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Top 60 books for, by & about expats and other global creatives in 2016 (1/2)

top-60-books-2016-part-one-fiction

Are bookworms like earth worms: do they come to the surface during the spring rains? In which case, the Displaced Nation’s timing—we publish our yearly roundup of recommended books for, by, and about expats and other global creatives in late February and early March—may not be as eccentric as all that. And at least we’re not competing with lots of other “best of 2016” lists that came out in December!

Without further ado, we’re calling on all of you displaced bookworms to come out and start feasting! This year there are 60 books on our list, a first. Hopefully it means you’ll find a title or two that you missed. Or perhaps you’ll see books whose titles sound familiar—especially if you subscribe to our Displaced Dispatch—but of which you forgot to make a note.

Part One, published today, presents 36 works of fiction, both novels and story collections, indie as well as traditionally published works. Part Two will add 24 works of nonfiction, bringing the total to 60. As in years past, the books appear in reverse chronological order.

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Fall 2016

the-good-officer_coverThe Good Officer: Can they love again? (Newhurst Press, November 18, 2016)
Author: Helena Halme
Expat credentials: Born in Finland, Halme lived in Sweden as a child and felt displaced when her family moved back to Finland when she was 14. She left Finland to live in England (now London) after meeting and marrying a British man (yes, he was in the military!), but she still celebrates Finnish customs.
Synopsis: Kaisa has betrayed her husband, the handsome English naval officer, Peter. What can she do but move back to her native Finland? But then she takes a job in London and meets Peter again by chance. Can they love each other again? The third novel in The Englishman series following the tumultuous 1980s love affair between a Finnish student and a British naval officer, based loosely on Halme’s own life story.
How we heard about: Halme has been featured several times on the Displaced Nation: see, for instance, her Random Nomad interview, still one of our best!
Why we recommend: How often do you get to read a Nordic military romance?


a-year-and-a-day_coverA Year and a Day (Penguin Books, Nov 17 2016)
Author: Isabelle Broom
Expat credentials: Broom travelled through Europe during her gap year and went to live on the Greek island of Zakynthos for an unforgettable and life-shaping six months after completing her degree in media arts in London (her first novel, My Map of You, is set on that island). Since then, she has travelled to Canada, Sri Lanka, Sicily, New York, LA, the Canary Islands, Spain and lots more of Greece. She loves to write books set in far-flung locations.
Synopsis: Three different couples find themselves staying in the same hotel in Prague, and we follow them as they mingle and get to know each other and form a bond.
How we heard about: Trip Fiction review,with Prague promo.
Why we recommend: According to several of Broom’s Amazon reviewers, the Prague of this book is “magical” and becomes an “additional character.”


swing-time_coverSwing Time (Penguin, November 15, 2016)
Author: Zadie Smith
Expat credentials: Smith is the product of a black mother and a white father, whom her mother married after migrating to England from her native Jamaica. Now a professor of fiction at New York University, Smith has traded London for New York City for at least part of the year.
Synopsis: Set in England and West Africa, the story concerns the friendship of two mixed-race girls who meet in a tap dance class in London in 1982. One has talent; the other has ideas.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: Particularly when the action moves to West Africa, the novel parses race and global politics in a way only a writer of Smith’s caliber can.


tokyo-short-stories-book-1_coverPostcards from Tokyo, Book 1 (November 3, 2016)
Author: Wendy Nelson Tokunaga
Expat credentials: Born in San Francisco, Tokunaga has lived in the Bay area all her life except for when she lived in Tokyo during the early 1980s. Her husband is Japanese.
Synopsis: Six stories that are all inspired by Tokyo, a place that writer Tokunaga has observed both first-hand and from afar. Highlights include a story about a young American who leaves her hostess job to become a kept woman but instead of finding solace is unable to escape her own demons, and a story about an American cat that becomes a stowaway with the intention of becoming a social media sensation in Japan.
How we heard about: We have featured Tokunaga a couple of times on the Displaced Nation (see, for instance, this interview) and follow her on social media.
Why we recommend: Tokunaga has a knack for telling stories about Japan that are culturally insightful while also being highly entertaining.


je-taime-maybe-book-coverJe T’Aime…Maybe? (TGRS Communications, November 3, 2016)
Author: April Lily Heise
Expat credentials: April Lily Heise is a Canadian writer and romance expert who has been living in Paris for over a decade. This is her second novelized memoir on her romantic misadventures.
Synopsis: After barely surviving a turbulent series of relationships in the City of Love (shared in the first volume of the series, Je T’aime, Me Neither), our heroine Lily is ready to throw in the towel on amour. That is, until she receives a very unexpected email—one which revives her hope in finding true love…yet at the same time awakens the mischievous, passionate energy of Paris. Will she manage to connect with her potential soul mate, located on the other side of the globe?
How we heard about: We follow the HIP Paris Blog.
Why we recommend: Readers of Heise’s blog and book appreciate her for being “hilarious,” “brutally honest” and “badass” about love in the city that celebrates that emotion. As one of them puts it, this book is a “sort of Parisian-style Bridget Jones’s Diary.”


a-portrait-of-emily-price_coverA Portrait of Emily Price (HarperCollins, November 1, 2016)
Author: Katherine Reay
Expat credentials: After living all across the United States and a few stops in Europe, Katherine and her family recently moved back to Chicago. It’s also the first book Reay has written that’s based in a place where she hasn’t lived, though she did visit Italy multiple items when living in Europe.
Synopsis: Art restorer Emily Price has never encountered anything she can’t fix—until she meets Ben, an Italian chef, who seems just right. They marry and Emily follows Ben home to Italy, where she finds she can’t quite adjust to his family and culture.
How we heard about: From Publishers Weekly listing
Why we recommend: It’s interesting that an author who usually takes her inspiration from Jane Austen has entered Henry James territory, portraying clashing worldviews and other cross-cultural miscommunications. What’s more, the book includes sensually evocative descriptions of Italian food and scenery, for which it has earned comparisons with Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun.


the-boat-rocker_coverThe Boat Rocker (Pantheon, October 26 2016)
Author: Ha Jin
Expat credentials: Xuefei Jin, who publishes under the nom de plume Ha Jin, is a China-born but United States-based author. A former Chinese army soldier, he chose to stay in the United States after the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Synopsis: Chinese expatriate Feng Danlin is a fiercely principled reporter at a small news agency that produces a website read by the Chinese diaspora around the world. Danlin’s explosive exposés have made him legendary among readers—and feared by Communist officials. But his newest assignment may be his undoing: investigating his ex-wife, Yan Haili, an unscrupulous novelist who has willingly become a pawn of the Chinese government.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: At a time when the press is under attack, it is interesting to read a novel by a writer who has lived under two very different sets of rules: the Communist Party’s elaborate control of mass media and the free market’s complicated influence on what we read and watch.


how-to-pick-up-a-maid_coverHow to Pick Up a Maid in Statue Square: Stories (Thistledown Press, Oct 16, 2016)
Author: Rea Tarvdas
Expat credentials: When her husband, a management consultant, was transferred to Hong Kong in 2000, Tarvdas placed her job as a psychiatric emergency-room nurse on hold and packed up the house and moved for two years to Hong Kong. She has since repatriated to Calgary, Canada.
Synopsis: A collection of stories that creates a fictional community of hardworking men and women, bankers and brokers, maids and househusbands, who are, in the author’s words, “all trying to find their way through the space in which loneliness and alienation intersect.”
How we heard about: From Tarvdas’s personal essay in Quill & Quire.
Why we recommend: Tarvdas has used fiction to channel the intense feelings that come up when you’re an expat, particularly a trailing spouse, in Southeast Asia, including dislocation, loneliness, alienation, and even sexual redundancy.


from-pavlova-to-pork-pies_coverFrom Pavlova to Pork Pies: From New Zealand to England searching for love, laughs, and the way home (Writer’s Cat, October 2, 2016)
Author: Vicki Jeffels
Expat credentials: Jeffels has lived in four countries, both hemispheres and has travelled around the world only to end up back where she started, in Auckland, New Zealand.
Synopsis: Based on a true story and an award-winning blog, the plot concerns a divorced mother-of-three from New Zealand who goes on a European tour and meets the man of her dreams, an Englishman, in the City of Light; starts a long-distance relationship with him; and then moves with her family to live with him in the UK, only to have disaster strike when she and her kids are threatened with deportation.
How we heard about: We have known Jeffels back in the day when she was blogging about being an expat in Britain, married to a Brit she met in Paris—she was one of our early Random Nomad interviewees.
Why we recommend: Jeffels has a droll sense of humour and loves travel, chocolate, food, and wine. You can’t go wrong with an author like that.


conquest_coverConquest: Daughter of the Last King (Impress Books, October 1, 2016)
Author: Tracey Warr
Expat credentials: Warr was born in London and lives in the UK and France.
Synopsis: The first in Warr’s new Conquest trilogy, the book is set in the early middle ages when Britain was invaded by William the Conqueror. It concerns the fate of Nest ferch Rhys, the daughter of the last independent Welsh king, after she is captured by the Normans following their assault on her lands, taken to their lair in Cardiff, imprisoned in the motte, and forced to learn Norman.
How we heard about: Warr is our Location, Locution columnist.
Why we recommend: With so many people being displaced by war in the present era, it seems strange to think that this kind of thing was going in the 12th century as well. Is forced displacement an inevitable part of the human condition?


cartes-postales-from-greece_coverCarte Postales from Greece (Hodder, September 22, 2016)
Author: Victoria Hislop
Expat credentials: Hislop has nurtured a passion for Greece for more than three decades. She speaks Greek and keeps a second home in Crete, where she spends several months of every year.
Synopsis: Englishwoman Ellie mistakenly receives a series of tantalizing postcards from Greece. Once the cards stop coming, she spontaneously organizes her own trip to Greece and, with the help of a mysterious notebook she receives just before her departure, discovers a wonderful world of tradition, folklore, love and betrayal—a world not usually accessible to first-time visitors.
How we heard about: TripFiction’s interview with the author
Why we recommend: Hislop traveled in Greece with a Greek photographer and has used his photos to illustrate the book. In some cases, the stories developed because of the photos; in other cases, it was the other way around. The idea was to have the words and pictures work very closely together. The idea sounds super creative, and we’re curious how it turned out.

Summer 2016

the-pull-of-it_coverThe Pull of It (Underground Voices, September 21, 2016)
Author: Wendy J. Fox
Expat credentials: Fox was raised in rural Washington state, and lived in Turkey in the early 2000s. She was still living in Turkey when she started the manuscript. She now lives in Seattle.
Synopsis: The story of a young wife and mother who takes a solo vacation in Turkey to recharge, and ends up diving into a new culture. She skips her flight home and boards a bus to the interior of the country, where she will stay for another six months, until her previous life pulls her home and she must confront her demons.
How we heard about: Writer Lisa Morrow quotes from Fox’s novel in Part One of her interview with us, published in November of last year.
Why we recommend: The premise of the story sounds interesting. As Fox told reviewer Mark Stevens, she thought her protagonist would need to be immersed in a “realm that was totally foreign” as only then could she “get down to the core of herself and understand what she wants.”


the-other-side-of-the-world_coverThe Other Side of the World (Atria Books, September 20, 2016)
Author: Stephanie Bishop
Expat credentials: Her grandparents migrated from England to Australia in the 1960s. Although her grandmother lived more than half her life in Australia she still thought of England as home and Bishop grew up listening to her complain about how much she missed Britain. As a young adult, Bishop herself experienced “dual homesickness” as she moved back and forth between England and Australia for her education (she got her Ph.D. from Cambridge and will soon have a visiting fellowship at Oxford).
Synopsis: A novel set in England, Australia, and India in the early 1960s. Charlotte is struggling with motherhood, with the changes brought on by marriage and parenthood, and with never having the time or energy to paint. Her husband, Henry, an Anglo-Indian, cannot face the thought of another English winter. A brochure slipped through the mailbox—Australia brings out the best in you—gives him an idea. Charlotte is too worn out to resist, and before she knows it they are traveling to the other side of the world. But upon their arrival in Perth, the southern sun shines a harsh light on the couple and gradually reveals that their new life is not the answer either was hoping for.
How we heard about: Nina Sichel promoted it on the Writing Out of Limbo Facebook page.
Why we recommend: The novel explores Bishop’s fascination with a dual sense of longing and nostalgia about two places one considers to be “home.”


