The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Tag Archives: Politics

Expat, repat, and otherwise displaced reactions to the 2016 US presidential race

the-trump-panel

Welcome to the Displaced Nation’s virtual panel discussion on the most recent presidential election in America. (Hey, we figured if the pundits could get it all wrong, we could all be pundits, too!)

Before we get started, let me quickly explain how this panel came about. As some of you may know, I lived abroad for many years and, since repatriating to the United States, I’ve often felt like an exile in my own country. That said, the election of political outsider Donald Trump did not entirely surprise me. As explained in the most recent Displaced Dispatch, I had good information sources.

But if it didn’t surprise me, it definitely rocked my view of politics as usual in my native land. In the immediate aftermath, I wanted to be around other like-minded people here in New York City rather than being alone with my thoughts.

Likewise, I had the urge to reach out to the members of the international creative crowd we’ve gathered here at the Displaced Nation. How are they processing the news of America’s Brexit? And what impact do they see it having on their far-flung lives—beginning with the possibility of awkward holiday dinners with families?

A motley lot we expats, repats, and otherwise displaced types may be; but we, too, deserve a chance to say what we think.

And now, over to the panel…

* * *

q1_trumppanel

MARIANNE BOHR, American Francophile: In a lodge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with my husband. We were on a cross-country trip to move to Park City, Utah, for our early retirement. I was in shock as I saw state after state in the Trump column.

ANTHONY WINDRAM, British expat (now a U.S. citizen) in New York City: I watched the results at home with a makeshift newsroom. I flitted between CNN on the TV, a different cable news channel on my iPad, twitter on my phone, and various news sites on the laptop. But as the results came in, and the narrative arc of the night started to become apparent, I felt I needed to be away from the constant breaking news and the increasingly hysterical tone of Wolf Blitzer. The repulsion I felt at the result was visceral. Brexit is the closest comparison, but with the British referendum result, I just felt sadness. The Brexit vote centered around fairly abstract ideas about sovereignty and Britain and Europe—thus a toad like Nigel Farage could be dismissed as a distraction; but this election was centered around the carnival barking demagoguery of Trump, and the knowledge that he will not be going away for, at least, the next four years and that he now has a permanent, prominent place in the history of this country, is nauseating.

HE RYBOL, Adult Third Culture Kid based in Luxembourg (moving soon to Canada): I heard it on the car radio on my way home. No thoughts, just disbelief, sadness, frustration, anger. If I had any thoughts, they were about the rise of nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe.

INDRA CHOPRA, Indian and serial expat: In my hometown, Gurgaon, India, preparing for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights (October 30). Diwali is a celebration of good over evil but this year the festival stars Trump-ted the message. I was not surprised by the result as I had been following the campaign projections and stories during my stays of the past summer in the USA and Canada. I did feel let down by Hillary Clinton’s defeat, she is more qualified and deserving of the two and secondly it is time for the USA to have a woman president.

LISA LIANG, Adult Third Culture Kid based in Los Angeles: At home on the couch in our living room. I was in numb shock, not because I didn’t think it could happen, but because I had known it could and had decided to be optimistic for the last 36 hours because my psyche could no longer handle the dread and uncertainty. I could not sleep most of that night. The pain, grief, and rage arrived the next day and have peaked and dropped and peaked again on different days.

JACK SCOTT, former British expat in Turkey, now living in Norwich, UK: I first heard about Donald Trump’s victory on the morning news here in Britain. It was a wakeup call, but after Brexit, not entirely unexpected. I think we all know that both outcomes are a symptom of something deeper and more socially corrosive. There are a lot of people out there who feel marooned in poverty with little hope of rescue, including members of my own family. So it was okay to bail out the bankers but not the steelworkers? Really? If I was a praying man, I’d be on my knees hoping that Trump will be less incendiary in office than he has been on the podium, but I wouldn’t bet my shirt on it. Stoking up the darkest fears of those at the bottom of the heap is what got him elected. How a man born to enormous privilege can possibly understand the worries of the common man or woman is beyond me. But then I don’t understand the appeal of former merchant banker, Nigel Farage, either.

ML AWANOHARA, former American expat in UK and Japan, now living in New York: I spent the first part of the evening with a group of seven international friends in my NYC apartment building—only three of whom (myself included) were born here. One of our hosts was born in Montreal and the other in Taiwan, and the other two guests, in Asia (one of whom is my husband, who is Japanese). We were drinking wine and eating Chinese food while watching the returns on a huge TV screen. A bottle of bubbly was chilling in the fridge. Several of us left at midnight, when it was clear Hillary was likely to lose. We never popped the cork. The next morning, I couldn’t get over how quiet and glum everyone looked on the subway. At work several of us gathered around a computer screen to watch Hillary’s speech, with Bill standing behind her. The two of them have been political fixtures in this country for so long, it felt like watching the Twin Towers come down. No wonder people are saying 9/11 and 11/9…

q2_trumppanel

MARIANNE BOHR: It hasn’t changed my views because I remain steadfast in my belief that our country’s system of checks and balances will limit the damage Trump can do. Having lived in France, however, I always think about what the French will say/think about US politics and I’m afraid that many of them are as astounded as Americans. They love President Obama and I’m sure they’re shaking their heads about Trump—while also fearing that his election may indicate what could happen with Marine Le Pen.

ANTHONY WINDRAM: This was the first election I voted in since taking American citizenship. Indeed, this election was one of the primary reasons that I sought citizenship. Now I’ve assumed the nationality, I probably can’t claim displacement anymore: assimilation seems to be the stage I am at now. But there certainly isn’t the pride I felt on the morning when I voted as a US citizen for the first time taking my three-year-old daughter with me to the voting booth. I’m glad she’s only three. I’d have hated to try and explain to an older child that Horrorclown was the President-elect. I also find myself thinking back to my citizenship ceremony. The vast number of Hispanics sworn in with me, the small number of people from the Middle East. The result feels like a stinging rebuke to them from the country they had pledged allegiance to. Perhaps all high schoolers as part of their civic lessons should be taken to see a US naturalization ceremony. (As I write this, it has just occurred to me that as President one of the first duties that Trump will have to do is record a video greeting to be played at all naturalization ceremonies. I would find that grotesque.)

HE RYBOL: If anything, this outcome made me feel how lucky I am to have led an international life, with parents from different countries and with the opportunity to go to university in California (I loved it!). But while I don’t understand how anyone could vote for Trump, I don’t feel comfortable putting all of Trump’s supporters in the same basket, especially considering I’m sitting comfortably on another continent. For some of them, a vote for Trump may be an expression of frustration or even despair, rather than a reflection of who they really are. Part of me would like to encourage them to try living abroad for a while. At the same time, though, I’m aware my suggestion might seem unrealistic for someone who is struggling to make ends meet.

INDRA CHOPRA: I am not directly affected, and neither is my family, by the election verdict. Travel to USA had always been a challenge and additional discourtesies have come to be expected.

LISA LIANG: The election result has made me even more grateful for my TCK upbringing and even more determined to tell my intercultural story in my one-woman show, Alien Citizen, in as many countries as possible. I also want to help countless more people tell their intercultural stories via my workshops. On the painful side, the election has made me wonder if traveling will be harder because US citizens will be reviled and/or because the president elect will find other ways to make it harder. I hope not with all my heart.

JACK SCOTT: Viewing the world from our window, I feel rather insulated from the tragi-comedy engulfing us. I’m glad we chose Norwich to pitch our tent after our Anatolian adventures. While the cattle and corn county surrounding us voted for Brexit, the city itself wanted to remain, me included—though even I waivered a bit. The European Union is hard to love. But now the die has been cast, we just have to get on with it, don’t we?

ML AWANOHARA: I’m living in a bubble (that of a repat, with many international friends) inside a bubble (New York City), so, yes, I’m feeling rather exposed at this point! On the other hand, this election made me realize I do know something—in fact, my knowledge came from my early years abroad. While in the UK, I wrote a doctoral thesis on women, politics, and Shakespeare. My conclusion was that women nearly always find it problematic to exercise power when their power derives from a relationship with a powerful man. Unfortunately for Hillary, my findings showed that she would have been better off had she tried to make it to the top on her own steam, as Margaret Thatcher, and now Theresa May, did. But that is of course the rational side of me. The emotional side is breathing a giant sigh of relief I’m no longer an expat—I can imagine how weary I’d be by now of being asked by everyone I meet to explain the Trump phenomenon. And how much worse, now that he’s the president-elect! I’m also thinking back to the days when I first went abroad and felt happy to be escaping a society I’d come to see, even at that tender age, as fat (literally), lazy (wanting something for nothing), shallow (“shop until you drop”) and degenerate (hopelessly dysfunctional). Even so, I hadn’t quite foreseen that Washington would one day become a reality show!

q3_trumppanel

MARIANNE BOHR: No. I have to say that all my friends have political beliefs that are similar to mine. As I come from a family of eleven children, I learned long ago that we disagree about politics and religion and that we do not discuss them. They simmer under the surface but it’s dangerous to let them boil over. The burns would leave scars.

ANTHONY WINDRAM: I’ve never considered it before, but the family argument regarding politics over the holiday dinner is such an American trope. It doesn’t seem to exist to the same extent in Britain. Perhaps it’s our lack of a Thanksgiving? When eating our big holiday dinner at Christmas, it’s hard to feel mad at individuals who have just showered you with presents and with whom you can look forward to watching Downton Abbey or a Doctor Who Christmas special. By contrast, at Thanksgiving you feel oddly trapped with your family, and America doesn’t do good holiday TV so families have to actually interact with each other—never a good idea. But you know, even if I discovered that my values clash with a family member or friend, I think I’d be okay. I’m surprisingly diplomatic in person. I’ve always had very close friends of differing political persuasions to my own, and I’ve always been a little suspicious of people who don’t. We all know who among friends and family we can have a reasonable political discussion with irrespective of our differences, and who just wants to vent. It’s always best not to engage with the venters—just treat them as dinner theater (which is just as well considering the lack of good holiday TV in the US!).

HE RYBOL: Nope, thankfully the members of my immediate family—our nationalities include German, French, Luxembourgish and Italian—are all on the same side, as our friends who visit that time of year (whose nationalities also include Dutch, Belgian, Brazilian, Swedish, English, and Portuguese).

INDRA CHOPRA: Luckily it seems, this question doesn’t apply to me.

LISA LIANG: Nope. Everyone in my immediate family, and among my close friends, voted for Hillary Clinton. I also made it clear on Facebook at 1:00 a.m. on the calamitous night that anyone who didn’t vote for her could unfriend me. In my life, I don’t need anyone who voted for—or helped enable the election of—a Ku Klux Klan-endorsed, xenophobic, bullier of the disabled, likely rapist and his religious fanatic VP. Those details absolutely cannot be compartmentalized no matter how many people insist that they can.

JACK SCOTT: As far as Brexit goes: Most friends tend to be remainers, unless they’re closet Brexiteers of course (and I suspect a few are). And I’ve long since kept politics out of the conversation, family-wise. We’re a diverse group and it pays to keep mum. Of course, Mother herself is a devoted Brexiteer, as is common for her wartime generation. The old girl doesn’t get out much these days—and didn’t make it to the polling booth.

ML AWANOHARA: Funny what Anthony says—I talked politics at many a Christmas gathering in Britain! And I’ve always found it much harder to talk politics with family and friends in the United States. It’s as though we’ve outsourced our politics here so that we don’t have to tax ourselves overly with worrying about it. (Hm, I wonder if that will change now!) In any case, I suspect the topic of the election may surface occasionally at tomorrow’s Thanksgiving party. A couple of us were Bernie supporters, and the younger people who are coming, my nieces, are part of the millennial generation that felt devastated in the wake of Hillary’s loss. My stepfather is too old to travel but if he were joining us, he would attempt to hold up the side for the Republican Party. But even then we’d probably find some common ground as his idea of the Party is much different than Trump’s!

* * *

More about the panelists:

Marianne Bohr is the author of Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries and has been contributing the World of Words column to the Displaced Nation.

Anthony Windram is one of the founders of the Displaced Nation. He has a long-running blog of his own, called Culturally Discombobulated, where he’s been closely covering the 2016 election and now aftermath.

HE Rybol is the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and the recently published Reverse Culture Shock. She has been contributing the Culture Shock Toolbox column to the Displaced Nation.

Indra Chopra contributes to Indian, Middle Eastern and online media. She blogs at TravTrails and has been writing the Accidental Expat column for the Displaced Nation.

