Last month, I devoured “Home, James“, a brand new novel (Feb. 2018) featuring Third Culture Kid, James, who makes an epic ‘return home’ to the US after growing up in China. Honestly, I don’t think I was prepared to laugh out loud and to cry my way through the pages as 13 year old James discovers this foreign country that is supposed to feel like home. We want to hold his hand and tell him it will be alright as he finds himself in that tender place of wanting to belong and not wanting to belong.
“Home, James” follows James from the moment he lands in the United States, his passport country, with all the awkward feelings surrounding his transition. One of my favorite scenes features James trying to figure out the pledge of allegiance and how him not being able to recite the patriotic lines is misinterpreted as terribly disrespectful. Another time, James ventures out to share his story, only to be faced with eyes glazing over and racist cool kid jokes.
Although there isn’t a victorious ending to the book per se (wouldn’t it be great if that were the case for all of our cross-cultural transitions), there is so much hope the reader can glean from its pages. This short book would make an amazing parting gift to any young adult or parent making a transition back to their passport culture (not just for Americans).
Sensing there must be some truth behind the tender pages of Home, James, I was curious to hear more from the author. I am delighted to be able to share my interview with Emily Steele Jackson today. Enjoy and don’t forget to pick up a copy of the book – available on Amazon Kindle.
Hi Emily! Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?
Hello! I’m originally from the U.S. but traveling and living internationally have been a big part of my life for a long time. Most recently, my husband, two kids, and I spent over a decade living in southern China. We just moved back to the U.S. last summer.
You’re the author of the brand new release (Feb. 2018) Home, James, congratulations! Would you like to share with us how you were led to writing this irresistible novel about James and his transition experience back to the United States after growing up in China?
Thank you! It’s very exciting to have my first book published, and I’m delighted that you liked it.
I’ve always enjoyed writing. A few years ago, I started recording our family’s overseas adventures in a blog, Small Town Laowai. The blog got a great response from readers, and that prompted me to think about writing something longer. In November 2015, I wrote a draft of an entire novel during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).
The following November, I helped run a NaNoWriMo group at my kids’ international school. I had been toying with the idea of writing my own draft, rather than just coaching the students through theirs. I decided to jump in. I already had the idea for a story from the perspective of a kid whose family was moving back to their passport country after living overseas long-term. That was the reality my own family was about to face, and I knew there weren’t many stories available for kids going through international moves. I finished the draft, and it eventually became the book, Home, James.
Who was the novel intended for and when is the ideal time in life to read it?
The novel is aimed at children ages 9-12, but I’m hearing from plenty of kids and adults outside that age range who’ve really connected with the book. As mentioned, the story centers around James’ experience with repatriating as a third culture kid, which can often be a tough transition for children. I think the book will be very helpful for families who are making an international move.
Have your own children read your book? Has it helped them normalize their own transition chaos?
My kids have read the book and they really enjoy it. Though, since they had to endure me reading multiple drafts and re-writes of scenes to them, by the end, I think they were glad for it to just be done! Because they knew the story, they could mention different quotes or scenes that related to what was happening in their own lives as we transitioned back to the States.
How on earth did you manage to write a book while packing up your life of 12 years? 🙂
Yeah, that is a bit crazy, isn’t it? Thankfully, I finished the first draft before things got too busy with packing up for our move. It sat as draft for months as we wrapped up life in one country and settled in to life in another. About six months after our move, I started on revisions. I think it would’ve been too much to work on the book during the chaos of moving, though the story was certainly still in my mind the whole time.
How has “Home, James” been received in expat and monocultural circles?
I’ve been touched to hear from many readers that the book has impacted them in meaningful ways. Expat families have deeply resonated with James and his journey. Many have told me that they easily related to James, whether it’s cringing at the tough things he faces, laughing at his funny moments, or tearing up for some of the more heart-tugging parts of the story. Parents and kids have been enthusiastic about having a true-to-life TCK story. There aren’t many out there! Readers are recommending the book to international school teachers, other expat parents, and groups that provide TCK resources.
As for those who have never lived internationally, I’ve had readers express how good it is to have a window into the life of a kid who is not only “the new kid” at school, but also new to the country. It helps them understand children like that a little better – what they might be feeling or struggling with as they adjust. The book has also opened their eyes to what it’s like to be a TCK who is expected to blend in to their “home” country, but who doesn’t necessarily have the life experience to do that. Plus, readers have also said over and over that the book is simply a fun read!
After reading the novel, I couldn’t believe how well you were able to bring the main character, James, to life. It was as if you wrote with a twinkle in one eye and a tear in another. How did you put yourself in the shoes of an eighth grader returning to his passport country so very well? Had you been through some of these same hard things during your own re-entry or had you been writing down cultural mishaps for a while? Or did you start with Third Culture Kid themes before building a story around it?
“A twinkle in one eye and a tear in another” is an incredibly accurate description of what it’s like to repatriate! I’m glad I was able to put those emotions into the book in a way that readers connect with. As our family was getting nearer to leaving China, I was thinking a lot about re-entry and reverse culture shock. My family had been back in the U.S. a couple of times before, so I had seen first-hand what it was like for kids to try to navigate a country and culture they were “supposed” to know. I had also heard a lot of stories from other expat friends about difficulties their kids faced in transitioning to their passport country.
I wrote the book while my own kids were in fifth and eighth grade, so that helped in terms of thinking what life is like for middle schoolers. I know middle school can be awkward, but it’s also a really fun age group!
In your book, James often retreats to his art journal. Drawing is such a great mental health technique – is that something you have seen done successfully before?
Sadly, I’m not nearly as artistically gifted as James! I’ve not used drawing to record thoughts or process things like James does, but I know it’s often something that helps a lot of kids express what they’re feeling in a more helpful way than having them speak or write out their emotions. For me, I tend to have that happen verbally, either through writing or processing things outloud with others.
There was a particularly tear-jerking moment in the book, when James realizes he had received all the leading roles in his international school in China simply because he had been a native English speaker. He had been a big fish in a small pond and was now a small fish in a big pond. This is such a common realization for expat kids returning but it is one that isn’t mentioned much in TCK literature or transition seminars. Do you think there is a way to better prepare our transitioning TCKs for the big pond?
I think this is something that can be a struggle not just for TCKs but also adult expats. In some ways, it’s very difficult to go from being special to being so ordinary. Many people talk about the relief of finally being anonymous again, but we don’t talk a lot about what it’s like to lose the expat label. I think as parents talk with their kids about the upcoming transition, they can specifically mention some of those things, and that it’s okay to be both relieved AND sad that you won’t stick out anymore.
How was writing Home, James therapeutic for your own cross-cultural journey?
For the past few years, writing my expat blog has been a great way to process all our cross-cultural experiences, good and bad. I think writing Home, James did the same for me. The biggest difference is that my blog posts are based on real events and written after something happens, but the book is fictional and was written before my family moved back to the States. I guess it was a bit of pre-processing for me! It’s been interesting to see what part of our lives have ended up mirroring James’ story as we’ve gone through transition. One of the things James’ mom tells him is that adjusting will simply take time. I’ve needed to give myself that same counsel a few times.
Thanks so much for your time, Emily!