Monday, August 4, 2014

Where'd the World Go? On Reading TCL by Hidden Immigrants

I really like Nicola Barker.  I discovered her writing on a melancholy December afternoon in White Rock, BC, Canada.  I had been stood up by someone I loved.  The tide was out, I walked the beach for hours, it was cold, I took refuge in a cafe/ bookstore and read this on the frontispiece of Wide Open:

I dreamed I saw you dead in a place by the water.
              A ravaged place.
     All flat and empty and wide open.

It was one of those moments of a work of literature grabbing something at the core of me, and yanking it exactly right, at exactly the right moment.   I read several of Barker's works before even encountering the term "third culture kid" and then I had to dig really hard through numerous "she lives in Hackney" bios to find out that in fact she is also one, having spent years from her early childhood through to the age of 14 in South Africa. 

(Does anyone know of a really good bio of Barker?  I'd like to know more.  Also, not pictured above is The Yips, which though vast and about a has-been golfer, is one of my favorite books ever and includes the best adulterous sex scene I've ever read.  It was so good I gave it to a friend; I must buy another copy.)

Barker's books feature dislocation and disenfranchisement, loss, confusion, perplexed identities: all good TCL stuff.  Other folks I work on a lot lately are similar (McEwan, and though I haven't worked on him I'm excited by Stoppard).  Barker, McEwan, Stoppard are all fixtures of the British literary canon, and are heralded as award-winning British writers.  Their international pasts are hidden.  Indeed they are very much like the hidden immigrants Pollock and Van Reken describe in Third Culture Kids; they "look alike, think different" (55).  On the surface of things they look British, so British, but the reviewers acclaim the ways  these writers are oddballs.

Barker has a "determinedly perverse and ungovernable imagination" according to the Guardian  (from the jacket of Five Miles from Outer Hope).  McEwan is accused of being "obsessed with the perverted, the depraved, the macabre" (Kiernan Ryan).  The Independent says Stoppard takes "perverse delight" in showing the long swath of time  during which humans have been both brilliant and cuckholds.  "Perverse" in descriptions of all three . . .

These writers are praised so highly because something about their imagination smacks of oddity to the British reading/ viewing public.  Something these writers do takes what is expected and twists it.  They are not reasonable, they go too far, they cover uncomfortable ground breaching moral norms and social expectations.  I'd argue that they do all of these things less out of strategy and more because it's what TCKs do.  It's one thing we are good at: we don't really know where the walls of the box are so we go beyond them . . . less because we are trying to be iconoclasts and more because some bit of us (sometimes stubbornly and by desire) is an outsider.

I love the work I do exposing the hidden immigrants as TCKs, stripping the "British" away from a nationally acclaimed writer and posing them as international and dislocated instead.  I really love it.

I started, way back when, reading more obvious works of third culture literature in which authors wrote explicitly, not implicitly, about dislocation, and in which they described travelling and airplanes, boats and hotels, unfamiliar food and culture shock upon repatriation.  This afternoon, I miss the world.  Once I am done reading Catton (don't ask, no I am not done), my next novel might have to be more openly international in subject, perhaps Brittani Sonnenberg's Home Leave.

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