Writing the Expat Novel

Inside the Taj Mahal

“Not all those who wander are lost.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

At Art of Storytelling, we coach numerous expats on their novels and nonfiction books, and as a writer myself, two of my novels, AIR and FIRE are expat novels. What distinguishes an expat novel from other literary works?

The protagonist is thrown into a setting that is not her own, one that challenges the very core of the main , and challenges the author. How do we write the setting so that non-expats, so that people who have never been to the country, can truly integrate that setting into their psyche as they’re reading your book? How do we convey a different culture? How do we convey that culture’s affect on the psyche of our protagonist?

I’m an American, and I was an expat for many years in Tokyo, throughout Asia and in London. When I wrote AIR and as I’m currently writing FIRE, I’m always thinking about how to not only convey the setting so that it makes sense to an American audience, but also, as everyone knows who has travelled extensively or lived for years abroad, the experiences can be mind-blowing. How can such experiences be put into words? How can we convey the truth of the glory and discombobulation of expat life when often the experience is culturally nuanced and wordless?

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
Augustine of Hippo
I believe expat writing is simply an exaggeration of what it means to be a writer in the first place. We separate ourselves from life. We see far into the people around us. We float above our setting, even when we’re at home. To be able to be a writer at all, aren’t we all expats, even in our own country? Aren’t we all experiencing life and love and death from some place far above the crowd? With expat novels, the plot, character arcs, setting and theme are often more extreme when it comes to the concept of “separation and distance” but still, the results are the same — a poetic exploration of the human condition. With expat novels, often that human condition slams up against cultural mores vastly different from our own. Conveying that well is a challenge, but when all is said and down to universal themes that affect us all, no matter what our culture: Love, Home, Family, Acceptance, Vision, Death.
To me the joy of expat living and travel as a writer and artist is this: Yes, it opens my eyes to different worlds, but it also opens my eyes to my place of birth. I’m a better writer now of stories set in the U.S. because I left it. Because I left, I can see much farther into the roots and soil of the earth I left behind.
“Travel far enough, you meet yourself.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
Writing an expat novel? Contact us for a free initial consultation, www.artofstorytellingonline.com.

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