There is no one-size-fits all formula for building a successful expatriate life and career. It's a combination of a person's own unique qualities, skills, strengths, background and aspirations that contribute to the recipe for a wonderfully rich and flavorful experience abroad.
That said, we can learn a lot from those who are out there living the expatriate lifestyle to the fullest. So today we'll hear from Anastasia Ashman, well known in the expat community for being the co-editor with Jennifer Gokmen of the internationally acclaimed book, Tales from an Expat Harem. Anastasia has graciously given time out of her busy schedule to share about her life as an expat and her portable career as an expat writer.
And away we go...
For those readers that don't know you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m a cultural writer/producer from Berkeley, California and have lived and worked abroad for a decade. One husband, one cat! Degree in Classical Greek, Roman and Near Eastern Archaeology which peeps out every now and then from under all my pop cultural pursuits.
What were your primary reasons for becoming an expatriate?
I was always was attracted to a wider world. Lucky to grow up in a diverse place as the San Francisco Bay Area with access to so many other cultures – particularly Asian Pacific, Central American, African and Near Eastern -- I have never felt bounded by my hometown or my own nationality or America’s physical borders. Or even my lack of facility with languages! I’ve studied 8 (Tagalog, Japanese, Latin, Italian, German, Chinese, Malay, Turkish) and speak only one passably. I’ll be first in line when they introduce a translation chip that enables us to communicate with everyone in our own languages.
Being an expat to me may be more akin to someone who simply isn’t living where they started. I’m just farther away. I guess you could say I’m a fourth generation immigrant, since my parents and their parents and their parents before them all left their homelands or their cities in search of better opportunities in the west. Coming to Europe completes that loop for my family and sometimes when I am slathering Mediterranean olive oil (pressed from the olives at the top of the tree, of course) on a wild arugula salad I think how I am enjoying something a distant ancestor once did but that my closer relatives did not, as they served Spam in Chicago and tofu taco salad in California!
Plus, I like to travel, and took my opportunities to do so where I found them. Of course settling abroad is an entirely different venture than traveling but when you change your base of operation you can also shift your radius for excursions.
You were an expat in Rome, Italy and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia before landing in Istanbul in 2003. What brought you to those places and how would you describe the expat lessons of those places and how they were linked to your professional activities?
I was a college student in Rome at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies, a program run by Stanford University. Studying abroad, as well as performing in Japan with the Bay Area Wind Symphony in high school, began to prepare me for the juggling act of expat life. That is, your surroundings may be different but you still have to deliver. My five years in Malaysia were both an adventure in hubris – exasperated by Hollywood and the entertainment business, going to Asia with a guy sounded exciting – and ultimately a great foundation for making my next expat experience successful both personally and professionally. I brought those realizations with me to Istanbul, where I’m working full time as a self-employed cultural creative.
Among the lessons were that I realized my character requires a survival plan for life abroad, an extra-muscular form of lifestyle design you might call it! This expat lifestyle design helps avoid being overwhelmed by foreign surroundings and enables me to operate from a place of strength and serenity. I learned to accept the basic dilemma of life outside my home country which is that I’ll never fully blend with the local culture, and I figured out that creating a group for support, especially a place of female power, could keep me grounded both in who I am and where I am. I’ve also reconciled two aspects of my personality, the introvert and the connector, and pursue work that both takes me out into my community and also gives me the time alone I need.
And what brought you to Istanbul?
My husband’s work, and family. He was born here, although he is sort of an expat since as a toddler he moved to Belgium when his father took a job at NATO. From New York he’d been running the tech side of his brother’s Turkish company for years, and when a major cellphone software and services project with Turkcell ramped up and needed him fulltime we decided to give Istanbul a try. It was not hard to say yes to the ancient and fabulous Istanbul, for someone like me with a portable writing career and a degree in archaeology.
What inspired the idea of the collection Tales of an Expat Harem?
Soon after arriving I created a women’s writing group with a fellow American Jennifer Gokmen. We realized we were all writing about our Turkish experiences. Collected, they might begin to piece together the puzzle that is modern Turkey. When we called for submissions (from expatriates, writers, women’s groups, and international organizations associated with Turkey, like the Peace Corps alumni) we heard from over 100 women in 14 nations.
