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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Novelist Dinah Jefferies melds themes of displacement and loss with the seductive beauty of the East

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Tracey Warr is here with fellow historical novelist Dinah Jefferies. Dinah has led an unusually eventful life: not only has she lived in various countries but she has also suffered the loss of a child. These experiences have fueled a writing career that took off when Dinah reached her mid-sixties.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is Dinah Jefferies, who was born in 1948 in Malaya—as Malaysia was known then—where she spent the first nine years of her life, growing up against the background of civil war. Once Malaya gained independence from England, her parents decided to move back home.

Dinah found it wrenching. As she told a UK magazine:

“I was incredibly happy in Malaya. We just wore flip-flops and pants at home; it was so hot… I loved going to the Chinese quarter with my amah, sitting cross-legged on straw mats with her family, eating bright yellow, strong-tasting ice cream. It was like nothing like I’ve ever tasted since.”

Moreover, England did not make a good first impression:

“I just remember absolute devastation when I saw what England was like: February, the middle of winter – grey, cold, wet; no sunshine; horrible clothes.”

Dinah was bullied at school, and although she defended herself, that “feeling of not being quite a member of anything has stayed with me all my life.”

This outsider status led to a certain restlessness, which should be familiar to any of our Third Culture Kid readers. As a teenager, Dinah lived in Tuscany and worked as an au pair for an Italian countess. Much later, with her second husband, she attempted to retire in a 16th-century village in Northern Andalusia—a plan cut short after they lost most of their money in the crash of 2008.

But the experience that shattered life as she knew it was the death of her son in 1985, when he was just 14. Formally trained as an artist, Dinah channeled her unrelenting grief into her art work. Later her move to Spain afforded an opportunity to experiment with fiction writing. After settling in Gloucestershire to be near her grandchildren, she took to writing full time and found she enjoyed weaving her experiences of loss and displacement into stories set in the “extremely seductive beauty of the East.”

Dinah’s first published novel, The Separation, came out in 2014, when she was 65 years old. Set in 1950s Malaya, the book tells the story of a mother who journeys through the civil-war-torn jungle to find out why her husband and daughters moved up country without her.

Dinah landed a contract with Viking Penguin for that book and has produced a novel for them every year since:

  • The Tea Planter’s Wife (2015). Set in 1920s Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the book revolves around a young Englishwoman who has married a tea plantation owner and widower, only to discover he’s been keeping some terrible secrets about his past.
  • The Silk Merchant’s Daughter (2016): Set in 1950s French Indochina (now Vietnam), the era when militants were determined to end French rule, the story concerns a half-French, half Vietnamese woman who is torn between two worlds.
  • Before the Rains (forthcoming, February 2017): Set in 1930s India, the book follows the progress of a British photojournalist who is sent to photograph the royal family in the princely state of Rajputana (Rajasthan). She ends up falling in love with the Prince’s brother…

To research her books Dinah has traveled to Sri Lanka, Vietnam and India. She will be speaking at the Fairway Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka in January, should any of you Displaced Nationers find yourselves in that part of the world.
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Welcome, Dinah, to Location, Locution. Which tends to come first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

For all four of my books the location came first, though story comes a very close second. Once I’ve decided on the place, I then research the period and usually while researching that, the kind of characters I want begin to emerge. Sometimes I have the kernel of an idea before I hit on the location. For The Tea Planter’s Wife I did have the idea of a life-changing secret before I chose Sri Lanka—or Ceylon as it was then known.

What is your technique for evoking the atmosphere of the various places where you’ve set your four novels?

It’s all about sensory detail. For my third book, The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, set in Vietnam, it was all about evoking the contrast between the elegant French quarter of Hanoi, as opposed to the clutter and noise of the ancient Vietnamese quarter with canaries singing in bamboo cages and the scent of charcoal and ginger in the air. The setting has to work to support the story in some way, and as this is a story of a woman caught between two worlds. I needed to show how different those two worlds were.

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

All those and more. I include everything I can to create the atmosphere of the place and the time. For historical fiction, one has to get the historical details right, too: the type of buildings, what people wore, their mindset, etc. It’s about what the characters would be seeing in their daily lives and how they would be interacting with their surroundings. For me the landscape has to almost be a character in itself. I try to re-create the beauty of the world in question as well as its unique personality.

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

From The Tea Planter’s Wife:

“Below her, gentle, flower filled gardens sloped down to the lake in three terraces, with paths, steps and benches strategically placed between the three. The lake itself was the most gloriously shining silver she’d ever seen. All memory of the previous day’s car journey, with its terrifying hairpin bends, deep ravines, and nauseating bumps, was instantly washed away. Rising up behind the lake, and surrounding it, was a tapestry of green velvet, the tea bushes as symmetrical as if they’d been stitched in rows, where women tea-pickers wore eye-catching brightly coloured saris, and looked like tiny embroidered birds who had stopped to peck.”

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

I like to know it as well as I can and I always visit a location I’m planning to use. Just being in a place can help in ways you never could have imagined if you hadn’t been there. When doing research for The Tea Planter’s Wife, I was staying at a tea plantation in Sri Lanka and found a library of wonderful books I’d never have known about back home. Those books provided me with amazing details, as did sitting outside in the evening watching the fireflies and listening to the cicadas. Being there made it real.

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

I love Julia Gregson’s book East of The Sun for the way it evokes a particular time in India. Also Simon Mawer’s The Girl who Fell from the Sky set in wartime France. Both are great books with terrifically realistic settings that are an important element of the story.

Dinah Jefferies’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Interesting! I should tell you that one of my other guests, the novelist Hazel Gaynor, chose your books—The Tea Planter’s Wife and The Silk Merchant’s Daughter—in answer to this question. Also, my very next guest will be one of your picks, Simon Mawer.

Thanks so much, Dinah, for joining us. It’s been a pleasure.

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

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Dinah Jefferies and her novels, I suggest you visit her author site. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

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Thank you so much, Tracey and Dinah! Dinah, your Third Culture Kid story tells us so much about you. I wonder if it’s the reason location comes first, before story? And hats off to you for starting a writing career in your sixties. What a tribute to resilience, as well as to the therapeutic power of art! —ML Awanohara

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Photo credits: Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo and photos of Dinah in Hall of Mirrors at Amer Fort (near Jaipur, India) and of Malacca, Malaya, supplied by Dinah Jefferies; and photo of England: Rainy Day, by David Wright via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Visual that accompanies the quotation: Tea Picking In Sri Lanka, by Steenbergs via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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

End of Summer 2016 Reads

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

Hello Displaced Nationers!

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

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

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

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

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

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JENNIFER ALDERSON, expat and writer

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

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

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

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

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

The official synopsis reads:

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

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

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

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

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


ML AWANOHARA, Displaced Nation founding editor and former expat

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

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

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

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


BETH GREEN, Displaced Nation columnist and writer

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

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

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

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

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

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


HELENA HALME, novelist and expat

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

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

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

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

“He smiles with everything he’s got…”

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

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

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

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


MATT KRAUSE, writer and expat

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


PAMELA JANE ROGERS, expat and artist/author

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

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

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

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


JASMINE SILVERA, former expat and writer

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Till next time and happy reading!

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Writer Tracey Warr is a troubadour of medieval life, telling stories she collects from roaming far and wide

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest, and last(!), interview guest.

My guest this month is Tracey Warr, a writer of fiction and nonfiction who was born in London and lived there for a substantial portion of her life—but these days can be found in Pembrokeshire, in the south west of Wales; on the Aveyron in southern France; or in transit.

Actually, Tracey is more than just a guest; from next month onwards, she will be assuming the reins of the Location, Locution column. I’ve enjoyed my time interviewing a variety of talented expat authors, and I thank you all for your comments and for being part of my writing life.

I know you will be in good hands with Tracey, who already has lots of interesting interviews lined up for you. But first, like Jill Marsh and I before her, Tracey will introduce herself and her writing by answering the Location, Locution interview questions.

Tracey has enjoyed two illustrious careers. Her day job for many years was as an academic specialist in contemporary art history and theory. She studied English Literature at Oxford University and holds a PhD in Art History. She held the post of senior lecturer for 15 years, teaching art history and theory in not only the UK but also Germany and the Netherlands. She has been involved in art curation projects all over the world, including in Australia, the USA, Spain, Lithuania, Norway and Finland. She has a long list of published books and articles and contributes art book reviews to Times Higher Education. Her most recent publication in the contemporary art field is the edited volume Remote Performances in Nature and Architecture, which came out last year with Routledge.

But if Tracey’s head is in the world of contemporary art, her heart belongs to historical fiction. After earning an MA in Creative Writing at University of Wales Trinity St Davids in Carmarthen, she entered her second career: writing fiction and biographies inspired by the landscapes and medieval histories of southern France and south west Wales.

