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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.

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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.

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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!

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TCK TALENT: Wendy Laura Belcher, best-selling author, memoirist, and distinguished scholar of her adopted cultures

wendy-l-belcher-tck-collageWelcome to the third installment of “TCK Talent,” Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang’s monthly column about adult Third Culture Kids who work in creative fields. As some readers may recall, Lisa—a Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent—has written and performed a one-woman show about being a Third Culture Kid, or TCK. It debuted in LA in the spring, and I had the pleasure of seeing it during its too-short run in New York City last month. It was stupendous!

—ML Awanohara

Greetings, readers, and thanks, ML, for that vote of confidence in my work. But it cannot compare to the output of today’s guest, a woman of extraordinary talents. Wendy Laura Belcher is a professor of African literature at Princeton University as well as a published memoirist, produced playwright, popular workshop leader, and author of the best-selling Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success.

Wendy grew up in Ethiopia, Ghana, and the USA, and has been a writer since childhood. Her most recent book, Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought on the Making of an English Author, is a finalist for the African Studies Association’s 2013 Ogot Award (to be announced in Baltimore at the end of next month).

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Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Wendy, and thank you for joining us. I’ve known you for years and yet don’t know as much as I should about your TCK childhood, so am happy to take this opportunity to learn more. You are the daughter of an American dad and a Canadian mom. What’s the story behind why your family moved to Ethiopia and Ghana?
My father is a physician and my mother always loved to travel, so she convinced him to move to Ethiopia. Her idea was that he would teach and do clinical work at a public health college in Gondar, and she would be the college librarian. My first memories are of Ethiopia. I moved back to the US when I was 14. But my specific geographical trajectory is as follows: Philadelphia (birth), Boston, Seattle, Gondar (Ethiopia), Seattle, Accra (Ghana), Seattle, and South Hadley (Massachusetts). After that I lived in Tamale (Ghana). Then back to Washington DC, Accra, Los Angeles, Princeton, Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), and now Princeton again.

That’s an impressively peripatetic life! When and where were you happiest while growing up?
As a child, I loved Ethiopia the best, perhaps because it was the first place my family went and perhaps because, as a child who loved reading, it seemed like a magical place. There was a castle in my backyard as well as oxen threshing grain like in the Bible. On the throne was a descendant of King David. From a child’s perspective, it was like living in a book.

How did you find your first “repatriation” to the United States, at age 14?
I never got used to Seattle, it was very parochial in the 1970s when we moved there, and the weather was too gloomy for someone who had spent a significant part of her childhood in the tropics.

At home, but without a role, in Africa

Has your relationship to Africa evolved as an adult?
As an adult, I settled in the US and not Africa, returning to Africa only a few times until 1997, after which I started going every third year or so. Since 2009, I’ve gone every year to Ethiopia. I thought I might settle in Africa, but as an adult my relationship with Africa was more vexed.

That is, what could my role in Africa be as a white American woman?

I wasn’t particularly interested in “helping,” as it seemed to me that Africans were perfectly adept at solving their own problems and only didn’t do so because of all the “help” they received from the West.

But also, I was in a bind. In the US I often didn’t feel a strong sense of calling in my work, but I felt more satisfied emotionally. In Africa, I felt a strong sense of calling in my work, but I was often lonely.

The problem for me as an adult in Africa as a single woman without children was the lack of female friendships. In the 1980s and 1990s I found it difficult to find in Africa other career women like myself with whom I would have something in common.

One of the reasons I’ve found it easier to return to Ethiopia and have done so regularly in the recent past is that I’ve found some good Ethiopian female friends.

Where do you think of as “home” these days?
My mother always thought that my father never really had a sense of home as a particular place, because he had an identical twin brother. It was the presence of one other human being from the beginning that meant home was someone to him, not somewhere. He didn’t really know what loneliness was, she thought.

I may be somewhat similar albeit for different reasons. I don’t think of anywhere as home.

I lived in Los Angeles for 20 years and loved many things about it, but I mostly think of it as a place where my network of affection is. It isn’t the place so much but the people who make it a kind of home.