Lisa Liang is the creator and star of the solo show Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey. She is also the creator of the Displaced Nation’s TCK Talent column.

Jack Scott is the author of Perking the Pansies—Jack and Liam move to Turkey and Turkey Street: Jack and Liam move to Bodrum. He formerly contributed the popular Jack the Hack (writing advice) column to the Displaced Nation.

ML Awanohara is the founding editor of the Displaced Nation. She is currently contributing the Expat Author Game column to the site.

* * *

Readers, do you have anything to add to the panelists’ heart-felt responses? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

And we hope you have (had? by the time you read this…) a happy Thanksgiving, those of you who are celebrating—try not to spoil it by talking politics. 🙂

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 biweekly posts from The Displaced Nation and soooo much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top visual: Panelist photos (supplied). Q1 visual: Donald Trump Backyard Photo Sign at Night – West Des Moines, Iowa, by Tony Webster via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Q2 visual: Bursting bubble via Pixabay. Q3 visual: Thanksgiving dinner, by Marilyn C. Cole via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Advertisements

LOCATION, LOCUTION: In trio of memoirs, Marjory McGinn celebrates life inside the heart of Greece at height of economic crisis

Location Locution Marjory McGinn
Tracey Warr is here with Marjory McGinn, a Scottish writer who grew up in Australia and now lives in East Sussex, England. In the course of a life spent trundling between Northern and Southern hemispheres, Marjory discovered Greece, which is the only non-English speaking country she has lived in (fortunately, she can speak some Greek). Her memoirs on her midlife Grecian adventures show a journalist’s eye for mood and detail and a gift for telling a good story, as Tracey’s interview will reveal.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is Marjory McGinn, who credits her childhood migration from Scotland to Australia for inspiring an interest in travel and writing and putting a nomadic spin on her adult life. After leaving school in Sydney, Australia, and a short stint working for an airline, Marjory undertook a long overseas trip, arriving firstly in the land of her birth, Scotland. “It was a rite of passage for the children of migrant families in Australia seeking to go back to the ‘old country’ to hunt down their roots and find the cultural links they thought they were missing,” she says.

Greece was always her real destination, however, for reasons she outlines in her series of travel memoirs. The first time she visited Greece, during the military dictatorship in the 1970s, she stayed a year, working in Athens. Despite (perhaps because of?) the political unrest, it was the start of a lifelong love affair with the country. As Marjory puts it in one of her books:

“I was instantly smitten with the place. It was nothing I could easily define, but more a fusion of disparate things, all maddeningly exotic to my young mind.”

Circling back to Australia in the early 1980s, Marjory became a journalist and worked for leading newspapers in Sydney as a feature writer. At the peak of her career, however, the urge to uproot took over once again. Accompanied this time by her English partner and fellow journalist, Jim, she moved back to Scotland at the dawn of the 21st century. The couple carried on working in newspapers for 10 years, but then a decline in the industry inspired them to have a mid-life odyssey in Greece, with their slightly mad Jack Russell terrier, Wallace, in tow.

At that time, of course, Greece was sliding into economic crisis and would soon have to be bailed out repeatedly by its EU partners; it was a country on the edge. But Marjorie and her two companions were undaunted, and what should have been a year living in a hillside village in the wild Mani region (the middle peninsula of the southern Peloponnese), turned into three. They spent another year in the nearby Messinian peninsula, in 2014.

“I think I have probably undertaken a serious move at the start of every decade, for different reasons, and the issue of ‘where is home?’ has been one that I have examined a lot and also in my three travel memoirs, in an ever restless search for the perfect location,” Marjory says. “I am not sure I’ve found it yet, but Greece has already taken a firm grip of my heart. Although we are now back in the UK, living in England this time, Greece will always be on our future odyssey wish-list.”

Marjory’s first Greek travel memoir, Things Can Only Get Feta, about life in the Mani village at the start of the debt crisis, was published in 2013, followed by its sequel, Homer’s Where the Heart Is. Her most recent memoir, A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree, came out last month.

MM Trilogy

Now let’s talk to Marjory and hear about how she approached the challenge of capturing life in rural Greece during turbulent times to her readers.

* * *

Welcome, Marjory, to Location, Locution. What was it about living in Greece that inspired you to write a series of memoirs?

When I started writing my first travel memoir, Things Can Only Get Feta, I was living in the the hillside village of Megali Mantineia, and location—it’s a traditional farming settlement—was a driving force. The Mani region of Greece is wild, unspoilt, majestic: beneath the Taygetos mountains, with olive groves spilling down hillsides to the edge of the Messinian Gulf. Like much of rural southern Greece, it also has a rawness about it. So the scenery had a powerful effect on my imagination. But the location on its own might not have inspired me to write a book. What did, however, was a chance meeting early on with an eccentric goat herder, Foteini, who has featured in my three books (that’s her on the cover of the first one) and was probably their unlikely muse. She certainly inspired my journalistic curiosity, and from then on a narrative started to take shape in my mind. She had been riding down the road on her donkey in the village of Megali Mantineia, where we had just looked at a stone house for rent for a year. We weren’t sure about the house, but Foteini sealed our fate by chivvying us up. “Why wouldn’t you take it?” she said, abruptly. Why indeed. So we did, and it was to be the start of one of the most curious and challenging friendships of my life. The fact that I had some reasonable Greek language skills to begin with meant I was able to connect with Foteini and many of the other wonderful villagers struggling through the economic crisis, and I knew I had to write a book to somehow capture the way of life that hadn’t changed that much in centuries—but I felt that due to the Greek sovereign-debt crisis, it would.
Foteini quote

You wanted to make your readers feel what it is like to live in rural Greece at a time of economic turmoil. What was your technique for evoking the atmosphere?

For me it’s always about the people and I tried to evoke the spirit of Greece through the people I befriended, and also through descriptions of their homes, their celebrations and all the funny and touching moments we shared, because really, Greeks are big characters and they dwarf other aspects like landscape—in my mind anyway. I also like to evoke an atmosphere with humour. I do tend to see humour in everything and in the three books I’ve homed in on quirky things—like the way Foteini always dresses in mismatched layers and the fact she likes to peel and then wash her bananas before she eats them. Things like that always cracked me up.

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

I think culture and food in rural Greece gives a strong sense of location. This is a place brimming with customs and local events: saints’ days, feast days, local fetes, and national celebrations. At any one time in Greece, someone is celebrating something. And food is at the heart of everything and it does tend to capture the essence of life, like the ritual of lamb cooked on a spit outdoors at Easter. Greeks can spend half the day sitting around a meal table with family and friends, sharing food and a modest amount of wine. What intoxicates most Greeks is company, parea, and I sometimes think the food is really just a bonus.

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

For our latest odyssey in Greece we lived in Koroni, in Messinia (the left-hand prong of the three Peloponnese peninsulas), a region that hasn’t been written about a great deal. We lived on a hillside again in a glorious setting, ironically, right opposite the Mani and the spine of the Taygetos mountains. This was a very peaceful and unspoilt region. The passage is from my latest memoir, A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree:

The late afternoons in June were amongst the nicest hours of summer, after the midday heat had died down and especially if cooling winds made a gentle susurrus through the olive orchards from the sea below. It was impossible not to be seduced by the ease of life before the big heatwaves of July and August bore down on us all. We would often go for a late walk, taking the road that continued north past the turn-off for the villa complex. On either side were orchards with ancient olive trees standing in rows, their trunks thick and gnarled with age, but nowhere near past their usefulness. There were small farms, some no more than dry patches of land with wire enclosures for goats and turkeys, watched over by a few chained hounds.

On the right-hand side, another track ascended to a high plateau of land overlooking the gulf. This had been a village once, called Ayios Dimitrios, settled in the 18th century. It was encircled by olive trees growing right to the edge of the cliff-face with the sea below. All that remained of the village were the skeletal outlines of walls hidden in long grass and herb bushes, and a large grinding stone from the village’s olive press.

It was a quiet place, with a peaceful sense of the past, of lives well lived and not quite forgotten. Under one of the olive trees a rickety wooden ladder, used for harvesting, was abandoned and leaning against the trunk, as if offering a stairway to heaven. This place came pretty close already.
Seduced by the ease of life

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

With a travel memoir, knowing a place well need not be an issue if being a newcomer, an ingénue, is part of the narrative. With my memoirs, I already knew a lot about Greece before I went, after living there in my youth and after many long stays. I didn’t know a lot about rural Greece though, and the Mani in particular. It was a quick learning curve, however, because as journalists, Jim and I decided to freelance while there to help fund our adventure and had to connect with the region and the people in quick time, which was no great hardship. I think that helped us enormously and made it easier for me to write a truthful account of living there during the crisis. My third book, A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree, set on the Messinian peninsula, where we lived for a year in 2014, was a totally different experience, as it was a place that we knew nothing about, and more than that, was not the place we really wanted to be. How this happened, and how we dealt with it, formed the main crux of the story, so it worked to my advantage.

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

My first literary hero was the displaced (Polish-British) writer Joseph Conrad. The way he evokes the dark, brooding qualities of central Africa in Heart Of Darkness is spine-tinglingit’s still one of my favourite books. I love Patricia Highsmith’s books, especially The Talented Mr Ripley, a novel about (and by!) a displaced American. The Italian locations in the book are so sensual and pervasive, they almost become an extra character in the book.

MM fave authors

Marjory McGinn’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

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

Thank you for inviting me to discuss my wanderings on your Location, Locution page for the Displaced Nation site. I enjoyed the experience.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Marjory? Please leave them in the comments below.  And I have one signed copy of A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree, which will go to for FIRST reader to email me their name and postal address traceykwarr@gmail.com with “A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree” in the subject line. **Too late! THE GIVEAWAY NOW HAS A WINNER. Maybe next time?**

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Marjory McGinn and her books, I suggest you visit her Big Fat Greek Odyssey author site and blog. You can also follow her on Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! I’ve always had a soft spot for Greece myself and was worried about the country during its economic crisis. It was also hit hard by the refugee crisis, I believe. I’ve also never been to the Peloponnese; it sounds 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 September.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). All other photos were supplied by the author or downloaded from Pixabay, except for: 1) photo of Koroni: [Untitled – Koroni], by MihiScholl via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); photo of Joseph Conrad: Joseph Conrad via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain Mark 1.0); and 3) photo of Patricia Highsmith: Highsmith on After Dark (1988), by Open Media Ltd via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT: Globetrotting between overseas assignments

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT
Columnist Indra Chopra is back. Born in India, Indra embraced the life of a trailing spouse to become a globetrotter. She also conforms to the image I have a “lovepat.” Because she is such a curious and creative person, the expat life (both the international and the domestic kind) suits her down to the ground, as I think you will see in this post. ML Awanohara

For an accidental expat like me, adventure is not so much reaching out for unknown as it is changing residences, and countries, every so often.

In my last post, I described my family’s move to Oman for my husband’s job. We returned to India at the end of 2000. Eight years later, we would have another country binge—but in this post I want to share with you what we did from 2000 to 2008, a time when our friends were constantly grumbling about needing an exclusive telephone diary for the Chopras’ constantly changing telephone numbers and area codes.

Within a year of our return to India, we were planning an extended trip to United States. My first visit had been in 1975 when, fresh out of college, I attended summer school in journalism at Stanford University, in Palo Alto. It was the era of the “Fs”: Flower power, Frisbee, Freedom…

Twenty-six years later, I headed to America again at an equally momentous time: the aftermath of the horrendous carnage of 9/11/01. My husband and I were visiting our daughter, who, having completed her undergraduate studies at UMass, Amherst, had enrolled in UMass Medical School, which is located in Worcester.

Grey and gloomy Worcester

Our port of entry was Boston’s Logan Airport. From there we made a two-hour train journey past New England landscapes to an unknown territory whose name is pronounced “Wuss-tur,” as in Worcestershire sauce (which originated in the English midlands town of Worcester).

Our brusque reception by the immigration authorities at Logan Airport had put us in a somber mood, which grey and gloomy Worcester—a “city created by and for the middle class,” as Adam Davidson put it in a recent article for the New York Times Magazine—did little to dispel.

During the late 19th century and after, Worcester had attracted fresh-off-the-boat migrants from Europe, Asia, and Africa who had left behind unwelcoming Boston to look for work in the cotton mills and steel works, some of them starting their own enterprises. The proximity to Boston helped industries to flourish, but World War II and rise of other industrial bases across the country led to the greyness we now saw all around us.

