For children who begin life in one culture before relocating to another, being a Third Culture Kid presents unique challenges of identity and belonging. Jessica Sanfilippo-Schulz, who wrote on Third Culture Literature in a recent article in our Postgraduate English journal, interviews the author Abeer Hoque, a Bangladeshi American who was born in Nigeria.
At the beginning of my research into Third Culture Kid Literature (TCL) I was asked by my supervisor whether the discipline of literary studies really needs a new classification. Nowadays, when discussing migration, literary scholars undoubtedly have a myriad of categories and approaches to choose from. Yet, very little research is dedicated to the phenomenon of transience in childhood and the experience of growing up in-between cultures.
Just the other day I stumbled upon two striking sentences which superbly summarize the difference between childhood and adult migration. In her memoir Olive Witch, the author Abeer Hoque talks about her father’s national ties. Her father moved to Nigeria as an adult, whereas the TCL author relocated as a teenager:
His nation is vivid in his voice, despite decades spent living elsewhere. My nationality, my accent, changes with the landscape, with the very weather.
Discussing issues such as belonging, racism and depression, Hoque’s memoir reinforces that growing up “among worlds” matters. Six years into my TCL research, I still believe that within the literary realm it is important to honour and give a name to texts that deal with unique cross-cultural childhoods.
For this post, Abeer Hoque generously accepted to answer some of my questions regarding the significance of the TCK concept.
JS: In Olive Witch you refer to your “brother Maher, third culture kid, who somehow fits in everywhere.” Could you explain what the concept TCK means?
AH: My aforementioned baby brother was the first to introduce me to the 3CK moniker – hence the acknowledgment. I understood the term to refer to a person who was born/raised in a place different than their parents’ country, and now living in a third country altogether. It felt a little precious at the time, too niche, but it’s also true that it’s such a particular kind of growing up where you feel a little bit out of place everywhere. I think our experience of place is different from the immigrant who settles in another country and then returns to their home country and finds it changed or not so much a home anymore. That feels more like a loss or a disillusionment. What 3CKs feel (IMHO anyway) is a kind of ubiquitous unbelonging.
JS: Your memoir is about your TCK experience, which you obviously feel very strongly about. In a previous e-mail, you mentioned that your publishers had never heard of the term TCK before and rejected using it in the subtitle of your book. How could emphasizing TCK / CCK awareness help within the academic and publishing realms?
AH: I actually didn’t know what 3CK was until recently – certainly after finishing writing my memoir. So I don’t blame my publishers for not knowing it either. Frankly, I also did not think of the term as relating to white people – more to citizens of the global South – so the fact my publishers were white Americans would also explain them not knowing, at least at the time.
The “kid” part of it is tricky – it makes it feel like a childish thing, or only related to growing up themes. This would still totally be relevant for my memoir which is pretty much a growing up story, but I can see it not working for others.
However, it would be nice to give credence and weight to the experience of 3CKs. Certainly from a publishing perspective, the more pigeonholes there are, the more marketing possibilities. I don’t mean to be pat, but the reality is that getting your work out there, especially as a female writer of colour in the US, is a massive challenge, and I’ll take all the help I can get.
JS: In your memoir you write:
the sixth season, 31°C
I used to be sad
about not having an identity
then I thought it was liberating
not to have roots
now I am envious of you
with your nation in your voice
and I am angry
at Bangladesh, at Nigeria
for rejecting me
at America for taking all kinds
These lines made me think of Mikhail Epstein’s concept of transculture. Do you think that you could one day recognize your “national roots” without wanting to cling to them?
AH: I would guess the challenge in life for those with or without nation in their voice would be to learn how not to cling. I’m not sure I’ve learned this lesson well or at all. I am still too knee jerk annoyed when Bangladeshis ask me where I’m from, even when I’m speaking to them in unaccented Bangla. I still get embarrassed when my incomplete knowledge of American pop culture gets shown up. I have to make myself say I’m from Nigeria despite all my rose coloured years in that country. Nationality is a difficult thing. I think familiarity in a place helps, for example, when you’ve spent enough time in a city that you know which NYC subway or Dhaka flyover not to take during rush hour. Or maybe all of that means nothing, and you just have to fix in your head and your heart that you belong, and then you do, and that’s that (present orange terror of a president notwithstanding).
JS: Abeer, thanks for bewitching us.
Jessica Sanfilippo-Schulz’s article The ‘Ships’ of Citizenship in Third Culture Literature is available to download free in issue 35 of our open access Postgraduate English journal.
Abeer Hoque’s memoir, Olive Witch, is published by Harper Collins.