If Tracey’s head is in the world of contemporary art, her heart belongs to historical fiction. Photo credits: (top row) The mind via Pixabay; cover art for Warr’s recent book; (middle row) Tracey Warr author photo; Map bastides in 1271, by FRAMYJO, Wikimedia Commons (public domain); (bottom row) Hearts via Pixabay; Ramon Berenguer I and his wife, Almodis de la Marche, counting out 2,000 ounces of gold coins, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Thus far Tracey has published two novels set in early medieval France, Spain and Wales: Almodis the Peaceweaver (2011) and The Viking Hostage (2014). Her new novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, due out later this year, focuses on the 12th-century Welsh princess Nest ferch Rhys and the Welsh resistance to the Normans. In addition, Tracey is working on a biography entitled Three Female Lords, charting the lives and interactions of three medieval sisters who ruled in 11th-century southern France and Catalonia.

Tracey has already garnered numerous awards in her new career as a novelist and biographer. I won’t go on to list them because I am eager to get to our interview, but I urge you to read about her accolades on the page created by her publisher, Impress Books.

And now let’s meet Tracey Warr and hear her views on location, locution.

* * *

Welcome, Tracey, to Location, Locution, a column that will soon be yours! You have a strong sense of place in your historical novels, but tell us, which comes first, story or location?

Thank you, Lorraine, for hosting me and I look forward to assuming the column reins next month. In answer to your question: location! I was staying in a friend’s house in a remote village in the Tarn Valley in southern France for four months during a very cold winter. I visited the nearby medieval castle and village of Brousse-le-Château with my nephew, who was around 10 at the time and asked me to write a story about the castle. He loved it when I made up stories, and actually had me under a “contract” to write him at least one story a year—a hard task-master! During my research I came across an extraordinary real woman, Almodis de La Marche—and realised she would make a fascinating adult novel. The incidents of her life astonished me and I had to become a self-taught historian to discover more and more about her and then imagine what had happened during the gaps in the historical evidence. The landscape in this part of France is littered with spectacular castles and medieval bastide towns clustered around hilltops and connected by rivers, which served as highways in medieval times, so it became a process of location initiating and then feeding the development of the story.

Almodis inspiration

During her research on the castle, Tracey Warr came across an extraordinary real woman, Almodis de La Marche. Photo credits: Brousse-le-Château and Almodis cover art (supplied).

I’m particularly fascinated by watery landscapes—rivers, estuaries, coasts and islands. My second novel and the third one I’m working on now also began with landscapes—the Welsh islands off the coast of Pembrokeshire and the great triple river estuary at Carmarthen Bay.

What techniques do you use for evoking place in your stories? After all, the action takes place long ago.

If possible go there, take photographs, experience it, make notes on how it smells, sounds, feels, looks. The small details you gain from walking the ground are invaluable. The novel I’m writing at the moment centres around a number of medieval castles in Wales. I spent a few days staying in the village of Llansteffan near one of the castles, walking the cliffs and looking down on the spectacular river estuary and the dangerous tides and sandbanks of Carmarthen Bay. Watching birds hovering in the wind, seeing the weather lowering and rain coming in fast—I’ve used all those details in the novel. Although I’m writing historical fiction and many things have changed in a place, there are also many things that don’t change.

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

I use all of those, with landscape probably dominating, but I also use objects in museums, the literature of the times and places and medieval cookery books to help me evoke places. My characters need to eat, sleep, work, travel, use the garderobe and observe the rhythms of medieval life. A map of 11th-century Toulouse, a model of Viking Dublin, a Viking serpent brooch, medieval objects such as the Dunstable Swan Jewel, a medieval book of hours, the poetry of the female troubadours—all have been vital in helping me to create my fictional locations.

The Viking Hostage influences

Medieval objects such as the Dunstable Swan Jewel have been vital in helping Tracey create her fiction. Photo credits: (clockwise from top left) The Viking Hostage cover art, Dunstable Swan Jewel (British Museum), print from a Viking brooch (all supplied); Labors of the Months: May, from a Flemish Book of Hours (Bruges) via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Books such as medieval historian Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, which treats that distant time like the Rough Guide series, are full of helpful details on everyday life. I do a lot of historical, literary, material culture and visual research, picking out details that I can use and adapt to my story to create a credible world for my readers to step into. I started writing medieval fiction as a kind of holiday in time away from my academic work with contemporary art, so I try to recreate that experience for the reader. I hope that when they have their noses in my books, sitting on the Tube in London, on a train going to Birmingham, in their modern bedrooms and living rooms or on a crowded beach, they find themselves travelling with my characters to 11th-century Barcelona, 10th-century Tallinn (in Estonia), 12th-century Pembroke—or they are on a Viking ship or a medieval passenger boat plying up and down the Thames.

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

In The Viking Hostage I used my knowledge of traditional markets in France and modern-day Tallinn to help me create the opening scene in the 10th-century Tallinn slave market:

A list of items for sale was called out in the marketplace. I was described as one female Northchild, but my name is Sigrid Thorolfsdottir. I am for sale along with my brothers, Thorgils and Olafr, who stand either side, holding my hands.

‘Ease up Sigrid,’ Thorgils whispers to me, ‘you’re crunching the bones of my hand. It will be alright.’

I try to relax my grip on his knuckles and look out at the few buyers staring up at the platform where we stand barefoot. Most of the crowd have gone since we are the last and least interesting item. Around the edges of the market square tall, thin houses are painted in gay colours. Awnings above the stalls flap in the slight breeze, their colours leached out by sun. Apples, nuts and cheeses are carefully arranged in small mounds and circles. Chickens are panicking in wooden cages. If I squint my eyes I can just see the sun sparkling on the sea in the distance, beyond the square and the buildings, and the buyers.

‘Three fine children of the Northmen, already growing muscled and hard-working,’ Klerkon, the slaver, shouts to the sparse audience, pushing up the grimy sleeve of Thorgils’ shift and pinching the flesh of his bicep, leaving white fingerprints against the brown skin. I glance up at the angry muscle shifting in my brother’s cheek.

Medieval markets

“A list of items for sale was called out in the marketplace. I was described as one female Northchild…” Photo credits: Talinn, Estonia (Old Town) via Pixabay; Villefranche-de-Rouergue market (supplied).

Later on in the novel my heroines are held hostage by Vikings on a Welsh island. I blended together the real Welsh islands of Caldey and Skomer, which were actually occupied by Vikings, to create my fictional island.

We climb the hill in the direction Thorgils indicated. As we move up the path we alarm plump brown curlews with long curving beaks like darning needles that are nesting in the brilliant green bracken. Large dragon-flies fly towards us swerving at the last minute. From the top of the hill we can discern the rough diamond shape of the island, cliffs spearing out erratically into the blue sea on all sides and ravines full of white flowers. Our eyes crease against the brightness of the light reflecting from the surrounding water. There is an overwhelming sense of space. The grey cliffs are dotted with short bright green grass and yellow lichen. To the left comes the regular boom of the sea in a rocky blow-hole. The white foam of waves studded with black boulders look like a thin necklace slung around the coast. Thick green and yellow seaweed rolls back and forth on the strand. The irregular patchwork of fields established by the monks where the thralls now labour, blanket the rocks and undulations of the island. Planes of colour are visible in the sea—greens, dark blues, grey-blues, grey-greens and blacks. Strings of other islands in the distance look as if they have been dropped out of the sky from a giant’s hand.

The island is teeming with life. Raucous screeching seabirds wheel around us, sit on nests on the narrow ledges of the guano-streaked cliffs like a great shrieking city, skid across the surface of the ocean carrying flapping fish in their beaks, plunge-dive at dark clouds of mackerel. Aina and I lay on our bellies on the edge of the cliff, watching the birds. There are fat black and white birds with striped beaks and long talons like the fingers of a lute player.

Blend of two islands

“Planes of colour are visible in the sea—greens, dark blues, grey-blues, grey-greens and blacks.” Photo credits: (top) Sea cave right through Skomer; view of the sea through Llansteffan Castle (both supplied).

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

It helps to know a place well from living there or visiting and making detailed research. But I also sometimes completely imagine a place without going there, or I transpose my knowledge and experiences of one place to somewhere else. In my first novel I had to write about a journey across the Pyrenees. At the time I’d never been there so I used maps together with experiences of the Scottish Highlands to conjure it. Now I have spent quite a lot of time in writing residencies in the Pyrenees and would probably write it differently—but I hope the ‘Scottish’ version still worked in the novel for the readers. I find that if I really imagine a place or a building in my own head, such as the Norman motte-and-bailey castle at Cardiff that I’m writing about at the moment, this can drive the plot. Certain scenes and events happen because of the layout of a place, because I’m imagining moving through that place with my characters.

