hungarian family in Alexandria, Egypt, and that you grew up there and in Caracas, Venezuela. Please tell us why your family moved.
My family moved from Alexandria, Egypt, in 1958 after what history termed the Suez Crisis, which is to say the nationalization of the Suez Canal. Built by the French in 1869, and jointly controlled by the British and French until 1956, the Canal was of strategic importance to Western powers. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser‘s actions to nationalize it provoked a brief war—a lot like the wars carried out presently in the Middle East. Nasser wanted to end Egypt’s colonization. We left because Jews were no longer welcome in Egypt. The revolutionary government confiscated Jewish properties and bank accounts, even expelling some Jewish people holding French or British passports. My father was demoted, the bank where he worked was taken over by the authorities, and clearly his career was finished. His brothers, sisters, and their families mostly went to Brazil, although some ended up in France, but none in Hungary, where they’d come from originally. (At the time, Hungary was occupied by the Soviet Union.) When we left, I was 12-and-a-half—and still have vivid memories.

Did your mother’s family leave as well?
My mother’s family, rooted in the area for generations, did not leave. My grandmother refused to leave her house. My uncles and one of my mother’s sisters, who were very close, all stayed, not daring to contradict their mother.

Where did your family end up going?
For a brief time we lived in Paris, scattered among relatives. We also stayed in Genoa, Italy, for a couple of months waiting for my father to clear his affairs and obtain a visa for emigrating to Venezuela. We were “stateless” at the time, having left Egypt with a travel document valid for one trip with no return. My father had managed to “transfer” money out of Egypt to Switzerland, which was needed to buy our passages to South America. This is a story on its own, one I’m attempting to describe in my memoir.

Achieving happiness in the midst of displacement

I find your story moving as it’s about exile, not the usual voluntary migration for TCK families (voluntary for the parents at least). Still, your moves from North Africa to Europe to the Americas is very relatable for this ATCK. Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time?
I can recall the exact time when I realized I was truly happy. It was at Brenau College (now Brenau University), in Gainesville, Georgia. It took one year to convince my father to allow me to go to college in the U.S. He thought that a girl had to stay home and go to the university nearest to where her family lives which in my case would have been the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), a 15-minute ride from our home in Caracas. The problem was that the Venezuelan government did not recognize my high school degree from Colegio Internacional de Caracas (CIC)—the school is only accredited in the United States. Besides, my Spanish was not at a high enough level for the entrance exam. A solution would be to transfer to the UCV from an accredited school in the U.S., after a year of university-level courses. Reluctantly, my father agreed as long as I went to a “girls only” school, properly chaperoned during my trip to the States. I was fortunate enough to meet a trustee of Brenau College at a tea sponsored by the American Association of University Women. She traveled with me from Caracas to Atlanta, and drove me to her college. For a variety of reasons, among them the lack of money, neither my father nor mother could have made the trip at that time.

What was it like being in a small southern town after living in Caracas?
At Brenau, I was one of a handful of international students. Besides Venezuela, there were also girls from Norway and Taiwan. Luckily, two Hungarian sisters from Venezuela, in their third and last year of college respectively, took me under their wing. Both were intelligent and poised, which made me a “cool girl” by association. Suddenly, there was no need to explain why French was my native language but I wasn’t French, etc. It was easy to say: “I am from Venezuela.” Period. I had a distinct identity, foreign but also exotic. It was also wonderful to be far from the dramas of home. I had postponed the moment of reckoning, which would occur upon my return to Venezuela, when I would find out what it would be like to be a university student in Caracas who had attended an American high school full of students with tenuous ties to the country.

Maya Universities

From studying at Brenau in Georgia to getting a degree at Universidad Central Caracas Venezuela to working at Harvard…

Eventually, though, you moved back to the United States. Why was that?
I was just starting to feel Caraqueña (from Caracas)—finding my bearings as a journalism student at the UCV by night and as a bilingual assistant in an export company by day, enjoying 80-degree Fahrenheit weather year-round, living in a beautiful apartment facing the mountain—when I met my husband, an American. (We met in Caracas.) We moved to the States in the early 1970s. His job moved us to Boston; then to Stanford, Connecticut, where our first child was born; and then back to Boston.

