The Displaced Nation

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Tag Archives: Puerto Rico

Thanksgiving, the ultimate holiday of the displaced—and still going strong

The Displaced Nation feels a special kinship to Thanksgiving. It strikes us as being, when all is said and done, the holiday of the displaced.

Quite a lot is being said about Thanksgiving these days. But before we get into that (actually, we may not have much time to get into it), let’s quickly review what we know to be true about the holiday’s origins:

  • The Pilgrims sailed to North America from Plymouth, England, on the Mayflower in 1620, disembarking at what is now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts.
  • A year later, in 1621, they celebrated a successful harvest with a three-day gathering that was attended by members of the Wampanoag tribe.

What we haven’t been able to establish, however, is how both Native Americans and settlers came to be at the same feast. Did the Pilgrims invite the Wambanoah out of gratitude for their assistance in planting corn and showing them where to fish? We simply don’t know. What we do know, of course, is that the Native Americans were eventually displaced from their lands.

It is hardly surprising, then, that some now see Thanksgiving as a story of a displaced people thanking the about-to-be displaced natives.

Hmmm… Does that story make the United States the closest thing the world has to a Displaced Nation?

But I digress. Returning to the topic at hand: no matter how you slice or dice it (hm, an appropriate Thanksgiving metaphor?), Thanksgiving remains a tradition of a shared harvest feast, one that started up in North America (yes, the Canadians celebrate it, too) around four centuries ago and is still going strong today. In fact, many of us continue to add layers of displacement to our Thanksgiving meals, as the following round-up of food-oriented posts will attest.

No longer exclusively a North American holiday

As Fodor’s Travel points out in a recent post, you can now have your turkey (with all the trimmings) in…Turkey! Also in France, Argentina, Australia, China…

Of the menus described in the Fodors post, I would pick the one offered by the Restaurant at Brown’s, in London. Admittedly, I’m biased because of having lived in England for quite a few years (my first displacement). How I wish I’d been able to have Thanksgiving in a restaurant then!

England may not be known for its food, but something the English do superbly well are desserts, aka puddings. And for dessert on its special Thanksgiving menu, Restaurant at Brown’s offers pumpkin and Peruvian gold chocolate pie. Sounds scrummy.

Something else the Brits do well are vegetarian dishes. Now I’m not a vegetarian, but I almost became one during my expat years because Brits are so creative with veggies.

Were I to indulge in the Thanksgiving meal at the Restaurant at Brown’s, I might be tempted to order the Montgomery’s cheddar pie instead of turkey. One reason is that I’m not a great fan of roast turkey. Another is that I’m tempted to eat cheddar any time I’m in the Birthplace of Cheddar Cheese, it being one of my all-time favorites (apologies to France).

The traditional menu keeps being tweaked

But we don’t have to travel all the way across the pond, let alone to China or Australia, to find updates on the traditional Thanksgiving menu. New immigrants to the United States are constantly re-interpreting traditional Thanksgiving ingredients—I have to assume because many of them, like me, are not great fans of roast turkey.

Take, for example, food blogger Eugenia George, a Salvadorian married to an American and living in Southern California. “No one else does turkey like we do,” she declares in her post Salvadorian Holiday Turkey. She uses her mother’s recipe, which involves roasting and then braising the turkey in a tomato-based sauce that’s packed with flavor and spices. “Dry turkey? Nope. Not this one,” she writes.” It’s juicy, succulent, and the meat just falls off the bones.”

Another good example is scifi and fantasy writer Brenda Clough, the daughter of a Chinese immigrant to the United States and a Third Culture Kid (she spent much of her childhood overseas). Like George, she credits her mother with making Thanksgiving more delicious. She says her mother figured out how to make the Thanksgiving turkey Chinese by stuffing it with sweet, glutinous Japanese short-grain rice that had been combined with shiitake mushrooms, dried shrimp, onion, celery, water chestnuts and dried Chinese sausage. Even though the family is now spread across the country, Clough, who lives in the D.C. area, says that every one of their Thanksgiving tables will feature some version of this sticky-rice stuffing (recipe here).

It is frequently said that the best part of Thanksgiving is the leftovers—and for those of us who’ve lived or traveled abroad for significant periods, the morning after Thanksgiving has become an occasion to innovate. Not your plain old turkey sandwiches for us!

Some years ago on the Displaced Nation, I reported I’d created a dish for turkey leftovers: chirashi-turkey-zushi, inspired by my second displacement (in Tokyo). Basically you substitute turkey pieces for the raw fish.

This year I noticed that Stephanie of i am a food blog provides a recipe for turkey curry udon, which, in addition to providing a quick and satisfying way to use turkey leftovers is also “guaranteed to take you straight into the streets of Tokyo, at least in your mind,” she writes.

The story itself keeps getting rewritten

Just as fairy tales need updating for a new generation, so too does the Thanksgiving story.

New York-based writer Robert Sullivan recently produced a piece for Vogue on a group of six indigenous chefs, members of tribes from around North America. They met together in New York for the first time during Thanksgiving week to launch a new indigenous activist group, called the I-Collective, a kind of platform to showcase Native American food. On Thanksgiving evening itself, they hosted a dinner with some of their dishes. In effect, Sullivan says, they were rewriting Thanksgiving history.

They weren’t the only professional cooks doing something creative. Chef José Andrés, a displaced Spaniard (he recently became an American citizen), spent the weeks before Thanksgiving mobilizing a massive team of chefs and volunteers in Puerto Rico to produce 30,000+ Thanksgiving meals—”what may be the island’s biggest-ever Thanksgiving dinner”—for those displaced by Hurricane Maria.

Thanksgiving, after all, should belong to the chefs—and the fact that some of them are joining the national conversation about the meaning of this holiday of the displaced, bodes well for its future. While there will always be those of us—for instance, the Vietnamese American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen—with misgivings about celebrating displacement, maybe the best, the only(?) solution is simply to make the party bigger?

ML Awanohara, one of the Displaced Nation’s founders and its current editor, often composes pieces of this kind for the biweekly Displaced Dispatch. In fact she will be doing something on a related theme for the upcoming issue. Why not subscribe and brighten up your global creative life every couple of weeks?

Photo credit: Thanksgiving postcard via Pixabay.

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 much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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

Gene B-V TCK Talent

Professor Gene Bell-Villada (own photo)

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

—ML Awanohara

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

* * *

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

OverseasAmerican_cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STAY TUNED for our 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 seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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