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

Donna Leon—in her Commissario Brunetti series, she makes me feel that I am in Venice, wandering the streets, riding boats in the canals with Brunetti, dropping into a corner bar for a glass of wine or a quick coffee, accompanying him on his way home for a delicious lunch with his smart, Henry-James-loving wife. Being in Venice with Brunetti is at least 60 percent of the charm of reading those books, and the murder mystery is the rest. British historical crime writer Antonia Hodgson—her 18th-century London in her recent novel, The Devil in Marshalsea, is absolutely believable and alarming. And Wilkie Collins—in The Moonstone, he creates a vivid landscape and mansion that his story unfolds within, and he infuses place with emotions and suspense.

Fave books for place Tracey Warr

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

Thanks so much, Tracey!

* * *

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

And if you’d like to discover more about Tracey before she begins her column next month, why not visit her author site. You can also follow her on twitter.

And with that, I bid you a fond adieu!

* * *

Thanks, Lorraine! You’ve introduced us to so many fabulous writers, an experience that has touched all of us who have been inspired by the landscapes we’ve visited, or in many cases, have made into our homes. We hope you’ll drop by the Displaced Nation every so often and see what we’re up to. Don’t be a stranger!! —ML Awanohara

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

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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

WORLD OF WORDS: Oh, those faux pas! Those you commit, and others that are committed upon you, during your travels abroad

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about words?

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about French words?

Columnist Marianne Bohr’s first book, Gap Year Girl, about an adult gap year she took with her husband, came out last September with She Writes Press. Here she recounts some amusing faux pas from their travels, and owns up to one of her own (from her first time in France).

In the world of words, language is a subtle art. So what happens when non-native speakers miss out on linguistic subtleties? To what extent does it rock the native speaker’s world?

Over the course of 12 months backpacking across Europe on an adult gap year with my husband in 2012, we were frequently amused by the quirky use of English we encountered. Indeed, while we would never want to discourage non-native speakers from giving English a try, hearing translations of our mother tongue that weren’t quite right was, more often than not, a source of entertainment.

And sometimes the results of such attempts were downright, flat-out, laugh-out-loud funny.

I’ll elaborate on those examples—that’s after I own up to one of my own French faux pas.

Pas de tout or pas tout? There’s a difference?!!

The delicate nature of language was highlighted for me when teaching a middle school French class a couple of weeks ago. I asked one of my best students if she understood the lesson we’d just completed on the formation of the passé composé. She looked at me guardedly and replied with a crooked smile, “Pas de tout.”

I was deflated. Crushed. One of my stars had freely admitted she’d understood nothing at all of my lecture. How could that be? Was my explication really that obtuse?

Vous comprenhez Pas de tout

Photo credits: Studying French at home and in Paris, by Modern Languages @ Finger Lakes Community College, by The LEAF Project via Flickr (CC0 1.0).

But then, like a flash, I remembered something from my own life that occurred almost 40 years ago, during my initial entry to France. I was a youthful 21-year-old backpacker, not the gap-year backpacker I would write about later, and was having my first authentic conversation with a native speaker. Instead of a husband, I was traveling with several companions, not one of whom spoke a word of the language of love.

We were checking into a seedy, Parisian budget hotel on the right bank. The front desk clerk spoke at a speed beyond my college ken, and from what I understood, yes, he had a room, but just one for the four of us (one boy and three girls).

My hesitation to reply, searching for the right words, and the panicked look in my eyes, stretched beyond the limits of his harried patience, and he demanded: “Vous comprenez, alors, mademoiselle?” Do you understand, miss?

Pas de tout,” I replied, so pleased that I’d managed to tell him that I understood most of what he’d said.

Oh, la,” he replied, straightening his posture and rolling his eyes in that distinctively Gallic way. “You understood nothing,” he said, in heavily accented English.

“No, no,” I countered, not even aware of how quickly I’d collapsed, reverting to the comfort of English. “I meant, I didn’t understand everything.”

I didn’t want him to think I was a complete imbecile. But the damage was done. I’d told him I hadn’t understood a word, when what I’d wanted to convey was that I’d understood, but perhaps not every word. The simple insertion of the little word “de” had completely changed what I’d said. “Pas tout.” Not everything. “Pas de tout.” Nothing at all. My merry band of four American youth did settle into a single room that night, but my faux pas would haunt me for the balance of our stay in Paris.

Fast-forward to my present-day classroom. “Did you understand today’s lesson?” I ask. “Pas de tout,” is the response, and now I smile. “Not everything,” is what she means, and not, “Nothing at all.”

She’s making the same mistake I did forty years ago. How can I possibly fault her?

A Catalan breakfast a la Cee-lo Green

Two months into our year-long gap-year journey, my husband and I have arrived in Barcelona after having spent seven weeks in my beloved France.

The familiar doorbell chime greeting of “bonjour, messieurs-dames” each time we walk into a shop or hotel has been replaced with a simple, straightforward “hola.” And we’re reminded at every turn by the abundant bright red-and-yellow striped flags and the street signs and billboards (the words of which I can decipher only a few), that we’re not yet fully in Spain; we’re in Catalonia, as we were in Andorra on our way here.

Now and then, I’ll spot a familiar word, like bella for beautiful, carrer for street or gambeta for shrimp.

Ordering food off a Catalan menu can be a real adventure!

On our very first morning in Spain, we experience one of those unexpected, laugh-out-loud moments that surprise you when you travel. In the well-lit hotel breakfast room, painted pale green and decorated with plentiful plastic oranges and daisies, we are the only two Americans filling our plates from the buffet. Imagine our surprise when the English-language rock music playing in the background launches into Cee-Lo Green’s original “Forget You.”

We practically drop our huevos in our laps. Are they really playing the uncensored version? “I’m like, 
f*** you! And f*** her too!”

No one else in the cantina even flinches. Ah, the beauty and innocence of enjoying another country’s music while you have no idea what the lyrics mean.

Breakfast in Barcelona

Photo credits (clockwise from top): Cee-Lo, by Pat Guiney via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Hello sign, by Oh-Barcelona.com via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Manifestació Som Una Nació, Nosaltres Decidim! 50, by Merche Pérez via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Breakfast (Barcelona, Spain), by PunkToad via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

The Golden Virgin & Kid

Marseille was founded in 600 BC. As the oldest town in France, it’s now the second largest city in the country (although the residents of Lyon often like to challenge this claim). My husband and I have an early seafood dinner along the lines of yachts and fishing boats and are pleasantly surprised that the wharf area isn’t half as gritty as we imagined.

Despite the sea breezes, the day is extremely hot, lethargy prevails and we find ourselves purchasing the most touristy tickets of our year. We take the miniature baby blue train on wheels that wanders the city and up to the top of a limestone peak with a panoramic view over the city.

As we approach the summit, the electronically generated (and apparently translated) French commentary announces we’re arriving at the Notre Dame de la Garde church, famous for its 30-foot high gilded Madonna and Child atop the steeple.

So far, so good except that the English translation that follows suggests that we “fold our necks and look up to see the golden Virgin and her kid.”

We must be the only English speakers aboard because we’re the only ones laughing.

* * *

Thank you, Marianne, for sharing these très drôles d’histoires (gosh, did I get that right?), one of which was at your own expense.

Readers, any faux pas of note to report from your travels, yours or others’? We’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Marianne C. Bohr is a writer, editor and French teacher whose book, Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, was published last September (She Writes Press). She married her high school sweetheart and travel partner, and with their two grown children, follows her own advice and travels at every opportunity. Marianne lives in Bethesda, Maryland, where after decades in publishing, she has followed her Francophile muse to teach French. She has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: 11 Expat- and Travel-themed Books to Expand Our Horizons in 2016

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), is back with her personal picks for expat- and travel-themed books to watch for in 2016.

Hello again, Displaced Nationers!

It’s been quite a long time since I last wrote to you here. Since my last column we’ve started 2016, celebrated the beginning of the Year of the Monkey, written and revised our new year’s resolutions, and (hopefully) read some really great books!

As part of my own (ever-evolving) New Year’s resolutions I signed up for the Goodreads Reading Challenge. It’s currently showing that I’m 22 books behind schedule for my overly optimistic goal of 300 books this year—but, hey, it wouldn’t be a challenge if it was easy, right?

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 7.33.56 PM
Now, usually in this column I talk about books I’ve already read, but this month I’d like to highlight some that I haven’t. There are, of course, lots of intriguing books coming out this year—more than I can cover adequately in one column! But, of the expat- or international-themed books coming out in 2016 that caught my eye, I’ve chosen 11 to feature in this post, one for each month left in 2016. Take a look!

* * *

Beginning with…a Thriller and a Mystery

CambodiaNoir_cover_300x200Cambodia Noir, by Nick Seeley (March 15, 2016)
The debut novel from an American journalist who has been working out of the Middle East and Southeast Asia, Cambodia Noir is a thriller that I’ve had on my to-be-read list ever since I first heard about it. The plot: A young American woman who is working as an intern at a local paper in Phnom Penh, June Saito, disappears. Her sister hires a retired photojournalist with first-hand knowledge of the corrupt, dissolute ways of the Cambodian capital, to look for her. Author Nick Seeley got his start as a foreign correspondent in Phnom Penh. He’s been hailed as a “fresh voice” exploring the depths of the Far East’s underworld.