I recalled having read Daoma Winson’s novel The Fall River Line, a 90-year saga about the family of a New England matriarch who owns a Massachusetts-based steamship line running between New York and Boston in the late 19th century. But the city I saw before me was a mix of new and old three-decker rectangular homes alongside newer constructions of colleges and hospitals.

Imagine my surprise when, researching the city further, I discovered that out of its gloom had emerged something pink, lacy and romantic. Esther Howland of Worcester started up a business making valentines in 1857, the success of which earned her the epithet of “the mother of the American valentine”; you can see a large collection of her creations at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester.

Worcester can also claim the “Smiley” face, created by Worcester-born-and-bred graphic artist Harvey Ross Ball—another seeming contradiction; and there are many other firsts to the city’s credit:

  • the largest female workforce in the USA;
  • the first woman Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins (she served in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s cabinet and had grown up in Worcester);
  • the first Bible and first dictionary printed in America (by one Isaiah Thomas, in the 18th century);
  • the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, also by Isaiah Thomas;
  • the first monkey wrench, invented by Loring and Aury Coes in 1840 (just thought I’d throw that in!);
  • the first commercially successful envelope-producing machine, invented by Russell Hawes in 1853; and
  • WORC, the first radio station to play a Beatles song in the United States.

I suppose adversity bred innovation and, as far as the Beatles went, a “thumbs-down” to the Boston Brahmins.

Once settled, we walked around Worcester Commons and past the Burnside Fountain with its Turtle Boy statue; along the crowded downtown streets including Shrewsbury Street (where can be found Little Italy) and the tree-lined avenues where there are many houses dating back to the late 19th-century; all over the “modern” UMass Medical School campus; and even out to the suburban Auburn Mall (I had to shop in Filene’s). We also ventured out to the shores of Quinsigamond and Indian Lakes.

Lake Quinsigamond (or the Long Pond) reflects the sensibilities of the city. Though a favored destination for water sports, rowing and boating regattas, it misses out on aqua “vitality”.

Worcester Mass Collage 2

Bustling Boston (& vicinity)

Worcester’s saving grace, for me, is that it’s only a step away from Boston and its famous landmarks…no, I would not be one of those people who prefers Worcester’s slower pace!

My favorite Boston spots include Faneuil Hall/Marketplace, incorporating Quincy Market, the Freedom Trail, Harvard University, and, further afield: Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket the latter two accessible by ferry and good spots for celeb watching. I liked walking down Nantucket’s cobblestoned Main Street and gawking at the tony lifestyle and the boutique shops.

Boston and beach collage

There have been other visits to Worcester since then, in various seasons, as we continue our effort to appreciate small-town living. But on this first occasion, 15 days were sufficient, and from Worcester we jetted across to San Francisco to visit family. In this sense, we were conforming to the distinctive Indian habit of tagging family and friends across the globe to ensure hassle free board and lodging. (Thankfully, at least for the people doing much of the hosting, that concept is changing with Indian tourism opening up and more people traveling on their own.)

San Francisco, here we come!

San Francisco lived up to my “Alice in Wonderland” memories. Our days were devoted dawdling on Fisherman’s Wharf, trundling down Nob Hill in the cable car, watching the sunset from Golden Gate Bridge, driving around Palo Alto.

The quintessential university town had changed: there were more residences and start-up communities, shortening the distance between University and town. The path from Escondido Village (where I lived) to the journalism department (where I studied) did not appear intimidating as when I had first cycled on it.

San Fran Collage

The re-discovery journey had been pleasant except for an interaction with immigration officer on our return to Boston’s Logan International Airport. Having been assured by the travel agent of no extra charges, we had extended our return flight from San Francisco to Boston by two days. Hence our surprise when we were asked to pay $200 and, as we attempted to explain, the airline official countered with a complete dossier of our movements, the number of times we had cancelled our arrival to USA, the change we’d made to our flight schedule from San Francisco, etc., etc.

It was a case of pay the said amount or be barred from boarding the flight back to India. The disbelief came when I told my husband, in Hindi, to ask the name of the official or demand that we speak to her senior. She caught on and told us that we are most welcome, promptly giving us her name and declaring it would not change anything.

Left with no alternative, we promptly paid the contested amount and exited the country. Talk about “parochial” and “paranoid”! I suddenly remembered my Media and Broadcasting Prof. at Stanford, who, upon seeing me sit alone on the patio (I was finishing an assignment), apologised for the “parochial” attitude of my fellow students. (I told him I was fine.)

We did not stop visiting USA but, on the next occasions, we were prepared for the pat downs, security checks and x-rays. No hair sprays, body cremes, etc., and no loose talk. So, now when I am told “You have been selected,” I know it is not for a seat upgrade but for the body scanner.

Becoming Punekars

In 2004 we made another “small city” visit and, this time, a change of residence. There is no connection between Worcester and Pune, except that both are stress busters for concrete jungles: Boston and Mumbai, respectively.

Pune is an emerging “mega-city” said to epitomize the New India. It is also the cultural capital of the state of Maharashtra, celebrating Maratha arts and crafts, music, and theatre. It has a proud history as the seat of the Peshwas, who were the ruling figures within the Maratha Empire, which was established by the legendary Shivaji, the Hindu leader who challenged the mighty Mughals. He was later held up as a hero during the rebellion against English rule and bid for Indian independence.

But returning to the Pune of today: it is very much a city on the go, with mushrooming high-rises, malls, and hotels. Its already congested labyrinth of shops, roadside stalls, and disintegrating colonial architecture is constantly expanding, with new enterprises such as education centers cropping up, and more and more “steel ants” (mopeds and two wheelers) running along its narrow lanes and arteries. (Public transport leaves something to be desired.)

The one constant between former eras and today are the majestic banyan trees, with their nebbish roots adding a spidery effect.

The city is being invaded by professionals and tourists from neighboring cities and states. A true Punekar (aka Punaite) will argue that, despite the onslaught of so many people, their city has retained its elegance and charm typified by the “dragonfly” energy and the attitude of the female residents who cover their faces with a scarf and slice through the traffic. (For me, this unique sartorial style is a silent tribute to “girl power”!)

Upon our arrival, we visited the famous landmarks including:

Pune is the city for seeing Alphonso mangoes piled high on roadside carts and market stalls. The mango mania does not stop at simply eating the fruit but has invaded thalis (food platters), desserts, ice creams and shakes, literally adding color to the local cuisine.

What I relish most is the ubiquitous Vada Pav, a vegetarian fast food consisting of a potato fritter. I often purchase one from a roadside stall that, according to my friend’s driver, is the “best Vada Pav in town.”

The mesmeric effect of life in this part of the world culminated in our purchasing a property up in the hills, on NIBM Road in Kondhwa, a fast-growing suburb of Pune.

And now here I sit on our lawn, under blue skies, a rarity in the part of India where I’m from. Later I will watch the sun descend deeper into the surrounding hills while dreaming of new places where we might be based in near future.

Pune India Collage

Not surprisingly, the seven-year itch surfaced and in summer of 2008 we jetted our way to Hong Kong, another country and another accidental expat experience. The Sultanate of Oman and Hong Kong are on different trajectories: one a traditional nation and the other a place full of glitz, glamor and restlessness. Hong Kong’s mishmash of lingering British influences and Chinese opportunism must be what lures so many visitors, us included, to its crowded streets.

We came for a year and found ourselves queuing at the Immigration office to get extensions stamped for two, three, seven years—and then permanent residency.

But more on that experience in my next post…

* * *

Thank you, Indra, for sharing this continuation of your story. It was refreshing to hear about the United States from an outsider’s perspective, and to learn all about Pune. And now I am eager to hear what you make of Hong Kong! —ML Awanohara

Indra Chopra is a writer/blogger passionate about travel and curious about cultures and people. Her present status is that of an accidental expat writing to relive moments in countries wherever she sets home with her husband. With over twenty years of writing experience Indra has contributed to Indian, Middle Eastern publications and online media. She blogs at TravTrails

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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

Related posts:

Photo credits: Opening visual: Airplane photo and India photo via Pixabay. Second visual: (top row) Worcester, Massachusetts, by Doug Kerr via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); photo of the Beatles and of Worcester’s buildings via Pixabay; (bottom row) Turtle Boy, by Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Harvey Ball, by Michael Carroll courtesy Worcester Historical Museum; and Daoma Winston book cover. Third visual: Nantucket – Main St, by thisisbossi via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Quincy Market, by Smart Destinations via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Boston – Freedom Trail, by David Ohmer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Cape Cod scene via Pixabay. Fourth visual: Cable car, Stanford U & Golden Gate sunset photos all via Pixabay; Fisherman’s Wharf – San Francisco, California, by Doug Kerr via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Last visual: (top row) Mangoes for sale in Crawford Market, Mumbai, by Anuradha Sengupta via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); warrior statue via Pixabay; A Crowd Gathers – Pune, India, by Ian D. Keating via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) (same as bottom-row middle photo); Sunset at Sinhagarh, by Abhijit Kar Gupta via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); (bottom row) Sukhadia’s open vada pav, by Krista via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); [untitled – Banyan tree in Pune], by ptwo via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and Osho Ashram, aka Osho International Meditation Resort, by fraboof via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

TCK TALENT: Lisa Liang takes her show back on the road; second stop: Cape Town, South Africa (2/2)

TCK Talent columnist Lisa and her husband (and techie), Dan, head to Cape Town. Photo credits: (from left) Alien Citizen poster; Lisa and Dan in front of Little Theatre on University of Cape Town campus (supplied, by Daniel Lawrence); and view of Table Mountain through bus window (supplied, by Lisa Liang).

Having delivered a successful show, TCK Talent columnist Lisa and her husband (and techie), Dan, explore Cape Town. Photo credits: (from left) Alien Citizen poster; Lisa and Dan on the street where they rented a cottage in Woodstock; Lisa in front of the clock tower on the V&A Waterfront. (All photos supplied, taken by either Lisa or her husband, Daniel Lawrence.)

TCK Talent columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang has had an exciting summer, even by her own, well-traveled standards. First she performed her one-woman show about growing up as a mixed-race TCK in Valencia, Spain, after which she headed for Cape Town, South Africa, for another performance, which she told us about in her last post. Today we’ll be treated to Part Two of her South African adventure!

Howzit, dear readers—molweni! Kunjani?

As some of you may recall, in my previous post I described the experience of taking Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey, my one-woman show about growing up as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) of mixed heritage, to the Women Playwrights International Conference, held June 29–July 3 in Cape Town.

This month’s post is about the second half of said trip, during which my husband, Dan, and I explored the city and its surroundings. A travelogue, if you will.

The day after the conference ended, we took an Uber cab to our new digs in Woodstock, about half a mile east of the city centre. (We’re not fans of Uber as a company—but as the Cape Town drivers were excellent and we were on a budget, we compromised.) Our AirBnB guest cottage had an en suite bathroom with a big shower—an upgrade from the dorm life we’d experienced at the conference.

We took it easy that day because I was wiped out from a week of conferencing that had culminated in performing my show. (Dan had played a role in the performance, too, as my techie.) We went grocery shopping in what South Africans call a “lower rent” area, a couple of blocks away. It offered far fewer choices than you would find in the USA or Europe—similar to the shops of my childhood and adolescence, spent in Central America and North Africa. Our most memorable buys were the potato chips or “crisps” and the gingersnap cookies or “biscuits”: both excellent!

Regarding safety in the city: we had read warnings about crime, but we witnessed none. As we walked along the main road, young men shouted at us through the windows of vans speeding by, offering us rides. At first we were intimidated, but by the end of our stay it was so familiar that we would just call back “No thanks!”

On the way home, we stopped at a cafe, the Field Office, where we enjoyed a great lunch and decent WiFi connection.

Dan is a coffee aficionado and I love the way Cape Town serves chai lattes in pretty glass mugs, so we were especially happy hanging out at this cafe, which aspires to be an office-away-from-the-office (hence its name).

When we returned to the cottage, we nearly froze—my teeth literally chattered! As I mentioned last month, most homes in Cape Town don’t have heating or insulation for the colder months. Luckily, our host realized this and loaned us a space heater the next day. (We had foolishly assumed he didn’t have one.)

The next day we went to the V&A Waterfront, which I loved for the clock tower, the public art, the restaurants and shops—and the fact that so many of our fellow tourists were from African countries. It was a pleasure to be among travelers from the African continent for a change. We discovered some fantastic traditional arts-and-crafts shopping at the African Trading Port.

Impilo! (Cheers!)

