Monday, 18 February 2013

Books to Read When You’re a Foreigner

Guest Post 1: Welcome Roisin Meaney!

Irish author Roisin Meaney doesn’t like standing still. About to publish her ninth novel, Meaney has worked, written and played all over the world – and all with a book in hand to suit each location.

Much as I love living in Ireland – despite its, er, interesting weather – I get the urge every now and again to pack my bags and go for a wander somewhere else. I can’t imagine that I’d ever want to call any other place my permanent home, but there’s something about moving for a period of time to another country that’s always given me a bit of a kick.

Is it the freedom that being a stranger bestows, the back story you can concoct for yourself that nobody can contradict? Is it the plethora of new experiences you find, from the different taste of milk to the unfamiliar landline ringtone to the wrong-way-around road markings? Or is it simply the better weather? (I’m always careful to choose places with a heck of a lot more blue skies than home.) Whatever the reason, being a foreigner delights me almost as much as my eventual return to Ireland – and somehow, after every period of exile, there’s a book that I’ll forever associate with that particular place. Let me pick out a few.
When I was twenty-two, much to my parents’ horror I packed in my still-shiny-around-the-edges teaching job and took off for Zimbabwe. For the following two years I taught English to teenage Africans, many of whom had been boy soldiers in that country’s war of independence. One day the entire staff lined up to shake hands with Robert Mugabe, who’d come to officially open our school. I also caught my first fish in Zimbabwe, flew in a six-seater plane over Victoria Falls, took regular bus trips where I was the only white passenger and fell in love properly for the first time. (He was Scottish.)

My bookish memory of Africa? A copy of Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant that a teaching colleague lent me when I was looking for something to read. It kick-started a love affair with her writing that proved a lot more enduring than the one I was conducting with my Scotsman, and to this day it remains my favourite of all her wonderful novels.

In 1991 I resigned from teaching for the second time (cue more parental dismay), put a portfolio together and flew to London. For the following eleven months I worked by day as the world’s worst personal assistant in a Japanese Trading Company (poor Mr Koiwai) and wrote begging letters in my spare time to ad agencies. Eventually a sales promotions agency took pity on me and offered to pay me peanuts in return for a copywriter’s desk in their creative department. I wrote ads for Danone, Berol, Uncle Ben’s and Mars (we went on a tour of the factory in Slough and saw naked Maltezers on the assembly line). I shared a house in Hounslow with two Irish pals and wrote a collection of short stories for children in my spare time that every publisher in the UK rejected very politely.

The book I will forever associate with this period is Little Dorrit. As long as I was going to live in London, I had decided that nothing but Dickens would do to settle me in. I read Little Dorrit on the tube every morning, and it made me laugh and cry in roughly equal measure. I’d become so wrapped up in the story that it’s a miracle I got off at the right stop: I think I was on auto-pilot. When the train would pull in at Piccadilly Circus I’d be completely disoriented.

In September 2001 I took yet another plunge (parents by now content with resigned shrugs) and boarded a plane that was going to America. I’d had this daft notion brewing in my head for a while – since London, probably – that I should try writing a proper adult novel, and one of my brothers just happened to live in San Francisco. I arrived three days before four more planes took off, two from Boston, one from Washington and one from New Jersey, and . . . well, you know the rest. During the ten months I lived in the US I took up yoga, dabbled in Buddhism and wrote my first novel.  

Before I left Ireland for my transatlantic adventure, a friend gave me a parting gift of Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Big Country. I guffawed my way across the ocean – he was the perfect read at the perfect time – and when I landed I trawled the bookstores of San Francisco and hunted down his others, and they didn’t disappoint.

I could go on – The Shipping News calls to mind a certain writer’s retreat in Newfoundland; The Remains of the Day will forever take me back to France, and the tiny village with no shop where I read it; The Road I associate with my bedroom in a converted olive mill in Spain, where on one memorable morning I killed a scorpion with a shoe; Saturday belongs in a town in Poland where the only English speakers I could find were the staff in the tourist office.

So many countries, so many memories – and at the heart of all my travels, one constant. Thank goodness for books: in a place where nothing else is familiar they’re the pals you never have to leave at home.
Roisin Meaney's new book, Something In Common, is published in April 2013.




1 comment:

  1. Roisin, I'm not surprised you have 8 novels published and a 9th on it's way. You most certainly are a globe trotter. Travelling broadens the mind, they say. Well done you.
    I will be watching out for Something
    in Common come April. All the best