InspectorSinghInvestigates_cover_300x200Inspector Singh Investigates: A Frightfully English Execution, by Shamini Flint (April 7, 2016)
Always the fan of international crime fiction, I’m excited that one of my favorite series—a series of charming crime novels featuring the portly, lovable Sikh policeman Inspector Singh—is getting a new addition this year. Author Shamini Flint is sending Singh to Britain Diary of a Tennis Prodigy_cover_300x200in the seventh book in her series. Each book provides not only a puzzle for the reader to solve but also a close-up look at the locations where the books are set. This is the Inspector’s first time out of Asia, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he discovers in the UK.

And, a special note for readers with kids: on January 1 Flint, who is a Singapore-based Malaysian, published a middle-grade book, Diary of a Tennis Prodigy, with illustrator Sally Heinrich (Sally formerly lived in Singapore and Malaysia but is now based in Adelaide, Australia).

And Now Let’s Add Three Travel Memoirs…

No Baggage_cover_300x200No Baggage: A Minimalist Tale of Love and Wandering, by Clara Bensen (January 5, 2016)
I love memoirs that read like novels, as I’m hoping this one will! Recovering from a quarter-life meltdown, 25-year-old Bensen signs up for an online dating account, and to her surprise, ends up meeting Jeff, a university professor who proposes they take a three-week experimental trip spanning eight countries, with no plans or baggage. Her story resonates with the adventurer in me—I can’t wait to take a look.


Little Dribbling_cover_300x200The Road to Little Dribbling, by Bill Bryson (January 19, 2016)
It may already be old news to anyone who’s been in a bookstore recently—or read our Displaced Dispatch!—but the world’s favorite traveler, humor writer and expat, Bill Bryson, has a new travelogue out. It’s another of his road-trip books. (I much prefer these to his other writings such as A Short History of Nearly Everything and At Home—they started out great, but I ended up leaving them unfinished…) Bryson made a journey through Britain 20 years ago, which was forever immortalized in his bestselling classic, Notes from a Small Island. In Little Dribbling, he follows the “Bryson line” from bottom to top of his adopted home country. I’m looking forward to being in his company again.


In Other Words_cover_300x200In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri (and translations by Ann Goldstein) (February 9, 2016)
As a London-born Indian-American, world-class novelist Jhumpa Lahiri excels at writing in English—yet has long harbored a passion for the Italian language. Not wanting to miss out, she moved her family to Rome to immerse herself and quickly reached a point where she was writing only in Italian. She kept a journal in Italian that has evolved into this dual-language memoir. As an expat who’s now tried to learn three foreign languages while abroad, I’m curious to see how Lahiri’s experiences match up to my own. (The critics would apparently like to see her go back to English!)

…Along with Two Works of Literary Fiction and a Harlequin Romance

WhatBelongstoYou_cover_300x200What Belongs to You, by Garth Greenwell (January 19, 2016)
An American professor working in Sofia, Bulgaria, hooks up with a male prostitute in a public toilet and slowly becomes more involved than he anticipated. Reviewers cite Greenwell’s lyrical prose as reason alone for picking up his debut novel, but I’m interested in seeing how this young writer—who himself once worked as an expat English teacher in Bulgaria—depicts the city and the relationships between locals and foreigners. (This book, too, was mentioned in a recent Displaced Dispatch.)


TheHighMountainsofPortugal_cover_300x200The High Mountains of Portugal, by Yann Martel (February 2, 2016)
Going over this years’ publishers lists, I’m now looking forward to reading a book by an author whose last book I despised. My friends were all gushing over Yann Martel’s 2002 novel Life of Pi; but, while it has an admittedly awesome premise, the story left me cold. But I’m excited to check out the chronically traveling Canadian author’s next book, which is set in Portugal and intertwines the century-spanning stories of a young man reading an old journal, a mystery-loving pathologist, and a Canadian diplomat. I’m planning a trip to Lisbon later this year, and hope to read this book before I go.


UndertheSpanishStairs_cover_300x200Under the Spanish Stars, by Alli Sinclair (February 1, 2016)
I’m pleased to report that former expat Alli Sinclair—my friend and former co-blogger from Novel Adventurers—has published her second romantic mystery novel this month. (Congratulations, Alli!) The action takes place in her native Australia and also in Spain. The plot: an Australian woman travels to her grandmother’s homeland of Andalucía to unravel a family mystery. She ends up meeting a passionate flamenco guitarist and learns her grandmother’s past is not what she imagined.

Finally, to Top Things Off, How About a Couple of YA Books?

I don’t read a lot of young adult books, but descriptions of two novels I saw reviewed recently stuck with me. Funnily enough, both books’ titles start with “Up”—maybe it’s the implied optimism that caught me? We could use a bit of cheer in our displaced world…

Up from the Sea_cover_300x200Up from the Sea, by Leza Lowitz (January 12, 2016)
This is a novel in verse. It tells the story of a Japanese teenager, Kai, whose coastal village is obliterated by the March 2011 tsunami, after which he is offered a trip to New York to meet children who had been affected by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The trip also provides an opportunity for him to go in search of his estranged American father. Author Leza Lowitz is an American expat writer and translator living in Tokyo, where she also runs a popular yoga studio. Her favorite themes to explore in her writing include the idea of place, displacement and what “home” means to expatriate women.


UPtothisPointe_cover_300x200Up to this Pointe, by Jennifer Longo (January 19, 2016)
I’m always fascinated by stories of Antarctica so have my eye on this book about a teenage girl who aspires to be a professional ballerina but, when her grand plan goes awry, sets out on an expedition to McMurdo Station (the U.S. Antarctic research center) in the footsteps of her relative and explorer Robert Falcon Scott. Notably, Seattle-based author Jennifer Longo wanted to be a ballerina until she finally had to admit that her talent for writing exceeded her talent for dance. Like me, she harbors an obsessive love of Antarctica. I admire the way she has woven these two themes together!

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, what do you think? What are you looking forward to reading this year? Any much-anticipated displaced reads that should be added to my list?

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

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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

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CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats, when you find yourself out of tune with the local language/culture, throw back your head and laugh it off!

Byron Williams, Jr. with one of his performers (supplied).

Byron Williams, Jr. with one of his performers (supplied).

Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol is in holiday mode with her latest interview guest.

Season’s greetings, Displaced Nationers! You may be in full hibernation mode by now or, if you live in the Southern Hemisphere, perhaps you’re ready to hit the beach! Either way, I’d like to offer you some holiday cheer through this month’s column. My guest is singer, song-writer and long-term expat Byron Williams, Jr. Byron grew up in Miami, Florida, and Portland, Maine, before moving to Europe in the 1990s.

He started singing in a gospel choir when he was eight years old—and has been singing ever since. Since 1998 he has made his home in Fredrikstad, Norway, where he performs soul, jazz and rhythm ‘n’ blues with his duo/trio at all kinds of events: parties, anniversaries, festivals and more. He can go from Frank Sinatra to Barry White and everything in between.

During this cold and grey season, Byron has been spreading comfort and joy with his concert series “Christmas Joy N’ Soul.” Talk about holiday spirit!

Byron kindly agreed to share some of his culture shock experiences with us. Tune in as we talk about mistaken identities, language classes, mispronounced words and what to pack to get through awkward moments. Actually, as it’s the holidays, why not literally tune in to Byron? Click here to hear him croon…while you read on.

* * *

Hi, Bryon. Welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox. I know you were born in Miami and then went all the way north to Portland, Maine. Where have you lived abroad?

Spain (Mallorca) for three years and Norway (Fredrikstad) for almost 17 years.

In the course of your transitions into European cultures, have you ever ended up with your foot in your mouth?

When I moved to Norway back in 1998, I was getting off the train in Oslo and heading towards the central station, when a man approached me asking me something in Norwegian. And I, being the polite American, told him “No, I’m sorry and continued on my way to the station. He continued to ask me questions and I replied: “No, I do not have any money to give you.” As I was getting closer to the entrance to the station, he told me that he was a customs agent and needed to see my passport. I apologized to him for thinking that he was a beggar.

How did you handle that situation?

We both laughed and went our separate ways 🙂

Can you think of a situation you handled with finesse, and why do you think that was?

When I began to take Norwegian classes, I mispronounced the word for “brick” in English and what came out sounded like the Norwegian word for murder. Back then the words sounded the same to me and didn’t notice it. Then my teacher started laughing and told me that the words meant two totally different things 🙂 I laughed it off by saying that that’s what happens when you learn a new language.

You have to have a sense of humor in life.

If you had any advice for someone moving abroad for the first time, what tool would you suggest they develop first?