The following day we took a winelands tour. The countryside was beautiful; we passed a farm that had a zebra, a springbok, an ostrich, and more animals you never see on US farmland. Without having eaten breakfast, we tasted five wines (!) in Paarl valley, which was perhaps not the healthiest way to begin the morning.

Our next stop was charming Franschhoek, where I insisted on getting breakfast—a lovely muffin-like scone with butter/cream/jam coupled with a caffe latte…I felt much better. We also bought chocolate at a pretty chocolate shop because…chocolate!

The second winery was very fancy; then we continued on to Stellenbosch, where we had a tasty lunch. The towns were pretty with Cape Dutch, Georgian, and Victorian architecture.

The final winery on our tour had lots of character in the form of gigantic spider webs hanging by the stained glass windows. It was there we learned that fortified wine is to port what sparkling wine is to champagne. In total that day we tasted 12 wines and three ports fortified wines. We liked the ports fortified wines the best.

A cobwebbed window at one of the wineries; a glass of port, a fortified wine[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fortified_wine#/media/File:Port_wine.jpg], by Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons; Lisa at La Motte Winery.

A cobwebbed window at one of the wineries on Lisa and Dan’s tour; a glass of port, a fortified wine, by Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons; Lisa at La Motte Winery.

Benza iKapa (Beautiful Cape Town)

The next day we took a city tour. We were supposed to go to the top of Table Mountain but it was too windy. (We were finally able to reach the top on our second-to-last day. It was so beautiful, I feel enormously lucky and grateful to have experienced it.)
Table Mountain_top
Our guide showed us some of the beaches near the town. The water was such a beautiful shade of light blue—I’ve never seen water like that before! And the view from Signal Hill was spectacular—I can’t use that word enough for the natural beauty surrounding Cape Town.

And on this tour, I finally had the chance to see the outside of all the places that Dan had visited during our first week while I was “conferencing”:

We walked through a small section of the Company’s Garden, a beautiful park with very old trees and Egyptian geese having Make Way for Ducklings moments, to the Iziko South African Museum.

This tour ended with the requisite visit to a diamond shop, which no one in the van was interested in, but we all ultimately decided to go in for the demonstration on how the jewels are made from gems (and, I’ll admit, for the free champagne). There was loads of tanzanite (named for Tanzania, where it was discovered) on display—a good investment, apparently. We didn’t invest.

Legacy of apartheid

While at the South African Museum, it was disturbing to learn that the museum’s first curators had created life-sized models from molds of actual living “Bushmen” (who were never credited) to demonstrate an “authentic, primitive, and it’s being lived today” lifestyle. Since the end of apartheid, the museum has been re-curated from the indigenous perspective.

On our second-to-last day we visited Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid. (The prison is now a museum.) We had a great guide in the bus, who stressed that the prison was not about Nelson Mandela. The prisoners chose Mandela to speak for them, but they told him what to say and asked him to refashion their words because he was so eloquent and was also trained as a lawyer. At the prison itself, we had a former prisoner as our guide, who showed us Mandela’s cell. No white prisoners were held in that prison—only “blacks” and “coloureds,” who were not treated the same (there was worse treatment for blacks).

Mandela’s last prison was Drakenstein Correctional Centre (formerly Victor Verster Prison), which we’d seen during our winery tour. (We stopped to take pictures beneath the inspiring Nelson Mandela statue at the entrance.)

On our last day we went to the District Six Museum, which is a beautifully and intimately designed and curated memorial to the forced movement of 60,000 inhabitants of various races in District Six during 1970s apartheid. My eyes started welling up in the first five minutes. I felt anxious, angry, and moved.

(Top) Robben Island Prison Museum; District Six Museum.

(Top) Robben Island Prison Museum; District Six Museum.

At the conference I had remarked to a young South African theatremaker that I hadn’t perceived any racial tension among the diverse group of actors and directors who staged the play readings; she replied that that was because we were at the university, but things were different off campus. Dan and I were unpleasantly surprised when one of our tour guides, an older white man, stated that “black neighborhood” equaled “ghetto,” and pointed out a section of the city that he considered “awful”—but it looked like any populated section of a city in a developing nation to me.

I grew up mostly in poor countries, so I’m accustomed to the scrappy, grimy, not-at-all-pretty-yet-functional aspect of many an urban area. We actually bought our groceries on the block that the guide was pointing out.

Ubuhle bendalo (Spectacular scenery)

In disconcerting contrast to its painful history, South Africa has spectacular scenery. We went on a tour to the Cape Peninsula, including Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point. Spectacular vistas and beaches—again, I’ve never seen that color of ocean.

We also loved seeing animals that were new to us. We took a boat to see Cape fur seals on Duiker Island. Along the road throughout the day we passed zebras, baboons, bontebok, and ostriches—mostly not penned in—just by the road! And ever so many African penguins on Boulders Beach!

We ended that particular day at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, which were lush and green, and I treated myself to a new mug at the gift shop. (A mug of tea being part of my writing ritual!

South African animals collage

Clockwise, from top left: Ostrich between road and sea; South African farm animals; African penguins at Boulders Beach; the Egyptian geese in Company Gardens.

Glorious food

We had been wanting to try the best Cape Malay food in town. We were told it was at Biesmiellah, so went there for dinner. Best comfort food ever after a day that had run the emotional gamut from a grim yet inspiring prison-turned-museum, to one of the world’s natural wonders with jaw-dropping vistas, to a fantastic restaurant where the cooks are Muslim women who feed you after sunset during Ramadan (so you can only hope they’ve broken their own fasts while taking care of tourists).

We ate wonderfully well in Cape Town. I can also recommend:

Paradoxically, almost every day we were approached by a homeless person, each one of a
different ethnicity/race (white, black, Malaysian, etc.), often young, always deeply courteous, asking for a meal. It finally occurred to me to carry an energy bar in my coat for giving away.

Last but not least…

While at the District Six Museum on our last day, we happened to run into a few WPIC delegates, one of whom complimented my performance of Alien Citizen from the previous week: a great way to cap off our visit.

One of the last things we did was to return to Company’s Park to walk the length of it; there were numerous romantic couples on the grass, which reminded me of Rome’s Villa Borghese Gardens and L.A.’s Griffith Park. We also saw many guinea fowl in and around Cape Town—again, we loved seeing animals we never get to see in the States.

We also visited St. George’s Cathedral, which was lovely and smaller than I had expected. It’s so famous for Desmond Tutu that in my head it was the size of Chartres—until I actually saw it and went inside.

We even took in the South African National Gallery, which had two incredible exhibits by South African artists:

  1. photography and more by Omar Badsha, and
  2. a multimedia-with-moving-sculpture work by William Kentridge called The Refusal of Time.

Hamba kakuhle! (Go well!)

All too soon it was time to wend our way back to L.A. The first leg of our flight was at night. On the British Airways plane back to Heathrow, the flight attendants sprayed something throughout the cabin, saying that it was not toxic but that we should still take our contact lenses out and not lick the mist. Um…

I’ll spare you the details of our layover in Heathrow, but be warned: that airport goes well out of its way to make you miserable. Meanwhile, our flight out of Cape Town left late, so we missed the connection and were rerouted to San Francisco…and our luggage got lost at SFO. It was finally delivered to us four days later—intact! Hooray!

Looking back, I think we were lucky to have mostly clear weather during our time in Cape Town as I was able to take extraordinarily vivid impressions of the majestic Table Mountain, the city and its surroundings, which are still with me…

On another level, I found Cape Town stimulating as an artist. It’s the kind of place that compels you to be brave and keep trying to tell your story truthfully. That’s also what I took away from our trip, along with an abiding gratitude to the WPIC programming committee for choosing Alien Citizen as the closing show—and of course to my generous backers who made the trip possible. Without a doubt, it counts as one of the highlights of my creative international life.

* * *

Thank you, Lisa! I really appreciated hearing about your travels within and around Cape Town from your ATCK perspective: it was fascinating, as well as moving, to take this virtual tour. Readers, please leave questions or comments for Lisa below. —ML Awanohara

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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

Related posts:

LOCATION, LOCUTION: British expat author Carl Plummer turns his gaze upon his adopted home of China

Columnist JJ Marsh (left) talks to Carl Plummer,

Columnist JJ Marsh (left) talks to Carl Plummer, a writer of historical adventure fiction.

We welcome JJ Marsh back to the Displaced Nation for this month’s “Location, Locution.” If you are new to the site, JJ, who is a crime series writer, chats with fellow fiction writers about their methods for portraying place in their works. Her guest today is Carl Plummer, who writes World War II adventure spoofs under the pen name of Robert E. Towsie. Born in Hull, England, he lived in Cyprus, Paris and Libya before moving to his current home of China, where he works as a university lecturer. Today he does something unusual for this column: describes the place where he’s living right now.

—ML Awanohara

JJ MARSH: Once in a while, Location, Locution likes to surprise you. Remember the Paulo Coelho piece on monuments that immortalise cities? If not, go read it now. Is it any surprise this man is an international bestseller?

This month, I tracked down an author I’ve admired for a long time. Carl Plummer writes as Robert E. Towsie, in a classic comic style, setting his capers around Europe against the backdrop of its dramatic history.

But what interested me about Carl/Robert is where this expat creative lives. China. A place I find fascinating, mysterious and sometimes a little scary. So this month’s Location, Locution is his take on China, its people and and how he sees it. Enjoy.

* * *

CARL PLUMMER: In 2004, after a stint in Libya, I arrived in China and started a job at Nanyang Normal University to teach British and American literature. The city of Nanyang (pop. 1,000,000) in Henan Province was proud to boast ten lao wai, foreigners.

Every minute, on every street, in every shop, I was reminded I was a foreigner. Some reminders were harsh, nationalistic and racist with the “go back where you came from” we associate with racism in England.

Other reminders were through curiosity, the wish to speak English to and even touch a foreigner, the assumption all foreigners are American and a sense of me being something exotic, something new and different, and most of all—rich.

I wasn’t rich, am not rich. Teachers are the poorest working travellers of the world. We are the intellectual navvies from the western world. We are not businessmen with expense accounts; we are not oil people or wheeler and dealers. But we are approachable because we have to mingle, use the buses and the metros, and the trains. We do not have company cars with around-the-clock company drivers.

During the rainy season in a small coal-mining town near Pingdingshan the streets would run black when it poured and families would come out to shower beneath the torrents thundering off awnings.

What made me rich to such people? I had an apartment with a shower and I could afford the water it used—I didn’t have to wait for the rain.

In China, the iron rice bowl has long gone.

Why am I talking about money instead of garnishing the text with tales of magnificent walls, gaudy ancient temples or food conjured up with every living creature imaginable? Well, that’s all been done before.

I’m talking of money because poverty is not romantic; it never has been and it never will be. It is cruel and it doesn’t discriminate; there are no deserving and no undeserving poor.

That cradle-to-the-grave surety of Communism is a generation ago, but that generation brought up in it is still around. It is my age, brought up in the 60s and 70s, taught to root out the treacherous intellectual bourgeoisie, taught to spy on parents and teachers, taught to love the state above all else.

It worked in theory for a while because the state cared; it looked after your every need as long as your toed the line, as long as you never asked questions. Now it doesn’t. Now there is no line to toe.

The young are asking questions. That is their hope.

I meet many young people, in their 20s, who have something hanging around their necks; cultural and domestic demands, greatly exacerbated by the growth of capitalism and the cracking of the iron rice bowl.

Education is expensive in China, as is being healthy. Young people have shown me lists, lists almost like invoices saying: we spent this much on your upbringing and this is what you must pay back to us. It is easy to get the sense parents have children for one reason: someone to take care of them in their old age. Babies, especially boys, are glorified little emperors, smothered and mothered—especially grandmothered—to the extreme; but once in their teens they are seen as future life-support systems.

Rich CEOs and husbands framed

Haozhi Chen (CEO of Chinese mobile powerhouse Chukong), by Jon Jordan via Flickr; “Wedding couple in the clan house,” by shankar s. via Flickr. Both photos are licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Boys are expected to become CEOs and girls are expected to find rich husbands. All are expected to become members of extended families because extended families are safer, more secure. Individualism and independence is dangerous.

The average salary in China is still about 2000 yuan a month (about 200GBP) for a ten-hour-day and a six-day week. Millions of workers live in dormitories more akin to barracks, and send home half their salaries to support families back home. Young people must pay back the money they owe their parents. This is how it is for the majority of young people in China. The majority has to save because everyone has to pay.

When the future is precarious you have to save.

