Inside Mr Expat

[The Writer] must be conscious of the difficulty of writing about situations which readers cannot measure against their own experience. There are all sorts of dangers in this situation -- charlatanry, the exploitation of local color and so on. What kind of relationship to his readers does he envisage when he is treating exotic material?"
P.H. Newby BBC Controller, internal memo, dated 5 April 1963.

The writer that Mr Newby was talking about was Mr Anthony Burgess (John Anthony Wilson) - author of A Clockwork Orange.

Burgess lived in Malaya (as it was then) in the 1950's. He worked as a rather idiosyncratic if earnest teacher at Kuala Kangsaar (near the Thai border) and later at Kota Bharu. Then after a brief return to England, in Brunei. During his time seems to have spent a great deal of effort getting outrageously drunk (as did his wife), sleeping around (as did his wife), and upsetting the local expat community by actually learning the local language, unlike his wife who was busy getting drunk at the Kota Bharu airport bar and was upsetting the local expat community by flashing her tits a bit too often.

Much of this exemplary expat behaviour made it into his "Malayan Trilogy" (as it is called in USA). Which is a rollicking good read, albeit somewhat tame in its descriptions of what went on we might think now, but still enough to cause a small scandal at the time - libel suits etc. Even in A Clockwork Orange the violence and sex were more implied than described (unlike the movie!)

According to Andrew Biswell's biography, "The Real Life of Anthony Burgess", (the link is on my aNobii list) Burgess's response to the above memo, prompting guidelines for a radio lecture, was to explain that:

'The exotic,' he wrote, 'is a dangerous and corrupting thing for the novelist to write about,' because the 'strangeness' and 'glamour' of remote places encouraged a journalistic style of fiction (in which 'the content is more important than the technique') that was opposed to the more careful aesthetic patterning he associated with the genuinely literary novel... 'One wonders how much true devotion to his art is shown by the novelist who expatriates himself because of income tax, disillusionment with English society, climate, or in search of greater sexual tolerance.' p223. [Emphasis: mine]

This is something that really concerns me as the way we expat bloggers who like to document the jaw-dropping surreality of expatriate existence tend only to end up reading each others blogs. I am getting into a bad habit of trying to amaze and amuse three of four people I know read me, with more and more scandalous true-to-life anecdotes. But there is nothing truly new (to the world at least if not to me) in such experiences - people have been getting drunk and falling over since the Sumerians invented beer 5000 years ago. Mind, it's the way I tell 'em...

The Blue Velvet-curtain parting stuff of the Otherness of life here many of us bloggers write about remains passe however new - if you go back into Malayan Trilogy, or even Orwell's Burmese Days, or even Kipling (I believe) you will find that nothing has really changed.

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there ain't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin', and it's there that I would be--
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea; Kipling Mandalay

The locals are still restless and surly until you get to meet them then they are duplicitous and inscrutable, the girls exotic and easy (for a price) until you marry them, the politicians only amenable after such a sizable kick-back that it is destined to ruin the profitability of any proposed venture, the police flat-out corrupt, the traffic insane, the air miasmatic, the water fetid, the food disastrous, the expats trapped in locked-gate self-protecting social enclaves numbed with gin and tonics and kept diverted from their banal lives by scandalous affairs. Read bankers for honorary consuls these days. (But a banal life in the tropics is still better than a banal life in country Victoria, trust me on that... or trust Madame Bovary.)

OK that is fine because it is all sadly true, but if I wanted to write a real true-blue bona-fide NOVEL I would almost be forced to stuff it with similar observations and experiences, the incidents that currently fill my blog in short. Because that is what I have experience of, what I know.

The problem is that the people at home (wherever that is) don't want to read any of this sort of stuff - they don't read expat blogs, why should they read expat novels? They do not have images in their brains to match your descriptions, can't place them in their realm of analogies. Their minds are held in fast suburban chains. They want local political stuff, they want stuff they can directly relate to, they want to talk about what was on telly last night (Burgess's complaint about '50's and 60's England as well). They read local blogs, or blogs about American Idol. They couldn't give a fuck that my taxi-driver tried to kill me last night, or whatever (he didn't ,THIS time).