At the same time, I still have good friends in Seattle, and my family of origin is still there, so it is also a kind of home.

Are you like many TCKs in finding yourself drawn to people of similar backgrounds?
Almost all my friends are people who live straddling some boundary: either geographically, being from elsewhere or spending significant time outside the US, or racially (growing up as minorities). I am almost never in a room with people who mostly look like me.

Writing calls from an early age

I often wonder if TCKs who pursue writing careers do so because the story is entirely in their hands as opposed to the experienced upheaval of their itinerant childhoods. Did your TCK upbringing influence a) your desire to be a writer and b) what you wrote about?
Growing up in Africa, I was surrounded by literary culture. In Ethiopia, a country with a 3,000-year-old written civilization, people read illuminated manuscripts on sheepskin bound with wood. In Ghana, hand-written epigrams adorned most vehicles, and my father’s Ghanaian colleagues traded bon mots in Latin. At school, I would pick a promising library shelf and work my way through it from left to right. I wrote my first novel when I was nine, titled Shipwrecked at Silver Lagoon. I had set myself the task of writing the best title for a book ever and, after I came up with this, decided it was too good to go unwritten. It was about two English girls in the 17th century who, after their ship is wrecked off the American coast, go on to discover what happened to the disappeared colony of Roanoke: it had moved into an underground, underwater kingdom. The book ground to a halt on page 40, perhaps because, as I tried to articulate issues that were all too real to me (the loss of home and the entry into the hybrid colonial world), my imagination foundered on the demands of the adventure form.

After that, I wrote for my middle school and high school newspapers, where I was the editor.

I was shy, partly due to all the moving and not being sure how to fit in, so I spent most of my time reading. Reading allowed me to immerse myself in a world where I could watch and not be watched (or judged). It also allowed me to develop skills in “reading” people and situations, which is essential to surviving so much moving.

HoneyfromtheLion_coverTell us what drew you to write your memoir, Honey from the Lion: An African Journey, when you were in your twenties.
I had enough credits to graduate from Mount Holyoke in three years so I spent my junior year back in Ghana. While working for a nonprofit organization that was spreading literacy and translating the Bible into local languages, I spent a weekend in a village with an Irish Bible translator. A series of events transpired, the impact of which was so powerful I decided I wanted to write about it. It was a gift: the story was so fascinating that I didn’t worry about writing it. Even if I wrote it poorly, I thought people would find it compelling.

Do you ever go back to the memoir now, and if so, does it resonate very differently due to the passage of time?
I can’t bring myself to read the book now. It seems like a different self wrote itsomeone who was more religious for one.

Congratulations on Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson being selected as a finalist for a prestigious academic award. Please tell us what inspired you to write the book.
Belcher_AbyssiniaSamJohnson_coverIn 2002, I was talking with an Ethiopian friend about reading Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, an eighteenth-century fiction he wrote about an Ethiopian prince. This Ethiopian friend surprised me by saying that he had read the book and quite liked it. When I asked him why, he said the book was “very Ethiopian.” I started to correct him, but then I began to wonder if he could be right, if a book written by a European could be Africanin particular, if it could be animated by African discourse. It’s my hope that my book will be convince others about the importance of African thought to the European canon.

From offering TCK courses at Princeton to helping junior faculty

At Princeton you teach courses that I wish had been offered when I was in college, like “Growing Up Global: Novels and Memoirs of Transnational Childhoods” and “Model Memoirs: The Life Stories of International Fashion Models.” You also teach workshops around the world to aid faculty in publishing academic articles. Please tell us the countries in which you’ve taught the workshops.
The workshops have taken place in Norway, Sudan, Malawi, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Canada and all over the USA.

What led you to teach academics about how to write for publication?

belcher_writingyourjournalarticle_coverI did two master’s degrees in the early nineties and I struggled in writing my classroom papers. What did these professors want and why did some papers succeed and others didn’t? I decided not to go on for a doctorate and when people asked me why, I said I just didn’t feel like I got the hang of being a graduate student and in particular about how to write in graduate school.

