Expat Focus talks to Melissa Dalton-Bradford about her Memoir – Global Mom: Eight Countries, Sixteen Addresses, Five Languages, One Family—a Memoir about her fantastic journey of motherhood that will inspire any family.
Melissa, please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m an American by birth and by passport, but like many of your readers, I’m a good solid Citizen of the World. I was raised primarily in the great American west by parents who had studied and worked in Germany, spoke fluent German, and subsequently kept their secrets from us in German. We cracked that code, there were no more secrets, and my passion for languages (and discovering the world) was ignited.With my parents and siblings I spent portions of my upbringing in Austria (Salzburg and Vienna), then worked and studied in Austria during my university years and as a young married graduate student. (My husband, who’s American, who’d lived in and loved Germany, and spoke the kind of German that made my jaws and heart melt. I was wooed by his umlauts.) Together, we launched an international career and family trajectory––me writing and mothering, him businessing and fathering–– that has spanned over 20 years and has taken us to Hong Kong, Oslo, Versailles, Paris, Munich, Singapore and finally to Geneva, where we currently live with the youngest two of our four children in a village close to the banks of Lac Léman.
You recently published your memoir – Global Mom: Eight Countries, Sixteen Addresses, Five Languages, One Family. What is the book about?
Global Mom: A Memoir is, as New York Times best-selling author Kate Braestrup wrote in her endorsement, a book about love. Yes, it’s also true to its subtitle, and draws readers across the global panorama our family has lived in. But it’s far more than travelogue. Far more than cultural commentary. And it’s more than vignettes that leave readers laughing, gasping, swooning, fuming or crying, although I hope it’s that, too. What it is, is a frank depiction of what this kind of peripatetic life deals you––the stress, the loneliness, the fractured then reconstructed identity, the many losses––and how all those factors are counterbalanced with the innumerable gains. At the heart of the book (and here comes the spoiler) is the tragic loss our family has known in burying our oldest child when he was 18. That loss, which hit in the middle of a major international move, re-contextualized every other event––every other element––in life, and sent our family to the strangest, hardest place we’ve ever lived in: the land of loss. Here, the book takes a dive into a new landscape, which heaviness is deliberate on my part, since that’s the reality of traumatic loss. What is redemptive in the book, and readers have commented that it is the strength of the narrative, is that in spite of so many losses and the ultimate loss of death, there is hope in the possibility of living onward. That possibility hinges on love.
What type of audience do you feel your book would appeal to?
My readers are, interestingly, both those who have lived internationally, and those who have never left their hometowns! The first group identifies strongly with the perils and pleasures of expatriate life. The second group is curious, even voyeuristic, and sometimes (as they’ve admitted) maybe a bit jealous. But only on the outset. Then both groups of readers realize the book gives them more than they’d bargained for in “travel memoir”. I think what those two readers have in common is an ear for strong storytelling and a heart for family and community, and particularly for that mysteriously potent link between parent and child.
Where can people buy your book?
Through my publisher, Familius.com, and also via Amazon , Barnes & Noble, Indiebound. All those terrific independent booksellers, conventional bookstores, and if they don’t have it immediately in stock, they can order. It is available in electronic and paperback and I recorded an audio version (Audible.com) in which I sing. (Not what all authors do, I guess. But I’m also professional mezzo-soprano, and my vocal performances figure into my written story. It made sense to add my singing voice to my written one.) Readers can also go to my Global Mom Facebook page for insiders’ insights and galleries of pictures that accompany the book, and for updates on events like media spots, book tours and reviews.
Is there a message in your book that you want to get across to your readers?
How about I share some short excerpts from Global Mom, itself?
What lies at the heart of the tale of this table and is of greatest value, I believe, are not the glimmery, photo-op, made-for- movie, fairy-tale dinner parties, no matter how scintillating, nor the into-the-wee-hours conversations, however colorful. At the very heart of this book is an enduring truth I’ve learned from so many years of living nomadically, of raising my family in the vortex of serial change. That truth is that just about everything, every last thing, every object is, ultimately, disposable…Aside from my husband and our four children, who have always been my world amid this whirl, there are very few tangible things that have remained constant…My people, though, my most intimate, adored and invaluable people, they are my indispensables. Lose the rest of the stuff, go ahead, but do not lose my family. My family, they are what I knew would always remain.
Then, from the final chapter:
Of all the borders I’ve crossed, of all the addresses I’ve inhabited and of all the lands I’ve been privileged to call my home, there’s but one terrain that’s defined me more than any other: that is the land of loss. The very soil that no soul wants to visit. The one topography no parent ever wants to feel underfoot. The haunted land of loss has taught me more than any foreign land ever could. Unlike other geographies one might know for a year or two or even for decades, the landscape of loss becomes a kind of permanent overlay to whatever and wherever follows. As much as I “know” France or Germany, and as much as I feel at times quite Austrian or deeply Norwegian or even a little bit Singaporean or Swiss, no matter where I go or what language I speak, I am always and primarily a mother who buried her firstborn child.