Carry a smile in your culture shock toolbox, it will take you further 🙂 And stock up on those smiley face stickers and emoticons for when you need a reminder!

smiley face toolbox

Thank you so much, Bryon, for taking the time to do this interview! As newbies in another culture, we aren’t always as inconspicuous as we’d like to be. Humor will definitely see us you through those awkward moments and make you feel more in harmony with yourself and your surroundings. Especially in this holiday season, why not crack a smile and try putting one on someone else’s face?!

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Byron’s advice? If you like what he has to say, I recommend you visit his site, where you can peruse his music. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter.

And to keep you in that holiday spirit, listen to Byron’s tribute to Barry White:

As always, thanks for reading, Displaced Nationers! Well, hopefully this has you “fixed” until next month/year. See you in 2016!

Until then. Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin and Goodreads. She recently launched a new Web site and is now working on her second book.  

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

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Wonderlanded with Dr. Karen V., scholar of linguistics and creator of a comic strip series on expat life

Welcome back to the Displaced Nation’s Wonderlanded series, being held in gratitude for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which turns 150 this year and, despite this advanced age, continues to stimulate and reassure many of us who have chosen to lead international, displaced, “through the looking glass” lives.

This month we travel
d
o
w
n
the hole with Karen V., a Spaniard who describes herself as an expat, linguist and skeptic. Her sociolinguistic adventures began ten years ago when she moved to Berlin, followed by Zürich, Madrid, Savonlinna and most recently Hamburg.

She speaks Spanish, German and English fluently and can communicate in French and Finnish.

But if Karen is in no uncertain terms a scholar, the only thing I knew about her before eliciting her participation in our Wonderlanded series was that she produces a comic strip series called “Expat Gone Foreign,” which depicts the adventures of a black-haired girl called tXc. The series—which Karen describes as “a graphic journey through culture clashes, social awkwardness, language-related phenomena and life itself”—has its own Website and products. It has attracted many social media followers.

In my backings and forthings with Karen for today’s post, she assured me that tXc is her (though her eyes aren’t nearly as big), and all of the anecdotes in the strips are real situations that have happened to her over the years.

That said, Karen assured me that today we would be wonderlanded with her, not with tXc—that is, until the very end, when tXc will make a special appearance.

Also, the phantasmagoria of images we will see during our journey through Karen’s wonderland were created by her, a first for this series.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to jump down the hole after Dr. V. Apart from anything else, I’m curious to hear her vision of Alice as a manga character.

* * *

Karen: Thank you, ML, and greetings, Displaced Nation readers. Before we begin our plunge, here is a little more background on me. I was born and raised in a small city in Southern Spain and became interested in languages and foreign cultures at a young age, mostly due to the interaction with the many tourists who visit the region and expats who live there. My curiosity would peak whenever my family and I went camping along the Andalusian and Portuguese coast during the summer holidays. There was something different about the lobster-looking Brits abundantly smeared in sun lotion holding their sangrías with little umbrellas, or the sock-and-sandals-wearing Germans sitting in the shade reading those huge newspapers and filling every crossword book. But there was more to it than their mere appearance. They spoke, gesticulated and interacted in a different manner than the locals; and it seemed to me that their language was just a doorstep into a whole new microcosmos of proxemics, social norms and unfamiliar mindsets. An intriguing foreignness. As I attempted to interact with these outsiders, I realized I relished the challenge of having to decipher sociolinguistic puzzles with pieces that were different than the ones I was used to playing with.

Eventually that curiosity led to becoming widely interested in languages and foreign cultures, getting into the field of linguistics and ultimately, stepping off my doorstep into the unknown…into the proverbial rabbit hole.

…after a few minutes it seemed quite natural to Alice to find herself talking quite familiarly with [the Dodo, the Duck, the Eaglet, the Lory, the Mouse, etc.], as if she had known them all her life.

When I first relocated to Berlin for university, I felt as if four million citizens were rowing in a boat simultaneously, all of them sailing in the same direction. That said, I don’t recollect my first experience of the city as being disorienting. Rather, I was relieved and exhilarated, as if I had finally gained the required space to explore and develop myself. My stranger self in the company of other million strangers, I felt at ease amidst complete unfamiliarity in the vibrant big city. The new everyday life was packed with novelty, strangeness and excitement. A mixture of emerging patterns waiting to be understood. A prophylactic change against stagnation.

Cheshire Cat to Alice: “[W]e’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

On my first day of university, I met a Finnish girl who seemed overwhelmed by the academic system and referred to it as pure chaos—a statement I didn’t understand until I moved to Finland four years later. Whereas I was utterly pleased by the German orderliness, she conveyed the impression of being rather irritated. It was a clear illustration of two individuals whose accustomed grounds were being torn apart—in this case, in two opposite directions; an example of how the societal life design in which we grew up outlines our boundaries of normality and acceptability.

Alice to the Cheshire Cat: “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

After having lived in the same country for the most part of your life, it’s fair to assume that moving abroad involves a great deal of discordance coupled with an unsettling feeling of disconnection from the world. However, this wasn’t the case of my pioneer relocation abroad, but rather the trial I experienced when I temporarily had to move back to my home country after the first year in Berlin. It was a reverse culture clash and probably one of the hardest transitions. Returning to Spain meant bringing back the personal development and acculturation that had occurred during my time in Berlin and trying to fit it in the home environment, an environment so deeply familiar and yet that now seemed uncanny in so many aspects. I realised no one could possibly come back and pick up as the same person one was before leaving. Navigating the new set of circumstances meant facing the original issues that fostered the decision to leave in the first place. My solution was to try to recreate “wonderland” around me. I surrounded myself with German exchange students and spotted the local stores where I could get imported products. I learnt to bake dark rye bread with pumpkin and sunflower seeds—brunch became a Sunday ritual in my shared flat. I would wake up every morning listening to Berlin radio stations, watch Stromberg at night and skype with the friends I left behind. It worked until the time was right to venture into Wonderland again.

Alice to herself: “I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”

The first time I got sick abroad was during my first week in Switzerland. Patients in Switzerland receive their medical bills by post after being treated, and I still didn’t have any written proof that I was living there. I had to wander around Zürich for hours until I found a doctor who was kind enough to deal with my feverish cold. Unsurprising fact: he was also an expat.

Recipe for a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

I would serve seafood for the main course and chocolate chip cookie cake for dessert followed by lychee cocktails. I would invite American filmmaker David Lynch; English composer Michael Nyman; German-born Swiss literary giant Hermann Hesse; linguists Vyvyan Evans and Edward Sapir; Vanessa Yves (the heroine of the American horror series Penny Dreadful); German author of fantasy and horror E.T.A. Hoffmann; Oscar Wilde’s gothic hero Dorian Gray, and my good and displaced friend Ginger. I can’t think of a better combination of people for throwing a tea party. 🙂

Alice muttering to herself: “It’s really dreadful, the way all the creatures argue. It’s enough to drive one crazy!”

Since Germany has become my permanent place of residence and I have adapted to its interactional patterns, one of the things I struggle with when I visit Spain is talking to people. It takes me a couple of days to adjust to the fast conversational pace, the high volume, the close proximity, the somewhat intrusive physical contact and the fact that being interrupted doesn’t mean rudeness but cooperation and interest on the listener’s part. Likewise, many a time have I returned to Germany after my holidays in Spain and noticed people would be staring at me for being the loudest person in the room, so…back to keeping it down a notch.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

I find extremely interesting the way some people change fundamentally when they switch from one language to another. It’s not just the linguistic code, but also their voice register, their body language and even their emotions and opinions; as if one weren’t the same individual anymore but had rather suddenly shifted into a new identity. I have been told to manifest this behaviour a couple of times and I was skeptical at first, so I watched myself in mute videos to ultimately confirm their hypothesis.

Advice for those who have only just stepped through the looking glass

If you have ventured into the rabbit hole, there’s no turning back. The displacement or dépaysement (fr. the feeling of being disoriented or not at home, in a foreign or different place) will be recurrent, and it’s something you have to come to terms with. Finding yourself geographically rootless, a part of everywhere and nowhere, can result in restlessness and distress. I dare say it’s not an exclusive phenomenon of international relocation, but moving to a foreign country definitely enhances its scope. Take it from me and others who have been to Wonderland and back: one gradually turns into a patchwork of identities, a broken jigsaw, a mixture of places and cultures, an odd individual made of bits and pieces from everywhere and hence nowhere.

But there are always two sides to the coin. Should you experience any sense of bereavement resulting from your leaving, consider all the independence, freedom and professional as well as personal development you have gained by doing so. Picture yourself in a parallel universe in which you had never left and examine that hypothetical self. Would you rather be that person? I don’t think so. You are becoming the best version of yourself, embracing life at its fullest from its many a different angle, participating in a conscious awakening.

As Lewis Carroll writes at the end of Alice’s adventures:

“So she sat on with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality.”

Bonus: Alice as manga character

The cartoonist in me envisions a black-haired Alice who, after having spent a while in Wonderland, crawls back to the surface wielding a large scythe and haunts citizens for explanations as to what happened. She eschews the proper lady stylings of her literary counterpart, having both a voracious appetite and a temper.