To my surprise, I found that most other graduate students felt the same way and were as confused and uncertain as I had been. Then UCLA Extension asked me to teach a writing class. I had always sworn I would never teach, but I think you grow when you do things you are terrified of, so I agreed and found that three of my first six students were academics looking for help with their writing.

UCLA Extension agreed to let me restructure the next class around writing for academic journals. The restructured class was a massive success and changed my life.

Within a few years I was teaching “Writing and Publishing the Academic Article” twice a year at UCLA to graduate students, where the class was in great demand, as well as at other universities and institutes around the world. I wrote the workbook Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success for people who could not take the workshop.

Turning back to your writing, can you tell us what you are working on at present?
I have several writing and translation projects; here are the top three:
1) The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Translation of the Earliest African Biography of an African Woman. Thirty years after the death of a revered African religious leader who led a successful nonviolent movement against European incursions, her Ethiopian disciples (many of whom were women) wrote this vivid book, full of dialogue and drama. The original text, which was written in 1672 by Africans for Africans in an African language, is unknown in the United States (Walatta Petros does not have a Wikipedia entry, for instance). Thanks to the Fulbright US Scholar Award that I held during my third year at Princeton, I was able to spend ten months in Ethiopia devoting myself to archival research. I worked on the translation with Michael Kleiner, a leading scholar and translator of Ge’ez. We believe it will electrify the fields of early modern and gender studies.
2) The Black Queen of Sheba: A Global History of an Ethiopian Idea. Those familiar with the sixth century BCE biblical tale of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon may be surprised to hear that there is also an Ethiopian version, variations on which have in fact circulated for centuries, far beyond the Ethiopian highlands. According to the medieval text Kəbrä Nägäśt, the biblical Queen of Sheba was an Ethiopian woman—the wisest, the wealthiest, and the most powerful woman in the world. Tricked by Solomon into sleeping with him, she gives birth to their biracial son, who later takes the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia forever. My book traces how the Ethiopian tale came about and the impact it had on not just literature but the world. The emergence of the religion of Rastafari is one of its most far-reaching effects…
3) A Wardrobe of Selves: The Literature of Transnational Childhoods. Based on my life experiences, observing those of my TCK friends, and reading lots of memoirs, I am thinking of writing a book about memoirs by those who have spent their childhood crossing boundaries (in terms of culture, nation, state, language, gender, school, etc.). It would attend to how the narrators like Barack Obama, John McCain, Edward Said, Eva Hoffman, Gloria Anzaldua, Diana Abu-Jaber, Alice Kaplan, Gene Luen Yang, and Mohsin Hamid construct meaningful identities through narrative. These writers—usually considered separately, as part of American ethnic literatures like Arab American, African American, Asian American, or Latino—often negotiate the intricacies of identity in similar ways and should be considered together. That is, this would be a broad comparative project on diasporic memoir in the context of American ethnic literature.

* * *

Thanks, Wendy! You are so prolific, it’s an inspiration to all of us creatives! If we could accomplish just a fraction of what you’ve already done, what a life we’d be leading! Readers, any questions or comments for the amazing Wendy? Please leave them below. And…see you next month!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, when we hear from an international traveler who has started up her own business in New York City, catering to expats.

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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Images: Wendy Belcher; Wendy with her brother in front of a castle in Gondar, Ethiopia; detail from the cover of Wendy’s latest book, Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson.

Eight months into my expat life, two roads diverged and I — I took the one home

Kat Collage_dropshadowToday we welcome back Kat Selvocki to the Displaced Nation. She wrote for us once before: a travel yarn about spending Christmas in Europe with friends. She had just been toiling in the farmlands of Iceland as a volunteer, and was about to head Down Under to begin a new life as a yoga instructor in Sydney. Now, just over a year later, she is back in the United States. What happened? Here is Kat’s repatriation story.

— ML Awanohara

As my year-long working holiday visa for Australia began to wane, I started considering my options.

Or rather, my option.

I teach yoga: a career that doesn’t generally allow for work sponsorship. I also had a rocky relationship with my Australian boyfriend.

The only I way I could feasibly stay in Sydney was to enroll in a course.