him-me-muhammed-ali_coverHim, Me, Muhammad Ali (Sarabande Books, September 19, 2016)
Author: Randa Jarrar
Expat credentials: Jarrar grew up in Kuwait and Egypt. She moved to the United States after the first Gulf War, at the age of 13.
Synopsis: Stories about Middle Eastern women much like Jarrar herself, strong girls and women who’ve somehow landed in the United States, interlaced at times with magic. We travel from Cairo to Yonkers, from the West Bank to Wyoming.
How we heard about: From a tweet by M. Lynx Qualey (@arablit).
Why we recommend: This is Jarrar’s first story collection, following the debut of her first novel, A Map of Home, which won an Arab-American Book Award. As one critic writes, the anthology reflects Jarrar’s own experience of moving between continents and cultures through characters that always seem to be searching for that one place where they fit in: “Often, they don’t, so it’s the nebulous in-between space where their lives unravel.”


tea-planters-wife_coverThe Tea Planter’s Wife (Random House Broadway Books, September 13, 2016)
Author: Dinah Jefferies
Expat credentials: Jefferies was born in Malaysia and moved to England at the age of nine. Her idyllic childhood always held a special place in her imagination, and when she began writing novels in her 60s, she was able to return there—first in her fiction and then on annual research trips for each new novel.
Synopsis: An historical family drama set in Ceylon in the 1920s. Gwendoline, a young Engliah woman, fresh off the boat who has come to join her new husband at his tea plantation. She faces a big culture shock and then a mystery surrounding this man.
How we heard about: Tracey Warr’s interview with Jefferies in her Location, Locution column (published 3 December 2016).
Why we recommend: One of Warr’s other interviewees, Hazel Gaynor, chose this book by Jefferies for its “wonderful sense of location.”


singapore-love-stories_coverSingapore Love Stories (Monsoon Books, September 2016)
Author/Editor: Verena Tay (she contributed “Ex” )
Coordinator/Compiler: Raelee Chapman (she contributed “The Gardener”)
Expat credentials: Tay is based in Singapore but was educated internationally. Chapman is an Australian writer living in Singapore.
Synopsis: Leading Singaporean and Singapore-based writers explore the best and worst of the human condition called love, including grief, duplicity and revenge, self-love, filial love, homesickness and tragic past relationships.
How we heard about: Valentine’s Day post by Trip Fiction, replete with travel tips and giveaway
Why we recommend: The writers are a diverse group, including Singaporeans and expats, both Western expats and expats from within Asia, and also established writers and those published for the first time.


behold-the-dreamers_coverBehold the Dreamers (Penguin/Random House, August 23, 2016)
Author: Imbolo Mbue
Expat credentials: Mbue moved from Cameroon to New York City ten years ago.
Synopsis: The story of a Cameroonian couple and their son who settle in Harlem hoping to capture their piece of the American dream amidst the 2008 financial and housing market crisis.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: Inspired by Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon, Heinemann’s African Writers Series and British classics she read growing up, Mbue told one interviewer that she decided to write about what she knows best: the Cameroonian immigrant experience.


monsoon-summer_coverMonsoon Summer (Simon and Schuster, August 9, 2016)
Author: Julia Gregson
Expat credentials: Gregson has worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent in the UK, Australia, and the US. She grew up a military brat as her father was in the Royal Air Force. She has worked as a jillaroo in the Australian outback as well as a model for Hardy Amies in London.
Synopsis: An epic postwar love story moving from England to India. English nurse Kit meets Anto, a young Indian doctor finishing up his training at Oxford. They secretly marry and set off for South India—where Kit plans to run the maternity hospital she has already been helping from afar. But life in India does not turn out as she imagined.
How we heard about: From Tracey Warr’s Location Locution interview with Dinah Jefferies, who said she loved Gregson’s East of the Sun for the way it evokes a particular time in India,
Why we recommend: Critics praise Gregson for understanding both the harshness and beauty of India, its land, culture, and history. When researching this novel, Gregson went to Kerala and lived with an Indian family. She traveled in a rice boat up many of the back waters she describes in the book.


still-here_coverStill Here (Hogarth Random House, Aug 2, 2016)
Author: Lara Vapnyar
Expat credentials: Russian-born author Lara Vapnyar moved from Moscow to Brooklyn in 1994 as an adult, picked up English quickly, and started publishing short stories about the daily-life concerns of Russian émigrés like herself.
Synopsis: Vica, Vadik, Sergey and Regina met in Russia in their college days but remained in touch. They now have very different, yet intertwined, lives as immigrants in New York City. The story follows them as they grapple with love and tumult, the challenges of a new home, and the absurdities of the digital age.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: One reviewer has praised it as “minutely observed, razor funny and wholly wonderful.” That’s a spectacularly high endorsement!


this-must-be-the-place_coverThis Must Be the Place (Knopf, July 19, 2016)
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Expat credentials: O’Farrell is a domestic expat of sorts. Born in Northern Ireland, she was brought up in Wales and Scotland, and now lives in Edinburgh.
Synopsis: A New Yorker living in the wilds of Ireland, Daniel Sullivan has children he never sees in California, a father he loathes in Brooklyn, and a wife, Claudette, who is a reclusive French-English ex–film star given to pulling a gun on anyone who ventures up their driveway. Once the most glamorous and infamous woman in cinema, she orchestrated her own disappearance, retreating to the seclusion of an Irish farmhouse. All seems well enough until the couple must struggle to hold things together in the face of a secret from Daniel’s past.
How we heard about: New York Times Book Review
Why we recommend: As one Amazon reviewer says, O’Farrell has created a set of “misplaced and lost characters, searching for an authentic place within themselves.” She notes that their “searching leads to external travels and internal jaunts. They are searching: for love, for connection, for identity, for affirmation, for understanding.”


dancingwiththetiger-_coverDancing with the Tiger (Putnam, July 12, 2016)
Author: Lili Wright
Expat credentials: A former journalist who has lived a year in Paris, a year in Italy and two years in Mexico, Wright, who recently earned an MFA, is now a professor at DePaul University in Indiana. During her many trips to Mexico, she has studied Spanish, lived with Mexican families, and had many adventures including watching dancing tigers parade down the streets.
Synopsis: Anna flees her dead-end life in New York City (she has just broken up with her fiancé) to hunt down what her father, a mask collector, believes to be the death mask of Aztec King Montezuma, from an American looter in Mexico.
How we heard about: A press release
Why we recommend: Wright says she tends to mix French, Italian, and Spanish together, but critics say she gets her cultural references just right in her debut novel, set in Mexico.


intrusion_coverIntrusion (Little A, July 1, 2016)
Author: Mary McCluskey
Expat credentials: Born in Warwickshire, McCluskey lived and worked in a number of cities in Europe—London, Brighton, Vienna, Munich, Athens—before finding a home in Los Angeles, California, where she married and gave birth to two sons. She now lives in Stratford-upon-Avon, twenty miles from where she was born, though still spends time in LA. She considers both LA and Stratford “home.”
Synopsis: A psychological drama about a couple dealing with the hardest of losses: the death of their only child, set against the backgrounds of Southern California and Sussex, UK. The marriage is thrown into a tailspin when the wife’s old schoolmate from England shows up, ostensibly to help the couple get over their grief.
How we heard about: TripFiction interview with the author
Why we recommend: McCluskey has lost a child (an experience a couple of authors on our site have had) and knows how it feels. She also has a nuanced view of the differences between the UK and the US.


the-lovers-portrait_coverThe Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery (Traveling Life Press, June 22, 2016)
Author: Jennifer S. Alderson
Expat credentials: After traveling extensively around Asia and Central America, Alderson moved to Darwin, Australia, before finally settling in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband and their son.
Synopsis: In the second of a series following the adventures of traveler and culture lover, Zelda Richardson, Zelda scores an internship at the prestigious Amsterdam Museum, where she works on an exhibition of paintings and sculptures once stolen by the Nazis, When two women claim the same portrait of a young girl entitled Irises, Zelda is tasked with investigating the painting’s history.
How we heard about: Alderson’s first Zelda Richardson novel, Down and Out in Kathmandu, was one of Booklust Wanderlust columnist Beth Green’s three book picks in honor of Mother’s Day this past year. (Notably, Alderson also contributed to Green’s column canvassing several writers on their recommended reads for the not-quite end of summer.)
Why we recommend: The novel draws on the author’s experiences gained while studying art history in the Netherlands and working for several Dutch museums.

Spring 2016

the-girl-and-the-sunbird_coverThe Girl and the Sunbird: A beautiful, epic story of love, loss and hope (Bookouture, June 17, 2016)
Author: Rebecca Stonehill
Expat credentials: Stonehill is from London but currently lives in Nairobi with her husband and three children where she teaches creative writing to school children. Synopsis: East Africa 1903: When 18-year-old Iris Johnson is forced to choose between marrying the frightful Lord Sidcup or a faceless stranger, Jeremy Lawrence, in a far-off land, she bravely decides on the latter. But when Iris meets Jeremy, she realizes in a heartbeat that they will never be compatible. Determined to make the best of her new life, she begins to adjust to her surroundings; the windswept plains of Nairobi and the delightful sunbirds that visit her window every day. And when she meets Kamau, a school teacher, Iris finds her calling, assisting him to teach the local children English.
How we heard about: TripFiction’s interview with Stonehill about her adopted home city of Nairobi
Why we recommend: Many readers compare Stonehill with Victoria Hislop, who has also made our list. Her first book, The Poet’s Wife—based on the 18 months she spent living in Granada—was a big hit with readers.


i-promise-you-this_coverI Promise You This: Book Three in the Love in Provence Series (Lake Union Publishing, May 17, 2016)
Author: Patricia Sands
Expat credentials: A Canadian, Patricia Sands lives in Toronto, but her heart’s other home is the South of France. An avid traveler, she spends part of each year on the Côte d’Azur and occasionally leads groups of women on tours of the Riviera and Provence.
Synopsis: The series follows the adventures of Katherine Price, a sensible Canadian woman who is undergoing a midlife crisis, a symptom of which is falling for a Frenchman named Philippe. She follows Philippe to his idyllic home in Provence but worries it’s a fantasy life. So, is Katherine ready to leave everything behind for an unknown life abroad? We find out in the conclusion to this trilogy about second chances.
How we heard about: TripFiction’s giveaway of Sands’s trilogy
Why we recommend: Sands herself is a good example of second chances, having taken up writing in her 60s. She chose a theme close to her heart: France, which she first fell in love with when she backpacked around the country for a year when she was 21, a love affair that has only grown throughout her life. She considers herself to be a “possibilatarian” and encourages the rest of us to do the same.


the-mirror-thief_coverThe Mirror Thief (Penguin Random House, May 10, 2016)
Author: Martin Seay
Expat credentials: As Seay put it in an interview, one of the sparks that led to the book was his memory of “a couple of misty Lenten backpacker days” in Venice: “at the time and still today the strangest place I’ve ever been.” He now lives in Wheeling, Illinois.
Synopsis: The novel consists of a series of nested stories telling of three Venices in three locations and eras: the Venetian casino in Las Vegas in 2003; Venice Beach, CA, in 1958; and the original city-state, in 1592, the time when its mirror-making industry was at its peak. Seay weaves all three stories together in a tour-de-force.
How we heard about: Made the Publishers Weekly list of most anticipated debut novels of Spring 2016
Why we recommend: The book came out to huge critical praise and has been called, among other things, a “masterpiece,” a “startling gem,” a “beautifully plotted potboiler,” and a “true delight.”


back-to-moscow_coverBack to Moscow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 3, 2016)
Author: Guillermo Erades
Expat credentials: Guillermo Erades was born in Málaga, Spain. As a career diplomat for the European Union, he has held posts in Moscow, Berlin, Baghdad and Brussels, where he is currently based. He has also lived in Leeds, Amsterdam, and Luxembourg. He wrote this book, his first novel, during a two-year posting high-security compound in Baghdad, where there were few distractions.
Synopsis: Martin came to Moscow at the turn of the millennium hoping to discover the country of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and his beloved Chekhov. Instead he found a city turned on its head, where the grimmest vestiges of Soviet life exist side by side with the nonstop hedonism of the newly rich. Along with his hard-living expat friends, Martin spends less and less time on his studies, choosing to learn about the Mysterious Russian Soul from the city’s unhinged nightlife scene. But as Martin’s research becomes a quest for existential meaning, love affairs and literature lead to the same hard-won lessons. Russians know: There is more to life than happiness.
How we heard about: Made the Publishers Weekly list of most anticipated debut novels of Spring 2016
Why we recommend: The novel draws on Erades’s life in Moscow at the beginning of the Putin years. It was his first EU posting, and he was in his twenties. He found it to be a special time: “There was a lot of fun and adventure and a Wild West feeling.” His book is the expat version of a Bildungsroman. He intended it as an ode to the city of his (mis?)spent, as well as displaced, youth, a motive that those of us who spent our formative years in foreign countries can well understand.