When I lived in the Bai Yun district of Guangzhou (Guangdong province, in Southern China), I used to cycle through a huge housing estate (apartments by the thousand) and cut through the grounds of Jinxi Nanfang Hospital.

Those middle-class apartments sell for about 3,000,000 yuan each, rented out for between 3,000 and 4,000 a month.

From the higher balconies you can see the rows of beggars in the streets around the hospital. These are not the beggars we expect—those in shop doorways with mangy dogs for company.

These beggars are lying in makeshift hospital beds, out in the open, with drips hanging from stands. These beggars are families trying to get the 500 yuan a night needed for hospital treatment, or even the 100 yuan just to see a doctor.

Dontspend$$youdonthave

Lesson for all SL-ers, by Laurence Simon via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

This is why so many Chinese people are savers, not spenders.

And those apartments—the richer you are, the higher up you live. The higher up you are, the farther you can see across the hospital surrounds where the aged and sick lie in the shadows of a hospital they cannot afford to enter. It is a world where education and health is a luxury, not a right.

For the growing middle-class it is different; for the Chinese aristocracy—very different. There is a Chinese aristocracy; it’s the cushioned group of party members—the 5 percent. (Google “My father is Li Gang”* if you wish to know how that works.)

The growing middle classes do not live with the fearful uncertainties of old age. They do not fear the need to see a doctor or the need to stay in hospital for a few days. They can send their children to good schools; send them to the UK, the USA or Australia to continue with their studies. They can send their children out into the world to be whatever they wish to be—something so many westerners take for granted. They do not need their offspring to look after them in old age. They can be spenders and savers.

I’d rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle.

"Cargirl," by Xuan Zheng via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); (bottom) "Shanghai cyclists," by Gwydion M. Williams via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

“Cargirl,” by Xuan Zheng via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); “Shanghai cyclists,” by Gwydion M. Williams via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

How about the girl who said on a TV show “I’d rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle”?

Yes, she was condemned and ridiculed, but she does not have the luxury of choice, the luxury of hope; the safety net is not yet there for her.

I believe and hope it will be for her children. Already, there are newly middle class young people who not have to choose between the BMW and the bicycle. Educated women are buying their own BMWs, their own apartments. They do not have to get married as soon as possible in order to be secure.

And more importantly, their individualism and prosperity is running alongside a new sense of social justice, political justice, and an awareness of the needs of others.

Religion, philosophy, or just simple humanism, whatever it is—the humanity is breaking through.

Twenty years ago, capitalism was raw in China; it was Darwinian and brutal, but it is slowly coming around, perhaps in the way it eventually did so in Britain until it was scuppered by the bankers who played with money as though it was Monopoly money.

We started with the Bounderby style of capitalism where Britain was the richest country in the world, populated by the poorest masses.

That is where China has been, perhaps still is, but it is moving through that. Communism denuded the soul, evicted compassion and turned the people into soldier ants. Capitalism came along to lift people out of poverty, but it did not fill the spiritual vacuum—the vacuum of feeling and compassion.

Christianity is becoming ever more popular in China. Confucianism is being taught again. The vacuum is being filled. The younger capitalist—who is not from the spoilt 5 percent—has a sense of social responsibility, the idea of giving back.

Mr Cameron’s “long-term plan” is but a sparrow’s sneeze in Chinese terms.

It’s a long process, but China has a long history and has always been about long processes.

The hope is, and I am confident about it, is the young; they have enough to eat, will have roofs over their heads, but more importantly, they can afford to be more thoughtful, more caring—they can afford humanity. Breaking free from poverty allows kindness to flourish (kindness in individuals and kindness from the state) if it is not smothered by the unacceptable face of capitalism or the dehumanization of totalitarianism.

I believe it will get there. But we cannot think in European terms; European terms are far too short. And remember why you can afford your cheap TV, cheap mobile phone and cheap computer; it is funded by cheap labour.

There are still millions and millions with a standard of living we would find totally unacceptable; but the fear of starvation has gone and the idea of a health service free at the point of use is slowly becoming more than just a dream. For most young people, going to university is still a dream.

It is changing. The young people are making it change.

* * *

Readers, if this interview has piqued your curiosity about Carl Plummer and his Robert E. Towsie books, we encourage you to visit his author site.

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Related posts:

The Displaced Nation responds to France’s 9/11

Solidarity with Solidarite

SOLIDARITE, by Patrick Janicek via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Time and again, the Displaced Nation has featured the works of displaced creatives who have been captivated by Paris, a city that has been beloved of expats for longer than anyone can remember. For today’s post, a few of us offer some responses to the terrorist attacks that beset the city last week. Our thoughts are with those expats who remain in the city as it attempts to move forward in the wake of disruption and tragedy, what some have labeled France’s 9/11. We express solidarity with your solidarité.

—ML Awanohara

ML_for_blogML AWANOHARA, Displaced Nation founding writer/editor: My first two experiences with terrorism occurred when I was living abroad: first in Britain, where I always felt the threat of an IRA attack when traveling into central London for my studies; and then in Japan: I was living just up the street from one of the subways that Aum Shinrikyo attacked with sarin gas.

Then, not long after I repatriated and moved to New York City, 9/11 occurred: a spectacle almost beyond belief. I still remember the gamut of emotions I felt in the weeks and months that followed, everything from practical considerations (should I take the bus since a rumor is flying about another attack on the subway today?) to large questions: why do they hate us so much?

Although in each of these cases the terrorists were tied to religion (even Aum Shinrikyo espoused a “new religion”), when I first heard about the Parisian attacks, I felt that something different was taking place. It sounds grand to call it a clash of civilizations, but that’s been my impression, this time around.

I spent my formative years in Britain, you see, where I learned to appreciate irreverent humor, so much so that I’ve had a tough time adjusting back to life back here in the U.S., where people take themselves a lot more seriously. Though I don’t think I’m Charlie (I draw the line at the kind of irreverence that magazine was up to), I do feel that artists should be free to explore the boundaries…

In fact, isn’t that what the Displaced Nation is about? My fellow founders, Kate Allison and Anthony Windram, and I conceived of this site as a space where one could be irreverent about the expat life (within certain limits, of course—and we occasionally argued about that). Humo(u)r and sending things up has been our stock-in-trade.

On that note, and in the spirit of artistic freedom, allow me to offer one final thought. In the days after the terrorists struck, I have also been thinking that, in a strange kind of way, I’m not unlike the perpetrators. I went abroad to be exposed to new ideas and in some sense I became “radicalized”—emerging from my European experience as more secular, more aware of the world, and with more of a social conscience than I’d developed while growing up in America.

That’s where the comparison ends, of course. Having a European, secular mindset means I’m much more afraid of my fellow Americans waging war on me with their fundamentalist beliefs, Biblical literalism and guns than the other way around. No doubt that’s why I now live in New York City—though ironically, this location makes me more vulnerable to terrorists with an axe to grind against this country.

I look to the Displaced Nation as a source of community while also knowing it cannot guarantee my safety. No nation can do that, not even one built in cyberspace. (I’m thinking of the Sony hackers.)

Rita GardnerRITA GARDNER, Adult Third Culture Kid, memoirist, and interviewee for the Displaced Nation’s “A Picture Says…” column: I am outraged and scared that the acts of a small group of radicals just shook the world. It’s not just Paris that is reeling from this blow. The number of lives affected spiral out widely beyond those who lost their lives, crossing continents and oceans, the pain an ever-expanding circle. When I first heard about the Paris attacks, my first instinct was to go into denial – and pull into a cocoon of self-protection. Selfishly, I can turn off the TV and not see the horror. It’s happening “somewhere else”, not in my immediate world. I realize hiding is just a defense mechanism. I think that because expats have had the experience of living far from our “passport country”, none of us can cocoon into unconsciousness for long. We have been in that “somewhere else”—we know this attack could have happened to any of us, any place on the globe. And yet—we must live, we must manage somehow to reconcile the fact that evil and good exist within mankind. That’s the hardest idea to contemplate or absorb at this time. Maybe all we can do right now is attempt to be good ambassadors wherever we find ourselves, and add love to that ever-expanding spiral.

Cinda MacKinnon_300x300CINDA MACKINNON, ATCK, novelist, and subject of one of our writer interview features: I wanted to write something profound, but what words can you say about terrorists? It is shocking and senseless. No cause can justify terrorism, yet hardly a week goes without innocent people being slaughtered. There is a feeling that the real target in Paris is Western civilization and values (and some say freedom of speech). The French are united in their grief, and they joined us after 9/11 when the newspaper Le Monde wrote: “Nous sommes tous Américains.” In response I would like to say: “Nous sommes tous Françaises.

Joanna_Masters_Maggs_300 x 300JOANNA MASTERS-MAGGS, Displaced Nation (“Global Food Gossip”) columnist and expat in France: I talked to my children, who’ve spent six years on their young lives in Muslim countries, about what happened. As I explained in yesterday’s post, I’m never shocked by terrorism as I knew it existed at an early age. When the attacks in Paris happened and my kids asked about it, I didn’t sugar the pill for them. I told them I didn’t have the definitive answer. I don’t know why people do this sort of thing. I can’t imagine caring that much about anything. I think I would shoot someone who hurt my kids, but for an idea, a belief? I told them not to get so uptight about things themselves and never say something as embarrassing as “Well, I’ve never been so insulted in all my life”. Get over yourself. The victims in last week’s attacks died for nothing. It was a waste of life. That’s what I tell them. Because someone had a gun and a shaky ego. That’s the truth. That’s what terrorism is.

While I was talking to my kids, I was thinking about the historian Niall Fergusson’s book on WWI. He says the war went on as long as it did for many reasons, not least that young men are turned on by danger. “Going over the top” gives them a massive adrenaline charge, which becomes addictive, and they can’t really believe “it” will happen to them. When I read this, it was a light bulb moment. I suddenly understood why the working-class boys I witnessed in Belfast growing up (I’m half Irish) turned to paramilitary groups: it gave them a sense of power and authority and purpose. There appears to be a limitless supply of such young men. The current situation in Syria makes me think of all the young British idealists who went to Spain to fight in the Civil War. Sometimes I wonder if National Service might actually fill the need for thrills in a safer way? My father for example did two years in Northern Ireland in the Intelligence Corps, and my father-in-law spent his youth in the Malaysian jungle during the insurgency. Aren’t we all turned on at times, by the gun-toting hard guy? Hollywood thrives on it!

* * *

Readers, do you have anything to add, or any comments on these heart-felt responses? We’d love to hear from you!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s Location, Locution post!

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

Related posts:

A British expat in France defends the right to feel skeptical about “Je suis Charlie” fever

Joanna_and_Charlie

Marche Républicaine, by João Dias via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Joanna Masters-Maggs in Provence, France.

Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France, in Provence. She normally writes about food for the Displaced Nation, but today she offers this opinion piece on the shocking events that took place in Paris last week.

—ML Awanohara

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”—this line was actually composed by the English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her 1906 anecdotal biography of Voltaire and ten of his closest associates, although the statement does capture the spirit of the great French philosopher and wit.

I am ashamed to say that unlike the fall of the twin towers on 9/11 or the London bombings of 2005, I cannot remember exactly what I was doing when I first heard of the shootings at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo—I imagine it was something rather prosaic in the kitchen.

I’m not sure what it says about me, but my first thoughts were along the lines of: “Oh good, some news to listen to as I iron.” That, and the usual schadenfreude you feel when something bad happens to someone else. That sinking thrill that it could have been me (I live in France, after all) but it wasn’t, this time at least.

Perhaps I have become immune to these things as a result of my own news addiction and life experiences.

Travelling to and staying in Belfast as a child meant that terrorism occasionally formed the backdrop to my daily life. I still have memories of white-gloved airline staff manually checking our opened suitcases in front of us. I can also recall being scanned, frisked and having our bags searched to enter the so-called ring of steel that protected the Belfast City Centre. Though never pleasant, these searches and quick looks under cars became routine.

For the French, last week was a wake-up call to mass insecurity. The idea of being gunned down while in the supermarket is not a happy one, nor is the thought, for France’s Jewish population, that their lives will be curtailed by the need for constant surveillance of schools and synagogues.

We are not all Charlie Hebdo, are we?

In this land of Voltaire, the slogan “Je suis Charlie” has taken rapid hold. We are all Charlie because we all believe that free speech should be protected, like it or not, and you cannot execute us all.

The problem I have with this is that we are not all Charlie Hebdo, are we?