Allow me to bridge cultures, people and dreams…

At what point did you start your career…or careers I should say, as I know you’ve had more than one.
After the birth of my second child, I was determined to find a job that would link me to the Latino community, or better yet, send me on frequent trips to Latin America. I found that job at Harvard, in a department facilitating studies in the United States for professors and business executives from Latin America. I traveled all over Latin America, and in the mid-90s, was assigned to a project in Venezuela sponsored by Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) to train a cadre of executives for studies in the United States. I left Harvard shortly after and worked directly as a consultant for PDVSA. I also trained as an interpreter, working for the Massachusetts courts, and taught Spanish at the University of Massachusetts.

Consultant, trainer, interpreter, teacher: your careers seem to have been influenced by your peripatetic upbringing…
True. I would slide in and out of professions just as I slid in and out of countries, and adjust like the chameleon I’d become. I was always being uprooted but then would find ways to adapt. This in turn led me to my life’s “calling”: to facilitate transitions for others. Whether working with foreign students at American universities, or with international researchers trying to find the right department to pursue their research, or with companies wanting to train their personnel to live somewhere else, I would bridge cultures and languages in an effort to help others ease into their new surroundings.

Who am I? Where am I from?

Have you found that “your people” tend to be Adult TCKs or other cross-cultural people?
Undoubtedly, I feel comfortable with other Adult TCKs as well as multicultural people. I am actually uncomfortable with monocultural, monolingual people, regardless of their education level or accomplishments. I find that I have little in common with them, or that I have to “explain” myself again—and at a certain stage in life, it gets tiresome. I also feel a kinship with artists and people who are a bit out of the mainstream. Like Adult TCKs, they tend to look at the world from the outside. For the longest time, I felt outside, looking in. Even now, that feeling hasn’t left me completely.

Not only for your sake but for the rest of us ATCKs, I’m happy you are now working on your memoir, a few parts of which I was privileged to hear you read. What inspired you to start writing it, and how far along are you in the process?
Thank you for your kind words. It’s been a long and tortuous road. For the longest time, from my days as a journalism student, I wanted to tell stories. Stories I heard around the world, and stories of my relatives who happen to be an eclectic bunch of multinational people. But I am always escaping into work, travel, poetry writing, whatever other excuse I can find. Now I’ve decided to work less and, while I still can conjure the memories, dedicate more time to writing what I like to call a “romanticized memoir,” with characters loosely built on the stories I heard about Egypt and on the memories I have of the places where we lived. I am still at the beginning of the process, and need to speed it up, lest it get buried alongside other writings.

Attempting to “capture all the voices in my head without sounding schizophrenic”

On top of all of this, you are a published poet. Is there a particular poem of yours that expresses your feelings of transience or loneliness or instability—or freedom or curiosity or love of travel—that you are most proud of? If so, could you share it with us?
Two years ago, a poem of mine I like the best, “Voz Ajena” (“Alien Voice”), was published in Spanish in the New England Translators Association’s newsletter. Although I translate other people’s work, I cannot translate my own. I don’t hear it in any other language but Spanish. In that poem, I attempted to capture all the “voices” in my head without sounding schizophrenic. To me, it is interesting to note that I can do this only in Spanish, which was the third language I acquired, after which it became my “go to” language. Even though French is rooted in me, Spanish carries Latin America with its music and colors, which trumps all others! I’ll give you that poem, but for those who don’t read Spanish, I’ll first give you a poem I wrote in English:

Notebook with a Missing Language

Only English is missing
in these familiar lines
that stretch quietly on a
tidy little notebook
filled in French with spatters of Spanish;
scents of places and of people long gone
leaving behind tender thoughts,
silent melodies, objects of desire,
histories of exiles and commencements
of lenities and humiliations,
of successes and exonerations;
tales of lost places, warm embraces,
mute voices, empty houses,
doors shut on bygone worlds.

door_shut_maya_poetry

The last line of “Notebook with a Missing Language,” a poem by Maya Evans

 

And now for those who read Spanish:

Voz Ajena

Le preguntó un día por su acento opaco,
esa manera que tiene ella
de tropezar con las erres,
saltar continentes al azar,
atar letras sin más sabor
en un ritmo extraño, ritmo de blanco.

Son recuerdos de otras voces,
las vivencias de mi memoria
de crêpe georgette y chantilly,
dijo ella con voz de seda, voz de sirena.

Yo no sabía de los fantasmas que te habitan,
No sabía de Egipto, España,
Francia y Hungría,
No sabía que te comían noche y día,
ocultándote la luz, clamando por aire,
y todos con ese afán de ser.

