- A Conversation With Nancy Henderson-James author of At Home Abroad: An American Girl in Africa
A Conversation With Nancy Henderson-James author of At Home Abroad: An American Girl in Africa
Norm Goldman, B.A. LL.L, is the
Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures, which he created in 2002.' Practicing law for over 35 years enabled Norm to transfer and apply to
book reviewing his many skills that he had perfected during his career in
the legal profession and as a result he became a prolific free lance
book reviewer & author interviewer. To read more about Norm Follow Here
Today, Norm Goldman Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com is excited to have as our guest Nancy Henderson-James author of At Home Abroad: An American Girl in Africa.
Good day Nancy and thanks for participating in our interview.
What inspired you to write your first book and what was your main reason for writing your book?
When I read Mary Edwards Wertsch’s
Military Brats many years ago, I realized that missionary kids and
military brats have much in common, especially in their parents’
devotion to mission and how that devotion dominates family life.
Another aspect we have in common is moving frequently among different
cultures, which can make for loose connections with people and place.
I was interested in how missionary kids differed from military brats;
what does being part of a religious enterprise mean to an MK and how
does that affect us as adults? The book began with a survey of about
90 MKs and other global nomads who grew up in Africa.
I was surprised to find that as many as a third of the children of missionaries were not religious or were ambivalent about religion as adults. Through the survey I became acquainted with the concept “third culture kid.” The concept explained so much about how the respondents and I reacted to growing up abroad… perpetually feeling like outsiders, not feeling attached to any one place, the ability to adapt to many situations, experiencing culture shock in our parents’ culture. As I wrestled with the results of the survey, the idea of writing a memoir emerged. It seemed like the best way for me to come to terms with my childhood and to connect with the vast audience of global nomads out there.
What do you feel are the benefits of having straddled more than one culture and how has it affected your adult life?
Oh, the benefits are myriad… knowing more than one language and finding that each new language is easier to learn, knowing that the world is made up of diverse peoples and ways of thinking and doing, knowing that life means change, and having friends almost anywhere I want to go. My memories are sprinkled with landscapes and people and languages I just would not have known, if I’d always lived in the United States. I understand the complexity of the world and, since I saw the beginnings of independence movements and war in Angola, I can see how politics and ideas have direct real life consequences.
You mention in your memoir that your emotional development was largely solitary and internal; it took place away from the warm hands and encouraging voices of your parents. What effect has this had on you?
It has made me an observer who stands back and contemplates what is in front of me before jumping into action. I am careful about what I say and am thoughtful about how I want to proceed. Some of that may just be my personality, but I do think that living in dormitories with groups of children for many of my formative years trained me to go along with the group. I wasn’t particularly encouraged to express my wants and opinions. Even as a mature adult I find it hard to simply state what I want before seeing the lay of the land.
What was the most difficult part of writing your book and what obstacles did you encounter in trying to tell your story?
One of the most difficult parts of
writing was to know how much to say about family secrets. I showed my
parents selected chapters, ones that I thought would not hurt them.
But once the book had taken its final shape and I was looking for a
publisher, I gave it to my mother to read (my father had died). I
warned her that some parts could be difficult for her. To her credit,
she said she could take it and since then she has been a champion
promoter for me.
The other difficult part of writing was to realize that my childhood was not the idyllic one that I had believed it was. In order to get through life without family, which included most years from age 9 through college, I had submerged my feelings. It wasn’t until I was into my late 40’s that I understood that going away from home to school began many decades of depression. Writing the book definitely helped to banish the depression. I have been in good cheer for several years now.
Was your work improvisational or did you have a set plan? As a follow up, how did you remember all of the detail that you expose in your book and did you do any additional research when writing this book, aside from your own journals, records, etc?
I began with a survey of missionary kids and a few Foreign Service Brats and children of business men, all of whom had lived in either Angola or Congo. I didn’t have a good idea of what I would do with the survey and, when it came time to write, I didn’t feel qualified to write as a journalist or a sociologist. The survey responses had evoked a strong emotional reaction in me and brought back Africa with such force that I needed to write a personal book. First I wrote a biography on the order of “I did this, and then I did that.” My first reader and mentor gave me an extensive critique and advised me to completely rewrite and reshape it into a memoir. She told me some ways that memoirs can be organized. I chose to focus on developmental leaps of my childhood and kept that format through many other critiques during the years that I wrote it.
I found that when I sat down to write, my mind was flooded with the details of my early life. I had no idea I remembered so much. It helped that I was seeing a therapist for those early writing years. The process of telling her my story evoked memories. The survey responses of course also prompted my memory. I asked my family and friends about details and consulted my father’s books for factual and historical details.
How has your environment/upbringing
colored your writing?
In the obvious way that it provided me with my subject… growing up abroad. Also I come from a family of writers and academics. My father wrote 3 books about Angola, and my mother wrote short histories of the family and of the Angola railroad, not to mention all her letter-writing. I have 2 siblings who are academics. I observed a lot of writing when I was growing up.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing your book?
Despite being from a family of writers, I never thought of myself as a writer, so the fact that I was writing a book was a big surprise. I had to work hard to learn how to write memoir. Along the way I have had many excellent mentors, teachers, and critiques; I have been on writing retreats and have been offered residencies at Vermont Studio Center, Norcroft, and Hedgebrook. Each opportunity has contributed to my writing.
Can you tell us how you found representation for your book? Did you pitch it to an agent, or query publishers who would most likely publish this type of book? Any rejections? Did you self-publish?
I tried small publishers that don’t require agents. I tried finding an agent. I tried university publishers. While I had several requests to read the manuscript, no one bought it. Finally I queried Plain View Press and Susan Bright agreed to publish it.
How can our readers find out more about you and At Home Abroad: An American Girl in Africa and is there anything else you wish to add that we have not covered?
A website is in the works and will be up and running in the near future. www.nancyhendersonjames.com The book will be available via my website, through the publisher, and from Amazon.com. The site will have links to Angola-related information, in addition to some selections of Angolan music and photos.
Thanks once again and good luck with
all of your future endeavors.
Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the book. I really appreciate it.