I’d heard tales from other expats of reasonably-priced options — reasonably-priced meaning anything under $8,000 a year — but knew in my heart it wasn’t going to work. I no longer had that kind of cash in the bank, and even if I had, you wouldn’t catch me spending it on some ridiculous “business basics” class.

It wasn’t that I necessarily wanted to stay; I just wasn’t sure I wanted to uproot my life after spending just eight months building a new life in Australia. There were places I still wanted to visit in that vast country, things I still wanted to do. And I loved the classes I was teaching.

But then I got glandular fever — commonly known in the US as mono, or the kissing disease. A month into fighting overwhelming exhaustion, all I wanted was for things to be easy again. In the end, it was having a such a debilitating illness that drove me over the edge.

I bought a plane ticket home.

The three emotions of repatriation

First came relief:

  • No more comments about how my tattoos, taste in music, or style were “too American.”
  • No more complicated calculations to figure out when friends or family would be available to Skype.
  • No more job rejections on the basis of not being a citizen.
  • And most importantly: central heating in abundance — finally, I’d stop getting sick so often!

Self-doubt followed. I’d spent years wanting to live as an expat, and when I finally had the opportunity, I’d been utterly miserable.

Had I failed, or not tried hard enough?

Should I have fought to stay longer, or at least until the end of my visa?

Were my reasons for leaving the right ones?

Why hadn’t I applied for that job working at a roadhouse waitress in the Outback, so that I’d at least seen more of the country?

Next up: fear. As I headed off to Oxford, UK, at the end of last year, to spend Christmas with friends before returning to the States to seek work, the wheel had come full circle. As reported on this blog in December 2011, I’d spent my first Christmas away from family, in Europe, on my way to a new life in Australia.

Whereas before I’d been full of excitement and anticipation, this time I was full of worry. I worried about how welcoming people would be when I returned. So many of my relationships had disintegrated while I was away, and I wasn’t sure if that was because of distance or because people were fed up with my use of Aussie slang in our conversations … or was it all my whining about being so bloody tired? (Hm, there’s that slang again!)

I had no idea whether finding work would actually be any easier, especially considering the much higher unemployment rate in the US.

I didn’t know how to talk about my time in Sydney without sounding bitter or depressed — but was also afraid that even if I sounded upbeat, people wouldn’t care to hear about it.

Old habits die hard…

I’d always believed that if something doesn’t work, you can simply head back to the place you were before.

Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure about that.

I had decided to move back to Seattle, a city where I’d lived eight years earlier. But would that be a terrible mistake? I pictured trying — and failing — to recreate the life I’d loved before.

Last time I wrote for the Displaced Nation, I reminisced about the four months I’d spent living in Prague on a study abroad. What I didn’t report was the depression and reverse culture shock I battle against upon returning to the United States.

If that were true after a mere four months, what impact would a year-and-a-half away have? Would I be feeling even more out of place? I dreaded the long readjustment.

I also worried about money, and whether I had enough to get settled again quickly.

…or do they?

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. (Except for the money concerns. Then again, I’m convinced that no matter how much I’d saved before returning, I still would have worried.)

From the moment I stepped off the plane, it was as if someone had flipped a switch inside of me. Even though things had changed — something that was particularly evident in New York City, which I passed through on the way to the West Coast (I’d lived there after Seattle) — it all felt normal. Easy. Almost as if I’d never left. My internal map and compass worked again; I knew where I was and where I was going.

And I still believe that — even though, two months after returning to the States, I continue to look the wrong way when crossing the street.

* * *

Thanks, Kat, for sharing your story. I found it very moving. Readers, any comments, questions for Kat — any similar stories to share?

Kat Selvocki — badass yoga instructor, photographer, writer and traveler — is currently kicking ass and taking names in Seattle after returning from her expat adventures. Learn more about her on her Web site: KatSelvocki.com. You can also follow her on Twitter: @katselvocki.

STAY TUNED for the final post in our fashion and style series, by the ever-so-stylish Kate Allison! (Well, she certainly has flair!)