Ta–dah! tXc is here!

92 Wonderlanded P

* * *

Thank you, Karen! Being wonderlanded with you was…beyond curious! I have to confess, there were a few times when I wondered whether you had become a creature of wonderland yourself…but I of course mean that as a compliment! Readers, any responses to Karen’s story? How about to her visuals and to the glorious appearance of tXc as Alice in Wonderland (or should that be Expatland)? Please leave in the comments. And don’t forget. If you want to keep in touch with tXc’s expat adventures, be sure to visit Expat Gone Foreign site, like the comic strip series on Facebook, and follow along on Twitter. ~ML

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: The Way of expat author Joan Fallon lies in writing about the Camino and other Spain-related themes

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

The theologian Richard Niebuhr once wrote:

Pilgrims are poets who create by taking journeys.

In that sense, today’s author, Joan Fallon, can be considered a modern-day pilgrim, of the kind often encountered within the Displaced Nation. She may not have walked the Camino de Santiago—but the path she took in her life led her to a place where she could write a novel about someone who did.

Joan was born with a foot in two cultural camps: her father was Irish and her mother, Scottish. Her first journey into a brand new culture was made as a child, when her family moved from Dumfries, Scotland, to the south of England, which many Celts consider to be a foreign country.

Joan went on to spend her formative years in England. She married, had a family (a son and a daughter), and worked as a teacher while also earning a BA from the Open University in History and Literature.

But in England, Joan was still a pilgrim; she hadn’t yet found the Way. In fact, she lost her way for some time after her son dropped dead unexpectedly when he was only 17. She abandoned her career in teaching (she couldn’t bear being around kids his age) to become a management trainer.

Soon, though, it was time to don her pilgrim’s boots again, this time for a journey into southern Spain. When her husband took early retirement, the couple set off just before the start of the new millennium for their new home in Benajarafe, a coastal village that is a few miles east of Málaga, in Andalusia.

This journey, which brings us to where we find Joan now, led her to the goal she was seeking all along: an opportunity to try out the life of full-time writer. As she put it in a recent interview:

It is something that I had been waiting all my life to do.

Joan completed an Open University course in creative writing, but it wasn’t until she’d spent six years taking journeys within Spain, learning the language and talking to people, that she would embrace her destiny fully. (She was also settling in, finding out how to cope with Spanish bureaucracy and generally dealing with the numerous everyday things that we take for granted in our home country or don’t need: obtaining an identity card, a social security card, becoming a tax resident, registering at the town hall, changing to Spanish number plates, making friends, finding a hairdresser that you like, a new dentist, a new doctor, a vet, a plumber…)

Eventually, her immersion in the Spanish language and local culture paid off. Always interested in social history, Joan decided to interview a number of older Spanish women about how their lives had changed since Franco had died in 1975. She translated the interviews into English, which led to her first published book, Daughters of Spain.

The research for this book also produced two novels:

Joan Fallon's writing career has flowered in Benajarafe, initially with books set in the Franco era

Joan Fallon’s writing career has flowered in Benajarafe, initially with books set in the Franco era. Photo credits: Joan Fallon’s author photo and book covers (supplied); Benajarafe, by Tony Bowden (CC BY-SA 2.0).

One of Joan’s subsequent novels grew out of her experiences of mixing with both Spanish and foreign nationals: Loving Harry, a story about two women in love with the same man, set in expat Spain.

Joan’s frequent visits to other parts of Spain have also inspired books. It was a trip to Galicia that gave her the idea of writing Santiago Talesabout a woman whose life is in tatters and who decides to walk the Camino de Santiago seeking solutions.

Likewise a visit to the Moorish ruins at Madinat al Zahra near Córdoba inspired her to research and write The Shining City, a novel set in Moorish Spain during 10th century.

All of Joan’s novels feature strong women as their heroineswomen who face some kind of difficulty and have to overcome it.

* * *

Welcome, Joan, to Location, Locution. Spain clearly has had a powerful effect on your writing, but which comes first, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine. It depends on the book I am writing whether location or story is the most important. Santiago Tales, as you’ve explained, was set on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain—location was essential to the story. Spanish Lavender is a love story set in the Spanish Civil War, but it takes place specifically in Málaga, a city I know very well—and therefore I started with the location. In another of my books, The Only Blue Door, which you didn’t mention, I wrote about three children sent to Australia during wartime. Never having been to Australia, I found it hard to write about a place I did not know personally so had to rely on my research. In this case, it was the story that was predominant, not the location.

It sounds as though you like to know the place very well before using it as a setting?

Yes, I prefer to write about places I know. If I don’t know the location well, then I will visit it a number of times noting the layout, the atmosphere and anything else I can put into my writing. Sometimes I will interview someone about a place when I know that they have a greater knowledge of the location than I do. This is what I did with Santiago Tales. I knew the area well but not from the point of view of a pilgrim, so I interviewed a woman who had walked the 800 km of the Camino and was delighted to tell me of her exploits. This gave me the little details that I needed to make my story credible.

Photo credits: Puente rústico, by José Antonio Gil Martínez via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

Photo credits: Puente rústico, by José Antonio Gil Martínez via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); book cover art (supplied).

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

I try to remember as many details as I can, imagining that I am there again and then imagining the character in the location as I knew it. If my story is set somewhere that I have only visited on a few occasions, then it needs more effort to conjure up the required atmosphere, and I will read about the location and look at photographs. Sometimes it is something as simple as knowing if there are hills in the area that the character has to climb or rivers that he has to cross or when he sits down what he can see. All this helps to transport the reader to the location that you have chosen. For me it is a mixture of combining what I know the place is like with the atmosphere I am trying to convey for the story.

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

Place is an especially important factor in The Shining City, which I wrote after visiting the ruins of a city near Córdoba called Madinat al Zahra. I was fascinated by the place and the fact that, although it was once a very prosperous and cultured city, it was abandoned and fell into complete disrepair after only 70 years. It seemed the ideal place to set a historical novel about the Moors in Spain.

Here is a passage from my book, depicting a character from England’s West Country who is following the French Way of the Way of St. James:

The Galician countryside is distinctive. It reminds her a little of her own West Country, with its small fields and dry-stone walls. The change was obvious as soon as she reached O’Cebreiro, set in the green, rolling hills across the border from León, and saw the round stone houses of the area, with their straw roofs and Iron Age design. She has even passed Celtic crosses at the roadside, so like the ones in Cornwall, and fields of fat, contented brown and white cattle. Just like the west coast of Britain and Ireland, Galicia receives its fair share of Atlantic wind and rain and this is evident in the verdure of its countryside. No, she is no longer walking through the dry Meseta; this part of Spain is very different and, to her, feels more like home.

Photo credits: Book cover art (supplied); Medina Azahara - Cordoba, by Roberto Venturini via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Photo credits: Book cover art (supplied); Medina Azahara – Cordoba, by Roberto Venturini via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Is landscape the only feature you look at to create a sense of location? What about culture, or even food?

All of those and more, depending on the location. Returning to the example of The Shining City, about a place that I had visited when it was a ruin, I had to do a lot of research into what it would have been like when it was a thriving city. I needed to know what food was available at the time, what they grew and what they imported, what type of housing people lived in, how they dressed and what the climate was like. Although this is a historical novel, set in 10th-century Spain, the fact that I live in Spain and know the area well made it so much easier to create the right atmosphere; I knew from experience what the weather was like at different times of the year, which flowers were in bloom and when; and I could imagine easily what the roads to the city were like then from what I could see today.

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

I read a book by John Lanchester called Capital, which was the story of a street in London told through the lives of the people who lived there. He used location very well and made it the central pivot for his novel. Donna Tartt also uses location very well and creates a rich and detailed background to her novels. Another writer that gives great importance to location in her novels is Barbara Kingsolver, and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels about two girls growing up in Naples recreate the atmosphere of that wild-child city beautifully.

Fallon Faves

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

Thanks so much, Joan!

* * *

Readers, any questions for Spain-obsessed Joan Fallon? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you’d like to discover more about Joan, why not visit her author site +/or her site dedicated to her books that are set in Spain, A Spanish Notebook. You can also follow her on twitter at @joan_fallon and @notesonspain +/or like her Facebook page.

Until next month!

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

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Nik Morton draws from his nomadic expat life to author genre fiction

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her very first interview guest, the extraordinary Nik Morton. (Nik, thank you for giving the Displaced Nation a shout-out in one of your recent posts!)

Hello, readers. This month we have the delight of discovering how Nik Morton, a British-born resident of Spain who is also a prolific author, handles location, locution.

Although Nik has fifty years of writing experience, having sold hundreds of articles and more than a hundred short stories, he came late to being a published author. His first novel, a western, came out in 2007. This year he will publish his twenty-second book—Catacomb, the second in his Avenging Cat crime series. (The first was Catalyst and the third will be Cataclysm. All are named for the series’ protagonist, the Avenging Catherine Vibrissae.)

In addition to this contemporary crime series, which he publishes with Crooked Cat (there’s that feline theme again!), Nik has written:

  • westerns (Black Horse series, under the pseudonym Ross Morton, published by Robert Hale)
  • fantasy (co-written with Gordon Faulkner under the pseudonym Morton Faulkner, published by Knox Robinson)
  • Cold War thrillers (the Tana Standish series, which Crooked Cat will reissue).

Nik has run writing workshops and chaired writers’ circles, and has been a magazine editor, a publisher’s editor, and even an illustrator. His writing guide, Write a Western in 30 Days: With Plenty of Bullet-Points!, is said to be useful for all genre writers, not only writers of westerns.

Spain, where he currently lives, was the inspiration for the stories collected in Spanish Eye.

Spain is one of several inspiration sources for the well-travelled writer Nik Morton.

Nik was displaced, incidentally, long before he and his wife retired to Alicante. He spent 23 years in the Royal Navy, during which he had the chance to visit many exotic places—among them Rawalpindi, the Khyber Pass, Sri Lanka, Tokyo, Zululand, Mombasa, Bahrain, Tangier, Turkey, Norway, Finland, South Georgia and the Falklands. He has also travelled widely in his private life, giving him a wealth of places to draw on in his works in addition to his current home of Spain.

* * *

Which comes first, story or location?

This is a tough question, and the answer is ‘it depends’. For my seven western novels, the character and the story came first; the location for each required research for the period and the State, usually Dakota Territory.

Yet location definitely comes first for my Cold War thrillers featuring psychic spy Tana Standish: The Prague Papers, The Tehran Text and the third, a work in progress, The Khyber Chronicle. Each adventure in the series is based around actual historic events, so the location is crucial.

I’ve always hankered after writing about exotic places, and as you mentioned in your introduction, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel widely, both privately and with the Royal Navy. My wife and I lived for 20 months in Malta and out of that location emerged a cross-genre novel, a modern-day vampire romantic thriller, now out of print.

We’ve visited Tenerife on five separate occasions and from that evolved my romantic thriller, Blood of the Dragon Trees.

Having lived in Spain for over 11 years, I’ve absorbed quite a bit about the politics and crime situation here and have had 22 short stories published set in Spain, collected in Spanish Eye—exploring the human condition as seen through the eyes of Leon Cazador, half-English, half-Spanish private eye, written ‘in his own words’.

For my latest crime series about ‘the avenging cat’, Catherine Vibrissae, the story definitely came first: but the exotic locations were a close second—Barcelona (Catalyst), Morocco (Catacomb) and Shanghai (Cataclysm).

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

Place is important in almost every scene; I want the reader to see the characters in the scene, so the place needs to be described in relation to them. Character point of view can provide an emotional appreciation of the scene too. The rugged, inhospitable High Atlas of Morocco, for example, can be strengthened by the character experiencing the intense heat and the almost preternatural silence of the place.

Technique: be there, in the scene. Of course you can’t overburden the story with too much description, but the weather, the flora and maybe even fauna, the landscape as character, all have their input at various times. If I can’t visualise the scene through my characters’ eyes, then there’s little chance that the reader will. I may not always succeed, but that’s what I strive towards—using all of the character’s senses.

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

All of the above, depending on the dramatic content of the scene. People have to eat to live, so it’s natural that my characters eat from time to time. I don’t want to labour the point for the reader, but if I simply wrote ‘Corbin ate a meal at the hotel and then went out,’ then we’re in the realms of ‘tell’ not ‘show’; which has its place from time to time, but perhaps mentioning some particular food can make it more ‘real’ and show more of the character, such as:

Stomach full with Chili de Sangre Anaranjada, Corbin read the local newspaper in the hotel lounge, allowing the beef and pork to digest. He had complimented the chef, a Swede by the moniker of Iwan Morelius. Apparently, Morelius had been on the staff of Baron Ernst Mattais Peter von Vegesack, who had been given leave to fight for the Union. While the baron returned to Sweden after the war, Morelius stayed and Mr Canaan, the hotel manager, was vociferously proud of his culinary acquisition.

—From The $300 Man, by Ross Morton (p. 84)

Culture is definitely relevant if the story takes place abroad—whether that’s Prague or Shanghai. And we’ve already touched upon landscape, which can become a character that tests individuals to the limit.

Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?

This cafe in Tenerife will soon be populated by characters from Nik Morton's imagination. Photo credit: Tenerife, Canary Islands, by Carrie Finley-Bajak[https://www.flickr.com/photos/cruisebuzz/8158748971] via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

This cafe in Tenerife will soon be populated by characters from Nik Morton’s imagination. Photo credit: Tenerife, Canary Islands, by Carrie Finley-Bajak via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In Blood of the Dragon Trees, Laura has come to Tenerife to teach a couple of Spanish children. I wanted to create an ambiance while moving her through the story. She is waiting for Andrew Kirby, a mystery man who attracts her:

Clutching her Corte Inglés shopping bag, Laura arrived at the square about fifteen minutes early and, as usual, the adjoining roads were jammed with delivery trucks and a variety of taxis: Mercedes, Toyota, Seat, Peugeot. She was lucky and grabbed a café’s outdoor table with two vacant chairs. She sat and politely fended off the attentive waiter, explaining in Spanish that she would order when her friend joined her. Friend?

In the meantime, she waited, idly studying the antics of the men at the taxi rank in front of a series of phone booths. One of them was pushing his car along the rank, rather than switch on the engine, as the row moved forward. The taxis sported a colorful and distinctive coat of arms.

Sitting on the corner of the street was a blind man selling lottery tickets. She doubted if that would be possible in any town or city in England; the poor man would be mugged in seconds.
Most of the people at the other tables appeared to be businessmen and women, though there were some exceptions. An overdressed elderly woman sat with her Pekinese dog on her lap, feeding it biscuits while sipping her Tío Pepe. At the table next to her, a large bull of a man was glancing through the newspaper, El Día; he possessed a Neanderthal jaw and crewcut dark brown hair. For a second she thought she’d seen him before, but shook off the idea. Andrew Kirby was making her unreasonably suspicious!

—from Blood of the Dragon Trees, by Nik Morton (p. 116)

So, besides the observation of little details going on around her—and the suspenseful hint for the reader that we’ve seen the man with the Neanderthal jaw before—there’s the compelling influence that Andrew is exerting on her.

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

Ideally, travel to the place. But even then additional back-up research is necessary. Of course you can’t hope to travel to every exotic place you write about. I’ve been to many of the places in my novels and short stories, but not all—and I must then concentrate on research.

Sadly, non-fiction reference books can quickly become out-of-date—bus colours might change, customs may once have been quaint only to be replaced by adopted globalised traits. (Yes, it has happened to me!)

Any piece of fiction set in the past requires research; yes, you can travel the battlefields, visit the ancient cities; but you can’t experience that time, only imagine it.

Official map of the territory of Dakota[https://www.flickr.com/photos/normanbleventhalmapcenter/14009763855/], by http://maps.bpl.org via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]

Some places can’t be visited, only researched. Official map of the territory of Dakota, by http://maps.bpl.org via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Fiction requires a writer to be bold, to do research and then re-imagine the place, with its sights, smells and sounds. The bottom line is, it’s fiction, which means an approximation of the real world. If a critic blithely dismisses writers who make a few errors in their research because they haven’t travelled there, then that critic is misguided.

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

Some books could be set anywhere; location is not significant to the story. Others, the location is vital to the story. The old practitioners Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes, Nevil Shute, and Alistair Maclean described the location their main characters found themselves in, and you believed every word. Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels thrust you into a period and a place that seems real while you’re reading. Donna Leon’s Italy is real.

A few of the writers Nik Morton admires for their depiction of place in their novels.

A few of the novelists Nik Morton admires for their skill with depicting location.

Thanks so much, Nik!

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Readers, any questions for my first guest? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you’d like to discover more about Nik, why not pay a visit to his author site; his blog, called Writealot (no exaggeration in his case); and the archives of Auguries, a science fiction, fantasy and horror magazine Nik edited from 1983 to 1994. You can also follow Nik on twitter at @nik_morton.

Until next month!

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

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

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

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Beach bound? Check out summer reading recommendations from featured authors (2/2)

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), empties the remainder of her treasure chest that she brought to us two days ago, stuffed with recommended reads to take you through the summer.

Hello again. As explained in Part One of this post, I reached out to some of my bookish friends as well as a few of the authors whose books I’ve recently reviewed to see what books they recommend taking on vacation. I asked them to tell me:

Summer Reading 2015

Photo credits: Amazon Kindle PDF, by goXunuReviews via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); beach chair and sandy feet via Pixabay.

Here are the rest of the recommendations I received, including a few from yours truly and ML Awanohara (Displaced Nation’s founding editor) at the end. Enjoy!

