Recently, my friend Anna asked me to review an anthology which included an essay of hers. It is important to note that I take book reviewing seriously, especially when I'm allowed more than 140 characters in which to share my opinion. Remember that I am part of this book's target audience as a current expat, but I remain in all other ways as unbiased as possible. I hope those of you who are also current expats or are planning to move to another country soon will find my review especially useful. Make no mistake, this is a textbook-style tome and not a quick read, but it is an important book for those who appreciate the globally nomadic lifestyle.

Below is a copy of what appears in the Amazon customer reviews section for the essay collection titled Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids


To steal an artful phrase by Anna Maria Moore, one author in this remarkable essay collection, the volume itself is "a collection of... passports...filled with stamps blurred by hands thumbing through them in customs offices" around the globe.

Here, the editors have successfully combined personal essays and scholarly articles from Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) and other Global Nomads to form a guidebook of sorts. This guidebook teaches and explains life lived in a globally-mobile sense: multiple cultures, multiple languages, frequent departures and separations. To live this way presents a complex set of challenges, and one byproduct is often a sense of alienation. The collection helps answer the questions: Where is home when your country isn't your country? Who are your people when no one around you has lived as you have lived?

It also helps explain the tax and toll struggling with this question can take on the psyche. For example, in my favorite scholarly essay in the collection, Memory, Language, and Identity: The Search for Self, Liliana Meneses explains that memories imprint based on the language associated with them; communicating in a language other than his mother tongue, a multilingual person might be unable to recall or recount early life events. The admirable adaptability of Third Culture Kids as adults is a direct result of this challenging upbringing. As Moore explains it, after four decades and five continents, she has become "a wild strawberry plant."


I write in the margins and on the blank pages of books authored by other writers. It's a habit. When I happen upon those scribblings later, it's always a treat. The following is an essay I penned on a trip to Northern Italy in 2009. All summer long I'd been following the Green Revolution in Iran. I'd seen the blood pool in the street beneath the body of Neda Agha-Soltan after she was gunned down during a protest in June. Her death scarred me. I wanted to know about the lives of other young women in Iran. To that end, I picked up Dr. Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran to read on our vacation...


I am seated on a bench in the northern Italian mountains. There is a white church steeple and a brass weather vane in the shape of a rooster straining in the brisk wind.  Muddy brown sparrows hop from branch to branch in the midget pines to my right. Jonathan's head is tilted back and his eyes are closed.  We are waiting for something, breath bated, and hopeful.

Clouds engulf the head of Monte Cervino, the exotic Italian name for this side of The Matterhorn.  Even as the radiant blue sky is visible over our heads in all directions, a remarkable dome, this mysterious mountain is coy. She has wrangled her own weather this morning and wears it like a white headscarf. For an instant, she reveals her eyes. She watches me. I am yearning for more, lusting for her full, perfect face. But she is well aware of her status as a check box, one of many on this trip, and isn't about to give me the satisfaction.  That's her call.  I snort with ambivalence and, in response, she tucks even her pretty, snowcapped eyes away from us again.

While we wait, I read. Reading Lolita in Tehran has accompanied me every mile of the way on our trip through France, Monaco, and Italy. The 2003 memoir by Dr. Azar Nafisi chronicles the clandestine activities of a group of young Muslim women in the mid-1990s. In search of literary truth and personal independence, they risked their safety to congregate in the private home of their teacher.  There they could shed their heavy scarves and robes, sit in a circle, and study the great novels of history.  

A verbal scalpel slices the cover of Lolita and allows the students to see past the prose and into the heart and guts of the work, its intentions and its context.  I can recall the cover of my own copy of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's masterpiece, purchased at the UC Davis bookstore at the beginning of my junior year.  It is a photo in grayscale, saddle shoes and girlish ankles.  Tiny white socks folded down in delicate cuffs.  

Reading Lolita in my Introduction to Literary Criticism class startled me. Humbert Humbert, the perverse romantic, the child rapist poet, was the first narrator to make me feel sick.  I wanted to hate the book.  I wanted to plant my feet staunchly on the moral high ground and pitch the book into the fire.

It took a good teacher to change my mind and heart.

I cannot remember his name, but his gait, crippled, lurching and rolling, is burned into my mind's eye.  He'd been in a bicycle accident as a child, shattering his fragile leg bone beyond hope of anything more than a cursory repair. Yet, thirty years after that event rendered him weak and unstable for life, he paced the breadth of his classroom at Davis without more than a nod to his disability, and he willed his classful of eager English majors to reconsider Lolita as something more than the senseless ramblings of a pedophile.

He wanted me to mine Humbert's grotesque justifications for something deeper.  Consider the author's intentions, my teacher urged me.  Nobokov was not a depraved man with a penchant for little girls. Nabokov didn't want to suck the marrow from the skeletons of their fairy tales. He was a Russian author with a genius for gaining access to another plane of thought and fancy, and he excelled at granting that access to his readers in turn.  Nobokov invented Humbert as he invented so many other protagonists. He constructed an individual dispossessed of the stranglehold of our realities and allowed that individual to run free.

Nafisi introduced this same concept to the young women who'd gathered in her cozy, curtained apartment in Tehran.  Her six students also struggled with appreciating Lolita as something other than the confessions of a sexual predator.  

"Why do we enjoy books like this?  Isn't that wrong?" they asked each other.
We have a green checked rug in our living room. Last summer we picked it up at IKEA, marked down on sale (a sign!), to fill the blank spot on the floor. It's bright and friendly and fits perfectly in the space. But that's not even the best part.

It doubles as a giant game board!

Checkers? Chess? Go? Not today. In honor of the (extremely cheesy) new Liam Neeson movie in American theaters this weekend, we thought we'd give Battleship a try.



I made the aircraft carrier, battleship, submarine, destroyer, and patrol boat out of colored paper. Gray, of course, because battleships are gray. (I would've used my cherry-print or pink paisley paper to add a dash of ironic juxtaposition, but I'd already committed a fairly severe Battleship faux pas by referring to the pieces as "boats" rather than "ships," and was afraid of being hanged from the nearest yardarm.) Because the regular Battleship board is only 10 by 10, and our equally divided giant-board is 15 by 30, I was careful to scale the ships accordingly.
Yesterday was Norway's birthday, May 17th. 


Throughout the country schoolchildren participate in colorful parades, celebrating 17 May 1814, when the Norwegian constitution was signed and Norway was finally declared to be a separate nation. In Oslo, the barnetoget (children's parade) begins down by the water and winds uphill to the Royal Palace. It is the largest parade in the country; about 100 schools participate, and the number of spectators can reach 100,000! At the palace, the royal family stand on the balcony to inspect each school and band as it goes by.

DSC05318.jpg   DSC05322.jpg
King Karl Johan, King of Sweden and Norway at the time the constitution was signed, also inspects the schools as they pass. Norwegians are very patriotic, though not necessarily in the way I was brought up to think of patriotism in the U.S. Love of country simply laces every celebration. It's not strange to have a Norwegian flag displayed at a birthday or anniversary party, and Christmas decorations often include flag ornaments and ribbons. But on Constitution Day, flags run a red, white, and blue river all the way up Karl Johans gate.


This means we get our own flags, too!
Today is 17 May, Norway's Constitution Day, the biggest national celebration of the year. Tomorrow I'll post pictures of the parades, national costumes, the king and queen, and the spectacular weather we enjoyed all day. Tonight, all I have energy for is a simple post about a singular pleasure.

The sun was still high in the sky as we took an after dinner walk down to the fjord. We walked the bike path by the quiet harbor, leaving behind the pump and whine of ten thousand parties vibrating throughout the city center. The water was glass. The green of the spring-plump trees like alien flames against the sky. 

It was good to stretch our legs and find some time away from all the activity. Spectating on days like today is fun, of course. We ogle the colorful bunader, silver jewelry glittering at the waists, the wrists, the throats. We bob along to the bass beat as marching bands pass by playing songs we do not recognize. But under it all, there is a danger for foreigners like us. 

Days like today, we feel freshly outside. Untouched. Unnecessary to this long-standing tradition. This is not our history. And while tourists are able to run back to the familiar confines of their home countries and rejuvenate their own sense of identity and national pride, expats aren't so lucky. This is our home. Even when we have not the language nor the costume nor the roots of everyone else around us. 
About six years ago, Jonathan and I attended a game night organized by our church. It was meant to be a gathering of young married couples, a chance for us to commiserate as we learned to navigate those secret tunnels of early marriage. After a rousing round of Apples to Apples, four or five couples reclined in chairs around a table, still littered with red and green cards, and began chatting about the events of the day. The group was diverse in terms of age, parental status, length of marriage and, as it turned out, political values. 

We knew several of the people in that room, but Elliott* and his wife were new. In their mid-thirties, they were a full decade older than Jonathan and me. She was a teacher, petite and blond. I'd seen her wrangling their two little boys, dressed to match one another, in the halls of our church the Sunday before. That night, she remained quiet, eyes on the collar of her husband's button-up shirt. 

Elliott was small, skinny, and his eyelashes were so fine and white-blond, they were almost invisible. He blinked a lot. I don't remember what he did for a living, only what he said.

"Gays shouldn't be allowed to marry, and they definitely shouldn't be allowed to be parents." 

Elliott spoke with soft authority, nodding, blinking his bald eyelids and scanning the faces in the room. As often happens at church gatherings, he made certain assumptions about our larger group. He thought, Oh, I'm among friends. We read the same Bible. We pray to the same God. We must agree on the core tenants of our religion. I'm in a safe place. No matter what I say, I'll find support here among my people.

But I pushed back.  I knew gay couples who had adopted children and were parenting like pros. I also knew straight, married, Christian couples who had screwed up the parenting gig profoundly. Why shouldn't gays be allowed to parent?

"Homosexuality is a sin," he said, disdainfully. Had he been holding a Bible, he would have thumped me on the nose with it. "It's a depraved lifestyle, and against God's law. And it's no environment for children."

Lord help me, I tried to argue. I was 23-years-old and still believed all people were, deep down, reasonable. Elliott's mind was sealed up like a clamshell. Everyone else in the room was quiet, watchful. And silence, as we all know, is tantamount to support of the loudest party in the room, acquiescence to the belligerence of a bully. 

His chest swelled with pride as he said, "One thing's for sure, I would never let my children play with the children of gays."

I thought I saw his wife twitch, but she said nothing. Neither did I. My mouth was open. I stared at Elliott in his plaid shirt and pleated pants, his graying crew cut, his lashless eyelids. The man was a bigot, and he had total control of his wife (Biblical principle?) and his children (Biblical principle), and because no one was stepping up to stop him, he had control of the room, too. 

It was Jonathan who finally broke the silence.

"And I'd never let my kids play with your kids."

Elliott flinched. Then he took a long sip of his water to cover for it, but his reaction had been obvious. Without meaning to, he'd looked right at my husband, his eyes suddenly weaker and questioning. He'd been hurt. We thanked our hosts and walked out into the warm summer night of our small California town.

President Obama supported same-sex marriage in 1996, opposed same-sex marriage in 2008, and has since "evolved" to become a proponent once again. (And the crowds went wild.)

Columnist Mona Charen penned a response to the President's of-late position on this issue for the National Review Online. I appreciate that she took the time to point out the hypocrisy of the GLBT community in using a different standard for measuring our President's position on their numero uno issue. (Republicans who stand against them have been accused of "hate speech," but Obama stood against them and they merely expressed disappointment.) However, Charen diminished her credibility entirely once she stated her own reasoned opposition to same-sex marriage.

"Traditional marriage is recognized and to some degree privileged by society because it performs the most essential task of any civilization -- providing the optimal environment for raising children. Men and women bring different and complementary qualities to parenthood... Having parents of opposite sexes gives children male and female role models. And the sexes differ in a thousand little ways that, when blended, tend to redound to kids' welfare. Just to name a few: Mothers are more protective, fathers more challenging; mothers are more comforting, fathers more stimulating; mothers are more relational, fathers more disciplinary."
I love many of the statues in Oslo, but this is one of my favorites. Gunnar Fridtjof Thurmann Sønsteby is stationed at Solli plass, just down the street from our place. Nearby stands a larger-than-life, stooped-shouldered Winston Churchill. But Sønsteby is the one who catches the eye. 

It could be his posture, relaxed but alert; it could be his bicycle. Today it was the pile of roses and flags at his feet and tangled in his handlebars. 


Sønsteby was the most famous member of the Norwegian underground during WWII. To this day he remains to be the most decorated person in Norway's history, receiving awards and honors and medals from both the Norwegian government and the American government for his efforts during the Nazi occupation. He was known (or unknown) as Agent 24 during the war, and received saboteur training in England. All around, a pretty brave, pretty cool guy.

Sønsteby passed away last week (10 May) at the age of 94. As a lover of history, it's a beautiful thing to see appreciation expressed for this man and his personal efforts and sacrifices so many decades after the fact, by way of flowers and flags.
American author Jennifer Egan drew a sellout crowd to Oslo's Litteraturhuset on Wednesday night. Organizers had to set out extra rows of chairs on the floor of the main theater to accommodate Egan's fans. The room was warm, thick with anticipation and the rumble of low voices. My friend, Zoë, and I edged in toward two empty seats.

"Note to self," I whispered to her. "Win a Pulitzer."

And Zoë, who never fails to keep things real, whispered back, "Note to self: Get published first."

I took the last sip of my pinot noir as we settled in. We were only two of what I'm sure were many aspiring authors in the room, including a few of our fellow members from the Oslo International Writers Group. But that night, all of us had come primarily as readers, fans of Egan's work. 

She'd arrived in Oslo to promote and discuss A Visit from the Goon Squad, the novel which earned her the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book is as impossible to describe succinctly as it is to spoil for those who have not yet read it. Written as a series of nonlinear chapters which each read as a standalone story starring a different protagonist, Goon Squad is a fresh take on the art of the novel, one influenced by both the 19th century serialized fiction of Dickens and the HBO mob hit The Sopranos.  It is organized in two "sides," A and B, like a record or a cassette tape, and every chapter, like a song, is complete in itself, but also builds to create a full album.

As Litteraturhuset's Head of Programming, Silje Riise Naess, said in her introduction, "It's about time Jennifer Egan was published here in Norway!"

Norwegian author Linn Ullmann led the interview, and the first thing she asked Egan about was that crazy title, A Visit from the Goon Squad, which has given Scandinavian publishers a bit of trouble. Norwegian publishers ultimately decided on the title En bølle på døra, which translates to something like A Bully at Your Door.

"I came up with the title years before I started the book," Egan said. "For a long time, whenever I had a new idea, I wondered, Will this book be Goon Squad? And it finally was."

"What exactly is a goon?" Ullman asked. "One of your characters says, Time is a goon. What does he mean?"

"A goon is a comic thing. Not a scary term, a silly term," she said. "It's like a very cartoonish thug. And Time is a goon is a completely made-up saying, but [it means] that time wins. The Grim Reaper, but in a lighter sense."

Everything about Egan was confident. She's been through dozens and dozens of interviews just like this one. I watched her shake back her hair, cut short, silky in the stage lights, the same silver-brown of a Yorkshire terrier's coat. I could picture her, a New York City adoptee (born in Chicago and raised in San Francisco), walking around Brooklyn with her ear-buds in, listening to Elvis Costello. Confident. Creative. Nothing Egan said in her interview was perfunctory or unthinking. Hundreds of people had gathered in Oslo just as similar crowds had in interviews across the U.S., everyone eager to catch a glimpse of the mind that had conceived a book this different, this wacky... a work Time Magazine described as an "expert fillet" of an epic novel.
On a gray Wednesday evening in April, I walked to Oslo's Litteraturhuset under the red blossom of my umbrella. I was on my way to see Australian author Anna Funder talk about her debut novel, All That I Am. Cars splashed murky water from the gutters up onto the sidewalk. I worried that my heart was about to break.

As a hopeful, student author, I've been told a thousand times that good writing is always genuine. That I must write from a place of sincerity and passion. Time and again, my mentors and professors have said to me, Write the story you must. Like any other helpful adage, however, once this truth has been used as a device to stimulate creativity a few dozen times, it loses its shine, its magic, its ability to impel. It becomes personal affirmation. Still true, but benign. 

Then last winter, I heard a teacher say something new. 

Bill Lychack, author of The Architect of Flowers, spoke to my class about what a writer's product is and where it comes from. Snow dusted the bare trees outside our classroom in Cambridge. When it came to his own process, Lychack said, "What I must do is all that concerns me." But then he went on...

Write the thing that would break your heart if someone else wrote it first.

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