Y más aún le dijo ella,
tocan tambores y hacen ruidos,
se contorsionan en las tinieblas
por estallar en mil estrellas,
dejar arañas y demás vainas,
ser lentejuelas, champaña fino, jamón ibérico,
Ravel de fuego, Maria Callas reencarnada,
vistiendo toga, comiendo astros, tragando mundos.

Maya
Boston, 19 de abril de 2010

* * *

It’s been a pleasure, Maya, hearing about your many professional accomplishments and “romanticized memoir” in progress. And thank you so much for sharing two of your poems! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Maya below.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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CHUNKS OF DRAGONFRUIT: A tale of an Australian expat navigating her own way in Japan

Dorcas Cheng-Tozun and Dragonfruit cover, courtesy Shannon Young. Purple dragonfruit by Mike Behnken (CC BY 2.0)

Kathryn Hummel and Dragonfruit cover, courtesy Shannon Young. Purple dragonfruit by Mike Behnken (CC BY 2.0)

How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia is a new anthology edited by columnist Shannon Young. For the benefit of Displaced Nation readers, Shannon has generously carved out a few tasty morsels from the writings of the collection’s 26 female contributors, highlighting their feelings of displacement within Asia. This is the second installment. The first can be read here.

—ML Awanohara

For our October excerpt, I’ve chosen Kathryn Hummel, an accomplished poet whose prose immediately stuck out to me for its lyrical quality. She uses intricate details to make her life as an Australian expat in Japan come alive, and she captures the emotions of displacement beautifully.

Kathryn also uses a unique structure featuring a poem followed by a meditation on the stages of expat life: from arrival to finding community to a mid-life crisis of sorts to acceptance. Kathryn draws the full map of a life abroad.

I hope you’ll enjoy the beginning of Kathryn’s piece, which is titled “Charting Koenji.” (Kōenji, for those unfamiliar with Tokyo’s layout, is a neighborhood on the outer western edges of the city.)

“Charting Koenji,” by Kathryn Hummel

Sometimes there are moments that catch in the flow of the everyday like a taped-up tear in a reel of film. Afterwards, there is an almost imperceptible change in the tension and projection of life, when I feel more than I see that Koenji is not my place. While I am closer than a stranger, I am still at a distance: this I measure from the inside out, since I can’t get far enough away to see it as an onlooker, detached but still interested in how the scene rolls on. For the past two years, the everyday scenes of my life have had Japan as a setting: most of these have been concentrated in the district of Koenji-minami, Suginami Ward, Tokyo. During my first weeks here, I intoned that address so many times it became a mantra, a verbal talisman to guard against losing myself in the city. Although being an expatriate—a collection of syllables I don’t often apply to myself—places me in a position of being both inside and outside, when I hear the wooden heels of my shoes clip the now familiar walkways of my neighbourhood, I am reminded only of this place, my present.

I. Arrival

Arrival is not signified by
the unburdening of suitcases
but the mechanics of realisation.
This is where I am, will be:
I have come now to the place
where before I was going.

Being present in a place means you inevitably paint yourself in the picture, draw the map around you. Slip outside these bounds and you are lost, or so I once thought. In 2004 I had stopped in Japan on my way from China to Australia and was delighted by my weeklong visit. I knew that living and working in Japan would be harder than traveling through, when my only responsibility had been to find the best way to be happy before my set departure date. Still, I had friends in Japan and their phone numbers to call; a Japanese language certificate and alphabet flashcards; a few tatami mats’ worth of rented space and a position, courtesy of an arts-exchange program, to write words for an intimate Koenji gallery wanting to commune with the English-speaking art world. If the present was a leafy bough, my future (as well as my literary imagery) would be heavy with the fruit of my Japanese incarnation.

I arrived in Osaka and rested for a few days at the home of Quentin, a university friend who had spent the last three years of his life traveling back to Japan to teach English, a compulsion he would spend another three years satisfying. At Quentin’s suggestion, I made my way to Tokyo on a journey of acclimatisation and language practice. I took a slow train to Hamamatsu to go on a gyoza (dumpling) hunt and traveled on to Yaizu, where, walking to the beach to see the distant Fuji-san bathed in the light of sunset, I met and later made love to a fish-factory worker from Peru. Yet even this encounter had the day-seizing quality of one made on a transient journey only.

When I reached Tokyo, the city was so miserably wet I thought it would never dry out. As arranged, I was met at Koenji station by my landlord, whose easy graciousness flickered warmth over my arrival, and accompanied to the building where my first studio apartment was waiting. After giving me a tour, which consisted of opening the bathroom door and indicating to the rest of the open-plan space, diminished by a folded futon and my wet bags, my landlord retreated with a bow. I was not delighted by Tokyo so far but wanted to be, so I gave my wool scarf a tighter wind, armed myself with an umbrella and ventured out. During my walk, I found that the compass on my Bleu Bleuet watch was only for show—an incidental discovery, since instinct is the direction I rely on above all. At that particular moment, I had none, and the rain didn’t help clarify my position. It leaked somehow through my umbrella and under my collar, where it remained without guiding me. As it usually happens when I walk the streets of a new place, I got lost.

The houses lost me. Or I lost myself in them. Every grey, dun, or cream-colored structure fit together in a maze of reinforced concrete. Some homes were irregularly shaped to sit correctly on their blocks; others had strange additions that seemed the architectural equivalent to tusks and antlers; oddly shaped, overgrown bonsai sprouting various thicknesses of branch and colors of foliage mingled with low electrical wires; antennas, rubbish bins, sometimes just inexplicable but neatly arranged collections of junk, assembled to give the impression that it was still of use, awaited their purpose. There was an element of seediness that did not feature in my memory of Japan: paint peeled from wooden walls and bald light globes had been left burning after midday. In the alleys behind restaurants, I was met with cardboard boxes, broken brooms and wooden pallets, rusty machinery and empty cans of cooking oil. The rain blurred the scenes without actually softening them, making greyer what was already dismal.

I told myself not to try to make sense of the maze. Tomorrow I would find my way to the gallery where I would be working and meet Kenzo-san, its owner, and all would be well if I believed all would be well. At the same time I thought, with naïveté or impatience, that I had to have a plan, that aimlessness would prevent me connecting to Koenji.

Before I left Osaka, Quentin studied my face as if trying to read its meaning. “You should have a Japanese name,” he told me. “Kat-san isn’t so easy to say.”

To me it didn’t seem as difficult as “Kassorin-san,” but I already had thought of a name that sounded appropriately Japanese. “What about Katsu?” I asked. “It’s a mixture of my first and second names: Kathryn Susannah.”

Quentin shook his head. “No. It will make people think of tonkatsu (deep-fried pork). They’ll think it’s strange. Why not choose something that represents you—a tree, or an animal?”

Quentin’s advice may have worked admirably for him in his various Japanese incarnations, but has never yielded the same results for me. I was then, and remain, “Kassorin-san,” a woman who navigates her own way. On that first afternoon in Koenji, I continued to walk until I at last saw something that indicated my flat was not far off: a secondhand bookshop I never have learned the name of, though I did eventually begin to buy books there that I hope to read, one day, with ease. The bookshop is recognisable during the day by its awning of green-and-white stripes, at night, by its security doors. Each of the three doors is painted with a face: one with running mascara and a Clara Bow hairdo, one with a sweat-beaded forehead and a guilty laugh, the last with an angry eye and an imperious-looking nose.

These faces, which remain guarding the bookshop until 11:00 am each day, signal more than my location—they are signposts for my mood. Depending on whether my mind is full or empty as I walk past on my way to the gallery or language lessons or the house of a friend, I either ignore or sympathize with whatever I can read in their expressions: their moods always change. It seems charmingly whimsical to write that these faces were my first friends, though when I realised this, I knew it was time to stop observing and start finding my community in Koenji.

* * *

Poems From Here KHummelReaders, if you enjoyed that morsel, I hope you will consider downloading a sample of the Dragonfruit anthology from Amazon. (The e-book and paperback of are available at all major online retailers.)

And if this excerpt has made you curious to learn more about Kathryn Hummel, her new collection of poetry called Poems from Here has recently been published by Walleah Press. You can also find out more about Kathryn at her author site: KathrynHummel.com.

I look forward to sharing more excerpts from the Dragonfruit anthology over the next couple of months.

* * *

Thank you so much, Shannon! Displaced Nationers, any comments on what Kathryn had to say in this passage? Having lived in Tokyo myself, I found her description of the city captivating. I was also impressed by her determination to “navigate her own way” in a city that makes many of us Westerners feel we’ve stepped through the looking glass.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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