amotherssecret_coverA Mother’s Secret: A beautiful, heartbreaking novel of love, loss and hidden tragedy (Bookouture, April 6, 2016)
Author: Renita D’Silva
Expat credentials: Now living in the UK, D’Silva grew up in a coastal village in South India.
Synopsis: Jaya, the British-born daughter of immigrants, struggles with the unexpected death of her mother, Durga, followed by the loss of her baby son in a tragic cot death. Looking through her mother’s belongings, Jaya finds diaries that unlock the secrets of her mother’s unhappy past, before she emigrated to England. Part of the story is told by Durga, through diary excerpts, and part by Kali, a mad old lady who, like Durga, was doing her best to survive and succeed in traditional Indian culture.
How we heard about: D’Silva’s latest novel was featured in Beth Green’s Booklust, Wanderlust post last May, celebrating displaced female protagonists in honor of Mother’s Day
Why we recommend: D’Silva’s debut novel, Monsoon Memories, about an Indian woman who’d been exiled for more than a decade and is living in London, was a Displaced Nation pick for 2014.


reader-i-married-him_coverReader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre (HarperCollins, March 22, 2016)
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Expat credentials: American by birth, British by geography, Chevalier lives in London with her husband and son. Her first novel, which made her famous, was The Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Synopsis: A collection of short stories by writers across the globe whom she’d asked to respond to the famous opening line of Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him.” Turkish author Elif Şafak, for instance, contributed a story about an Islamic woman who becomes infatuated with a young Dutchman who has arrived in her town to learn Turkish. Hm, but does she marry him? Linda Grant’s “The Mash-Up” tells of a disastrous wedding between a Jewish woman and a Persian man. (Yes, she did, unfortunately!)
How we heard about: The book release was commissioned as part of the commemorations for Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday, for which Chevalier also curated an exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage Museum.
Why we recommend: It’s one of literature’s best-known lines, and we love the idea of having it interpreted by a group of global creatives.

Winter 2016

shelter_coverShelter (Picador, March 15, 2016)
Author: Jung Yun
Expat credentials: Yun was born in South Korea, grew up in North Dakota, and was educated at Vassar College, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She now lives in western Massachusetts.
Synopsis: The story of young Korean American professor Kyung Cho and his Irish-American wife, which leads to the story of the complicated relationship that Kyung has with his wealthy parents. Kyung’s parents immigrated from Korea to the US as his father went to graduate school in engineering. Growing up, they gave him every possible advantage—private tutors, expensive hobbies—but they never showed him kindness.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: It’s a family drama with a cross-cultural dimension: Kyung chose a white woman in part to distance himself from the rules of his own Korean upbringing, but can he make all of these relationships work?


forty-rooms_coverForty Rooms (Penguin, Feb 16, 2016)
Author: Olga Grushin
Expat credentials: Grushin was born in Moscow but is now based in the United States. She is an American citizen but retains Russian citizenship.
Synopsis: A Russian-born woman aspires to be a poet but ends up becoming Mrs. Caldwell, a housewife and mother in suburban America.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: Displaced writer Alexandra Fuller, who made my own list for 2015, was favorably impressed.


ways-to-disappear_coverWays to Disappear (Little, Brown and Company, Feb 9. 2016)
Author: Idra Novey
Expat credentials: Born in western Pennsylvania, Novey has lived in Chile, Brazil, and New York.
Synopsis: A noirish literary mystery with a translator at its center. Deep in gambling debt, the celebrated Brazilian writer Beatriz Yagoda is last seen holding a suitcase and a cigar and climbing into an almond tree. She abruptly vanishes. In snowy Pittsburgh, her American translator Emma hears the news and, against the wishes of her boyfriend and Beatriz’s two grown children, flies immediately to Brazil and tries to unravel the mystery.
How we heard about: Made the Publishers Weekly list of most anticipated debut novels of Spring 2016
Why we recommend: Novey is an award-winning poet. This is her first novel and it draws on her experience of working as a translator of Spanish and Portuguese literature.


the-photographers-wife_coverThe Photographer’s Wife (February 2, 2016)
Author: Suzanne Joinson
Expat credentials: For ten years Joinson worked part-time in the literature department of the British Council, traveling regularly in the Middle East, China, Russia, and Eastern and Western Europe. She has worked in and explored Yemen, Egypt, Syrian, Greece, and many other countries.
Synopsis: The casually glamorous Eleanora Ashton scandalizes the British expatriate community in Jerusalem by marrying a famous Arab photographer. But then she falls for William Harrington, a British pilot who is working for the architect Charles Ashton. The affair threatens her marriage, particularly when William discovers that her husband is part of an underground nationalist group intent on removing the British. Years later, in 1937, Ashton’s daughter Prue is an artist living a reclusive life in Shoreham, Sussex, with her son. Harrington arrives and what he reveals unravels her world.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: Like Joinson’s first novel, A Lady ­Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, set in Central Asia, the book is concerned with people who feel displaced; as the New York Times reviewer puts it, “they are looking for a guide, a map, some thread to lead them through the maze of their own lives.”


black-deutschland_coverBlack Deutschland (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2, 2016)
Author: Darryl Pinckney
Expat credentials: A black writer from Indiana, Pinkney somehow ended up in the divided Berlin of the seventies and eighties and fell in love with it. Currently he divides his time between New York City, and Oxfordshire, UK.
Synopsis: It’s the early 1980s, and Jed, a young gay black American from Chicago who suffers from an addiction problem, has just finished reading Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. He is inspired to flee to Berlin in the tradition of other black writers and musicians: he hopes to escape American racism and homophobia.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: For black writers and musicians in the postwar era, Europe’s cultural capitals provided a space for people like Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Dexter Gordon, Nina Simone and many others to practice and be appreciated first and foremost as artists, rather than be caught up in America’s race tragedy. Pinkney’s second novel imparts an appreciation for this history.


what-belongs-to-you_coverWhat Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 19)
Author: Garth Greenwell
Expat credentials: Greenwell moved to Bulgaria to teach at the American College of Sofia in 2009. Because of his non-fluency in Bulgarian, he lived “between languages” but claims to have liked that experience.
Synopsis: An American teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria is barely able to keep up a conversation in Bulgarian or ascribe concrete value to the leva and stotinki he keeps in his wallet. But then he enters into a transactional romance with a handsome and enigmatic Bulgarian male hustler named Mitko. His love for Mitko remains unrequited, but the relationship forces him to grapple with his own fraught history, the world of his southern childhood where to be queer was to be a pariah. There are unnerving similarities between his past and the foreign country he finds himself in.
How we heard about: Made the Publishers Weekly list of most anticipated debut novels of Spring 2016
Why we recommend: As Jeffery Zuckerman puts it in his review for The New Republic:

“Garth Greenwell’s writing is alive to the foreign and the unknown; he opens our eyes to worlds we had not realized existed alongside our own. Even the landscape of Bulgaria, one of the poorest and least-known countries in Europe, is made vivid and vibrant.”


the-expatriates_coverThe Expatriates (Penguin Books, January 12, 2016)
Author: Janice Y. K. Lee
Expat credentials: Janice Y. K. Lee was born and raised in Hong Kong. She received a BA in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard College. A former editor at Elle magazine, Lee lives in New York with her husband and four children.
Synopsis: Lee explores with devastating poignancy the emotions, identities, and relationships of three very different American women living in the same small expat community in Hong Kong.
How we heard about: From the special “Border Crossings” edition of the New York Times Sunday Book Review, focusing on books about global migration.
Why we recommend: As novelist Maggie Pouncey put it in her review of the book, Janice Y.K. Lee is a “female, funny Henry James in Asia.”

* * *

And so we have it: our top picks for displaced fiction that came out in 2016. What do you think, dear reader? Are we missing something you think deserves to be on the list? Kindly let us know in the comments!

ML Awanohara, one of the Displaced Nation’s founders and its current editor, has a section in the weekly Displaced Dispatch where she mentions the latest expat books. Why not subscribe as a treat to yourself during the winter doldrums?

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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

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Photo credits: All photos via Pixabay or Morguefiles.

Wonderlanded with Rosie Milne, Asian Books blogger and author of a new historical novel about two early expat wives

Alice goes through the looking glass[https://www.flickr.com/photos/centralasian/5485576189/], illustration by John Tenniel, uploaded to Flickr by Central Asian (CC BY 2.0)https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/; book cover art; Rosie Milne in Singapore with her papier-mâché Alice (supplied).

Alice goes through the looking glass, illustration by John Tenniel, uploaded to Flickr by Central Asian (CC BY 2.0); book cover art; Rosie Milne in Singapore with her papier-mâché Alice (supplied).

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 Rosie Milne, an Englishwoman who has lived in various places, mostly within Asia, but right now can be found in Singapore.

I first discovered Rosie Milne through an article she worte for Telegraph Expat about romantic novelists who’ve been inspired by their expat surroundings. I noticed in her bio blurb that she runs the Asian Books Blog.

Then recently I had the pleasure of her getting in touch with me to feature a description of the Displaced Nation for the Blog’s Sunday Post.

As Rosie and I began backing and forthing by email, I spontaneously decided it might be fun to be wonderlanded with her.

Now, having spent many years living in Asia myself, Singapore, where Rosie lives now, isn’t exactly my idea of wonderland. I know it comes out tops for expat destinations on various surveys, but for me Singapore is a nice place to visit (great food and shopping) but for living? Much too safe and predictable; Asia Lite.

But Rosie has lived all over Asia, including in my former home of Tokyo (Asia Heavy!). She has also thought deeply about what it’s like for women to “pass through the looking glass” into Asia, having just completed a novel, Olivia and Sophia: a fictionalized account of the adventures of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, as seen through the eyes of his first and second wives. (It’s due out in November from Monsoon Books.)

We’ll get to read a couple of excerpts from that work in the next post, but first let’s find out what it’s like to be wonderlanded with Rosie!

* * *

Rosie Milne: Thank you, ML, and greetings, Displaced Nation readers. To give you a little more of my background: I was born in London. I worked in publishing there before moving to New York, where I wrote my first novel, How To Change Your Life, about an editor of self-help books trying to follow the advice in a self-help book.

I then moved to Hong Kong where I wrote my second novel, Holding the Baby, about four sisters with differing attitudes to motherhood—one of them, unable to have biological children, adopts from China.

I then had short spells in Sydney and Tokyo, before moving to my current home, Singapore, where I wrote my new novel, Olivia & Sophia, which features two early forerunners of a type of modern expat woman: the trailing spouse.

“I don’t understand you,” said Alice. “It’s dreadfully confusing!”

In Tokyo language was impenetrable—I did try to learn, but more-or-less never got beyond being able to give my address. There was a big earthquake within a few days of my arrival. There were young adults on the streets dressed as cartoonish characters. I had my first, and last, taste of sashimi chicken – the most revolting food I ever tasted….

Lost in Tokyoland. Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Untitled[https://www.flickr.com/photos/bernatagullo/89651149/], by Bernat Agullo via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/]; Japanese city at night[https://www.flickr.com/photos/photones/6471199389/], by Takuma Kimura via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Untitled[https://www.flickr.com/photos/kylehase/3458873955/], by Kyle Hasegawa via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]; 鶏のたたき (chicken sashimi),[https://www.flickr.com/photos/spilt-milk/4578639904/] by yoppy via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/].

Lost in Tokyoland. Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Untitled, by Bernat Agullo via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Japanese city at night, by Takuma Kimura via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Untitled, by Kyle Hasegawa via Flickr (CC BY 2.0);
鶏のたたき
(chicken sashimi), by yoppy via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

“Consider anything, only don’t cry!” said the Queen.

I think expats, amongst the luckiest people on the planet, should resist succumbing to pools of tears.

“No,” said Alice. “I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is.”

I am quite often wary about fish, but usually, when I try the dish, or fish, in question, I enjoy it.

Recipe for a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

I would serve vodka and gherkins. As to the guest list…how about Jesus, and Richard Dawkins. The Buddha and Darwin. The Ayatollah Khomeini and Einstein…should make for interesting conversation, although language might be a bit of a problem.

