About seven years ago I wrote a story for Newswrite on how being an expatriate writer was not all it’s cracked up to be. The article focused on the silent, negative aspects of living and writing overseas because at the time non-fiction tales of leaving home and relocating to far-away lands stacked slush piles and crammed book shelves. It seemed then that no-one was being truly honest about the complexities and challenges of writing from deep within another culture.
It is wonderful now that technology has totally revolutionized every single one of the down sides listed all those years ago. Compared to a decade ago, expat writers are connected, supported, driven, social and competitive. All this because we are probably more plugged into the web than any other writing community.
My former article looked at several long distance issues, especially loneliness. And I am not talking about the David Malouf kind of Tuscan expat writing, where he says that ‘taking himself out of ordinary daily life’ helps him to see things more clearly. I’m talking about writers who make their livings whilst based permanently overseas. At the end of David Malouf’s foreign sojourn, he goes home. For David, ‘aloneness’ was sought, for long-term overseas authors genuine loneliness was a big problem. And technology has all but eliminated it.
After four books, countless articles and sixteen years writing alone in my office in Florence, Italy, I now belong to several expat writers’ internet networks. Before this new ease of communication my enthusiasm would often flag due to little contact with the English world. Now however, it feels as though the members of Facebook’s Florence Writers, #Xpat Writers Network (in Italy) and Creative People in Florence are with me at my desk, cheering me on. Our professionally based on-line friendships have resulted in the Florence Writers Group, where we support and encourage each other as well as invite English speaking authors to talk. English speaking Literary Lunches are normal enough at home, but were only dreamt of in Italy because of the lack of connection between writers.
Sydney born, France based author of Harper Collins’ Escaping and Lavender and Linen, Henrietta Taylor says her major communication problem is language. Henrietta suffers from a common, long term overseas resident’s affliction; she’s losing her English. ‘My difficulty is that I speak French most of the day so when I am writing I have to constantly read in English and watch English TV to get back into the groove of finding words that are hidden in the drawers in the back corners of my brain.’ Podcasts, Book Show video interviews, vlogs, blogs and Iphone Talking Books help us maintain our mother tongues now. Obviously English writers in non-English speaking backgrounds read a lot to avoid vocabulary recall erosion but it used to be impossible to quickly locate and buy new English books – for leisure or research. Kindle has resolved that problem.
Foreign isolation affected Australian born Michelle Lovric too. Author of five novels and New York Times bestseller Love Letters, Michelle lives in Venice. Although she cannot easily do promotional tours, writer’s talks or book presentations, distance has not affected her book sales. ‘My last novel, The Book of Human Skin, was a TV Book Club pick. It received a huge number of reviews on Amazon and was a book club choice.’ Michelle says internet technology made her book more visible than if she flew home for interviews.
Another challenge overcome is that there is now far more leniency towards non-Australian residents entry into Australian literary competitions. Entrants must be Australian citizens but there is not as much exclusion of those who live overseas. The internet has opened up a large number of web based literary awards too and the content brief is far broader. In electronic competitions there is no focus on fostering Australian talent by demanding Australian content – a pulse long term non-residents lost years ago – so we are matched fairly on-line.
Former ABC journalist and author of twelve novels, Sandy McCutcheon loves being immersed in Fez, Morocco, where he moved seven years ago. He says his greatest relocation problem was technological. ‘Internet cafes afforded the only way of getting on line. Now, thankfully, that has changed. Even in the deep Medina our house has been rewired to provide WiFi in all the rooms as well as the larger courtyard and two terrace spaces.’
Sandy McCutcheon adds that many expat Australian and New Zealand writers and artists choose to live outside their home countries because there is great value in immersing yourself in other cultures. ‘It affords the writer a fresh perspective, new material and a chance to reflect on their own culture from a distance.’ His sentiments are in harmony with a great many Australian expatriate writers, who say they need to disconnect, to go away. Living in another world provokes fresh observations, feelings and story lines. For those who chose to leave home either for a short term or long term overseas writing experience, the technological support to achieve your writing dreams has never been so great.