My coeditor Jennifer and I played with motifs of female culture in Turkey and were quickly drawn to the anachronistic, titillating concept of an Expat Harem. Basically, we decided to appropriate the word harem, with its connotations of erroneous Western stereotypes about Asia Minor and the entire Muslim world, and infuse it with a new positivity. The harem as a female powerbase is an Eastern feminist continuum little known in the Western world.
Also, an “expat harem” was rich with new meanings. The sultan’s harem was made of foreign-born women, so it was a natural source of foreign female wisdom about Turkey. Social and cultural wisdoms were passed down through the harem. Jennifer and I recognized that modern virtual harems exist today. For instance, foreign nationals in Turkey – and countries everywhere – can create isolated coteries. These groups consist of people confined by language barriers, cultural naiveté and ethnocentricity. We’ve all been there. We also realized how lucky we are that in today’s virtual harems the doors swing both ways. When they swing inward and the walls close in, they usher us in to our own private cultural prison. When they swing out and make us feel the true possibilities of the land where we find ourselves, they are peer-filled refuges.
We declared that our Expat Harem storytellers were embedded in the culture like the imported brides of the Seraglio (the 15th century seat of the Ottoman sultanate). Although they were not all married to Turks or even married, we imagined our writers were ‘wedded to Turkish culture’ the way poet Mary Oliver declared herself “a bride married to amazement.” This metaphor can certainly hold true for the cultural embrace expat women – and men -- feel in other lands as well.
The Accidental Anthologist, my behind-the-scenes essay for the global nomad site Janera.com reveals how the empowering Expat Harem metaphor not only connected me to a worldwide band of my peers but also gave my literary career and conflicted expat mindset a promising new cultural context.
When did you know that you wanted to be a writer and how did your journey to becoming a professional writer begin?
I kept a journal on childhood road trips where I recorded preferences for the wildness of Baja's bumpy sand roads and discovering the motherlode of sand-dollar graveyards in San Felipe to a sedate spin around British Columbia's Lake Victoria and a fur seal keychain from the gift shop. As a preteen I was a correspondent, trying to explain my own culture to teen pen pals in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Malaysia, while I searched for clues about theirs hidden in precise penmanship, tarty vocabulary, and postage stamps with monarchs (butterflies and queens!). I also wrote every weekend and all school holidays (my parents seemed to think they could make a professional writer out of me by insisting it was a job).
During a slew of 20-something media and entertainment jobs I wrote and edited uncredited whenever the opportunity presented itself, for a book packager and literary agency in New York, and for television, theatre and film producers in Los Angeles. I began to be published in Asia in 1997, when I broke into the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asia’s newsweekly equivalent of TIME, with a book review of Pico Iyer’s essay collection Tropical Classical. I chose that book since the dichotomy spoke to me as a global nomad: Iyer was struggling with his identity as an ethnic Indian raised in New Age California, schooled at Oxford, living in traditional/futuristic Japan.
Did you know what type of writing you wanted to do, or did you have to experiment to find what type of writing was for you?
When I learned the term creative nonfiction in the late ‘90s I recognized immediately that it described the type of writing I liked best: nonfiction using the style and devices of a novelist. I am primarily a personal essayist and prefer to write about my own life although I’ve also dabbled in fiction, journalistic reporting, travel writing, screenwriting and poetry. Perhaps a bigger distinction than the discovery of what type of writer I am was the realization that to steer my writing career takes a lot more than just writing.
Without focus you can end up writing for outlets that are inappropriate or need material on topics not of interest to you. It’s hard to find writing work that pays so you’ll have to decide if and when you will prioritize the financial rewards and how you’ll balance that with fulfillment of other sorts. The craft demands focus (with regular critique from a writers workshop, for instance, and further education whether through books or courses).
An understanding of the market and best writing business practices is necessary if you ever hope to place anything. Writing newsletters and websites can be very useful resources for overseas writers to keep pace with the industry. Some good sites include www.worldwidefreelance.com, www.euwriter.com, www.writing-world.com, www.travelwriters.com, www.absolutewrite.com and the forums on editorunleashed.com. Don’t forget to also start following book sales and publication newsletters like Publisher’s Lunch and take advantage of online support for your book promotion at sites like www.booktour.com and bookmarket.ning.com. There’s a huge spectrum of abilities and types of communities out there and a writer should try them all until you find the ones that speak to you the most and push you forward.
Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow!