The ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) paperbacks arrived today. The joy was indescribable. One of my colleagues at UT Austin (where I work) took pictures of the absolutely glee, historical moment of awesomeness. Click here to request your ARC, click here to RSVP to the book launch On January 26th from 5-8pm at the Writing Barn. Thank you!
by Britta Jensen
I act like I am an immigrant to my own country. Because I am. I have been in the sweltering heat of Austin, Texas for three weeks, avoiding my fear of:
- the bugs,
- the possibility of being robbed
- not knowing how to do things that any normal American should know how to do.
- a lack of health insurance
- the unknown
Isn’t this all a part of the adventure of re-immigration?
Wait. I’m a U.S. citizen. My passport says I belong. However, pieces of paper rarely define who we are, regardless of what the census demands. (Yes, I had a census packet awaiting me on my first day of receiving mail at my new flat). I was reminded that it was federal law that I had to fill it out. (And if I wasn’t Mormon and reliant upon census data to do family history I probably would have ignored it.) After ten years of government service and a lifetime of living under military hierarchy I have varied views on what the government can and cannot ask from its “free citizens.”
A week after I’d arrived, with only two local (and recent) friends and several social engagements lined up, my first worry (along with finding a good exterminator) was what was I going to do on my first July 4th back in the U.S?
Because I’ve spent 22 years of my life abroad I couldn’t ignore this first auspicious July 4th and let it pass by in a blur, waiting for the next Bavarian fireworks display to count as my observation of July 4th. (This was similar to what we did in Japan, except Yokosuka and Zushi do a fireworks display to rival all fireworks world-wide, in my very biased opinion). I needed an event to replace previous stateside encounters where July 4th brought a sense of dislocation instead of celebration.
As I contemplated what I would do, I had an inner conversation with myself that went a little something like this:
“I will not don the red, white and blue. I will not sing patriotic songs and look like a gun-toting redneck.”
Instead, I wanted to talk to people about what freedom means to them. I wanted to share what I’ve lived from living overseas while trying to adjust to the fact a huge part of me still resides mentally in Germany, and Korea and Japan. My mind and body hasn’t made the full transition and for the first time I’m willing to accept that it takes a long time to make that complete mental journey. I’m willing to accept my best efforts and not get hung up on the details I can’t handle yet.
Then, July 4th happened. And it was glorious and wonderful. It shouldn’t have been glorious and wonderful, because it was so bloody hot, humid and we were outside with the pregnant expectation of rain in the air. One of my book club members kindly recommended we vacate indoors before the showers started and fifteen minutes before taking respite inside her house the thunder and showers began. Part of me wanted to be outside soaking in it. But, you can’t do things like this when you’re visiting with people. They don’t like wet stains on their furnishings.
So, I watched and listen to the ebb and flow of conversation and felt, though I’d only known this lovely group of women and men for about two weeks (our book club organizer I met at the salon here in Austin when I visited in April and she could see I needed a friend). It was the kindness of these new faces that made me think: this is what makes America great. This was the sense of belonging that I have been missing probably my whole life, with the exception of nine years in New York City. And, the communities in NYC I felt the most comfortable with, no wonder, were recent immigrants, expats, and individuals who looked nothing like me. I never thought this was weird pre-Lord Cheeto.
A small minority of “well-wishers” or “masquerading self appointed prophets” warned me that the U.S. would not be like Germany. I needed to protect myself, not smile so much, be wary and not talk to strangers. (You would think I was 15, not 39). Some made dire predictions that I would be back in Germany within a few years when I got sick of how messed up the U.S. is now. “You’ll see Britta, you’ve been overseas too long.”
It is important to be wary about advice from individuals who have never had a huge emotional investment, and therefore little stored capital in your life. When one makes a huge life/career move, people come from the woodwork. I think it’s a type of spectator sport. “We’ll act like we care so we can say ‘told-you-so’ from the eves and rafters where we’re watching.” It’s an emotional coliseum where the horrors and tragedies are dramatic because they’re happening to someone else and not the audience.
There was something in their premonitions because I do fear for my life on the freeways of Texas. How can a people so kind to your face be such jerks when they drive and risk the life and limb of everyone around them to get somewhere only two minutes earlier than scheduled? It’s almost as bad as driving in Korea. But, these bad drivers–like the bad people we see on the news– only account for a minority.
Another moment of truth brought from my wondrous 4th of July: my belonging is not dependent on other people’s acceptance. And, this is a new tenet in my belief about culture and patriotism. It is possible to be a loyal American without being a crazy patriot. I finally pinned down why I can never be a true patriot: to be one is to deny my foundational belief in the importance of all cultures.
I cannot say “America the Great” without feeling that I’m denigrating someone who doesn’t come from America. I can say that America is a great and mighty country. But, in the next sentence I will say that America has a lot to learn because we put out a public image of greatness without listening to what others have to say.
But, I have to revise this statement about listening, because here in Texas people really want to know (from all walks of life): what is life like in Germany? From the 80+ year old ladies at church, to the opera-happy lifeguard at the YMCA, to the lovely Beijing native watching his daughter swim, to my new neighbour helping me get acquainted with the landscape: everyone is eager to hear what it is like to make such a huge transition. And, unlike past encounters, they really listen. God bless Texas.
When I had a moment of wide-eyed awe at HEB in Mueller with two book club friends, they didn’t chastise me or act like I needed to hurry up and adjust. Marcia (pseudonym) said, “I’m loving watching our city through your eyes, it’s such a joy.” And I felt that trickle, again, of belonging. And part of it is that I’m looking for it. Everyday I’m going out and trying to connect, to be a part of my environment in a way I couldn’t quite manage the past ten years either because my surrounding community wasn’t open to it, or I was too ashamed of my poor linguistic skills.
My brother and I recently had a phone conversation about what it’s like to live in a country where you haven’t lived there long enough to run into people you know. It’s so isolating you wonder if you’re really alive, or if you’re a spirit drifting through another dimension. It is both trippy and incredibly devastating if you are an introvert who is afraid of being impolite and starting a conversation that might burden a stranger.
In my new surroundings, I’ve tried to follow the Brene Brown motto in Rising Strong of connecting, of reaching deeply (daring deeply) and embracing whatever failure might arise as being a part of the courageous living I’ve shied away from in one way or another.
There is a bravery required in belonging that I think can be a part of patriotism. Instead of saying, “look how free America is,” I’d love to hear people say, “What can I do to bring my freedoms to communities that are struggling?” Instead of criticizing your neighbours who leave their chicken bones in the street: try and see why they’re doing it. Have a conversation with them: “It matters to me that our neighbourhood is clean, how I can help make this a possibility?”
I agree that “it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another,” and I see many individuals working at grocery stores until 0100 in the morning and I can’t help wondering if that’s what America needs to be: an altar to the worship of endless goods? Or, can we be the instruments of an endless good that won’t begin and end with things, but people? My life is forever changed by the love of my friends in Germany. Without their faith in me, support, and kindness my life would have turned out very differently.
Andrew Jackson, that old rascal, stated: “No free government can stand without virtue.”And, I believe I have seen more virtue and kindness in my three weeks in Texas than ugly moments. I’ve had so many past ugly moments that I let define my opinion of my country. Now, I’ve chosen to be open to the stories, not the statistics, of what is every individual’s truth. I want to look at people on both a micro and macro level while avoiding easy answers and palliatives. Regardless of what goes on around me, it is not what I wear everyday or put on my bumper sticker that defines me, but what is written on my heart and evident in my daily actions.
by Britta Jensen
WHERE INTEGRATION STARTS
My brother and I have figured out that it takes less than seven days for a letter to transverse the globe from his home in Abuta-gun, Hokkaido, Japan to my flat in Amberg, Germany. His notes remind me of the multi-lingual missives my high school best friend and I wrote in a tiny green notebook that still resides in a trunk of journals I have kept since I was eight.
Now notes to myself are often written in three languages: English, Japanese and German. Individuals familiar with my background often ask about my “Asian” handwriting, love of hospitality (it’s difficult to leave my home without having had something to drink or eat), and will make fun of the fact I bow when I’m deeply grateful. A well meaning colleague went as far as to tell me it was time to “get over” the way I was raised so that I would have an easier time assimilating to life in the U.S. After twenty two years (split between childhood and working adulthood) spent living in Japan, South Korea and Germany I have come to appreciate that integration into any culture is often a two-way street.
My early life started close to the Mexican border. My mother was an interpreter for the deaf and my early memories are of conversations with hands, Mexican markets where she would bargain for the best vegetables on offer, and eating spicey dinners with our neighbour from Turkey. My family often drove across the Coronado Bay Bridge singing along to “Peki, Peki, Anlidik.” It wasn’t until two decades later, while dancing with my Turkish tango partner, that I learned the song’s translation. Unlike our neighbour, my partner wasn’t eager to talk about anything from his native country. He had learned early the necessity, even in New York City, of subsuming his other cultural identity. Like Yiyun Li states in her essay “To Speak is to Blunder” once he came to the U.S. he “became a new person…These are false and forced frameworks, providing illusory freedom…” I wonder how necessary it is for us to shed one identity in order to adopt another?
I understand the weariness of many an immigrant. When my family made a rare pilgrimage back to the U.S., relatives warned us about writing in hieroglyphs. My sister and I were told to stop speaking in Japanese in public because people would assume we were talking about them. For individuals not accustomed to speaking in more than one language, it was probably inconceivable that we weren’t being intentionally exclusive about communication. My sister and I were accustomed to speaking in two languages in a language mishmash. We also had assumed, mistakenly, that the cultural melting pot that the U.S. was famed for being, would go with the flow when it came to our speaking Japanese in public. We hadn’t spent enough time in the U.S. to know otherwise. America was still a famed country that had gilt edges whilst we were away. On NYC subway we became a target for every weirdo who wanted to ask us if we were speaking Swedish.
When I started taking post graduate courses at Columbia University I stopped hiding my multi-lingual background. In my first creative writing class the instructor asked us what we were afraid of. My answer: “that my English isn’t good enough to become a decent writer.” My brain considers all the languages I’ve studied one whole, not separate branches on a language tree. Perhaps it is why half of my stories are set in places I’ve created, because the reality of where I came from is too difficult to extrapolate without making a setting that can integrate all of these cultural forces.
It can be hard to describe what it is like to feel that a place is home, even while the people who inhabit that place will always view me as a foreigner. (Or, as the above right graphic exhibits think it is okay to comment on my genetic origins because I do not belong to the dominant culture). Nevertheless, the pervasive racism in Japan could not destroy my love of my home because I had spent so many happy moments there and felt like I was woven into the fabric of my surrounding community.
When I moved to the northern tip of Manhattan, I had had similar feelings of integration in Washington Heights where I was invited to christenings, baptisms, weddings, and various other cultural celebrations. I quickly learned Spanish, lived in Argentina for a summer, and found a wonderful second home. This false sense of cultural security made me believe it was possible to assimilate anywhere.
A DECADE BETWEEN ASIA AND EUROPE
In South Korea I encountered my first obstacle to integration: I had no relevant background or knowledge of Hongul (Korean). I had been there once in high school and though the country had encountered huge shifts of technological advancement, Daegu, where I lived, didn’t have enough foreigners for people not to constantly stare or point at me. There were enough false cognates in Hongul for me to have a very hard time learning the language.
However, after a year and a half of individual study I was able to read. It probably helped that I started attending an all-Korean congregation and sang in the regional choir. Surrounded by a band of Korean ladies between the ages of 15-70 they would whisper the words of the songs to me so I could write them down. Every Sunday baffled children would watch me sing in Hongul and wonder why it was I couldn’t have a conversation with them. Integration was not possible, but I was happy in knowing I had a community where I had a defined function and purpose.
When a job transfer gave me the opportunity to move to Germany I relished the opportunity to live in Europe and to be reunited with beloved friends. I left with the assumption that I would integrate much like I had in Korea. Unfortunately, I wasn’t prepared for the cultural differences that only residents can be aware of.
Because I am a teacher, I have certain assumptions about learning that even beloved colleagues do not share. I believe that if you want to learn something, you will. Mastery in almost any skill requires a combination of sacrifice, good teaching, and focused repetition. Because Japanese and Spanish felt like they came so easily to me (and never quite required the same level of proficiency that my life in Germany demanded) I thought I would pick up a language in which I could already read, in no time. Local residents in my neighborhood quickly became frustrated when I didn’t learn German fast enough and became a burden on their hospitality.
Until this point the idea of “not learning fast enough” was foreign to me. Everyone learns at the pace in which their brain can work. Consequently, in Germany I was doing many things too slowly: driving (even when I was driving 10km faster than the speed limit), shopping, counting money, speaking, the list seemed to be endless. In my first three years there didn’t seem to be a week that didn’t go by that I wasn’t reduced to tears in the privacy of my car. I had chosen to reside forty-five minutes away from work in the largest nearby city so I could learn German. Finances and writing/work obligations kept me from taking night classes and I was stuck in a limbo. I couldn’t help wondering what it was like for the population of migrants and refugees that soon took up residence in Amberg.
At that time, I didn’t have the patience to realize that acquiring a language– that you haven’t had a lot of exposure to– takes time. I spoke as much as a two year-old in my first three years in Germany. Now, seven years on, I speak almost as well as a highly cognitive four year-old. Germany is not an easy country, particularly in my region, to integrate. Often policy makers for refugees, migrants, and foreigners do not understand that integration requires being invited into local people’s lives. It requires a certain hospitality that often the average German lacks. When I speak to friends about this they admit, frankly, that this is a problem. But, could this also not be isolated only to Germany? I have felt similarly in America: but do I set the bar higher for the country of my birth?