It's all a case of Khe Sahn Syndrome.


(Don Walker) Cold Chisel

I left my heart to the sappers round Khe Sanh
And my soul was sold with my cigarettes to the blackmarket man
I've had the Vietnam cold turkey
From the ocean to the Silver City
And it's only other vets could understand

And I've travelled round the world from year to year
And each one found me aimless, one more year the more for wear
And I've been back to South East Asia
But the answer sure ain't there
But I'm drifting north, to check things out again

You know the last plane out of Sydney's almost gone
Only seven flying hours, and I'll be landing in Hong Kong
There ain't nothing like the kisses
From a jaded Chinese princess
I'm gonna hit some Hong Kong mattress all night long


The answer is to find a plot that drives people through the exotica, a plot that moves the descriptions of the mad social milieu beyond mere dull and unattractive reportage (however outlandish) into the fundamental part of a gripping story.

Any suggestions?



Posted by: expat@large on Mar 18, 06 | 9:34 pm | Profile


In your own words: “Every good story tells of a journey”.

We don’t read your blog because you describe the expat experience. We read because you are a poet and tell the truth.

But your intelligence sometimes distracts you from your true gift. Forget all of these random considerations and just write the book you would want to read.

We are all waiting.

Posted by: Svend on Mar 19, 06 | 9:56 am

Yes !

Posted by: drymonsoon on Mar 19, 06 | 10:32 pm

It is all about point of reference, unless someone can start with a shared experience and through such re-live or imagine such things, real-life stories just don't work...

Fantasy % Science Fiction work because they are all about immagination, autobiographical stuff works because people, have seen the same stuff, or they know you.

...and as for ex-pat bloggers I read them to be reminded of places I have been, see how someone elses take on it was diferent (which is ironic since I don't actually write about my ex-pat experience).

But I also ony tend to read the Blogs of those who are at the very least articulate and refrain from the inane and infantile...

Posted by: Indiana on Mar 20, 06 | 5:10 am

I read Burmes Days when I was fourteen, look at me now!

thank you for letting me getting inside you finally!! this is much better than adult friend finder

Posted by: TheOriginalTrousersnake on Mar 20, 06 | 10:41 am

Was not fishing for compliments (at least don't think i was) but thanks anyway Svend, Dry et al.

Indy, I am struggling with the fact that i have no imagination. My work has enforced me into living from day to day this habit has gradually excluded the future from my thinking... and it seems to have worked some evil magic to do the same with my writing. It seems to me that I can only report what happens and make snide comments. I can't think ahead to a plot. NB I could never plan more than 2 moves ahead in my chess games, so this may be me reaching... As an analogy I cannot see more than 40 feet around me without my glasses - that blurry world doesn't exist until it enters a certain focal range.

Funnily, you mention Fantasy/SF: I am reading a lot of Philip K Dick at the moment and a book about him. HIS fantastic time-slip reality/fantasy-dichotomy worlds match his real life troubles incredibly closely, believe it or not.

Maybe I am not alone.

Maybe I am merely a robot programmed by a jealous husband writing this and you are all being fooled into screwing my wife...

TS, Orwell kicks ass - his essay "why I write" is why I write.

Posted by: expat@large on Mar 20, 06 | 9:07 pm

btw, the title of this post refers Burgess'd barely-concealed autobiographical fictions, the "Inside Mr Enderby" series.

Posted by: expat@large on Mar 20, 06 | 9:15 pm

you're right mate there is a difference between being a smart arse and a professional comedian and sadly there are many more talented writers than published ones. However the difference is much smaller than you might think, albeit a critical one. Write your first book, send it to publishers (they won't) then write your second book. And if you're thinking of giving up the day job, first read Keep the Apidistra Flying. Gutt lukk herr Bartlet!

Posted by: TheOriginalTrousersnake on Mar 21, 06 | 8:11 am

I reads it because of the stripper stories.

Posted by: Tom on Mar 21, 06 | 11:59 pm

Thanks for the comment Tom. (I only write it for the stripper stories, I need to hear what happens as well.)

And obviously the ophthalmologist is not working for you. Try the psychiatrist next door...

Posted by: expat@large on Mar 22, 06 | 9:05 am


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