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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images: (clockwise, starting top left) Chelsea Market, NYC; Capitol Hill, Seattle; Circular Quay, Sydney; Chelsea Market, NYC; The Rocks, Sydney; in the air when flying from Sydney to Melbourne; Pioneer Square, Seattle. Center shot of Kat Selvocki was taken in Seattle. All photos are Kat’s with the exception of the Circular Quay in Sydney, which came from Morguefiles.

RANDOM NOMAD: Jennifer Greco, Writer & French Cheese Specialist

Born in: Spokane, Washington, USA
Passports: USA and France
Cities/States/Countries lived in: Washington (Seattle): 1987-99; Louisiana (New Orleans): 1999-2003; France (Cesseras*): 2003-present
Cyberspace coordinates: Chez Loulou | A taste of life in the south of France (blog)
* A tiny village in the Languedoc-Roussillon region

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
I’ve been a devoted Francophile ever since I was a teenager and knew that one day I would live in France. My husband and I bought a small holiday house in the south of France in 2001 and decided to move here permanently in 2003.

Is anyone else in your immediate family “displaced”?
I have no immediate family members who are “displaced”; however, my grandfather moved to America from Italy with his family at the age of 10.

How about your husband?
My husband was born and raised in New York City. He wasn’t a Francophile when we met, but as soon as I introduced him to Paris, he was hooked.

Describe the moment when you felt most displaced.
It wasn’t just a moment, but every single frustrating minute I had to spend in the the sous-préfecture, arguing with the woman behind the desk who didn’t want to do her job by helping me with my carte de séjour paperwork [visa for staying in France longer than a year].

Describe the moment when you felt least displaced.
The summer night that my husband and I sat at a long table in the center of the village with our neighbors, sharing wine, food, stories and laughter.

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of your adopted countries into the Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
From Seattle, Washington: If it wouldn’t spill, a caffè macchiato from Caffe Ladro.
From New Orleans: Mardi Gras throws and Crystal Hot Sauce.
From France: An olive wood Laguiole corkscrew.

You’re invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other Displaced Nation members. What’s on the menu?
We’ll start out with a specialty of the Pacific Northwest: cracked Dungeness crab and clarified butter. Then we’ll each have half a Charentais melon filled with Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois — a wonderful dessert wine from Narbonne, close to where I live in the south of France. For the main course, I’ll serve a jambalaya from New Orleans. Then we’ll have (mais oui) a Languedoc cheese course — including Roquefort, Pélardon and Tomette des Corbières. Dessert will be a New Orleans classic: bread pudding with Bourbon sauce.

You may add one word or expression from the country you’re living in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
From New Orleans: Makin’ groceries — meaning going grocery shopping. It’s one of the many colorful expressions that’s part of the local vernacular. I simply love it!
From France: Oh la vache! (Oh my gosh!) This one cracks me up — the literal translation is “Oh the cow!” I can’t say it without smiling.

It’s French Cuisine month at The Displaced Nation. Who is your favorite French chef of all time?
I love Jacques Pépin. He is an honest, down to earth chef, writer and instructor, and his recipes are always delicious. One of my favorites of his is the Skillet Apple Charlotte, a melange of Tarte Tatin and French toast. C’est délicieux!

Like you, Julia Child was an American who moved to France and fell in love with the food. (We have just now inducted her into our Displaced Hall of Fame.) Of the following three Julia Child quotes, which do you most identify with?

1) The only time to eat diet food is when you’re waiting for the steak to cook.

2) The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.

3) Until I discovered cooking, I was never really interested in anything.

I most identify with: “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” I believe in living life to its fullest and sometimes that means taking risks and ignoring the fear, whether it be in the kitchen or in life. Our decision to move to France meant leaving our comfort zone and embracing the challenge of learning a new culture. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s definitely been worth it! As for the kitchen — readers of my blog will know that I’m now on a mission to taste every single French cheese. I’ve now tasted 205 (there are 600-1,000, depending on who’s counting).

Readers — yay or nay for letting Jennifer Greco into The Displaced Nation? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Jennifer — find amusing.)

img: Jennifer Greco in Paris, in front of the Louvre (April 2010).

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, who is taking last week’s advice from Maggie to heart and discovering that Woodhaven is her oyster. (A good thing she’s not allergic to shellfish like her husband, Oliver!) What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.