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s essay entitled “Teach Yourself Italian” she perfectly identifies what any immigrant needs “someone with whom I can struggle, and fail.” Essentially, integration requires good teachers. These can be friends, actual language teachers, community members, neighbours. A willing community is necessary where patience is at the heart of embracing different cultures. I have found this, once again, in my church community. Unfortunately individuals without such a network can suffer.
Two things have made my life in Germany a delight: having local friends, especially Germans who have lived extensively in other countries. These friends have been patient to help bring my language skills to the next level. One good friend, a homeopathic healer has helped me to understand that if I visualize that I am already good at something, I have tricked my brain into going along for the ride. But, if I concentrate only on my mistakes, the grimaces from fellow shoppers, then I won’t latch onto the good and the beauty that comes from having the humility to learn, to make a fool of oneself and enjoy the transitory moment of being vulnerable.
There is a certain blind faith I am exercising in going back to the U.S. It is the country of my birth, of my passport, but not necessarily my overall culture. I have become what some refer to as “third culture.” I have lived abroad longer than any of my other relatives, including extended family. At work I am surrounded by individuals who will never go back to the U.S. Some claim they will be buried on German, or foreign soil, rather than go back. I used to believe I would suffer the same fate.
I am aware that I have changed and like Lahiri, if I mention my tenuous cultural beginnings I often receive mixed reactions because of my pale appearance. “[M]any people react negatively. In the United States, some advise me not to do it….They don’t want me to change.” (“Teach Yourself Italian”, p. 11). There is an immense pressure to assimilate back to what I never was. It is too late, because I have already changed and certain cultural variables can never integrate into American culture. Instead of letting this upset me, I am happy to belong to a subset of humanity that is growing: those without a primary culture, but whom are content almost anywhere.
I welcome your insights on integration and culture.
We are the church: becoming a Latter-day Saint woman
by Britta Jensen
After my long daily commute across B299, one of the deadliest roads in Bavaria, I listened to the recent LDS Church news conference welcoming our newest prophet. It was five o’clock in Germany and already dark. Snow, sleet and rain alternated at various times throughout the afternoon, leaving road conditions hazardous.
When I turned on the broadcast it was easy to forget my daily toils, the ever-present needs of my various students, and the oft misunderstood role of being a single, Mormon female. When a journalist asked President Nelson how the LDS Church means to address the needs of the marginalised females (resorting to interrupting the conference with a loud shout: “What about the women?”) I felt quite strange and disappointed. This reporter was clearly directing this question to the wrong gender. If you want to know about LDS/Mormon women: ask us!
I am on what would be considered– by individuals unfamiliar with my church’s doctrine–on the “outskirts” of Mormon society. This has been a frustrating theme of my life: trying to explain that I am not on the outskirts, but neither am I “mainstream.” Neither of these labels are important to either a daughter of God or a Mormon woman. In addition, nothing about me would suggest to any close acquaintance or beloved friend that I am in hiding.
In an average LDS congregation you will find that the vast majority of women my age are married, often have children, and do not work full-time to earn their living. I work fifty hours a week, live in a country where I am a minority culturally and ethnically, and have never been married (or proposed to). However, slide forward 15-20 years and those odds change. Many women become widowed, some divorced. Others have never have the chance to marry (yet!). But, we are not invisible, peripheral, or on the margins of the church. We are central, essential and beloved. I currently am in the leadership of the women’s organisation of a German congregation. By all rights and reason this should not be: I do not fit the mould of what society often perceives to be a “Mormon woman.” Thank goodness society isn’t making the decisions when it comes to church leadership positions.
It is important to understand some of my personal history and how I have come to these conclusions about my status as a gender equal and as a leader. Unlike the common perception of Mormons, I was not born in Utah. I also have never lived anywhere longer than eight months where I was the religious majority. I was born in the U.S., however, 22/38 years have been spent living in: Japan, South Korea, Argentina, and Germany. The longest I lived in the U.S. was in New York City for nine years. Unfortunately, with my quirky personality, I was often a target for ostracisation as a youth attending church programs. The bullying became so severe and the racism against me so marked I had to attend a Protestant youth group. But, I would not let anyone steal my love of the gospel of Jesus Christ, or what I knew was the right direction for my life: in the church. I was not bullied because I was a woman. The reasons have more to do with the bullies than do with me. Being surrounded by loving female role-models (inside and outside my church) has been what has fostered this desire to try to do the same for the next generation.