Which one of us has put their offending cartoons on our Facebook profile or Twitter feed—anyone? I didn’t think so.

Perhaps if we all did, the point would be better made. In fact, we should be uploading a cartoon of an imam, a priest, and a rabbi walking into a bar, as the old joke goes—since satire should be aimed at all groups equally.

Like most people here in France, I was not a reader of Charlie Hebdo, whose weekly circulation averaged 30,000 and which was forced to suspend publication between 1981 and 1992 for want of finance. What I know comes mainly from the headlines the publication generated by its provocative cartoons. It is, therefore, difficult to comment intelligently, but since that doesn’t seem to be a bar to the subject for anyone else I’ll go ahead.

Sauce, satire, and silliness—a British speciality

Being a Brit, I do know about satire. I see it as a means of bursting the bubble of one’s own pomposity and seriousness in all matters.

Case in point: Just a few weeks ago, I was listening to a well-known radio news comedy programme. One of the contributors was poking fun at those of us who were getting hot under the collar over the Scottish bid for independence. “Are people really angry?” he asked—and went on to improvise a scene between an unhappy and dreadfully posh couple in a classic 1930s British black-and-white film, where the husband [England] asks his wife [Scotland]:

“But we do alright, don’t we, Cynthia? I mean it wouldn’t do to make a fuss and do anything untoward or vulgar, would it?”

Despite my irritation with the situation, I laughed, and it was gone—the anger, that is. I laughed despite myself, the irritation gone in a flash.

Really, why get bitter when you can laugh? It feels so much better.

In my view, we can never get enough of this kind of satire. We must laugh at ourselves and each other, until we are helpless with mirth. Humour can be such a leveler. But I worry that last week’s events have generated the kind of anger that may become repressed, preying on the lingering fears of what the expression of ideas can provoke. As an expat, I am often shocked at how restrained the French are, of how afraid they are to risk pricking each other’s self-importance through humour, like us Brits. This experience may make them even less inclined to question pomposity—not a good thing.

More cartoons, please, less #JeSuisCharlie

More cartoons then—and less Twitter-friendly phrases that make us all feel as though we have done something noble when in fact we have done nothing at all.

My husband and I were a little afraid that our kids might not take the minute’s silence at school seriously. Living in, but slightly apart from, French life, we sometimes feel as though local news events do not touch us. Had our kids absorbed too much of our expat hardness?

As it turned out, we should have had more confidence in our offspring’s ability to absorb the feelings of schoolmates, their parents and friends at their sports clubs. Our kids knew better than us, perhaps, the level of grief there is in France at the moment. The legendary caricaturist Jean Cabut (Cabu) for example was loved by a generation of children because of his work on a children’s television programme. For many, the sadness over his loss is real, as though an uncle has died.

Cabu once declared:

“Sometimes laughter can hurt—but laughter, humour and mockery are our only weapons.”

So they are. If actions devoid of laughter, humour and mockery are the only way we can deal with such awful events as those of last week, the terrorist has won. He will know we won’t do anything more because we are afraid.

We post the phrase, but not the satire. We are afraid to, because to do so would single us out for attention and, possibly, reprisal.

We have all silenced ourselves—and this, in the land of Voltaire, is a sad thing indeed.

* * *

Thanks, Joanna, for such a brave post, so very honest while also thought provoking. Readers, what do you make of Joanna’s observations? Please leave a comment. Food lovers, rest assured, she will be back next month in her usual role of Global Food Gossip.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, offering a few more displaced perspectives on what is commonly being referred to as France’s 9/11.

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

Related posts:

In this novel of displacement, water shapes the land, the country and people’s lives, almost beyond recognition

Ruth Hartley Collage

The Shaping of Water cover art; Ruth Hartley author portrait; Ruth Hartley’s painting of her father’s farm.

My guest today, Ruth Hartley, is a writer and an artist—but from the point of view of the Displaced Nation, she is something else as well: an expert on displacement.

Ruth has lived a life of displacement. She grew up in Africa, a continent that continues to have the world’s largest number of forcibly displaced peoples. She grew up on her father’s farm in Zimbabwe, which at that point was known as Rhodesia, at a time when struggles for independence in European-ruled African territories were spreading like a wave. As a young woman, she moved to South Africa to study art and then had to escape to England because of her political activities.

Ruth took refuge in London, where she married and started raising a family—but still felt the pull of her native Africa and chose to become an “expatriate economic migrant” in Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia). She lived with her husband and children in Zambia for 22 years, returning to the UK in 1994 to practice and teach art. Five years ago she set out on a long tour of Europe and Turkey. She now lives in Southern France.

Manzi ni moyo (water is life) —Chinyanja saying

Ruth recently published her first novel, The Shaping of Water, which, perhaps not surprisingly, reads like an ode, a kind of paean, to displacement. The action follows the progress of a decision by Rhodesia’s rulers to build a dam across the mighty Zambezi. They called it the Kariba Dam because the dam wall spans the narrowest and steepest of the gorges along the river, known locally as kariwa (a trap). Completed in 1959, the Kariba Dam created a vast man-made lake, Lake Kariba, in the Zambezi Valley. The lake displaced the river people, the Tonga, and forever changed the ecology of the region.

The book’s protagonists are a colonial couple, Margaret and Charles. They decide to build a lake-front cottage in Siavonga, a settlement that springs up to accommodate the displaced Tonga.

Ironically, although the ramshackle cottage sits in a spot that would never have existed had it not been for the building of the dam, which shaped the river in a new way, it is the one constant, a kind of retreat from the forces that displace practically everyone during the African liberation wars that ensue. Margaret and Charles use it as a place of sanctuary, and eventually two other couples come to do so as well: South African freedom fighters Marielise (Margaret’s niece) and Jo, and NGO worker Nick and his UK-raised African wife, Manda.

The cottage also provides a livelihood for Milimo, the son of a Tonga woman whose home was drowned by the lake. Margaret hires Milimo as gardener and caretaker for the property at the suggestion of Father Patrick, a missionary who worked in the Zambezi Valley before its shaping by water.

As a kind of review of the many layers of displacement in this novel, I offer this quote from the book, which I think also demonstrates Ruth’s lyrical style of storytelling:

Here near Kariba, ‘the trap’, in the middle of a wilderness, is a place called Siavonga, which is a name without meaning. It is a place that will be a town but a place that is not yet built. It is a place that is presently isolated by poor and inadequate roads and it is difficult to reach. It is in a country that is becoming another country, with another name. It is here that there is a plot where a contractor builds a cottage above a lake not yet filled with water. All this takes place in the newly created Central African Federation of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland that will be no more in a few short years. Two of these countries will change into independent states with different names when that happens.

It is an exercise in madness and dreams, in magic and megalomania, and the Tonga people know it to be impossible.

And now I think it’s time to get to know Ruth a little better, and hear some more about her book as well as the other creative projects she is working on.

* * *

Hi, Ruth, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. I expect you will feel entirely at home here. I wonder, did you consciously set out to write a book exploring displacement?
Displacement is a good way of describing what happens in the story. Displacement can lead to new opportunities but it is also damaging. I deliberately structured the book so that it explored three main themes:

  • Damage to the environment.
  • Damage done for political reasons.
  • Damage that is personal, emotional and private. It includes damage done by racism and sexism and deals with both in subtle ways.

Though each of these themes gets its own part in the book, they are also interwoven. I passionately wanted to bring the issues of contemporary Africa to life in a truthful, but also empathetic and positive, way.

I know you lived through many of the events that are depicted in this novel. To what extent is your work autobiographical fiction and to what extent historical fiction?
My novel is about entirely fictional characters living through actual and verifiable political and social events. I grew up in an intense political climate in Africa with a strong personal commitment to human rights. I did live through those events and have always made notes and collected newspaper articles and books throughout my life. But because I respect and love the individuals I knew in Africa I was careful to invent the people in my story. None of them is me either though like Margaret, I, too, am a gardener. The cottage, however, is real and the cottage guest book provided me with records of the weather and the lake levels.

“…all that I have left of my life, work, and friendships is stored on my computer” —Marielise

For me, the cottage assumed the role of the central character. You said it was real. Was it a place where you actually stayed?
If a cottage can be a character, then the one real and existing “character” in the novel apart from historical political figures is the “Cottage”. The book was in part, written as an elegy for a place I loved. Built before Zambian independence, the cottage belonged to a group of friends who were no longer resident in Zambia and my husband and I became its caretakers and at times its only guests. Here are some photos of how it looked:

TSOW cottage 001 (2)

The cottage in Zambia on Lake Kariba that Ruth Hartley and her family often visited. Photo credit: Ruth Hartley.

view from the cottage to the lake 001

The view from the cottage to Lake Kariba; photo credit: Ruth Hartley.

The steps leading down to Lake Kariba from the cottage; photo credit: Ruth Hartley.

The steps leading down to Lake Kariba from the cottage; photo credit: Ruth Hartley.

In 1975 I gave the owners a Visitor’s Book to record happy weekends spent there with friends. The book became my sole responsibility and I kept it as a log of the cottage and the lake from 1975 until 1994. It was finally returned to me after 2000 when the cottage was sold.

TSOW guestbook DN 001 (2)

The original Guest Book from the cottage, which Ruth inherited and used to inspire her novel. Photo credit: Ruth Hartley.

Looking at these materials makes me wonder: did you ever consider writing a memoir instead?
I wrote a fictionalized memoir called The Love and Wisdom Crimes in 1999 in which I was careful to protect people’s identities. It is about how I became politicized and fell in love when I lived in South Africa in 1965. Though I was told it is good and poetic, I had countless rejections because the African setting was not considered to be easily marketable. I have just completed a no-holds-barred memoir of the year that followed when I survived as a single mother in London. It is titled A Bad Girl in Search of Love.

Goodness, you are prolific! Can you describe your path to publishing The Shaping of Water?
At 70, I didn’t want to waste time or energy on rejections so I went for self-publication and self-promotion. I believe the market is moving this way in any case. I used Troubador Publishing because they offer a comprehensive printing and marketing package at a reasonable cost and with integrity. I don’t expect to recoup my investment but I will self-publish again. Hopefully it will be cheaper because of what I have learnt.

What kind of audience did you intend for the book?
I think that my audience is anyone who reads for pleasure and who also likes to make journeys of discovery into new worlds and ideas with believable and interesting characters.

“It’s not sensible—this—this racism!” —Margaret

I enjoyed reading the book because it gave me a feeling for contemporary African history, while also making me realize how little I actually know about Africa. I think I identified most strongly with Margaret and Charles. I felt bad that they saw a future Africa that would have a place for them, only to have that vision eradicated as the violence of the liberation wars escalated. It seemed to me that even if you wanted to do the right thing for Africa, after a while it was hard to know what the right thing was.
I have been thrilled to find readers who do not know Africa or its politics but who still have enjoyed the book and its characters. I didn’t intend this book as a lesson in African history, but I expect it would be good background material.

So what are you working on next and will you continue exploring some of these same themes?
I am working on two more novels. I am more than half way through writing The Tin Heart Gold Mine, a book that is set half in a fictional African country and half in London. The setting and the plot are quite different to The Shaping of Water, but the themes should be of universal interest. It is the story of Lara who begins in Africa as a wildlife artist and the lover of Oscar, an entrepreneur who owns a defunct gold mine and is also a political manipulator. Her journey takes her to London and a life with Tim (a journalist) and Adam, a child of doubtful paternity. She makes, owns and uses art that is troubling and troublesome.

I enjoyed looking at some of your art on your author site. I look forward to reading your book about an African wildlife artist. What’s your other novel about?
I have plans for another novel titled Hannah’s Housekeeping. Hannah is a mature woman who has seen the world and had many lovers. She runs a B&B but though Hannah cleans up the dirt in her house, her husband is missing and she doesn’t know if she can keep death from her door…

Sounds tantalizing! Finally, are there any pieces of advice you could impart to other international creatives?
I am an artist and writer who was effectively prevented from writing and painting for a good part of my adult life though I did teach and work in support of artists for many years. I learnt that it is important and essential to make art and to write, though very few artists and writers make a living from their art or get much recognition for it. Creative people, however reclusive, need an audience and to communicate.

How about lessons for other wannabe novelists?
It is important to write well and that takes practice and humility and many, many redrafts. I am always anxious about what my readers think even when I know I have written a good book. My readers matter to me so I have to keep on improving my craft as a writer.

Thank you, Ruth, for being with us today and for sharing some more of the story behind The Shaping of Water. On your Web site you describe yourself as a compulsive storyteller. I think we got a feeling for this today as well.

* * *

So, readers, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Ruth? To learn more the Kariba Dam and the experiences that inspired the story Ruth tells in her novel, please watch this short video interview with Ruth and also be sure to visit her author’s site.

And if you think you’d like to read Ruth’s novel (we highly recommend it as a Christmas read!), Ruth has kindly arranged for Displaced Nation readers to get a 50 percent discount when ordering a paperback copy at the Troubadour site (enter the code: HARTLEY).

You can also buy the book in a Kindle format, not only from Troubadour but also from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Related posts:

Some funny things happened on the way to paradise, as recorded in this brilliant new expat memoir

Paradise Imperfect Collage

Clockwise from top left, surrounding Margot Page’s author photo (center): Monteverde waterfall; the family’s front yard; Margot, her husband,and their three kids; sunset; their youngest child, Ivy, on the vine outside their house; first day of school. All photos courtesy of Margot Page.

Before introducing today’s guest, Margot Page, I’d like to make one thing clear. When I first read of her decision to uproot herself, her husband and three young kids from their comfortable life in Seattle to spend a year in Costa Rica, I thought it made perfect sense.

In fact, it reminded me of my initial decision to try living abroad. While I wasn’t married with kids, nor was I looking to land in paradise, I sensed that I needed to get a wider perspective on my own country. It was before the era of the dot com boom and crazy Wall Street wealth, but even then, we Americans were becoming a pretty spoiled and entitled lot. I almost couldn’t bear to watch it and wondered: would my life be enriched if I tried living with less?

Now that I’ve made that clear, let’s return to Margot’s story. As she notes toward the beginning of her wonderful memoir, Paradise Imperfect, Seattle in 2003 could drive a person crazy:

It was an environment that made a person constantly aware of how rich other people are.

Thanks to all the overnight Microsoft millionaires, her family often felt “downright poor,” she says, despite enjoying a high standard of living and a reasonable amount of money.

Margot missed out on her opportunity to go abroad while still single—to “confront her privilege,” as she might say. But she is feisty enough to think that she need not forgo the expat experience of her dreams. A dozen years into her marriage, she finagles it so that she and her husband, Anthony, could quit their jobs, rent out their house, and head off with their three children, 4, 9 and 12, into the mountains of Central America, for a year.

The family settles down in the cloud forest of Monteverde, where the kids attend a “school in the clouds” with many Tico classmates and the entire family works hard on mastering Spanish. While it is enjoyable to read about their adventures in that part of the world—which at one point include a trip to Nicaragua, where they received a “full-on truth assault” about what poverty really is and hence their “own, unimaginable wealth”—there are plenty of other reasons to read the book as well, not least of which is that Margot is a gifted writer possessed of a self-deprecating sense of humor (always a huge plus at the Displaced Nation). She is, in short, jolly good company, as we shall see in the interview that follows. NOTE: Margot has generously offered to GIVE AWAY ONE FREE COPY to the person who leaves the most compelling comment about why they’d like to read her book.

* * *

PI_FrontCoverMargot, pura vida! Welcome to the Displaced Nation. Many people may not realize that you waited ten years before writing a memoir about the year you and your family spent in Costa Rica. Why was that?
Actually, I did try to write the book when we first got back—I just couldn’t get it done! But the great thing about that initial effort is that I wrote down a lot of the events when they were still fresh. Then, when I was actually ready to write the book, I was able take those stories and stand back from them, and see the picture they formed. You might liken it to an impressionist painting. Up close, I could have looked at an event from that year and said “Hmm, nice dot.” But with the distance of time, I could see that all the dots made a picture, with form and theme and sense. Had I managed to get it written right away, Paradise Imperfect would have been a completely different book.

Did you ever think of writing a novel instead?
More than one publisher suggested I turn Paradise Imperfect into a novel. Fictionalizing your story really lets you pile on the crises. Memoir only has a chance with the big publishing houses these days if you’re either already a celebrity (Tina Fey, Hillary), or if something truly hideous happened to you. If I’d had to saw off my arm or a couple of the kids were on meth, the big houses would have been all over me. As it was, they were very “Ooooh, we love your writing! Can you turn it into a novel?” Because then of course I could introduce some addictions or incest or something—you know, the stuff that really makes a story pop.

You went from a harried existence with very little work-life balance in Seattle, to a carefree, pura vida existence in Monteverde. Looking back, what do you think was your strongest impetus for packing it all in like that?
I think my impetus was about the same as anyone’s who’s living a busy, full life and has one of those days where you just feel like you’re running the whole time. The only difference is that a lot of people take a bubble bath at the end of that day, maybe pour a glass of wine—whereas I rented out the house and bought airplane tickets. It’s still not entirely clear to me what made that night different from a bubble bath night. Although clearly, the bubbles weren’t doing it for me anymore.

From reading the book, I know that even though you didn’t work in Costa Rica, you were far from idle. You applied yourself to learning Spanish and also did some volunteering—which had the added benefit of helping you practice your Spanish.
Yes, I went from working more than full time to volunteering a few hours each week at an amazing art gallery/studio; one of the owners painted me the piece of a woman in a hammock, stretching her toes to heaven, which became the cover of Paradise Imperfect. So while the kids did their homework, I would work on my Spanish, or practice painting assignments.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…”

No doubt you’re familiar with the expression “Be careful what you wish for”. Was all the family togetherness as wonderful as you were hoping?
The initial period, when it was just the five of us, on top of each other all the time—that was a real challenge. It’s a good thing to have done, but it wasn’t so delightful in the doing. Of course, as we grew into our lives there, other people got incorporated, which was great. Kids would go off with friends, people would come over. And, as time passed and we adjusted to the conditions, we found all kinds of goofy things to do with ourselves. We had dance parties in the living room, just the five of us. We’d walk several kilometers just to get a milkshake and go to the library. There was much flopping around in hammocks with books and conversation. And with no sports practices to work around, dinner was a nightly togetherness event, with kids helping cook and clean the kitchen.

When I saw the title to your book, I was thinking of Milton’s Paradise Lost. In your case, paradise was imperfect. Why is that?
Paradise is imperfect because people are. We just ARE, and putting us in front of a really pretty waterfall just means you have flawed, funny people in front of a really pretty waterfall. In Costa Rica, we were strangers in a strange land together, and that made us incredibly close—which was wonderful, but you know, the closer you are, the more blemishes you can see. Wherever we go in the world, we take our human frailties with us.

You were the one with the original idea to take your family to Costa Rica. Were there any moments for you personally when you could say that you felt displaced and had made a mistake? 
Honestly, I never had that moment. At Christmas during our Costa Rica year—I put this in the book—the kids were lonely, and the possibility hit me hard that maybe the whole escapade was just a tremendously selfish act, bringing the kids on this adventure that was really for ME. But I never once felt like it was the wrong thing for me.

Here at the Displaced Nation, we call that your “pool of tears” moment.

“Sweet is the breath of morn…/With charm of earliest birds…/fragrant the fertile earth/After soft showers”

Was there a particular moment when you felt you were born to be Costa Rican rather than American? Having read the book, I can think of quite a few: when visiting your children’s “school in the sky,” when coming across new flora & fauna, or when tasting the fried chicken from El Super Pollo in Monteverde.
I had those moments almost every day, that Costa Rica was exactly where I belonged. But I think it was usually tinged with “I am exactly where I belong right now.” And although it was hard to leave, coming back to the States felt right, too. One of the fun things about that year, paradoxically, was that it gave me the chance to fall back in love with being an American. Back home, I’d been pretty upset with the political landscape. But when you travel, you get a different perspective on what truly corrupt government can look like, and you think “You know, we all wish Congress would do their jobs, but it appears that not having your shit together is not, in fact, the very worst crime a government can perpetrate on its people.”

You say you were happy to get back to Seattle, but did you miss Costa Rica once you returned? 
We definitely missed Costa Rica, and the way we got to live there. My son, Harry, spent a semester in Monteverde a few years after our family returned. When he got home, he smelled fried chicken and had this super strong sense memory of Super Pollo in Monteverde. He said:

I love it there so much. And I love Seattle so much. And it’s great, having two places to love. But it also means that, no matter where I am, I’m always just a little bit homesick.

Unlike many of our readers who are long-term expats, you stayed abroad only for a year. But the impact appears to have been lasting.
All our kids are travelers, now. And I can’t see a freighter without wanting to jump on it. My husband, Anthony, seems to have the travel bug the least, but that is not surprising. As I mention in the book, he’s a congenitally satisfied person 🙂

“Thou shalt possess a Paradise within thee, happier far.”

When you got back to Seattle, was it back to the grind for you and your husband, or was your outlook somehow different?
The hours went back to being a similar breakdown to what we had before, though there was much less parental shuttling as our kids had become brilliant walkers and public-transit-takers. 
But the most important change was internal: We knew in a much clearer way that we had made a choice to live in this way. And our family also had a core togetherness as a result of that year in Costa Rica. Even when we’re geographically scattered, we feel together in a way I didn’t feel before. I attribute it to our common challenge of spending a year figuring out a new language and culture. Think about it: When do parents and kids ever have the opportunity to learn something so fundamental as how to speak, all at the same time?

And one more repat question: Did your family retain its social conscience, developed over the course of that year of learning to live with less?
I think we’ve kept an in-our-bones awareness of the fact of our own, sheer luck. I used to tell myself “I’ve worked really hard for what we have,” which is true! But you know what else is true? A lot of people work just as hard, and don’t have any cushion, and never will. That year in Costa Rica also developed us as people who will keep getting out there. Our son, Harry, was recently in South America, and while many of his peers tend to backpack and look at things until their parents’ money gives out, he got a job waiting tables. Our older daughter, Hannah, recently graduated college and moved to a new city; she hasn’t asked for a dime to help get started, and the housing she can afford is frankly a little appalling—but she is so spunky and awesome about it! And Ivy, the youngest, is currently back in Costa Rica, where she goes to school and helps out in the small hotel that her family runs.

Treading the publishing path

Moving back to the book: what was the most difficult part of the writing process?
Finding the discipline to cut was just excruciating. There are so many fun little stories that didn’t make it into the book. Stories I slaved over! Sentences I loved! But the difference between writing a legit book and just publishing your journal all cleaned up is that you really do have to kill your darlings, as Faulkner or whoever said. At the time I was finalizing, I thought I had cut absolutely down to the bone. But now, looking back—I think I could have killed more darlings.

Why did you publish with a small press?
That decision was made on the advice of my agent. As already mentioned, the big publishing houses told me I needed more crisis, but my agent loved the book and wanted me to be true to my experience. I simply don’t grant that there isn’t interest and beauty in true stories of normal people. You have to tell them well, of course.

What audience did you have in mind for the book?
My ideas about audience went from something pretty specific to something much more general. People always think we’re this crazy alt family that’s always up to wild shenanigans. Or else they think we’re obscenely wealthy, and had no economic issue in quitting our jobs. But we’re actually so mainstream! So I wanted to show regular people: “If we could do this, you totally could.”

But it quickly became clear the audience is basically everyone who likes a good story. Men, women, people with kids, people without kids, people with grown kids—the different populations that have responded has been really lovely. Some people are planning a big adventure and are actively looking for inspiration, but the vast majority just love the people they meet and the events that unfold in the book.

The most fun for me is when women say “I got your book but I haven’t read it yet, because my husband is totally hogging it!” I can’t say why it’s so rewarding for me that Paradise isn’t just a chick book, but it really, really is.

What’s next for the indefatigable Margot—more books? Other creative projects?
I write for magazines about topics that interest me. Although I’m not Catholic, I’m nuts about the head of their church—I call him Pope Frantastic. And in the next year, I’m going to seriously embark on the novel that’s been in my head. I’m trying very hard to be a Twitter user, but really? I find the whole idea enormously intimidating.

How’s your Spanish these days, your art?
My Spanish and art—ack. Let’s just say I really hit my zenith during that year away.