What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) you experienced in writing the book?
One of my favorite authors is Pico Iyer, and I was relieved to read in an interview that for him the hardest parts of writing are deciding what to leave out, and clarity. These are by far my greatest challenges: cutting and clarity. I wanted to write everything, and I wanted to write it with every color on my palette. “Everything” would require twenty books––one for each year on the road, or at least eight––one for each country we’ve lived in. And color, if not done well, can get gloopy or heavy, can compromise clarity. I’m learning to contain and restrain. I tend to think (and write) in dense language with lots of metaphors. That comes from my training as a poet, I suppose.
Beyond stylistic questions, it was at once emotionally demanding but also regenerative ––healing?––to relive the joys and innocence of our children’s lives, knowing what was awaiting us over the crest of the horizon. Also, I battled over and over again about exposing my family to public scrutiny and whether I could write well enough to do the beauty of the story justice. More complicated still, was the discomfort I felt about pinning my son’s life and untimely death onto a page, making him into some sort of artifact. I will, I think, struggle with that the rest of my life. It’s part of the price I’m willing to pay to share and, hopefully, to encourage others.
Did you self-publish or follow a more traditional publishing route?
I published Global Mom with Familius, a new media/publishing house based in California. As it was my first book (I’d published essays and poetry previously), I wanted to be tutored in the publishing process and business aspects by someone who could be accessible to a newcomer. The CEO himself was great at coaching me through.
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the greatest compliment?
Tough: that I use dense language, too many metaphors, that I should trim back some of my exuberance for language.
Great: that my writing has changed someone’s life and made them live and love more deeply. (Someone also said something effusive that I don’t even dare write, ranking me with some of my heroes in creative non-fiction. Readers have been generous like that, which helps to offset all the rejection typical of the writer’s life.)
Do you have any advice for other expat writers?
Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Submit, submit, submit.
Read the very finest writers. It will stoke your fire and heat up your writer’s voice. Write daily just like you eat and sleep daily. And keep multiple records of all you produce. No writing is ever lost, even dream journals and conversations you hear in the laundromat, which you transcribe, can be grafted into latter work. Write down everything, as did Pico Iyer in his years as a writer for travels books like Let’s Go! Record interviews, keep a receptacle for your words and impressions.
If you don’t, you will forget. Stockpile pictures, too, to trigger memories and to accompany your essays/posts/articles. Then send out short pieces to on-line or conventional journals and magazines. Build your voice and portfolio, gain contacts and credibility, and don’t flinch while stepping over the debris of rejection.
What are your current projects?
I’m on book tour right now, (writing this, in fact, while sitting in Terminal E of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris on my way to Boston) and will be presenting in New England (Harvard and other venues) and in Utah (Brigham Young University and many regional gatherings) on Global Mom as well as my forthcoming book, Loss & Living Onward; Collected Voices. For that next book, I’ll be filming the official trailer, which will include a roundtable with other bereaved parents.
What do you do when you are not writing?
I’m frequently asked to speak publicly, and so it seems I’m always tweaking presentation notes and lining up events. Otherwise, I try to be up and moving vigorously, (sitting so much is a real hazard of this writing life), and so I do yoga and I hike with friends, jog with my husband, bike with my boys. Our family loves movies and live theater. I also volunteer a lot in my church community, teaching youth and leading music and organizing volunteer activities.
What are your plans for the future?
When I return to Geneva in 12 days, our daughter will be coming home to stay with us for a while after having lived and worked for 18 months in southern Italy. I’m planning on simply luxuriating in her company. I’ll then jump into a book tour in central Europe, and will continue my involvement in the wonderful Geneva Writer’s Group. I’ll also focus my search for the right literary agent, while sketching the format for a series of books drawing from the countries where we’ve lived. Then, we’re sending our third off to college. Somewhere in there it wouldn’t surprise me if me were on the move again. Until then, I’m sure I’ll be traveling with my family and writing about it, since that’s what we expats do!
Melissa Dalton-Bradford is a writer, independent scholar, world citizen, and mother. She holds a BA in German and an MA in Comparative Literature, both from Brigham Young University. She speaks, reads and writes fluent German, French, and Norwegian, is conversant in Mandarin, and has taught language, humanities, and writing on the university level. Bradford has performed professionally as a soprano soloist and actress in the US, Scandinavia, Central Europe, and South East Asia. She and her husband raised their family of four children in Hong Kong, Vienna, Oslo, Paris, Munich, Singapore, and Geneva, Switzerland.