I have had moments of doubt, almost a decade of struggling with inactivity (not feeling particularly interested in attending church regularly) because of a variety of reasons that I do not wish to make a public record. However, no one in the church, despite many periods of extreme bullying, took away my ability to believe. No one ever made me feel that as a woman I was a lesser vessel of the Lord. Instead, it has been my fellow sisters in the church, most especially in New York, Korea, and Germany who have brought me back, who have nurtured me, fed my spirit and helped me to heal from deep psychological scars.
I don’t think many men are qualified to talk about the lives of women, which is why I feel it’s important for women to talk about being LDS. Many LDS women are so enmeshed with their local communities that they don’t receive much “mic time” outside of the church pulpit. It could be because the vast majority of us are too busy doing the following:
*volunteering in our communities
*making a living
*becoming more educated
*trying to raise the standard of living of those less fortunate than ourselves
*supporting and helping family members in crisis
It isn’t our way to brag, to list our accomplishments, or make public our CVs. We feel that our work, our love, and our lives should be a token of what we believe. None of us are content to lurk in the shadows.
I wanted to share my thoughts, on this very cold, but promising midwinter, as a life-long Mormon. I remain true to my roots, yet endeavour to never be invisible, but always indispensable to my fellow-women and men. I’m fairly certain other Mormon women feel the same.
I officially started my “writing journey” in 2013 when I attended the Writers Workshop’s Getting Published Day. After my first one-to-one session I was informed that my writing looked like I’d never taken a creative writing class in my life.
I was very disappointed, but I knew that I had been writing for too long to let one person’s comment keep me from becoming a better writer. Simply going to university and attaining a BA and MA (and teaching secondary English) don’t necessarily make one suited to fictional prose. Since 2013, I had taken online writing courses, attended writing retreats, writing conferences, paid for manuscript assessments, everything I could afford to do in order to advance my career as an author.
The real turning point took place in 2016 when I took Faber Academy’s Short Story course with Shelley Weiner. The week long course concentrated on all aspects of the short story (with delightful recommended reading). It was exactly what I had needed. I had longed to write short stories, I had written many very badly, but I also had a tendency to write very long novels without knowing exactly where or how to cut them. This course helped to build my confidence level in crucial editing skills, but it also introduced me to my mentor, Shelley Weiner.
For awhile I had wanted to apply for a mentorship programme, but was afraid of paying even more money for instruction that might be repetitive. After taking the course with Shelley, I knew I needed to further the skills I’d gained in a short time. Gold Dust mentoring was a good fit because of its excellent structure and Shelley was aware of my penchant for writing science-fiction, which made her a better fit than blindly applying to a variety of schemes.
Now that I’ve just finished my last session with Shelley, a year later, I can honestly say that Gold Dust mentoring is worth every penny. In fact, every cent I’ve spent on writing mentoring, tutoring, classes, workshops, seminars, etc…has been worth it. But, I feel that the most important part of my writing journey has been through the one-on-one instruction Gold Dust provides for an entire year (or whatever timeline mentors and mentees determine). Before being accepted into Gold Dust’s mentorship I did not have the following skills:
- A regular writing habit that was built into my daily schedule as a full-time teacher
- deadlines that I had to meet because I would not just disappoint myself, but the mentor who was expecting the next section of my novel
- a drive to bring down my excessive first draft word counts
- daily assessment and planning of the novel’s next steps and the world of the novel
- building meaningful reflection time into my daily writing/editing so that the next drafts of the novel were built on what I’d learned from a previous editing session
Anyone who is serious about their craft needs mentoring because manuscript revision can only get you so far. Shelley’s careful eye and kind but firm guidance of my prose and writing process has helped me to grow in ways I never expected. I highly recommend her and the Gold Dust programme! Thank you Shelley and Gold Dust!
Come join us for a great discussion!
Topic: What does YA SF need today? What are the needs of readers in ages 12-15, 16-19?
Friday, August 11, 14.00-14.45, Rm 215 at the Messukeskus, Helsinki, Finland.
I need your insights! (In 20 days I’ll present at WorldCon 75 in Helsinki, Finland). My topic: Young-adult science fiction.
- What are some of your all-time favourite SF books–that are either readable for YA (ages 12+) or could reasonably fit into the YA category?
- What do you wish publishers/writers/literary agents would consider for YA SF?
- What types of characters and futures do you think are currently missing from the YA SF diaspora?
All comments entered into random drawing for the following: a free copy of one of my SF short stories or the first chapter of one of my books (your pick!) Three winners will be chosen. Deadline for insights: July 31st @ 10.00am (Munich, DE time zone).