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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Fear, Shame, and the Expat Memoir

I've made no secret of my general dissatisfaction with most expatriate memoirs.  Written in the first person, so many of them follow a formula that goes something like this:  naive but well-intentioned foreigner goes to live in a strange land where he/she meets the exotic Other, finds much to admire in the culture of the cute and quaint natives, learns their ways (and their language), integrates to the point where he/she becomes Almost X (almost American, almost French, almost Japanese, almost [insert country/culture here]) and then uses that insider knowledge to interpret that country/culture for the benefit of his compatriots and/or humanity.  Every expat a Kim, every expat experience a Hero's Journey.

I read many books about Americans and other Anglo-Saxons in France before and after I moved there in the late 1980's.  And when my life there turned out to be nothing like what I had imagined it would be, I spent years wondering what was wrong with me.

Because we seemed to have physically moved to the same geographical location but they seemed to be living in another world.

In their world there was always enough money, they lived in lovely houses in the South or plush apartments in Paris, their children were effortlessly bi-lingual, and the French were this adorable tribe with quaint and exotic customs that were an endless source of amusement (not to mention new material for books and articles). Misunderstandings, problems adapting, learning the language and the like were brushed off as mere bumps on the road. They made it sound so romantic. And I would finish some of these books feeling like a failure. Why am I so ambivalent? Why do I have these moments of loss and despair? Why am I having such a hard time when all of these other people seemed to have effortlessly segued into a fabulous life here?

It took me some time and a larger perspective to understand that these books are Disney-style fairy tales. Cinderella stories with happy endings written for Americans or Australians or Brits that describe France in a way that conforms to certain positives stereotypes of the French and bucolic myths about life here. People want to read (and will pay for) stories that feed their fantasies about selling everything, dropping out of the rat race, getting on an airplane with a backpack, and writing a great novel in a bistro in Paris or restoring a French farmhouse in Normandy.

The stories we long-term residents of foreign shores share with each other bear no resemblance to the fantasies we tell or sell publicly.  The True Tales are those we keep close to our chests to be whispered down wells at midnight, or we let slip only after imbibing copious amount of alcohol in the presence of those with whom we feel safe.

And that's a pity in so many ways.

Because if we look under and around the Fairy Tales we will find incredible complex stories about courageous human beings. These are people have experienced loss, grief, poverty, addiction and even madness abroad  - a whole host of rich experiences that are difficult to talk about: broken relationships, illness, business failure, bankruptcy, mental institutions and even prisons. All hundreds, or sometimes thousands, of miles away from the place they used to call "home."

So why don't we write about these things?  That's a complicated question that deserves some deep thinking. The best ones do usually in an oblique way and if you are a migrant/expat yourself you can read between the lines.  But most don't go anywhere near an exposure of the self that would take the reader out of Disneyland and into the flawed world of real human beings.  Which means that those books will never be more than the equivalent of Romance novels however well-written some of them are.

What do we need to push past to write honest and human expat memoirs?  What all great writers have to push past:  fear and shame.

Fear underlies much of our self-censorship.  Some of that fear is justified.  A book about living in France or Japan or any other country that does not follow the formula which extols the virtues of the adopted country and its native citizens might not sell so well.  Worse, it could expose the author to all kinds of criticism - that he or she doesn't really understand the country and its people, that he or she is clearly not well integrated, that he or she is whining (and the last is usually followed by "And if he/she doesn't like it here, then he should just go home.")  And in the very worst case it might cause pain to family, marital problems and even dicey situations with the authorities.  It has not escaped my notice that expatriate authors who write nice safe things about the country they live in get rewarded for being Good Boys and Girls.  Those who are critical and honest get crucified.

Shame is the other impediment.  That sense that we aren't good enough and that we must hide our flaws and our mistakes.  Perhaps we compare ourselves to others and think that we are "less than" in comparison.  The marriage didn't work out, the spouse is abusive, the children are not bi-lingual, we can speak but can't read or write the local language, we have ongoing financial problems, our advanced degrees turned out to be useless where we landed, we drank, gained weight, offended people, embarrassed ourselves, were laughed at, got fired, fought with our in-laws, alienated friends, and suffered many indignities large and small in silence over the years or lost our tempers (and our minds) and did things we deeply regret.

This is the compost of which our lives are made. The ugly human stuff that ferments below the surface of the masks we wear and the pretty stories we write.  This is the kind of expat memoir I hope to be brave enough to write one day.  A True Tale that transcends fear and shame and is written with the advice of Arthur Penn firmly in mind:

“Tap into what you don’t want to say.” 


Tim said...

Are there any novels written in France about French people living in the United States or Canada? I am curious as to why they are not any.

Leslie in Oregon said...

I hope you write your memoir. Soon. I will look forward to reading anything you write, but the topic of the realities of emigrating would particularly compelling in your articulate, honest hands. Truly, Leslie

Inaka Nezumi said...

"Tap into what you don't want to say." Brilliant advice.

Anonymous said...

Good reflections. Is it both internal as well as what publishers want?

But I agree with Leslie. You should write - or at least compile your relevant posts - for a more honest look.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Tim, Excellent question and that sent me looking. So far I haven't found any. There is a one written by a British woman about their time in Texas which I read and it was OK. There are some novels written by French about Japan - just finished one called Une Saison Japonaise which is a good read. I also recommend the novel Passion Fruit by Sandra Cruz about an expat couple in Brazil.

@Leslie, Trying to get the courage to do that. As I said, the fear is justified.

@Nezumi-san. Here is the full quotation: “Tap into what you don’t want to say.” Tap into that secret place, despite the agony, despite the personal pain, over and above the fatigue. This one little piece of me I want to get down on film."

@Andrew, It's both. I've talked to many expats who shrink at the idea of revealing to their families and friends back in the home country just how bad things got for them. They have either tried to talk about it and were shut down because no one wanted their bubbles bursted, or they are just too ashamed to admit that they moved to another country and it didn't go well - personal failure. An example what man wants the world to know that his Japanese wife is deeply unhappy with him, left him more than once, and refused to sign off on his residency card in the hopes that he would be thrown out of the country (this has happened to more than one foreign man I've met here in Japan). Or the woman in France I met years ago sold everything back in the home country and was in France for less than a month when her French husband asked for a divorce. Powerful stuff. The stuff of which one hell of a novel or memoir might be made.

And do not underestimate the precariousness of the migrant (even ones from developped countries). The foreign citizenship puts the person in a one down position when it comes to the courts and the society. So writing something that is not necessarily flattering to the receiving country can get a migrant in a lot of trouble.

Unknown said...

Born French, naturalized American 40 years ago - professionally active 20 years in France and 30 years in the US - one (almost) bilingual son - now 75 and retired, Lucky enough to split time between Paris and the US.

In short, I think I am qualified to express an opinion: Victoria is totally right, as usual. And I wish I was as gifted as she is...