Long-term expat, Elizabeth Shick, has just released a novel inspired by her six years living in Myanmar. In The Golden Land, which won the 2021 AWP Prize for the Novel, Liz explores how we define our identity in relation to culture and country. In real life, she has tackled this question experientially by living and working in Angola, Malawi, Mozambique, Myanmar, Tanzania, The Gambia and Italy. She currently divides her time between Dhaka, Bangladesh, and West Tisbury, Massachusetts.
Can you please share the blurb for The Golden Land?
The Golden Land is a debut novel that digs deep into the complexities of family history and relationships.
When Etta’s grandmother dies, Etta is compelled to travel to Myanmar to explore complicated adolescent memories of her grandmother’s family and the violence she witnessed there. Full of rich detail and complex relationships, The Golden Land explores those personal narratives that might lie beneath the surface of historical accounts.
Can you tell us a little more about the book?
Etta is an American woman who’s grieving the death of her Burmese grandmother, Ahpwa, with whom she had a complicated relationship. As she sorts through her grandmother’s belongings, she’s confronted by a flood of childhood memories, many revolving around a 1988 family reunion in Burma. 1988 was a tumultuous time in the country’s history, with the military regime cracking down on protesters, much like today. Although many of Etta’s memories from this time are quite positive, she also witnessed something traumatic, which she didn’t fully understand.
Meanwhile, her younger sister, Parker, decides to take Ahpwa’s ashes back to Burma, leaving Etta to decide whether to stay in Boston with her fiancé or return to Myanmar and come to terms with the past.
Have you always been interested in international life?
I’ve always been intrigued by questions about how culture and country define who we are. I have a masters in international studies focussed on Africa and have worked in international development and humanitarian affairs for many years, including ten years in Africa, twelve years in Europe, and seven years and counting in Asia.
I understand you also raised a family during this time. How did you juggle family life with your career and your writing?
I met my husband, who’s with the UN, while working for an NGO in Angola. (He’s from Melbourne.) After we married, I began following him. Looking for a fulltime job every time we moved was demoralizing, so I decided to freelance instead, doing small consultancies for various UN agencies and NGOs. Most of these ended up being writing projects, often including field work in rural areas, which is a great way to get to know a country.
I started creative writing after about ten years, and then had to decide where to put my energy: writing reports, creative writing, or being a mother? Eventually, I realized I no longer had the bandwidth to do all three, so I stopped working for a period. Now my children are at university, I’m starting to get back into consulting and have some work lined up for early 2023.
How do you try to assimilate when you arrive in a new country?
For the first year in a new country, I try to immerse myself as much as possible in the culture through a combination of reading—fiction mainly, but also nonfiction—attending cultural events and taking language lessons (even if I don’t become fluent, the lessons allow me to get a feel for the language). I also ask a lot of questions. Usually, people are happy to talk about their experiences.
How did you come to write a book about Myanmar?
We moved to Myanmar in 2013. My studies and expat experience to date had all been in Africa and Europe, so Asia was a surprise. Myanmar has a fascinating history and culture. After 50 years of military dictatorship, it had just begun opening up in 2010-2011. For the first time, people could talk about history and politics, where before, extreme censorship made them afraid to express themselves.
Shortly after arriving, I met a Myanmar woman (I use Myanmar interchangeably with Burmese because that’s what they do) who invited me to join a small book club she was putting together. That first year, we focused exclusively on books about Burma. I felt so fortunate to be part of the ensuing discussions about how these women had experienced the historical events that we were reading about.
I didn’t intend to write a novel, I just wanted to learn about my host country, but as we were talking, ideas began to swirl around in my head. I’d written fiction before but would’ve been intimidated if I’d set out to write about Myanmar without having lived there.
How did you tackle writing a novel?
Funnily enough, the novel began when I enrolled in a US-based online writing course, ‘Twelve weeks to your first draft’, in which I had to submit 3000 words per week. I didn’t have time to think so just let the words come out. I’ve never experienced that flow before, and it made a big difference. But I didn’t finish the novel in twelve weeks!
The first draft took me about two years. The expat lifestyle can be quite disruptive at times – you have to travel quite a bit if you want to see friends and family – so there was a lot of stopping and starting. It always takes me a while to get back into a story after being away from it for a time.
Because I wrote whatever came to mind when I sat down, that first manuscript was all over the place, moving back and forth in time at random. It soon became apparent there were too many flashbacks, so I ended up doing a major revision, reorganising it into the two alternating narratives of 2011 and 1988 that the novel has today.
Tell me about your second draft.
I was pretty enchanted with the story but knew the manuscript needed work. Although I’d been writing fiction for almost a decade, I wrote in complete isolation, rarely sharing my work with others. I decided it was time to take myself seriously as a writer and enrolled in a low residency Master of Fine Arts program in the U.S. Because it was low residency, I only needed to attend twice a year for ten days, which was much more doable than a full time program. In between, I worked with mentors and sent them pages from Myanmar via email.
While in program, I workshopped my novel during the residencies and deepened the writing in between, resulting in a pretty extensive revision.
When The Golden Land was ready, did you submit to agents?
I didn’t query formally but did reach out to some agents I’d met at conferences and literary festivals. The feedback from all three was the same: they liked the story but thought a white woman writing about another culture would be a difficult sell. I agree in general that the publishing industry needs to diversify so couldn’t argue, but I also believed there was a place for this story.
I decided to apply to contests that come with publication, and are judged blind, and won the first one I entered – the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Prize for the Novel.
What are your thoughts about who has the right to tell a story?
I think it’s an important conversation, but we need to be careful not to oversimplify. Culture isn’t a box you can open and close; it’s more fluid than that. In today’s interconnected world, we’ve begun to melt into one another, each of us belonging to multiple different cultures and sub-cultures. I’m not from Myanmar, but I lived there for six years. Can I write about the country? Can someone who shares the same cultural heritage but hasn’t lived there write about it? Sometimes we have more in common with people from other cultures than with those who share the same heritage.
What’s more important in my view is to avoid stereotypes – to write full, rich characters with both flaws and positive attributes regardless of where they are from. Some might enjoy more privileges, while others are struggling, but they are all equally complex.
As expats, we are outsiders, which gives us a unique perspective. Most expats care deeply about the countries we live in and are heartbroken when we leave. We’re used to saying goodbye and not knowing if we’re going to see our friends again, and we carry that sense of loss with us.
This was especially true for my family in the case of Myanmar. We lived there during a time of great hope and optimism. There was this buzz in the air. Around every corner was a new building or restaurant, and new publications were starting up. After decades under military suppression, people were finally beginning to invest in the future. There were still problems, most notably with the persecution of the Rohingya people, but the country seemed to be on its way to peace and development.
Two years after we left, a military coup threw the country back several decades. The situation now is so precarious that I wasn’t able to include one of my blurbers by name for security reasons.
Did you involve a sensitivity reader?
I didn’t use a formal sensitivity reader, but I sent the manuscript to several Myanmar people and got some great feedback. So far, all the Myanmar people who have learned about the book have thanked me for writing about their country and for raising awareness about the situation there.
I worried initially that I might be criticised for writing about a culture not my own, but so far that hasn’t been the case. My publicist helped ensure that any book promotion emphasized the fact that I’d lived in Myanmar for six years.
Why did you hire a publicist?
I’d never published before, not even an essay, so knew very little about the publishing world. My publisher is also teeny tiny – the only work of fiction they publish is the AWP award-winning novel and then poetry. Many people advised me to hire a publicist because the publishing industry is so complicated and competitive. So many people are writing books and self-publishing these days. You can have a fantastic book, but if people don’t see it, they won’t buy it.
I would’ve been completely lost without Kaye Publicity. The first time I spoke with them, they put me at ease. Publishing can be scary and lonely. I had so many questions; I didn’t know how things work or how to interpret what I was seeing, but my publicist helped by holding my hand throughout the process and answering my many questions.
One of the things they do is to strategically place essays for greater exposure. I had four or five of these come out in December when the book launched. They also send the novel to social media influencers, who, if they like the book, post book reviews in places like like Goodreads and other social media platforms.
I wasn’t very present on social media before, so my publicist helped me to set these up, too. I now have a website, a Facebook author page, and accounts on both Twitter and Instagram, plus I’m starting a newsletter on Substack. Whew!
At the moment, I’m putting the finishing touches on a novel set in Malawi that I wrote before The Golden Land but never tried to sell. I’ve been revising it over the last year and plan to begin querying soon.
I also want to look into publishing The Golden Land overseas, assuming I can figure out how to do that. (My publisher has North American rights, but I retained “foreign” rights.)
Then I want to start something new. I really feel that itch. I want to lose myself again in the writing process. It’s such a wonderful feeling to be inside of a story and running with it. It really uses a different part of your brain.
Finally, I’ve just moved to Bangladesh so want to learn as much as I can about my new host country.
You can follow Liz on:
Booksales link: https://www.amazon.com/Golden-Land-Elizabeth-Shick/dp/1936970759/
Next time: The Winding Narrative Turns Five
Next interview: Pauline Yates on science fiction – it isn’t all about spaceships
3 thoughts on “Elizabeth Shick on The Golden Land and writing about expat life”
Fascinating interview, Andrea and Elizabeth.
Very interesting, Elizabeth, that after completing your novel and reaching out to agents, they all came back with ‘they liked the story but thought a white woman writing about another culture would be a difficult sell’, which I understand but appreciate your thoughtful response about fluidity in today’s interconnected world.
Congratulations that you got published after entering a a contest that was judged blind and won.
I’m also impressed that your novel began when you enrolled in a US-based online writing course, ‘Twelve weeks to your first draft’, in which you had to submit 3000 words per week.
I’d definitely be scared into motivation! Congratulations, again.
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Yes, Liz has given me plenty to think about too!
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