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MARK ADAMS, best-selling travel writer and author of Meet Me In Atlantis (which we reviewed in May): My recommendations are a classic travelogue, a biography of an intrepid traveler, and an adventure novel.

The-Snow_Leopard_cover_300xThe Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen (Viking Press, 1978)
Shortly before he died, I had the honor of interviewing Matthiessen at his home on Long Island. I was surprised by how concerned he seemed, knowing that his death was rapidly approaching, that he would be remembered less as a novelist than as the author of The Snow Leopard. I went back to reread it for the first time in twenty years and was amazed by how good it was—a moving story about a man’s search for meaning through Zen Buddhism after the death of his young wife, intertwined flawlessly with a thrilling narrative about an incredible journey through the Himalayas. So fresh and evocative it could have been published yesterday.

Bruce-Chatwin_A-Biography_cover_300xBruce Chatwin: A Biography, by Nicholas Shakespeare (Anchor, 2001)
Chatwin, of course, is one of the great travel writers of all time; he practically reinvented the genre with books like In Patagonia and The Songlines. But as Shakespeare’s brilliant biography demonstrates, Chatwin’s greatest creation may have been the globetrotting persona that he carefully presented to the world. The descriptions—decodings might be a better term—of how Chatwin assembled his literary works will be absolutely riveting to anyone who has tried his or her hand at trying to pin down the essence of a place using only words.

State-of-Wonder_cover_300xState of Wonder, by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins, 2011)
I once heard Ann Patchett on the radio, talking about the job of a novelist. She described it as “creating a world.” No one creates worlds with quite the skill that Patchett does. Reading her descriptions of pharmaceutical research being conducted in the Amazon is like being dropped into the jungle—you can feel the sweat beading on your forehead and the buzz of malarial mosquitoes preparing to land on the back of your neck. And you know what? Patchett’s Bel Canto, which takes place in Lima, Peru, is an equally brilliant tale that performs the magic tricks that only great fiction can, allowing you to read minds and travel through time and space.


MARIANNE C. BOHR, Displaced Nationer and author of the soon-to-be-published Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries: My summer reads are usually of the meaty kind because as a teacher, I have more time in July and August to pay close attention and savor every word. As one who suffers wanderlust daily, my three choices all have to do with travel. They are very different books, but each grabs my heart in a different way and I could read them over and over, each time discovering something new.
Bohr Collage

The Drifters, by James A. Michener (Random House, 1971)
This book takes me back to my youth and the thirst for exotic adventure that goes along with being young.

Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, by Mary Morris (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998)
I wanted to head straight to Mexico when I read this heart-wrenching book and also felt like the author was a new friend when I finished.

An Italian Affair, by Laura Fraser (Vintage, 2001)
What a guilty pleasure immersing myself in this book of islands, romance, lust and longing is. I could read it again and again.


SHIREEN JILLA, adult TCK and former expat and author of The Art of Unpacking Your Life (which we reviewed in May) and Exiled (which we featured in 2011): I would pack three very different books:
Jilla Collage

Red Dust: A Path Through China, by Ma Jian (Vintage, 2002)
Dissident artist Ma Jian’s diary of his walk across China in the wake of his divorce and threatened arrest is utterly enlightening, moving, profound and playful. Walking is clearly an under-rated pastime.

Look at Me, by Jennifer Egan (Anchor, 2009)
A powerful, beautiful novel about the crazed nature of modern urban life, it elevates Egan to one of the greats of American literature.

Paris Stories, by Mavis Gallant (NYRB Classics, 2011)
A regular writer for the New Yorker, Gallant penned these short stories about expats and exiles in Europe particularly Paris. They are brilliantly laid bare. (Born in Montreal, Gallant moved to Paris when she was 28 determined to be a full-time writer. She lived there until her death in 2014.)


BETH GREEN, writer, expat, TCK and BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST columnist: Here are my three picks, one of which I’ve not read and two that I have:

The-Messenger-of-Athens_cover_300xThe Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi (Reagan Author Books, 2010)
Summer is the best time to really sink into a mystery series. I love taking a few titles from an established series and binge reading them on the beach or by the pool. Previously, I’ve done this with Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley novels, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books and Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire mysteries. This year I’ll be spending some time on the beach in Greece, so I’ve got my eyes set on British writer Anne Zouroudi’s Greek Inspector mysteries, which depict ugly crimes based on the seven deadly sins in beautiful Mediterranean surroundings. The series now has seven books, of which Messenger is the first. (Born in England, Zouroudi worked in the UK and the USA before giving it all up to live on a Greek island. She married a Greek as well.)

swamplandia_coverSwamplandia! by Karen Russell (Vintage, 2011)
This darkly fascinating and somewhat magical story of a girl and her siblings abandoned in a run-down theme park in Florida fascinated me when I read it a few years ago. It’s both a chilling odyssey into a swampland netherworld and an exploration of subcultures of the kind rarely seen in American books. For me it had the right amount of tension to keep you turning pages and the right amount of whimsy to keep the potentially depressing material light enough for a summer read.

Daughter-of-Fortune_cover_300xDaughter of Fortune, by Isabel Allende, trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden (Harper, 2014)
Summer is a time for voyages—or at least reading about them! I can name a whole bagful of road trip books I’d happily re-read over summer, but for pure swashbuckling joy I have to recommend Isabel Allende’s historical cross-cultural adventure Daughter of Fortune. An upper-class girl raised in an English enclave in Chile in the 1800s stows away to follow her lover to the gold fields of California. I haven’t read the sequel, Portrait in Sepia, yet, but I’m guessing it’s also worth adding to that beach bag. (Born in Peru and raised in Chile, Allende lives in California.)


ML AWANOHARA, former expat and Displaced Nation founding editor: We are constantly reporting on new displaced reads in the Displaced Dispatch, which comes out once a week. Just to give you a taste of the kinds of things we feature, here is a selection. As you can see, it comprises a work of historical nonfiction that reads like a novel, a memoir with elements of Nordic myth, and a novel by a once-displaced poet, all with beach-bag potential.

Daughters_of_the_Samurai_cover_300xDaughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back, by Janice P. Nimura (W.W. Norton, May 2015)
Call it the early Japanese version of our gap year or junior year abroad. The story begins in 1871, after Commodore Perry’s ships opened Japan to the outside world, when five young women were sent to the United States on a mission to learn Western ways and help nurture a new generation of enlightened Japanese leaders. Three of them stayed for ten years and returned to Japan determined to revolutionize women’s education. Several critics have said the book reads like a modern fairy tale. But if the women faced many hurdles in the course of their unusual journey, the tale doesn’t necessarily end happily ever after. “I cannot tell you how I feel,” one of them remarked upon her return to her native land, “but I should like to give one good scream.” Janice Nimura, an American who is married to a Japanese, has spent time living in Japan.

Passage-of-the-stork_cover_300xPassage of the Stork: One Woman’s Journey to Self-Realization and Acceptance, by Madeleine Lenagh (Springtime Books, March 2015)
Madeleine Lenagh is American but spent her first five years as an expat child in Europe, after which she grew up in Connecticut. Rebelling against her mother’s interference in her love life, she set out to travel across Europe alone. Arriving in the Netherlands broke, she took a job as an au pair—and the rest is history. She has now been living in the land of cheese and tulips for over four decades and speaks fluent Dutch. But that’s her travel history. Her own personal history remained repressed until she wrote this memoir. One of the things that interests me about it is that Lenagh chose to weave together the narrative using Nordic mythology. (As long-term followers of the Displaced Nation will know, we are fond of doing the same with the Alice in Wonderland story.) Passage of the Stork is a publication of Springtime Books, the new fledgling of Summertime Publishing, which specializes in books by expats and for expats and is the brainchild of global nomad Jo Parfitt.

hausfrau_coverHausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum (Random House, March 2015)
This novel by Texas-born American poet Jill Alexander Essbaum, her first, depicts an American woman in a cross-cultural marriage to a Swiss banker. They are living with their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. In the spirit of Essbaum’s erotic poetry, Anna (yes, the name is a nod to Tolstoy’s heroine) engages in a series of messy affairs. Now, is this book the expat answer to Fifty Shades? Actually, the answer to that question interests me less than the fact that Essbaum herself was once a hausfrau in Dietlikon, near Zürich, where she moved with her first husband, an American interested in studying Jungian psychoanalysis. Like Anna, she experienced intense loneliness and isolation—albeit no torrid affairs. Who would have guessed?

* * *

Thank you so much for your recommendations, ML and everyone else! Readers, it’s your turn now. What books are you looking forward to popping in the book bag this summer? And, for our friends in the Southern Hemisphere, what books are getting you through the winter?

Also, can I echo ML’s contribution by urging you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week. And please feel welcome to make recommendations for books to be featured in the Dispatch, and in this column, by contacting ML at ML@thedisplacednation.com.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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

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