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3 hardboiled observations on the displaced TV series “The Killing”

Hillstreet Blues Law and Order Crime Scene Investigation (CSI)Bones… I could keep going, but point made: American TV is the undisputed godfather of the crime series genre.

These shows may be fiction, but they are underpinned by a grim reality: the United States has the highest rates of homicide and other violent crimes in the industrialized world.

But, not so fast. There’s a rookie on the scene that is taking on the veteran. I refer to the Danish crime series, The Killing, which is currently airing on AMC.

Now, what do the Danes know about crime — apart from suicide (regicide, too, if we go as far back as Hamlet)? Well, I’m here to tell you that this “smorgasbord thriller” has fast achieved cult status in the UK and now the US. As Alessandra Stanley wrote in her New York Times review:

It’s unnerving how well the Nordic sensibility fits a genre that for a long time seemed indisputably and inimitably violent and American, particularly given that Sweden, Norway and Denmark have homicide rates that suggest that they have more mystery writers per capita than murders.

Having become a a diehard (haha!) fan of the Danish noir series after a couple of episodes, I’ve been thinking about it of late in the context of The Displaced Nation. What happens when a TV series becomes expatified? Can we who have chosen to displace ourselves to other countries glean anything from its acculturation process?

Here are three hardboiled observations:

1) America is not Britain.

I was an expat in the UK for many years so am fated to have this thought nearly everyday: America is not Britain. Still, it’s gratifying to have it confirmed by third-party sources. Gratifying and, I must say, somewhat surprising given how quickly the UK appears to have become Americanized since I left. (I mean, pub grub now includes peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches! That would NEVER have happened in my day!)

Here’s the thing: the UK imported the original Danish series, entitled Forbydelsen, and simply added subtitles. Which completely makes sense to me — yes, I remain that anglicized.

But for an American audience, of course, subtitles won’t do. Thus AMC hired Veena Sud to come up with an adaptation. Sud moved the action to Seattle, which, she says, is the “closest American city, viscerally, to Copenhagen.”

2) Sud is right: Seattle is as creepy as Copenhagen.

Who knew that Seattle could be so creepy? Certainly not me. Though I’ve never had the honor of visiting that Pacific Northwest city, being an East Coaster I have always held a romantic view of it. At one point I even thought of Seattle as a place I might like to live in some day —  especially as the people are reputed to behave with greater decency towards each other than us competitive, dog-eat-dog New Yorkers.

But The Killing has quashed this “domestic expat” fantasy of mine, at least for now.

It underlines a truth we’ve been exploring recently on The Displaced Nation: horrific crimes can happen anywhere, even in settings where people are bending over backwards to be pleasant to one another.

3) But the series also addresses themes that transcend national borders, at least in Western countries.

Setting is important — one of the reasons for the series’ popularity in Britain is that so many people coveted the female detective’s classic Feroese sweater, and I think some fans of the AMC production enjoy watching a crime drama that takes place in Seattle, not New York or L.A.

But if setting is a crucial hook, it’s by no means the only reason The Killing has captivated viewers beyond Denmark and made such a killing for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation.

The show also addresses themes of widespread concern to Western countries: most notably, the fact that even in our supposedly civilized societies (we don’t have female genital mutilation! we don’t have honor killings!), many young women continue to be victims of violence.

The killing to which the title refers is that of a teenage girl, and each each one-hour episode depicts 24 hours in the police investigation, during which we are able to observe the impact of the tragedy has had on the girl’s family, her community, and the people involved in the investigation.

Another theme running through the series is xenophobia: the distrust American and European societies have for Muslim immigrants. America has yet to process the legacy of 9/11, while the Danes are still reeling from the incident involving cartoonist Kurt Westergaard. (To this day, he receives death threats for his cheeky portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad.)

For better or for worse, this Danish crime thriller holds up a mirror to Western culture and shows how easy it is for us to pin the murder of the girl on the Muslim teacher. It eerily reflects the times we live in — perhaps its most chilling facet.

Question: Do you have an experience with a TV show or series that made you look at your own and/or other cultures in a fresh light?

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