Writing the Expat Novel

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Assisi, Italy, www.carolineallen.com


I’m working on a series of four novels, EARTH, AIR, FIRE and WATER, two of which are expat novels (stories set in foreign countries). In EARTH, my protagonist is rooted to a farm in America. In AIR, she floats above the culture in the Orient. In FIRE, her ego is burned up, her life left in ashes in London. Finally, with WATER she goes through a profound healing transformation.

The ideas for the novels came a few years after I’d returned to the States from more than a decade living abroad. Since then, I have finished EARTH and AIR and am half way through FIRE. AIR AND FIRE are expat novels.

As novelists, how do we write an expat novel when we are no longer around the culture? I didn’t have the financial luxury to travel back to Tokyo, and anyway it was more than a decade since I’d lived there, and the Tokyo of the late 90s was nothing like the place I’d moved to in 1987.

So, how to begin? I always begin with research and read at least a dozen nonfiction books on the subject. I studied history books on Japan during World War II. I read anything I could find on Emperor Hirohito. I found expat novels written by solo women travelers to Tokyo.

As a writing coach I tell my clients this, you have to immerse yourself in the aura of the place. It’s not just a matter of getting your head around it, you have to get your soul IN it.

I re-read Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills, one of my favorite novels based in Japan. I went online and looked over all of the English language newspapers. I watched Japanese movies (Kurosawa), ate Japanese food (tempura), listened to Japanese music (shamisen and taiko drums).  I immersed myself every day for months while writing the novel, and actually found it was more difficult to come out of it, and do mundane tasks like paying my American bills, than it was to stay immersed in the essence of kimono, tea ceremony and origami.

It was important to me to marry in the novel the epic nature of the adventure — AIR is a fictionalized version of my life as a journalist in Tokyo — with the absolutely brutal difficulties expats can face. I wanted my protagonist Pearl to feel what I felt: leaving a small rural place in mid-Missouri for the big city when no one in her extended (poor) family had ever been abroad, let alone lived outside their country. To show how homeless a person can feel as an expat, I created a Japanese character who becomes homeless. To show the pull backwards of our home country, as we make a confused leap into an unknown foreign future, I had a character from Earth, from that rural place that my protagonist had left, show up in Tokyo. To explore feminist issues, I created two women characters, one Japanese, one half Japanese and half American, to explore all sides of an issue that is dear to my heart — how women are treated around the globe.

I also wanted to show how you question everything, yourself, culture, day-to-day behaviors, your very sanity. I wanted to show my protag feels herself untethered, floating above and looking down upon the world, instead of feeling part of it. I wanted to convey the cultural disconnect in the very vocabulary I used.

But I also wanted to show the epic nature of taking such the leap of leaving your home country. Nothing can expand the soul so profoundly, so irreversibly than the expat experience (if you let it. I know I met some Americans in Japan who only hung around with other Americans. You can find that anywhere. People who leave home, but never leave home).

I wanted to capture a heroine’s journey for my protagonist. How severing ties with her homeland, and floating above a culture puts one inside an epic path of transformation. I wanted to convey that some of us are CALLED to do this severing, so as to serve some greater good. I wanted to show the power of that.

Did I succeed? Time will tell. I’m finishing all four novels before seeking publication.

The only advice I can give to the expat writer is to be as authentic as possible, whether you’re writing memoir, short stories or a novel. Don’t gloss over the emotional pain of separation from culture, the jarring that can happen in the tiniest details of living,  but don’t downplay the epic nature of throwing yourself in waters where you may not even be able to speak the language. In fact, it may be easier to convey the difficulties than it is to write about how glorious and soulful the experience can be. I tell clients: think about the love, too, when writing. Look back and remember those scenes of powerful emotional movement. For me, one such time was when my then boyfriend Stephen took out a flute in the Taj Mahal in India. I have never heard music echo back with such beauty in my life. I remember it as if it were yesterday. It touches my heart even today.

One thing I do know: we expat writers are the wave of the future. As the internet connects us all so intimately, as such a connection sparks revolutions around the world, the world will need artists to translate. And whether you wanted to be or not, you are one of the chosen, a global translator of the human experience.

Art of Storytelling offers one-on-one coaching for expats, www.artofstorytellingonline.com, and in November 2013, we’re offering an e-course for expat writers, http://www.artofstorytellingonline.com/#!international-novelmemoir-writing/c20e


3 thoughts on “Writing the Expat Novel

  1. Interesting. I too lived in Japan in the late 80s-early 90s. I wrote a novel set there and almost got it published by Sceptre but then they changed their mind. I followed it up with two novels set in England, with most of the same characters. Because this was now effectively a trilogy I was too obsessed with getting the first one out when I should have been trying to sell the second two independently of the first. You live and learn. That was all in the late 90s/early00s. Fast forward to this year and I have written a crime novel set in Tokyo called Tokyo 90: Neon Identity. This one is the best by far but because the first one nearly got there Sod’s Law will probably mean that the current one will get nowhere. But you never know. Nearly every agent commented positively on the style of the first but the general consensus was it wasn’t plot-driven enough. The current one is, in my view, better written and is totally plot-driven. If I get lucky I’ll let people know on here.

    Regards to all, Nick Mellor.


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