Language might be a bit of a problem at Rosie Milne's tea party. Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Ice cocktail[https://pixabay.com/en/ice-cocktail-glass-drink-alcohol-681547/] via Pixabay; Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Illustrator: Rackham, 1907) The Mad Tea-party[https://www.flickr.com/photos/43021516@N06/4382428537/], by Special Collections Toronto via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/]; Sad pickle[https://www.flickr.com/photos/healthserviceglasses/3382360977/], by John Bell via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/]. Insets: Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921[https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Albert_Einstein_1921_by_F_Schmutzer.jpg]; Ayatollah Khomeini[https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mehdi_Bazargan_Ayatollah_Khomeini.jpg], by Alain DeJean—both images via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)[https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en].

Language might be a bit of a problem at Rosie Milne’s “tea” party. Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Ice cocktail via Pixabay; Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Illustrator: Rackham, 1907) The Mad Tea-party, by Special Collections Toronto via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Sad pickle, by John Bell via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Insets: Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921; Ayatollah Khomeini, by Alain DeJean—both images via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0).

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

I am terrible at giving advice.

Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible…

If I hadn’t lived in Singapore I doubt I’d have written Olivia & Sophia—an account of the life of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, told through the fictionalised diaries of his two wives. Olivia & Sophia predate Alice, but they must often have felt wonderlanded. In an era when the voyage from Europe to Asia took anything up to ten months, when letters were the only means of communication with Home, when Europeans died like flies in the East, their sojourns abroad saw them fall down the rabbit hole far more comprehensively than any modern expat. I hoped to use the novel to explore parallels between an early age of globalisation, and our own age, between the effects of a financial crisis then, and of the recent crises in the global economy, between the lives of expats then, and expats now, and so on…

Bonus: Alice as manga character

Why not make Alice Japanese? She could cultivate kawaii. And the white rabbit could be kawaii, too. The setting could be Tokyo, the rabbit hole could be the Tokyo subway…

Photo credits: Tumbling down the rabbit hole…[https://www.flickr.com/photos/luxtonnerre/2482551243/], by LuxTonnerre via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]; Pink bunny-shaped roadblock (Narita)[https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pink_bunny-shaped_roadblock.jpg] via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)[https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en]. Inset: Through the Rabbit Hole[https://www.flickr.com/photos/ipdegirl/8197732984/], by Jenni C via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/].

Photo credits: Tumbling down the rabbit hole…, by LuxTonnerre via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Pink bunny-shaped roadblock (Narita) via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0). Inset: Through the Rabbit Hole, by Jenni C via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

* * *

Thank you, Rosie! Being wonderlanded with you was a curious experience, that’s for sure! Readers, please leave your responses to Rosie’s story in the comments. And stay tuned for her writing samples showing what it was like to be wonderlanded back in the day of Sir Stamford Raffles! ~ML

STAY TUNED for the next fab post: an example of how Rosie writes about a wonderlanded experience.

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

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Best of 2014 in expat books (1/2)

Best of Expat Books 2014

Kindle Amazon e-reader by Unsplash via Pixabay (CC0 1.0)

Seasons greetings, Displaced Nationers. That special time of the year is here again, when we publish our selection of this year’s books with meaningful connections to expats, Third Culture Kids, global wanderers, and others of us who have in some way led “displaced lives”.

Having assembled this list on my own in years past, I am pleased to be joined this year by Beth Green, our BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST columnist, who has also graciously agreed to sign over her column space for the month.

Let’s give Beth the floor:

Happy holidays, all! Preparing for this yearly special, I went back through all of the books I’ve read since January—not such an easy task; I read a lot!—and realized that I hadn’t actually read all that many that were published in 2014. I just now took a look at my TBR list, to which I’m constantly adding—and saw it includes a few that were written a couple of hundred years ago!

As is the case I suspect for many a well-traveled reader, I read most often on my Kindle, which means that I don’t often look at the title and publication pages to see when the book came out. Probably the book that has stayed with me for the longest this year is The Tiger’s Wife, the debut novel by Téa Obreht, an American writer of Bosniak/Slovene origin. But that came out in 2011!

* * *

And now for some 2014 picks in these three categories (stay tuned for a follow-up post with THREE MORE CATEGORIES!!):

  1. TRAVEL
  2. MEMOIRS
  3. CROSS-CULTURAL CHALLENGES

A few points to note:

  • Books in each category are arranged from most to least recent.
  • Unless otherwise noted, books are self-published.
  • Contributions by Beth are (appropriately enough!) in green.

* * *

TRAVEL

My_Gutsy_story_cover_smallMy Gutsy Story Anthology: Inspirational Short Stories About Taking Chances and Changing Your Life (Volume 2) (October 2014)
Compiled by: Sonia Marsh
Synopsis: Marsh celebrates the gutsy in each of us with this collection of stories from 64 authors who found the courage to face their fears and live their dreams.
Expat credentials: Born to a Danish mother and British father, who brought her to live in West Africa at the age of three months, Marsh has lived in many countries—Demark, Nigeria, France, England, the U.S. and Belize—and considers herself a citizen of the world. With a degree in environmental science from the University of East Anglia, U.K., she is currently living in Southern California with her husband but in 2015 intends to start a new chapter as a Peace Corps volunteer.
How we heard about: We have long enjoyed Marsh’s collection of “gutsy” travel stories and have followed her on Twitter for some time.


Luna_Tango_Cover_smallLuna Tango (The Dance Card Series Book 1) (Harlequin Mira, July 2014)
Author: Alli Sinclair
Genre: Romance
Synopsis: Tango is a mysterious—and deadly—influence in journalist Danni McKenna’s life. She looks for answers about her mother’s and grandmother’s lives, and finds romance in the process.
Expat credentials: Alli Sinclair is from Australia but lived for many years in South America, where she worked as a mountain and tour guide. She considers herself a citizen of the world.
How we heard about it:  I used to blog with Alli on the now-retired Novel Adventurers and have enjoyed hearing about her book’s path to publication. I was especially thrilled when Luna Tango won Book of the Year in the inaugural AusRom Today Reader’s Choice Awards last month. Congratulations, Alli!


Slow-Train-final-cover_smallSlow Train to Switzerland (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, April 2014)
Author: Diccon Bewes
Genre: Travel history
Synopsis: Bewes follows “in the footsteps” of Miss Jemima Morrell, a customer on Thomas Cook’s first guided tour of Switzerland in 1863, and discovers how this plucky Victorian woman helped shape the face of modern tourism and Switzerland itself, transforming it into the Cinderella of Europe.
Expat creds: An Englishman who grew up in “deepest Hampshire”, Bewes worked for ten years at Lonely Planet and the UK consumer magazine Which? Travel, before moving to Bern, Switzerland, where he is now a full-time writer. He considers himself a “permanent expat.”
How we discovered: I came across Bewes’s blog through a Google Alert and was impressed by how prolific he is. I also liked the fact that he admits to being a chocolate lover. (No wonder he has a thing for Switzerland!)


Kamikaze_kangaroos_cover_smallKamikaze Kangaroos!: 20,000 Miles Around Australia. One Van,Two Girls… And An Idiot (February 2014)
Author: Tony James Slater
Synopsis: Tony James Slater knew nothing about Australia. Except for the fact that he’d just arrived there. The stage is set for an outrageous adventure: three people, one van, on an epic, 20,000-mile road trip around Australia. What could possibly go wrong?…
Expat credentials: As a former writer for the Displaced Nation, what more creds does Tony need?
How we heard about: The Displaced Nation is committed to tracking Tony’s progress as a writer. We are especially fond of his ability to make fun of himself! He wears his travels lightly, you might say…


MEMOIRS

Year_of_Fire_Dragons_cover_smallYear of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong (Blacksmith, forthcoming June 2015; available for pre-order)
Author: Shannon Young
Synopsis: When 22-year-old Shannon follows her Eurasian boyfriend to his hometown of Hong Kong, she thinks their long distance romance is over. But a month later his company sends him to London. The city enchants her, forcing her to question her plans. Soon, she will need to choose between her new life and the love that first brought her to Asia.
Expat creds: Shannon is an American twenty-something currently living in Hong Kong. (Reader, she married him!)
How we knew about: Shannon writes our “Diary of an Expat Writer” column and has also been sharing “chunks” from an anthology she edited of writings by women expats in Asia (see listing below: under “Crosscultural Challenges”).


Coming_Ashore_cover_smallComing Ashore (October 2014)
Author: Catherine Gildiner
Synopsis: The third and final in a series of best-selling memoirs by this American who has worked for many years as a psychologist in Toronto and writes a popular advice column in the Canadian women’s magazine Chatelaine. The book begins with Gildiner’s move to Canada in 1970 to study literature at the University of Toronto, where she ends up rooming with members of the FLQ (Quebec separatists), among other adventures.
How we heard about: Book #2 in Chatelaine’s 7 must-read books for November.


I_stand_corrected_cover_smallI Stand Corrected: How Teaching Manners in China Became Its Own Unforgettable Lesson (Nan A. Talese, October 2014)
Author: Eden Collinsworth
Synopsis: Collinsworth tells the story of the year she spent living among the Chinese while writing an advice manual covering such topics as personal hygiene (non-negotiable!), the rules of the handshake, and making sense of foreigners. (She has since returned to live in New York City.)
How we heard about: Book #3 in Conde Nast Traveler’s 7 Books to Get You Through Travel Delays, Bad Company.


Seven_Letters_from_Paris_cover_smallSeven Letters from Paris: A Memoir (Sourcebooks, October 2014)
Author: Samantha Vérant
Synopsis: At age 40, Samantha Verant’s life is falling apart—she’s jobless, in debt, and feeling stuck…until she stumbles upon 7 old love letters from Jean-Luc, the sexy Frenchman she’d met in Paris when she was 19. She finds him through a Google search, and both are quick to realize that the passion they felt 20 years prior hasn’t faded with time and distance.
How we heard about: From an interview with Vérant by British expat in Greece Bex Hall on her new blog, Life Beyond Borders.


Becoming_Home_cover_smallBecoming Home: A Memoir of Birth in Bali (October 2014)
Author: Melinda Chickering
Synopsis: Though born in small-town USA, Melinda never felt quite at home there. As an adult, her search for herself led her to the Indonesian island of Bali, where she found herself living a life she hadn’t anticipated, becoming a housewife and mother. This memoir of her experience with pregnancy and birth offers a window on life for a western woman living in an Asian culture that respects the forces of darkness as well as the light.
Expat credentials: Originally from Iowa, Chickering has settled in Bali.
How we heard about it: Displaced Nationer Melinda contacted me earlier this year to tell us the exciting news that her memoir was being published. Congratulations, Melinda!


The_Coconut_Latitudes_cover_smallThe Coconut Latitudes: Secrets, Storms, and Survival in the Caribbean (September 2014)
Author: Rita M. Gardner
Synopsis: Rita is an infant when her father leaves a successful career in the US to live in “paradise”—a seaside village in the Dominican Republic. The Coconut Latitudes is her haunting, lyrical memoir of surviving a reality far from the envisioned Eden—and of the terrible cost of keeping secrets.
How we heard about: Displaced Nation columnist James King interviewed Rita for “A picture says”.


At_home_on_Kazakh_Steppe_cover_smallAt Home on the Kazakh Steppe: A Peace Corps Memoir (August 2014)
Author: Janet Givens
Synopsis: The story a middle-aged grandmother who left behind a life she loved and forged a new identity as an English teacher, mentor, and friend in Kazakhstan, a newly independent country determined to find its own identity after generations under Soviet rule.
How we heard about: Recommended by the We Love Memoirs Facebook Community.


Good_Chinese_Wife_cover_smallGood Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong (Sourcebooks, July 2014)
Author: Susan Blumberg-Kason
Synopsis: A shy Midwesterner, Blumberg-Kason spent her childhood in suburban Chicago dreaming of the neon street signs and double-decker buses of Hong Kong. She moved there for graduate school, where she fell for Cai, the Chinese man of her dreams. As they exchanged vows, she thought she’d stumbled into an exotic fairy tale, until she realized Cai—and his culture—where not what she thought. One of our featured authors, Wendy Tokunaga, says: “A fascinating, poignant and brutally honest memoir that you won’t be able to put down. Good Chinese Wife is riveting.”
How we heard about: We had known about the book for some time but hadn’t realized it came out this year Jocelyn Eikenburg tipped us off in her comment below. She, too, highly recommends.


Into_Africa_cover_smallInto Africa: 3 kids, 13 crates and a husband (June 2014)
Author: Ann Patras
Synopsis: Patras was born and raised in Burton-upon-Trent, in the English Midlands. When her husband, Ziggy, is offered a two-year contract as site manager for building a new cobalt plant in Zambia, they discuss the pros and cons of leaving luxuries and England behind—and then decide it could be an “interesting” family adventure. They end up raising three kids, countless dogs and living in Africa for over thirty years. (She and Ziggy now live in Andalucía, Spain, and have absolutely no intention of ever moving again. Hmmm…have they encountered Charlotte Smith yet? See next item.)
How we heard about: E-book promotion.


PawPrintsinOman_cover_smallPaw Prints in Oman: Dogs, Mogs and Me (April 2014)
Author: Charlotte Smith
Synopsis: Smith was born, raised and lived in West Sussex, UK, until her persuasive husband, Nick, swept her and their youngest daughter off to live in mystical Oman. Her love of animals helped her to shape an extraordinary life in the Middle East—her first step being to convince a local veterinary clinic to employ her. (Note: Smith now lives in Andalucía, in southern Spain.)
How we heard about: Recommended by the We Love Memoirs Facebook community. The book was also on the New York Times best-seller list (“animals”) in October.


loveyoubye_cover_smallLoveyoubye: Holding Fast, Letting Go, And Then There’s the Dog (She Writes Press, April 2014)
Author: Rossandra White
Synopsis: A collision of crises on two continents forces Rossandra White to face the truth. Just as her American husband disappears to Mexico, her brother’s health crisis calls her back home to Africa, and her beloved dog receives a fatal diagnosis. She faces down her demons to make a painful decision: stay in a crumbling marriage, or leave her husband of 25 years and forge a new life alone.
How we heard about: Through a Facebook share of White’s Good Reads giveaway.


Lost_in_Spain_cover_smallLost in Spain: A Collection of Humorous Essays (March 2014)
Author: Scott Oglesby
Synopsis: Scott Oglesby moved to Spain to start over. When he discovered he was still the same person, now six thousand miles from home, the result was dysfunction, delusion, chaos and this book, which many readers have described as “hilarious” and “brilliant”.
How we heard about: E-book promotion.


Journey_to_a_Dream_cover_smallJourney to a Dream: A voyage of discovery from England’s industrial north to Spain’s rural interior (February 2014)
Author: Craig Briggs
Synopsis: Craig, his wife Melanie and their dog, Jazz, left their home town of Huddersfield, in England’s industrial north, and set off for Galicia: a remote and little-known autonomous province in the northwest corner of Spain. And so began their Journey to a Dream…
How we heard about: E-book promotion, as a result of which I am currently reading this on my Kindle. It’s very well written and entertaining.


Paris_Letters_cover_smallParis Letters: One woman’s journey from the fast lane to a slow stroll in Paris (February 2014)
Author: Janice Macleod
Synopsis: MacLeod found herself age 34 and single, suffering from burn-out and dissatisfaction. So she abandoned her copywriting job and headed off to Europe, where she ended up finding love and freedom in a pen, a paintbrush…and Paris! Macleod says her journey was inspired by The Artist’s Way, written by Julie Cameron.
How we heard about: From an interview with MacLeod by American expat in Paris Lindsey Tramuta, which appeared on Lindsey’s blog, Lost in Cheeseland.


lenin_smallLenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow (Small Batch Books, January 2014)
Author: Jennifer Eremeeva
Synopsis: Based on Eremeeva’s two decades in Russia, Lenin Lives Next Door is a work of self-described “creative nonfiction.” It knits together vignettes of cross-cultural and expatriate life with sharp observation, historical background, and humor. Each chapter explores an aspect of life in today’s Russia, told with the help of a recurring cast of eccentric Russian and expat characters, including HRH, Eremeeva’s Handsome Russian Husband (occasionally a.k.a. Horrible Russian Husband), and their horse-mad daughter.
How we heard about: Eremeeva sent me a review copy and we met up for coffee at Columbia University. I found her a delightful conversationalist. No wonder several reviewers have likened her style to Jane Austen’s.



CROSS-CULTURAL CHALLENGES

Soundimals_cover_smallSoundimals: An illustrated guide to animal sounds in other languages (November 2014)
Author/illustrator: James Chapman.
Synopsis: In English, we say dogs go WOOF, but in Romanian they go HAM HAM. Chapman regularly publishes illustrations of onomatopoeia and animal sounds in other languages on his Tumblr blog. This book (available through his Etsy shop) collects some of those plus a lot of new sounds that weren’t in the original comics, and a few new animals that haven’t been posted at all.
Expat creds: None that we know of; would love to hear more about how he got started collecting these sounds.
How we heard about: Pinterest.


The_Devil_in_us_cover_smallThe Devil in Us (CreateSpace, October 2014)
Author: Monica Bhide
Genre: Literary fiction
Synopsis: Short stories that carry you to a far away place, amidst people seemingly very foreign to you, but somehow create a connection—from the Indian-American cancer survivor escaping her pain and finding passion in Mumbai, to the Japanese teen in Georgetown discovering forbidden love. Bhide is known for her writings about Indian food. This is her first work of fiction.
Expat creds: Monica is originally from Delhi, India, but has lived in Bahrain ad now in the United States.
How we found out about: Pinterest.


Japanese_Husband_cover_smallMy Japanese Husband Thinks I’m Crazy! The comic book: Surviving and thriving in an intercultural, interracial marriage in Tokyo (October 2014)
Author: Grace Buchelle Mineta
Genre: Comics/manga; humor
Synopsis: The autobiographical misadventures of a native Texan freelancer and her Japanese “salaryman” husband, in comic book form.
Expat credentials: Mineta grew up mostly in Texas, but also spent her teenage years in Accra, Ghana and Sapporo (Hokkaido), Japan. She now lives in Tokyo with her Japanese husband (they got married in January) and blogs at Texan in Tokyo.
How we found out about: From a guest post by Mineta on Jocelyn Eikenburg’s blog, Speaking of China, titled The “Dark Side” to Moving Across the World for Love.



Kurinji_Flowers_cover_smallKurinji Flowers (October 2014)
Author: Clare Flynn
Genre: Historical romance
Synopsis: Set in South India during World War II and India’s struggle for independence, the book is centered on a young British colonial, Ginny Dunbar, who has arrived in India for a new start in life. She has to battle her inner demons, the expectations of her husband, mother-in-law, and colonial British society, and her prejudices towards India and its people.
Expat credentials: Flynn is a repeat expat, having lived for two years each in Paris and Brussels, three years in Milan, and six months in Sydney, though never in India. She now lives in London but spends as much time as she can in Italy. Almost needless to say, Flynn loves travel and her idea for this book came while she was on holiday in Kerala, India.
How we knew about: Flynn was interviewed by JJ Marsh for the latter’s popular column, LOCATION LOCUTION.



The_Haiku_Murder_cover_smallThe Haiku Murder (Josie Clark in Japan mysteries Book 2) (October 2014)
Author: Fran Pickering
Genre: Expat mystery series
Synopsis: A haiku-writing trip turns to tragedy when a charismatic financier falls from the top of Matsuyama castle. But was he pushed? Expat Londoner Josie Clark thinks he was, and that’s when the trouble starts…
Expat credentials: Pickering has lived and worked in Tokyo, and though she is now back in London (literally next door to where she was born), she travels back to Japan frequently to visit friends and do research for the Josie Clark mystery series.
How we heard about: Pickering was interviewed by JJ Marsh for the latter’s popular column, LOCATION LOCUTION.



LostinTranslation_cover_smallLost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World (September 2014)
Author: Ella Frances Sanders
Genre: Illustration/Translation
Synopsis: Did you know that the Japanese language has a word to express the way sunlight filters through the leaves of trees? Or that there’s a Finnish word for the distance a reindeer can travel before needing to rest? This book is an artistic collection of more than 50 drawings featuring unique, funny, and poignant foreign words that have no direct translation into English.
Expat credentials:  A self-described “intentional” global nomad, Sanders has lived all over the place—most recently Morocco, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland.
How we heard about: From a post about the book by Maria Popova on her much-acclaimed Brain Pickings site.


Everything_I_Never_Told_You_cover_smallEverything I Never Told You (Penguin, June 2014)
Author: Celeste Ng
Genre: Thriller
Synopsis: A mixed-race family in the 1970s tries to unravel a family tragedy.
Expat credentials: Celeste Ng isn’t an expat, but she has a deep understanding of what it means to feel displaced. Her work deals with multiculturalism and race issues in the United States.
How we heard about it: It was voted the Amazon Book of the Year.


TheBook_Of_Unknown_Americans_smallThe Book of Unknown Americans (Knopf, June 2014)
Author:  Cristina Henríquez
Genre: Literary fiction
Synopsis: Arturo and Alma Rivera have lived their whole lives in Mexico. One day, their beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter, Maribel, sustains a terrible injury, one that casts doubt on whether she’ll ever be the same. And so, leaving all they have behind, the Riveras come to America with a single dream: that in this country of great opportunity and resources, Maribel can get better.
Expat credentials: Henríquez isn’t an expat, but her father was—he came to the US from Panama to attend university.
How we heard about it: Henríquez’s novel was Amazon’s No. 1 bestseller this year in the Hispanic American Literature & Fiction category.


TheOtherLanguage_cover_smallThe Other Language (Pantheon, April 2014)
Author: Francesca Marciano
Synopsis: A collection of short stories involving women who are confronted by radical change or an old flame, in locations that range from New York to India to Kenya to southern Italy.
Expat credentials: Marciano is an Italian novelist who left Rome at age 21 to live in the United States. She later moved to Kenya, where she lived for a decade. Although Italian is her first language, she chooses to write in English.
How we found out: From an essay by William Grimes in the New York Times Book Review: “Using the Foreign to Grasp the Familiar: Writing in English, Novelists Find Inventive New Voices.”


Dragonfruit_cover_smallHow Does One Dress to Buy Dragon Fruit: True Stories of Expat Women in Asia (April 2014)
Editor: Shannon Young
Genre: Expat non-fiction; anthology
Synopsis: In this collection, 26 women reveal the truth about expatriate life in modern East Asia through original works of memoir and creative non-fiction.
Expat credentials: To qualify for inclusion in the volume, writers had to be able to say they were, or had once been, expats.
How we heard about: We have followed Shannon Young ever since she contributed to the Displaced Nation on the topic of the London Olympics. She currently writes a column for us about being an expat writer, and we’ve been sharing “chunks” from her Dragonfruit anthology for the past few months.


Chasing_Athens_cover_smallChasing Athens (April 2014)
Author: Marissa Tejada
Genre: Romance
Synopsis: When Ava Martin’s new husband unexpectedly ditches her months after they’ve relocated across the world to Greece, the heartbroken American expat isn’t sure where home is anymore. On the verge of flying back to the States with her tail between her legs, she makes an abrupt decision to follow her gut instead and stay on in Greece, until a crisis back home forces her to decide where she truly belongs.
Expat credentials: A Native New Yorker, Tejada is an author, writer and journalist based in Athens, Greece. Living the expat life in Europe inspired her to write her debut novel.
How we heard about it: Again, from an interview conducted by British expat in Greece Bex Hall on her blog, Life Beyond Borders.


Moving_without_Shaking_cover_smallMoving Without Shaking: The guide to expat life success (from women to women) (April 2014)
Author: Yelena Parker
Genre: Guidebook-meets-memoir
Synopsis: Parker draws from the experiences and views of 9 women who have lived across 12 countries, to craft a resource for those who are dreaming of—or already facing—relocation abroad.
Expat creds: Parker herself is originally from Eastern Ukraine but has lived and worked in the US, Switzerland, the UK and Tanzania. She has chosen London as her latest expat location.
How we heard about: From a Google Alert.


QueenOfCloudPirates_cover_smallQueen of the Cloud Pirates (Crossing the Dropline Book 1) (March 2014)
Author: Andrew Couch
Genre: Fantasy novella
Synopsis: Far to the North of the Iron League core cities lies the Dropline. Beyond this line of cliffs the power of elemental Air rules supreme. The crucial region is threatened and two young men stand at the tipping point. In order to survive, they must learn to work together and rise above their own shortcomings. Oh yeah, and escape from pirates. Don’t forget the pirates….
Expat credentials: An American abroad, Couch lives with his wife in Freiburg, Germany. He says that much of the inspiration for the worlds he writes about is a mix of a wild and crazy imagination (he grew up reading fantasy books) and his travels around the world.
How we found out about: Couch contributes the HERE BE DRAGONS column to the Displaced Nation, focusing on the connection between the displaced life and fantasy writing (more powerful than any skeptics out there might think!).


What_Happens_in_Nashville_cover_smallWhat Happens in Nashville (March 2014)
Author: Angela Britnell
Genre: Romance (“choc lit”)
Synopsis: Claire Buchan, a straight-laced barrister from Exeter, UK, flies to Nashville, Tennessee, to organize her sister Heather’s bridal bash—and quickly finds herself out of her comfort zone and into the arms of a most unsuitable beau…
Expat credentials: Britnell grew up in a small Cornish village in southwestern England. She served in the Royal Navy for almost six years, culminating in an assignment in Denmark, where she met her American husband. Thus began a chronic expat life. The couple, now empty nesters, have settled in Brentwood, Tennessee.
How we heard about: Rosie Milne wrote about Britnell in an article that appeared on Telegraph Expat: “Expat romantic novelists inspired by real life.” (Milne btw lives in Singapore and runs Asian Books Blog.)


Monsoon_Memories_cover_smallMonsoon Memories (January 2014)
Author: Renita D’Silva
Genre: Literary fiction
Synopsis: Sometimes the hardest journeys are the ones that lead you home. Exiled from her family in India for more than a decade, Shirin and her husband lead a comfortable but empty life in London. Memories of her childhood fill Shirin with a familiar and growing ache for the land and the people that she loves. With the recollections, though, come dark clouds of scandal and secrets. Secrets that forced her to flee her old life and keep her from ever returning…
Expat credentials: Now living in the UK, Renita grew up in a picturesque coastal village in South India.
How we heard about: Amazon.


The_Shaping_of_Water_cover_smallThe Shaping of Water (December 2013—we’re letting it squeak in!)
Author: Ruth Hartley
Genre: Literary fiction
Synopsis: The story concerns the overlapping lives of several different people, expats and locals or some mix, who are connected to a ramshackle cottage by a man-made lake in Central Africa during the Liberation wars across its region.
Expat credentials: Hartley grew up on her father’s farm in Zimbabwe, which at that point was known as Rhodesia, at a time when struggles for independence in European-ruled African territories were spreading like a wave. As a young woman, she moved to South Africa to study art and then had to escape to England because of her political activities. She later moved back to Africa, as an expat. She now lives in Southern France.
How we heard about: I discovered Hartley via one of my social networks and then decided to approach her about being interviewed for the Displaced Nation.

* * *

Your turn readers: Have you read any of the above works and if so, what did you think of them? And can you suggest other works to add to the list? Beth and I look forward to reading your comments below!

From Beth:
Intrigued by some of these titles? Go on, download a few! ‘Tis the season to support the output of other international creatives!

Finally, please note: Beth and I may repeat this exercise in six months (summer reads!). But if you can’t wait until then, I suggest that you sign up for our DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has a Recommended Read every week, and also follow our Pinterest board: DISPLACED READS.

STAY TUNED for PART 2 of this post: IT’S FOOD!, THIRD CULTURE KIDS & COUNTRY GUIDES/TRIBUTES.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation, plus some extras such as seasonal recipes and occasional book giveaways. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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

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

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

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

—ML Awanohara

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

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

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

“Charting Koenji,” by Kathryn Hummel

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

I. Arrival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Fran Pickering, London-based crime writer and Japanophile

Fran PickeringIn this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Fran Pickering, a London-based crime and mystery writer who has lived and travelled extensively in Japan. Her experiences there provide the inspiration for her Josie Clark in Japan mystery series. She also writes about London art and events with a Japanese connection on her blog, Sequins and Cherry Blossom. Her latest Josie Clark book, The Haiku Murder, has just come out, on 13th October. Find out more at franpickering.com.

Which came first, story or location?

Location. I wanted to share my love of Japan in a way that would be interesting and non-academic, so I started writing murder mysteries about an expat Londoner in Tokyo.

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

I know Japan so well now, I have to think myself back into the mind of a person encountering it for the first time and remember how strange and foreign it seemed to me originally. I go for the little, easily forgotten details – the smell of the drains in Tokyo, the sound of the mechanical cuckoo on the pedestrian crossings in Takarazuka, the complexities of different shoes and socks for different surfaces in a traditional inn. It’s the small things that bring a place alive.

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

Food is very big for me. Japanese people are obsessed with food – they talk about it all the time – but so many people in the West think sushi and noodles is all there is to Japanese cuisine. As Josie investigates the latest murder she needs to ask a lot of questions, and the easiest way to do that is in cafes (she spends a lot of time in Starbucks) or over meals. The sort of meals people eat and where they eat them gives a clue to their character too.

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

Here’s an excerpt from The Cherry Blossom Murder:

It was just after nine o’clock. The streets of Akasaka were crowded and noisy. A gaudily decorated pachinko parlour blasted out an advertisement for their new pinball machines, accompanied by an irritating advertising jingle; inside the parlour Josie could see people staring zombie-like at the pachinko machines as the tiny silver balls spun and fell, spun and fell, endlessly fed from the bowl beside each player.The Cherry Blossom Murder

A group of young men and women passed her, the girls in short skirts, one of them loping along drunkenly as the boys held her upright. Behind them came a group of salarymen, still in their work suits, noisily discussing their golf handicaps. They barged Josie unthinkingly off the pavement.

A fortune teller sitting on the pavement behind a table plastered with pictures of hands called to Josie to come and have her future read. For a moment she was tempted, but then she walked on, past Denny’s and Johnny’s and Cozy Corner, all brightly lit and full of people, to the familiar yellow sign of Doutor’s coffee house.

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

If it’s a real place, then you need to have been there and looked at it carefully. I try and revisit places I write about to make sure I’ve got it absolutely right, and to pick up on aspects I may have overlooked the first time. It’s remarkable how memory can play you tricks, or leave you with a superficial impression. I take photographs of key settings to refer to later.

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

Lee Child. He’s an English writer whose books are set in the States with an American protagonist. He really nails it; the flavour of the country leaps off the page. And Ben Aaronovitch, whose Rivers of London series takes you into every nook and cranny of Covent Garden and makes you almost believe that a building on the south side of Russell Square actually does contain the Folly.

* * *

Next month’s Location, Locution: Clare Flynn, whose books are set in Australia and India.

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

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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JESS IN JAPAN: After all the hype, cherry blossom season underwhelms

JessinJapan_column

Jessica Awanohara in Tokyo (winter 2014); photo credit: Hiro Awanohara.

Jessica Awanohara moved from New York to Tokyo with her Japanese husband, Hiro, at the end of last year. What is it like to step “through the looking glass” and treat Japan as a home rather than a quirky place to visit? Jess keeps us abreast of her progress via this occasional column-cum-photos.

After a long, cold, all-around terrible winter, April is here, and in at least half of this beautiful world of ours, that means that spring has sprung! Crocuses are peaking through the nearly frozen plains of Central Park; monarch butterflies are beginning their multi-generational migration from Mexico to northerly climes; and in Tokyo, where I now reside, the most spectacular seasonal transition of them all—the blooming of the cherry trees, or sakura—has been taking place.

This being my first sakura season in Japan, I wasn’t entirely prepared for the national obsession with tracking when, where and how to best view the blossoms. In fact, for at least three weeks, sakura viewing was the only thing anyone talked about. Friends regaled us with stories of sakura seasons past, advising on the best and worst parks in Tokyo for beholding the spectacle of the storied blossoms. Like stock tips, they whispered these insights authoritatively, as though acting upon them would determine our very future.

I learned, for instance, that Inokashira Park, in the northwestern part of the city, was “too crowded, wild, and ‘diverse'” while Nakameguro, in the southeast, was the “ideal spot for a first-timer” like myself.

Meanwhile, the sakura craze was heightened by CNN-style coverage on TV. Whole segments of the morning and evening news were dedicated to maps, predictions, histories, and images detailing the slow ascension of blossoms from Okinawa to Hokkaido.

By the time the trees were showing their first buds, all I could think about was the prospect of attending a viewing party. In case you haven’t heard, celebrating under a fully blossomed cherry tree, a festival known as ohanami, is as eagerly anticipated as the blossoms themselves. All of Tokyo, it seems, comes out for marathon sessions of en plein air eating and drinking, presumably turning as pink as the flowers.

But as luck would have it, this year things would be different. Tokyo was soaked by two straight weeks of hard rain and cold weather. The delicate pink sakura petals were washed away before they were able to reach full bloom.

Braving these inclement conditions, my husband and I biked to a couple of nearby parks and well-known streets to soak up whatever we could (hopefully without getting too soaked!). But the grey skies and cold weather kept our spirits, along with the blooms, at bay. In fact, it was almost too depressing to document the mostly bare branches and paltry spray of revelers, but here, readers, are a few mementos of my first cherry blossom season in Tokyo:

Early sakura in Nakameguro; photo credit: Jessica Awanohara.

Early sakura in Nakameguro, alongside Meguro River, the recommended destination for newbies; photo credit: Jessica Awanohara.

At least someone is trying to get his party blooms on; photo credit: Jessica Awanohara.

At least someone (see man on curb) is trying to get his party blooms on; photo credit: Jessica Awanohara.

The actual best spot to view cherry blossoms this year, snapped on the way to an interview in Shinsen; photo credit: Jessica Awanohara.

The actual best spot to view cherry blossoms this year, snapped on the way to an interview in Shinsen; photo credit: Jessica Awanohara.

* * *

Thanks, Jessica. Sorry to hear it was such a wash-out! Readers, Jess’s experiences raises a classic Displaced Q: How many of you have sought an iconic experience during your stay abroad that didn’t quite live up to your expectations?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s fab post!

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JESS IN JAPAN: Tokyo’s top 6 delights from my newbie expat perch

So is snow the same in Tokyo? Kind of, except everyone carries see-through plastic umbrellas! Jess in Tokyo's first February snowfall. Photo credit: Hiro Awanohara

So is snow the same in Tokyo? Kind of, except everyone carries see-through plastic umbrellas! JESS IN JAPAN in a rare heavy snowfall earlier this month. Photo credit: Hiro Awanohara

Today we welcome a new guest columnist: Jessica Awanohara. Any relation, you may wonder? Yes, she’s the American wife of my nephew by marriage, Hiro. The pair, who’d become dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers, surprised us all by announcing they were moving to Tokyo at the end of 2013. Naturally, I was curious: how is Jessica adjusting to life in that “through-the-looking glass” city? Is it different to live there versus just visit (which she’s done many times in the past)?

—ML Awanohara

There are many things to love about moving to a new country and a few things not to love. Most expats eventually strike a balance between the two.

But are there also places where the love-hate continuum doesn’t apply? I’m beginning to think so ever since I moved from New York to Tokyo in late December of last year. A bad mood is impossible to sustain in this city because everything is hilarious. Wherever you turn, there is something riotous laying in wait…and the next thing you know, you are collapsing in fits of laughter.

I’ve been in Tokyo for over a month now, and have delighted endlessly in many things.

Here are six off the top of my head:

1) Trains are in happy colors.

I live on the Keiō Inokashira railway line, the color of which is bright pink. Not the barfy green of the 4/5/6, nor the almost-royal blue of the A/C, nor the vibrantly atrocious orange of the B/D/F, in New York City. Rather, this line is a sparkling and spritely pink mixed with what I imagine to be the color equivalent of delicious farm-fresh milk. It’s the pink of the gods: the Disney Princess Gods.

2) Subway stations are deeply amusing, so to speak.

Think of New York City’s deepest subway platform: the 63rd Street station on the F Line near Hunter College, or the 191st Street Station on the 1 Line. Imagine how long those escalators are, and now double it—no, triple it! Triple it, and add a couple of extra escalators and a brick-and-mortar set of stairs to the street, and now you have an idea how deep the average street to subway platform trip is in Tokyo. Have you ever tried going to Roppongi, or Azabu-Jūban? Try it!! You may feel as though you’ve walked far enough to be back in New York. Good for quite a few laughs!

3) People on the subway may be dressed much better than us, but they smell just as funny.

How could men in suits and overcoats, or women in designer outfits, smell as bad as we much more disheveled Americans do on the subway? Before taking the leap of moving to Tokyo, I dreaded the idea of being taller, sweatier, and worse smelling than the average citizen on a notoriously packed Japanese train car. Rest assured, inquiring minds, curdled humans smell much the same in Tokyo as in New York: like sweat socks… By the time summer arrives—I’ve visited here often enough to know that summer is no joke!—I should blend in perfectly fine, a thought I find immensely entertaining.

4) Furniture delivery can be farcical, especially when it doesn’t fit through doors.

After a month of living out of another person’s apartment, my husband and I moved into our own place a couple weeks ago. We ordered what can aptly be described as the world’s most beautiful bargain basement sofa and had it delivered to our new, completely empty home. No sooner did our large and lovely couch arrive, than it was exchanged for its tiny, two-seater cousin—that is, tiny enough to actually fit through our front door. In Japan, small is beautiful. How could we have overlooked this basic principle? Our hilarity could not be contained…

5) In Tokyo, cost-of-living statistics are a bit of a joke.

Really, Expatistan.com? I appreciate the cost-of-living data you supply for this great world’s great cities, and am aware that countless magazines and listservs use your data for splashy articles sizing up one city against another. But I’m confused about your aim. On your website it says you want to give people the information “to live as nicely as you live currently.” That means…what exactly? How does one measure the quality of life across cultures? And what about that ideal, which many of us expats hold dear, of “When in Rome…” I can lead the same life materially in Tokyo as I led in New York, but that’s not what makes me happier in this city. Sure, living the luxury life in Tokyo is expensive, but numbers are not the point. The point is, cost-of-living stats are hilarious in a city that gives me such joy!

6) Appliance installation is a riot and a half.

In a related hilarity, it is true that most Tokyo apartments are not outfitted with appliances normally packaged with an apartment in NYC. We had to order our own refrigerator and washing machine (both standard fixtures for the Tokyoite). Our refrigerator, a lovely and highly rated model, cost us all of $500; the washing machine was comparably rated and lower priced. As with anything you buy larger than a shopping bag, you have it delivered to your home for maybe $30 or $50 additional dollars, or oftentimes for free. The hilarity lies in the fact we had two choices when the refrigerator and washing machine were shipped—the delivery men would either leave them at our front door OR huff them up countless flights of stairs and install the machines for the low, low price of…one U.S. dollar. Tough choice, right? Hahaha.

No doubt about it, Japan is a barrel of laughs. Reaching beyond the cruel and unusual TV game shows, the Hello Kitty cafes, the Fruits magazine documenting outlandish clothes in the Harajuku area, and other enduring staples of pop culture in this part of the world, I’ve found countless things to delight me during my first month of residency in Tokyo. My main takeaway is how excited I am to let this town continue to delight me for years to come.

* * *

Readers, what do you think of Jess in Japan’s observations of her new home? I don’t know about you, but I find it ever-so-amusing that so many of her thoughts are focused on subways and apartments: not so different from life here in New York!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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LESSONS FROM TWO SMALL ISLANDS — 6) Keep Calm and Run a Bath

I didn’t think seriously about fashion and beauty until I, an American East Coaster, became a resident of two small islands: Britain and then Japan.

Both London and Tokyo are fashion capitals, and living in each of these cities, I found that every so often I really enjoy thinking about striking clothing combinations, make-up, and self-pampering.

Would I have discovered this love of what America’s Puritan founders would call frivolity had I stayed in this country? It’s conceivable, especially if I’d moved to New York City, where I now live as a repatriate. (NOTE: While I do not have Puritan ancestry, I was raised to be a bluestocking, not a girl in rhinestone-studded pantyhose.)

But in the event, I discovered fashion and beauty through my travels — and from learning about how women in other countries clothe and groom themselves.

So what, you may ask, were my key take-aways from this relatively speaking decadent period of my life? No specific beauty products or fashions, but these five guiding principles:

1) To get an English rose (or any other perfect) complexion, you have to be born with it. Nevertheless, skin care is worth it.

As a Caucasian woman, one of my beauty ideals was that of the English rose: a woman with flawless porcelain skin and rosy cheeks that look as though they’ve been produced by good bracing walks in the countryside wearing sensible shoes and tweed skirts.

When I first moved to England and encountered some actual English Roses, I wondered: is it because of the climate, the cosmetics from Boots the Chemist, the diet? (How do I get me one of those?)

My research soon revealed that diet has nothing to do with it. Not in a country where people grow up eating chips and crisps.

And as nice as the No7 products are, they can’t work miracles.

So maybe a glowing appearance is the result of England’s unique climatic conditions: a paucity of direct sunlight and the moisturizing drizzle that almost always seems to be in the air?

I hardly think that can be the case, as there are plenty of Britons with problem skin…

Trying not to turn pea green with envy (hardly a flattering shade!), I could come to only one conclusion: you have to be born with it.

But, not to despair! Once I reached Japan, where women are obsessed with their skin — some even use whitening lotions to obtain a creamier complexion — I learned that of all the things you can do for beauty, skin care is the most worthwhile.

Ladies, if you protect your skin, you might find yourself turning into an English Rose when you get a bit older — the Last Rose of Summer, so to speak.  While some may swear by Crème de la Mer, I go with the regime I picked up in Japan: sunscreen, a hat and a parasol.

I’d also recommend befriending your dermatologist, who knows a lot more about skin care and sun protection than the woman behind the cosmetics counter…

2) Don’t be afraid of experimenting with your hair: it can add some spice and life to your image.

In the UK one of my English rose-complexioned friends favored a chic bob — but with a streak of blue, green or red in it.

As an American fresh off the boat, I was rather scandalized. Why was she ruining a perfectly good hairstyle?

Over time, however, I came to realize that when you live in a country where skies are often the color of lead, adding a bright color to a strand of hair can brighten up your day.

By the time I left England, I could no longer understand why any woman, once she reached maturity, wouldn’t dye or highlight her hair. She doesn’t know the fun she’s missing out on! And, even though I have yet to streak my hair in an outrageous color, it’s definitely on my bucket list.

In Japan, too, I got some kicks from playing with my hair — this time, by adorning it with the kinds of hair ornaments that have been popular since the times when women wore kimono and kanzashi: combs, hair sticks and pins, hair bands, and fancy barrettes.

I did not have particularly long hair when I first reached Japan, but as long hair is the signature of Japanese ladies — and they were my new role models — I soon had locks long enough to make the most of such accessories. My favorite was the snood — I had one that was attached to a barrette covered with a bow. What a great way to keep long hair out of one’s face.

3) Gemstones and pearls are a girl’s best friend.

Sorry, Marilyn dear, but after living in the UK and Japan, my BFFs are gemstones and pearls. Is this because I went to England in the era of Princess Diana, with her (now Kate Middleton’s) 18-carat sapphire ring?

My relationship with colored gemstones only deepened after I moved to Japan and went on several sojourns into Southeast Asia, land of rubies and sapphires, among others.

My engagement ring is a ruby (purchased by my hubby in Tokyo!).

In Japan itself, I fell for pearls and now have quite the collection of necklaces, earrings, rings, and bracelets, mostly from Wally Yonamine’s in the Roppongi area of Tokyo. The owner, Jane, wife of  Wally (a professional baseball player who played with the Yomiuri Giants) is a displaced Japanese Hawaiian.

4) Youth is the time to have fun with fashion.

In the UK, I was taken in by the spectacle of punk and post-punk kids and their strange fashions, while in Japan I found it mesmerizing to watch the Lolita fashions of the Harajuku kids, on a Sunday afternoon.

Eventually, instead of thinking they were weird, I regretted never having had my own equivalent of wearing Doc Martens with a Laura Ashley dresses … sporting long, back-combed hair, pale skin, dark eyeshadow, eyeliner, and lipstick, black nail varnish, along with a spiked bracelet and dog-collar … dressing up like a Victorian boy …

It just wasn’t the done thing, in my stiff, conservative American circles, to wear outlandish garb. And now it’s too late, of course. Youth is the time when you can get away with it. After that, you have to wait for Halloween. (Unless, of course, you want to come across as “mutton dressed as lamb,” as the English say…)

5) Last but not least, my top beauty tip, reinforced by both of these countries: A bath is much preferable to a shower.

At the beginning of living in England, I missed the American shower so much. I was convinced I would never be clean again. But then one day I woke up and realized I’d been brainwashed into believing I needed to have a shower every day. In fact, daily showers dry out the skin. As one dermatologist puts it:

Most people wash far too much. Using piping-hot water combined with harsh soaps can strip the skin of its oils, resulting in dryness, cracking and even infection.

That was around the same time I opened my mind to the possibility that baths — which tend to be favored over showers in the UK (at least in my day) — might actually be preferable. Nothing like a long hot bath with a glass of wine and a book, my English friends would say. Or, as one British beauty site puts it:

A nice bubble bath is the closest you can come to having a spa-like relaxing experience in your own home, without much effort or without spending a lot of money.

Too true! Plus the English shops sell such wonderful bubble bath creams. My favorite was the Perlier Honey Miel (actually from Italy).

Still, I didn’t mind giving all of that up once I reached Tokyo — not the bathing but the bubbles. In the land of the communal bath, you scrub the skin first and then have a long soak in clean hot water, in a tub (ofuro) that is deep rather than long.

Indeed, Japan was where I learned the benefits of exfoliation: I ended up sloughing off dry skin from parts of my body I didn’t know existed. And then the immersion in clean hot water: bliss! Like returning to the womb…

For a Japanese who works long hours, bathing is a sacred time, a ritual. While I haven’t quite converted that far, I have a Pavlovian reaction every time I hear bath water running. Time to go into Total Relax Mode!

I even have a Japanese bath here in my apartment in NYC, and the thought of sitting in it is what keeps me going … That said, I must confess that I sometimes put bubbles in. What can I say? I’m displaced.

* * *

So, readers, what do you make of my five beauty principles? Have you picked up any of your own in the countries where you live? I’m all ears — only please excuse me for a minute while I make sure the bath water isn’t running over. (I don’t want my downstairs neighbors knocking on my door at 3:00 a.m.!)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another installment in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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Image: MorgueFile

TRAVEL YARN: Two madcap Indonesian ladies in weird & wonderful Japan (1/2)

Japan — the country that many Westerners have likened to Lewis Carroll’s “wonderland” for its quality of wacky unpredictability. But what about for other Asians — do they feel as displaced and disoriented there as we do? Our very first Random Nomad, Anita McKay, ventured into the Land of the Rising Sun for the first time this summer, in the company of another Indonesian, P, who had been there once before as a student. McKay reports on the pair’s adventures in this two-part travel yarn.

The message exchange between my travel buddy, P, and me, in May, went like this:

Me: “So have we decided where we want to go this July?”

P: “How about Japan?

Me: “Okay.”

P had lived in Japan decades ago for a student exchange program. She hadn’t been back since, and thought this year would be a good time.

I, on the other hand, didn’t really have any specific destination in mind — just so long as I could go somewhere I hadn’t been to. As I explained in my interview with the Displaced Nation, although I am from Indonesia originally, I have lived for extended periods in Aberdeen, Scotland, and in Australia. But I still hadn’t made it to Japan.

P suggested Tokyo, Kyoto, and Kobe. I added Yokohama to the list because there’s a blog buddy I wanted to meet up with. She and I had been trying to catch up forever and everywhere — UK, Singapore, and Indonesia — but kept missing each other. If I went to Yokohoma, where she is now based, surely we would finally get together?

I prepared myself for the trip by scanning some pages in Trip Advisor and the Lonely Planet guidebook. At least I would have an idea of what to do and where to go — and wouldn’t be entirely dependent on P, who speaks and reads Japanese and has lived there before so presumably knew how to get around.

Madcap traveler’s motto: Be unprepared!

When we landed at Narita Airport, I suggested that we take a taxi because it was 9:00 a.m., and I had taken the notion of a red-eye quite literally — my eyes looked red as I was still recovering from flu. I desperately wanted to have a quick nap before exploring the city.

We crossed the road, dragging our gigantic suitcases with us, and I let P speak with the men at the taxi rank. When she showed them the address of the hotel, one guy frowned and looked at us. “Tokyo?” he asked in disbelief.

We nodded eagerly. The drivers exchanged glances and apparently decided we weren’t crazy. One of them spoke in Japanese to P, who translated: “It’s 23,000 yen.”

I did a quick calculation, and almost fainted when I found out it will cost us almost 300 AUD [around the same in US$] for a taxi to our hotel.

“300 bucks??” I asked P. She nodded calmly, but her eyes couldn’t lie. She was just as shocked as I was.

“No! Cancel!” I shook my head furiously, while P apologized to the drivers. The men just laughed and pointed us back to the airport. “Take the train instead,” I think they said. “Like normal people.” Maybe they said that, too!!

Now we know why there was no one queuing for a taxi, whereas there was a long queue at the train ticket window. And we thought we were being smart!

Everyone had warned us that Japan — Tokyo in particular — is “very expensive!” The city ranks number 1 in the list of the most expensive cities in the world, while Perth, where I now live, is number 19. But really, if the taxi would cost us almost 300 bucks, what kinds of prices could we expect to find in Tokyo?

P had no memory of taxis from the airport. Years ago when she landed in Tokyo, she was picked up by a shuttle bus.

She’d also paid no attention to the length of the journey — she’d been too busy meeting and getting to know the other students. Both of us were surprised when it took almost an hour for the Narita Express to reach Tokyo Station. P had assumed it would be like Jakarta airport to the city centre (just because), and I must have skipped that page in the guidebook…

Well, at least we now knew why it was so expensive to take a taxi: the distance is more like Heathrow to London.

We just kept laughing at our silliness.

It’s food?!?!?

By the time we’d reached our hotel in Chiyoda, a quiet area near the Imperial Palace, we were both rather hungry and decided food would come first on the agenda, before tackling the first sight on our list: Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple, in Asakusa.

Food is important to us Indonesians. We eat all the time. In Japan for the first time, I wanted to try something new: not sushi, yakiniku, donburri (rice bowl), soba, or ramen.

“Let’s try this!” I excitedly pointed at one restaurant name in the guidebook. “It’s in Asakusa and it looks…exotic enough.”

P agreed, and under the glare of the July sun we made our way to a restaurant called Komagata Dojo, only to be greeted by the sight of a rather long queue. If there is a queue, then the food must be good, we assured each other. Plus it seems as though most of the people in the queue are locals, so the taste must be authentic.

As it turned out, the restaurant is in its sixth generation of owners, and is famous for its dojo: a tiny freshwater fish like an eel or sardine, cooked in a cast iron pot.

We ordered what seemed to be everyone’s favorite, dojo nabe (hot pot), and also asked for two bowls of rice.

The waitress lit the charcoal burner in front of us, set the pot down on top of it, and told us to sprinkle the spring onions, or negi, on top of the fish.

We looked at each other after the first gulp.

“What do you think?” I asked P.

“What do you think?” she replied back.

“Well…it’s…all right. Weird.”

She nodded. “The rice is very good though.”

I can’t describe the taste. It’s rather bland for my liking, as I grew up in Indonesia, which is famous for its spicy dishes. Not just hot spicy, but lots of flavors in every dish. But dojo nabe isn’t tasteless either. Lots of soft flavors, like soy and spring onions.

When we were about to finish our lunch, I asked P how come Japanese people look so slim if, like the rest of us Asians, they enjoy eating all the time. We were thinking that their diet of raw seafood might be the answer.

“But this isn’t raw,” I pointed at the dojo. “It’s cooked. Plus the size of the rice is rather big.”

We looked around at the other patrons — and, to our horror, we were the only ones who’d seemed to have ordered a bowl of rice each! The rest of the customers were adding the spring onions to their fish but had no rice bowls.

“That’s the only thing they eat for lunch!” I hissed to P. “Spring onions and tiny fish! No wonder they’re slim!”

“No wonder the waiter asked if we wanted one or two bowls of rice,” P admitted when we were at the cashier. “I thought it was because of my rusty Japanese, but now I know because she didn’t believe two small girls can eat that much!”

Hanging our heads in shame, we slipped out of the restaurant and determined we would burn away the calories by walking to Sensō-ji temple. The temple, however, was only a few minutes’ walk away. Still, we had fun taking photos of ourselves under the gigantic red lantern at the temple gate, and looking at the stalls lining the 200-metre-long Nakamise-dōri, the street approaching the temple — selling every manner of Japanese trinket and souvenir, including yukata robes (cotton kimono), tenugui (hand towel, often used as a headband), furoshiki (rectangular cloth for gift wrapping) and folding fans. There were also local snacks for sale, of a kind I’d never seen before in my life, in every shape and color possible, in beautiful packaging.

Kyoto and the Indonesian connection

After two days in Tokyo, we took the shinkansen to Kyoto and stayed in a ryokan — a traditional Japanese guesthouse where you sleep on tatami mats. Being shoppers at heart (another trait of Indonesian tourists!), we were pleased to see that the ryokan was just two minutes away from Nishiki Market, which we saved for our last day.

At first I was skeptical. How “weird and wonderful” can the Nishiki market wares be? I’m an Asian, I’ve seen lots of weird and wonderful things, I don’t think that the Japanese can produce anything that would shock me. Well, I was wrong. From pickled eggplants to live turtles, from grilled sea-eels to rakugan (tea-ceremony sweets) shaped as sushi — every single stall was full of wonders that had me alternatively oohing and ahing, or eek-ing and yuck-ing (along with a few WOWs and OMGs).

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We ended up having a better experience in Kyoto because of making an Indonesian connection on our very first day. After encountering the tail end of the Gion Matsuri, one of Japan’s most famous festivals, named for Kyoto’s Gion district, we stopped in one of the shops in Gion, where the owner happily chatted with us in English. He knew about Indonesia’s first president (I guess because the third of Soekarno’s nine wives was a Japanese woman), and explained to me that the stuff I was buying wasn’t candy but rakugan, made of sugar and starchy powder and often served in Japanese tea ceremony to offset the bitterness of the green tea.

Arranged in a pretty box, the rakugan have the most beautiful soft colors, from baby pink to green. Each was in a floral shape, with delicate carvings on the surface — yet each was only as big as my smallest fingernail. How they could make such detailed coverings in such a small space, I had no idea.

We told the shop owner we were hoping to eat a good soba for dinner. He said to go straight ahead until we reached the kabuki theatre. Next door to that theatre is a famous soba place called Matsuba, he said.

We found the place easily (thanks to P’s ability to read the restaurant sign!), and had fantastic soba with smoked herring.

Our luck didn’t stop there. The next day, after wandering around Kiyomizu-dera, a famously beautiful temple in Eastern Kyoto, and spending a fortune buying souvenirs, cookies and ice cream from virtually every shop along the temple street, we made a quick stop at a proper store to buy sunglasses for P. One of the staff turned out to be an Indonesian. He recommended a bar not far from our hotel for a drink, where the owners are Japanese sisters but can speak Indonesian. Thanks to this advice, we ended up spending our last night in Kyoto befriending a set of Indonesian-speaking Japanese twins.

IT’S FOOD!!!

I queried the twins about where to have lunch on our last morning. They booked us into Gion Nishikawa — 2 stars in the Japanese Michelin Guide and the first restaurant in Japan that made me appreciate how wonderful Japanese food can be. The eight-course, kaiseki-style lunch cost only around 70 AUD and was served directly by the cute chef (whom P rather fancied!) from across the counter. No other Japanese food I’d had before in my life could compare to this.

The chef would tell us (in Japanese, of course) what type of dish he was putting on our plates, and which food goes with which sauce. By the fourth course, which featured three types of fish, even we were starting to feel rather full, and P decided not to finish it — she wanted to save some space for course No. 8. When the chef cleared her dish, he saw that there was still some fish left, put it back in front of her and told her to finish it! I assumed he did that because it was such a costly delicacy.

Meanwhile, I was amazed that one of the fish in the bowl was koi (carp or goldfish) — yes, koi, what people normally keep as a pet! I looked at the chef in disbelief and he only laughed at me and said (as translated by P) that of course they eat koi.

Hahaha — I still felt as though I was eating my own cat…

By the eighth course both P and I swore we wouldn’t eat again until tomorrow. Famous last words! 🙂 We’re Indonesians, remember?

* * *

Readers, do you have any questions or comments for Anita? Stay tuned for the second part of her travel yarn, when the madcap duo move on to Kobe and Yokohama, and then back to Tokyo, to be posted within the next two weeks.

Anita McKay is a property consultant, travel junkie, cat lover, food enthusiast. She resides in Perth with her Scottish husband but is still searching for a place called home. To learn more about her, check out her blog, Finally Woken, and/or follow her on Twitter: @finallywoken.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s interview with a hilariously funny British expat author.

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Images (clockwise from top left): Japanese trinkets for sale at the famed Nakamise-dori in Asakusa, Tokyo; Anita McKay deciding that dojo nabe may be an acquired taste (at a famous Tokyo restaurant); one of the many fabulous lunch courses at Gion Nishikawa in Kyoto; one half of the dynamic duo (A) outside of the JR Station in Kyoto; the other half of the dynamic duo (P) at Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine, just outside Nishiki Market, Kyoto. All photos from Anita McKay’s personal collection.

RANDOM NOMAD: Brian MacDuckston, American Expat in Tokyo & Expert Ramen Slurper

Place of birth: San Francisco, California USA
Passport: USA
Overseas history: Japan (Saitama, Hiroshima, Tokyo): 2006 – present.
Occupation: Food consultant and freelance English teacher (available for high school classes, after-school programs, private lessons, children’s events…)
Cyberspace coordinates: Ramen Adventures (blog); @macduckston (Twitter handle); and Ramen Adventures (Facebook).

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
Around 2004 I took a colloquial Mandarin Chinese class, hoping to learn a bit to help with the massive amounts of Kung Fu movies I was into at the time — I soon learned that Cantonese, not Mandarin, is used in these flicks. One of my classmates was going to China for a year to teach English. I did some Internet searching and decided I really wanted to check this out. I was stressed with my computer job, and a year abroad seemed like a good idea. Opportunities abound in China, Korea, and Japan. Japan just seemed like a good choice to me.

You’ve now lived in Japan for more than five years. Tell me about the moment when you felt the most displaced.
My first day of work in Saitama, I somehow managed to get on an empty train that had reached its last stop. A minute later and I was in the depot storage yard with an attendant yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand. I was late to my very first English lesson. I wanted to quit right away. Things got better, obviously.

Is there any particular moment or moments that stand out as your least displaced?
Whenever I’m on the road here in Japan. I ride a motorcycle — very few foreigners do that. Something about being able to navigate across mountain ranges on poorly marked roads fills me with a great sense of accomplishment.

Hmmm…are you sure it’s safe? And now you may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from your adopted country into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
A curiosity? I am actually quite a minimalist, collecting only photos. My Nikon camera is technically a Japanese thing. I guess I would choose that. Or perhaps I should consider bringing a few of my Japanese cooking knives. Beautifully crafted and razor sharp, they are amazing things.

Ah, cooking! I’m glad you mentioned that. You are invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other members of The Displaced Nation. What’s on your menu?

Ramen of course! Let’s go ahead and serve it after the drinks. After many drinks. Ramen is one of the best hangover prevention foods. All that fat and all those carbs do wonders for the next morning.

And now you may add a word or expression from the country you live in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
Umai is a great food word in Japanese. Most people first learn oishii to mean delicious, but umai is a bit stronger, a bit more cool. It’s mostly a guy word, though. I hope that’s okay with the female occupants of the Displaced Nation?

Perfectly okay! This summer, thanks to the London Olympics, all of us Displaced Nation residents, whether male or female, have become obsessed with displays of machismo and strength. In fact, this may be a good time to bring up your hobby of eating ramen in as many Tokyo venues as possible. How did you get launched in such a curious culinary sport — and become so accomplished that you and your blog were featured in the Travel section of the New York Times?
After living in Hiroshima for a bit, I knew that I needed to live in the big city.  So I finished my contract, signed up for unemployment insurance, and moved to Tokyo. Suddenly I found myself with a massive amount of time on my hands — and not a lot of money in my pockets. I decided to wait in the ridiculously long ramen shop line that I had seen many times across the street from a massive bookstore in Ikebukuro, one of Tokyo’s multiple city centers.

I was shocked how good it was. Completely worth the hour wait outside in the cold. A bit of research later, and I had a list of the 30 best shops in Tokyo…a nice place to start.

Thirty shops sounds rather daunting, particularly if each one involves standing in line for hours! What keeps you going, and do you still like ramen after the upteempth bowl of it?
What keeps me going? A job that doesn’t pay much! In fact, it’s the kind of random fun that comes with this obsession that keeps me going. When I can somehow influence someone to have the best bowl of ramen they have ever had, I feel like it is worth it.

Would you say that you’ve now graduated from amateur to pro?
Becoming a pro in such a niche corner of the food world is tough, but I suppose the few guidebook articles or magazine pieces I have worked on would put me up there.

Readers — yay or nay for letting Brian MacDuckston into The Displaced Nation once he’s finished slurping up his latest bowl of noodles? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Brian — find amusing!)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s Displaced Q, about nationalism and the Olympics.

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

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img: Brian at a ramen-ya in Tokyo, pursuing his favorite “sport.”

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