Somewhere in London, 15-Minute Painting Series, http://www.carolineallen.com, 2012
When I was a little girl in Missouri, we had only two books in the house, a King James Bible and the Farmer’s Almanac. I was voracious for books, insatiable. I remember reading and re-reading food labels, anything to be able to absorb the glory of words.
I had older brothers and sisters, and every once in a while they’d bring a book home from school or a library. Curious George was one. I don’t remember the others. I do remember, however, when I was 7 years old, someone leaving a hardbound, tattered, dog-eared, beat up book on the living room shag. It was Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.
I can describe it in no other way, I fell headlong into that book. Mid-Missouri is a place of Irish and German immigrants, of scrubby forests, stinking hot summers, of rivers and lakes, of fishing and hunting wild animals. It is a practical place, a puritanical place, where the only magic appears with the twinkling of lights at the holidays. Otherwise, it is simply a place of hard, rural, back-breaking work.
Here in my lap as I sat cross-legged on the orange shag was a place of dreams, of magic, of color. An other-worldly place. I knew as I was reading it that this was another world. I knew the words written on the page were written first in some other language. I remember feeling when reading that book at age 7 like I was on some kind of literary jungle gym. I loved it.
I already knew at age 5 that I wouldn’t do what all the girls in Missouri seemed to do, marry someone nearby and start having kids. I knew even when I was tiny that I would travel the world.
Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves was my first trip abroad. I absorbed the illustrations, the words, the very binding into my flesh.
Afterwards, I became even more voracious. I read everything I could get my hands on, but nothing seemed to fulfill the need to visit other worlds. Then I happened upon the King James Bible. I remember holding the hefty tome in my hand. This certainly wasn’t written originally in English.
I locked myself in the upstairs bathroom and began to read, from the beginning, through the middle, to the end. Every night, I was in that bathroom for a couple of hours. I had six siblings, and I cannot remember once being interrupted. The cold toilet seat, the filmy paper, the words that were foreign even as they appeared in English. What I read often didn’t make sense to me. But something deep was being pulled from the earth and was entering my body.
So, I grew up, and abroad I went. First to Tokyo to work as a journalist for more than three years. I didn’t go with an American company, just showed up and found a job. I didn’t want to be associated with Americans. I wanted outside the box that was my life, that had formed and blocked my thinking. I wanted to feel the exotic. I wanted it to stretch me, deepen me.
No one in my family had been abroad, unless you count a drive through Canada on the way from and to Alaska. I worked for a newspaper where the reporters were writing in English, when English wasn’t their first language. Again, I was fascinated by the construction of sentences, the use of language, the twist on idioms. One person wrote: “Beer is not my cup of tea.” I still think of that phrase daily. Soon, I became editor and worked with all of the Japanese reporters, cleaning up their copy to go to print. “A man today found a finger in his bum,” one reporter wrote as a lead to an article. He thought “bum” was “bun”. I still think about that daily too.
Then as a travel writer in Asia for a year, traveling through India, Nepal, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, I entered a whole new phase of writing — interviewing through interpreters. As I spoke to the becak driver in Indonesia about his life (his home was his motorized rickshaw), I understood the interpreter was not just translating words, but an entire culture that I could only hope to capture glimpses of in my articles.
Years went by. I gave up journalism and became a writing coach. As a coach, I had the privilege to work with novelists for whom English wasn’t their first language. One is Andrea Hessmo, a Swedish woman living in Singapore fictionalizing her adventures with Gypsies in Eastern Europe. I mean, my GOD, could I ask for anything more refreshing, fulfilling, interesting. With her, I got to explore a Swedish sentiment, wrapped in a Singaporean daily life, steeped in the lives and music of the Roma.
I was an expat, like Andrea, and I’m fascinated with how living abroad evolves one’s perspective. I’m fascinated with writing about that shift in perception that happens after living abroad for years. In my second novel AIR, still to be published, I explore what it means to live floating above a culture, to sever roots, to truly become an international citizen and never be able to go home again.
One of the truths I’ve recognized in talking to international writers is how hard it is to create and sustain a community of writers when you travel so much.
To engage my love of the international community, to help writers get started writing fiction, and to assist them in creating and perhaps sustaining an international writing community, I’ve just launched an E-Course for travelers, expats and international writers of all kinds called International Novel/Memoir Writing. Through training videos and downloadable lessons over five weeks, you’ll learn writing basics such as idea generation, characterization, setting, plot and theme. Many who have taken this course end up with a rough draft of the first pages of a novel or memoir. Go to http://www.artofstorytellingonline.com/#!international-novelmemoir-writing/c20e to register. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with questions.
FREE OFFER: The International Writers Survival Kit, 5 Tips to Help You Start Writing. Go here to download your PDF file!
To read more about this subject, read Andrea Hessmo’s blog about writing a novel in English as a second language at http://www.andreahessmo.com.
At Art of Storytelling, we offer a free initial consultation, http://www.artofstorytellingonline.com.