10 Questions for Margot Page

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Wow, that is a hard question! It’s the “truly” that’s stressing me out. I’m going with Fidelity, a five-story collection by Wendell Berry. It is the most beautiful arrangement of sentences ever organized about how to be a person.
2. Favorite literary genre: Any book that someone in my family read and then gave it to me saying: “You HAVE to read this; you will love it so much.”
3. Reading habits on a plane: I’m actually really smug about what a light traveler I am, so my reading usually tends to be any book I’ve been meaning to read that I won’t mind leaving behind. Or airport magazines (Harper’s, The Atlantic). I try to read trashy magazines because it seems like that’s what you’re supposed to do, but honestly I just can’t bring myself to give money to the people who are putting this crap in the world.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson. I just don’t trust anyone to run the country who doesn’t love Calvin. That’s my litmus test, right there.
5. Favorite books as a child: Mandy, by Julie Edwards. I must have read that book a hundred times. It’s about a girl who finds a garden and makes it hers. It’s like The Secret Garden but has a lot more soul and a lot fewer sideshows. It’s just a beautiful story of a lonely girl who sets out to heal her own little heart, and in the process finds people to help. And Julie Edwards (who, amazingly enough, is also the actress Julie Andrews) wrote it because she lost a bet about swearing to her daughter. I have a lot of respect for that whole situation.
6. Favorite heroine: Claudia from From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg. I love Claudia. I never was her, as a kid—I was much more like her reckless little brother, Jamie. But as an adult and a parent, I relate to Claudia much more. She went to the museum for reasons not unlike the ones that took me to Costa Rica. She had to go get a piece of her self back, a piece she had lost to her role as responsible big sister. Mine was as responsible mama and breadwinner, but those roles are not so dissimilar. Claudia’s cooler than I am, though, just by nature of being 12. And in New York.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: The thing is, my fantasies around meeting writers all revolve around how incredible it will be that this amazing, brilliant human is interested in ME. But writers are total crazed narcissists! Have you noticed? So my scenario is unlikely. That said, I think Donald Barthelme and I could have a pretty good time, if he’d just stop being dead for a minute. He wouldn’t be interested in what I had to say and I wouldn’t really care. I’d just listen to what he said and then we’d have pie.
8. Your reading habits: I read every single day on the bus to and from the office. This makes going to an office infinitely more tolerable.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: I gotta be honest here. Paradise Imperfect.
10. The book you plan to read next: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan. I’m traveling right now, and it’s next to me on the seat.

* * *

So, readers, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Margot? Do you admire her decision to trade in her family’s packed schedules for a life of monkeys and footpaths, which is almost paradise? Or do you think she was crazy? Do you identify with any of her motives or epiphanies, thinking (as I do) that extended trips overseas should be encouraged for Americans?

Don’t forget, there’s a FREE digital copy on offer that will go to the best commenter…

And if you can’t wait to read the book or don’t win, Paradise Imperfect is available from Amazon (among other venues). Peruse the many five-star reviews, and be sure to grab a copy! You can also visit the book’s companion site (where you can read about Margot’s other writings, including a Modern Love column for the New York Times), like its Facebook page +/or follow Margot on Twitter, where she’s now testing her wings.

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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

Related posts:

Beth Geglia’s calling to make films on Central American human rights stories

Beth_Geglia_tdn

Beth Geglia (photo supplied by Beth and used with her permission)

Since the Displaced Nation began billing itself as a “home for international creatives,” we have covered plenty of fiction writers, memoirists, and foodies, as well as a few entrepreneurs (I contributed to the latter with an interview with Alison McGowan about her tourism-related business in Brazil).

But there are also expats whose creativity is expressed in political activism: they work for the causes within (and across) the countries they visit.

Today I talk to one such activist, Beth Geglia, an American who, having dedicated her life to human rights issues in Central America, has now developed filmmaking skills and released a feature-length documentary on the resilience displayed by an extraordinary group of Afro-Hondurans.

* * *

Buenas, Beth, and thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed. Let’s start by having you tell us a bit about yourself. What first awakened your interest in human rights?
I got involved in high school, after the September 11th attacks. I was adamantly against war in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and participated in student walk-outs, teach-ins—all the big mobilizations. Next I volunteered with the Indigenous People’s Council of Oaxaca in Mexico and the Movement of Worker-Occupied Factories in Argentina, which got me working on issues of economic justice and alternative economies as part of the student fair trade movement.

Guatemala has figured large in your life. What led you there in the first place?
As a student activist, I worked closely with a local fair trade coffee-roasting cooperative in Madison, Wisconsin, called Just Coffee. They sent me to Guatemala to do work with a coffee cooperative of former revolutionary combatants and returned refugees from the country’s internal conflict, known as Santa Anita La Unión. Later we organized a delegation of student activists from Wisconsin to meet with Guatemalan producer cooperatives, and I went back a few times.

Making a life in Guatemala

I understand you ended up living in Guatemala?
I became overwhelmed with the history of Guatemala, the U.S.’s interventionist role there, and the movements to restore the memory of the violence that had taken place. I felt I was learning and changing an incredible amount, so I moved there ten days after graduating college. I stayed for two years.

I assume you speak Spanish, but were there any moments when you felt displaced, in the sense of being alienated from your surroundings?
Yes, I spoke Spanish so language was not much of an issue. However, many communities in Guatemala speak their indigenous languages, none of which I was able to learn. There were definitely moments of struggle, but I wouldn’t necessarily relate them to feelings of displacement. After all, I was working with communities who were trying to defend their rights against gold mining and other resource extraction companies—it was they who were facing displacement. Some had been forcibly displaced, while others were threatened with displacement from environmental destruction, militarization, and loss of land. The communities were still healing from the violence of the internal conflict, and some people were experiencing the threat of being locked up or assassinated. Seeing this kind of suffering close up was the hardest, most painful part of my experience. Then there’s always the challenge of understanding your role as a foreigner: what’s appropriate, what’s helpful—fully aware of the privilege of being there by choice and able to leave.

I usually tell people that living in Guatemala was the hardest thing I ever did—and, at the same time, the most important and dearest to my heart. It truly transformed me.

So, for the most part, living in war-torn Guatemala felt right to you?
Things make sense to me whenever I am surrounded by good people doing good work. The people I lived and worked with in Guatemala City, for example, are still some of the people I most respect. Cooking meals with them, hanging out on the roof or patio with a few chelas (beers)—these things really felt like home.

Practicing the filmmaking craft

At what point did you decide to become a filmmaker?
It wasn’t until I moved back to the United States and quit my job with a human rights organization a year later that I began to study documentary filmmaking. Video and film are one of the most useful tools for helping people who are struggling to get their voices heard. It’s an important skill.

RevolutionaryMedicine_poster

Poster for the film screening at Columbia School of Social Work

You have just now released a documentary, Revolutionary Medicine: A Story of the First Garífuna Hospital, a collaboration with journalist Jesse Freeston. The film is set in Honduras and tells the story of the Garífuna people and the community hospital that they built. Can you fill us in a little more?
Sure. Garífuna history has been rife with forced displacement and resistance, from the slave trade to expulsion by the British from the island of St. Vincent. Most Garífunas in Honduras live on the northern coast, on lands their people have occupied for 216 years. They continue to face many pressures, such as a lucrative foreign tourism industry, the expansion of African palm production by the country’s largest landowners, resource extraction, and foreign investors wanting to build charter cities. In addition, they face ongoing discrimination and neglect from the state, which has failed to provide them with medical services. This film is about the community coming together to build their own hospital, while fighting for their human right to health care. It’s a story about self-organization and persistence, but also about a different model of medicine having to do with community survival. According to this model, improving the health of the community is a first step in addressing structural and political issues in need of change.

It really is the “first” Garífuna Hospital?
Yes. It’s the first hospital to exist in the Garífuna’s territory.

“For the health of our people…”

How did the making of the film come about?
I was still in Guatemala when the military coup in Honduras happened in June of 2009. The people around me were remembering Guatemala’s internal conflict, which lasted 36 years and amounted to genocide: it been sparked by a CIA-orchestrated coup. Everyone was feeling the weight of that history, and there was a sense of urgency around what Honduras could suffer as a result of the coup. Upon returning to the U.S., I got involved in local activism that was exposing the DC-based lobbyists who’d been hired by Honduras’s interim coup government to essentially whitewash the coup and restore normal relations with international institutions and the Organization of American States.

That’s when I met Dr. Luther Castillo, one of the founding doctors of the First Garífuna Hospital. He was on a speaking tour denouncing the political violence and repression taking place in Honduras. I took up his invitation to come visit the hospital.

Jesse Freeston and I knew each other from DC. He had been working as a journalist in Honduras and other parts of Central America for a few years and had also gotten to know the story of the Hospital and what Garífuna communities were working to create.

It was great working with Jesse. He had years of documentary experience under his belt and in fact is now finishing up a feature-length film called Resistencia, about land-occupying farmers in the Aguán Valley of Honduras. It should be released in the spring. I think we made a good team, and I learned a lot from the collaboration.

When was the film released, and what has been the reaction amongst the Garífuna people?
We started screening the film in August. Jesse took it down the West coast of the U.S. and I went to screen it in Honduras. The Garífuna community of Ciriboya reacted very positively. You know when you make a film, you can’t cover nearly everything you’d like to, but I think the doctors in particular felt it presented a balanced version of their story. They’re now using it to raise awareness and educate others. Actually, the most gratifying thing was to see the reaction of medical students who attend the public university in the capital city, Tegucigalpa. They were so excited, they ended up organizing their own screening of the film and have entered into a longer-term relationship with the Garífuna Hospital.

What about in the United States?
In the U.S. we’ve screened for lots of different audiences, including activists, organized medical professionals, social work students, med students, and youth. We’ve worked with the Garífuna Health and Education Support Institute in New York to reach Garífuna diaspora audiences, mainly in the Bronx, and the response has been phenomenal. It’s been exciting to help connect diaspora communities with what’s going on back in their homeland. Generally, people seem to come away feeling proud and/or inspired to act. I think the best compliment we received was: “This is a great organizing tool.”

If our readers are interested in watching the film how can they go about it?
Very soon anyone will be able to order a copy of the documentary online. Until then, I suggest you follow our Facebook page to find out about screenings and distribution. You are also welcome to contact Jesse and me directly by email: me@jessefreeston.com or bgeglia@gmail.com.

What further hopes do you have for the film?
Besides the documentary being used as an educational and network-building tool—that’s why we’ve been focusing on community-based and university screenings—we hope it will give ideas to people who are working on related projects. Particularly in the U.S. I would like for it to make people think about our own health care system and what might be possible.

Having already lived in Guatemala, did making the film help you to connect with Central America in any new ways?
I learned a ton about a part of Central America I knew very little about. One thing that continuously inspired me was the resilience of communities—in particular, their ability to construct alternatives that challenge our assumptions of how society can be organized. Also, the idea of doctors playing the role of protagonist in the process wasn’t something I’d anticipated. Now I’m learning that there is a long history of health workers playing a central role in social movements, to which I’d been largely oblivious.

What are your plans for the future, both with the film and your activism?
I’m actually back in school now in DC, studying for a Ph.D. in Public Anthropology. It’s an interesting program because it leaves room to use documentary film as opposed to simply writing academic papers that will have little reach. The program promotes activism as well as embedded and participatory research, so I feel it’s a good home for me. I don’t have much free time, but when I do, I like to volunteer with a local documentary project called Lessons from the ’60s. It’s an oral history project organized by a group of older activists who want to document memories of the movements that took place in DC in the 1960s and ’70s before they are lost forever. Preserving historical memory was one of the reasons I wanted to do documentary film, so it’s great to be able to participate in this kind of a project in my hometown.

10 Questions for Beth Geglia

Finally, we’d like to ask a series of questions that we’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Golden Gulag, by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, on the prison system in California (being in school means I only read non-fiction).
2. Favorite literary genre: Science fiction.
3. Reading habits on a plane: It’s actually really hard for me to stay awake on planes! I’m usually passed out, and when I’m awake I listen to music to calm my nerves because I’m scared of flying.
4. The one book you’d require Barack Obama to read, and why? Am I allowed to say Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillaging of a Continent? Maybe The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.
5. Favorite books as a child: I was a huge fan of Roald Dahl books when I was a kid. The Witches was my favorite one. I also loved The Chronicles of Narnia.
6. Favorite heroine: Itzá in The Inhabited Woman, by Giaconda Belli.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Audre Lorde.
8. Your reading habits: Since I’m in school, I read all the time and I skim a lot. Coffee in hand is usually a necessity.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: The Inhabited Woman, by Giaconda Belli.
10. The book you plan to read next: Pathologies of Power, by Paul Farmer.

* * *

Readers, did you find Beth’s story as inspiring as I did? Be sure to check out her documentary if you get a chance. And feel free to leave further questions or comments for her below.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, some species of Halloween confection by Anthony Windram.

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

Related posts:

images: Beth Geglia; poster for the film screening at Columbia School of Social Work.

%d bloggers like this: